Yooka-Laylee

Yook1

Adventure through colorful worlds like it’s 1997.

PC Release: April 11, 2017

By Ian Coppock

Even for a medium as fluid as video games, the demise of the open-world platformer was breathtakingly fast. The 90’s were replete with titles like Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie, in which players were free to explore massive worlds littered with hidden treasure. Despite massive popularity, the genre largely died out at the turn of the century, and has remained quiet for the better part of two decades. With games like 2014’s The Last Tinker and last fall’s Unbox, though, it’s starting to creep back into the gaming scene. Yooka-Laylee, the subject of tonight’s review, is the strongest sign yet of the open-world platforming genre’s push into contemporary gaming.

____________________

The title Yooka-Laylee is immediately reminiscent of 1998’s Banjo-Kazooie, and that’s no coincidence. Not only is this new game a spiritual successor to that legendary platformer… it’s made by the same team of former Rare developers, who reunited after nearly 20 years under the banner of Playtonic Games. The team’s stated goal with Yooka-Laylee is to bring back the open-world platforming genre that gaming has been sorely missing, and to create a title that they hoped would match the vibrancy and variety of one of the Rare era’s best platformers. Just like Banjo-KazooieYooka-Laylee sees a duo of cartoonish animals square off against an equally cartoonish evil, with plenty of platforming to boot.

Yooka-Laylee kicks off with the game’s titular characters, a chameleon named Yooka and a bat named Laylee, relaxing perilously close to the premises of the nefarious Hivory Towers. The adventure starts when the One Book, a golden-paged tome that Laylee found, gets stolen by the evil Capital B and his sidekick, Dr. Quack. The pair hope to use the tome to rewrite the universe, but not before stealing all the world’s books and turning them into money! That latter plot detail kinda falls to the wayside, but it doesn’t stop the heroic duo from breaking into Hivory Towers to stop Capital B and save the universe.

Yook2

Capital B and Dr. Quack’s scheme to rule the universe is as 90’s as such schemes get.

Yooka and Laylee manage to break into Hivory Towers (the door was open) but the One Book’s magical pages get scattered all over the place. Collecting “Pagies” is the main goal of the game; they are to Yooka and Laylee what Jiggies were to Banjo and Kazooie, and golden stars were to Mario. To find all the Pagies, Yooka and Laylee have to dive into huge worlds brimming with treasure. Collecting Pagies is not only the only way to confront Capital B, but also to open up new worlds for exploration. Yooka-Laylee contains five big worlds with themes similar to those of Banjo-Kazooie, while Hivory Towers serves as a hub world that binds it all together.

Like Banjo-KazooieYooka-Laylee is a third-person platformer that emphasizes scouring the aforementioned big worlds for hidden treasures. In addition to Pagies, players can also find a riot of other collectibles. Quills, for example, allow players to learn new moves useful for accessing new areas. There are also more conventional pickups, like health and power upgrades. Pagies are still the most important item for players to find; some are awarded to Yooka and Laylee for completing challenges, while others are hiding out there just waiting to be discovered.

Yook3

Everything is colorful and/or has eyeballs. We’re definitely back in the 90’s.

Yooka-Laylee‘s gameplay is pure Rare platformer. While out exploring the world, players can use different abilities to speed across terrain, jump to new heights, and break through physical barriers. Like Banjo and Kazooie, Yooka and Laylee execute these moves by working together as a team, with coordination that can only be described as symbiotic. Players start out running and jumping, but can learn how to blast through barriers, fly, and even absorb new abilities from the world around them. Provided they’ve found a certain squid-woman scientist, players can even transform into new creatures for taking on previously inaccessible challenges. Most monsters go down in one hit, but boss battles are a little more complicated.

Using these abilities is essential for collecting Pagies and advancing to new worlds, as well as finding the other useful pickups hidden around each level. Most challenges revolve around using these powers to destroy an obstacle or complete a task, sometimes with a time limit, and getting a Pagie as a reward. These tasks are usually performed at the behest of an NPC, who can’t be bothered to just hand the damn Pagie over even though the universe is in danger of being destroyed. No, no, there are rules, ways that these things have to be done. A quest to save the universe is moot, but jump through these hoops (literally) and somehow that’s way more impressive.

Yook4

The hoops have eyes…

Even though five worlds may not sound like a lot, each of Yooka-Laylee‘s treasure-filled realms is a sight to behold. The game’s textures could stand some sharpening, but its worlds are colorful and gorgeously detailed. Like Banjo-KazooieYooka-Laylee‘s worlds are expansive and each revolve around a singular theme, like a ruins-filled jungle, a winter wonderland, or a spooky swamp. The intergalactic pirate cove world is particularly beautiful. Each world varies visually but their basic layouts are all similar: a large ground area studded with obstacles and opportunities to jump high or swim low.

Though running around these worlds looking for treasure is fun and quite reminiscent of the best 90’s Rare games, there is quite a bit of pointless space packed into each one. Between each challenge and cluster of quills is a ton of open space that, while useful for establishing the world’s sense of scale, leaves players spending an inordinate amount of time running from place to place. Scale can be achieved without putting an empty space the size of a football field between Pagies, but Yooka-Laylee nixes compacting its levels a bit in favor of leaving them too big. As a result, each world has a lot of ground to cover but also ends up feeling empty.

Yook5

There’s a difference between levels feeling big and being big.

Although Yooka-Laylee runs well and suffers almost no bugs or in-game problems, some of its gameplay does feel rather dated. Embarrassingly, the game contains a few gameplay issues that were endemic to 90’s games but successfully omitted in other, more recent releases, including imprecise controls and occasionally tedious platforming. The fact that Playtonic has reintroduced these long-corrected issues with a 2017 title is embarrassing. It suggests that the team entered some sort of hibernation after developing Banjo-Kazooie and emerged from their slumber blissfully unaware of the advances that have been made in game design these last 20 years.

To be fair, though, some of the issues plaguing Yooka-Laylee have been greatly exaggerated. Critics at the bigger networks have taken this game to task for its camera controls, which, to hear them tell it, are the worst thing to befall mankind since the Bubonic Plague. The camera does struggle to provide decent angles on occasion, including during the first world’s boss fight and in a few puzzles, but it’s not anything that players will be fighting constantly. Usually it does a pretty fluid job of following the player, without necessitating constant push-back.

Yook6

Reports of a camera control apocalypse are premature.

