Month: February 2017

Trackmania 2

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Tear down gorgeous racetracks and leave your opponents in the dust.

PC Release: September 14, 2011

By Ian Coppock

Video games have a way of eliciting high energy in a way that movies and television cannot. A movie about sword fighting can be exciting, but as seen in For Honor, it can’t touch the thrill of actually controlling the experience. That vivid excitement takes many forms in video games’ various genres, from the hack’n’slash gameplay of For Honor to the survival thrill of Amnesia: The Dark Descent. For some players, it comes in the form of high-speed, high-octane racing, and those are things that Trackmania 2, the subject of today’s review, has in spades.

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Trackmania 2 is a glossy racing game created by Nadeo, the French driving enthusiasts behind the original Trackmania titles. In a break with pretty much every other racing game out there, Trackmania 2 was developed and released as a series of standalone episodes. Each episode features a different environment; Canyons, the first episode, was released in 2011, followed by Stadium and Valley in 2013. Much like the original Trackmania, each episode features dozens of racetracks categorized by difficulty. They’re restricted to the environments of their respective episodes, but each episode features an impressive variety of roads, terrain and difficulty.

Trackmania 2 also features something a bit less welcome than variety: lots of DRM. Each episode comes packed with Nadeo’s super-fun, extra-large, no-holds-barred Maniaplanet DRM. It’s a bit of a pain to set up and much more so if players forget their login code, but it does allow one player profile to span all three episodes. Racing fans who quake at the thought of three separate Trackmania 2 careers can breathe easy… once they sign up for Nadeo’s newsletter and ultra-awesome online ecosystem.

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DRM: the end of fun.

Once they’ve created an account, players can immediately jump into Trackmania 2‘s circuits and start tearing it up on the asphalt. Players can compete against a developer ghost for bronze, silver and gold medals. Medals grant tokens, which players can use to build their own tracks. Of course, players can also find other racers online and blaze new trails mano-a-mano. This mode is where the real fun of Trackmania 2 comes out, since human drivers are so much less predictable than robots.

Trackmania 2 has made some format deviations from its predecessor that ultimately slim down the formula. The game pulls back all of the stunt, puzzle and other modes that were present in Trackmania in favor of a focus on pure racing. Though this costs Trackmania 2 some variety, it does save players from wasting time navigating a bewildering wilderness of menus. Trackmania 2 also comes with a fantastic options menu allowing for control of anti-aliasing, field of view, draw distance, texture quality, and everything else PC gamers love. If Nadeo fell behind by slapping another layer of DRM upon players, at least they made it possible to modify every aspect of the Trackmania 2 experience for every rig.

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Pimp your game with ALL the options.

Trackmania 2 takes hitting the racetrack into a whole new gear of fun. As previously alluded to, each of Trackmania 2‘s episodes contains some outstanding level design variety. It’s dangerous to write each episode’s tracks off as identical because of their grander environments — the backdrops may look similar, but the track arrangements do not. Players can glide between brisk canyon drives, gravity-defying loop de loops, or simple circular tracks as they see fit. The sheer amount of variety in Trackmania 2 is not only consistent between episodes, but also meshes well with the game’s gradual difficulty increase.

For a racing game to preserve its variety and difficulty curve in tandem is relatively rare for the genre. Many racing games define their tiers of difficulty by singular environments; tier 1 racetracks are circular, tier 2 racetracks are jumpy, so on and so forth. Trackmania 2 preserves many types of racetrack over many levels of difficulty, making it possible for players of all skill levels to enjoy the same level design concepts.

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Whether it’s a tier 1 dirt field or tier 4 dirt field… you can still race across a damn dirt field.

The beauty of Trackmania 2‘s environments also bears pointing out. Even a few years on, the game’s environments still look beautiful and draw the eye whenever the player strays away from focusing on the road. Some of the environments’ skyboxes are functionally identical, but the assortment of in-game objects is just as varied as the racetracks they orbit. Each episode’s environments pop with bright, varied colors and lots of environmental detail. Not all of these environments are realistic, especially the loop-de-loop over a wind farm, but they’re pretty.

And speaking of pretty, it’s high time to discuss the cars, the incredible machines at the heart of Trackmania 2. The original Trackmania had some car troubles of its own, not the least of which were the appallingly muddy car paint jobs. That problem has had the crap corrected out of it in Trackmania 2; vehicles’ paint jobs and decals are clearly defined and glint realistically against whatever lighting is on the circuit. As with Trackmania, players can customize their vehicles’ look to suit almost any taste. The only drawback here is that each episode of Trackmania 2 features only one kind of vehicle to drive, which is a shame. Paint jobs are all well and good, but the true source of any racing gamer’s pride is a unique set of wheels. Forcing everyone to drive the exact same kind of car, while understandable for fairness purposes, is a bit of a letdown.

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I bet my Lamborghini sports car is better than your Lamborghini sports car.

Even though Trackmania 2 has slimmed down its modes and consolidated its racetracks, one mode that it (crucially) did preserve was a Trackmania crown jewel: the level editor. Using tokens earned from successful races, players can design and build their own Trackmania tracks and upload them to the Nadeo-verse for everyone to enjoy. The base episodes already pack impressive variety, but this system ensures that Trackmania 2‘s courses are as varied as its players are imaginative. There’s a lot of fun to be had in sitting down and building a track, and even more in sharing it with people. Besides, it gives players the chance to scratch that little kid Hot Wheels itch of building ridiculous jumps.

Trackmania 2 also added more multi-lap races to its base collection of circuits. Too many of the tracks in the original Trackmania were one-lap vignettes that, while fun, caused the adrenaline to die down just as it was ramping up. Trackmania 2 features that same kind of setup, but there are many more three-lap racing circuits with more intricate setups. It’s a nice way to round out the options for players and create, frankly, more interesting multiplayer experiences.

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More laps, more fun, more time to catch that thieving fiend in first place.

The other factor informing Trackmania 2‘s solo and multiplayer experiences is how the cars handle. The vehicles in Trackmania 2 feature near-instant acceleration (unsurprising considering how short the races are) and might as well be magnetized to the track for how well they grip the asphalt. Nadeo did add some off-road segments where the cars’ handling becomes much more slippery, but these are relatively rare. Any racing game with this many jumps should have aerodynamic cars, a checkbox that Trackmania 2 easily overtakes. The vehicles’ steering ratio feels balanced — no risk of careening into space with a tap of an arrow key.

Equally problem-free is Trackmania 2‘s PC performance. Much like the original Trackmania games, these episodes can run even on budget machines and produce no in-game lag or physics bugs. The game may lag a bit after a track’s been selected, but that’s a microscopic flaw in an otherwise flawless core. Plus, with all of the options packed into Trackmania 2‘s menus, players have good odds of tweaking their way out of any performance issues they might find. Quite the pit crew you’ve got there, Nadeo.

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Nothing better than a summer evening drive.

Trackmania 2 crosses the finish line with flying colors (or flying carpets, as Trailer Park Boys‘ Ricky might say). It runs bug-free, its cars handle well, and its diverse palette of tracks ensure hours upon hours of entertainment. Its level editor allows for further versatility, and its comprehensive options menu gives PC players the flexibility to tweak the game for their best racing experience. The thrill of racing is most intimately captured in a video game, and Trackmania 2 is a game that does that exceptionally well. Racing fans (and any gamer who’s thinking of becoming a racing fan) should look to add the Trackmania 2 series to their library as soon as possible. It’s quite the thrill ride.

