Role-Playing

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.

Spore

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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.

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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.

The Witcher: Enhanced Edition

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Investigate an attack on your home, slaying schemers and monsters along the way.

PC Release: September 16, 2008

By Ian Coppock

With the delay of Watch Dogs 2, the 2016 season of new holiday releases is pretty much over. As implied if not outright stated in previous articles, this year’s crop of big-budget titles was by and large a disappointment. Battlefield 1 was pretty good and so, apparently, was Titanfall 2, but every other major release from Deus Ex: Mankind Divided on down to Dishonored 2 was not all that great. This state of affairs will not do for a cheerful Christmas spirit, and so it’s time to keep going back to an age when video games worked on day one, and their narratives were unafraid to tackle complicated subject matter. The Witcher has all of this, as well as the opportunity to slay lots of monsters.

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The Witcher is the first in a trilogy of third-person fantasy RPGs that have been released over about a decade, beginning with this game in 2007 and ending with last year’s The Witcher III: Wild Hunt. The games feature characters and worlds from the The Witcher novels written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. Contrary to popular belief, the video games are not adaptations of the novels, but instead entirely new stories starring characters from Sapkowski’s books. Sapkowski does not consider the video games canon, but that certainly hasn’t stopped the series’ following from growing wildly in the past 10 years.

Like the books, The Witcher takes place in a medieval fantasy world simply called The Continent. Unlike most epics that western audiences are familiar with, the world of The Witcher is inspired primary by eastern European folklore and traditions, giving it a different flavor than, say, The Elder Scrolls. Players assume the role of Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher, who hunts and slays monsters all over The Continent… for a price. Witchers’ aptitude for monster-hunting runs far deeper than swords and spells. As part of their training, each Witcher undergoes dramatic genetic mutations that grant them superhuman speed and strength, sore necessities for fighting monsters. Those Witchers who survive this process are unparalleled in their combat abilities, and Geralt is one of the deadliest.

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As a Witcher, Geralt is one of the few humans strong enough and quick enough to stand up to a monster.

The Witcher begins with Geralt waking up in the middle of a field, suffering amnesia. He’s escorted by his fellow Witchers back to their stronghold of Kaer Morhen, but can’t remember anything of his life prior to waking up. Not long after Geralt’s revival, the fortress is attacked by a cult of assassins called the Salamandra, led by the powerful sorcerer Azar Javed. Despite putting up a valiant defense, the Witchers are overrun by the Salamandra’s superior numbers, and the cult steals the top-secret mutagens used to transform men into Witchers. Fearing what might be unleashed with the mutagens in the wrong hands, each of the four Witchers agrees to head in a different direction to find a trace of their new foe. Geralt decides to head south, toward the rest of the Northern Kingdoms, to see if he has any luck tracking the Salamandra.

Geralt has a considerable amount against him in his hunt. Despite being a dire necessity, Witchers are hated and feared by the human populace for their superhuman abilities. The Salamandra know how to hide in plain sight. Worst of all, the nobles of the Northern Kingdoms might be complicit in the conspiracy. Geralt has to become as much a politician as a warrior to find his prey, as he embarks upon the greatest adventure he’s ever faced.

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The Salamandra are a much more devious foe than anticipated.

Geralt’s adventure through the Northern Kingdoms is, in many ways, a classic third-person RPG. Players control Geralt using an over-the-shoulder camera, and can level up their character by completing quests and slaying monsters. Geralt is proficient with both swords and magic, and players can upgrade each tree of abilities in a spiraling array of menus. The enemies of The Witcher demand some amount of specialization; Geralt carries a steel sword to make quick work of human foes, and a silver sword for dealing with monsters.

The Witcher is fueled by a combination of wicked fast turn-based combat and deep choice-based gameplay. By night, Geralt engages entire groups of foes with his swords and his array of devastating spells. By day, he’s hobnobbing with the Northern Kingdoms’ royalty and trying to gain their trust via extensive conversations. As with Mass Effect, the blend of action and conversation-based gameplay is apt, but The Witcher takes it even further than that venerated RPG.

