Open-World

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

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Stop the forces of Oblivion from destroying the mortal plane.

PC Release: March 20, 2006

By Ian Coppock

Whether it’s spending time outdoors or getting into a big video game, summer is usually a time for grand adventure. It’s no coincidence that fantasy RPGs like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt are usually released during the summer months, and with that time of year right around the corner, this is a great opportunity to take a look back at the high fantasy epics of yore. The best adventure stories are still enjoyable years after they’ve been told, and though The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion‘s status as the best of those games is up for debate, its legacy is still felt over a decade after its release.

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The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is the fourth title in Bethesda’s venerable Elder Scrolls series and, like the other games in that lineup, is a high fantasy RPG with all the hallmarks of a magical adventure: a big world with lots of items and helpless non-player characters for whom you can run fetch quests. A few editions of Oblivion have been released over the years, but the best one to buy these days is the Game of the Year Deluxe edition available on Steam, which includes the base title and a ton of DLC all to the tune of $20.00 (or about $.01 per hour of entertainment).

Like the other Elder Scrolls games, Oblivion takes place in the magical world of Tamriel, a continent rife with magic, elves, orcs, all that good fantasy stuff. The game’s story is set 200 years before the events of Skyrim, and in classic Elder Scrolls fashion, begins with the player character having been imprisoned for an unspecified crime. Players can fashion their character from 10 playable races and a wide variety of cosmetic options. Each race also has its own perks and abilities: elves are great with magic, orcs are great with smashing skulls, etc. Players can also pick a class to suit their playstyle, making Oblivion a much more rigid RPG than most fantasy adventures released today.

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Wizards are great for burning things alive and for entertaining guests at parties.

The player character catches a big break from jail time when, of all people, emperor Uriel Septim shows up at their cell. Uriel’s being chased by assassins, and his secret escape route leads through the player’s cell. The emperor’s bodyguards allow the player to accompany their party into the tunnels below the prison, though their efforts are in vain, as Uriel gets killed by a cabal of red-robed assassins. Before dying, the emperor tells the player to find his secret son, and prevent the demonic forces of Oblivion (hey, name drop!) from overrunning Tamriel.

Even though the player’s been entrusted with saving the world, they can do whatever they want after this prologue ends. Like other Elder Scrolls games, Oblivion starts players out with the main story objective but gives them the freedom to go wherever they want. Players can join a faction, go find legendary items… hell, just sit there and relax by the lake, Oblivion doesn’t care. The Elder Scrolls has always been a big believer in player agency, and no less so than with Oblivion.

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This is an Elder Scrolls game, so expect plenty of caves.

In grand RPG tradition, players gain experience by using their class’s core skills, and can level up attributes like athletics and magic affinity. Unlike Skyrim and other modern RPGs that are more open-ended, Oblivion only lets players level up if they use their class’s pre-assigned skills. A player who picks a magic class, for example, won’t level up if they use something outside that skillset, like swords. This design philosophy is dated by contemporary standards but Oblivion has over a dozen classes that combine lots of different skills. The biggest danger is that players only have the prologue to see what skills they like before being forced to choose something, so pick carefully.

Oblivion can be played from a first- or third-person perspective and gives players a high degree of freedom in choosing how to navigate the world. Players can charge into battle sword in hand or sneak around assassinating foes from afar with a bow. Magic makes for the most audacious combat approach, while lockpicking lets players get a bit more creative in “borrowing” enemies’ possessions. Players can also become adept at schmoozing up to NPCs and haggling at stores. Whatever the skillset, Oblivion‘s core gameplay is classic Elder Scrolls: talk to NPCs, get quests, descend into dungeons, and fulfill a goal. It’s an inveterate quest design structure that gets saved from weary repetition by the hours of adventuring fun players have along the way to an objective.

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There are lots of baddies and treasures to find in Oblivion.