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You can buy Trackmania 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.

 

For Honor

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Hack and slash your way through a gritty medieval battlefield.

PC Release: February 14, 2017

By Ian Coppock

It’ll come as a complete shock, but most geeks are drawn to the medieval period by the arms and armaments. What a plot twist, huh? Who’d have guessed that the notion of dudes killing each other with swords is more interesting than herding sheep or researching crop rotation. The politics can be interesting, to be fair, but how often are matters settled at the negotiating table instead of by the sword? Settling disputes with swords is what drives everyone from toddlers wearing cardboard armor to the choreographers on Game of Thrones. It’s also what drove the development of For Honor, Ubisoft’s new slashing epic and the subject of this evening’s review.

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For Honor is a third-person medieval hack’n’slasher developed by Ubisoft’s Montreal studio, who developed such hits as Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and such non-hits as Assassin’s Creed Unity. The game was widely anticipated following its first unveiling and represents new territory for Ubisoft. Indeed, the studio has committed the rarest of triple-A gaming stunts by being willing to both foray into a new genre and even develop a new IP! Who knew that experimentation with new stories and the willingness to take risks were still alive in the big-budget industry?

Anyway, For Honor is set in a fictional medieval world that puts the cultures of heroic knights, bloodthirsty Vikings, and vicious samurai in very close proximity with each other. What could possibly go wrong with that arrangement? Well, quite a bit. As the game’s prologue explains, the world of For Honor is torn apart by constant conflict. It’s kind of a given that three highly militaristic cultures placed across narrow seas from each other would break out into fisticuffs every so often, but that idea of ceaseless warfare is the central motif of For Honor. It certainly translates into more literal multiplayer action.

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War. War never changes. Oh wait, wrong series.

For Honor is a class-based game that focuses heavily on multiplayer battles. Each of the game’s three civilizations has its army broken up into four classes, varying from lightweight assassins like the Knights’ Peacekeeper to the Samurai’s ultra-heavy Shugoki infantry. Each class’s weapons and armor correspond roughly to a lightweight-heavyweight scale, though some warriors, like the Kensei, are somewhat specialized. The variety this system affords is somewhat hamstrung by most of the classes being functionally identical across multiple civilizations. The Vikings’ Raider and the Knights’ Lawbringer, for example, have roughly the same heavy-weapon gameplay.

For Honor‘s combat is doled out through the Art of Battle, a melee system that combines the Free-Flow combat system from the Batman: Arkham series with some of the free-hitting freedom in Chivalry: Medieval Warfare. Using their mouse, players can control the direction that their warrior defends attacks from, choosing either flank or above the head. Likewise, attackers use this tri-directional system to attack their opponent. It should go without saying, but if an attacker hits the same side their opponent is defending against, the strike is blocked. Attackers can pick between light or heavy swings and can employ some good ole button combos for unique and powerful attacks.

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Staying alive in For Honor means anticipating your opponents’ attacks… and responding in kind.

Though the Art of Battle is a neat little system that simplifies the complexities of sword fighting pretty well, the system is essentially a game of rock paper scissors. Hitting where the opponent is not facing and vice-versa gets stale alarmingly quickly. Even throwing in the game’s admittedly fluid dodge system does little to alleviate the tedium. It’s unfortunate, but For Honor‘s hedged combat system feels underwhelming after a few hours in the game. That’s a bit of a problem for a game that billed itself as a melee slasher.

As with many multiplayer games, players can advance themselves over a career of fighting in the field. Experience is gained from killing enemies and capturing objectives, and then spent on new duds, perks and items. For Honor‘s customization isn’t exactly a deal-un-breaker after its so-so combat, but it is impressively deep. Players can pick all sorts of clothing for their character and design their own insignia (about 90% of which are penises, but let’s be fair, that’s par for the course in the Internet age).

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Ser Ian, of the House Coppock. My words are “Anyone not stabbing at what I’m stabbing at BECOMES what I’m stabbing at!”

After kitting out their character with the appropriate weapons and phallic regalia, players can take to the battlefield in For Honor‘s persistent war zones. The game is set up as a series of battlefronts, where the three factions duke it out for control of the land. Ubisoft has instituted a season system for this setup, meaning that at the end of one season, the lines will be drawn to reflect how each faction did, and that will serve as the basis for the next season. It’s cool that each season leaves a permanent mark on subsequent matches.

Players can pick any of these battles to engage in. They can also pick whichever character they want even if that character’s civ isn’t represented in the coming battle, so players can still be a Samurai in a Knight-Viking match. For Honor gives players a wide range of modes, from a full-scale battle to the more intimate setting of a one-on-one duel. Each mode impacts the wider battlefront no matter the scale of conflict, which is a nice touch.

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Alrighty. Let’s go ahead and conquer Gondor, the Seven Kingdoms, and then march into Vizima for lunch.

Although For Honor‘s duels and four-versus-four skirmishes are fun, Dominion mode is where the game really comes alive. This mode puts a squad of four players at the head of hundreds of NPC troops. If ever there was a game for fulfilling that fantasy of charging into battle at the head of an army, For Honor is it. In Dominion, players have to seize as much territory in a full-scale battlefield as possible, pushing back against enemy forces while also watching out for enemy players. For Honor‘s gameplay can get stale, but the scale and ferocity of these matches goes a long way toward prolonging that staleness.

All of the fun to be had in For Honor comes with one small caveat: overcoming the game’s numerous server issues. As of the first few days of launch, For Honor has an unfortunate tendency to somehow not find Ubisoft’s servers, leaving many players stranded without a match or being able to even access the game. For Honor is able to almost always hold at 60 fps and has an in-depth options menu to help players having performance issues, but the constant server errors are embarrassing coming from a major developer. Ubisoft has pledged fixes, and has learned its lesson on delaying those after Assassin’s Creed Unity, but players itching to buy this game immediately should be aware of this problem.

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Thanks player, but the battle is in another castle!

As previously mentioned, though, For Honor runs well when a server can be found. Expect a bit of a frame drop when the screen is packed with warriors, but For Honor can chug some of the biggest matches and still present everything at a great visual fidelity. It’s nice to see that Ubisoft is taking its PC ports seriously; sure, For Honor hasn’t been without some performance complaints, but this ain’t no Unity. It and other recent successful PC ports, like Watch Dogs 2, point to Ubisoft actually receiving and implementing feedback from customers. Ya done good, Ubisoft. Ya done good.

Anyway, to return to visual fidelity for a moment, For Honor also looks great. The environments are richly detailed with sharp textures and bright colors. Character animations are silky smooth (lag errors don’t count) and the battlefield environments are a sight to behold. Great flaming castles and Japanese swamp temples add that compelling element to For Honor that its gameplay fumbles a bit. From the color of characters’ armor to the breadth and depth of the environments, players won’t be hurting for things to look at in this game. For Honor‘s decent sound design also helps — the roar of a player’s army and the sickening crunch of blade against head are tremendously satisfying.

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Absolutely astonishing.

