Month: October 2016

Slayer Shock

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Save your hometown from being overwhelmed by vampires.

PC Release: September 29, 2016

By Ian Coppock

Autumn has landed, in all its colors and all its glory. Developers everywhere have been releasing some very spooky games this month, to mark the season and to line their pockets with the almighty fear dollar. Typically, this spot is reserved for a review of a retro game, but perhaps it’s time to review a more recent title that’s more fitting for Halloween. A game that combines the wanderlust of trick-or-treating with the fun of stealthy adventuring- a game like Slayer Shock.

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Slayer Shock is a first-person horror game developed by Minor Key Games, the same studio that made last year’s cyberpunk stealth hit, Neon Struct (http://geekfactor-radio.com/art-games-2/)Slayer Shock is a marked departure from the high-tech escapades of Jillian Cleary, opting instead for a spookier, more rustic setting and some dramatic changes in gameplay. Instead of eluding security guards and hacking security systems, players take up silver stakes and crossbows in pursuit of vampires, a Halloween mainstay.

Slayer Shock takes place in the fictional town of Lancaster, Nebraska, during the autumn of 1995. Players assume the role of “the Slayer” an anonymous female protagonist and skilled vampire hunter. The Slayer is Lancaster’s last hope against a coven of vampires, who have descended upon the small town in overwhelming numbers. Armed only with keen reflexes and whatever weapons are at hand, players must repel the vampire threat and save what’s left of Lancaster from bleeding out. Slayer Shock isn’t as frightening as, say, Outlast, but it oozes creepy Halloween atmosphere, and getting jumped by a pointy-eared bloodsucker can still be quite startling.

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Just call me Buffy.

Slayer Shock abandons many of the conventions established by Neon Struct and is instead more akin to Minor Key’s earlier game, Eldritch. For starters, players can actually carry and use weapons, a dire necessity for dealing with the vampires overrunning Lancaster. The Slayer starts out with two weapon slots devoted exclusively to a melee and a ranged weapon, respectively, but an acquire a larger backpack through upgrades. Slayer Shock‘s combat system is par for the course for first-person RPGs; shoot or stab the bad guy to make them fall down. Shoot or stab the bad guy in the head to make them fall down faster. Just make sure they don’t get an opening to do the same to the Slayer. A lot of the creatures in Slayer Shock use melee attacks, so timing counter-attacks to alternate with the monsters’ blows will go a long way toward emerging from fights in one piece.

Slayer Shock also deviates from Neon Struct in its implementation of RPG elements. Players can collect vampire dust while they’re out on patrol, be it from treasure chests scattered around Lancaster or from the corpses of the monsters they slay. The Slayer hunkers down at a coffee shop between missions, and can spend the dust on Slayer Shock‘s upgrade tree. Different skills can be emphasized for different playstyles; players can quiet their footsteps and increase damage dealt with sneak attacks, or become proficient at kicking down doors with guns blazing. Slayer Shock doesn’t provide the most RPG versatility ever seen, but it’s a fair amount. Players can also customize their character’s skin color and even add nail polish, which is a novelty.

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Have an issue? Here’s a TENT STAKE!

The Slayer is not alone in her quest to save Lancaster. She has an entire support team hanging out with her at the local coffee shop. These NPCs present no character development and a lot of canned dialogue, but the upgrades they harbor are much more useful. Each character fits into niches that have been well-trodden by previous vampire fiction. There’s the brooding vampire hunting mentor, the brilliant weaponsmith, the nervous lore-keeper, and the shifty new guy whom no one trusts. In addition to the aforementioned RPG upgrades, players can solicit these characters for new weapons and tools. The team can also perform XCOM-esque research projects on the vampires’ weaknesses, and on where the coven leaders are to be found.

Once these upgrades have been purchased, it’s time to hit the streets of Lancaster. The Slayer can travel to just under half a dozen districts around the town, and each one is a procedurally generated, open-world level. Each mission also presents a randomized goal, be that patrolling the area for vampire activity, stealing vampire artifacts, or hunting down and killing the vampire elders leading the invasion. No matter the mission type, each area of Lancaster can be counted upon to be crawling with spooky stragoi. Again like XCOM: Enemy Unknown, completing a mission in one map will lower the danger there, but the panic and violence will increase in other districts. Letting one district go for too long without a visit will cause it to be lost to the vampires.

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Keeping the vampires at bay is a balancing act.

The narrative being propelled by all of this monster-hunting is, much like the one in Neon Struct, intriguing but a bit shallow. The Slayer is a silent protagonist who never talks, but she seems to take more initiative than Jill Cleary did in Neon StructSlayer Shock‘s overarching narrative is nothing new for monster-hunting games; there are a bunch of bad guys descending onto a location, and it’s up to players to kill all of them and the big baddie in charge. The only real exposition to be had in the game is from the mono-syllabic conversations with the NPCs in the coffee shop. No, the meat of Slayer Shock is roaming around the neighborhood killing things. Occasionally, the vampire leader will appear to the Slayer in dreams to taunt her.

One of the reasons why Slayer Shock‘s narrative is so shallow is because the game is designed to played in strategic rounds. The Slayer has to maintain Lancaster’s districts long enough to find the vampire leader, kill him/her, and make things peaceful again until the following autumn, when the threat returns at a higher difficulty level. Theoretically, players could spend the rest of eternity clearing out the vampires from Lancaster each autumn, making Slayer Shock more akin to a roguelike in some basic structural respects. With the government apparently nonexistent and the Ghostbusters on vacation, the Slayer seems to be the only one available to save Lancaster.

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Didn’t I kill you last year?

Even though Slayer Shock bears the potential for mind-numbing repetition, the gameplay is a lot of fun. Players sneak into a district of their choice, creeping from house to house, room to room, in pursuit of their objective and away from ever more numerous vampire hordes. The game’s early levels are when things are most fun, because stealth is typically the only way to survive encounters with the beefier vampires. This game is a must-have for stealth fans who enjoy creeping around abandoned towns, stabbing things in the back. Even though Slayer Shock‘s combat and sneaking are both very basic, they’re not simplistic. They’re those two mechanics drilled down to their purest essences.

Slayer Shock does suffer from a major imbalance that will probably illicit eyerolls from players. For one thing, the Slayer becomes more powerful at a much faster pace than the game becomes more difficult. By autumn #2 or #3, players can walk up to the biggest, baddest vampires and stab them to death with little worry. It takes many more playthroughs before the vampires can catch up to that level of potency, and that’s a problem. Slayer Shock is in dire need of some enemy rebalancing, so that there’s more parity between player and monster. Luckily for Slayer Shock, players can go into the options menu to increase the difficulty at any time, but that’s not exactly an elegant fix. Being able to cut down monsters like tissue paper also undermines the sense of danger inherent in a vampire invasion.

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Even that thing will go down in a hurry with just a few basic upgrades.

The other problem with System Shock‘s gameplay and one that was also a major issue for Neon Struct is the enemy’s AI programming. Though the monsters in Slayer Shock are markedly smarter than the security guards in Neon Struct, they’re still sometimes shockingly dumb. More than once, players will be able to sneak right in front of monsters’ eyes, even without basic upgrades. It doesn’t happen nearly as often as it did in Minor Key’s previous games, but it’s still an issue in need of a fix. The vampires in this game need some teeth… no pun intended.

All that said, though, players can still expect an ample challenge in the early and late stages of the game. The maps are expansive and really fun to roam around in. The fact that they’re procedurally generated also means that the experience will be different every time. There’s a lot of fun to be had in rifling through an entire neighborhood of abandoned houses, sneakily killing vampires as one goes. The music that plays in these levels loops a little too soon, but it’s hardly offensive. Just some creepy, low acoustic rock and bass befitting a small town in the 90’s. Slayer Shock also utilizes the same low-poly aesthetic as in Minor Key’s other games. It’s not super flashy, but it works surprisingly well for the stealth horror vibe the game goes for. The spookiness is further rounded out by an array of muted fall colors; lots of brown, grey, and blood, blood red.

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EAT SILVER, CRETINS!

Even though Slayer Shock is a bit shallow and apparently afraid of its own monsters, it’s one of the funnest horror-adventure games to have been released this year. It distills stealth and hunting gameplay to a fundamental level without being simplistic, and presents a novel setting befitting a vampire game. The repeated autumn invasion narrative isn’t anything too special, but setting out into the neighborhood to repel it firsthand is. The challenge can take a little while to catch up, but the fun implicit in quietly taking out monsters across a dark autumn neighborhood makes Slayer Shock worthy of a purchase. There’s nothing like a small town full of glow-eyed ghouls to get into the Halloween spirit.

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You can buy Slayer Shock 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.

 

Shadow Warrior 2

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Slash and shoot your way through a post-demonic world.