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Hey! I think we found a monster!

The combat in The Witcher is versatile, if dated. Geralt can draw his sword and attack enemy creatures at player command, or use his spells for more advanced combat. Combat in The Witcher is, unfortunately, somewhat turn-based, as each combatant deals their blows against a bewildering mess of weapon and proficiency modifiers. It’s nothing that players new to the series won’t get used to, but boy is it clunky. It feels like a slightly freer variation of the combat in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Because the combat in this game is turn-based, it makes no sense for players to try to dodge or skip past enemies. The only way forward in The Witcher is for Geralt to be a tank.

Hand-in-hand with the clunkiness of the combat is the game’s slew of menus, an un-intuitive and overenthusiastic mess of numbers, letters and colors that takes far longer to understand than it should. It’s a given that a deep RPG will have lots of menus, but The Witcher compounds its overabundance of menus with threadbare gameplay tutorials. The alchemy system, which is vital to finishing the game, is poorly explained, as is the fact that certain powers will be necessary (not just handy, but necessary) to finish the game at all. Make no mistake, the world of The Witcher is fascinating, but its underpinnings are all over the place.

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Area-effect spells are a must, but the game won’t tell you that.

Leaps and bounds better than The Witcher‘s combat is its deeply meaningful dialogue, whose nuances and conversation choices remain the most impactful of any video game ever made. Even more than in Mass Effect, conversation choices in The Witcher have far-reaching and often unforeseen effects. Whereas the conversation choices in Mass Effect usually bear immediate consequences, it can take the entirety of The Witcher for a conversation’s outcome to become clear. Geralt can talk to someone in the game’s first act and experience a consequence all the way at the very end, and that’s a fantastic design element. To further obfuscate the game’s world, most conversations do not enclose neat right-or-wrong decisions. Instead, players have to essentially gamble on two or more ambiguous choices and hope that things pan out okay. It goes without saying that this system has a profound impact on the game’s overall narrative.

Finally, this cog of game design informs the delightfully complicated political world of The Witcher. It’s not enough for Geralt to barge in and kill everyone; he has to sniff out the Salamandra’s leaders and sympathizers from among the Northern Kingdoms’ aristocracy. That means being extremely careful with conversation choices and manually inferring loyalty or treachery from each group of people Geralt encounters. Unlike so many games where the politics are pure backstory, the politics in The Witcher run to a depth comparable to A Game of Thrones. And like the characters in George R.R. Martin’s Westeros, Geralt finds himself in a very complicated game indeed.

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Killing monsters is all well and good, but finding friends in the nobility may bear greater rewards.

Despite bearing themes endemic to many fantasy RPGs, The Witcher stands apart in its crowded field for a few important reasons. For starters, as previously mentioned, the game takes inspiration from Eastern European rather than Western European culture. Places and NPCs have Slavic names and the game’s folklore is drawn from Polish, Russian and Ukrainian traditions instead of the more traditional British or German sources. This change in inspiration is subtle, but very important, as it presents concepts that are novel to western audiences and ideas that are rarely encountered in fantasy works from North America and Western Europe.

Additionally, like A Saga of Ice and FireThe Witcher dirties its high fantasy setting with problems and flaws endemic to the real world. The Continent’s elvish and dwarven populations are heavily discriminated against, as one might expect of real-life human beings, and the kingdoms are rife with pollution of every stripe. Additionally, almost every character that Geralt encounters is quite multi-faceted, with their own fears, prejudices and secrets to hide. Geralt can rely on a small cadre of old friends for help, but beyond this, he is alone. Players have to decide for themselves what an NPC is hiding, and it can be surprisingly difficult to do so (even when playing a white-haired superhuman armed with two swords). All of this gives The Witcher a pretty bleak atmosphere, as even at the best of times, players can’t be sure they aren’t in terrible danger.

