Shooter

Spec Ops: The Line

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Discover what happened to your fellow soldiers in a ruined city.

PC Release: June 25, 2012

By Ian Coppock

There’s no shortage of video games that turn war into fun… but there are only a few titles that criticize warfare and romanticized notions of it. Most of these latter games take the form of autobiographical walking simulators. Others are games with elements of psychological horror, like NevermindSpec Ops: The Line is also against romanticizing warfare, but few would guess that from its cover art of bros with rifles. That’s the beauty of Spec Ops: The Line: it’s an anti-war game disguised as a war game.

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Before old-school shooter fans ask, the answer is no. Spec Ops: The Line has nothing to do with the Spec Ops games released in the 90’s and early 2000’s. The game was developed by Yager as a reboot of the Spec Ops franchise, and was the first Spec Ops game released in over a decade. The game does emphasize controlling a small number of soldiers who are up against an overwhelming enemy force, but that and the name Spec Ops are about all that this game has in common with older titles in the series. Apologies to the 90’s shooter junkies out there.

Spec Ops: The Line starts six months after a freak sandstorm consumes the city of Dubai, killing thousands of people and burying one of the Middle East’s most opulent cities in under miles of sand. The U.S. military sends an aid convoy to the city shortly after the sandstorm, but the entire regiment mysteriously disappears. Now, six months later, someone is sending a signal from inside the sand-drowned city, and it’s up to Delta Force Capt. Martin Walker to find out who.

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That is… wow.

Voiced by the immortal Nolan North, Walker serves as the game’s playable protagonist and is accompanied into the ruins of Dubai by two squadmates: a wiscracking sniper and a big-hearted demolitions expert. The team’s objective is simple: follow the radio signal into Dubai and see if anyone is still alive. Freak sandstorms have a funny way of killing lots of people, but someone had to survive to set up that signal.

The team enters Dubai and finds the American soldiers from that aforementioned aid convoy, but they immediately shoot Walker and his comrades on sight. With no way out of Dubai, the trio shifts tactics from search-and-rescue to run-and-hide as they’re relentlessly hunted across the ruins by their countrymen. To make matters even more confusing, Walker notices that the surviving Emiratis have been whipped into a resistance force… by CIA operatives. What in Sam hell is going on in this city? Walker’s not sure, but he knows that John Konrad, the Americans’ commander and his former mentor, must know.

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Stop shooting, I eat apple pie and watch football just like you guys!

With no other option, Walker makes finding Konrad a priority. That objective is the driving force in Spec Ops: The Line as the team works its way through Dubai and kills hostile American soldiers. American troops being the bad guys is a jarring subversion of tropes common in other shooters, especially Call of Duty. On the surface, Spec Ops: The Line‘s setting suggests that jihadis are the primary enemy, but Walker and his team encounter an insidious new brand of antagonism in what are supposed to be allies.

Spec Ops: The Line also explores how a situation like this might fracture a military team’s unity in real life. Walker’s teammates are vocal about their opposition to killing fellow soldiers from the get-go, and argue more and more about the mission as they get further into Dubai. Most military shooters portray their protagonists as being rock-set in their convictions, but in Spec Ops: The Line, those convictions begin to falter.

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Whose idea was it to hide in here, anyway?

Spec Ops: The Line is criminally underrated as a war story and as a feat of storytelling in video gaming. The game’s narrative takes a premise common to military games and twists it into a psychologically exhausting trip to hell. By Yager’s own admission, Spec Ops: The Line draws heavy inspiration from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a novella about a Belgian pioneer exploring a progressively darker, harsher Congo. Likewise, Walker’s journey into Dubai is a horrifying odyssey into the depravity of the human mind.

Exactly how depraved is for new players to find out for themselves, but suffice it to say that Spec Ops: The Line gets graphic in portraying the horrors of war. The game avoids shows of military strength and unity in favor of warfare’s most brutal excesses. Walker and his comrades see some horrible stuff on their visit to Dubai… the type of stuff left out of the notions of romanticized warfare that Spec Ops wants to turn upside down. Just as a heads-up, the game includes a few torture scenes that are not fit for wobbly stomachs.