Oblivion‘s combat system is not difficult to understand: just use a sword, a spell or a bow to kill a foe before they can kill the player. Enemies will usually charge right at the player, but with a bit of practice, dodging the opponent’s attacks and going in for the kill become all but second-nature. As players level up, the world will start providing more advanced weapons and treasures. Of course, enemies will also level up, and more powerful monsters will start creeping along the realm’s roads. This combat system would eventually undergo little change in Skyrim, but weapons can degrade, so it pays to keep equipment nice and shiny.

Players can set out to complete Oblivion‘s main story, complete standalone side quests, or join a faction. Like Morrowind and SkyrimOblivion features entire quest arcs that are not only narratives in their own right, but also give players an opportunity to build their character and gain access to valuable resources. These factions’ quests can get pretty involved and almost always end with the player becoming the head of that organization. It turns out that when the world is ruled by swords and bloodshed, the promotion ladder becomes surprisingly flexible.

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The first meeting of the Creepy Cave Guild will now come to order…

Most of Oblivion is set in a verdant province called Cyrodiil, which, with its castles and rolling green hills, is the quintessential medieval fantasy setting. Of course, this also makes the game world difficult to distinguish from the dozens of other medieval fantasy games that thought it would be innovative to have a world of castles and rolling green hills (because that‘s never been done before). There’s a bit of jungle to the south and some mountains in the map’s western corner, but the rest of the world features samey medieval countryside that, while pretty, is extremely conventional for a fantasy RPG.

Players can also head to one of the region’s many cities to find quests or just get a drink at the inn. For all the visual sameness afforded by Oblivion‘s wilderness, the game does a good job of giving each of its cities a different visual theme. Each city features its own palette of building and landmark textures, though they all offer the same mix of inns, guild stops, and NPCs bursting with random exposition. Some of Oblivion‘s visual design, especially its environments, have aged well over the years, but its NPCs and wildlife look mannequin-esque by contemporary standards.

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The next person who talks about mudcrabs is getting a mace in the balls.

As it happens, Oblivion‘s NPCs are where most of the game’s weirdest design choices really shamble to life. For starters, the guards’ AI is omniscient, to the point where they can sometimes detect players burglarizing a house on the other side of town. The game’s friendship system is also one of the most bizarre minigames ever devised by man. Players who need to gain an NPC’s trust have to play a pie chart game that makes them alternate between telling jokes, making threats, and complimenting them on… what, exactly? No one knows; but it does allow players to forge lifelong friendships in the span of several minutes. It’s a wonky system that only gets funnier as years go by.

Even more hilarious than the instant buddy minigame is how Oblivion allots its voice actors. Rather than mix a bunch of voice actors together across the game’s numerous races, Bethesda decided it would be a good idea to give each race a single pair of male and female voice actors. In other words, a conversation between three male humans just sounds like one guy talking to his other two personalities. Because each NPC has its own canned dialogue, repeatedly pressing anyone from a suave nobleman to a dirty beggar for news will result in the same scuttlebutt, delivered in the exact same tone. Oblivion‘s voice acting is one of gaming’s most lovably bad design choices. Fortunately, the game does a lot better in other areas of sound design, especially its gorgeous soundtrack.

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Subtitles are the only way to tell who in a group of the same race is saying something.

Oblivion‘s voice acting kerfuffle becomes less entertaining when confronted with the game’s writing. Most NPCs spend an inordinate amount of time drowning the player in exposition, which isn’t that out of character for an Elder Scrolls game but is particularly common in Oblivion. The shopkeeper who wants help investigating a shady merchant will take four or five paragraphs to explain exactly why she wants the job done. Drowning the player in mission details does not substitute for storytelling, but it does make it harder to remember why the quest was taken in the first place.

The bulk of Oblivion‘s storytelling and voice acting efforts were put into the main questline, which features performances from such big names as Terrence Stamp, Sean Bean, and the immortal Sir Patrick Stewart. These actors’ thoughtful performances and much more concise writing save Oblivion‘s story from becoming as plodding as the farmer who spends thirty minutes explaining why her dirtbag husband ran off. The story also touches on themes that pop up in other games, like how the whole Dragonborn thing works. Oblivion‘s main story is arguably the most involved of the series, and the idea of the entire world being destroyed by demons gives Skyrim‘s dragons a run for their money.