For Honor‘s multiplayer experience isn’t groundbreaking, but damn if it isn’t fun to crest a column of troops and jump in ax swinging. The game has another mode that was little marketed and no one really asked for: a painfully obligatory Story Mode that tries to add some lore and color to Ubisoft’s epic new world. Again, this was a mode that few For Honor players asked for, and one that Ubisoft developed with a comparable level of disinterest.

Story Mode is split into three short campaigns that each follow the game’s three civilizations. Players are given a cadre of shallow, forgettable characters that each correspond to that civ’s classes, rounded out with some painfully awkward dialogue and forced (really, really forced) attempts at humor. Basically, the three factions are manipulated into fighting each other by an evil warlord named Apollyon, who believes mankind is at its best when people are… always… fighting? That’s literally the plot’s driving force. For Honor‘s Story Mode isn’t the worst big-budget narrative ever penned, and its missions can be fun, but do not buy this game for its “story.”

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Story Mode is a glorified tutorial. Better to stick to multiplayer.

Even though For Honor doesn’t reinvent the wheel or hit every note with its gameplay and as-yet-unfixed server errors, the game is still quite absorbing. It scratches that epic fantasy itch of leading an army into battle and killing everything in sight with a big sword. Despite its flaws, it largely succeeds in presenting the aforementioned motif of persistent combat. Hopefully Ubisoft rounds out its world with more lore to make it more compelling to fight for, but the Dominion matches are quite compelling on their own. Pick the game up and lead an army into battle. Maybe don’t draw a dick as the battle sigil though…

…Oh who am I kidding.

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You can buy For Honor 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.

Dead End Road

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Elude monsters and other frights on your way to see an old witch.

PC Release: July 8, 2016

Ian Coppock

Too often, the Sunday retro review is offered up as a reprieve from the terrors of a horror game review on Wednesday. A chance to sit back and relax on the last day before the workweek. But maybe some readers don’t want a lazy Sunday. Maybe a reprieve is needed from the charming puzzle game, and the shape of that reprieve should be a horror game. Yes! Maybe things need to be shaken up a bit around here. And maybe, just maybe, it’s time to take a trip down Dead End Road.

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Dead End Road is a horror driving game (you read that correctly) from the folks at DDD Wares, a small indie studio. Dead End Road is a rogue-like game with permadeath and procedurally generated levels, but, whether intentionally or not, it’s also an homage to the games of the original PlayStation. Each round of Dead End Road is relatively short, but each one is also potent and brimming with surprisingly visceral terror.

Dead End Road takes place in an autumnal English countryside. The game begins as the protagonist, a nameless down-on-his-luck Brit, is wrapping up a visit to a strange old woman. The old crone’s given our leading character an artifact that can grant wishes, provided he/she/they also perform a ritual in their house. A granted wish sounds phenomenal, but there’s something just a little off about this old woman. Could it be that she lives alone in a creepy old house? Or that that house is in the middle of nowhere? Oh well. What have details ever done for horror game protagonists?

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Oh yeah, THIS seems legit.

Anyway, the main character returns to their house on the other side of the countryside from the crone’s place and begins the ritual. Things don’t go quite according to plan. How so, one might ask? Well, the player initiates the arcane ritual expecting a granted wish, but instead gets a giant screaming monster with huge jaws bursting into their house. Scared witless, the protagonist does what few horror game protagonists seem to think of: leave the house, get in the car, and drive as far away as possible. Unfortunately for the would-be ritual performer, getting away from the monsters isn’t as simple as driving.

Did the old woman mention what to do if the ritual didn’t go as planned? Actually, yes. Buy three items (randomly determined in each playthrough) and bring them to her house. With them, she can cast a counter-spell to banish the monster and save the player’s life. Thus begins a harrowing odyssey through the nighttime English countryside, as the player braves unforeseen horrors on the road and in their mind.

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See? Just a delivery truck. We’re fine, everything’s fine-WAZZATNOISE

In Dead End Road, players have to drive back to the old woman’s house visited at the very start of the game. The game is played from behind the wheel of a souped-up old car, which the player has to use to drive across the countryside. Getting to the crone’s place isn’t as simple as a nighttime drive, though. The player’s most immediate problem are the ghouls, ghosts and other obstacles that are suddenly haunting the road. Dodge the obstacles, and the player might make it to the old woman’s hovel in one piece. Run into things, and, well… hopefully the protagonist has good auto insurance.

Now, the phrase “suddenly haunting the road” is quite literal, as all sorts of things suddenly appear on the road for the player to swerve past. These threats alternate between something relatively banal, like a car suddenly speeding toward the player, to something much more heart-stopping, like an eyeless demon suddenly riding shotgun. Players’ only hope for survival is to drive carefully and have quick reflexes. These events are tricked out with sudden flashes of light and loud noises, so, yeah, pretty startling.

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This is what happens without careful driving.

The monsters and bad drivers aren’t the only things players have to watch out for. Terrified drivers can’t get far without fuel or an intact car, and so Dead End Road forces players to maintain their vehicle throughout the game. Players do start out with some spare cash for buying gasoline (or petrol, as it’s called on that side of the pond) and paying for car repairs. Players can also buy stimulants to help keep them alert, but don’t go too crazy; some of that money will be needed for the three items the old lady needs for the counter-ritual.

If the player is buying items, that must mean not all of Dead End Road is spent on, well, the road. The game’s twisting road of darkness is broken up by small English towns at which the player can stop to recuperate for a spell before hitting the highway. There are about two dozen such towns in Dead End Road, but the player needn’t visit all of them; just pick whichever route to the old woman’s house best suits the protagonist. Each town is also pretty much identical, with a slightly tweaked mix of stops manned by dead-eyed misers.

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Yes, thank God the dark alley is open this late at night.

After filling the tank and buying whatever the crone needs, the player gets back on the road to spend a few tense minutes avoiding baby carriages, other cars, and whatever else might show up in the dead of night. The driving sections are tense, as these threats show up unnaturally quickly and can turn a nighttime sortie into a front-page auto accident. Driving might also be made more difficult by adverse weather, demonic apparitions, and other effects. Players can track how much further they have to go between towns; this relieves some of the anxiety about hitting something, but it can also make some driving segments seem unnaturally long. Then again, this is an unnatural night.

Avoiding obstacles is the name of Dead End Road‘s game. It makes for a meaty (literally) challenge, and it also has a decent, gradual difficulty climb. This should sate horror players and twitch speedsters looking for a new challenge. The game does have permadeath, though, meaning that if the player dies anywhere on the journey, they have to start the entire game over. Some players might be turned off by this notion, especially if they die close to the end of a run, but it heightens the horror tension to know that this is the one chance to get to the crone’s house intact. No checkpoints, no hand-holding. Just try to get to the crone’s house in one piece.

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Those raindrops in the distance are red… I’m sure it’s nothing!

For better and for worse, Dead End Road honors the PlayStation era. The “better” portion of that homage is the game’s aesthetic, a colorful low-fi design that looks right at home alongside Spyro the Dragon and Fighting Force. It’s a tastefully done representation of games from that era, with cars that look straight out of Toad’s Turnpike from Mario Kart. Character models and other in-game objects are likewise low-fi, but not so much as to be inscrutable. Any PlayStation OGs or players yearning for simpler times will find a decent world in Dead End Road, sans some of the jumpscares.