PC Release: October 13, 2016

By Ian Coppock

Sometimes, the state of the gaming industry inspires a lot of frustration. A lot of anger. Between broken PC ports that barely function and a waterfall of skeletal Early Access garbage on Steam, gamers really have to put on their waders and dig deep to find the good stuff. Sometimes, though, being willing to dig isn’t enough. Sometimes gamers just want to get a little crazy- a little wild- to take the edge off and regain composure in time for the autumn gaming season. Luckily, Shadow Warrior 2 is here to help with just that, as it too is a little wild… and more than a little crazy.

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Now that No Man’s Sky has crashed and burned into more pieces than it has planets, it’s safe to say that Shadow Warrior 2 is 2016’s most anticipated indie game. Shadow Warrior 2 is, of course, the sequel to 2013’s Shadow Warrior, itself a reboot of a chaotic ninja game from the 90’s. Shadow Warrior 2 is a continuation of what the 2013 reboot started: namely, an ample mix of shooting and hack-and-slash insanity that was developed by a Polish studio called Flying Wild Hog, and is captained by a snarky ninja with no regard for personal safety or hurt feelings. Yes indeed, it’s time for more Wang.

(ahem)

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Yeah buddy!

Shadow Warrior 2 is set five years after the events of Shadow Warrior, five years after the lords of the Shadow Realm invaded the world with overwhelming numbers of demons. Players once again assume the role of Lo Wang, who journeyed across modern-day Japan in search of a sword that could beat back the demon menace. Wang’s quest ultimately turned out to be a mixed bag. He’s still alive, but the world as we know it is now a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Demons left over from the Shadow Realm’s invasion aimlessly wander the landscape in search of human prey. Earth’s wildlife has also become corrupted by the demons’ energies, leaving such monstrosities as cow-sized fleas and twin-tailed scorpions to overrun the wilds.

Oh, but there’s more. Orochi Zilla, a powerful Japanese businessman and Lo Wang’s former boss, has used stolen demonic technology to declare himself lord and master of the world, ruling over what’s left of humanity from massive cyber-cities. In Japan, the few humans chancing it out in the demon-infested countryside are ruled over by the Yakuza, who have transitioned from a crime syndicate to full-blown feudal kings.

So… yeah. All is not well in Shadow Warrior 2.

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Not exactly a peaceful time in human history.

Lo Wang has spent the five years since Shadow Warrior out in the wilds, hiding from Zilla’s forces and taking mercenary jobs from the local Yakuza. Shadow Warrior 2 begins when Lo Wang’s called in by Mamushi Heika, an immensely powerful crime boss, who charges the sarcastic ninja with rescuing a young scientist named Kamiko. Kamiko’s been working undercover in Zilla’s metropolis as a scientist, but she hasn’t called, and Mamushi wants Wang to spring her out. He complies, albeit with no shortage of snarky remarks and dick jokes.

However, Wang’s rescue mission quickly turns into much more than search and rescue, as Zilla has shot up the woman he’s out to save with a mysterious substance called Shade. To save her life, Wang’s buddy Master Smith has to extract her soul from her body, preserving her sanity but leaving her inside Lo Wang’s mind. Just like Hoji in Shadow Warrior, Kamiko rides shotgun in Lo Wang’s consciousness, serving as Shadow Warrior 2‘s smart, if unwilling, deuteragonist. Meanwhile, her seemingly possessed body gets up and runs away all on its own, prompting the pair to get out after it and descend down another rabbit hole of demonic intrigue and bleak, bleak humor.

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Kamiko bears not-so-silent witness to Lo Wang’s exploits in Shadow Warrior 2.

Just like its predecessor, Shadow Warrior 2 is a first-person arcade shooter, the term “arcade” denoting a much higher focus on pickups, loot, and waves of enemies than a more conventional FPS. As a highly trained assassin, Lo Wang is proficient with a deadly sharp katana and all manner of firearms. He’s also retained the chi powers that Hoji gave him in Shadow Warrior, enabling him to heal himself and unleash devastating dark power. Just like in the last game, Lo Wang levels up with each enemy he slaughters, and players can unlock all kinds of perks, from faster healing to new sword moves to gory shadow powers. These skill trees are extremely polished and streamlined within their own menu.

As Lo Wang, players can slash and shoot their way through hordes of enemies, be they demons roaming in the forest, Yakuza spoiling for a fight, or Orochi Zilla’s legions of cyber-soldiers. Shadow Warrior 2 aptly turns up Shadow Warrior‘s already fun gameplay by massively expanding the arsenal of weapons and adding an upgrade system. Lo Wang can find upwards of 70 different swords, pistols, shotguns, rifles, and other weapons throughout the game and customize them with Diablo III-esque power gems retrieved from enemy corpses. This gives players much more leeway than did the system in Shadow Warrior, which consisted of about 10 weapons and a small upgrade tree powered by money.

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YEEEEAHHH! GET SOME! GET SOOMMMMMMME!!!!!

This implementation of powerful yet simple mechanics makes Shadow Warrior 2 even more of a thrill ride than its 2013 predecessor. Most levels are an exercise in utter chaos, with dozens of foes advancing upon Lo Wang from all directions. Fighting these enemies is an absolute joy, as Lo Wang can draw his sword or guns and mindlessly carve through legions of foes. Jumping into a melee has never felt so fun as in Shadow Warrior 2, and the glorious gruesomeness of its melee kills are comparable to this year’s reboot of DOOM.

The only real issue to be had with Shadow Warrior 2‘s gameplay is the same issue that plagued the last game, in that it’s oftentimes too easy. Lo Wang’s ability to run away and heal himself before jumping back into the fray neuters the challenge quite a bit, even if he has to gather energy to use it first. Players will only rarely be in true danger of dying, and that can be an issue for arcade enthusiasts seeking a challenge. This isn’t to say that Shadow Warrior 2 isn’t still wildly fun, but a rebalance of its health system could’ve made it a lot better.

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Ain’t no self-healing that can cure a foot-wide hole through your body.

One of Shadow Warrior 2‘s biggest selling points for multiplayer enthusiasts is its addition of four-player co-op. Players can team up into four-man squads to take the demon menace down as a team. Each player sees themselves as Lo Wang and their buddies as other ninjas out to party with the king of swordplay. As of writing, the feature still has a few bugs, but Flying Wild Hog has been proactive about addressing them and driving a sword through them. The game is still just as fun solo, but multiplayer enthusiasts should be excited to try it out.

Shadow Warrior 2 introduces another major change in its gameplay, throwing out the linear missions of its predecessor in favor of a hub-based model. Lo Wang can retreat to the Wang Cave to buy weapons and gems, and it’s from this cavern of manliness that he teleports into missions all over Japan. Adding a hub isn’t reinventing the wheel, but gives players a chance to take stock of Lo Wang’s powers and all the loot he picks up out on missions.

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No one breaks into the Wang Cave. Not even a beastie with swords for fingers.

Indeed, the levels in Shadow Warrior 2 undergo all sorts of changes that extend beyond a hub. One of the problems with Shadow Warrior was that its levels, while beautiful, were rigidly linear affairs with the same pattern of terrain over and over again. Shadow Warrior 2‘s levels, by contrast, are circular and open, with objectives scattered throughout the terrain instead of at the end of a fixed path. Refreshingly, Shadow Warrior 2 also added changes in elevation. Lo Wang can now climb up and down ledges and onto buildings in order to get around, adding some much-needed variety to the level design. These changes are most welcome in Shadow Warrior 2, and they make the world feel more organic.

Additionally, for better and for worse, many of the levels in Shadow Warrior 2 are procedurally generated. The levels crucial to the plot are fixed, but Lo Wang can embark upon side missions where the terrain is switched up. The good news is that this makes it so players will never have to tromp through the same area twice. The bad news is that there’s not a whole lot of variety in how they’re switched up, so it doesn’t really matter. Sure, the level will be different, but only marginally so. Additionally, there are only maybe half a dozen different terrain palettes for the environments that Lo Wang travels to. They’re beautiful, but the small variety combined with the limited procedural generation can make Shadow Warrior 2‘s levels feel the same even if they’re technically not.

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Haven’t I already been here? Yes, and no.

All of that said, there is no disputing the artistic power of Shadow Warrior 2. Flying Wild Hog’s proprietary Road Hog engine has been put to fantastic use, and Shadow Warrior 2 is perhaps the most visually impressive game released so far this year. The game’s worlds are awash in dozens of different lighting effects, and each environment pops with thousands of colors. Everything from the tallest Zilla skyscraper to the lowliest pagoda has been painstakingly detailed with hundreds of objects. Banners sway in the breeze, leaves fall in torrents from cherry blossom trees, and light glints menacingly off the armor of demons and cyborgs. Shadow Warrior 2‘s ability to draw the eye cannot be overstated. Some of its character animations can be a bit stiff, but the attention to detail on each one, from rivulets of sweat to wrinkles on clothing, is excellent.

