Shooter

Bulletstorm: Full Clip Edition

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Brave a planet full of mutants and gangsters in a mad dash for revenge.

PC Release: April 7, 2017

By Ian Coppock

When most gamers think of titles that deserve an immediate remaster, Bulletstorm is probably not at the top of that list. When it first hit shelves in 2011, Bulletstorm made waves with its crude humor (players can get bonus points for shooting an enemy in the testicles) and fast-paced gameplay, but was a flop for developer Epic Games. For PC gamers, having to go through Windows LIVE was a nightmare, and that DRM stuck around even after Windows LIVE folded, precluding additional sales. Despite these issues, Bulletstorm: Full Clip Edition has crotch-kicked its way onto store shelves and onto this page six years after the original version’s release, and just in time for this evening’s review.

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As previously mentioned, Bulletstorm was originally developed by Epic Games and published by Electronic Arts, but was a commercial failure, leading a potential Bulletstorm franchise to be shelved indefinitely. The property was eventually snatched up by Polish studio People Can Fly, a frequent Epic Games collaborator, and remastered under the auspice of Gearbox instead of EA. Though EA and Epic Games didn’t think so, it’s possible that Gearbox sees franchise potential in Bulletstorm and is testing the waters with this remaster. Or they just want to bring back the joy of flinging a mutant onto a cactus. One of the two.

Anyway, Bulletstorm is a sci-fi first-person shooter starring Grayson Hunt, a former black ops agent-turned-alcoholic space pirate. Though he now spends his time drinking, looting spaceships, and drinking, Grayson and his crew used to be covert operatives in the employ of General Serrano. When Serrano casually admits that the purported terrorists Grayson’s been killing are actually innocent civilians, the entire team goes AWOL and spends a decade on the run. Bulletstorm opens as Grayson rams his ship into Serrano’s, causing both vessels to crash-land on a quarantined world called Stygia.

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This hotel has mold. And rot. And bugs. And the roof is gone. 1 star out of 5.

Grayson’s rash decision to shoot his ship through another ship kills everybody on his crew except Ishi, a sarcastic cyborg who regularly chastises Grayson for his drunk driving. The pair want to deal with Serrano but also need to find a way off-world immediately. Why? Well, it turns out that Stygia is crawling with gangs of marooned humans as well as hives of mutants. Neither party seems intent on helping Grayson on his mission for revenge, which suits the space pirate’s bloodlust just fine. With gun in hand and potty-mouth at the ready, Grayson sets off into the wilds of Stygia to exact revenge on General Serrano.

That exposition is about as complicated as this Bulletstorm‘s narrative gets. Aside from that premise and a plot twist that can be spotted from miles away, this game’s writing is an ocean of such memorable gags as “what the dick?!” and acquiring a pet robot dinosaur named Waggleton P. Tallylicker. That juvenile, crass humor is one of two elements that Bulletstorm sold itself on. The jokes are hit-and-miss, with some feeling forced but others provoking genuine belly laughs, like when Grayson is accused of being a sunbaked a**hole and responds by insisting that’s actually the name of Ishi’s cologne.

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Robot dinosaurs are all you need for a game, let’s just pack this review in and call it a night.

Even though some of Bulletstorm‘s jokes evoke that cringing feel of high school bathroom humor, the game never sold itself as a serious space odyssey. Bulletstorm succeeds in honestly presenting itself as a source of crass humor and sticks to that message from beginning to end. The humor also provides some levity against the hordes of blood-pissing mutants and the devastated post-apocalyptic landscape that players spend 6-8 hours shooting through. (As an aside, it’s easy to tell that Bulletstorm was originally made by Epic Games, because like the characters in Gears of War, they all have blimp-sized biceps and have to wear shoes that are size 20 both lengthwise and crosswise).

Despite itself, the writing does allow for a few moments of seriousness and even packs in some light character development. Grayson realizes what his quest for revenge has turned him into over the course of the game, which alters the balance of his relationship with the unimpressed Ishi. Eventually, Bulletstorm unmasks a very different, broken person behind all of the bathroom jokes, which is more eloquent than one expects of a game that encourages players to push bad guys into cacti. It doesn’t excuse a few eyebrow-raising moments though, like when Ishi suddenly becomes nice to Grayson, or the abundance of spelling and grammar errors in the subtitles. For Epic Games’ information, it’s spelled “smoothie”, not “smoothy.”