The main concern to be had with Yooka-Laylee is how in lockstep it is with Banjo-Kazooie. It feels less like a spiritual successor and more like a reskinned Banjo-Kazooie that was ported to modern systems. Though Yooka-Laylee is visually superior to that venerated title, there’s almost nothing in the game that wasn’t also present in its predecessor. The characters do that Banjo-Kazooie thing where they repeat a few odd noises every time they talk, and virtually all of the collectibles are stand-ins for the items found in Banjo-Kazooie. Even Yooka-Laylee‘s fonts are nigh identical to those of Banjo-Kazooie.

None of these things are necessarily bad, but they do represent a missed opportunity to innovate the open-world collectathon. Playtonic did streamline a few things here and there, like how the player absorbs and uses different types of projectile weapons, but the otherwise rigid adherence to what Banjo-Kazooie already pioneered makes Yooka-Laylee feel cheap. The fun and nostalgia that its open-world gameplay brings back to the scene is compounded by a weary sense of repetition. It’s at once demonstrative of the genre’s resilience over time, but also leaves players wondering that they’ve already seen this exact game before.

Yook7

Don’t mind me, just burying the chance to do something different.

Yooka-Laylee is somewhat aware of how dated some of its design has become, as demonstrated by the game’s writing. The dialogue is rife with funny little fourth-wall breaks, as well as jabs at how the gaming industry has changed since the 90’s. Capital B in particular cracks a lot of jokes about microtransactions and DLC, which is cathartic for players who remember a time before such cancerous practices. Surprisingly, the dialogue contains a lot of innuendo, which makes it harder to characterize the game’s intended audience. Is it the adults who grew up with Banjo-Kazooie, or today’s crop of youngins?

For all the fun that Yooka-Laylee pokes at contemporary gaming, though, some of its writing remains little changed from that of Banjo-Kazooie. As characters, Yooka and Laylee are virtual clone-stamps of Banjo and Kazooie, with the former being a slow-witted but big-hearted warrior and the latter being an acid-tongued little prankster. The supporting cast of NPCs make for a colorful bunch, like the serpentine abilities salesman, but that the two main heroes are so similar to Banjo and Kazooie once again makes the game feel derivative. Like a lot of things about this game, Yooka-Laylee‘s characterization and writing are a mixed bag of amusing, yet dated.

Yook8

Dude, your nose is bigger than the rest of your body.

Yooka-Laylee has a lot of adventuring fun and amusing dialogue to offer, but it’s nothing that old-school platforming fans haven’t seen before. The game feels less like the triumphant return of open-world collectathons and more like a fun but clone-stamped fan service for people who grew up playing Banjo-Kazooie. Playtonic bet too hard on the game’s nostalgia factor, nixing innovation in the hope that the mere presence of an open-world platformer would be enough to catalyze the genre’s resurrection.

Unfortunately for Playtonic and for Yooka-Laylee, innovation is the only way the open-world collectathon genre will regain the prominence it once enjoyed. It’s not enough to simply derive from what was already done and expect the outcome of the genre to magically change. None of this stops Yooka-Laylee from being a fond love letter to the 90’s and to fans of Banjo-Kazooie, but it does stop the game from being the genre-reviving spark that Playtonic set out to make. Above all else, keep that divide in mind while deciding whether to purchase Yooka-Laylee.

____________________

You can buy Yooka-Laylee 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.

Age of Mythology: Extended Edition

Myth1

Use the power of the gods to rule a world of mortals and monsters.

PC Release: May 8, 2014

By Ian Coppock

Real-time strategy games can be a lot of fun, but sometimes they can also be a bit dry. Training an army and sending them to destroy a castle is a pretty straightforward process. It can allow for unexpected creativity, especially when using sheep as spies or monks to wololo, but the sight of a battle in an RTS game can be little more exciting than the minutiae that went into planning for it. There’s usually room for strategy games to liven things up a bit, be it through faster gameplay or fantastical elements, or through a compelling story. Age of Mythology: Extended Edition may very well have all of these things in spades.

____________________

Originally released by Ensemble Studios back in 2002, Age of Mythology is a spinoff of the Age of Empires games that sends players to a mythological world — a world where the ancient gods are real, strange creatures roam the earth, and sheep can, well, still be used to spy on enemy players. Age of Mythology received near-universal acclaim when it first released, charming players and critics with its apt blend of real-time strategy gameplay and exotic mythological elements. It layered a bit of magic, a bit of mysticism, onto the fine-tuned strategic gameplay Ensemble had already pioneered with its Age of Empires games.

Age of Mythology allows players to play as the ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Norse civilizations, while a later expansion pack added the Atlanteans. The Extended Edition being reviewed here tonight rolls both games into a single title, as well as adds HD capabilities, integration with the Steam workshop, and a few graphical touch-ups. Forgotten Empires, the studio that makes the new expansions for Age of Empires II, made an expansion for Age of Mythology that adds an ancient Chinese civ to the game.

Myth2

Yeah, we COULD produce soldiers and siege weapons, but can’t we just put our spears down and make some gyros instead?

Each civilization in Age of Mythology has its own gods to worship, from the Greek Zeus to the Norse Odin. Players can choose one of three major gods to worship within each civ, and this selection has a massive impact on how the player’s culture will grow. Because of this dynamic, Age of Mythology provides much more variety than a total selection of 4-5 playable civs might suggest. Even though Zeus and Poseidon belong to the same Greek culture, two Greek players picking each god will end up with noticeably different bases and armies. The same can be said of Egyptian players who pick Ra or Set, Norse players who pick Thor or Loki, etc etc.

After picking a major god, players are given a town center and a few villagers, which is classic Age of Empires. And, just like in the Age of Empires games, villagers can go out into the wilderness to gather wood, food, and gold. Unlike Age of EmpiresAge of Mythology features a fourth resource called favor, a sort of godly currency that allows players to train mythological creatures and research top-tier technologies. Each civ has its own way of gaining favor that reflects its respective gods. Because the Greek gods are vain, Greek players gain favor by assigning villagers to worship at temples. The Norse, by contrast, gain favor by killing enemy units and are therefore way more bada**.

Myth3

If only prayer was this awesome in real life.

As players gather resources, they can grow their civilization by building out a town and training military units. Similarly to other Ensemble strategy games, the key to success in Age of Mythology is a strong economy. Gathered resources do no good unless they’re being spent, which means that players can expect nonstop unit production and technology research. With a proper balance of resource income and military buildup, players can train enough troops to defend their town or go on the offensive in relatively short order. Research allows for units to be faster and deadlier, and for buildings to be better fortified against attacks.