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Most NPCs are quite ambiguous in their intentions. These two, not so much.

The narrative that all of this is built upon takes Geralt on a winding journey, mostly in and around the capital city of Vizima. The game is split up into chapters that each take place in one new area. While each of these areas is quite open, Geralt can’t always go back once he’s finished up his investigation. Most regions get progressively bigger as Geralt unlocks them, and give him lots of questing opportunities. The main story quests, from lighting lamps for an old priest to putting down the ghost of a murdered bride, rarely disappoint. The side quests, however, are pretty mediocre. Almost all of them comprise killing five monsters, or gathering five flowers, really just five instances of any menial task. Money is not hard to come by thanks to the dice gambling minigame, but the extra XP can be helpful.

The Witcher‘s central story is as rich and complicated as its dialogue system. Geralt’s quest to retrieve the Witchers’ mutagens becomes bigger and bigger as he pierces into Vizima’s dark heart. As he progresses further, Geralt also gets spectral visits from the King of the Wild Hunt, a wraith who promises to bring a savage end to the world. This and other subplots are woven deep into The Witcher‘s story, presenting one of the most satisfying, far-reaching narrative experiences of any game. Characters evolve and change along with the plot, constantly keeping the player guessing as to who’s on their side. With its unclear choice-and-consequence system, decent writing, and elongated plot, The Witcher bears a narrative that was years ahead of its time. It’s certainly head-and-shoulders over the stories that came out this year.

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The Witcher is comparable to the works of Tolkien and George R.R. Martin.

There’s a lot of good to be said about The Witcher; it brings out the best of the video game medium. Contrary-wise, though, it also represents some of game design’s less admirable tendencies. The Witcher‘s aforementioned combat design represents the game’s struggle between letting players run free and hemming them in with knowledge. Ultimately, it chooses the former, at an annoying price. There are powers and abilities that are absolutely necessary for finishing The Witcher, but the game does a poor job of hinting that to players. As a result, players might end up stuck with a Geralt who is too weak or unequipped to see the game through. Hardcore RPG fans might find this an unsurprising fact of RPG life, but no one should have to start a game over just because the game withheld helpful information. Players interested in tackling The Witcher would do well to consult a game guide first, as there’s really none to be found in The Witcher itself.

Additionally, for all its accomplishments in writing, atmosphere, and character development, The Witcher is one of the most sexist video games to be released this century. As a Witcher, Geralt has an unnaturally high sex drive, which the game uses as a convenient plot device for contriving some pretty messed up sexual encounters. Not just being able to solicit whores, but giving Geralt sexual entitlement that would make no sense in the real world. Some characters, especially the female elf rebel commander, just offer themselves to Geralt for no apparent reason. Creepily enough, The Witcher gives the player a special card with a painting of Geralt’s latest romantic “conquest” every time he successfully gets into someone’s pantaloons. Treating female NPCs like baseball cards is not only condescending; it devalues the oftentimes meaningful dialogue they bring to the game.

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The Witcher’s treatment of sex is pretty cringe-worthy. Whores were around in medieval times, sure, but collectible whore cards? Ew.

A fair few gamers and medieval fantasy enthusiasts might be turned off by The Witcher‘s bare-bones approach to adventuring and its disturbingly deep sexism. Fair enough. But, this still leaves the game’s engrossing fantasy world and some of gaming’s most impacting dialogue choices. The Enhanced Edition also includes a few tweaks to the base game, and it runs very well on PC. In the end, though, the legacy of The Witcher is much the same as that of Geralt of Rivia. Just as he represents some of the very best and very worst of humanity, so too does The Witcher represent the very best and very worst of modern game design. It’s up to the players to decide which one outweighs the other, which warrants at least giving The Witcher a shot.

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You can buy The Witcher 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.

Dishonored 2

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Fight to reclaim your throne from a ruthless, shadowy foe.

