Month: January 2017

Zombie Army Trilogy

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Stop the Nazi zombie horde from taking over the world.

PC Release: March 6, 2015

By Ian Coppock

It’s always interesting to see a video game property take on a new tone, and almost always, that tone is zombies. Sometimes this results in comedy, as with Red Dead Redemption‘s Undead Nightmare DLC. Other times, it’s ceaseless repetition, like Call of Duty‘s zombies mode (although to be fair, ceaseless repetition is the motif of all of CoD‘s modes). Whatever the genre, whatever the game, developers seem to love throwing their worlds into the throes of a zombie apocalypse. Today is Rebellion Developments’ turn in that gory hot seat, as they reanimate their Sniper Elite games into Zombie Army Trilogy.

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Zombie Army Trilogy is an episodic horror-shooter and a spin-off of the Sniper Elite games. Three standalone episodes of Zombie Army content were released over the past few years, and then compiled into a single collection with the third and final chapter’s release. Rebellion remastered the first two chapters when they released Zombie Army Trilogy for a single, cohesive experience, though gamers who’d already bought them separately weren’t all thrilled.

Zombie Army Trilogy is set in an alternate Sniper Elite timeline, and kicks off with a Nazi telling Hitler that World War II is all but lost. Refusing to accept defeat, Hitler walks into an especially restricted area of his Fuhrerbunker and begins toying with some spooky-looking artifacts. Suddenly, dead Nazis everywhere begin rising from the grave, and they’re hungry for Allied flesh! Only Karl Fairburne, dashing OSS agent and elite sniper, can stop Hitler’s deathly legions.

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Oh well that’s just great…

Despite the last installment of Zombie Army Trilogy having been released after Sniper Elite III, this game retains the style and gameplay of Sniper Elite V2. Just like in that game, players utilize a sniper rifle as their primary weapon, and can use it to take the fight to the enemy from afar. And, just like V2Zombie Army Trilogy boasts some impressive sniping mechanics, including realistic ballistics and the gloriously gory x-ray kill-cam. That latter feature presents an x-ray view of just how explosively Karl’s bullet tears apart an enemy’s head. Karl can also access the usual gallery of secondary weapons, trip mines, and grenades.

Unlike V2, though, Karl isn’t alone in his fight. Zombie Army Trilogy supports online co-0p for up to four players, giving the lone sniper some badly needed backup against the zombies. Although each character plays about the same, players can pick from a colorful lineup of French resistance fighters, British pot-shooters, and Soviet agents. Delightfully, all eight characters from the Left 4 Dead franchise are also made available for players to pick. Anachronistic? Sure, but that’s pretty tame compared to the presence of Nazi zombies. Now all the game needs is the cast from Zombieland (dibs on Woody Harrelson).

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It took a zombie apocalypse for Karl to make friends.

Zombie Army Trilogy features a few modes for players to sink their teeth into. The game’s main campaign comprises 15 levels split equally between the three titular episodes. Each episode is basically an “act” of the story, following Karl & Co as they fight against the zombies. The first two episodes are basically about Karl running around Berlin looking for occult artifacts, while the third episode contains the team’s final showdown against zombie Hitler. There’s also a horde mode, in which players duke it out against waves of zombies arcade-style.

It should go without saying that Zombie Army Trilogy doesn’t focus on narrative. Neither, to be fair, do the Sniper Elite games, but Zombie Army Trilogy is not a story. It’s a series of objectives with a ton of zombies staggering between them and the player. There’s not much character development, either; each squadmate is just a face with a few lines of combat dialogue. Indeed, Zombie Army Trilogy goes for a campy b-movie aesthetic with its cutscenes, giving the game some bleak humor. And honestly, isn’t the entire Nazi zombies fad a bit campy by now? Was it ever not?

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Tod dem zombies, ja!

Even though Zombie Army Trilogy was built with Sniper Elite V2 assets instead of Sniper Elite III‘s more cutting-edge visuals, this game doesn’t look bad. In fact, Rebellion Developments did a good job polishing up some of what they missed in Sniper Elite V2. Objects look a lot sharper, and the fog (among other atmospheric effects) is tremendously improved over those of V2. This game’s character animations also look a lot less wonky than those of V2, and that’s considering the addition of shambling corpse people.

Although Zombie Army Trilogy doesn’t have a thick horror atmosphere, it does a great job of recreating the feel one might find at a haunted house attraction. The game has an impressive array of thick fog and dour lighting, as well as some spooky, silly props that reinforce the aforementioned camp vibe. Indeed, Zombie Army Trilogy is the haunted house tour of video games, with set pieces that are designed to provoke amusement as much as repulsion.

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This game is fun.

 Zombie Army Trilogy‘s roster of sound effects, while thorough, doesn’t contain anything not also found in other horror media. There’s the usual deluge of distant moans and that one wind sound effect that is used for all wind sound effects everywhere. The zombies moan, but what zombies don’t moan these days, and the guns pop rounds off with the same zest to be found in Sniper Elite V2‘s firearms. Nothing new, nothing fancy, but they get the job done.

Thankfully, being a production with something of a budget, Zombie Army Trilogy also includes a thorough options menu. If this game isn’t quite the apex of zombie entertainment, at least Rebellion made its effects easy to manage. Resolution, draw distance, anti-aliasing, everything’s here. Tinker to the heart’s content.

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Whatever effects help you look like a badass.

Though Zombie Army Trilogy provides a polished third-person shooter experience, there’s something fundamentally flawed about its gameplay. Probably has something to do with the idea of mashing a stealth game with a horde shooter. Yes, though seeing a zombie’s skull explode with the x-ray kill-cam is fun, there’s something inherently paradoxical about pitting a weapon of surgical precision against a mindless mass of foes.

See, the idea at the heart of Sniper Elite V2 is that the sniper rifle is not an assault rifle. It’s a tool of tactical, lethal precision ideally only used a few times per mission. The player’s time is otherwise spent sneaking around, being stealthy, employing strategies and all that. The problem with trying to stick those gameplay mechanics in a zombie game is that zombies have only one tactic: shoot all of them in the head. Okay, so maybe sneak past the zombies? Nope. They can automatically detect the player’s presence. Karl’s only recourse is the very type of blind, up-close wild-firing that the Sniper Elite series is not built for.

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Running and gunning? This isn’t Sniper Elite!

Now, a layman or gamer new to the series might find that assessment a bit harsh, considering that Zombie Army Trilogy also lets players arm themselves with assault rifles and shotguns. Better? Not exactly. Sniper Elite V2 players may remember that though Karl is with a sniper rifle what Mozart was with a harpsichord, that game’s secondary weapons are clunky as hell. Seriously, it’s ridiculously hard to get a headshot with an SMG even at point-blank range. In V2, players have a better chance of shotgunning a lengthwise sheet of paper than an enemy right in front of them. Because a swarm of zombies leaves players little time to shoot everything in the head, they’ll have to break out these clumsy, poorly tooled weapons to fight the zombies. It’s not very fun.