The only issue with emulating the low-fi era of video games is that Dead End Road also inherits that era’s less-than-stellar sound design. A few characters in the game speak out loud, but the soundbits are so garbled that they’re basically unintelligible. This is a particular problem with the demon jumpscare, when a demon pops into the player’s back seat and gives instructions on how to make him go away. Problem is, he sounds like his mouth is full of static and peanut butter, and if his will isn’t done, he kills the player. All of the game’s sound effects are similarly muffled by static. It’s a nice touch for players seeking the nostalgia factor, but logistically it’s a bit of a problem.

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This is one of those games where a passing train sounds like a surround sound system getting tasered.

Really, though, the sound design is Dead End Road‘s only serious flaw. Everything else is a well-implemented piece of a greater horror atmosphere. There’s no beating the tension of driving along the road, never knowing if Satan will hop in the car or if another vehicle will suddenly come roaring into your windshield. Things are little calmer in the towns, where creepy, unfriendly shopkeepers follow the player’s every move as they peruse old shelves. The permadeath risks being too frustrating for players to enjoy the atmosphere, but it’s a roundabout way of making Dead End Road even tenser.

With such a heavy emphasis on driving, there’s not much room for character development or an intricate plot. Inveterate horror games might have a few guesses as to what the crone can do to break this unfortunate protagonist’s spell. Maybe it depends on the items she wants, or perhaps the condition of the player’s car when and if they arrive. Dead End Road becomes even more compelling in that way, as the player is driven as much by the terrors on the highway as the hope of breaking whatever hell he/she/they has unleashed.

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NO! GET AWAY FROM ME!

In closing, Dead End Road is a delightful little jaunt onto a monster-infested highway, complete with the management of very finite resources and the need for quick reflexes. Its old-school aesthetic fits the game’s dark theme well, and its sound design does a hit-or-miss job of rounding out the atmosphere. It’s not often that horror and racing fans find common ground, but Dead End Road aptly blends both genres into a novel horror adventure. Take off onto the roads of nighttime Britain to see if the curse can be broken. Surely, the backfire of the old crone’s gift was an accident…

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You can buy Dead End Road 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.

Portal 2

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Find a way out of a labyrinthine, robot-riddled laboratory.

PC Release: April 19, 2011

By Ian Coppock

There’s no denying the allure of puzzle games. Players who are put off by their potential difficulty risk missing out on that sweet sense of accomplishment that comes with their completion. Indeed, that sense of accomplishment is arguably sweeter than that of any other genre, since puzzles engage the mind in a way shooting bad guys or motoring down a raceway cannot. Since the game that was originally slated to be reviewed today won’t run, this is an excellent opportunity to write all about Portal 2, one of gaming’s most beloved puzzle-fests.

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Portal 2 is a game that requires little introduction. Like many properties of the almighty Valve Corporation, it’s as much a piece of pop culture as it is a titan of the video game world. If someone hasn’t played the game, they probably recognize the iconic Companion Cube. Or they’ve heard the iconic (and traumatic) line, “the cake is a lie.” Though it released over half a decade ago, Portal 2 remains a staple of fun puzzle gameplay and comedic impersonations the gaming world over. So why isn’t it being reviewed on this page until now?

Well, like many things in life, Portal 2 got lost in the shuffle. But now there’s an opportunity both revisit a beloved classic and plug a serious hole in this page’s back catalog. Besides, with all the surreal and horror games reviewed here recently, a few puzzles thrown together with clever writing and exceptional level design never hurt anyone.

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Ooooh… shiny! Well, hmm, no, not really.

The original Portal was designed and released alongside Team Fortress 2 and Half-Life 2: Episode Two, back when the delay on Half-Life games was only a year or so. Though Valve intended Half-Life 2: Episode Two to be the star of the trio, Portal ended up stealing the gaming world’s heart much more than anyone anticipated. Between its puzzle-platformer gameplay, its intriguing world, and some stellar writing, Portal became one of gamedom’s very favorite odysseys — a title it still holds today. Valve promptly began working on a sequel and released it about four years later, though many fans were irritated that the studio hadn’t spent that time working on Half-Life 3 (ahem.)

Anyway, Portal 2 takes place some time after the events of the original game, in which a tenacious test subject named Chell wakes up in the abandoned labs of Aperture Science and engages in a battle of wits with a sarcastic, sadistic AI named GlaDOS. Though Chell survives the endless test chambers, thanks in no small part to her handy-dandy portal gun, she nonetheless remains trapped in the facility. With nothing better to do, she enters suspended animation, only to be woken up who knows how many years later by a knock at her door.

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GASP, yay!

Chell opens her door and befriends a spherical little robot named Wheatley, who’s woken her up to ask for her help in escaping Aperture Science. He reasons that the two stand a better chance if they try to escape from the labs together, an assessment that silent character Chell apparently agrees with. Together, the two venture out of Chell’s suspension chamber and into the vast, untamed wilderness that the labs have grown into. Portal 2 nixes mentioning exactly how long Chell’s been asleep, but given that there are now forests in the place of break rooms, it’s safe to say… a long time.

It’s not too terribly long before Chell finds a portal gun, the amazing inter-dimensional device that serves as the true star of the Portal series. With it, Chell can create interconnected doorways on most flat surfaces and walk instantly between them, a gimmick that also powers most of Portal 2‘s puzzles. Escaping the lab quickly becomes the least of Chell’s problems, though, as Wheatley accidentally reawakens a vengeful GlaDOS from years of slumber. It will take all of Chell’s wits, and her skill with a portal gun, to outwit Aperture’s malicious administrator a second time.

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No! Go back to sleep, go back to sleep!

With GlaDOS reactivated and the facility turning back to its pristine panels, Chell’s got her mission of escaping Aperture once and for all cut out for her. She’ll usually have only herself to rely on, as Wheatley, while well-meaning, ain’t exactly the brightest of bots. All the while, Chell also has to endure constant taunts and threats from GlaDOS, who intends on exacting her revenge in some unspeakable way. Chell will have to solve puzzles and elude traps in order to make it out. At least, if she wants to be… still alive. (Ba dum tss.)

Just like its predecessor, Portal 2 is a first-person puzzle game that relies on portals as its chief problem-solving mechanic. The game makes a few major breaks from the original Portal, extending far beyond the original’s hour-long length for a full 8-10 hours of puzzling. As Chell progresses, the game also adds a few traps and gadgets not seen in the last game, including laser-redirecting cubes and splashy gels that ignore the laws of physics.

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Oh yes, and we can’t leave out the gravity beams.

In its purest form, the goal of Portal 2 is to solve a puzzle chamber. Usually this entails finding a block to hold down a button to hold open a door so Chell can leave the area. Players can use their portal gun to access difficult vantage points and manipulate the environment around them. Can’t reach that block over there? Pop a portal onto the wall behind it, walk through, and grab it right quick. The game starts players out on a few easy chambers… actually, the exact starter chambers as the first Portal, but they gradually ramp up in difficulty. Chell also has to use her gun to navigate Aperture’s long-abandoned environs in sequences that, while not cordoned-off puzzle chambers, are about as challenging.