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You might call this scene a… chemical bromance. Thank you, thank you, I’m here all week.

And speaking of pushing bad guys into cacti, it’s time to discuss the other element Bulletstorm sold itself on: violent and chaotic first-person shooting. For anything that can be said about Bulletstorm‘s approach to story, its arcade-style gameplay and moving at the speed of DOOM make it a lot of fun. In fact, one might say Bulletstorm recaptures the thrill of first-person shooting that Call of Duty and other mainline series have forgotten how to evoke. Coming from someone who never played the original Bulletstorm, the Full Clip Edition is one of the most fun FPS games released since last fall’s Shadow Warrior 2.

Bulletstorm does a lot more than provide tons of bad guys and guns to shoot them with (though it does those things quite well). The game’s main novelty is the energy leash, a bullwhip-like device that allows Grayson to grab objects and enemies and pull them toward him. Conversely, the leash can be used to send enemies flying into one of dozens of conveniently placed traps, including but not limited to: cacti, live electrical wires, air intake fans, vats of acid, giant flytrap plants, unexploded bombs, and precarious ledges. Grayson can also force enemies toward these things with a solid kick. In fact, why not use the leash to bring an enemy toward Grayson, step out of the way, and then kick that enemy into a nearby wind turbine? The possibilities are endless!

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I guess I’m pretty… alluring (I am so sorry).

Between being able to fling enemies around like ragdolls and all of the guns lying around, Bulletstorm‘s gameplay has a lot of variety to offer. It’s a ton of fun to experiment with different killing methods, like pulling an enemy toward Grayson and then using the sniper rifle before aforementioned gravity-defying enemy careens too far away. Bulletstorm gives players points for creative kills, and since the only currency for ammo and upgrades is points, it pays to be an artiste on the battlefield. Bulletstorm provides equal versatility with its level design, shunting Grayson through a riot of different environments laden with various traps and obstacles.

Bulletstorm also does a great job of scratching that fast-moving arcade itch. The game stomps its foot on the gas pedal about five seconds after the title screen rolls and almost never lets up. Grayson’s in for a nonstop roller coaster of huge gun battles, falling buildings, and a marathon of explosions that put Michael Bay’s entire filmography to shame. Anyone who yearns for the days when shooters were a non-stop series of massive explosions and over-sized ordnance is in for a real treat with Bulletstorm. The only pause players will find in this game is hitting ESC for the menu.

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WOOOOO! C’mon you bastards, I can do this all night! MWAHAHAHA!

Bulletstorm‘s gameplay stands the test of time, but it’s not a new product of the Full Clip Edition. All of this was available in the original 2011 release. With that in mind, what does the Full Clip Edition of Bulletstorm offer to shooter fans new and old? Well, for a start, the Full Clip Edition doesn’t require the now-defunct Windows LIVE system to operate, and for that, People Can Fly deserves an angelic choir at their front door. No Windows LIVE, no heavy-handed DRM that takes hours to circumvent… this edition of Bulletstorm is completely free of all that gobbledygook.

What about changes to the actual game? Bulletstorm‘s textures have been sharpened up quite a bit, but nothing else, including the characters’ stiff facial animations, seems to have been touched. The game runs well on PC sans occasional lag and has a decent options menu, but these things were true of the original Bulletstorm as well. The biggest changes the Full Clip Edition seems to make are support for modern resolutions and the addition of a new campaign mode, which can seem pretty paltry for a $50 price tag. It’s also quite glib that the Duke Nukem campaign mode Gearbox toted as a major feature of the remaster is a separate DLC and not, y’know, a major feature of the base game.

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Looks like we’re about to make an unscheduled stop… (I’m actually not sorry about any of these jokes).

Jokes about a**-kickery and referring to mini-bosses as Mr. Butterdick Jones are all well and good, but Bulletstorm‘s main value proposition lies in its gameplay. Too often, first-person shooters these days get strung up on repetitive, underwhelming gameplay, and trying to cater to a watered-down audience with reduced viscera. Bulletstorm isn’t interested in pandering. It’s only interested in seeing how many mutants it takes to make a mutant-and-cactus sandwich. It possesses an uncommon amount of courage in telling the world exactly what it is and with pride. Perhaps it’s a good thing that People Can Fly didn’t do a whole lot to change the game other than make it accessible again, though that also makes the $50 price tag a bit high.