Indeed, this situation makes Zombie Army Trilogy a rather grinding experience. Because players’ sniper positions will be overrun almost immediately, they’ll have to run in a circle firing backwards at the zombies pursuing them. This circular gameplay gets old fast, and it can get frustrating in the game’s most challenging arenas. The bigger baddies Zombie Army Trilogy introduces are fun at first, but even with multiple players, the inherent dysfunction of Zombie Army Trilogy‘s game design comes alive quickly.

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LMG zombies. Because why not?

Compounding Zombie Army Trilogy‘s lack of tactical gameplay is the game’s linear level design. Each level in Zombie Army Trilogy is basically a straight line, sometimes with circular arenas, leading up to the end goal. Though the levels’ varying lengths help keep the pacing unpredictable, everything else about traversing these levels is as foreseeable as clockwork. Run, shoot zombies, blow through gate. Run, shoot zombies, blow up gate. Over and over for upwards of 10 hours.

Does the gameplay get anything right? Well, grenades are handy against zombie hordes, but Karl can only carry so many at a time, making it a temporary stop-gap. The nice thing is that Zombie Army Trilogy lets players choose their load-out before each level, much like Sniper Elite III, though unlike that game, weapons cannot be modified. Each level can also be played independently, so unless you’re a psychotic completionist (awkward hand raise) that’s one measure for getting past the game’s more frustrating levels.

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Ooh! Right in the rigor mortis!

Zombie Army Trilogy is not a terrible game, but it’s not a very good one, either. It tries hard with its campy horror motifs and beefed-up visuals, but it paralyzes itself by trying to combine gameplay built for stealth with enemies built for noise. The two… don’t really go together. It’s a square-peg-in-a-round-hole situation if video games ever produced one. Players can make it work with patience and dedication, but Zombie Army Trilogy doesn’t deserve copious amounts of either. Even the most ardent zombie shooter enthusiasts would do well to stop and think before buying this. Mowing down a horde of zombies is fun. Trying to do so with a sniper rifle is not.

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You can buy Zombie Army Trilogy 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.

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Detention

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Escape a remote high school before it sinks into the underworld.

PC Release: January 12, 2017

By Ian Coppock

With the release of Thing-in-Itself, Steam is finally rousing itself from a sluggish start to the year. If this month has been any indication, Steam’s destiny in 2017 is a few thoughtful gems amid a giant mountain of trash. In other words, it’s keeping the course. But what of those thoughtful gems? Well, Detention recently released on the platform to this year’s strongest bout of critical acclaim, at least so far. With its novel visual style (or should that be visual novel style), and penchant for good old survival horror, it warrants a glance or two.

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Detention is a side-scrolling survival horror game and the debut of Red Candle Games, a Taiwanese indie studio. Detention is set in 1960’s Taiwan, a time when the ruling Nationalist party imposed strict martial law and crushed communist sympathizers with an iron fist. From the get-go, this gives Detention a dreary, totalitarian atmosphere, ironically similar to that of the communist regime from which the nationalists fled.

The game opens at the remote Green Mountain High School, where a student named Wei (no, not Sleeping Dogs‘ Wei Shen) wakes up to find his classroom empty and a typhoon raging outside. As he explores the school, he finds that things don’t seem quite right. All the doors are locked, the skies are unnaturally dark, and the only other person he can find is a girl named Fang.

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A tropical storm warning would’ve been nice.

After finding the bridge home destroyed and the river underneath surging with blood, the students return to the high school to find another way out. Most of the game is played from the perspective of Fang, who watches as her school begins to sink into some kind of dark dimension. The walls crumble with sudden decay, and horrific monsters begin roaming the halls. As Fang, it’s up to players to figure out what’s happening to the world and, perhaps more importantly, a way out of the school.

As Fang gets deeper into the school, the beasts she encounters become intertwined with unpleasant personal memories. This inexorable stew of dread drives her fears, her wits, and her determination to survive. She’ll need all of these things to make it out alive, especially with monsters closing in around her.

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Fang is resourceful, but already has a complicated past in her teen years.

As previously noted, Detention is a side-scrolling game that blends chilling survival horror with point-and-click gameplay. When she’s not busy avoiding monsters, Fang also has to solve puzzles to access new areas of the school. Much like Amnesia: The Dark DescentDetention‘s gameplay is informed primarily by these two mechanics: staying away from monsters, and solving relatively simple puzzles.

Because this is also an adventure game, though, Fang moves about the world in a manner true to that style. Players simply point and click to get Fang to walk around and examine objects near her. Fang can add items of interest to her journal, including items necessary to progress and non-essential bits of lore. There’s a lot lying around in the school for discerning adventurers to find.

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I wasn’t kidding about the river of blood.

What immediately stands out about Detention is its gorgeous artwork. Even in a genre loaded with stylized portrayals, Detention‘s delicate character animations and richly colored backgrounds are mesmerizing. Each environment in the game is richly painted with strokes of strong colors and lots of detailed objects. It’s no hyperbole to say that each area of Detention is akin to a masterful painting. A dark, oftentimes grotesque painting, but a painting all the same.

To expand on the game’s use of color a bit more, Detention also excels at creating contrast. Part of this is due to the game’s smart use of lighting, a mainstay of decent horror design, but the game’s artists expertly balance light and dark to create some truly forbidding areas. Oh yes, the game has light in it, but don’t be relieved. Even the game’s most brightly lit areas are done out in a sallow, sour light that feels more like the stench of decay than the veneer of safety. If ever there was a study in how to do color contrast well, Detention would be an ideal candidate.

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Bleh.

Detention‘s smart sound design compliments its artwork well. The game’s background music is a mix of low, mournful tunes decked out with traditional Chinese instruments, but even these spine-chilling songs can’t hold a (red) candle to the sound effects. Seriously, the monsters in this game sound creepy as hell, from the long-tongued demons that phase in and out of reality to the 20-foot-tall lantern monsters that sniff you as they pass. These hideous sound effects stay with the player long after the fact, too. A warning, for players averse to nightmare fuel.

The monsters and nightmare effects used in the game are drawn from obscure sources: ancient Taoist and Taiwanese traditions. Largely unknown to western audiences, the vast body of Chinese folklore has cooked up some pretty spooky stuff, at least if this game is any indication. Fang can avoid most monsters by holding her breath, but more elaborate steps might be needed for higher-tiered monsters. Everything in this game is out to kill her in a gruesome fashion, including a 10-armed monstrosity that rampages through the school. Players who become complacent at Detention‘s adventure game format do so at their peril.

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Oooh. Uh, no. Nope. Uh-uh. Bad. This is bad. Bad room.