It’s great that this game is so pretty, but how badly does it tank system performance? Well, to be honest, it doesn’t. Not really. Shadow Warrior 2 was built from the ground up to run on PC, and it’s glorious. The game will present a smooth framerate and run like butter from beginning to end. These days, that’s a treasured rarity. Additionally, Shadow Warrior 2‘s options menu is one of the most comprehensive ever seen, with dozens of options allowing players to fine-tune each and every facet of their Shadow Warrior 2 experience. So even if, by some chance, the game doesn’t run perfectly the first time around, Shadow Warrior 2 provides gamers an unprecedented amount of agency in allowing them to get it there. PC gamers everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief; this is no shoddy production nor broken port.

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Note the awesomeness.

To top all of this off, Shadow Warrior 2 arrives with a new storyline and dialogue that builds upon that of the first Shadow Warrior. Lo Wang is able to find humor even in the end of the world, and keeps players’ smiles aloft with a 10-hour-long stream of wisecracks. There is nothing that this guy doesn’t lampoon, and he lets off his one-liners with far more regularity than in the last game. There’s also a lot of humor to be found in Lo Wang’s relationship with Kamiko. Unlike Hoji, who was Lo Wang’s equal when it came to wit and sarcasm, Kamiko tries to serve as Lo Wang’s conscious, almost like an ingenious Jiminy Cricket. The moment-by-moment banter isn’t quite as funny, but Kamiko quickly becomes adept at picking Lo Wang’s many moral failings apart, shooting back at his sarcasm with heavy doses of irony.

Unfortunately, Shadow Warrior 2 stumbles a bit in the structure of its core narrative. The first game’s story wasn’t anything revolutionary, but it was surprisingly poignant, and it worked well for a linear game. This time, Lo Wang’s goal of finding Kamiko’s body gets lost in a haze of convoluted lore and lots and lots of side missions. Sure, the narrative still has a bit of poignancy, but it’s considerably shorter than that of Shadow Warrior and ends on a pretty abrupt note. The developers didn’t get lazy with the narrative’s potency, per se, they just focused much more on pure humor. And sure, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Side quests are usually pretty hilarious, especially the ones where Wang has to cook drugs and retrieve a demon’s sex tape (in that order) but players who enjoyed the unexpected drama Shadow Warrior built up to will be left wanting.

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What is this “subtlety” word you speak of?

Even though Shadow Warrior 2 fails to continue the poignancy that its predecessor unexpectedly delivered, that’s really the game’s only true sin. The length is reasonable for the price, it runs smoother than any other mid-to-large budget production put out this year, and the gameplay is absolutely phenomenal. Indeed, if this fall’s slate of big-budget releases is as much of a disaster as this summer’s, Shadow Warrior 2 just might be Art as Games’s game of the year. Buy it. Play it. Love it. Right now.

Seriously, right now. Thanks for reading, though.

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You can buy Shadow Warrior 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.

Audiosurf

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Race against friends and thorny obstacles on tracks built from your music.

PC Release: February 15, 2008

By Ian Coppock

After a big disappointment like Mafia III comes down the pipe, it’s never a bad idea to turn off the feed of big new titles and mosey on back to games from back in the day. From a time when developers knew how to craft a working PC game more often than not, and when the simple joys of life were faithfully transcribed into a digital medium. Today, that simple joy of life is music, and that faithful transcription into a digital medium is the beloved racing game Audiosurf. It’s not flashy, it’s not fancy, and it’s pretty down to the basics. But what it set out to do, uniting the media of video games and music, is a noble goal indeed. Time to see how well it did.

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Audiosurf is a racing platformer game that was originally released in early 2008. The game’s core concept is the brainchild of Dylan Fitterer, a developer who wanted to more closely align music with video games. Although he received some help on development when the game was already close to completion, Fitterer’s work meant that Audiosurf is, for all intents and purposes, a one-man project. Even though it came out years ago and has since been superseded by a sequel, Audiosurf achieved what many gamers until then assumed was impossible or impractical: building a racetrack out of music.

Audiosurf‘s core novelty and chief selling point is just that; building racetracks out of players’ digital music libraries. In a feat of audio and computer engineering that’s still better off being referred to as a magic trick, the game ingests a selected song from players’ computers, and builds a race course that translates the ebb and flow of that song into the dips and rises of a physical track. It’s a great idea for a video game, one that synthesizes two media into one, and unites music and racing enthusiasts around a common title.

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This is your brain on music.

Audiosurf makes it pretty simple for players to ride their music. After unpacking itself, the game is automatically set to detect music stored on the hard drive, and has no problem picking up songs ripped from the Internet or purchased through a store like iTunes. Once it’s picked a song, Audiosurf will quickly ingest the music and construct a racetrack that utilizes the song’s rhythm and flow. Players can then pick a futuristic-looking car and set out onto the track, all while the aforementioned song is playing in the background. Audiosurf presents a novel way for players to get euphoria and meaning out of their music, by seeing it made manifest as a type of gameplay on the screen.

The replayability of Audiosurf is congruent with the breadth and depth of the human music experience. Because the game makes a unique track out of every song it processes, there are potentially millions of race courses that players can explore in Audiosurf. Sure, similar songs might produce similar tracks, but most people’s musical libraries will easily translate into hours of entertainment. Every novelty in every song creates a new experience on the course. On top of all of that, the game replays songs in fantastic audio quality, so it also makes for a good way to put on some headphones and unwind.

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WOOOO!!!

Audiosurf can be played solo or against other players; the game is enjoyable in either mode. The challenge in this game has less to do with pitfalls and ledges and more to do with gathering the most points before the end of a song. Each track is littered with moving blocks, called “cars” by the game, that players can pick up and accumulate. Generally speaking, the more rows of cars hit by each player, the more points gathered. Whoever has the most points at the end of a multiplayer match wins, but a player’s score will be posted to leaderboards in single-player or multiplayer mode.. It should go without saying that more popular songs will have much more competitive leaderboards, so obscure music enthusiasts (and hipsters) can score easy self-esteem points by crowning themselves kings of songs that no one has heard of.

Depending on the challenge mode selected, most tracks will also come packed with gray cars, which players will want to avoid. Gray cars eat up space in the players’ queues for points, and can lower both the amount of points to be scored, and the potential for combos. Avoiding gray cars while picking up the colorful ones is the main challenge in most modes of Audiosurf, and players can switch between three lanes of traffic to avoid or pick up different cars. Each racetrack in the game tends to pack more or fewer cars depending on how intense of a song it is. Really slow, gentle songs are likely to have smooth terrain with fewer cars, but intense, fast-paced songs will have much more variety.

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A mellow song means a mellow track. A rough song means rough driving.

Players can pick from a variety of vehicles, called “characters” in-game, that add their own spin to the challenges within Audiosurf. Each character changes the condition of the race, from the number or types of cars that can be picked up on the track, to new combos and even allowing for more than one vehicle. These characters are divided based on how challenging each of their track twists is, so players can start out with the basic ones and work their way up to more advanced vehicles.

The only issue with this system is that Audiosurf does a poor job explaining what each character does. The game will provide a general explanation, like “twist up the track and add more combos!” but not really specify what “twisting up the track” actually means. Indeed, most of the tutorials and documentation in this game isn’t that great. There is an intro video that explains how picking up points works, but, ironically, the audio isn’t that good, and the narrator’s already rushed explanation is often drowned out by the background music. There’s nothing wrong with a game forcing players to learn things manually, but Audiosurf‘s lack of a manual or concise explanations on what each of its characters does is a bit frustrating.

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This character apparently turns the road white.

Additionally, Audiosurf‘s options menu is a bit bare-bones, with only the most essential graphics and audio options present. The game usually does a pretty good job of auto-formatting to the screen’s native resolution, but any attempt to change the resolution will crash the game. Definitely a frustration and something that should’ve been steamrolled right out of the game during development, but chances are players can load up the game and expect their native resolution to already be accounted for.

Apart from these design and options flaws, Audiosurf will run beautifully on virtually any machine. Except for the aforementioned resolution bug, the game is virtually bug-free, which is a nice change of pace from the bug-prone Triple-A games coming out these past few months. Audiosurf doesn’t have a central narrative and its characters are basically super-powered cars, but that’s okay. This game provides a great way both to enjoy new music and to go back and revisit old hits.

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This game pairs very well with Coheed and Cambria. Just FYI.

As can be gleaned from these screenshots, Audiosurf goes for a cyberpunk theme in its artwork and graphics. Indeed, much of the production and many of its track themes are reminiscent of Tron. Just like the tracks, the artwork and visuals present in each course are influenced directly by the song picked. Players can choose from a handful of different colors and themes, like black or white backgrounds, but everything else pretty much arranges itself. These visuals can vary greatly, from circular tunnel lighting to huge colossi made of lights floating out in space. It further reinforces Audiosurf‘s visual value and looks quite beautiful.