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For the cause?

Even though Spec Ops: The Line‘s dialogue writing is nothing amazing, the game’s character development is quite powerful. The trio begin their journey confident in their intentions and those of their home country, but doubts start to trickle in before long. Walker himself can’t quite believe that Konrad would condone some of the things he sees in the city, and has a progressively harder time maintaining order over his team. To top it all off, players will be faced with a few gut-wrenching choices to which there are no easy moral answers. Nolan North does a good job characterizing the doubtful soldier; his and the rest of the cast’s voice acting help these dilemmas hit even harder.

In some ways, Spec Ops: The Line could almost be classified as a psychological horror game, and not just because of its liberal use of gore. That pit of unease that the game starts players off on stays in their stomachs for the game’s entire 6-8 hour duration. The game is also commendable for portraying the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that most video game characters shrug off with ease but is a very, very real problem for men and women returning home from war. Spec Ops: The Line‘s attention to the dehumanizing effect war can have on people makes it stand out in its genre.

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No other game studies war as loss like Spec Ops does.

So wait; if Spec Ops: The Line is such a pioneering tour de force about the nature of war, why isn’t it a better-known game? Well, unfortunately, though Spec Ops: The Line has a great war story, its gameplay is much more generic. Spec Ops: The Line doesn’t go for gameplay the same way it goes for story, resulting in some of the most pedestrian third-person shooting of the genre. The game neatly borrows health regeneration, cover-based shooting, and NPC squad commands from games like Gears of War and Mass Effect.

Spec Ops: The Line‘s gunplay is similarly conventional, giving players all the usual military hardware and challenging them only to keep shooting until the bad guy is dead. The game throws a paltry selection of foes at the player, ranging only between crazy dudes with knives, ye olde infantrymen, and eight-foot-tall thugs wearing kevlar. None of these elements are bad, but some might say they’re boring. Spec Ops‘ one gameplay novelty is the ability to bury enemies in sand, and as luck would have it, enemies in this game spend a lot of time standing near sand-filled skyscrapers.

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Seriously, how many games have had this exact screenshot taken?

Spec Ops: The Line‘s artwork and graphical sophistication could also have stood more work. Make no mistake, the vistas of Dubai are absolutely stunning… but the game’s character models and in-game objects are decidedly more smudgy. Character animations are stiff and more akin to those of robots than human beings. To put it most concisely, Spec Ops: The Line looks more like a game that came out in 2007 than it does a 2012 title, at least in terms of visual fidelity. For all its blurry textures and polygonal objects, though, the game does do well with lighting setups and sound design.

Perhaps Spec Ops: The Line‘s visual team poured most of their effort into the game’s stunning weather effects. Sandstorms can whip up at any time and they roar through Dubai with impressive force. Sandstorms aren’t just for looks, though; players caught out in the open have to navigate carefully and take cover often to avoid being an easy target for foes. The sandstorms do a great job of reinforcing Spec Ops: The Line‘s postapocalyptic atmosphere, and that sense of unpredictability that comes with trying to shoot one’s way through hostile weather.

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The next man who jokes about sand in his shorts will do so with a lead bullet in his back.

Spec Ops: The Line is full of sand, but the game runs well on modern rigs and low-to-mid-range gaming laptops. The options menu, as always, could stand to be bigger, but it does give players ample control over any potential performance issues. Spec Ops: The Line shouldn’t punch PCs the way its story might punch players, especially now that the game is a half-decade old. The game has a completely dead multiplayer mode, which is useless information for prospective buyers but a great way to make this paragraph longer.

Even though Spec Ops: The Line‘s gameplay doesn’t stand out, its storytelling and acute attention to the realities of war make it one of the best shooters of the decade. It strays away from the “us vs. them” trope endemic to virtually every other shooter out there in favor of portraying the psychological effects warfare can have on soldiers. It’s a darkly beautiful journey that cuts through the romanticized veneer of combat to expose the horrors lurking just beneath the surface. That’s why everyone should play it.