Some would argue that Detention‘s adventure game-style format precludes the more intimate horror experience provided by a first-person game, but Detention twists its format into something surprisingly jarring. Monsters popping out of nowhere is still scary from the first or third person, and Detention masters this mechanic well. Still more frightening, though, are the game’s close-up examinations of objects and items, where sudden scares flicker right before the player’s eyes.

All of this is topped off with a thick drizzle of psychological horror, as Fang’s sanity begins to unravel before the darkness of this new world. Rather than assaulting the senses with endless waves of monsters, Detention times out its monster encounters. Don’t fret, though; there are plenty of unsettling sights and sounds packed between the chases, like dice turning into bloody teeth, or grinning ghosts packed into an auditorium. The alternation between survival and psychological horror is masterfully done in Detention, resulting in an exhilarating horror experience.

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Is that… giggling?

Though Detention‘s horror values are up there (like, way up there) the game is not a mere tirade of scares. The terror serves as a latticework for the game’s central narrative, one of the most gripping and suspenseful horror tales released in months. There’s a reason the world is turning to darkness, and there’s a reason Fang is at the center of it. It’s up to players to figure all of that out, but they’ll do so by exploring the stories of several colorful characters. These personal anecdotes are presented against the authoritarian backdrop of 1960’s Taiwan, making Detention‘s atmosphere even more morbid.

Detention‘s writing doesn’t suffer for the lack of voice acting. There are a few spelling errors here and there, but the story is a poetically delivered tale of vengeance and anguish. Rather than flat-out deliver exposition through dialogue, the game artfully obfuscates and leaves details vague. Not inscrutably so, but just blurry enough to leave players wondering for the entire game if what they’re thinking is actually what’s happening. That level of vagueness is a fine line to walk, but Detention‘s writing pulls it off, albeit with a few  grammar errors. Fang is a believable character, and the situations underlying the game’s viscera are similarly human.

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Detention has many subtle layers.

If Detention has a flaw, it’s that the game’s Chinese horror folklore and personal narrative are largely disconnected. Fang’s backstory explains some of the darkness in the game, but it never explains the presence of certain monsters. The monsters in many horror games have backstories and circumstances inexorable from the main plot, but in Detention they’re just sort of… there. The lantern specters are spooky, but they seem to have no reason to be in Detention other than to show off another facet of Chinese folklore. This situation is far from a deal-breaker, but it is rather conspicuous.

All of that said, the folklore still serves as a vehicle for some pretty gruesome horror, unrelated as it may be to Fang’s backstory. Most times, the folklore is tied up in the game’s puzzles. Most of Detention‘s puzzles are simple object-keyhole conundrums, but their level of gore sometimes surpasses the monsters’. Similarly to the narrative, the game’s puzzle clues also ratchet up tension through grim implications.

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Wait a minute… what does this game expect me to do?

The aforementioned disconnect between folklore and narrative is Detention‘s only major flaw. The game is an otherwise masterful work of horror, with an atmosphere so intoxicating it still permeates the frontal lobe days after completion. All of the game’s elements, from the rich artwork to smooth puzzles to beautifully agonizing story, move as one. They produce an experience that any horror or adventure fan would be absolutely remiss to skip over. Buy it, experience it, remember it. Detention is not for the faint of heart but it’s also not for the heartless.

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You can buy Detention 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.

F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin

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Defeat a bloodthirsty monster before she destroys everything in her path.

PC Release: February 10, 2009

By Ian Coppock

“Fear is my ally”. That statement is both the personal creed of Darth Maul and the main takeaway horror fans should’ve gotten from the F.E.A.R. review last Sunday. For all its repetition and condensed plot, F.E.A.R. is unusually self-aware for an action-horror game. It’s thoughtful, it’s pretty well-paced, and it’s a patient game. It’s content to let players stew in its atmosphere instead of inundating them with jumpscares. With such a solid formula in the works, developer Monolith went ahead and got to work on a sequel.

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Like F.E.A.R.F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin is a first-person horror-shooter, with elements of big-budget action films and stark raving terror rolled into a single production. Released a little over three years after the first game, F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin also continues right where the last game concluded, in a dilapidated American city at the mercy of a psychic monster. Unlike the original game, F.E.A.R. 2 follows a new cast of characters, none of whom are actually members of the titular anti-ghost F.E.A.R. unit, making the title a tiny bit of a misnomer.

Anyway, F.E.A.R. 2 kicks off a few moments before the conclusion of F.E.A.R., and puts players into the boots of Michael Beckett, a Delta Force soldier. Beckett and his team have been sent to extract the CEO of the Armacham Technology Corporation, a company deep into researching psychic and paranormal phenomena. Before the squad can find their mark, a gigantic explosion shakes the ATC building to its foundations and knocks Beckett unconscious.

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Knock-knock, room service!

When Beckett and his surviving squadmates wake up God knows how much later, they discover that someone has surgically imbued each of them with the same hyper-fast reflexes that the Point Man enjoyed in F.E.A.R. With these abilities, the team can make short work of even the most elite enemy units. These powers are sorely needed; there are still quite a few clone supersoldiers from F.E.A.R. running around, and Armacham has also sent in a private black ops army to clean up after Paxton Fettel’s rampage.

After escaping Armacham and clone forces, Beckett gets a call from an anonymous man going by the code name “Snake Fist”, who claims that Beckett and each of his squadmates have vast psychic potential. Snake Fist suggests using this power to trap Alma Wade, the enraged ghost at the heart of F.E.A.R., before she can expand her destruction beyond the city of Fairport’s limits. With no other option in sight, Beckett and his team gear up to fight through waves of enemy soldiers and who knows what else on their mission to stop Alma.

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Alma Wade. Think Samara Morgan from The Ring, only taller and even angrier.

If the original F.E.A.R.‘s gameplay was inspired by Half-Life 2F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin feels like Call of Duty. Everything from the balance of guns to using grenades feels exactly like a Call of Duty title. That’s not a bad thing, but the level of fidelity Monolith had toward Infinity Ward is a little embarrassing, for how derivative F.E.A.R. 2 feels. Not all is for naught, though, as the game retains the old-school medkit mechanic instead of health regeneration.

As Beckett, players are able to use his enhanced reflexes to get the jump on enemy troops. These abilities are represented in-game as slowing down time. Players can use this power to shoot everyone in the room before they’ve even reached for their weapons, though it’s metered and needs to recharge before it can be used again. Even though F.E.A.R. 2‘s guns play differently than those of F.E.A.R., the slow-motion ability feels quite familiar.

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Hey, guy? Back up.

To call F.E.A.R. 2 Call of Duty clone is a bit unfair, because the game expands its rosters of both action and horror gameplay. To speak to the former, players can now hop inside giant mechs and tear stuff up from behind two miniguns. Sure, that sort of thing doesn’t exactly smack of horror game subtlety, but damn if it ain’t fun. Those clone soldiers really need to learn not to leave their expensive illegal private army black-ops murder machines lying around. Occasionally another mech will show up, ostensibly to perform in 2009’s greatest ever rendition of Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots.