The mechanic of advancing to a new age returns in Age of Mythology, with a twist. When advancing to the next age, players can pick from one of two minor gods within their civilization. Like the major league gods picked at the start of the game, these gods have perks and rewards that can alter playstyle. Bast, a minor Egyptian goddess, grants agriculture benefits, while Greek party boy Dionysus improves certain unit attacks through the power of… alcohol? Different assortments of minor gods will appear depending on which major god is picked.

Myth4

Thor shows favor to those who doth freeze their butts off in the middle of nowhere.

Minor gods provides two perks that definitively set Age of Mythology apart from Ensemble’s other strategy games. The first is that each minor god has his or her own mythological unit, which can be trained at the temple. These units are usually pretty expensive and always cost at least a bit of favor, but they excel at destroying human enemies. Frankly, each civilization provides some pretty awesome monsters to train. The Greeks have centaurs, of course, but later in the game they can also build giant colossi that tower over the battlefield. The Egyptians, who are apparently fans of The Mummy franchise, can train up plague-bearing zombies and half-arachnid, half-Dwayne Johnson scorpion men. The Norse have dragons. Because they are the best.

Over the course of the game, players can also acquire something even more pivotal to gameplay in Age of Mythology: god powers. This is where Age of Mythology‘s ability to shake up the dryness of the Age of Empires formula really comes into play, and where players can change the course of a battle in a split second. Whether it’s conjuring a lightning storm that kills every enemy on the field, or an earthquake that swallows an entire town, players can harness the powers of the gods to shatter foes in ways that human armies can’t. This mechanic adds dire unpredictability to an Age of Mythology match, because players never know if that town they’re about to sack is packing a meteor shower. Some powers can be used multiple times; others, only once.

Myth5

The most fervent players build their bases in hell. Better fire powers down here.

Like the Age of Empires games, the units in Age of Mythology are unknowing participants in a massive game of rock-paper-scissors. Cavalry beats archers, infantry beats cavalry, myth units beat infantry, etc etc. Players have a much greater chance of beating the opponent by building an army composed of several different unit types. It’s tempting for wealthy players to simply field an all-myth unit army, but even the monsters in Age of Mythology have an Achilles’ heel: heroes. Each civilization can train specially gifted human heroes that can put even the mightiest minotaur to shame.

Because of myth units and god powers, matches in Age of Mythology are usually a great deal more chaotic (and fun) than their Age of Empires counterparts. It’s fun to surprise the opponent with a massive column of cyclops, and the sight of monsters can strike more terror in an opponent than the columns of human troops to which RTS games are restricted. God powers can make or break a match, and knowing when to use them adds a novel bluffing element to Age of Mythology. 

Myth6

It ain’t no San Francisco, but this fisherman’s wharf will have to do.

For players who are new to real-time strategy games or lukewarm on the idea of multiplayer, Age of Mythology features a single-player story campaign. Unlike the campaigns in the Age of Empires games, which are often split between multiple civs or characters, Age of Mythology features a single, massive campaign starring Arkantos, an Atlantean general, as he travels the world in pursuit of the evil cyclops Gargarensis. The campaign is by far the most compelling narrative Ensemble Studios ever crafted; the writing isn’t great, but its 30+ mission length allows for a surprising amount of character development, exciting battles, and references to ancient myths.

The other neat thing about the campaign is that even though Arkantos is Atlantean, his campaign is split into roughly three chapters that cycle through usage of Greek, Egyptian, and Norse units, whom Arkantos rallies to his cause as he journeys around the world. It’s a novel way to introduce each civilization to the player while in the context of a grand adventure. Plus, with each level featuring missions ranging from infiltration to massive battles, players won’t be hurting for level or objective variety. Because the Extended Edition of this game includes the aforementioned Atlantean expansion, players can play another, albeit much shorter, campaign starring Arkantos’s son Kastor. Despite its reduced length, its scenario variety rivals that of the main campaign.

Myth7

The story of Arkantos is hands down the best story campaign Ensemble ever made.

Whether players are interested in the single-player campaign or a round of multiplayer, everyone’s in for quite a visual treat. Age of Mythology‘s game world is absolutely beautiful, perhaps even more so than the maps in Age of Empires III. From verdant Greek hills to scorching Egyptian deserts, Age of Mythology features a rich variety of maps inspired by locations all over the world. Each map is beautifully detailed with rugged terrain and ancient ruins, as well as populated by dozens of different animals (elephants, gazelles, zebras, polar bears, the list goes on).

The graphical improvements introduced with the Extended Edition include some well-implemented texture and resolution touch-ups, as well as a day/night cycle and better water rendering. These improvements don’t quite put Age of Mythology on graphical par with modern RTS games, but between the title’s bewildering variety of maps and strong use of color, polygonal precision falls by the wayside. Couple this with the game’s memorable, relaxing soundtrack of deep drums and Mediterranean guitar, and the result is a deeply immersive ancient world that’s a lot of fun to explore.

Myth8

(Don’t make a P.F. Chang’s joke, don’t make a P.F. Chang’s joke…)

Because it’s an older game with simple processing requirements, Age of Mythology runs problem-free on modern machines. The Extended Edition adapts the game to newer software well, and the options menu allows players to make tweaks to almost anything in case problems do occur. Though it’s not as big as Age of Empires II‘s resurgent multiplayer community, Age of Mythology has experienced a revival thanks to the Extended Edition. Players have also taken to the game’s Steam workshop with rigor, producing a few custom units, skins and even campaigns that can be downloaded for free.

Unfortunately, though, Age of Mythology is not without one major flaw, but it has less to do with the game and more to do with the Tale of the Dragon DLC released shortly after the Extended Edition. To put it frankly, it’s one of the buggiest, most poorly designed pieces of DLC on Steam, and that’s not exactly a light statement. The Chinese units the DLC adds suffer from pathing errors, and the entire production is rife with bugs and glitches. The campaign mode features a particularly game-breaking bug that casts an assassination target as an essential NPC. In short, stick with the main Age of Mythology game. It’s great. Tale of the Dragon is a hot piece of garbage.

Myth9

No no, attack the farm… attack the… attack the FARM, DAMN YOU WATER DRAGON THINGS!