In the end, any player who likes moving through gorgeous environments at the Doomguy’s clip and spending hours bloodily murdering mutants while yelling “chunky style!” will want to get Bulletstorm. The main campaign has a lot of replay value packed into its admittedly short length, while the game’s burgeoning multiplayer community is coming back to life. Get the Full Clip Edition of Bulletstorm and experience a game that is unabashedly proud to own what it is, and in so doing, produces an experience more memorable than most of its bigger-name peers.

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You can buy Bulletstorm: Full Clip Edition here.

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

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.

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands

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Destroy a ruthless drug cartel from the inside out.

PC Release: March 7, 2017

By Ian Coppock

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

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

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

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Let’s do this!

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

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

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And people wonder why I seek solitude from other people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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#brolo

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

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

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Oooooh.

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

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

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

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

Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball

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Dodge, dive, duck, dip and dodge your way through rocking dodgeball games.

PC Release: February 19, 2015

By Ian Coppock

Next up in this month’s cavalcade of zany party games is Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball, a title whose gameplay is (thankfully) a bit more fluid than its name. The game’s premise—uni-wheeled robots rolling around disco parties clubbing each other with dodgeballs—may seem a bit ridiculous, but it’s actually pretty great, and it doesn’t stand out that much when coming up on the heels of Gang Beasts and King of Booze. Just because St. Patrick’s Day has now passed (a moment of silence, please) doesn’t mean that the March madness has to go with it. More fun. More partying. More Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball.

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RR-DDD is a multiplayer dodgeball game brought to life by Erik Asmussen, a one-man studio who apparently remembers high school dodgeball more fondly than most nerds. This game ain’t no state-sanctioned athletic torture, though; it’s a room-sized disco party full of robots attempting to forcefully deactivate each other with high-speed balls of death. Robots don’t keel over and vomit if they get hit in the crotch with a dodgeball, so already this game sounds much more fun than the real-life sport.

RR-DDD is pretty simple to understand: players are organized into two teams and roll around a big room throwing dodgeballs at each other. It only takes one dodgeball to knock an enemy player out of commission, but they’ll respawn soon enough. Team matches are the lifeblood of Roller Robot-Derby Disco Dodgeball; players can duke it out in local 4-player co-op, or participate in well over a dozen online game modes. These range from simple death matches to one-kill elimination. Players can also forego playing on teams in favor of an every-robot-for-itself free-for-all.

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If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.

Before rolling into battle, players can customize their robot with a huge palette of colors, accessories and visual effects. Most of these are locked off behind the game’s leveling system, but new players can still give their robots funny doodads and clan emblems. After creating their custom robo, it’s time for players to roll into one of gaming’s grooviest battlefields. RR-DDD enjoys thriving online activity, and finding a match usually only takes a few seconds. Of course, players are also welcome to create their own online matches and invite friends. RR-DDD provides full controller support for local matches.

As previously mentioned, RR-DDD includes an impressive variety of game modes for online multiplayer. The most popular is the simple team deathmatch mode, in which the first cabal of robots to reach a certain number of enemy deaths wins the game. RR-DDD also provides some true novelties in the multiplayer world, ones that tweak the environment or players’ equipment for entirely new experiences. The mode pitting a team of laser gun-wielding robots against a squad armed with jetpacks is particularly fun, as is the game’s basketball mode, in which one team tries to score hoops while the other defends. Players can also race each other or team up against hordes of enemy bots. The sheer variety of RR-DDD‘s modes is almost bewildering.

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Legend has it that before rubber was invented, dodgeball players used severed heads instead of balls…

 Even though RR-DDD has a lot of modes, the gameplay at the core of all of them is pretty simple. Roll into battle, find a dodgeball, pick it up, and throw it at an enemy player. There are only so many dodgeballs to go around, so players have to hurry to find one before an opponent does. Dodgeballs fly fairly quickly and bounce off of surfaces, though they don’t ricochet at the speed of a bullet. Players can also make shots while moving or flying through the air, the latter movement enabled by the robots’ high jumping ability.

To further preserve its variety. RR-DDD scatters each of its battlefields with little perk tokens. These items grant players timed abilities to help them out in battle, like being temporarily immune to shots or moving just a little faster. Most arenas are also riddled with floor panels that can enhance jump height and speed when touched. These features help level RR-DDD‘s difficulty for new players, but they also help to make each round as chaotic and unpredictable as real-life dodgeball.