The other nice improvement F.E.A.R. 2 makes over the original is a huge spike in enemy variety. F.E.A.R. had a small handful of enemy types, but F.E.A.R. 2 throws large mixes of different baddies at the player. Paxton Fettel’s clone troops wield more guns, while Armacham’s forces comprise a mix of shotgunners, flamethrowers, and other specialists. This forces players to be much more careful, especially since this game’s enemy AI is, especially for an older game, quite robust.

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I always wanted to be on Robot Wars…

As for the horror gameplay, the darker half of F.E.A.R. 2, things are a little more visceral than in the original F.E.A.R. Sure, the first game put out a lot of things to jump at, but that was really it. Very few of the horror themes were more threatening than a simple jumpscare, popping out to spike some adrenaline before vanishing just like that. In F.E.A.R. 2, the ghouls and goblins are quite real. Alma’s paranormal activities have unleashed ghosts upon the city, and who knows what’s crawling around in the sewers beneath the condemned Auburn district. If F.E.A.R.‘s scares were just that, F.E.A.R. 2 upgrades from scares to scrambles for life.

All of that isn’t to say that F.E.A.R. 2 abandons F.E.A.R.‘s psychological moorings. As Beckett gets closer to Alma, he starts experiencing intense visions of her. To make matters worse, Alma begins telepathically screwing with Beckett’s teammates, driving some to madness and others to their deaths as she sees fit. This constant insecurity against an intangible threat makes the game feel tense. Unfortunately, each of these side characters are about as memorable as extras in an action film. The aforementioned Armacham CEO is especially uninspired, with awful voice acting to match. Like the Point Man, Beckett is a silent protagonist, so anyone who came here looking for more than guns and ghosts is probably in for a disappointment.

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“GURVE DURDY SURME SURGAR”

Indeed, the entire narrative of F.E.A.R. 2 isn’t that memorable either. F.E.A.R. was a linear run-and-gun with some ghosts thrown in, but at least it was a patient game. Its exposition was compacted, but it still had exposition. F.E.A.R. 2, by contrast, gives players a single goal to complete and then kicks them out the door to do precisely that. No plot twists. No character development. Just a light at the end of a ghost-infested tunnel. F.E.A.R. 2 seems to hold the idea of a decent story at arm’s length, choosing instead to focus purely on combat and ghost hunting. Writing and dialogue, not so much.

It also doesn’t help that F.E.A.R. 2 is short, clocking in at 5 hours. Even for a shooter, that’s a pretty stunted game. It causes no shortage of balking from fans of the original F.E.A.R., a game that easily takes at least eight hours. That’s also not counting the Extraction Point and Perseus Mandate expansions bundled with F.E.A.R. for free. As an aside, the Project Origin subtitle makes little sense. Project Origin is the subject of the first game. It should’ve been Project Harbinger, after the program that gave Beckett his new powers and is a focal point of the game. Or, y’know, just F.E.A.R. 2.

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Whaddya mean this game’s only 5 hours long?!

F.E.A.R. 2‘s saving grace lies not in its fun if conventional gunplay nor its undercooked narrative, but in its visuals. For a game that came out in 2009, F.E.A.R. 2 has some very sophisticated visuals. Graphics and textures are extremely sharp, character animations are fluid, and the game packs some of 2009’s most impressive lighting effects. Monolith forgot a few things when making F.E.A.R. 2, but luckily they remembered how important good lighting and shadows are to a horror atmosphere. The game also comes with a film grain, back before every horror game came with a film grain, but it doesn’t tank performance.

The visuals are another reason that F.E.A.R. 2 feels like a Call of Duty title. While the lighting is great and the textures are crystal-clear, some of the game’s environments just feel too clean. Too glossy. Even the war-torn areas of Fairport feel a bit sterile. This isn’t to rag on the game’s impressive sense of object placement and attention to detail, but even with rancid fog effects, some areas feel a bit too squeaky to be believable.

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My God you’re ugly.

Despite retaining its predecessor’s brilliant lighting design, F.E.A.R. 2 feels like a major step backwards from F.E.A.R. Rather than being an atmospheric game that alternates between hot and cold pacing, F.E.A.R. 2 is a short, action-intense game whose faith in its players’ attention spans is nonexistent. It does a pretty good job at psychological horror, but the first game’s scares are better, which is pathetic considering that F.E.A.R.‘s scares aren’t even dangerous. The gunplay is pretty fun, but it’s in excruciating lockstep with every popular first-person shooter ever made, and so offers little novelty.

Finally, the narrative. Or rather, the lack of one. F.E.A.R. 2‘s story is so skeletal and scant on details that players will be left with little motivation to carry on through the game. The voice acting and writing are sub-par, and even the proliferation of diary logs throughout the game reveals little exposition or backstory. The $10 Reborn DLC adds a sliver of narrative for far too high a cost. The main game also ends on a true “wtf” note, with one of the most bizarre cliffhangers ever seen in modern gaming. Hopefully, F.E.A.R. 3 turns it around, but a sequel shouldn’t have to do that.

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NO MORE OF THIS GAME! PLEASE!

The bottom line is, players who like a well-paced horror-shooter should get F.E.A.R. Players who like a skeletal Call of Duty game wrapped in a sheet costume should get F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin. It’s not uncommon to find a sequel that’s a step back from the original game, but it is unusual to find a sequel that feels like it was made by another studio… without actually having been made by another studio. F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin leaves F.E.A.R. fans with little to invest in after the main game, least of all their money. Give it a miss and replay the first F.E.A.R. instead.

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You can buy F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin 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.

Thing-in-Itself

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Explore how emotions influence the perception of objects.

PC Release: January 5, 2017

By Ian Coppock

This kick of fluid, surreal games has been quite enjoyable, and continues today with a review of Thing-in-Itself. There’s been a noticeable slowdown in video games that focus on philosophy, so hopefully Thing-in-Itself‘s focus on the work of Immanuel Kant marks that subgenre’s return to the forefront. With the player at the heart of the experience, video games present a sorely underappreciated platform for presenting philosophy. And though Thing-in-Itself‘s examination of Kant is hardly extensive, players can still be at the heart of that presentation, and so the game is worth a close examination.

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Thing-in-Itself is the debut of a delightfully named indie studio called Party for Introverts, and seeks to explore how relationships impact perceptions of the world. Specifically, Thing-in-Itself focuses on how people perceive objects. As noted in the game’s intro, one person might perceive a guitar as a means of self-expression, while another might see it as just a piece of junk. The idea at the heart of Thing-in-Itself is that all our prior associations with tangible objects paint our view of them, and therefore their true, “unpainted” nature remains unknown. This idea is also called thing-in-itself, and it’s one of Kant’s best-known ideas.