It’s Portal 2‘s smooth learning curve and fun with portals that make Portal 2 so endearing. Though few would suspect otherwise of a Valve-made game, Portal 2 really is a well-designed title. The game does a great job at gradually introducing new items, and then new ideas of what to do with those items, over and over until its conclusion. It’s also not afraid to mix those items and situations together to produce a new conundrum. Though Portal 2‘s puzzles get longer and more difficult, the game does well at equipping players for the path ahead. This game’s toughest puzzles are also of a considerably larger scale than Portal‘s, resulting in a longer sequel that preserves the original’s sense of pacing. Overall, the gameplay is a pretty solid package that leaves little room for complaints.

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Ooooooh.

Portal 2‘s visuals have aged a tiny bit in the last six years, particularly in regards to texture detail. The game still manages to impress with its vast color palette, expanding beyond the stark white of the original and incorporating faded colors for Aperture’s older areas. Again, because this is a Valve game, every option and its mother is represented in the game’s comprehensive menu. Tweak this, slide that, whatever needs to be done to get the game to work on PC, Portal 2 can match it.

Even more than the visuals, though, Portal 2‘s excellent voice acting is what completes the game’s curious atmosphere. Ellen McLain reprises the role of GlaDOS, as sarcastic and clinical as ever, while British comedian Stephen Merchant makes Wheatley video gaming’s most lovable idiot. Even more impressive than either of these stellar performances, though, is the voice work of J.K. Simmons, who was brought on to voice eccentric Aperture CEO Cave Johnson. Though Johnson is long dead by the time the game begins, his legacy lives on in voice recordings that play in the older areas of Aperture. Nothing that Simmons voices can afford to be missed, especially Cave’s hilariously inept introduction to decades-gone “new arrivals.”

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Lasers. Why does it always have to be lasers?

Decent visuals and physics puzzles are all well and good, but what truly gives Portal 2 its intrigue is its atmosphere. The game aptly blends some seriously cool sci-fi with some of gaming’s most laugh-out-loud dialogue. Portal 2 uses this mix of ooohs and laughs to strike the same absurdist vein of black comedy that made Portal so iconic. From oddly specific anti-meteorite policies to Cave Johnson’s mantis-man initiative, Portal 2 doesn’t lack for things to laugh at. GlaDOS returns with a more acidic brand of jokes than she had in Portal, lacing threats to kill Chell into gags about her weight and French fashion designers.

Inlaid in the dialogue and humor, though, is a surprisingly poignant narrative that fleshes out what Portal began and adds new perspective to its small but poignant cast of characters. Chell realizes that there’s much more to Aperture when she stumbles into a condemned area of the facility, and learns that there might be more to GLaDOS than a sadistic robot with a flair for cake. Wheatley, expressly programmed to be dumb, is far more than the archetypal village idiot, and undergoes quite a character arc of his own. None of the same can be said for the silent Chell, but that’s okay; the myriad of interwoven subplots and sci-fi lore is plenty sufficient. Similarly to Half-Life, the player is meant to be a silent observer, whose experiences and those of the main character are one in the same.

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Silly, slippery, science-y fun.

Overall, Portal 2 is a watertight title with top-notch production values and that runs bug-free on PC. That last one is a godsend in a world now dominated by broken day-one releases. Six years on, the game remains an avidly competitive and ambitious puzzle game. Other puzzle-y games, like Quantum Conundrum, have attempted to wrest some of Portal 2‘s stardom away with no success. Some players have noted what they see as flaws in the game, like the Cave Johnson section being much longer than the rest of the title, but it’s honestly difficult to find concrete flaws in Portal 2‘s design.

As for those two robots on the cover art, Portal 2 includes a second full-length campaign set sometime after the main story that follows those little guys as they try to make an escape of their own. The kicker is that this campaign is co-op; its story isn’t anywhere near as strong as that of the main game, but damn if it isn’t fun. The puzzles return, but with the added novelty of requiring two bodies to solve them instead of one. Those are fun too, whenever killing your teammate with shifting ceiling blocks gets old.

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I’ve seen some slip’n’slides in my time, but damn!

Portal 2 has little that even the biggest skeptics wouldn’t crack a smile at. It has fun, tightly designed puzzle gameplay, an intriguing central narrative, and some truly memorable voice acting. As a whole, it’s a wicked (and wickedly funny) experience that will leave players truly remiss when the exit, whatever form it takes, finally looms into view. Play the first game if you haven’t already, and then dive into the hilariously absurd scientific madhouse that is Portal 2. As Cave Johnson might put it, the worst that could probably happen with the time put into the game is missing out on a few rounds of Canasta later in life.

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You can buy Portal 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.

Wheels of Aurelia

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Discuss communism, feminism and everything in-between on a 70’s Italian road trip.

PC Release: September 20, 2016

By Ian Coppock

Part of what makes many indie games so fascinating is their novel settings. From the remotest corners of Wyoming (Firewatch) to the deepest depths of the ocean (Abzu), indie games go places that many big-budget games refuse to touch. Of course, in rejecting these intriguing settings, big-budget games forsake the novelty that has made indie games the saving grace of the gaming industry for so long. Today’s game, Wheels of Aurelia, continues the indie emphasis on novelty, with a setting never before explored in video games and with plenty of deep subject matter to boot.

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Wheels of Aurelia is a top-down driving adventure game that was released just last fall. The game is set in 1972 Italy, a time and place video games rarely visit (even separately), with period-appropriate subject matter and an interesting take on narrative structure. Players assume the role of Lella, a young Italian woman who abhors authority of any kind, as she tours Italy’s west coast in her sports car. She’s destined to meet all sorts of interesting characters along the way. Whom she meets (and under what circumstances), is up to the player to decide.

Wheels of Aurelia is an exotic blend of top-down racing and choice-based adventure gameplay. Lella can take off to any number of locations in her car, and where she chooses to go influences who she might bump into. Her sidekick in these adventures is a shy young woman named Olga, who seems desperate to get to France for reasons she keeps to herself. Together, the two women encounter all sorts of odd characters while discussing life and society in post-fascist Italy. Players divide their time between keeping an eye on the road and choosing Lella’s responses to conversation a la Mass Effect.

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Let’s go for a ride.

Wheels of Aurelia seems quite ambitious from the get-go, intent on discussing a time period that few remember and a segment of Italian history that everyone’s forgotten about. Though the driving is the most immediate gameplay in Wheels of Aurelia, it’s just a means to an end. The “end” is the fascinating conversations about 70’s Italian history, culture and issues of the time. Because 1970’s Italy is rarely discussed, especially on the American side of the pond, these conversations are almost guaranteed some level of novelty.

As for what sparks these conversations, well, it depends. Lella and Olga might pick up a suspected Mafia member on the road, catalyzing a chat about fascism’s crackdown on organized crime. Other times they might happen upon a snooty priest, whose backwards attitudes about women’s rights catalyze no shortage of feminist commentary from the protagonists. Players use the keyboard to drive along the road and pick their next destination at the end of the vignette. Each playthrough of Wheels of Aurelia is quite short, clocking in at 30-40 minutes, but there are a ton of branching story lines to explore.

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Who is THIS creeper?