The graphics themselves are simple, but effective. A close glance at Audiosurf will reveal some pretty murkey textures, but these are offset by the game’s bright lights and flares. Indeed, many elements of the game, especially the vehicles’ engine outputs, almost look cel shaded. Between the variety inherent in being able to choose from any song put to digital, and the palette of novelties Audiosurf chooses from while building tracks, players won’t run out of things to look at in Audiosurf, in addition to listening.

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This game is great.

Even though Audiosurf is a great game, it’s worth noting that it has since been succeeded by a sequel, Audiosurf 2, which was released last year. Does this older game present any advantages over the sequel? It actually does. Because even though Audiosurf 2 benefits from better graphics, expanded tutorials, and far more variety in tracks, right now the game is replete with bugs. Players have reported everything from desktop crashes to the play button not working, which is an obvious problem for a video game that depends on music.

Players have also reported having to download a patch that somehow makes the game run on a YouTube video? Or something? As of writing, it basically looks like Dylan Fitterer added a streaming option to Audiosurf 2 that has made the game unplayable for many players. To be fair, he’s announced a patch to get it fixed immediately, but who knows how long that could take. Audiosurf has remained untouched throughout all of this, so players who are intrigued by the concept of the series but don’t want to put up with a bunch of patching and development baloney will probably just want to start here. The game’s only ten bucks, and it could be a lot pricier for the value it offers.

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“Good eyyyyyed sniper…. I’ll shoot, you run!”

Audiosurf is not without its rough edges and blank spaces, but it’s one of the most novel video games of the last ten years and an outstanding achievement of creativity. It’s one of those bizarre experiments that combines two things into something surprisingly smooth, and something that video gamers everywhere should buy and try. Audiosurf doesn’t bill itself on a deep narrative, but its variety is only matched by that of the human musical mind. Download it today and experience music on a fun new level.

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You can buy Audiosurf 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.

Mafia III

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The Mafia killed your family. Kill the Mafia back.

PC Release: October 7, 2016

By Ian Coppock

2016 has not been a great year for big-budget releases. Thus far, nearly every Triple-A title that’s been preceded with high anticipation has been a disappointment. Not because of something subjective, like plot or gameplay (though those haven’t always been great either) but because of something much more basic: bugs. From the subway crash bug in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided to the problems with Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, one could be forgiven for wondering if big studios have forgotten how to make a PC game. Even games that started out exclusively for PC, like XCOM 2, weren’t without their major issues upon release. Hopefully that trend will start to reverse now that the busy autumn season has begun. Can Mafia III lead the charge?

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Mafia III is an open-world crime game in the same vein as the Saints Row and Grand Theft Auto series, though Mafia games have always presented themselves more as story-rich period pieces than zany do-anything-fests. This title is the first released in the series since 2010’s Mafia II and is an indirect sequel to that venerated crime drama. Unlike Mafia II, which took place right after World War II in spin-off of New York City, Mafia III makes some drastic set piece and narrative changes that preserve a lot of the same story threads, but in a whole other cask of booze.

Mafia III is set in 1968 and lets players assume the role of Lincoln Clay, a biracial Vietnam War veteran and member of the black mob. The game takes place in New Bordeaux, a deep-south city that is New Orleans in all but name. Though some players may wonder whether a New Orleans-esque city is a random setting for a story about the Mafia, New Orleans is actually where the real-life Mafia got its start in the United States, so it’s actually a pretty inspired choice. It was only after decades of loan-sharking and extorting in New Orleans that the mob began to set down its better-known roots in New York City – but, before that, being in the Mafia was all about being in the Big Easy.

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Ooooooh…

Mafia III begins shortly after Lincoln returns from a brutal, shady stint in the Vietnam War, and he quickly returns home to all the friends and family he knew before departing for the service. He’s greeted warmly by his best friend Ellis as well as Sammy Robinson, Lincoln’s adoptive father and head of the city’s black organized crime. Lincoln learns Sammy’s gang is in deep debt to the Mafia and its New Bordeaux boss, the ruthless Sal Marcano, and immediately sets about repaying the money. He decides to rob a federal reserve bank in New Bordeaux, aided by a crew of robbers that includes Ellis and Sal Marcano’s son, Giorgi.

Even though Lincoln and his friends pull off the heist successfully, the mob has other ideas. After picking up their cut of the profits, the Marcanos shoot, stab or otherwise violently murder all of Lincoln’s friends and burn down the old Cajun restaurant the group called home. Lincoln himself is shot in the head and left to die in the ruins, but is rescued at the last moment by Father James, a priest and friend of the family. An enraged Lincoln swears revenge on the Mafia and convenes a bold new plan to destroy the entire organization from the bottom up until it’s been wiped from New Bordeaux. He embarks on this mission not for money, or for justice, but just to watch his enemies die the same way he had to watch his friends.

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Lincoln vows to expunge the mob from New Bordeaux and kill Sal Marcano for what he’s done.

Father James wants nothing to do with Lincoln’s blood-thirst, but the ex-soldier has other allies in the city that he turns to for help in his new mission. He first reaches out to John Donovan, his old CIA handler from Vietnam, who smells a career opportunity in Lincoln’s mission and agrees to help provide logistics and intelligence. Lincoln also sets out to forge new relationships with other gangs sidelined by the Italians’ brutality, starting with Cassandra, a voodoo priestess from the bayou, and her gang of Haitian expatriates. Lincoln also finds a natural ally in Thomas Burke, a volatile Irish gangster whose son Danny was also killed by the Mafia. Burke is fueled by nothing but whiskey and pyromania and, like Lincoln, is indifferent to how much damage the group might (no, not might, will) cause.

Lincoln also receives some help from the one and only Vito Scaletta, the suave protagonist of Mafia II. Having been forced into New Bordeaux for reasons beyond his control, Vito is no friend of Sal Marcano and has his own reasons for wanting to go after the mob. Marcano’s actions have been so toxic as to alienate some of his own gang, and Vito represents those and a few other interests in his friendship with Lincoln Clay. Vito has plenty of experience killing other Italians from his adventures in Mafia II and brings that experience to the forefront in his role in Mafia III.

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Vito’s gotten a bit grayer since Mafia II, but he’s no less deadly with a gun.

Mafia III is presented as an open-world, third-person shooter that incorporates elements of stealth, driving, and economy management. Much like the gameplay in Mafia IIMafia III is a pretty safe mix of third-person shooting gameplay. Whereas the gameplay in Mafia II could be described as charmingly pedestrian, Mafia III‘s is dangerously skeletal. Lincoln can pick up and shoot a variety of period weapons lying around, but he is expected to stay in cover so that his very finite health bar isn’t depleted too quickly. Problem is, the cover system in this game is atrocious. Trying to switch from one spot of cover to another requires a deft combination of being pointed at just the right pixel on that other wall and a specific sequence of buttons. It’s not a graceful system, to put it politely.

Fortunately for Mafia III, the game also introduces stealth gameplay to the series, so guns aren’t the only option available to players. Lincoln can sneak very effectively, and few kills in this game are more satisfying than eviscerating a gangster’s jugular with his over-sized combat knife. Lincoln is also built like a bear, so he can make short work of nearly any enemy in hand-to-hand combat. Much like in Mafia II, the enemies in Mafia III ain’t too smart, so getting the jump on them is usually a cinch. Even better, nearby gangsters will be shocked if Lincoln suddenly shows up and knifes their buddy in the back, giving players a window to do the same to even more gangsters. It’s crude, but it’s effective, and it’s a lot of fun.

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Mafia III tries to be a fun shooter and ends up being a fun stabber instead.

Additionally, even though Mafia III‘s gunplay is clunky at best, its driving is some of the best this genre has produced in a long time. New Bordeaux is absolutely smothered in cars, and Lincoln can aptly drive almost any of them, from sleek 60’s cruisers to big clunky bugs and a variety of utility vehicles. Most of these cars take a while to accelerate, but driving in Mafia III is markedly smoother than Mafia II and a lot of the other open-world games on the market at the moment. Unlike in Mafia II, players can actually shoot from the driver’s seat! The absence of that feature was a tremendous nuisance in Mafia II, but its presence in Mafia III works wonders.

Players can also make use of other tools lying around. Grenades are a big help for clearing rooms and killing packs of enemies. Hilariously, the game’s environments are rife with moonshine containers that players can shoot to cause huge explosions, though let’s be fair, this is a city based on New Orleans. None of these features are particularly innovative, but anyone who’s played a shooter will have an easy time picking them up and rolling with them. It’s unlucky for the mob that Lincoln was actually a CIA operative in Vietnam, not just a common foot soldier, so his weapon expertise is unsurpassed by most any enemy found throughout the game. Mafia III still provides decent challenge, but, as with virtually every other cover-based shooter, slowly moving through environments and picking off enemies will result in an inevitable win.