Luckily for Age of Mythology, its big flaws are restricted to a single piece of DLC that can easily be glossed over in pursuit of the main game. The gameplay in Age of Mythology makes for a well-oiled strategy machine that has aged well despite having originally been released in 2002. Its multiplayer community has been resurrected, and the single-player campaign presents an affable world tour of diverse mythological lore. Strategy fans would be remiss to not add this game to their library immediately. It’s not the most popular game Ensemble Studios produced… but it is the best.

____________________

You can buy Age of Mythology: Extended Edition 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.

Bulletstorm: Full Clip Edition

Bullet1

Brave a planet full of mutants and gangsters in a mad dash for revenge.

PC Release: April 7, 2017

By Ian Coppock

When most gamers think of titles that deserve an immediate remaster, Bulletstorm is probably not at the top of that list. When it first hit shelves in 2011, Bulletstorm made waves with its crude humor (players can get bonus points for shooting an enemy in the testicles) and fast-paced gameplay, but was a flop for developer Epic Games. For PC gamers, having to go through Windows LIVE was a nightmare, and that DRM stuck around even after Windows LIVE folded, precluding additional sales. Despite these issues, Bulletstorm: Full Clip Edition has crotch-kicked its way onto store shelves and onto this page six years after the original version’s release, and just in time for this evening’s review.

____________________

As previously mentioned, Bulletstorm was originally developed by Epic Games and published by Electronic Arts, but was a commercial failure, leading a potential Bulletstorm franchise to be shelved indefinitely. The property was eventually snatched up by Polish studio People Can Fly, a frequent Epic Games collaborator, and remastered under the auspice of Gearbox instead of EA. Though EA and Epic Games didn’t think so, it’s possible that Gearbox sees franchise potential in Bulletstorm and is testing the waters with this remaster. Or they just want to bring back the joy of flinging a mutant onto a cactus. One of the two.

Anyway, Bulletstorm is a sci-fi first-person shooter starring Grayson Hunt, a former black ops agent-turned-alcoholic space pirate. Though he now spends his time drinking, looting spaceships, and drinking, Grayson and his crew used to be covert operatives in the employ of General Serrano. When Serrano casually admits that the purported terrorists Grayson’s been killing are actually innocent civilians, the entire team goes AWOL and spends a decade on the run. Bulletstorm opens as Grayson rams his ship into Serrano’s, causing both vessels to crash-land on a quarantined world called Stygia.

Bullet2

This hotel has mold. And rot. And bugs. And the roof is gone. 1 star out of 5.

Grayson’s rash decision to shoot his ship through another ship kills everybody on his crew except Ishi, a sarcastic cyborg who regularly chastises Grayson for his drunk driving. The pair want to deal with Serrano but also need to find a way off-world immediately. Why? Well, it turns out that Stygia is crawling with gangs of marooned humans as well as hives of mutants. Neither party seems intent on helping Grayson on his mission for revenge, which suits the space pirate’s bloodlust just fine. With gun in hand and potty-mouth at the ready, Grayson sets off into the wilds of Stygia to exact revenge on General Serrano.

That exposition is about as complicated as this Bulletstorm‘s narrative gets. Aside from that premise and a plot twist that can be spotted from miles away, this game’s writing is an ocean of such memorable gags as “what the dick?!” and acquiring a pet robot dinosaur named Waggleton P. Tallylicker. That juvenile, crass humor is one of two elements that Bulletstorm sold itself on. The jokes are hit-and-miss, with some feeling forced but others provoking genuine belly laughs, like when Grayson is accused of being a sunbaked a**hole and responds by insisting that’s actually the name of Ishi’s cologne.

Bullet3

Robot dinosaurs are all you need for a game, let’s just pack this review in and call it a night.

Even though some of Bulletstorm‘s jokes evoke that cringing feel of high school bathroom humor, the game never sold itself as a serious space odyssey. Bulletstorm succeeds in honestly presenting itself as a source of crass humor and sticks to that message from beginning to end. The humor also provides some levity against the hordes of blood-pissing mutants and the devastated post-apocalyptic landscape that players spend 6-8 hours shooting through. (As an aside, it’s easy to tell that Bulletstorm was originally made by Epic Games, because like the characters in Gears of War, they all have blimp-sized biceps and have to wear shoes that are size 20 both lengthwise and crosswise).

Despite itself, the writing does allow for a few moments of seriousness and even packs in some light character development. Grayson realizes what his quest for revenge has turned him into over the course of the game, which alters the balance of his relationship with the unimpressed Ishi. Eventually, Bulletstorm unmasks a very different, broken person behind all of the bathroom jokes, which is more eloquent than one expects of a game that encourages players to push bad guys into cacti. It doesn’t excuse a few eyebrow-raising moments though, like when Ishi suddenly becomes nice to Grayson, or the abundance of spelling and grammar errors in the subtitles. For Epic Games’ information, it’s spelled “smoothie”, not “smoothy.”

Bullet4

You might call this scene a… chemical bromance. Thank you, thank you, I’m here all week.

And speaking of pushing bad guys into cacti, it’s time to discuss the other element Bulletstorm sold itself on: violent and chaotic first-person shooting. For anything that can be said about Bulletstorm‘s approach to story, its arcade-style gameplay and moving at the speed of DOOM make it a lot of fun. In fact, one might say Bulletstorm recaptures the thrill of first-person shooting that Call of Duty and other mainline series have forgotten how to evoke. Coming from someone who never played the original Bulletstorm, the Full Clip Edition is one of the most fun FPS games released since last fall’s Shadow Warrior 2.

Bulletstorm does a lot more than provide tons of bad guys and guns to shoot them with (though it does those things quite well). The game’s main novelty is the energy leash, a bullwhip-like device that allows Grayson to grab objects and enemies and pull them toward him. Conversely, the leash can be used to send enemies flying into one of dozens of conveniently placed traps, including but not limited to: cacti, live electrical wires, air intake fans, vats of acid, giant flytrap plants, unexploded bombs, and precarious ledges. Grayson can also force enemies toward these things with a solid kick. In fact, why not use the leash to bring an enemy toward Grayson, step out of the way, and then kick that enemy into a nearby wind turbine? The possibilities are endless!

Bullet5

I guess I’m pretty… alluring (I am so sorry).

Between being able to fling enemies around like ragdolls and all of the guns lying around, Bulletstorm‘s gameplay has a lot of variety to offer. It’s a ton of fun to experiment with different killing methods, like pulling an enemy toward Grayson and then using the sniper rifle before aforementioned gravity-defying enemy careens too far away. Bulletstorm gives players points for creative kills, and since the only currency for ammo and upgrades is points, it pays to be an artiste on the battlefield. Bulletstorm provides equal versatility with its level design, shunting Grayson through a riot of different environments laden with various traps and obstacles.