PC Release: November 11, 2016

By Ian Coppock

The 2016 video game holiday gala continues this month, as more and more big-budget studios contend for Christmas cash. Activison and Electronic Arts punched in with their yearly dose of shooters, while other major studios like 2K have climbed into the ring with heavy-hitting sequels. Now it’s Bethesda’s turn as they usher Dishonored 2 into the fray. The sequel to Arkane Studios’ 2012 electropunk stealth’em’up, Dishonored 2 is the latest in an unusually crowded field of sequels to fight for the wallets of holiday shoppers. What effort does Dishonored 2 make to stand above, or sneak past, the rest?

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When Dishonored hit shelves in 2012, it was acclaimed for its electropunk setting and stealthy gameplay. Corvo Attano’s mission to rescue a young heiress was not new narrative material, but Dishonored‘s grim atmosphere and apt blend of Victorian and Orwellian themes helped make it a standout game. Arkane Studios fell silent as their creation grew louder, and it was only at E3 2016 that Dishonored 2 was revealed, four years in the making. Like its predecessor, Dishonored 2 espouses an electropunk setting and a narrative that blends redemption with vengeance.

Dishonored 2 takes place fifteen years after the events of Dishonored, in which royal bodyguard Corvo Attano avenged the death of his empress and rescued their daughter Emily from traitorous conspirators. Only a little girl during the events of Dishonored, Emily Kaldwin is now in her early 20’s, and administers the Empire of the Isles with her father’s help. Corvo has also spent the 15 years since Dishonored training Emily in the same arts of assassination and combat that made him such a menace in the first game, fearing that though the empire is secure for now, new threats will appear on the horizon. Emily herself is fearful that she’ll never be the empress her mother was, despite Corvo’s advice and encouragement.

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Emily has taken her late mother’s place as empress, while Corvo advises her on matters of state and keeps her enemies at bay.

Dishonored 2‘s story kicks off as Emily marks the 15th anniversary of her mother’s death, an event attended by dignitaries from all over the isles. Anticipating a long, hot day, Emily is shocked when a mysterious woman named Delilah arrives to her throne room, claiming to be her aunt and the rightful empress. It’s at this point that the player chooses to play Dishonored 2 as either Emily or Corvo; whomever the player does not choose is imprisoned by Delilah as her men capture Dunwall. The character who escapes makes their way to the Dreadful Wale, a ship captained by Corvo’s old friend Meagan Foster, and escapes.

Clues from Delilah’s coup prompts Emily/Corvo to travel to Karnaca, the capital city of the empire’s southernmost island. Karnaca serves as the principle setting of Dishonored 2; Corvo was born and raised there and remembers it well, while Emily is a complete stranger to it. Not long after fleeing Dunwall, Emily/Corvo receives a visit from the Outsider, the same black-eyed wraith that bestowed his dark powers upon Corvo in the original Dishonored. The Outsider speculates that Delilah has much darker schemes than “merely” taking over the Empire, and either restores his Mark to Corvo or gives it to Emily for the first time. Interestingly, players can choose to reject the Outsider’s mark and play Dishonored 2 powers-free. It’s insanely difficult, but hardcore stealth fanatics will be sated.

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The player is given new powers with which to fight Delilah.

Like its predecessor, Dishonored 2 is a first-person stealth game set in Hitman-esque open levels. Players are given a target to assassinate and a variety of possible paths to that objective. Just like in Dishonored, players can choose to non-lethally remove big-name targets from the picture, and can directly influence the game’s final outcome by how many people they kill. Killing few to no people will result in a, shall we say, “calmer” ending, while leaving a trail of corpses wherever the player goes will destabilize Karnaca.

Players have a diverse arsenal of tools with which to effect stealth, assassination, or all-out war. Corvo and Emily can dispatch enemies directly with a wickedly sharp blade, or from afar with an array of pistols and crossbows. Each character also receives an array of powers from the Outsider; Emily gets a whole new set of abilities, while Corvo gets retooled and reworked versions of the powers he had in Dishonored. Most abilities in Dishonored 2 revolve around the environment; specifically, getting around it easier or being more aware of enemies. Emily and Corvo can upgrade their powers with special Outsider runes found around Karnaca.