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Beep-beep

The economy management side of Mafia III is just as crucial to Lincoln’s gang war as his skills with weapons. Because he’ll only settle for permanently destroying New Bordeaux’s mob, Lincoln has no time for hit-and-run attacks. Instead, he aims to take and permanently hold territory once owned by the mob, and running those districts falls to his various lieutenants. Mafia III‘s main structure is a series of side quests that build upon each other. Lincoln has to sabotage the Mafia’s rackets and kill the people overseeing them before they can be assigned to Cassandra, Burke, or Vito. Once they’ve been assigned, each racket will start making money, a cut of which goes right to Lincoln. Maintaining an alliance between Haitians, the Irish, and Italians is as difficult as it sounds, so players are challenged to ensure parity between the three factions under their command. Otherwise, Lincoln’s coalition could collapse into infighting, perhaps even forcing him to kill one of his three lieutenants.

The challenge in maintaining this inter-organizational balancing act is offset by the fact that Mafia III‘s economy is completely broken. Lincoln will lose half of the money he has in his wallet if he dies, a condition that the game sets as a deterrent for being reckless, but having even a small handful of rackets will quickly inundate players in cash. What’s more, there’s not a whole lot for players to actually spend that money on. Weapons are littered throughout the environment and Lincoln can call a friend if he needs a vehicle, so there’s not really anything players will need money for. Sure, Lincoln can buy clothes and food, but unless the clothing is bullet-proof and the food is a bomb made from Curry-in-a-Hurry, food and clothing aren’t necessary for a mission. Instead, the money just… accumulates. Lincoln can stash his money in a safe in case the player dies, and it will somehow still be there upon the game-over screen. That money-saving mechanic made no sense when Link traveled time in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, and it makes little sense in Mafia III.

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Welcome to Time Lord Banking Services, how may I help you?

Artistically, Mafia III does alright for itself, though its visuals are hardly competitive. The game’s graphics are pretty alright, but a lot of the textures are shockingly muddy, and the character animations are stiff and zombie-like. However, the game’s facial animation capture technology is pretty impressive, up there with L.A. Noire in terms of realistic expressions captured and used by the characters. Mafia III also employs a mix of pre-rendered cinematics and in-game cutscenes for its storytelling, the former of which are beautifully produced and the latter being… well… not so much. There’s quite a disparity between the two, and it’s noticeable.

Mafia III does a lot better in the sound department, with the same rigid adherence to excellent voice acting as in Mafia II. Rick Pasqualone returns to voice Vito Scaletta, and the rest of the cast does an admirable job portraying a group of messed-up and somewhat sympathetic characters. Alex Hernandez, the voice actor behind Lincoln Clay, provides a standout performance as a man torn between wanting to do the right thing and giving in to a fiery sense of vengeance. Likewise, the game’s score is a mix of upbeat and somber sounds that associate themselves strongly with the place and period of the 1960’s American south, with an in-game soundtrack chock full of classics from such greats as the Rolling Stones, the Blues Brothers, and other artists of the time.

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“I’m a souuuuul man…. dee-dee-dee-dee, dee-dee-dee-dee….”

As for the narrative that all of this production informs, it actually ain’t bad. If Mafia II went down like a fine Italian wine, Mafia III goes down like a fiery shot of bourbon. Though the day-to-day intricacies of the plot are told in cutscenes between the characters, the larger implications of their actions are explained in media interviews set decades after the original game. An elderly Father James is the most common correspondent to pop up in these cinematics, explaining the wider impact of Lincoln’s actions and his thoughts on the man’s devolution to monster. These cutscenes don’t reveal what actually ends up happening, of course, but they do make Mafia III feel like one of those high-end crime documentaries you’d see on the History Channel (before the History Channel devolved into the Ice Trucking-and-Aliens Channel).

Just like in Mafia II, the action that players undergo out in the city is interspersed with some very poignant character scenes. The best of these by far are Lincoln’s chats with Vito Scaletta, where the latter man recounts his experiences in Mafia II and what, if anything, Lincoln might hope to learn from them. Each character has a believable development arc that was implemented into Mafia III with care. Make no mistake, just like Mafia IIMafia III is very much a human story, albeit with much more fire and murder than most humans hopefully see in their lifetimes.

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Mafia III’s narrative is excellent.

Unfortunately for Mafia III, a story is only as legible as the paper it’s written on, and Mafia III is written on some pretty crappy paper. The game’s mission design is insufferably repetitive. In order to get to confronting Sal Marcano, players have to spend upwards of 20 hours sneaking around New Bordeaux, dismantling Mafia rackets. The missions all play out exactly the same; kill a guy here, bomb something there, assign a racket to an underboss, repeat ad nauseum. It gets old quite quickly, and even the most inveterate, diehard Mafia fans will tire of it.

Why is Mafia II better? Well, even though the former game has similarly routine gameplay, its mission design is varied and excellent. As Vito, players could spend hours infiltrating a mob meeting at a hotel, mowing their way through Chinatown, or working a variety of other missions that each had their own signature dish. Mafia III, by contrast, washes the same shirt over and over again. Mafia II‘s rote gameplay is saved by its excellent mission design, but Mafia III has rote gameplay and rote mission design, so everyone loses.

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I swear to God, if I have to interrogate one more informant…

Far more problematic for Mafia III and its players is that this is the buggiest big-budget video game to be released since Batman: Arkham Knight hit shelves last summer (No Man’s Sky doesn’t count because, despite its hype and price tag, it’s an indie game). It’s not just the number of bugs that players will find in Mafia III, it’s their bewildering variety. Characters pop in, pop out, shoot off into space, or meld together with the walls that they’re leaning against. The game will crash to desktop without rhyme or reason, whether players are in the middle of a firefight, a cutscene, or just a nice Sunday drive. Lincoln’s gun just won’t go off sometimes. Dialogue and hint boxes will stay stuck on the screen long after they’re supposed to be gone. There are arguably more bugged features in Mafia III than un-bugged, and one is inclined to wonder how that happens. Do big video game studios just not have quality control departments anymore?

Mafia III was also shipped with many of its features and options missing, including an infuriating 30 frames-per-second cap. If it hasn’t been said a thousand times already, a 30 fps cap on a PC is substandard. That crap may fly on a console, but not here. The developer quickly added a patch allowing for 60 fps after the game was released, but Mafia III‘s framerate is so schizophrenic that it makes little difference anyway.

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Dude… what happened here?

Mafia III has the potential to be a great game, but it’s not there yet. Its poignant story, novel setting, and pretty much everything it sets out to accomplish are sabotaged by its boring mission design and one of the highest bug loads of the 2016 gaming season, and that’s not exactly a low bar to clear. Hopefully the developers will continue patching and optimizing the game to get it up to scratch, but until then, Mafia fans are best off waiting until the game is actually built to work properly. Hopefully the other big-budget games set to release this fall will be less problematic.

…Right?

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You can buy Mafia 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.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

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Hunt down an international terrorist and expose his ties to a bloody revolution.

PC Release: November 5, 2007

By Ian Coppock

Well folks, this is it. The world is ending. The sky is falling, the earth is belching flames… and a Call of Duty game is being reviewed on Art as Games. I’ve made no secret of my disdain for the Call of Duty games over the years, but in truth, the series is far too influential for any video game critic to ignore. The recent controversy over Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare has also propelled the series, and Modern Warfare in particular, to the forefront. There’s a lot to discuss with a series like Call of Duty, but Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is a great place to begin. It holds a special place in the hearts and minds of shooter fans everywhere, but this winter, that place is going to be under duress.

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Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is, well, the fourth entry in the Call of Duty series. The game was developed by Infinity Ward, the creators of the original Call of Duty and one of three studios licensed to produce Call of Duty games today. Infinity Ward was long regarded as the best Call of Duty producer, but the studio’s own founders were fired in 2010 under mysterious circumstances, and things have never been quite the same. Treyarch, the creator of the Call of Duty: Black Ops sub-series, has since assumed Infinity Ward’s role as the most venerable Call of Duty producer, but before all that, Modern Warfare was king.

 Originally released in 2007, Modern Warfare marks both a rapid departure from the first three Call of Duty games and the genesis of many gameplay and design elements that remain endemic to the series to this day. As its title implies, Modern Warfare moves away from the World War II setting of the first three Call of Duty titles, which were released throughout the early 2000’s. Instead, it opts for a contemporary setting and modern weapons as well as a narrative more reflective of the security issues the world faces today. These and other series innovations propelled Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare to the forefront of gaming; and, even nine years later, many fans still consider it the best Call of Duty game ever made.

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Go! Go! Go!

Modern Warfare is set in the year 2011, which back in 2007 was seen as a pivotal, epic year of epicness (not so much in real life). Modern Warfare presents a contemporary setting that is entirely believable: Russia is engulfed in a civil war between the Federation government and pro-Soviet “Ultranationlist” forces, prompting the United States and Great Britain to keep an even closer eye on events in Eurasia. At the same time, an unnamed country in the Middle East undergoes a violent revolution, with a pro-Western democracy being subverted by a rabidly anti-Western authoritarian. U.S. and British Intelligence believe that the two conflicts might be connected, and it’s investigating this connection that takes up the bulk of Modern Warfare‘s story.