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The Average Bots. Er, no, wait, Robo-Gym!

Thus far we’ve seen the robot, roller-derby and dodgeball elements of the game, but what about the disco? While all of this chaotic combat is going on, RR-DDD accents its arenas with a soundtrack of pulse-pounding disco electronica. Each track is a fast-paced round of tunes that wouldn’t seem out of place in an arcade game, and they fit RR-DDD‘s neon-tinged atmosphere pretty well. The music certainly helps the game’s combat feel even more frantic.

Visually, RR-DDD is not too sophisticated. The in-game textures on character models and arenas aren’t super-sharp, but they’re almost always covered by the game’s neon colors. Each arena in RR-DDD is absolutely soaked in neon, rounding out its groovy cyber vibe nicely. Character animations are pretty simple; robots basically just roll around and somehow launch the balls at each other despite lacking arms, but the characters’ movements are mapped just fine.

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Anyone else getting a Tron vibe?

As can be inferred from these screenshots, RR-DDD‘s arenas are not the flat school gymnasiums of real-life dodgeball nightmares. Each arena features lots of elevation variety to give players a chance to escape opponents… or a chance for an amazing long-distance strike. The game features a few types of terrain, mostly stairs and the aforementioned jump pads, but the robots seem to function well no matter where their wheels roll. It might’ve been interesting to include terrains that negatively affect player speed and performance, but their absence is no great loss.

Indeed, RR-DDD‘s level design is as crucial to success in the game as throwing its titular dodgeballs. In addition to dodging enemy blows, players also have to account for enemies having the low or high ground, and making or avoiding shots while sailing through the air on the robots’ high jumps. This makes an already chaotic game even more fun, and opens up the floor (no pun intended) for players to take pot shots at enemies above or below them. Having the high ground can grant a distinct advantage, but it’s no deal-breaker; it’s also relatively easy for players to throw the ball from the relative cover of an upper level and then dart back out of reach.

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Three points!

Between its quick-to-find matches and endless character customization, RR-DDD is already its own cavalcade of player choice, but the game’s versatility is further rounded out with its spectacular options menu. One of the most in-depth menus of any PC multiplayer game, RR-DDD‘s options menu includes sliders and adjusters for shadows, buffering, and other high-end performance functions. Players who can’t quite get RR-DDD to run (unlikely, as it also runs well) will want for nothing when poring over the options menu. Like most games built to run on PC, RR-DDD brings some serious performance versatility to the table.

Indeed, versatility seems to be the name of RR-DDD‘s game. Erik Asmussen spared no facet of this game from being able to be tweaked by the player. The options menu allows for the game to be contoured to virtually any machine. The player character can be customized with hundreds of items and endless combinations of them. The online multiplayer is easy to access and has a ton of different modes to suit any multiplayer itch, from combat to racing to shooting hoops. To top it all off, the game runs well, and its groovy soundtrack adds to the slap-shot hilarity of robots killing each other with dodgeballs.

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FOR GLORY!

Overall, Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball is a fantastic multiplayer indie game. It’s difficult to find fault with almost anything the game does, from providing players with a plethora of options to all of the modes it includes. The game’s multiplayer community is thriving, and its local matches make for gaming parties on a caliber comparable to Gang Beasts and King of Booze. And in case all of that isn’t enough, more items, robots and arenas can be found in the game’s Steam Workshop page. Pick up a copy and take a journey into a world where dodgeball is a fun neon party with robots, not a dreadful gymnasium ordeal with assholes.

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You can buy Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball 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.

Sniper Elite 4

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Stop the Nazis from (literally) torpedoing the Allied invasion of Italy.

PC Release: February 14, 2017

By Ian Coppock

For Honor teaches that it’s fun to kill things noisily. There’s something so merry about hopping into a roaring battlefield full of screaming soldiers and leaving bloody stumps where heads used to be. Charging headlong into battle is all well and good, but that approach is a bit more complicated when the enemies have guns. It’s also more complicated when the protagonist doesn’t have a legion of troops at their back. In fact, in the case of tonight’s review, the hero is completely by himself. But is he any good with guns? Not sure, but the title “Sniper Elite 4” might offer a clue. Let’s find out.