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You can buy Spec Ops: The Line here.

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

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Secret Ponchos

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Gun down enemy outlaws in frantic Wild West duels.

PC Release: October 13, 2015

By Ian Coppock

High noon. A remote western town. The sheriff’s run off with the rancher’s wife, leaving the locals cowering in fear. A solitary tumbleweed gently bounces across the heart of town; a town where two outlaws stand face-to-face, eye-to-eye, ready to draw and shoot at the slightest provocation. Only one person will be leaving town alive… but who? The jury’s out on that one, but Secret Ponchos gives players the chance to see if they could survive that encounter.

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Secret Ponchos is an isometric multiplayer shooter made by Switchblade Monkeys, a developer whose name would be perfect for the band. To hear the dev tell it, Secret Ponchos seeks to be the Spaghetti Western of video games, putting players in a highly stylized Wild West universe rife with bright colors and even brighter splashes of violence. Players choose from one of 10 deadly desperados and decide who’s king (or queen) of the Wild West in the most Wild West way possible: a hail of bullets.

Duels in Secret Ponchos can be played by two teams of up to three players. Whichever person or team can reach three victories first wins (and gets dibs on the post-duel guac). Each character carries two unique weapons into battle that define his or her style. The gunslinger Kid Red takes to the field with two revolvers and dynamite, while the originally named Killer keeps things simple with a revolver and a hunting knife. Other characters wield everything from bullfighting swords to Gatling guns.

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Apparently the Scotsman from Samurai Jack makes a cameo.

After picking a character, it’s time to face down the opponent in a good ol’ fashioned high-paced hoedown. Characters have infinite ammo on their guns but oftentimes have to contend with much more finite magazines, so be prepared to reload frequently. When ammo does run dry, players can avoid the enemy by rolling out of the way or taking cover behind a conveniently placed water trough. Secret Ponchos is a pretty forgiving game, giving players plenty of health and superhuman resistance to bullets.

Given that the first team to reach three victories wins the game, most matches in Secret Ponchos are short but intense. Players have to manage their health, keep their weapon reloaded, and keep out of range. Each weapon in Secret Ponchos has a different range, so players who prefer sharpshooting from a distance or getting up-close and personal should plan accordingly. At no point during any of this is the name “Secret Ponchos” actually explained. If the game’s gunslingers try to keep what they’re packing a secret, they don’t do a very good job.

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Disparos!

Although the matches in Secret Ponchos are pretty fun, the first-to-three mode is the only multiplayer mode the game comes packaged with. The game omits including other modes that would’ve been great for the Wild West setting, like performing a heist or bounty hunting other players. Secret Ponchos does come with an offline arcade mode for players who are more interested in  battling bots than humans, but the setup in that mode is the same as in multiplayer.

Why would anyone choose bots over multiplayer? Because, unfortunately, Secret Ponchos‘ community is deader than a deep-fried gopher. It enjoyed a glorious few months of activity when it first hit Steam in 2015, but despite the dev’s best efforts, Secret Ponchos‘ player base couldn’t be resuscitated. It’s a real shame; the game is quite good, and Switchblade Monkeys added a ton of free stuff to it over the course of 2016: more maps, more skins, more characters, and more Wild West.

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This here’s a stickup!

The other reason that Secret Ponchos‘ dead community is a shame is that the game is gorgeous. It more than delivers on its Steam store page’s promise of a pretty, stylized rendition of the Old West. The characters look like something off of the cover of a Gorillaz album, with cartoonish, exaggerated features and gaudy costumes. On top of that, the characters are well-animated. No smudgy textures, no poor anti-aliasing that can make game objects look serrated… none of that is going down in this Wild West.