Bulletstorm also does a great job of scratching that fast-moving arcade itch. The game stomps its foot on the gas pedal about five seconds after the title screen rolls and almost never lets up. Grayson’s in for a nonstop roller coaster of huge gun battles, falling buildings, and a marathon of explosions that put Michael Bay’s entire filmography to shame. Anyone who yearns for the days when shooters were a non-stop series of massive explosions and over-sized ordnance is in for a real treat with Bulletstorm. The only pause players will find in this game is hitting ESC for the menu.

Bullet6

WOOOOO! C’mon you bastards, I can do this all night! MWAHAHAHA!

Bulletstorm‘s gameplay stands the test of time, but it’s not a new product of the Full Clip Edition. All of this was available in the original 2011 release. With that in mind, what does the Full Clip Edition of Bulletstorm offer to shooter fans new and old? Well, for a start, the Full Clip Edition doesn’t require the now-defunct Windows LIVE system to operate, and for that, People Can Fly deserves an angelic choir at their front door. No Windows LIVE, no heavy-handed DRM that takes hours to circumvent… this edition of Bulletstorm is completely free of all that gobbledygook.

What about changes to the actual game? Bulletstorm‘s textures have been sharpened up quite a bit, but nothing else, including the characters’ stiff facial animations, seems to have been touched. The game runs well on PC sans occasional lag and has a decent options menu, but these things were true of the original Bulletstorm as well. The biggest changes the Full Clip Edition seems to make are support for modern resolutions and the addition of a new campaign mode, which can seem pretty paltry for a $50 price tag. It’s also quite glib that the Duke Nukem campaign mode Gearbox toted as a major feature of the remaster is a separate DLC and not, y’know, a major feature of the base game.

Bullet7

Looks like we’re about to make an unscheduled stop… (I’m actually not sorry about any of these jokes).

Jokes about a**-kickery and referring to mini-bosses as Mr. Butterdick Jones are all well and good, but Bulletstorm‘s main value proposition lies in its gameplay. Too often, first-person shooters these days get strung up on repetitive, underwhelming gameplay, and trying to cater to a watered-down audience with reduced viscera. Bulletstorm isn’t interested in pandering. It’s only interested in seeing how many mutants it takes to make a mutant-and-cactus sandwich. It possesses an uncommon amount of courage in telling the world exactly what it is and with pride. Perhaps it’s a good thing that People Can Fly didn’t do a whole lot to change the game other than make it accessible again, though that also makes the $50 price tag a bit high.

In the end, any player who likes moving through gorgeous environments at the Doomguy’s clip and spending hours bloodily murdering mutants while yelling “chunky style!” will want to get Bulletstorm. The main campaign has a lot of replay value packed into its admittedly short length, while the game’s burgeoning multiplayer community is coming back to life. Get the Full Clip Edition of Bulletstorm and experience a game that is unabashedly proud to own what it is, and in so doing, produces an experience more memorable than most of its bigger-name peers.

____________________

You can buy Bulletstorm: Full Clip Edition 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.

Prophour23

Proph1

Grow body parts and defend them from hordes of insects.

PC Release: October 22, 2014

By Ian Coppock

Prophour23 is the discerning gamer’s go-to title for killing insects with internal organs. If that statement isn’t attention-grabbing enough, what about the notion of a horror real-time strategy game? Or a game played out in an art style inspired by the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci? If all of those things, niche as they may be, sound interesting, imagine them cobbled together with blood vessels and a bit of gristle. Imagine Prophour23, a gruesome entry in this month’s strategy game lineup and the subject of tonight’s review.

____________________

Prophour23 is a game whose bizarre premise lends it a great deal of novelty. The game is a top-down strategy title that faces players off not against columns of enemy troops, but swarms of insects. Ants and cockroaches, to be precise. And what is the player attempting to prevent these baleful bugs from eating? An intricate and awesomely gross web of internal organs. It’s difficult to discern what inspired Prophour23 if not nightmares of being eaten alive by bugs, or the scarab scenes from The Mummy.

Unlike most strategy games, a round of Prophour23 is quite short, usually about 15-20 minutes. The goal of the match is to prevent the insects from destroying the player’s heart, which is positioned at the very center of the field. Players can grow other organs around the heart using blood, which pops up on the screen at regular intervals and must quickly be gathered before it dries up. Each body part serves a different function: eyes allow players to see at night, while rib cages, believe it or not, make for great protective walls.

NewProph2

Nukes can’t kill roaches, but maybe a mouth covered in thorns can.

Prophour23’s gameplay is a bit more complicated than building walls to keep out bugs. The game features a rapid day-night cycle that can render the player blind to the insects, so be sure to grow some eyeballs around the heart (bet no one expected to ever hear that piece of advice). Some organs can only function if they’re powered by a muscle, and the two have to be tethered together by a tendon. Though most structures are good for keeping the bugs out, the best way to truly destroy them is to grow thorns. Harden the heart, as it were.

Similarly to most real-time strategy games, players can grow more elaborate organs the longer they can last in the match. These higher-tier organs serve more sophisticated purposes than their mainline counterparts. Growing a stomach, for example, is a great way to harvest extra blood. However, even as the player’s organ network becomes more formidable, so too do the waves of insects that ooze in from the screen’s edges to eat the player’s heart. Organs can sometimes cease functioning or even become diseased, and maintaining all of them is one of the game’s biggest challenges.

Proph3

Ohhhhhhhh gross gross gross gross GROSS!

Prophour23‘s bizarre world can be a lot to take in. Players with strong stomachs probably won’t get queasy, but if the visuals and oozing animations weren’t enough, the game also comes with some super-squelchy sound effects to round out the grossness. These various elements combine to give Prophour23 a sickly, nigh-bubonic atmosphere consistent with similarly repulsive survival horror games. Fighting off rounds of cockroaches with diseased eyeballs just seems to have that effect… for some reason.

No matter the strength of the player’s stomach, though, Prophour23 seems to have a hard time stomaching its own gameplay. The game’s tutorials, while extensive, do a poor job of explaining how exactly to play the game. There’s a difference between illustrating the function of each organ and illustrating how best to use it in-game. There’s also scant inspiration for how the organs are supposed to function together, which is an obvious problem for a game that casts itself as being built up on strategy. Each tutorial is also played in a far, far shorter round than that of the main game mode.