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Sniper Elite 4 is the fourth installment in Rebellion Developments’ cult World War II sniper series (fifth if one counts the Zombie Army Trilogy spin-off). The game features the return of series protagonist Karl Fairburne, an inveterate OSS sniper who specializes in forcing bullets through Nazis’ brains from a far distance. Likewise, Sniper Elite 4 marks the return of the Sniper Elite series’s emphasis on tactics. This game ain’t no Call of Duty, where the hero wades headfirst through neat rows of enemies. No, this is more of a… hunting game.

Set immediately after Karl’s North African Nazi hunt in Sniper Elite IIISniper Elite 4 sees this steely eyed, gravelly voiced killing machine off to Italy. Karl stopped the Nazis from developing a super-weapon in Sniper Elite III, but wouldn’t you know it, those dastardly Germans are already hard at work building a new one somewhere in the verdant Italian countryside. General Dwight D. Eisenhower orders Fairburne to travel to Italy on a twofold mission: stop this new threat before it can impede the Allied invasion of Italy, and help the local anti-fascist rebels take the fight to Mussolini. With rifle in hand and the word “Nazi” in the clip, Karl sets off to do just that.

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I wonder how hard it is to goose-walk with a bullet lodged in the brain.

The Sniper Elite series is built from the ground up to be a stealth shooter, and Sniper Elite 4 is the purest incarnation yet of this motif. Rather than charge blindly into Nazi strongholds, players have to use tactics to manage one sniper against entire battalions of foes. Karl has finite health and ammunition, so his best chance is to be sneaky. Players can slip across the map stabbing Nazis up close or shoot them from afar with the game’s titular sniper rifles. Like its predecessors, Sniper Elite 4 also allows players to use grenades and deploy various types of minds. The tripwire charges are particularly… messy.

Before going any further, it’s also worth noting that Sniper Elite 4 is built from the ground up to run well on PC. The game has an impressive suite of options that allow for tweaks to virtually all its visual and audio facets, leaving players with no shortage of recourse if the game doesn’t boot up the first time. It’ll probably at least boot up, because Sniper Elite 4 also runs phenomenally well. It can maintain a constant 60fps framerate and run virtually devoid of bugs. Much like Karl’s rifle, Sniper Elite 4 is a fine-tuned, surgically precise weapon.

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See any pizza? If it has anchovies on it, shoot it.

Although the Nazi superweapon in Sniper Elite III remained secret for most of that game, the one in Sniper Elite 4 is introduced about two seconds in: a radio-controlled missile that can sink even the biggest ships. Much like his hunt for Nazi engineers in Sniper Elite III, Karl immediately sets about traversing Italy in search of the Germans behind this new project. He discovers that the missile’s development is being spearheaded by Heinz Bohm, a Nazi general so good at eluding assassins that no one knows where he is or even what he looks like. He also has a reputation for being bloodthirsty and psychotic, so… that’s pretty neat.

Along the way, Karl also embeds himself with the Partisans (no, not Saw Gerrerra’s), a group of Italian rebels led by a particularly fierce gunslinger nicknamed “the Angel.” Karl is also accompanied by Jack Weaver, an American spymaster who sounds and looks like Steve Buscemi. Even with these allies at his side, though, Karl is in for a pretty solitary mission against the Nazi menace.

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Not a train you want to see comin’ round the mountain.

The player has a lot of options for how exactly Karl goes about this solitary mission. The most obvious choice and the American government’s number-one-recommended method for Nazi-hunting is a sniper rifle, of which Sniper Elite 4 has many. Most, like the almighty Mosin-Nagant, return from previous games, but the game also adds a few new Italian rifles to the armory. As in previous Sniper Elite games, each rifle offers different rates of fire, recoil and accuracy. Players who like the action up-close and personal might consider a rapid-fire rifle, while lone wolf players who refuse to shoot anything closer than a mile away might want a slower, steadier gun.

Just like in previous games, Karl can steady his breathing to make his shots more accurate- a little red targeting box shows up to aid the player on lower difficulties. Karl can shoot Nazis from afar and move before the Nazis pinpoint his position, or he can fire while his gun’s masked by a noise from, say, an airplane. Or perhaps a conveniently placed generator. The Sniper Elite series’ infamous x-ray kill-cam also returns in gory glory in Sniper Elite 4, showing players a gruesomely detailed slo-mo of the skeletal and other damage Karl’s bullets do to Nazis’ bodies. Sniper Elite 4 also introduces the kill-cam for melee kills so that players can see just how many tendons their combat knife severs. It’s gory, it’s provocative, it’s oh so satisfying.