Anyway, Thing-in-Itself stars a British millennial named Ted, who receives an explanation on all this philosophy hullabaloo from his American girlfriend Molly. After a little intro in which Molly spells out Kant’s philosophy, the game begins in earnest with Ted in his room, awaiting a visit from her.

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This is getting meta.

The main focus in Thing-in-Itself is how Ted’s relationship with Molly affects how he sees his apartment. As Ted, it’s up to players to interact with Molly in a few possible ways, from texting to calling to even glancing at a dating app. Molly will phone in with a new piece of information in each scene, and Ted’s response will change how he sees his living space. For example, a great conversation with Molly might result in Ted’s bed being relabeled, say, “happy place”. However, a negative or mixed conversation might result in “dusty old bed” or something along those lines. It’s a novel way to present emotions in a game.

The emotional presentation of Thing-in-Itself is further rounded out by the game’s excellent voice acting. Both Ted and Molly’s voice actors give believable performances in acting out a young couple, and their emotion resonates in each twist and turn of the story. Indeed, believable voice acting is key to this game overall, because though objects may change in response to Ted and Molly, their dialogue is what gets the player to those changes.

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Object labels will change depending on Ted’s mood.

Unfortunately for this love story, things start to go downhill for Ted. The first inklings of despair seep in when Molly cancels on a date. As she begins to grow distant, Ted’s doubts about their relationship begin to color perceptions of his apartment. True to form, the objects in his bedroom will take more negative names, “lamp” being swapped out with “dusty old lamp”, for example.

The intimacy of romantic emotions make them an ideal candidate for a game about object perception. Just as a video game presents an unparalleled platform for emotional intimacy, so too do these emotions make ideal subject matter. Relationships are difficult. Love can be difficult. It can be among people’s most potent emotional matrices, and can color our perceptions of life, work… everything, really. The combination of first-person adventuring and relationship subject matter are a winning team in Thing-in-Itself.

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Anybody else just get a quick dash of butterflies?

Although Ted and Molly’s back-and-forth makes for good listening, the game’s short length and relative lack of promised endings limits replay value. For a start, one round of Thing-in-Itself only lasts about 15-20 minutes. Additionally, try as players might to get Molly to stay, there’s only one way this story’s really going to end. Games don’t have to have happy endings to have an impact, by any means. But, the different story choices only really tweak the journey, not change the outcome. As such, players will have little reason to play Thing-in-Itself more than once.

That said, everyone should play Thing-in-Itself at least that one time. Because unlike The Graveyard, that five-minute twilight years simulator reviewed here last week, Thing-in-Itself is deeply powerful. It actually has well-voiced dialogue and a discernible point. It has a story that everyone can relate to. Its brief presentation of a faltering relationship may be brief, but its profundity is not to be underestimated. Its focus on how emotions cloud judgment and change perception makes it much more novel than other short love stories.

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If I ask she’s okay she’ll get annoyed but if I say nothing she’ll think I’m distant but oh God what do I say (dies inside).

Thing-in-Itself backs up its story with a decent presentation. The game’s small world is very brightly colored, with sharp textures and clearly defined objects. Most objects in the game are 2D, but they look so crisp that this is hardly cause for concern. The sound design is also quite decent, packing a few ambient sound effects and snippets of calm music into Ted’s apartment.

The gameplay in Thing-in-Itself is a simple mix of walking, talking, and picking stuff up. Ted can play on his phone to get in touch with Molly (hopefully she calls back), and interact with a few objects around his apartment. Luckily, he’s got a pet fish for company, so he’s not, like forever alone. Fish make great therapists. Right?

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Good boy, Henry.

Thing-in-Itself does have a few dents in its production that players would be well-advised to heed. For a start, like everything else reviewed on here recently, this game’s option menu is… primeval. The only option players can adjust is the resolution. Nothing else, including graphics quality, is open for players to fidget around with. To be fair, Thing-in-Itself is not a visually complicated game, but it’s nice to be able to make adjustments to the game as needed. Everyone’s machine is different, and resolution is hardly the only guarantor of visual fidelity.

The other little issue with Thing-in-Itself is yet another problem seen cropping up in games recently, and that’s spelling and grammar errors. Nothing is better at breaking a game’s sense of immersion than a misspelled word. That’s pretty much all that needs to be said, but hopefully game developers will start hiring a few more copy editors. A second pair of eyes works wonders for good writing.

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Ohhhhhh boy…

If The Graveyard was evidence that short length can kill a game, Thing-in-Itself is evidence that games can still thrive within it. Comparing the two is a bit unfair, but their similar lengths make for an ideal study in what makes a good short game. A good short game gets to its point quickly. It has a deeply emotional narrative that will resonate with the player after 15 minutes is up and the game ends. It has a novel concept that, while not requiring hand-holding, is at least somewhat intuitive. Thing-in-Itself has these things, and does them well. It’s a touching human story that remains potent despite its short length. Just don’t get paranoid about labeling possessions after playing it. Or spend an hour Googling Kant.

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You can buy Thing-in-Itself here.

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

The Graveyard

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Visit a graveyard and contemplate your twilight years.

PC Release: March 21, 2008

By Ian Coppock

The search for novel video games results in some true oddities. Goat Simulator, a gloriously glitch-prone game about goats adorned with jet packs, or Soda Drinker Pro, a game that’s literally just drinking soda in poorly rendered worlds. The oddities of the gaming world extend beyond the absurd, though; there are also plenty of “high art” pieces trying to push the envelope of game design. Sometimes they succeed. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they wander off into the sunset leaving the player dazed and confused. The Graveyard might co-inhabit all three of those categories.

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The Graveyard is a spooky little art game created by a Belgian company called Tale of Tales. Well, they’d probably take issue with being called a company. They’d probably also take issue with being called an obnoxiously pretentious pair of hipsters, but they have a tendency to fly much closer to that latter label. The Graveyard is one of Tale of Tales’ very first projects, but they insist that their work isn’t video games. At one point or another they’ve insisted that their games be referred to as “living tableaus” or “momento moris for your digital hands”.

Buckle up, folks. We’re about to take a deep dive into either clear-eyed genius, or unadulterated insanity, depending on who’s being asked.

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Charming.

The Graveyard is a simple little game that follows an old woman as she visits a cemetery. As the woman, players can wander among a few rows of tombstones, but that’s about it. The gameplay is quite limited. While limited gameplay is by no means a deal-breaker (look at ISLANDS: Non-Places), it bears mentioning that what little gameplay The Graveyard has is quite clunky. The controls for this game are awful, with alright forward and backward movement but very wide-circling, slow turns. Yeah, the protagonist is an old woman, but just because the character has a hard time getting around doesn’t mean that the player should too.