Despite being broken up into short playthroughs, Wheels of Aurelia contains a ton of interesting subject matter. Conversations come and go along with the player’s roadster, but this game is a lesson on fascism, communism, feminism, religion, life, God, death, sex, booze, and all manner of other stuff. It is a pixelated vignette of each of these things and their place in 1970’s Italy, a setting that, again, is seldom explored in most media these days. Finding and absorbing all of this subject matter is the main, aha, driving force behind Wheels of Aurelia.

Well, that and the dialogue between the two women at the heart of the story. Lella and Olga could hardly be more opposite. The former is a hard-hearted pseudo-punk who escaped the confines of obligation for freedom on the road, while the latter is much shyer and still finding her place in the world. The dialogue is consistently well-written and free of spelling errors, which is an obvious plus. It’s also a very progressive portrayal of female video game characters, without the submissive sexualization ravaging this industry like a plague.

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These two have some stories to tell.

Unfortunately for Wheels of Aurelia, the game’s character development is stunted by the short length of its playthroughs. A half-hour isn’t a whole lot of time to know somebody, and it feels like Lella has scarcely had time to develop before the storyline is over and we’re back at the menu screen. It’s a shame, because while the rogue heiress is a bit of a trope, Lella manages to scratch its surface with a clear-eyed, punk rock attitude. Not nearly enough of which is made available in each playthrough.

The other problem with Wheels of Aurelia is that while the individual conversations are interesting, they’re usually pretty disjointed. Lella and Olga will be driving along, discussing the ethics of abortion, when suddenly Lella shouts that there’s a neo-fascist in that other car and it’s time to go chase them! What on earth is that in apropos of? It only leaves the progression of the storyline feeling forced.

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If this game is to believed, 70’s Italy had a hitchhiker epidemic.

Earlier in this review, the driving in Wheels of Aurelia was described as a means to an end, and that’s also true in a gameplay sense. Players use their keys to gently steer the car along the road. There’s no in-game penalty for reckless driving; bumping into guide rails or other cars might provoke a sharp response from Olga, but that’s it. This renders the in-game races and other events a bit… useless. Car breakdowns make for many a memorable tale (Planes, Trains & Automobiles, for a start) but they’re omitted from both the narrative and the laws of physics in Wheels of Aurelia. Luckily, Lella’s car handles well and the driving controls are tight.

The final word on Wheels of Aurelia‘s branching paths is if they’re short, at least they’re diverse. They can produce a wide variety of endings; anything from Lella and Olga actually going to France, to Lella getting chased by cops, to Olga being all sorts of not what she seems. Some of these can feel a bit random thanks to the disjointed conversations, but the variety plus the aforementioned conversation subject matter provides plenty of impetus for seeking them out.

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I swear to God, if you puke in my car…

The last two pieces of Wheels of Aurelia‘s retro-European vibe are its art and music. The former is a series of brightly colored Italian set pieces that, while beautiful, have only basic textures and no anti-aliasing. The game world and its objects are clearly defined, but the lack of AA combined with the rough textures can make the game look a bit hazy. No amount of fiddling around in the game’s moderately sized options menu seems to provide a fix.

If Wheels of Aurelia‘s visuals are a mixed bag, the music is absolutely delightful. It’s a broad collection of Italian punk rock that will make any fan of the genre beam. Sure, the lyrics are in Italian, but the musicianship is great. As an added bonus, the game’s entire soundtrack has been made available for free, so definitely pick that up alongside the game.

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Yes, she’s fine leaving these tunes on, who in their sane mind wouldn’t be?

For all of the flaws afforded by Wheels of Aurelia‘s simplistic gameplay and poor narrative transitions (and there’s a few few of them), the game’s novel setting and complicated subject matter still make it a win. The delivery needs some work, but the game remains a critical examination of life and attitudes in 70’s Europe- a time when World War II was still fairly recent, and when Italy was still in the throes of a political identity crisis. All of that is interesting on its own, but becomes even more fascinating when examined through the lens of an ardent feminist out to oppose all of Italy’s patriarchal moors. Not just for the sake of opposition, but because her sense of self depends on it. Her freedom depends on it.

This examination of attitudes and history is also more interesting against the backdrop of 70’s Italy, a setting that no video game has explored before and that is under-discussed even in most history coursework. It’s a truly novel setting, which doesn’t necessarily excuse Wheel of Aurelia‘s flaws, but definitely makes them worth suffering through.

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This should be good.

Wheels of Aurelia is an interesting little gem. It’s a gem that could stand some polishing, especially in regards to gameplay, but its subject matter is deeply interesting and its characters are memorable despite only getting so much screen time. Gamers who are into history and critical examinations of issues both contemporary and eternal should pick this one up. Driving enthusiasts might get a bit bored, but hey; look at that sunny Italian coastline. And look at that chance to see video games dive headfirst into taboo subject matter.

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You can buy Wheels of Aurelia 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.

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard

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Brave a mutant-infested swamp to find your wife.

PC Release: January 24, 2017

By Ian Coppock

Ah, Resident Evil. A franchise that was once the pinnacle of the survival horror genre, reduced to rubble by removing the terror that made it unique and adding the action that made it just like everything else. Resident Evil has undergone a remarkable journey, starting out as something spooky with Resident Evil and ending up a touch too shooty by the time 2012’s Resident Evil 6 rolled around. With Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, developer Capcom is aiming to bring the series back to the spooky. Let’s see how it did.

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Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is a survival horror video game and, well, the seventh installment in the legendary Resident Evil franchise. Believe it or not, this series was once the talk of terror-town, with 1996’s Resident Evil considered one of the greatest horror games ever made. The series continued making strides with Resident Evil 2, not so much with Resident Evil 3, and again with 2005’s Resident Evil 4. The games are strung together by a smattering of recurring protagonists and a motif classic to horror: big corporations messing around with evil stuff. The result? Zombies. Monsters. Mind control. All sorts of cool stuff.

Things changed with the release of Resident Evil 5, though. The series took a drastic turn away from survival horror and toward pure action, becoming as generic a third-person shooter as generic third-person shooters get. Things only got worse with Resident Evil 6, a bloated disaster of a game that tried to please everyone and, in so doing, pleased no one. Eager to revive its beloved franchise, Capcom got its marketing department out of the studio and focused on returning Resident Evil to the survival horror from whence it spawned. The result of that effort is Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (called Biohazard 7: Resident Evil in some territories).

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Back to basics.

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is set in 2017, putting it a few years after Resident Evil 6 and nearly 20 years after the titular original. The game follows the story of Ethan Winters, an American civilian whose wife Mia disappeared without a trace three years prior to the start of the game. Ethan’d given her up for dead until, one day, he gets a video message from Mia asking him to come find her in the swamps of Louisiana. Ecstatic that the love of his life might still be alive, Ethan gets in his car and sets off for her last known location.

Ethan eventually reaches his destination, stumbling through underbrush and swamps to find a deserted plantation house smack dab in the middle of nowhere. Though the house seems abandoned, Ethan can’t shake off a feeling of absolute dread as he ventures deeper inside. It doesn’t take long for him to figure out that his wife is here, or that the house isn’t abandoned after all.

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Soooo…. what do y’all do for a living? Besides eat people?

Yep. Not long after setting foot in the creepy old house, Ethan wakes up in the company of a family of homicidal swamp-billies. Although Ethan expects some eccentricity from folks this far away from civilization, something seems profoundly wrong with the Baker family. Not just the cannibalism, or the screaming psychobabble, but that they claim to hear voices coming from someone Ethan can’t see. They also have heightened senses and regenerate even the most grievous wounds, which is the player’s more immediate problem.