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Wait… why aren’t beer and sausages pouring out?

As in previous Sniper Elite games, the sniper rifles in Sniper Elite 4 handle quite well. It can be tricky to find the perfect shooting perch, much less so to lie down in a prone position and start picking fascists off from afar, but the rifles are fun to use. Players can also pick a pistol (the Welrod, which has a silencer, is highly recommended) as well as a medium-weight secondary weapon like an SMG or shotgun. The secondary weapon has only one noise setting, though: loud. Best only to use it if Karl’s location is discovered. Luckily, Karl’s much better with secondary weapons than Sniper Elite V2 allowed, so players aren’t screwed if the Nazis hem them in.

Sniper Elite III is well-known for completely overhauling the gameplay of Sniper Elite V2, replacing Karl’s regenerating health with a medkit system and making all manner of fixes and polishes. Sniper Elite 4 takes III‘s refinements even further: Karl can now run while crouched (insanely helpful for getting somewhere quietly) and can now perform ledge kills on unsuspecting foes. As with Sniper Elite III, the game’s medkit-style health system makes it impossible for players to charge in loudly and then run off somewhere to heal. Co-op fans will be delighted to know that this game’s campaign can be played, well, co-op? What’s better than one Nazi hunter? Two Nazi hunters.

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SMELL MY PALM. SMELL IT.

Sniper Elite 4 also adds a light RPG system, something previous Sniper Elite games have never toyed with before. Karl can gain points in each level through completing side missions and creatively killing his foes. As he ranks up, he can access new perks that enhance his abilities in the field, like being more accurate with a gun or regenerating a bit of health. Players can pick new perks for Karl every five levels, with a Mass Effect-style system of choosing between two perks at each landmark.

Karl can also spend his hard-earned points on new weapons. Unlike Sniper Elite III, which gave Karl an entire arsenal from the get-go, players have to unlock most of Sniper Elite 4‘s armory through good old hard work. Players can also upgrade their rifles like in Sniper Elite III, but this system has been reduced from colorful weapon mods to abstract stat increases. Instead of buying a new leather stock, Karl simply buys a 10% increase to his rifle’s recoil dampening. The two are functionally identical, but III‘s system added some color to the Sniper Elite world. Reducing rifle mods to stats buys is a bit boring.

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No accessories for Karl, unfortunately.

Although Sniper Elite 4‘s gameplay receives a few tune-ups here and there, by far the game’s biggest shakeup over its predecessors is its level design. The levels in Sniper Elite 4 are huge. Leagues and fathoms bigger than the ones in V2, and several times bigger than even Sniper Elite III‘s impressively sized levels. More than being larger in size, though, Sniper Elite 4‘s levels introduce vertical travel to the series. Karl can now climb up ledges and buildings to get to higher areas, and he’ll have to in order to complete some of these missions. Sniper Elite 4‘s eight levels are all riddled with even more terrain variations than the levels in Sniper Elite III, which gives players the challenge of finding higher ground to shoot from.

This also means that Sniper Elite 4 is considerably longer than Sniper Elite IIIIII‘s levels weren’t small, but they also weren’t huge. Even players who spent time perched in a tower tagging Nazis could still expect to beat the game in 5-6 hours. Sniper Elite 4‘s expanded levels mean more travel time, and this game clocks in at a much more satisfying 9-10 hours. Each mission also features a plethora of side missions for Karl to undertake on the way to his main objectives, from sabotaging German air defenses to destroying the Italian army’s entire ricotta supply.

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The Lasagna Wars of 1943. Terrible, absolutely terrible.

In addition to being larger and taller, the levels of Sniper Elite 4 are absolutely gorgeous. These are the most beautiful Italian countrysides in gamedom since 2009’s Assassin’s Creed II. Karl’s journey through fascist Italy takes him through a delectable palette of Italian environments. Old seaside towns, soaring canyons, forested hills, Tuscan villages and even the frigid Italian Alps are but a handful of the places Karl visits in Sniper Elite 4. Each environment is overloaded with bright colors and gorgeous multifaceted lighting setups, leaving players with lots to gawk at even as they violently explode Nazis’ heads from afar. Couple this with immersive wilderness and village sound design, and the result is an Italian vacation. With an explosion or two.