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Oblivion’s main narrative is darkly beautiful.

The Elder Scrolls games are not known for deep character development, preferring to let their massive worlds be the meat of the game. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but Oblivion features a modicum of character development that makes it stand out from its peers. The emperor’s bastard son, Martin Septim, is given a thoughtful demeanor and gradual character development arc by Sean Bean, who managed to channel his inner Ned Stark before ever having signed to HBO’s Game of Thrones. Mankar Camaron, the mortal bad guy voiced by Terrence Stamp, similarly provides some fascinating insights even if they are all squashed into the very end of the game.

Oblivion‘s staple of endearing characters continues in The Shivering Isles, an expansion pack that sends the player off to an island chain full of crazy people. The expansion is meant to be played after the main questline, but allows players to interact with kooky characters and gives the medieval fantasy trope a colorful twist of insanity. It’s one of those rare expansions that is both chock full of content and the clear product of lots of love; it remains one of the most memorable fantasy RPG expansions of all time. The Shivering Isles is rolled into the aforementioned Game of the Year Deluxe edition, along with the less memorable Knights of the Nine DLC and a variety of spell, house, and armor add-ons.

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Gasp! My own tomb!

So why should modern RPG enthusiasts consider giving Oblivion a try, what with its dated visuals and oftentimes tedious dialogue? Because like other Elder Scrolls games, Oblivion succeeds in handing players a robust world and telling them to go wild. It contains that same spirit of wild abandon and exploration that was captured by Morrowind, and later Skyrim. It’s a fantasy game that allows for open-world grand adventure, but has a central story that’s deeper and more involved than that of any other Elder Scrolls games, giving it an element of enjoyment not quite found in Skyrim. Medieval fantasy enthusiasts pining for the next great adventure may well find it in Oblivion. Even 11 years later, it’s one of gaming’s surest staples of satisfying adventure.

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You can buy The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion Game of the Year Edition Deluxe here.

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

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Yooka-Laylee

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Adventure through colorful worlds like it’s 1997.

PC Release: April 11, 2017

By Ian Coppock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The hoops have eyes…

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

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

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

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

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

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Reports of a camera control apocalypse are premature.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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You can buy Yooka-Laylee here.

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

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

Kona1

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.

Kona2

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.

Konaa3

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.

Wild7

#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.

Wild8

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.

Spore

spore-1

Create your own creature and guide it from single-celled organism to ultimate space tyrant.

PC Release: September 7, 2008

By Ian Coppock

2016 has been a pretty rough year. Not “just” because of the vitriolic American presidential election, or the proliferation of war and disease, but because we’ve lost a massive slate of mankind’s most talented creators. From David Bowie to Prince, and Edward Albee to Leonard Cohen, humanity’s gallery of artists took a big dent this year. Therefore, perhaps it’s time to skip over to a video game that celebrates creativity above all else. No gritty set pieces, no visceral gameplay, just wild abandon in a literal galaxy of possibilities. The only game that this intro could possibly fit is Spore.

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Released in 2008 by an EA subsidiary called Maxis, Spore is a creature creator game that challenges players to, well, create their own creature. At least for starters. The game actually entices players to do a lot more; to not only create an alien beastie, but to guide it through five stages of “evolution”. Each stage encompasses a different type of gameplay and different challenges for players to overcome. In the end, what starts out as a tiny cell in a primordial pool could very well be the galaxy’s next alien overlord. Players are free to explore their species’ pool, then planet, then galaxy, ad nauseum.

Spore starts things off by presenting players with a slate of possible home planets to pick from. Each one has its own terrain and exists concurrently within an entire galaxy, allowing players to have a few species at once. After picking one, players start out as a tiny cellular organism in a pond somewhere. This stage of the game is pretty simple; just eat plants (or other cells) and grow over several generations. It’s a top-down game mode that revolves around eating things smaller than the player, and avoiding the things larger than the player.