NewProph4

Aaaand the armbone connects to the, uh… eye… bone?

It’s especially unfortunate that this game’s tutorials don’t quite do their job, because Prophour23 is a difficult game. That 15-20 minute round seems short on paper, but when constant streams of cockroaches come pouring in from around the map, it seems quite a bit longer. Much like a night at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, success in Prophour23 requires constant and meticulous micromanagement. That’s hardly something to be missed in a strategy game, but multitasking on a jacked up difficulty without an adequate tutorial? Not great.

Yes, the secret to success in Prophour23 is to “git gud” and endure the sight of countless hearts exploding before getting anywhere decent. Though the game’s high difficulty may be a turn-off to casual strategy fans, it provides an inadvertent boon to someone who’s conquered all the things in other RTS titles and is looking for something fresh. There’s an innate satisfaction in crushing a bunch of cockroaches with the force of pure screaming, and then going home and playing Prophour23.

Proph5

Medieval warfare as imagined by a Bodyworlds exhibit.

Although Prophour23 makes itself difficult to get into and is then (literally) bloody challenging, its gameplay is truly one-of-a-kind. It’s no hyperbole to say that Prophour23 is the only game out there where players grow organs to fend off bugs, and the novelty of that premise means that, for all its flaws, the game is quite creative. It envisions a gross world of homeless human organs protecting themselves from pestilence, and excels at carrying that hair-raising atmosphere endemic to other horror-themed titles.

It’s also not unfair to also say that Prophour23 is as much a tower defense game as a real-time strategy title, what with each organ serving a distinct purpose and endless foes to beat back. Prophour23‘s RTS elements come primarily in the form of gathering resources, and paying lots of attention to how structures are laid out and the battle is being fought. Organs can be moved around to defend against new streams of insects, which is handy, and players can use organs to activate additional combat abilities.

NewProph6

Ew…

Prophour23’s gameplay and atmosphere found a perfect match in the title’s art style. Inspired by the anatomy drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, each background in Prophour23 bears the appearance of a weathered page from one of his sketchbooks. The organs themselves are drawn out in a style similar to da Vinci’s, and everything from the game’s gorgeous font to illustrations of medical implements is pure Renaissance. The options menu underpinning these features isn’t great, but Prophour23 runs well and its visual simplicity precludes processing issues. The game’s performance is much more bug-free than its matches (ba dum tss).

The soundtrack is also awesomely gross, with a collection of sickly sweet violin strings and deeper, darker tones that accompany each match. If Prophour23 demonstrates difficulty with welcoming new players, it compels them to stay with its beautiful and highly original artwork. It isn’t quite pretty enough to make players forget that they’re growing body organs to fend off bugs, but it’s not supposed to; it reinforces the game’s diseased vibe and novel premise.

Proph7

“Enough blood to grow thorns” sounds like the title of a book of poetry.

Prophour23 gouges itself in the eye with its underwhelming tutorials and high difficulty, but players who can surmount these design flaws are in for a memorable strategy experience. It scratches that resource management itch as only an RTS game can, while also providing a deeply unsettling atmosphere endemic to the horror genre. All of this is played out against a smart backdrop: a living anatomy sketchbook. No other visual setting would’ve fit this game’s premise so perfectly. Prophour23 won’t suit all tastes but it’s definitely worth at least trying. See how managing columns of troops translates to growing body organs and experience a whole new kind of bug repellent.

____________________

You can buy Prophour23 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.

Fallout Shelter

Fall1

Manage your very own colony of nuclear apocalypse survivors.

PC Release: March 29, 2017

By Ian Coppock

The threat of nuclear apocalypse used to be all the rage. Students were told that hiding under wooden desks was a great way to protect themselves from a hydrogen bomb, and the United States and Soviet Union together made enough nukes to blow up the world… 15 times? Something like that? Anyway, nuclear Armageddon fell out of fashion when the Cold War ended, but with a belligerent Russia on the rise and a thin-skinned narcissist in the White House, the topic’s gained traction once more. How might one survive in the event of a nuclear apocalypse? Fallout Shelter, the subject of tonight’s review, might have some answers on that.

____________________

Fallout Shelter is a survival management game that was originally released in 2015 as a companion title to Fallout 4. Rather than focusing on exploring a vast wasteland full of danger, Fallout Shelter casts players as the overseer of a vault, a shelter created to protect humans from the series’ titular nuclear fallout. It’s up to players to create their own vault, build it deep underground, and keep their vault dwellers happy and productive.

The original version of Fallout Shelter was a mobile game, but the version being reviewed tonight is the recently released PC port. Even more than ports from a console, mobile ports are very hit-and-miss on PC, with Square Enix’s Deus Ex: The Fall being perhaps the worst such game. Although mobile ports warrant suspicion from PC gamers, the Fallout universe is one of those properties that can’t not warrant some love and attention, so Fallout Shelter deserves a fair shot.

Fall2

Oosh. Looks like what a 60’s advertising exec has nightmares about.

Fallout Shelter kicks things off by giving players a randomized vault number, as well as a disappointingly scant tutorial on how its mechanics run, from building new rooms in the facility to managing the happiness of its inhabitants. The gist of Fallout Shelter is not hard to understand: keep the vault growing and keep the people inside content with their lives (or as content as can be expected in a nuclear wasteland). Players also have to manage their vault’s supply of food, water, and power. Run low on these things and the vault will have an apocalypse of its own.

Provided they have enough bottle caps and Blanco Mac’n’Cheese, players can expand their vault’s population with a few different mechanics. They can either assign male and female vault dwellers to the living quarters to “calibrate the reactor”, or invite outsiders to come in. That last one’s a curious break with the vault policies seen in the main Fallout games, but it makes sense for maintaining a steady stream of people and keeping the game moving along. Of course, new people can’t be let in if the vault can’t support them, so be sure to have a big enough stock of Mirelurk meat. Players can also send their dwellers out into the wastes to scavenge for supplies.

Fall3

The “greetings, the player has assigned us to reproduce” subtext here is actually pretty horrifying.

Although the basic gist of Fallout Shelter is hardly anything that the Sims or other management games haven’t done before on PC, the game’s smartphone mechanics are where things start to get dicey. This is one of those mobile games where players task their minions on something, put their phone away, and check back an hour later when that task has been done. It takes only a few moments for players to find something for their vault dwellers to do; the actual bulk of the game, the task’s completion, is something that the player is meant to be entirely absent for.