As in previous Call of Duty games, the narrative in Modern Warfare is split between several playable protagonists. Players start things off from the perspective of John “Soap” MacTavish, the newest member of Britan’s super-elite Special Air Service. Soap is inducted into the SAS under the command of John Price, a battle-scarred Brit and proud owner of the venerable “most epic mustache in all of video gaming” award. The rest of the game is played out behind the wheel of Sgt. Paul Jackson, a United States Marine who takes part in an invasion of the unnamed Middle Eastern country, which for the sake of this review will be referred to as Explodistan. The two protagonists never actually meet or intersect, but they each represent a different half of a story that takes them to hot-spots the Middle East, Russia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan. This game’s graphics and character animations still look pretty good even after nine years, though most of the environments are way too glossy to be believable combat areas.

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‘MURICA!

Just like its predecessors and its descendants, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is a linear first-person shooter that ushers players through immaculate set pieces packed with neat arrangements of enemies. Players can equip up to two weapons, starting out with a pre-determined loadout but able to pick up new tools of war found in the battlefield. As Soap or Jackson, players can also throw grenades, deploy explosives, and melee enemies with a combat knife. Call of Duty also utilizes the Halo health system, in which players can take cover and wait to heal before going back out into the action. Players will occasionally receive access to more specialized equipment – for example, an entire level is spent blowing things up from the seat of an AC-130 gunship.

The player is rarely alone in their efforts to secure world peace. Soap is accompanied by the rest of his SAS squad, while Sgt. Jackson is at the front of an entire Marine brigade. The only noteworthy NPCs in this game aside from the antagonists are the player’s commanding officers. John Price is a charismatic tactician with an admittedly brilliant voice performance that has earned him a reputation as one of gaming’s greatest military commanders. This performance contrasts sharply with Jackson’s commander, Lieutenant Vasquez, a hilariously hyper-American behemoth who sounds like he’s voiced by Randy Savage.

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GET SOME! RAWR!

One of the problems that more recent Call of Duty games have made for themselves is that their gameplay is monotonous. Each level is the same old setup of linear set pieces and swarms of bad guys. Modern Warfare is no exception, but it does go to some considerable lengths to keep the gameplay fresh. One of these methods is that each of the game’s two sub-campaigns contain different styles of combat. Because Soap is in a black ops team, the SAS missions are geared much more toward stealth, creeping slowly through the Russian countryside and taking out enemies from afar.

The U.S. Marine missions, by sharp contrast, comprise fighting on the front line of a major conflict and fierce street-to-street gun battles. To further the disparity, Modern Warfare alternates between Soap and Jackson every 2-3 missions. It’s a good way to keep the gameplay feeling fresh, as it forces players to switch gears between stealthy covert ops and heavy battlefield combat. Most of Modern Wafare‘s exposition is set before and after the missions, and there’s little narrative delivered in-game outside of capturing physical objectives. It’s standard fare for a military shooter, but the alternation is a good way to keep the pacing unpredictable.

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Be the shrub… (deep breath), be the shrub…

Call of Duty is rarely known these days for having great narratives, but the story in Modern Warfare 4 is serviceable, if occasionally clunky. After discovering a Russian warhead in a freighter bound for the Middle East, the Special Air Service deploys to Eastern Europe to investigate where the bomb came from. At the same time, a radical anti-American insurgent named Al-Asad (a possible reference to Syria’s Bashar Al Assad) kills the president of Explodistan and becomes its new ruler. America, carrying on its proud tradition of shortsighted foreign adventuring, promptly invades Explodistan with overwhelming numbers of Marines, Sgt. Jackson among them.

It is Call of Duty 4‘s grounding in realistic scenarios that makes its narrative surprisingly enjoyable. Rather than dealing with exosuits and robots as later Call of Duty games do, Modern Warfare 4 presents itself as a simple counter-terrorism thriller that takes players all over the globe. There’s not much character development, as both protagonists are silent and their commanders are stuck firmly in their gruff drill sergeant niches, but the game continues more subtlety than one might expect of a Call of Duty game. Heck, sometimes the game is actually profound, especially in one scene where the player is forced to crawl through a field of their dead comrades. These purely emotional encounters are a rarity in modern Call of Duty games and demonstrate a lot of self-awareness on the game’s part. The voice acting’s pretty good and the writing is concise. The pieces are all there.

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Modern Warfare’s story ain’t bad.

Modern Warfare runs like a charm on most any PC and the current version is virtually bug-free, but it’s not free from problems nor worry. Worryingly for a big-budget title, Modern Warfare is riddled with inconsistencies between its subtitles and its spoken dialogue. That might not seem like such a big deal at the outset, but it happens alarmingly frequently, starting with the mission where Soap and John Price have to rescue a Russian informant. Nothing breaks immersion faster than spelling or dialogue errors, and they’re no less noticeable in Modern Warfare.

The other issues the game’s campaign presents have more to do with portrayals of race than anything else. There’s only one black soldier in the entirety of Modern Warfare, and he fits perfectly into the “Hilarious Black Sidekick” stereotype. Sometimes it can get pretty cringe-worthy, like when he happens to be carrying rap music on his person and blasts it through a captured television station. There’s also only one woman in the entirety of the game, and she’s a damsel in distress whose helicopter crashed and now only Sgt. Jackson can rescue her. These portrayals are pretty par for the course with American action media, but that doesn’t excuse their presence in Modern Warfare. Sadly, these are also pretty mild for a Call of Duty game.

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Call of Duty misses the mark with some of its portrayals.

 Modern Warfare is not a bad game. In fact, it’s one of the most enjoyable military shooters ever made. The problems that I’ve taken with Call of Duty over the years have much less to do with Modern Warfare specifically, and more to do with the series as a whole. After the release of Modern Warfare, Activison and the studios beneath it have released a new Call of Duty game every year like clockwork. The irony is that very few of these games actually present any innovations to the series. The most notable example of this phenomenon is 2013’s Call of Duty: Ghosts, which didn’t budge the formula forward an inch. Most Call of Duty games are lucky to budge it forward at all. It’s a bit disturbing that Activision has convinced an entire generation of gamers that they need to buy the same game every year. Meanwhile, titles like Team Fortress 2 (http://geekfactor-radio.com/art-as-games-team-fortress-2/)and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive prove that the market demand for shooters can be satisfied without releasing new installments on an annual basis. Make no mistake, Activision’s claim that it’s simply fulfilling market demand is a lie.

The other main issue with the Call of Duty series is Activision’s stunning disconnect from its own audience. The publisher has overseen the release of multiple future-themed Call of Duty games for the last half-decade, despite fans’ growing weariness of the setting and a yearning for a return to World War II or older, more historically grounded ideas. This resentment has come to a head with the announcement of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, which not only ignored Call of Duty fans’ weariness of the sci-fi setting but pushed it further than it has ever gone. As a result, the trailer for Infinite Warfare is one of the most disliked videos in YouTube history. Meanwhile, shooter fans’ desire for a new setting has been proven correct with the Battlefield 1 trailer, which has quite rightfully garnered critical acclaim for ushering in a novel World War I setting.

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Call of Duty might be on its last legs.

In closing, Modern Warfare is the best Call of Duty game ever made, for better and for worse. It’s great that Activision managed to produce a quality shooter, and depressing that none of the Call of Duty games released in the nine years since have been quite as good. A remastered edition of Modern Warfare will be released this fall, but only if players also buy Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare.

Here’s a pro tip: don’t do it. Don’t give Activision money for Infinite Warfare until it’s demonstrated itself to be worthy of the purchase, or until Modern Warfare Remastered is available separately. Players have little to lose by purchasing the original version of Modern Warfare. Its visuals are a bit dated, sure, but the gameplay will be the same, and that’s truly what makes it fun. Modern Warfare‘s multiplayer has a tiny but active community still going, which is more than can be said for Call of Duty titles released much more recently. So suit up, grab a rifle, and save the world from certain destruction. Modern Warfare has lots of explosions, but also poignancy, and that alone makes it quite a novel Call of Duty game.

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You can buy Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare 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.

Five Nights at Freddy’s: Sister Location

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Keep yourself alive in an underground facility full of murderous mascots.

PC Release: October 7, 2016

By Ian Coppock

Well-played, Scott Cawthon. Well-played.

Early last week, the creator of the Five Nights at Freddy‘s series announced that Five Nights at Freddy’s: Sister Location would be delayed because it was “too scary”. Scott Cawthon went on to say that he felt the game was not “kid-friendly” enough, and that he would need a few more months to make the game alright. The PC gaming press, myself included, took the bait hook, line and sinker, but it turns out that Mr. Cawthon was just joking. Sister Location has been released on schedule, with all of its spooky parts and pieces included. It’s time to see how this game stacks up to its predecessors, and what innovations, if any, it contributes to the Five Nights at Freddy’s formula.