Like a lot of games reviewed on this page recently, The Graveyard was built on the Unity engine and only has that tiny pre-launch options menu. Resolution and graphics quality are players’ only recourse for visual fidelity, but luckily, The Graveyard is not visually complicated, so this isn’t as much of an issue as the controls.

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Okay…

Anyway, the goal of The Graveyard is simple. Spend a few minutes looking at tombstones and then pop a squat on an old church bench. As soon as the player sits on the bench, a ghoulish little Belgian folk song will start playing over the scene. Though the song’s lyrical matter about death and final destinations is appropriate for a game like this, the singer is off-key and the guitar strums sound hollow. Meanwhile, the player just sits there as the camera zooms in on the old lady’s face and lyrical subtitles play out at the bottom of the screen.

And… that’s it. The entire game takes about 5-10 minutes to complete. The song plays for a few moments, the old woman picks herself up and leaves, and the game’s over. Sometimes the old woman will suddenly keel over and die, but that only makes the game shorter. That’s The Graveyard.

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Wait, what…?

Okay, so despite being only a few minutes long, there’s a lot to unpack with a title like The Graveyard. Why so short? Why the minimal interactivity? What is the point of this game and what is the player supposed to take away with them once the credits roll?

Tale of Tales has a habit of making the point of their games frustratingly vague, but it’s a bit clearer with The Graveyard. The point of the game is death, or contemplation of death. Visiting the graves of friends long gone and thinking about one day joining them. For anything else that can be said about The Graveyard, at least it’s not all that difficult to figure out. The theme of old age and life’s impending end can be felt with the old woman’s hobbling movements.

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Ooh. A place to sit.

However, there’s something about the production of The Graveyard that feels unbearably half-assed. Just because a video game touches on a “deep” emotion does not mean that it can get away with neglecting everything else about its production. For although The Graveyard does explore the theme of death, the game’s tiny length combined with its bare-bones production does not a profoundly life-changing experience make. Video games don’t have to be long to be profound, but sitting on a bench and then leaving five minutes later leaves playing The Graveyard a hollow experience. It certainly precludes the power of its death motif.

To be fair to Tale of Tales, they make no effort to disguise how short the game is, and it was a side project built during the development of a much larger game. But the fact that the game is so short means that it has no time at all to build an emotional connection with the player before it’s over. This combined with the archaic-looking visuals, clunky controls, and tiny options menu makes it impossible to take The Graveyard seriously as a profound or emotional gaming experience.

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HOW DOES THIS GAME HAVE A DEMO

The Graveyard deserves props for playing around with the boundaries of what defines a video game, but the time it spends doing that registers as barely a blip of pushing the envelope. The Graveyard is proof that video games need much more than an abstract motif to be profound. They need to let themselves run long enough for an emotional connection to form (The Graveyard does not) and they need to involve some measure of interaction from the player. The Graveyard tries to be artistic, but the effort it puts forth in doing so feels so minimal that the game just ends up being pretentious. It’s not worth the time, and it’s certainly not worth five dollars (one dollar per minute).

Nice try, Tale of Tales. But the effort put into a video game is proportional to how much of an experience players get out of it. Artistic vision alone does not guarantee a game profundity. Especially when it’s as brief and shallow as The Graveyard.

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You can buy The Graveyard 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.

ISLANDS: Non-Places

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Explore a series of surreal and graceful dreamscapes.

PC Release: November 17, 2016

By Ian Coppock

Although the new year has gotten off to a raucous start in virtually all sectors of life, the same cannot be said for Steam. Sure, it’s only day three of 2017 as of writing, but the store has kicked off the new year in a pretty sluggish fashion. With nothing noteworthy yet available on Steam, it’s time to review another game from last year. Something that’s been out for a little bit but that, for one reason or another, didn’t make it onto this page when it released. Something that, in light of how stressful last year was, offers up a much-needed dose of relaxation and reflection. Something like ISLANDS: Non-Places.

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ISLANDS: Non-Places is an hour-long slice of surreal created by Carl Burton, an indie game designer and possible ballet coordinator (we’ll expand on that in a bit). ISLANDS is an abstract yet thoughtful game propelled by very simple puzzles. It could also be classified as a “zen” game, if anyone can actually agree upon what that term denotes. It’s relaxing, so zen game fans will have that to agree on, at least.

ISLANDS: Non-Places is presented as a series of interactive scenes, where players uncover the secrets of a colorful little vignette using only their mouse. Players can also use the A and S keys to rotate the scene from side-to-side, though there’s no means of moving up or down. Each scene contains a sequence of lights that must be clicked in a particular order or rhythm. The more lights clicked, the more the area changes.

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Well. This is interesting.

Most every setting in ISLANDS begins as something banal, like a bus stop or an ATM. Though each vignette starts off unassuming, ISLANDS subtly invites players to uncover more by clicking on lights located throughout the scene. Doing so triggers some pretty trippy events, like a series of eggs getting off a bus, or luggage on a conveyor floating in a wave pattern. Each event allows for more events to follow, if the player can find and click on all of the lights.

Although ISLANDS‘ gameplay could be characterized as simplistic by some, it’s not a puzzle game at heart. Rather, it’s meant to evoke a feeling of relaxation. ISLANDS: Non-Places is a very graceful game, because it takes simple visuals and moves them in a masterfully hypnotic fashion. From soda cans floating in the sky to trees ascending elevators, ISLANDS: Non-Places presents some very graceful visuals. It’s dangerous to write them off as weird, and harder still not to get lost in them.

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WTF is happening to my brain…

The primary factor behind ISLANDS‘ grace is how fluidly each animation plays out in the screen. Every movement is gradual, but not slow. These animations start out simple; as jarring as the sight of it is, eggs coming off of a bus is not a complicated animation to perform. However, they become more elaborate with each vignette, evolving from raising and falling lights to streams of letters and clouds of light. Hitting lights secreted throughout the scene will trigger each animation and change the environment, sometimes drastically. The scene is over when all lights have been clicked, all changes made.

ISLANDS‘ visual power also stems from its use of color and fog-like effects. Each scene is painted in shades of a single color that gradually darken as they approach the screen. These vividly monochromatic colors add to the surreal feeling of each vignette, on top of being simply beautiful. These colors also do a good job of setting the mood in each scene. As a consequence of their use, the blue and purple vignettes feel more subdued, while the bright red and orange sets feel more lively. Call it basic color theory, but basic color theory is put to great use in ISLANDS: Non-Places.

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This scene just feels warm.

Equally impressive as ISLANDS’ bright colors and sharply defined objects is Carl Burton’s attention to sound design. It is because of the masterful implementation of music as much as visuals or anything else that ISLANDS: Non-Places has such an intoxicating atmosphere. Each stage in ISLANDS also contains ambient sound effects one would expect to hear in that environment, like conversation around a drinking fountain or, well, rain during a rainstorm. Each of these effects is crystal clear and implemented to complement every stage of the scene. It thus becomes easier to lose oneself in ISLANDS. As has been stated countless times in other reviews, keen audio design is essential to good atmosphere.