Indeed, there’s something inherently tragic about the juxtaposition of dark German war machinery onto the delicate Italian landscape. Karl will happen upon majestic mountain valleys stained with the steel of German weaponry. It’s a motif that draws intellectual as well as visual interest, demonstrating that there was nothing the Nazis were unwilling to spoil in their quest for world domination. This makes players all the more adamant about blowing Nazi stuff up and helping the Partisans take their land back.

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Sniper Elite 4 is beautiful.

Although the Sniper Elite series is known for solid tactical gunplay and expansive environments, Rebellion Developments has never been good at storytelling. Sniper Elite V2‘s narrative is skeletal, and Sniper Elite III basically doesn’t have one. The studio has seemed more preoccupied with delivering an authentic sniper experience, but the abject lack of storytelling has left all of this series’s games feeling a bit dry.

As for Sniper Elite 4, well… it has a narrative! No kidding! It has exposition, a cast of characters, and has more than the until-now customary two seconds of dialogue from Karl. It only took Rebellion four games, but players can finally get a glimpse of who this guy really is. Karl has the chance to speak with the Partisans and his OSS handler before each mission, and the conversations, while not groundbreaking, make Karl an instantly likable character. Stoic, yet sarcastic. Heroic, yet pragmatic. Through these conversations Karl can learn more about the history of fascist Italy and little-known snippets about the anti-fascist rebels operating during the time. Most missions also feature cutscenes with additional dialogue.

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This game has talking! And a cohesive story! What will they think of next?

Before anyone gets too excited, it’s worth remembering that this game’s narrative is not some sort of magnum opus. Characters develop very little, and the dialogue, while interesting, does not take up the bulk of the game. But, Rebellion Developments is to be commended for including a plot that threads through all the levels. Karl learns about other characters’ lives and the story does include an interesting twist or two (he may or may not have to make a deal with the local Mafia, for example).

In previous Sniper Elite games, Rebellion tried and failed to elicit empathy by killing off an NPC Karl knew, but these were pathetic efforts. V2‘s tragic death was enacted moments after Karl met the character, and III‘s occurred the level after meeting the deceased. Karl would become angry at this death, ostensibly to compel the player to kill more Nazis, but the effort fell flat because the characters died before the players could connect with them. This time, Karl has game-long connections with people, and their deaths are subsequently much more meaningful and touching. Sniper Elite 4 is the first game in this series to inspire genuine rage against Nazi characters through dialogue alone. It’s not amazing, it’s certainly no narrative masterwork, but it’s a refreshing change of pace for a Sniper Elite game.

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I want to help these people, and not just because the game told me to.

Sniper Elite 4 is a tremendous shooter, one that took what Sniper Elite III pioneered and added expanded levels and a story. Not a super-deep story, but a coherent, surprisingly charming plot all the same. Once again, Rebellion has demonstrated an uncanny knack for fixing what was wrong with a previous installment in their series, making Sniper Elite 4 the best of its saga and arguably one of the greatest tactical shooters ever made. Stealth-heads and shooter fans won’t want to miss this silky smooth and solidly satisfying title. From its gorgeous Italian vistas to its gruesomely indulgent headshots, Sniper Elite 4 leaves the discerning shooter fan wanting for little.

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You can buy Sniper Elite 4 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.

Zombie Army Trilogy

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Stop the Nazi zombie horde from taking over the world.

PC Release: March 6, 2015

By Ian Coppock

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

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

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

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Oh well that’s just great…

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

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

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It took a zombie apocalypse for Karl to make friends.

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

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

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Tod dem zombies, ja!

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

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

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This game is fun.

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

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

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Whatever effects help you look like a badass.

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

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

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Running and gunning? This isn’t Sniper Elite!

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

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

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LMG zombies. Because why not?

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

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

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Ooh! Right in the rigor mortis!

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

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You can buy Zombie Army Trilogy here.

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

F.E.A.R.

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Stop a psychopath from unleashing a buried evil.

PC Release: October 17, 2005

By Ian Coppock

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

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

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

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Fettel’s meddling at ATC creates…. complications.

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

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

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Time to hunt some ghosts.

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

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

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“I believe I can fly…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hey! He owed me money!

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

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You can buy F.E.A.R. here.

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