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Five Nights at Freddy’s: Sister Location is the latest installment in Cawthon’s twisted universe of demonic mascots. In the original Five Nights at Freddy’s, or FNaF, as it’s commonly abbreviated, players are challenged to survive five nights in an old pizza restaurant while fending off intrusions from garish, bloodthirsty animatronics. The challenge gets more difficult with each passing night, and the game is lost when one of the ghoulish golems pops up on the screen to devour entrails and soil trousers. This fixed-defense mechanic was tweaked and toyed around with in three subsequent FNaF games, all of which were released in the 24 months following the first game.

Just as FNaF has won fans over with its admittedly spooky world and surprisingly rich lore, the series has its detractors. Critics have posited that FNaF‘s flash-based jumpscares are a one-trick pony that, despite being monkeyed around with in the sequels, are not all that innovative. They’ve also pointed out, perhaps fairly, that Cawthon is milking the concept by releasing a new game every 10 months or so. FNaF has sparked a fierce debate in the horror games community about the nature of “true” survival horror. Is it an intoxicating, slow-burning atmosphere, or the split-second shocks that FNaF trades in?  This debate is at the heart of Five Nights at Freddy’s: Sister Location.

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GAAAAAAH!!!

Sister Location is the first FNaF game released in over a year, which is an eternity for the series’s rapid-fire development schedule. Even though it’s set in the same universe as the previous four FNaF games, Cawthon has stated that Sister Location is a spin-off that stands apart from the main, numbered games. It features plenty of spooky content, but none of the animatronics from the previous four games (Freddy Fazbear, Chica, etc.) make an appearance. Just like the four main FNaF games, Sister Location is loaded with references and secrets to the series’s dark subject matter, but it also contains some new surprising new mechanics and material.

Sister Location takes place in Circus Baby’s Pizza World, a family entertainment company and the sister entity to Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza. Players assume the role of a nighttime mechanic named Mike, whose name is mistaken by the facility’s klutzy computer to be Eggs Benedict. Eggs has been hired by CBPW to perform maintenance on the company’s animatronic robots, designed by the one and the same builder who put together Freddy Fazbear and company. Unlike Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, Circus Baby’s Pizza World rents out its robots for kids’ parties during the day, and stores them in an underground facility at night. It is this facility that players are challenged to spend five nights in.

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Looks okay so far… sort of…

Despite some mildly helpful advice from Handy, the comically inept AI in charge of the facility, it doesn’t take long for Eggs to realize that all is not well down here. After Handy causes a power outage that unlocks all the doors, the animatronics are set loose to roam free throughout the facility, in search of their human prey. In a first for the FNaF series, the player befriends an animatronic named Circus Baby, who agrees to help the player survive five nights in her titular Pizza World. Circus Baby doesn’t tell Eggs why she’s helping him against her more violent brethren, but her advice does seem to save his life, and so the two form a fragile alliance. Even though Circus Baby is on his side, Eggs still finds plenty to worry about in the facility’s other robots.

So begins a chilling new tale in the Five Nights at Freddy‘s universe, one that manages to stay true to its source material while experimenting with some new concepts. If Sister Location is any indication, video games benefit from a longer development cycle and the innovations that they can produce. Eggs’ journey is testament to this as well, both in terms of increased production value and exploration of horror mechanics outside of filling the screen with noise and light.

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Yeesh….

The first and most obvious benefit Sister Location gained from a longer production cycle is its visuals. The graphics look a little hazy and distorted, as in many Flash-based games, but they’re by far the best that the FNaF series has yet produced. Each environment is well-detailed and replete with ghoulish colors, like sickly yellow lamps. Cawthon also did a good job at making the environments look dated; not to say that previous FNaF games weren’t, but this design element is strongest in Sister Location. For anything else that can be said about this spin-off, its visuals are far and away the sharpest of any Five Nights at Freddy’s game.

The second design improvement that quickly stands out is Sister Location‘s sound design. Rather than a few canned sound effects and Cawthon himself fulfilling all of the voice roles, he expanded the game’s repertoire of spooky effects and hired a full cast of voice actors. Sister Location contains dozens of hair-raising sound effects and the voice work provided by each of the characters is surprisingly strong, particularly that of the actress who voices Circus Baby. Her creepy yet empathetic performance is even more unsettling than the actual jump-scares. All of this is evidence that video games stand to benefit from more time in development. Sometimes they can be left to cook for too long, like Duke Nukem Forever, but players will be far more grateful for more time spent on one good game than two sloppy efforts rushed out in the same period.

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Sister Location benefited handsomely from more time in the oven.

Even more than the visuals and the sound effects, the gameplay in Sister Location has received a full refit from that of its predecessors. Rather than completing the same incrementally more difficult challenge five nights in a row, players have to complete a completely new puzzle each of the five nights in Circus Baby’s Pizza World. The first night is a tutorial that acquaints players with the bare-bones basics of the game, but subsequent nights each contain their own conundrums… and perils. From hiding in a Springtrap suit to crawling quietly across an office floor, each night presents its own flavor to the experience. It’s a welcome deviation from Scott Cawthon’s usual gameplay formula, and it also keeps Sister Location feeling fresh. Each night is also longer than in previous FNaF games because of this element, adding value to the game. Though these elements are new, the inevitability of the animatronic jumpscare is not. Remain frosty.

The only problem with this new approach to FNaF‘s level design is that the difficulty in Sister Location is poorly balanced. Previous FNaF games simply ramp up the difficulty with each passing night, but in Sister Location, there is no sense of progression. The first night is easy. The second night is ludicrously hard. The third night can be passed in one try, and the fourth night is by far the most difficult level that the game offers. The fifth night isn’t a breeze, but it’s still a far cry from the fourth. It makes the game’s pacing feel pattern-less and schizophrenic, which can make its first few hours very frustrating. Scott’s already released a patch making the fourth night slightly less impossible, but Sister Location needs some major re-balancing. It’s also got a small but potent slate of bugs to watch out for, like occasionally being unable to close a desk door on the second night.

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Sister Location’s gameplay is a wobbly, wild rabbit hole.

Sister Location stumbles badly in the gameplay department, but its narrative is the most substantive offered up by a FNaF game thus far. The narrative remains completely separate from those of the four main installments, but it sheds some light on elements preceding all of them, like who built the animatronics. The game is also replete with little subplots, like the origins of Circus Baby and why she wants to help Eggs Benedict instead of scare him silly. There’s not much character development to be had from the mute Eggs Benedict, but Sister Location does an admirable job filling in some of the bigger FNaF universe’s backstory. It doesn’t quite answer some of the most burning questions, like why these animatronics are so evil, but Scott Cawthon gives just enough fuel to keep them roaring hot.

Sister Location also explores FNaF‘s long-neglected potential for comedy. Sure, Phone Guy provided a few chuckles, but the ludicrousness of evil animatronics in a pizza store was never really toyed with in a comedic way. In addition to its scares, Sister Location serves up an ample and surprising helping of humor. Most of it is concentrated in the monologues of Handy, the AI overseeing Circus Baby’s Pizza World, who chimes in with surreal or unhelpful advice the same way that the Announcer did in Portal 2. Handy might be a bit too derivative of that Portal 2 character, but the dialogue in Sister Location is some of the funniest video game writing to come this way in a while. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it makes Sister Location a horror-comedy, but the writing strikes a good balance between being silly and being scary.

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See? Everyone’s laughing!

Five Nights at Freddy’s: Sister Location undoes some of the stale repetition that plagued the series in its main installments, but its journey to being the best FNaF game ever made is cut short by its severe difficulty imbalance. Any joy to be had and scares to be shared from the game’s lore and writing is stunted by its immensely frustrating progression and cadre of bugs. It’s still a much deeper, more polished horror experience than that offered by previous FNaF games, but that damn fourth night is a killer. Hopefully, Scott Cawthon will continue to respond to feedback from the game’s community and rebalance the game to be a bit fairer in its learning curve, but until then, FNaF and horror fans would do well to hold off on buying Sister Location. It’s got good production, and it’s got good potential, but it’s not quite there. Ironically, it probably would’ve made the game a bit better had Cawthon’s hoax been real.

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You can buy Five Nights at Freddy’s: Sister Location 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.

Team Fortress 2

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Disembowel enemy players with high-viscera hilarity in colorful team-based matches.

PC Release: October 9, 2007

By Ian Coppock

On one hand, it seems entirely pointless to review an entity as well-known as Team Fortress 2. Telling a video gamer about Team Fortress 2 is like telling a human being about breathing. Team Fortress 2 is so endemic to the world of video games that it can indeed be approximated to a basic human function. On the other hand, Team Fortress 2 is unique, weathering challenges from hundreds of other video games for almost a decade, and still remaining one of the world’s most popular multiplayer shooters. Our time is therefore best spent analyzing what makes the game so endearing, rather than hashing over what it is. There’s something to be said for TF2‘s staying power, so let’s see what exactly has given this game its longevity.