That style of gameplay might work on a smartphone, but it doesn’t exactly work on a PC. PC gaming is meant to be a much more involved experience than mobile, and can’t be hopped in and out of quite like mobile gaming. Sitting and waiting on a dweller to finish mopping up Radroach guts does not make for compelling gameplay. It could make for an interesting little story, but Fallout Shelter nixes any sort of narrative in favor of pure task management. The vast majority of this game is spent sitting and waiting for tasks to be done… maybe a crisis will pop up here or there but mostly it’s just watching the little Vault Boy-esque sprites run hither and yon (more like hither and yawn).

Fall4

Well, at least I found Dogmeat.

The assertion that Fallout Shelter eats up loads of waiting time isn’t entirely true. Players can skip waiting around and get right to the exciting parts… for a price. Yes, just like many mobile titles out there, Fallout Shelter is a pay-to-win title. Players who are tired of spinning their wheels can pay a few bucks here and there to speed things up a bit. Players can also buy out the game’s stocks of perks, like high-powered weapons, that can otherwise take hours or days of waiting to attain.

This mechanic is another reason why mobile ports tend to be coolly received on PC: microtransactions are cancer. The pay-to-win model is built entirely around coercing impatient gamers into forking over much more money than they probably planned. It’s a predatory, exploitative style of game design that takes advantage of its own lack of entertainment to convince gamers that maybe, just maybe, there’s something better around that $5 pay window. Well, there’s not. But hey, if you pay 10 more dollars…

Fall5

Can we build an escape pod?

Fallout Shelter is not without some redeeming qualities, like a beautiful art style centered around the main games’ Vault-Tec advertisements, but any potential this game had to be a charming management simulator is weighed down by its reliance on microtransactions. Even by mobile gaming standards, this title is not afraid to get in players’ faces and demand an obscene amount of money just for the chance to keep things interesting. The game’s drop-in, drop-out playstyle also doesn’t quite translate to the PC, a gaming machine that is much more difficult to fit into a pocket than a smartphone.

Luckily for PC gamers, there are thousands of titles out there that ask for one flat rate up front and guarantee hours of fun with no pay windows. Fallout Shelter is not one of them. The game’s fleeting homages to the main titles’ universe are screamed out by constant windows reminding players that the game can be sped up for a few extra dollars, effectively admitting that its own gameplay is a bore. If sitting around waiting hours for dwellers to complete tasks sounds fun, go wild. Players looking for a more involved, less predatory management sim should look elsewhere.

____________________

You can buy Fallout Shelter 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.

Age of Empires III: Complete Collection

Age1

Explore the New World and build a thriving colonial empire.

PC Release: October 18, 2005

By Ian Coppock

Even though Mass Effect: Andromeda didn’t quite stick the landing, there’s something to be said for that grand sense of exploration that the game espoused. In the months leading up to the game, Andromeda‘s Facebook page spouted off a bunch of quotes from explorers; and the actual game, however poorly, made seeing the unknown one of its central motifs. That drive to explore is at the heart of a lot of great games, some of which actually stuck the landing, and it’s also at the heart of tonight’s game: Age of Empires III.

____________________

Age of Empires III is a real-time strategy game and one of the last games developed by Ensemble Studios before that developer shut down in 2009. The game was developed as a sequel to Age of Empires II, but rather than focusing on the age of knights and castles, Age of Empires III hones in on the European discovery and colonization of the Americas (think 1400’s-1800’s). The base game shipped in 2005, but over the next two years Ensemble released two expansion packs adding Native American and Asian civilizations, respectively. The Age of Empires III: Complete Collection being reviewed here tonight compiles all three titles into a single game of exploration, trade, and war.

Like Age of Empires IIAge of Empires III is a strategy game that revolves around developing a civilization. Players start off from humble beginnings with a few settlers and a town center, but can quickly build that up into a bustling colonial empire. Through carefully managing resources and keeping rivals at bay, players can create a streamlined military and industrial powerhouse rivaling the most prosperous colonies of the New World era. Attaining that goal is easier said than done, but it’s what gameplay in Age of Empires III revolves around: training units, gathering resources, building up a base, and smashing the enemy.

Age2

Alright, who forgot to pack the crumpets?

As previously mentioned, players start out with a few settlers who can set out to gather resources like wood, gold, and food. Using these materials, players can train more units and build up their settlement into a thriving community. Houses, for example, let players support a larger population, while barracks allow for training soldiers. Unlike in Age of Empires II, players don’t need to gather stone, and villagers don’t need a drop-off point for the resources they’ve gathered. It’s also possible to train military units in batches of five… assuming players can cough up five paychecks at once.

Just like in Age of Empires II, the true key to winning a match in Age of Empires III is a robust economy. Players have to balance between researching new technologies, gathering resources, and building up an army to take the fight to a rival power. The Age mechanic returns to the series from Age of Empires II and allows players to advance to a new level of technological sophistication, provided they have the resources. A player in the Imperial Age, for example, can produce far more advanced weapons and tools than a player stuck in the Colonial Age.

Age3

Chichen Itza. Or, as white people call it, “Chicken Pizza.”

Age of Empires II has perhaps too many civilizations, especially with its recent expansions, but the base Age of Empires III game shipped with eight European powers that players can choose from. Some, like the Spanish, French, and British, were obvious choices to include, while the Germans are a bit of a stretch and the Ottomans were included for… who knows why? Ottomans did many amazing things, but colonizing the Americas was not one of them. The game’s Native American expansion adds the Sioux, Aztec and Iroquois powers, while the Asian Dynasties pack adds the Chinese, Japanese, and Indians.

Unlike Age of Empires II, which differentiated most of its civilizations with as little as a single unit, Age of Empires III goes to great lengths to make each of its civilizations play differently. Each civ has benefits and drawbacks corresponding to the perks of its historical counterpart. The Portuguese, for example, excel at building ships and navigating water maps. The French are great at forming partnerships with Native American tribes, while the Spanish are outstanding at telling Native Americans that they’re not Catholic enough. Similarly, each civilization has its own units and exclusive technologies. Playing as the Dutch and researching Coffee Trade is both a great way to boost the economy and to keep the entire western hemisphere caffeinated. Proost!