Ethan spots a chance to escape and takes it, venturing deeper into a house that’s been twisted by an unknown force. The Bakers, compelled by voices unheard, stalk the halls, looking to make a quick meal out of careless players. All the while, Ethan remains determined to find his wife and get the hell out of this swampy dungeon. Who knows? He just might escape with his life intact. As for his sanity, well… those are longer odds.

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I haven’t seen this many killer swamp-billies since Mafia III.

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard makes several major breaks from its predecessors. For a start, the game is played in first-person, whereas all the game’s main titles have been third-person shooters. The shift to first-person is excellent for any horror game that wants to be taken seriously; the feelings of dread and danger are much, much more immediate in that perspective. The over-the-shoulder third-person angle is not impossible for a survival horror game to pull off and still be scary, but it’s much less frightening. The overwhelming bulk of the game is played from Ethan’s perspective, but players will also see the Baker house from a few other perspectives, including that of a haunted house TV show crew and a truly unfortunate birthday guest.

The gameplay also shifts focus away from combat and toward survival stealth. Unlike past protagonists like Chris Redfield and Leon Kennedy, Ethan is a civilian with no combat skills. He can run, but no faster than your average Joe, and he can fight, but only with what very few weapons are scattered around the Baker estate. Between his middling physique and the limited weaponry, Ethan’s only true recourse is to run and hide. Resident Evil 7: Biohazard forces players to choose subtlety over bravado in order to survive.

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Two whole bullets?! What a steal!

To expand on the gameplay a bit more, players can find a small handful of guns and other weapons around the Baker house. The Bakers themselves are practically impossible to kill, and they also keep a retinue of weird vomit monsters that shamble around and chomp at things. These latter enemies can die, but they’re still dangerous. Couple this with the game’s finite amounts of ammo, health and other resources, and the result is a decent survival challenge. Resident Evil 7 also features a small crafting system, allowing players to make a few items out of scavenged components. Players can store items and save the game in a few safe rooms around the estate.

The world of Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is also chock full of collectibles for the discerning swamp hunter. Similarly to previous games, the player can find sets of items scattered over the game world, as well as lots of background exposition in the form of letters and newspaper articles. These artifacts aren’t essential to understanding the story, but they do flesh out (no pun intended) Resident Evil 7 quite nicely.

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“Ghosts Spotted in Bayou.” Probably should’ve been my first clue.

The nice thing for a game that’s trying to be scary is that Resident Evil 7‘s monsters are absolutely terrifying. Jack Baker, the patriarch of these invincible swamp-billies, is one of the most sadistically calculative foes in a horror game since Outlast‘s Richard Trager. He’s relentless, brutal, and isn’t afraid to scream all the terrible things he wants to do to Ethan while the player hides. Similarly, Jack’s wife Margeurite comes complete with a swarm of killer bugs, while the couple’s son Lucas prefers tormenting his foes by putting them through death trap challenges. That’s to say nothing of the shambling swamp monsters that stalk the halls looking for fresh meat. Inveterate horror fans needn’t worry; there’s a lot to fear in Resident Evil 7.

The other element in Resident Evil 7‘s fear factor is the atmosphere. Capcom hasn’t always been great at producing immersive game worlds (cough*Lost Planet*cough), but the studio did a surprisingly good job of rigging creepy fog effects and dour lighting in the world of Resident Evil 7. In a rare act of self-consciousness, Capcom was patient enough to produce a game that ratchets up tension through fear and stellar sound design, then sets it off with a monster or a Baker shambling around the corner. The final piece to the puzzle is a spooky soundtrack, which, because this is a Japanese game, features a catchy main theme song. Well done, Capcom.

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NO! I DON’T WANNA BE A KEBAB

Resident Evil 7‘s gameplay isn’t without a few embarrassing flaws. The first and most fatal is that this game’s AI can veer wildly between dumb and omniscient. At one point players can slip through a doorway even if a monster’s standing in it, but at another, Jack Baker will come hollering toward Ethan having somehow spotted him from the other end of the bayou. These episodes don’t happen very often, but they’re frustrating and break immersion. Hopefully Capcom patches this issue – that and the occasionally wonky hair physics.

The other issue, much less serious but still annoying, is managing a full inventory. If Ethan’s got a full bag but an empty gun, he can’t load any ammo he finds straight into the gun. Instead, he has to discard an item (read: destroy it), put the ammo in his inventory, and then load the gun. Dumb. Dumb, dumb, dumb. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it’s definitely something that swamp survivalists should be aware of.

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What plant do these herbs come from, anyway?

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard‘s level design can be summed up in one word: claustrophobia. Whether it’s a decaying mansion corridor or a water-filled crawlspace, every nook and cranny of Resident Evil 7 feels deliciously constricting. It heightens the tension, as players only have so many means of escape if a Baker shows up, but it also allows for all kinds of shrieks and spooks as Ethan makes his way through the swamp. Not just the jumpscare kind of scare either… more like “that lamp was over there a few minutes ago” kind of scare.

Visually, Resident Evil 7 is quite stunning. Textures are sharp, lighting is perfect and the variety of color is admirable. Thankfully, Capcom gives players the full suite of visual and audio options to tweak the game however they wish. However, game’s visuals, despite their horrifying beauty, are not problem-free. The biggest headache (literally) is Resident Evil 7‘s short field of view, which allows for up-close objects to look great but makes anything even a bit further away look like an oil painting. There’s no way to ameliorate this problem at the current time. PC players who use AMD cards may also experience occasional lag.

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WHODAT

Anyone who’s played Capcom games knows that storytelling is not this developer’s strong suit. A great deal of the Resident Evil games feature completely nonsensical narratives, and the story of The Lost Planet series doesn’t deserve to be called a story. But, surprising as it sounds, Capcom not only managed to pen a coherent story, but it’s also fairly decent. It does away with the overstuffed casts and convoluted plot points of past Resident Evil games in favor of a simple, stripped-down narrative that invites intrigue instead of burying players in it. Instead of focusing on mega-battles with huge corporations or multifaceted wars for the fate of mankind, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard has a much more personal tone. A man, alone against dark forces, looking for his wife. It’s an enjoyable journey from start to finish, with few wobbly plot points.

Additionally, and again unusually for a Capcom game, Resident Evil 7 avoids the overstretched cutscenes and idiotic dialogue endemic to, say, Resident Evil 6. Even the English version has believable dialogue and decent voice acting. The only problem is that Ethan, the protagonist, is the least interesting person in the game, and part of that has to do with his monotone voice acting. At times, he also seems impossibly comfortable with his surroundings, dryly noting a horrifically mutilated cop with just “Eh. Poor deputy.” Yes, much like Amanda Ripley in Alien: Isolation, the main character’s personality ain’t much to speak of. But the Bakers? Absolutely fascinating.

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Do I hear… singing?

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard isn’t quite the horror opus that Capcom was probably hoping for, but it’s a decent game, and a fantastic return to form for the Resident Evil franchise. Horror fans won’t find many concepts that they haven’t seen in a different title, but Resident Evil 7‘s simple narrative, survival gameplay, and realistic dialogue are a winning formula. The mantra of “back to basics” has saved this series from the mediocrity of Resident Evil 6 and has hopefully laid fertile ground for future horror concepts. Buy it and experience the horror of a midnight monster swamp firsthand.