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For anyone who is brand-new to gaming (and for those gamers who’ve been living in a cave for the past 10 years), Team Fortress 2 is a class-based multiplayer shooter that is one part teamwork, one part carnage, and one part goofy. Players can pick from one of nine classes of soldier and duke it out in simple team-based matches. Whichever team can kill the most people, capture the most areas, or complete any number of other objectives, wins. The teams are divvied up into red and blue teams, and each team’s half of the map retains its own interior decorating.

In a far cry from the serious sci-fi aesthetic of the original Team FortressTeam Fortress 2 espouses a cartoony camp style that looks like something out of a 1960’s comic book. The environments are big, blocky and colorful, and each of the nine characters has his own accent and wonky mannerisms. Most characters have hilariously exaggerated foreign accents; indeed, the writers picked voices that they imagined people from the 60’s would’ve picked. The result is a big bowl of goofs and violence that is fun, but perhaps more importantly, unafraid to be a bit loose and not take itself so seriously.

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“LET’S GOOOOOO!”

Team Fortress 2‘s gameplay is an especially high-octane brand of the chaos endemic to team-based shooters. Players take their character out in the field and kill as many targets as possible. Each class has his own arsenal of weapons and is uniquely suited for a specific combat role. The Heavy, for example, is great at keeping hordes of enemies away from checkpoints, while the Sniper excels at picking off foes from a distance. Players can also get behind the wheel of a support class, like the Medic (whose duties are self-explanatory) and the Engineer, who can build turrets and hand out supplies.

In addition to being divided between these roles, some classes are easier to master than others. The Soldier class is pretty straightforward; whip out a rocket launcher and shoot until everything stops moving. Some classes require more finesse, like the Spy, that ski-masked chap in the preceding screenshot. Spies can disguise themselves as enemy combatants, but there is an art to this technique that is simple to learn and difficult to master. That’s actually a good summation of Team Fortress 2 in general. It’s very easy to pick up, and much harder to excel at. Perhaps that’s why it’s so popular.

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The anarchy. Oh Lord, the anarchy.

Team Fortress 2‘s impact on the world of video games is difficult to overstate. The game received critical acclaim upon release for its simple gameplay and unique Pixar-run-amok look. Even though the game’s been out for almost a decade, Team Fortress 2 attracts tens if not hundreds of thousands of players every day, giving it staying power rivaled only by other Valve titles, like Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.

Each character in Team Fortress 2 is an Internet meme within the gaming community. Thousands of fan-made machinima videos featuring the characters have been produced in Garry’s Mod over the years, pitting them against each other and against characters from other media. Sir Uber Kat, one such machinima producer, garnered acclaim for his video in which the Heavy becomes the night watchman in Five Night’s at Freddy’s.  No other multiplayer shooter has spawned such a universe of fan media and adoration as Team Fortress 2. The question is… why? Why has Team Fortress 2 accrued so much popularity and longevity when hundreds of other multiplayer shooters have failed to do the same?

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What makes Team Fortress 2 so special?

The first and most basic cause underlying TF2‘s success is simply that it runs well. Like almost everything Valve’s ever put out, Team Fortress 2 is relatively bug-free, and the fact that it’s built on the Source engine means that it works like a charm on pretty much every system. The game hasn’t gone without a few blemishes over its 10-year-career, but it hasn’t suffered, say, a Battlefield 4-level epidemic of bugs and glitches. The game is also a joy on PC because of its in-depth options menu. Field of view, advanced visual effects, you name it, it’s in there. The amount of freedom players have in crafting their own TF2 experience is admirable.

Another factor behind Team Fortress 2‘s eminence in PC gaming is its pay structure. The core game is free to play, allowing anyone in any economic situation to pick it up and go wild. Players can purchase cosmetic enhancements for their characters for a dollar here, two bucks there, in a much more acceptable use of microtransactions than we’ve seen in recent years. Even though these cosmetics are priced, the game is also buoyed by a steady stream of free updates and tweaks. Team Fortress 2 also has a massive Steam workshop community, with custom-made maps and items everywhere under the sun. Between the game’s rock-solid optimizations, its formidable options menu, free updates from Valve, and its open-ended array of personal items and custom maps, it’s little surprise that Team Fortress 2 has been able to sustain itself all these years.

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TF2 is on fire.

Team Fortress 2‘s popularity is also due in no small part to its simplicity. The game is a great place for casuals and gamers who are new to the multiplayer shooter scene in general to start. Team Fortress 2 is entirely class-based and lacks a leveling system, so it ensures that everyone is put on an even playing field. The only way to get better is to keep playing; this isn’t a game where players can buy their way to stardom with loot drops and gameplay perks. Being given the same set of tools across all classes and all levels of experience helps a great deal with novice players new to the TF2 scene. It also helps that Team Fortress 2 has one of the more hospitable player communities on the Internet; it’s far and away friendlier than Dota 2, that’s for sure.

Team Fortress 2 is relatively friendly to newbies for a multiplayer shooter, but it doesn’t make a perfect introduction. The game has tutorials in place to help players find their way around the various classes, but these tutorials only cover six of the nine player classes. There doesn’t seem to be a concrete explanation as to why three of the classes are missing, but it’s a bit conspicuous. It also causes new players to form a glut around these six classes when the missing three can be just as essential to winning a match. There’s an excess of tutorials elsewhere on the Internet for these three overlooked heroes, but having to consult a tutorial outside of a video game is not ideal.

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Not even Team Fortress 2 is perfect.

Team Fortress 2‘s simplicity is most replete in the gameplay. The tools and antics of each class are easy to understand, even if mastering them takes quite a bit more time. In addition to being divided by their roles, the classes in Team Fortress 2 can also be divvied up by the difficulty that goes into playing them effectively. The Heavy is not hard to understand; he comes equipped with a huge minigun and is great at mowing down enemies. The rocket launcher-armed soldier and the bomb-slinging demoman similarly require little finesse to be effective.

On the other end of the spectrum are support and specialty classes that require a lot of practice in order to become good with, like the aforementioned Spy. These classes’s roles are not as obvious or glamorous as those of the front-line troops, but their abilities are just as essential to winning a match. No one wants to play as the Medic, but that class’s healing gun makes him an absolute necessity for any team that hopes to survive. Teamwork in a team-based shooter should be a no-brainer, and the classes in Team Fortress 2 have been masterfully designed to work well together. Pick and choose soldiers carefully before each match. It never hurts to see who else on the team is assuming what role.

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Never fight alone.

The final piece of Team Fortress 2‘s time-defying puzzle is the allure of its universe. It sports a look markedly different from the countless grimy multiplayer shooters out there, and its simple, colorful aesthetic produces no shortage of visual interest. The game has a tiny nugget of lore at the center of all its matches concerning the fictitious Mann Co., a ruthless corporation whose antics propel the fighting. Each match in the game is MC’d by the Administrator, a ruthless woman voiced by GlaDOS voice actress Ellen McLain. Over the years, Valve has put out some ancillary media chronicling the misadventures of the various characters, including short films and comic books. Valve has retained their show-don’t-tell approach for the micro-narratives within Team Fortress 2, making the game awash in fan theories. Any TF2 player will tell you that the most popular conspiracy theory is whether the Pyro is a man or woman beneath that mask.

Despite these official Valve media, the characters of Team Fortress 2 are far more well-known in the machinima community. Machinima producers using the tool sets in Garry’s Mod have created their own adventure series starring the characters and their wacky personalities. Much more than the one-off lines they utter in Team Fortress 2, the characters featured in these productions are the subjects of everything from serial war dramas to hilarious crossovers. There’s no shortage of videos crossing the TF2 universe over with popular indie games. They’ve been featured in everything from the toll booth of Papers, Please to the office in Freddy Fazbear’s pizza. These videos have done an immeasurable amount to boost Team Fortress 2‘s profile over the years.

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Seriously, these dudes are famous.

In closing, Team Fortress 2‘s longevity stems from its simplicity, its fluidity, and its immense charm. It’s easy for any gamer, new or inveterate, to pick up TF2 and immerse themselves in all sorts of cost-free fun. The community remains massive, and mostly friendly. New content and maps are released onto the game’s Steam Workshop page every day. Valve continues to update their title with new material and tweaks. The game’s aesthetic makes it glow in a genre full of grimy duds. Team Fortress 2 has been allowed to persist because it is so easy to love. It’s also proof that a multiplayer shooter doesn’t need to release a new title every year to remain popular. Team Fortress 2 exhibits no signs of slowing down, and gamers who’ve never tried it would do well to hop on its train.

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You can buy Team Fortress 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.