Secret Ponchos‘ environments benefit from a similar blend of bright colors and stylized visuals. The map selection in the game isn’t huge, but it does succeed in delivering about a dozen diverse environments. Players can duke it out in an old gold mine, along a railroad, or outside the old saloon, to name a few examples. In addition to boasting varied level design, all of these locations are replete with in-game objects and pretty details to help make the world come alive. Secret Ponchos‘ options menu isn’t great, but its performance on PC is.

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“Stylized Murder.” Another name for the band.

Secret Ponchos also does well for itself in the sound design department. Guns kick off with enough force to shake the crows off a cow skull. Characters’ boots crunch through dirt and creak on wood with believable grittiness. Secret Ponchos‘ music isn’t too shabby either, though its low guitars and faster-paced combat music wouldn’t stand out from a lineup of songs from other Wild West media.

All of Secret Ponchos‘ art largely succeeds in imitating the Spaghetti Westerns that inspired it. Films like Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars didn’t have gaunt poncho-wearing ghosts running around, but they also didn’t shy away from using bright colors in their footage and on promotional artwork. The Spaghetti Western motif of a desolate town being fought over by two gangs is certainly brought to bear in Secret Ponchos. There is an irony in Secret Ponchos borrowing from a genre that itself recklessly took elements and sometimes entire narrative frameworks from other movies. Maybe that clandestine thievery is why the game’s called Secret Ponchos.

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Fighting for guacamole > fighting for the South.

Secret Ponchos is a good game, but there’s not much point in buying a multiplayer game whose community has ceased to exist. At this point it’s probably too late for Switchblade Monkeys to resurrect an army of gunslingers for its game, but the studio might have a few options. Lowering the price of the title or doing some kind of soft re-launch might do the trick. Going free-to-play is also an option, but that risks alienating veteran players who bought the game at its full $14.99 price. A hypothetical Secret Ponchos 2 might help bring this game’s gameplay back to the scene… but not Secret Ponchos itself.

The other part of the issue is that Secret Ponchos‘ community started chipping away in early 2016. It’s now July of 2017. Any of the options listed above would probably only have a small impact at best. The rapid decline of Secret Ponchos‘ community is a bit strange considering how fun its gameplay is, but it’s not uncommon for multiplayer titles on PC to go the way of the dodo astonishingly quickly. Apparently we PC gamers have short attention spans.

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Last stand, boys!

Secret Ponchos may very well have taken its last ride into the sunset, but it’s a fun little game for friends to pick up and play together. Like traveling through the Wild West, buying Secret Ponchos is done safest in groups. At the very least, Secret Ponchos is a noteworthy mention for its stylish adaptation of isometric gunplay in the Wild West setting. It’s looking doubtful at this point that the game’s community will ever make a roaring return, but that doesn’t mean that this Wild West legend has to vanish from history.

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You can buy Secret Ponchos 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.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger

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Hunt down the Wild West’s deadliest desperados.

PC Release: May 22, 2013

By Ian Coppock

Anyone who lives in the western United States knows that legends of the Wild West are a dime a dozen. Most of them are probably fake or heavily embellished, but that’s what makes them fun; particularly the recurring motif of one man riding through the desert to take down an army of bad guys. That trope can probably be traced back to Bass Reeves, who took down more than 3,000 criminals and would go on to inspire The Lone Ranger. Reeves’ story and the trope it spawned can also be traced to the world of video games and to Call of Juarez: Gunslinger.

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Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is a first-person arcade shooter set in the Wild West and can be considered a soft reboot of the Call of Juarez franchise. After the dismal reception Call of Juarez: The Cartel faced, developer Techland decided to take their gunslinging series back to the Wild West setting from whence it came, contriving a new story and characters along the way. Gunslinger is a standalone that has only the faintest references to earlier Call of Juarez games, and it’s probably better for it.

Anyway, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger tells the life and times of Silas Greaves, a grizzled bounty hunter who has spent decades cutting bloody swaths through the Wild West. The game begins when an aged Greaves arrives to a small saloon in Kansas and begins regaling its patrons with tales of his bounty hunting exploits as a young man. Those exploits form the missions of Call of Juarez: Gunslinger.