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The dark arts give players an unbeatable edge in Dishonored.

For  better and for worse, Dishonored 2‘s gameplay is difficult to distinguish from that of Dishonored. Some fans will see this as a positive, as the original game is a genuinely good stealth title, but players hoping to find a uniquely Dishonored 2 experience will be sorely disappointed. Dishonored 2 offers few innovations for the series’s stealth formula, choosing instead to be in lockstep with the original Dishonored. Just like in that game, players are delivered to the mission area by a battle-scarred mariner in a little boat, given a bunch of different possible paths to a target, sneak past guards, eliminate the target, and then escape out the back door. Emily and Corvo will avoid guards, climb up ledges, disarm traps, and pass by electrical barriers just like Corvo did in Dishonored. None of this is objectively bad, but it does make Dishonored 2’s gameplay feel derivative.

Luckily, Dishonored 2‘s gameplay is not a complete carbon copy of it’s predecessors, at least if players choose Emily Kaldwin. Some of her powers, like the Shadow Grapple ability, are little different from Corvo’s powers in the original game, but others are entirely new. The domino effect power that unleashes one guard’s fate upon others in the area offers interesting, if seldom, new gameplay activities. Dishonored 2‘s guards return little smarter than those of Dishonored, though they now notice when their comrades are missing, which represents an added challenge. Dishonored 2 also introduces new enemies like witches and clockwork robots, but their appearances in the game are disappointingly rare.

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Dishonored 2 is perhaps too similar to its predecessor.

Dishonored 2‘s reluctance to innovate extends beyond its gameplay. As Dishonored fans might have inferred from the introduction to this review, Dishonored 2‘s plot is virtually identical to that of the first game. Sure, fifteen years have passed and Emily is now a playable character, but take a look at the plot points. Some shady aristocrats conspire, they attack the throne, their leader becomes the new ruler, Emily disappears, and now a whole bunch of conspirators have to die so that she can be restored to her rightful place. That is the exact storyline of Dishonored. Even if the game introduces a new setting and a few new characters, the underlying narrative structure is every iota the same as that of Dishonored.

That said, Dishonored 2 does manage to raise the stakes higher than in the narrative of Dishonored. Delilah is no ordinary conspirator, and unlike the conspirators in Dishonored, possesses some shadowy powers of her own. Though Dishonored 2‘s narrative is not that innovative, it adds a lot of exposition on the Outsider and other underpinnings of the Dishonored universe. Most of this exposition is woven into the narrative; it doesn’t save the story from feeling stale, but it will offer hardcore series fans more tidbits of lore to enjoy.

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Dishonored 2 spends more time fleshing out the universe than treading new narrative paths.

Speaking of the world of Dishonored 2, how’s the level design? Well, it’s… about the same as that of Dishonored. Karnaca’s sunny avenues and Greco-Italian architecture make for a welcome change from the dour Victorian visage of Dunwall, and yet the two cities’ levels are nigh congruent. Corvo/Emily is dumped off at the limits of a city district filled with guards and hidden paths, and needs to sneak their way to a target. It’s nice that Dishonored 2 has preserved the original game’s sense of freedom, but anyone who was hoping for a change from infiltrating police stations and sneaking through abandoned apartments is in for a disappointment. The one exception to this rule is the Clockwork Mansion, a house whose rooms shift and transform with the press of a button and mark an impressive feat of level design. It’s just a shame that not all of Dishonored 2‘s levels received the same amount of attention.