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Aw, it’s so cute!

After eating their way to a more substantial size, players can add limbs to their creature and emerge onto dry land. This is one of Spore‘s more substantial game modes; players control their creature from a third-person perspective and wander the landscape in search of animal parts. These parts can be acquired through exploration and befriending (or murdering) the other animals around the player’s creature. Players can then add these parts, be they extra limbs or a longer tail, to each successive generation of creature.

The creature creation and modification mechanic is by far Spore‘s most iconic feature. While upgrading their beastie, players are taken to a special studio screen where they can make thousands of possible modifications to their creature. Players can add everything from wings for flying to poison spitters for fighting, and modify their creature’s body shape by toggling its vertebrae. Creatures can also be brightened up with dozens of paint and pattern options. Players can even test their beastie’s animations or make them perform funny dance moves. Though the number of possible combinations for creature design is practically limitless, players can only put so much stuff on their animal at one time.

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Spore is one of the most open-ended creation games ever made.

Gathering parts serves a more subtle purpose than creature modification; it’s also the primary means by which the player’s animal can advance. Spore has been called an evolution game by some critics, but it’s anything but. Sure, the creature develops new features, but those are according to the whim of a god-like player, not to better adapt to an environment. Regardless, gathering parts and modifying the creature is how it becomes more sophisticated. With better parts, players can become more adept at befriending other animals or slaying them for food. As with the cellular mode, Spore‘s animal mode is fairly simplistic: run around and either fight or befriend other creatures. That’s about it.

After sufficient time spent adding parts, the creature will gain sentience, and the third stage of Spore kicks in. The game shifts from a third-person adventure to an isometric real-time strategy game, in which players manage a primitive tribe of their newly sapient creation. In this mode, players can conquer or ally with other villages of their species, as well as hunt for food and build up settlements. This mode is stripped down to the point of being simplistic, but after all the other tribes have been conquered or befriended, players can move on to building cities.

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ME WANT PIZZA (pounds chest)

Spore‘s fourth stage again shifts gears, this time toward a city sim game with light combat elements. Players can built shining metropolises and vehicles with which to wage war against other city-states. The creation mechanic is largely abandoned in the tribal stage, but comes back in the city stage in the form of vehicle creation. Just like with their animal, players can craft an endless assortment of tanks, airplanes, and other vehicles in pursuit of world conquest. Similarly to tribal mode, these technologies are acquired via befriending or conquering other cities. Players will be expected to manage diplomacy, and their negotiation preferences as a tribe directly affects the industry of their city. For example, if the player’s creature was a complete dick to its neighbors in tribal, its city-state will feature a strong military.

Finally, after the world has been conquered by a combination of planes, trains and automobiles, the player’s creature can develop spaceflight and depart to conquer other worlds. This is where Spore really opens up; at stage five, players are given an entire galaxy to play with. This time the gameplay sports a mix of space economy management and third-person space combat, as players expand their empires and defend its borders from hostile species. Because this portion of the game is a literal galaxy in size, there’s little chance of running out of things to shoot, explore, conquer, or terraform anytime soon.

spore-5

Change the world. Change the galaxy.

There’s a lot to unpack with all those paragraphs of gameplay description, but Spore‘s chief takeaway is its potential for creativity. The game’s open-ended creature, building and vehicle design is nothing short of spectacular, and it’s so easy to pick up. With just a few simple tools, players can craft almost anything they want, from an eight-eyed sociopath to a tank with wings. Players can do this as part of upgrading their creature, or add as many creations as they want to the in-game library. In case all of that wasn’t enough, Maxis also enclosed a massive library of their own creations, encompassing hundreds of pre-made creatures, vehicles and buildings that are all ready to use.