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You can buy Resident Evil 7: Biohazard 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.

Trackmania United Forever Star Edition

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Race, build, and careen off of dozens of high-speed tracks.

PC Release: April 16, 2008

By Ian Coppock

What better follow-up is there to an experimental art game than pure pedal to the metal? No, this is not an intro to a fast-paced shooter, but rather the first driving game reviewed on this page in years. In fact, racing and autosport games are going to start making regular appearances in my rotation of reviews. Never fear; all those shooter and horror and adventure and puzzle games reviewed here for years are here to stay, but there’s nothing wrong with venturing into the world of racing for variety. That, or making this decision after getting sucked into The Grand Tour.

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Trackmania is a lightning-quick series of racing games that are quite beloved in that genre. The very first game was released in 2003, with subsequent versions adding more tracks and better graphics. Trackmania United Forever Star Edition is both a compilation of several Trackmania games into one title… and a serious mouthful. Nadeo, the French studio behind Trackmania, reasoned that it would be easier to port all of their Trackmania modes and games onto a single, easy-to-access platform, an uncommon move for developers in the mid-2000’s.

Trackmania starts things off by asking players to create an account. Yep. A nearly 10-year-old game still has new players creating an account. It’s not that much of a hassle, but it seems silly to keep doing that after all this time, rather than rely on Steam for connectivity. Indeed, this game used to be quite DRM-heavy, but don’t worry; save for this account creation business, it’s long gone. This ain’t no Uplay, thank God.

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Speed right past that account screen.

Then again, perhaps being asked to create an account ain’t all that bad when confronted with all the goodies Trackmania has to share. This edition is absolutely loaded with tracks, cars, and game modes. Nadeo took each set of environments from each of the original Trackmania games to provide dozens of racing environments in one easy-to-use menu. The game’s tracks are broken into various modes, from conventional racing to platforming and even puzzle racing (more on that in a moment).

Like most racing games, and unlike most everything reviewed here recently, Trackmania has an outstanding options menu. There are dozens of options for resolution, texture quality, lighting effects, draw distance, water, shadows, the list goes on and on. This is the kind of menu PC gamers like to see, because it allows for maximum control over the core gaming experience. Plus, with many PCs being different, players need to have that freedom to tweak and adjust. Players are able to do all that and then some with Trackmania‘s stellar menu.

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Much like a car, Trackmania can be fine-tuned.

Coming hot on the heels of Trackmania‘s options menu is the game’s flawless performance on PC. To be fair, the game is older, and can probably run on a potato, but it won’t lag or crash during even the most demanding races. Good performance is especially important for a racing game, where a split-second of lag can spell disaster for even the most inveterate player. Trackmania also seems to be free of the wacky (and funny) physics bugs that are the stuff of racing game legends.

Of course, it’s also important for the game to look nice, and this is where Trackmania begins to spin out a bit. With respect to its age, Trackmania‘s textures look pretty awful. The paint and logos on the sides of race cars are barely discernible blotches of color, and even turning the texture quality up all the way does little to solve that problem. It’s not as much of a joy, then, that Trackmania runs so well. Not if the racing numbers on the side of the car look less like numerals and more like the yin and yang symbol.

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It’s a good thing Steam has banned touching up screenshots.

Even though Trackmania looks dated, the game is still fun to play. The meat of the experience is to be found in the game’s myriad of modes. Players looking for a conventional racing experience can tear it up in dozens of different circuits. Alternatively, it’s also possible to race on tracks built for stunts, speed, pretty much anything one can do with a car. Believe it or not, Trackmania still has a somewhat active player base, so online matches are not given up for dead with this title. Playing against an AI or time ghost is also an option.

Curiously, Trackmania includes a mode called “puzzle” where players have to construct a track of any design between two end points and then race it. This is mode not often seen in racing games, even almost a decade later, and it’s a lot of fun to build a zany track and see if it’s possible to run it. Between all of Trackmania‘s various modes, the game easily boasts dozens of tracks to try out. Racing fans won’t want for more ways to go fast in Trackmania.

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It’s time… to get… gud.

As players might expect, Trackmania also includes a level editor. Indeed, building one’s own track is what the entire game is built around. With every circuit they complete, players are given tokens with which to buy assets for track building. These include lengths of road but also loop-de-loops and other, more exotic set pieces. Creating a track is easy thanks to the game’s intuitive creation menus, and players can quickly share their tracks with the world so that other Trackmania gamers can enjoy them. Perhaps there’s a point to having a Trackmania account after all.

The default tracks in Trackmania are built for a single lap… for better and for worse. The better is that it makes for a breakneck racing experience in which glory can be gained or lost in, say, 20 seconds. The worse is that it’s only 20 seconds of play time before the race is over. Sure, longer, player-crated tracks are floating around out there on the Internet, but Trackmania‘s default tracks are quite short. Even a single lap of most other racing games’ circuits can last much longer than a one-shot track in Trackmania. Doesn’t necessarily make it less fun, but endurance racers might find this setup off-putting.

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Ready, set… okay we’re done.

Trackmania‘s cars can handle all of these tracks quite well. Even though different classes of vehicle feel distinct, each one is competently done, with smooth acceleration, turning, and brakes. Combine this with Trackmania‘s aforementioned lack of lag, and it makes for a fast-paced racing experience. It’s getting more and more difficult to find games whose cars don’t handle like slippery tubs these days, so anyone else weary of that issue will enjoy Trackmania.

The other major question in regards to cars: can they be customized? Yep. Trackmania allows players to give each class of car a makeover. The only issue is that each coat of paint is pre-set, with very little elbow room for creating a custom look. Players who want to spend hours adding a polygon-by-polygon paint job to their vehicle are going to hang their heads, especially since the game’s default textures look pretty terrible, but life goes on. Perhaps the cars’ textures look so bad because the paint wasn’t given the chance to dry.

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Time to seek some awesomeness.

So, what have we learned? What does Trackmania offer that dozens if not hundreds of subsequent racing games don’t? Well, for a start, the aforementioned variety of modes is quite impressive. This game packs an endless assortment of tracks (and consequently, hundreds of hours of entertainment) into a single, easy-to-use package. It’s similarly easy to build one’s own race track and share it with the world, but only after earning enough tokens from blazing through the courses.

Additionally, the game runs well. No physics bugs, no lag, just pure racing. It features an options menu that puts modern video games to shame, with toggles for just about every facet of visual fidelity known to man. It is unfortunate, though, that that same visual fidelity cannot be said of the vehicles’ textures. The lighting could also be better, to be honest, but it helps Trackmania‘s case that most players will be focused on the road instead of the car.

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Let’s go!

In closing, Trackmania is a tidy piece of racing game history and a gem that autosport fans would be remiss to not have in their libraries. Pick it up on a sale or once other, more contemporary titles have exhausted themselves. As previously mentioned, the other genres of games that have been reviewed here for years are going nowhere, but hopefully this review serves as an ample ignition for the racing category. Here’s to many laps on the road ahead!

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You can buy Trackmania United Forever Star Edition here.

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