Arkane Studios also introduces the exact same slate of woes to Karnaca that it did to Dunwall, inadvertently quashing this new setting’s uniqueness. A plague is ravaging the streets of the city (although this time it’s spread by giant mosquitoes instead of rats), the plague creates zombies that are the spitting image of Dishonored‘s weepers, and the city guard has set up Wall of Light checkpoints everywhere. Just in case it wasn’t enough for Dishonored 2 to copy its predecessor’s plot, gameplay and level design, it also replicates the original game’s socioeconomic situations. With Dishonored 2, the apple hasn’t fallen that far from the tree so much as gone right back up the tree and ossified into its very bark.

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Haven’t we covered this already?

The icing on the cake with Dishonored 2 is the same icing that’s affected almost every big-budget release this year: bugs! Lots and lots of them. Like Far Cry PrimalDeus Ex: Mankind Divided, No Man’s Sky, and Mafia III before it, Dishonored 2 was delivered glitchy on arrival. The prevailing issue for the PC version is a dramatic framerate drop, which no amount of graphics and visual effects lowering seems to fix. Arkane Studios has pledged a patch, but for the moment, only a tiny handful of PC gamers have been lucky to hit even 60 fps. The game has a nasty tendency to slow down to the 10-15 FPS range, especially in crowded areas and, worse, during combat. It can take upwards of five minutes merely for the game to load its main menu.

Furthermore, Arkane Studios did a poor job of rendering distant objects. From far away, the environs of Karnaca and indeed every distant landmark look like they’re covered in glitter. Reducing the draw distance only amplifies the problem, obfuscating everything from miles away to across the street with bright sparkles and really bad shadow striping. This devalues the novelty of Dishonored 2‘s new setting, while the constant system crashes make gamers forsake it altogether. The game boasts improved textures and lens flare effects over its predecessor, but only under ideal conditions.

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What are you guys doing, Arkane?

The tragedy with Dishonored 2, as with all mediocre sequels, is the chance that it missed. With Dishonored 2, the developers had an opportunity to spring into an entirely new story, with improved mechanics that do more to advance what the original game introduced. Half-Life 2 and BioShock Infinite are perhaps the best examples of games that took what their predecessors did and undertook the hard work to meaningfully advance it.

Instead, even more than the other big-budget sequels that have been released this year, Dishonored 2 just replicates what the original game already did. It’s difficult to believe that Arkane still has the same confidence and sense of adventure that it did when making Dishonored, because all that can be inferred from this game’s overwhelming fealty to the original is a sense of fear. A fear of doing something different. A fear of innovation.

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System failure

Dishonored 2 is not a bad game, but it feels more like a DLC for Dishonored than its own title. Dishonored 2‘s reluctance to deviate from the path that Dishonored already blazed is deeply disappointing. Sure, the game introduces a handful of new enemies and backstories, but these aren’t enough to save the game from feeling stale. Even if Emily has a few new powers and the world of Dishonored has some robots, the story that all of this informs is functionally identical to the first game’s. No one should pay sixty dollars for a game that feels like a DLC and that’s loaded with bugs. As such, new arrivals to the series and core fans are both better off just playing the first game until Arkane introduces a big patch and an even bigger price discount. Meanwhile, the search for a well-running and truly innovative big-budget game this holiday season will have to continue elsewhere.

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You can buy Dishonored 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.

Slayer Shock

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Save your hometown from being overwhelmed by vampires.

PC Release: September 29, 2016

By Ian Coppock

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

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

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

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Just call me Buffy.

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

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

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Have an issue? Here’s a TENT STAKE!

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

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

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Keeping the vampires at bay is a balancing act.

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

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

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Didn’t I kill you last year?

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

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

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

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

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

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EAT SILVER, CRETINS!

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

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You can buy Slayer Shock here.

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

 

Shadow Warrior 2

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

PC Release: October 13, 2016

By Ian Coppock

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

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

(ahem)

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Yeah buddy!

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

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

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

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Not exactly a peaceful time in human history.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Note the awesomeness.

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

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

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What is this “subtlety” word you speak of?

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

Seriously, right now. Thanks for reading, though.

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You can buy Shadow Warrior 2 here.

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