The helpful factor about character and vehicle creation is how bubbly Spore looks. The entire game is decked out in bright pastel colors and lots of big, bubbly objects. Character animations can get a bit wonky (especially when lots of body parts are involved) but the game’s ability to animate creatures almost no matter their composition is impressive. Spore launched with some DRM that was ruthless even by EA standards, but it’s been absent from the Steam copy of the game for years. The game runs well on modern machines and, sans a couple of desktop crashes, is bug-free.

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Spore is a bright, colorful adventure.

The problem with Spore is that its penchant for creativity is only skin-deep. As countless critics have noted before now, this game’s gameplay is extremely shallow. In trying to be five different games at once, Spore stretches a handful of simplistic mechanics far too thinly. The result is a game that, while aesthetically pleasing and fun to toy around in, is exceptionally clunky and comprised of only 2-3 game mechanics per stage.

For example, the cellular stage can be completed in under 10 minutes by just swimming around and eating things. The animal stage’s only gameplay mechanic is diplomacy toward other animals, to say nothing of its clunky movement controls, tiresome cooldown-based combat, or limited exploration area. The tribal stage is similarly hollow, with players only able to attack or befriend neighbors, and tame certain animals. The city stage affords more variety in gameplay approach, but a lot of that is determined by how the player behaved in the tribal stage. As previously mentioned, a belligerent tribe results in a belligerent city-state, and gameplay options for diplomacy or trade are hamstrung for an entire stage of gameplay.

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…Please stop staring at me like that.

The one stage of Spore that has some depth to it is the space stage. Players can conquer worlds, wage war upon alien species, and gather valuable spices from across their empires. However, the fact that this stage of Spore has more content in it than the previous four stages combined makes the game feel dreadfully unbalanced. It doesn’t help that spice-gathering, the primary means by which players make money, is barely explained at all. Neither is terraforming, or exploring more advanced galactic formations, such as wormholes.

Spore also has an unfortunate tendency to punish players for exploring its galaxy. There are literally thousands if not millions of planets players can conquer, but do they have a mighty space fleet with which to defend these holdings? Nope. Just the one ship. Having a large empire is not worth the time spent fending off space pirates, especially if the player’s species is at war with several rivals. Like a certain recent space exploration game that will remain nameless, players can also race to the center of the galaxy. The issue with that, however, is that the entire main body of the galaxy is inhabited by the Grox. These ruthless cyborgs will, upon discovering the player’s species, try to pound it into space dust with their much more powerful ships. Players in the mood for something more pensive are therefore best off exploring around their worlds and avoiding the endgame. Don’t worry; the item one gets for reaching the galactic core isn’t all that great anyway.

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Oh God, not THESE guys again…

As previously stated, the most fun to be had in Spore is in the game’s creation studios. Its gameplay may not be all that impressive, but there’s a lot of fun to be had in creating entire fleets of spaceships, or a massive carnivore that has swords for testicles. Less fun is actually putting these creations through the paces of Spore‘s shallow gameplay. It can be fun to expand creatures’ space empires, but even this funnest part of Spore is wracked with tedium.

Hilariously, Spore also features two standalone DLC packs that appear as their own items in the Steam library. Each one is twenty dollars; the former adds a few dozen extra animal parts, and the latter makes it possible for space explorers to beam down onto a planet. The exploration pack adds some value to the main game, but asking $20 for it is a little on the nose, especially after eight years on the market. Electronic Arts might want to double-check their older games’ pricing.

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A perfect 10, huh? Feels too generous.

In the end, Spore feels less like a cell-to-space odyssey and more like an asset creation workshop with some floppy gameplay appendages stapled to it. The gameplay is clunky in too many places and shallow across the board. It’s a great way to express some creativity on screen, but actually taking that creativity and molding it into something more tangible is beyond Spore‘s ability. Spore will entertain kids, though, and sometimes there’s nothing more amusing than making a scary monster do the disco point. It’s just a shame that Maxis didn’t put that same amount of fun and creativity into the rest of the game.

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You can buy Spore 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.