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Before McCree got his chest plate.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is set up like an arcade shooter. As Silas Greaves, it’s up to players to progress through a linear Wild West vista full of bad guys and shoot them up in as points-accruing a manner as possible. Gunslinger is generous with its points, giving players bonuses for any kill that isn’t a shot through the heart (headshot enthusiasts take note). Even shooting a guy who’s running away from the battle garners extra points, as does blowing them up with a nearby gunpowder barrel.

Players can spend these points improving one of three skill sets: long-range combat (rifles’n’such), mid-range combat (pistols galore) and getting all up close and personal (holy s*** that is a shotgun). Players can cash in points on everything from being able to slow down time while scoping to having a thicker hide for close-quarters combat. Gunslinger does a great job at making all three styles flow well. Players can also wield whichever weapon they want regardless of skill set, though the skill set can make all the difference. If all else fails, Silas can usually grab a nearby stick of dynamite.

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Do I pick intestine-shredding buckshot or insta-lobotomy sharpshooting?

Gunslinger‘s gunslinging is some of the most fun arcade shooting to be had in recent years. The game gets flashy with its first-person shooting as only arcade shooters can, focusing on stylized kills instead of gritty realism. Stripping the gunplay down to basic arcade shooting is what makes it work, and making players feel like a Wild West gunslinger is what makes it fun. Gunslinger aptly balances between providing a challenge for inveterate shooter fans and the fun of being able to line up a row of headshots like old whiskey bottles.

In addition to killing foes with style, Silas can regenerate health by taking cover away from the fight (in keeping with a lot of FPS games these days). Racking up enough kills allows players to slow time and pick off enemies with surgical precision. Silas can also build up luck, which allows players to slow time once more and dodge incoming bullets. Realistic? No. Fun? Oh yes. Even if the arrangements of enemies are almost painfully linear, shooting them with gusto is endlessly entertaining.

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Line ’em up!

The final piece of Silas’s crusade through the Wild West is dueling famous outlaws. Most missions end in a steely eyed showdown between Silas and the now-former leader of all the bandits the player just killed. Some of these encounters are conventional boss fights, where Silas has to take down the enemy’s health bar while remaining out of range. Other encounters, though, are video game recreations of the old high noon showdowns so endemic to the legends of the Wild West.

Duels are the most complex of Gunslinger‘s gameplay features. Players have to keep an eye on their opponent’s stance and how close their hand is to their gun… while also monitoring how close Silas’ hand is to his firearm. Players have to maintain their focus on the other person’s position; the more focus Silas has, the more likely he is to draw quickly. Players get a slap on the hand for shooting first (something George Lucas should know plenty about) and a bonus for killing the other guy even if he draws first.

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Alright Ole S****y Teeth, the gig is up. Tell me where the gold is, gal-durnit!

Gunslinger doesn’t pretend to be anything other than an arcade shooter but this leaves the game vulnerable to arcade shooters’ greatest flaw: repetition. Even as the backgrounds of Silas’s missions change, the pattern of killing a bunch of outlaws in a clearing, walking for a bit, and then killing a bunch of outlaws in the next clearing becomes wearily predictable. It’s not un-fun by any means, but it may preclude being able to enjoy the game in long sittings.

Players who buy Gunslinger on PC might experience a few other problems, particularly texture pop-in. The occasional crash is also not unheard of, and neither issue can be readily addressed in the game’s B-rate options menu. Gunslinger is four years old though, so it should run adequately on most machines these days. Just don’t get hopping mad if the game suddenly dies; at the very least, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger‘s roster of bugs is still nothing compared to Techland’s other games, especially Dead Island.

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These dudes are about to get the crash of their lives.

Texture pop-in doesn’t do much to dispel Call of Juarez: Gunslinger‘s beauty. The entire game is a vividly colored western landscape from start to finish, replete with dusty browns and autumn golds. The production is layered with just a touch of cel shading, which helps its bright colors and sharply textured in-game objects stand out all the more. It’s an enrapturing production that remains consistent across all of Call of Juarez: Gunslinger‘s various environments.