Now – it’s one thing to find the proper sound effects for a given scene, but it’s quite another to arrange those in a manner conducive to relaxation. Anyone can play a clip from a rainstorm, but Carl Burton does a good job of bringing in and dimming down each sound effect so that they seamlessly coalesce. One vignette depicting someone getting home and going to bed features a well-choreographed set of driving, walking, and television sounds that evokes the off-screen movements in the player’s mind. Couple this with a few persistent, ambient sounds, and ISLANDS: Non-Places presents an alluring soundscape.

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The wildlife sounds are particularly relaxing.

So what exactly is the point of ISLANDS: Non-Places? What narrative or concept does its imagery present that can’t be replicated by another surreal work, or someone spouting off a list of random objects? It’s true that ISLANDS‘ scenery is far from clear. Even if the player can figure out that a water fountain needs to be fixed, that doesn’t explain the jungle growing under the fountain. The key to a compelling “zen” game or surreal game is not to fill the screen with random objects, but to arrange those objects in a certain way. ISLANDS: Non-Places is relaxing not because of the choice of objects, but because of how those objects move.

Consider one stage of the game in which a maze of roots grows flowers beneath a ceiling fan. As a sentence, that concept is random, maybe even ridiculous. But in the game, the roots and flowers are arranged in a spread pattern that spins gracefully upon the vignette’s completion. The idea of soda cans floating in the air looks ridiculous on paper, but on the screen they’re animated in a gentle, relaxing wave. The sight of eggs getting off a bus only to enter a cooker disguised as a bus stop sounds silly, but is animated in such a way as to be wistful. ISLANDS isn’t surreal just for the sake of being surreal. There’s a purpose to the choice of objects and how they’re all arranged: a feeling of relaxation. And this game provides that feeling in droves.

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Looks pretty ordinary on the surface.

So is there anything that ISLANDS gets wrong? Well, there are a few things it could do a lot better. The options menu is the same pitifully small “good, beautiful, fantastic” Unity menu endemic to many indie games, and it’s heartbreaking. The only options are for resolution and graphics quality, the latter of which is tied together with the game’s anti-aliasing option. A peculiar choice. ISLANDS: Non-Places is not a graphically taxing game, but AA can be much more difficult for some machines to run than visual fidelity. Tying the two together is… different. Better to keep them separate.

Apart from that, it’s hard to find a flaw with ISLANDS‘ gameplay. The controls are simple and smooth, the animations are fluid, and the game runs well on newer and older machines. The game’s graphical simplicity keeps it from requiring a monster rig to run (though the point about tying AA together with graphics quality still stands) and the clickable lights are anything but obtuse.

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(shivers)

The reason why Carl Burton was called a ballet coordinator at the beginning of this review is because ISLANDS: Non-Places is the ballet of video games. It is an elegant, well-polished movement of many pieces that is absolutely mesmerizing to watch. The game’s graceful animations, coupled with its masterful sound design, result in one of the most relaxing gaming experiences of all of last year. It doesn’t have a traditional narrative, but its movements will entice all the same. ISLANDS deserves a spot in every gamer’s library, especially as a change of pace from horror or action-intense video games. The purpose behind each piece of the game is as moving as the surreal final composition.

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You can buy ISLANDS: Non-Places 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.

F.E.A.R.

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Stop a psychopath from unleashing a buried evil.

PC Release: October 17, 2005

By Ian Coppock

One of the reasons an older game is reviewed the Sunday after a newer game is to provide some good old retrospection. Not just in terms of game design, but to return to an era before day-one DLC. Before video games were released in a broken state. Before nearly all of the issues that tend to plague game development these days. That alone should be reason enough to risk returning to an older game with clunkier mechanics, but not all old games are clunky. No, some of them are smoother than their modern-day counterparts, even with the latter’s constant hollering about new graphics and being “truly next-gen”. One of those “smoother” titles, F.E.A.R., is an exemplar of why older games should never be forgotten.

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F.E.A.R. is a horror-shooter developed by Monolith, a studio best-known these days as the creators of 2014’s Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor. Before penning the adventures of Talion and his romp around a suspiciously lush Mordor, Monolith crafted a series of horror-shooters that to this day are remembered very fondly by the PC gaming community. Heavily influenced by Japanese horror and the likes of Half-Life 2F.E.A.R. was widely anticipated before its 2005 release for its grim atmosphere and emphasis on both action and horror.

F.E.A.R. is a modern-day shooter that takes place in Fairport, a fictional metropolis not unlike Resident Evil‘s Raccoon City. F.E.A.R. begins in earnest when a psychic cannibal (yep, that’s right) named Paxton Fettel arrives to the offices of the local Armacham Technology Corporation and murders everyone in the building. As if a cannibal with mind powers wasn’t bad enough, Fettel also takes telepathic control over an army of cloned soldiers ATC had bred for private military use. Fettel’s goals are unknown, but no one’s crazy about his breakout.

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Fettel’s meddling at ATC creates…. complications.

With the city in dire straits, and the Ghostbusters apparently on vacation, the federal government activates its First Encounter Assault Recon (F.E.A.R.) team, a special ops brigade trained to deal with supernatural phenomena. The player character is the Point Man, a silent protagonist who takes his name from his role in the team. Though he doesn’t speak, the Point Man excels in combat thanks to his remarkable reflexes, represented as a time-slowing mechanic within the game. The Point Man is assisted in his mission by squadmate Spen Jankowski and tech expert Jin Sun-Kwon, all of whom are intent on finding Fettel as soon as possible.

Using a satellite, F.E.A.R. tracks Fettel to Auburn, an industrial district of Fairport that was evacuated and condemned after a mysterious accident 20 years ago. Armed with the best of firearms and the quickest of reflexes, the Point Man is inserted into the gutted factories and burnt out housing projects of Auburn to find Fettel. More importantly, the Point Man needs to figure out what Fettel is searching for. All the while, the Point Man sees hallucinations of a little girl in a torn dress, who seems to be taking great interest in his progress. Surely that last one’s not real.

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Time to hunt some ghosts.

F.E.A.R. is played from the first-person and is a curious exercise in combining the subtleties of a horror atmosphere with the audacity of a big-budget action movie. It also hearkens back to the shooters of the 90’s and early 2000’s, foregoing an overabundance of ammunition and health regeneration in favor of limited munitions and good old fashioned medkits. The Point Man can carry unlimited ammo but only so many health packs, and so players need to carefully consider each enemy encounter.

