Driving

Mass Effect: Andromeda

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Find a home for humanity in another galaxy.

PC Release: March 21, 2017

By Ian Coppock

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

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

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

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

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Time to explore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Calibrate THIS, you swine!

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

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

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

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

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

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System failure.

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

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

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Do you have anything interesting to say?

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

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

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You can buy Mass Effect: Andromeda here.

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

Real Life

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I’m throwing in the towel on game reviews.

PC Release: February 6, 1991

By Ian Coppock

Hi folks,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Real Life isn’t too shabby.

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

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

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You can buy Real Life here.

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

Kona

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Investigate a deserted town and the whereabouts of its inhabitants.

PC Release: March 17, 2017

By Ian Coppock

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

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

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

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Helloooo? Bonjouuuur?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And people wonder why I’m a cat person.

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

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

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Oh God. I’m not going in there.

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

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

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I feel colder just playing this.

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

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

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WTF IS THAT

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

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You can buy Kona here.

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

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands

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Destroy a ruthless drug cartel from the inside out.

PC Release: March 7, 2017

By Ian Coppock

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

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

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

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Let’s do this!

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

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

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And people wonder why I seek solitude from other people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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#brolo

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

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

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Oooooh.

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

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

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You can buy Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands here.

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

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.

 

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.

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.