Age4

A calm mountain stream running down the IS THAT A BEAR ROW AWAY RIGHT NOW

Though Age of Empires III looks mighty similar to Age of Empires II from a distance, the sequel made some major shakeups to Ensemble’s real-time strategy formula. For a start, players get an Explorer, a hero unit best used to look around the map in the early game. Explorers can be knocked out but never killed, making Age of Empires III more merciful toward its heroes than Age of Empires II. It’s also a good way to help novice players get used to the environment without paying a heavy price; no one’s to say how the Explorer only falls unconscious after rousing a den of angry bears, but sending someone to resuscitate him makes it easy to get back up and exploring in no time.

The other major innovation Ensemble made with Age of Empires III is the Home City mechanic, which allows players to request supplies and soldiers from back home. Every action in Age of Empires III gives the player experience points, with which they can click away to a beautiful rendition of their civ’s capital city and buy stuff to send across the pond. These perks come in the form of cards, which players can unlock after each match provided they earned enough experience in-game. Some cards, like a shipment of 200 gold, are fairly basic, while high-end cards like an army of Swiss mercenaries are quite a bit more valuable. Usually, more powerful cards can only be activated in late stages of the game.

Age5

Still waiting on those crumpets, m’lord.

The Explorer and the Home City are but two of Age of Empires III‘s many changes to their RTS routine. Players can also attack neutral enemies (creeps) for resources, build trading posts to get shipments of supplies, and build alliances with local Native American tribes. The rest of the game is classic Age of Empires: start up a town, mow through acres of gold mines and pine trees, and assemble an army bristling with pikes and muskets. Start out with a few musketeers before working up to pistol-wielding dragoons or endless columns of strelet infantry. In one of the laziest gameplay implementations ever seen in an RTS, players can build a saloon and hire from a random assortment of mercenaries. The word “lazy” denotes the saloon’s hilariously anachronistic offerings, like wild west gunslingers in feudal Japan or mounted elephants in the Thirteen Colonies. Go home saloon, you’re dru — oh wait.

Like other Ensemble games, beating the opponent in Age of Empires III boils down to a game of rock-paper-scissors: artillery beats infantry, infantry sort of holds their own against cavalry sometimes, cavalry beats artillery. Employing a mix of these three unit types is a great way to guard against enemy forces and respond to whatever they’re packing. Players can turn their town into a fort for a long-term game, or rush the opponent early on if they’re feeling like taking risks. Generally, the best way to defend a town is have units stationed by the gate to immediately respond to an attack, with extra cannons at the ready to make short work of an enemy charge. Contrary-wise, the best way to attack an enemy base is pound it from afar with cannons. The enemy can either stay in their base and die, or venture out to get hit by artillery and musket fire.

Age6

We know you have the sushi. Hand it over and no one has to die.

Although Age of Empires III‘s gameplay is smooth and allows for great variety, Ensemble deserves some flack for its portrayal of certain civilizations… specifically, the Asian and Native American ones. The big three Native civilizations can build a giant bonfire and task villagers to dance around it; depending on the dance, they can somehow increase unit training speed or the deadliness of their warriors. While such dances are certainly a matter of historical record, their implementation in Age of Empires III feels stereotypical of Native Americans. It also feels lazy, like Ensemble disregarded some of these civilizations’ actual achievements in favor of the Magical Medicine Man racist trope that’s already plagued Native portrayals in other media.

Even more galling are some of the portrayals Ensemble made of Asian civilizations, like that Japanese monks have the power to tame wild animals for battle, or that their soldiers can call upon what basically amounts to the power of the Iron Fist to aid them in combat. Inexplicable mind powers and magic charms not only do not belong in a real-time strategy game that claims grounding in history, they perpetuate racist portrayals of Asian peoples that, unfortunately, have been common in western media for centuries. “Never mind that these civilizations fielded (and continue to field) some of the mightiest armies in world history — let’s fall back on the trope of warrior monks who can call upon earth magic.” Ensemble struck a rich vein of cringe with these ridiculous design decisions.

Age7

Of course they’re asking the Buddha for help… and of course it has a magical power to use.

Although some of Age of Empires III‘s human portrayals raise a lot of questions, their environments inspire much more awe. Though the visuals have aged a bit since 2005, Age of Empires III remains a colorful and engaging game, with huge maps that burst with color and detail. Zooming in on those details isn’t always pretty on the eyes, but Age of Empires III encompasses a vibrant New World from the steppes of Argentina all the way up to the frozen wastes of the Yukon. New maps were added with the game’s two expansions, including a stunning palette of Asian territories, and these are bundled together in the Complete Collection as well.

Though the emphasis of all of these maps is undoubtedly for multiplayer, Age of Empires III also allows less social gamers to compete against the computer. These days, with the game’s multiplayer as dead as it is, this is usually the only recourse for players spoiling for a fight. The game also features a single-player campaign that follows the fictitious Black family as they journey to the New World, but this narrative isn’t much to speak of. Neither are the stunted story campaigns offered up by the Native American or Asian civilizations. They make for some passably entertaining history-babble and offer some cool campaign-exclusive units, but that’s about it.

Age8

Now THIS is what I call a base!

So, what is Age of Empires III, exactly? It’s a beautifully rendered real-time strategy game that makes up for in variety what it lacks in speed. It’s a smart, streamlined game whose civilizations offer a great amount of gameplay variety at the expense of some shockingly racist portrayals. What is the modern RTS fan to make of all that? Well, online multiplayer is pretty much dead. Age of Empires III‘s online community can’t hold a candle to the resurgence Age of Empires II has enjoyed, and probably never will, but local multiplayer is not unheard of. Additionally, there’s a lot of fun to be had in exploring these beautiful landscapes, whether at the helm of a custom colony or through the eyes of the exceptionally ordinary story campaigns.

Most RTS fans will probably prefer a game with a living community, and time has not been kind to some of Age of Empires III‘s gameplay elements, but the game still succeeds in capturing that grand sense of exploration mentioned earlier. There’s a lot to explore in the game’s vast assortment of maps, and a sense of accomplishment that comes with starting a profile and watching colonies swell. Whether those elements are enough to warrant a purchase is up to the players to decide, but for anything that can be said about Age of Empires III‘s decline in recent years, it captured those elements well.

____________________

You can buy Age of Empires III here.

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

Mass Effect: Andromeda

Andro1

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.

____________________

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.

Andro2

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.

Andro3

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.

Andro4

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.

Andro5

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.

Andro6

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.

Andro7

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.

Andro8

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.

Andro9

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.

____________________

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.