As the Point Man, players can wield any weapon they find lying around, from service pistols to shotguns, and use a flashlight to explore the game’s many dark areas. Though NPCs will communicate to the player via radio, the Point Man is physically alone the entire game. This setup is not only vital for crafting a good horror game; it also makes F.E.A.R.‘s more conventional running and gunning more challenging.

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“I believe I can fly…”

F.E.A.R.‘s gunplay is smart and fun, with a wide variety of firearms that feel quite satisfying in the hands of the Point Man. As players progress through F.E.A.R., they’ll go up against increasingly elaborate skirmishes and ambushes set by Fettel’s clone soldiers. These enemies aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed, but they’re quite dangerous, and continually introduce new combat variants as the game goes on. These soldiers can usually be heard before they’re seen, allowing players to come up with a few surprise encounters of their own. Sure, some of these encounters can have identical setups, with two levels of enemies and a path straight through their formation, but all the guns and explosions preserve the entertainment factor. Plus, there’s nothing better than activating the Point Man’s slo-mo ability and popping off a round of headshots.

The other component informing F.E.A.R.‘s gunplay is the game’s unpredictable pacing. Some levels pack encounters against Fettel’s troops every five seconds, while others might have just two or three battles. This inconsistency is great for a horror game, because it keeps players guessing when clone soldiers might be just around the corner. Combine this with the Point Man’s occasional glimpses of the aforementioned ghost child, and the result is deliciously tense. Not since the Ravenholm level in Half-Life 2 have mid-2000’s first-person shooters felt this creepy.

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I don’t suppose telling them to execute Order 66 would do anything?

Hand-in-hand with F.E.A.R.‘s satisfying shooter gameplay is its varied level design. While the gameplay of F.E.A.R. is classically shooter, the level design is classically horror. In order for the Point Man to get to the action, he has to traverse miles of gutted buildings, dark hallways and abandoned offices first. These environments are maze-like, almost labyrinthine, and it can be easy to get turned around. This setup is perfect for any game attempting a grim, forbidding atmosphere, as the Point Man navigates past upturned furniture, blood stains, and other telltale signs of a situation gone horribly wrong.

Even though the transitions from corridors to skyscrapers to laboratories is a welcome way to keep things interesting, F.E.A.R. could’ve used a few more texture and color palettes. For all their variety in paths and elevations, this game’s environments blend together pretty incoherently, with a small handful of samey textures spread over way too many levels. The physical design of each level guarantees a measure of interest, but it becomes impossible to distinguish one block of tan cubicles from another after the Point Man has seen one for the umpteenth time. The textures look remarkable for a game that came out in 2005, but more visual variety atop the level design would’ve made the game more compelling.

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Please choose something besides gunmetal grey. Even if it’s just every 10th warehouse, that would be great.

Though the texture variety in F.E.A.R. needs work, this game looks quite impressive despite being 11 years old. The character animations are surprisingly smooth, and the game has some beautiful light and shadow effects. Like any developer seeking to make a good horror game, Monolith understood that the interplay between light and shadow is crucial to creating tension. Even the game’s most brightly lit areas are lit dourly, with lots of flickering lights and pitch-black rooms to round out the spooky.

Further reinforcing the atmosphere is the game’s haunting soundtrack, a mix of low sounds that can make the skin crawl. Monolith also got quite creative with the game’s sound design, mixing startling noises with equally startling visuals. The ringing cell phone inside the bloody ceiling is one such example of a game that uses audio to lure players into unpleasant visual ambushes, and it’s a brilliant setup. Not all of F.E.A.R.‘s audio visual gimmicks are brilliant, though. The game supports modern resolutions, but every single piece of text in the game is, like, a 5-point font. It’s not clear why F.E.A.R.‘s in-game text is so tiny, but just a heads-up; it’s tiny.

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Hey! I need you to read me something when we’re done!

The plot at the center of all these lights and shadows is serviceable, if a bit too compacted. For one thing, F.E.A.R. is divided into way too many levels. Each one takes little time to do and begins and ends with the exact same prompt: find Paxton Fettel. Indeed, nearly every mission has that exact same objective, and if that’s the case, why put a mission screen there at all? It’s a relic of a bygone era of game design, to be sure, but it’s also quite conspicuous. Didn’t find Fettel in this level? Well, don’t worry! Guess what’ll happen in the next level?

Additionally, most of the dialogue in F.E.A.R. revolves around military tactics and acronyms. Get this dude. Bash down this door. Empty a clip into that bad guy. And boom, we’re Oscar Mike! The game does feature some exposition, but it’s all compacted into voice mails and laptops that the Point Man finds lying around. Sure, they contain some interesting information, like how Fettel might be trying to free a woman rumored to be imprisoned beneath the Auburn district, but many of the conversations on these machines feel repetitive. Additionally, not a single one is an essential objective, so players have to go out of their way to find exposition instead of having it just woven into the narrative. None of this is to say that the narrative F.E.A.R. has isn’t interesting, but its delivery is ham-fisted. There’s also not much character development to be had, as the Point Man is a silent character and NPCs go as quickly as they chime in.

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Do you guys feel like telling me where your boss is? No. Alright then.

Some of the scares in F.E.A.R. can also feel unfair, in that they’re mostly jumpscares. Until the Point Man reaches the innermost depths of the Auburn District, the scares he encounters are cheap illusions that disappear as soon as they provoke a jump. Every so often, the Point Man will get jumped by something genuinely scary: a mute special ops clone ninja thing, but these encounters are rare indeed. F.E.A.R. creates sufficient terror in its level design, but Monolith wasn’t confident enough in this to not conjure some cheap tricks on top of it.

Not to worry, though, because F.E.A.R.‘s well, fear, becomes more pronounced in the two expansion packs bundled along with the main game. The first, Extraction Point, continues the Point Man’s fight to get out of the Auburn district. The second and far superior pack, Perseus Mandate, expands the lore of the F.E.A.R. universe and pits a new player character against a new enemy faction. Extraction Point doesn’t contain much to write home about, least of all the abject lack of modern resolution options, but Perseus Mandate contains much better writing and dialogue. Both expansion packs are worth playing for the satisfying gunplay. Monolith doesn’t consider either canon, as their development was outsourced to Vivendi, but hey; they’re still fun to play.

fear9

Hey! He owed me money!

Even though F.E.A.R.‘s narrative is too tightly condensed and its levels can get a bit repetitive, it remains one of the 2000’s most criminally underrated shooters. Horror and action fans alike should pick this up immediately, as its intoxicating atmosphere and full, satisfying gunplay evokes the best of both genres. The expansion packs, despite being made outside of Monolith, faithfully follow the main game’s blueprint in offering a mysterious, visceral gameplay experience. F.E.A.R. may not always understand the true meaning of horror in a video game, but it scratches enough of that itch to be worthy of any thrill-seeker’s time.

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You can buy F.E.A.R. 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.