What are those environments, one might ask? Throughout Silas’s journey, players can expect to traverse locales ranging from a dusty old town to labyrinthine gold mines. Gunslinger includes the usual suspects for a western game like big canyons and precarious train tresses but also includes buggy swamps, snowy mountains, and other less iconic environments that hurt no less for beauty. These levels tend to all have similar mission design despite their disparate settings, but the environmental variety does help stymie that aforementioned feeling of repetition.

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Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is beautiful.

The story that all of this game design informs is nothing that hasn’t been told a thousand times in other Wild West stories. Somebody betrayed the protagonist a long time ago and now he’s out for revenge, taking down every last bandit standing between him and his vengeance. Though the tale of Silas Greaves does nothing to subvert the trope of the vengeful gunslinger, it does benefit from decent writing, excellent voice acting, and bombastic sound design that captures every detail down to the dry squeak of Silas’s old leather gloves.

One exception Call of Juarez: Gunslinger makes in its adherence to Wild West tropes is exploration of the unreliable narrator. As Silas tells his tale, he makes some outlandish and incredible claims about his story that don’t quite add up. These inconsistencies occur during gameplay as random environmental shifts. Some of these shifts feel gratuitous, like when players fight their way through a mine only for Silas to remember that he actually took the stairs, but it’s fun to see a video game toy with implementing a faulty memory as a game mechanic instead of just a plot point.

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That right there is the face of a man who can’t remember whether he left the stove on.

Even if Call of Juarez: Gunslinger wasn’t a criminally underrated arcade shooter or a colorful jaunt through an old man’s memories, it serves as a tourney through some of the greatest legends of the Wild West. Silas encounters (or claims to encounter) such famous faces as Jesse James and Butch Cassidy in his adventures throughout the west, making Gunslinger a beautiful tour of Wild West legends as much as a fun first-person shooter. Players into one or either of those things should pick up a copy of Gunslinger and make their own mark on the Old West.

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You can buy Call of Juarez: Gunslinger 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.

I Am Alive

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Search for your family amid the ruins of civilization.

PC Release: September 6, 2012

By Ian Coppock

Horror games tend to focus on sci-fi or fantasy instead of realism. Why not? It’s relatively easy to conjure up a terrifying monster or a horde of zombies. To spook up something more realistic, like a human, requires context and attention to detail that many horror games don’t have the patience to lay out. It requires that the player know or fear something about that person that isn’t always an obvious visual detail. I Am Alive is such a game, preferring to focus not on the horror of a bloodthirsty monster, but on the horrors that everyday people can commit in desperate situations.

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If that morose introduction wasn’t enough of a hint, I Am Alive is a survival horror game. The title was made by Ubisoft’s Shanghai studio and released in 2011 after spending half a decade in development hell. About a year later, I Am Alive was ported to PC, where it enjoyed a much more lukewarm response than its console counterparts. Though I Am Alive‘s horror is an important component, the game is also a gritty survival challenge. It’s hardly alone in being a post-apocalyptic game, but it’s unique in that it presents a post-apocalyptic world without zombies or mutants.

I Am Alive takes place one year after the Event, an apocalyptic earthquake that destroys countless cities worldwide and brings about the end of civilization. The nameless protagonist of I Am Alive is a survivor who has spent the last 12 months walking back to his home city of Haventon, where he hopes to find his wife and daughter. The game begins as he approaches the outskirts of Haventon, intent on making his way into the felled metropolis and finding his family.

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Don’t look down.

I Am Alive is played from a third-person perspective and incorporates elements of climbing, shooter, and hack’n’slash gameplay. The survivor can scuttle up surfaces like an insect thanks to his handy dandy climbing harness, but he has only so much stamina with which to do so. This ain’t no Assassin’s Creed; players have very finite climbing energy and will fall to their death if they can’t reach a horizontal surface in time. Players who are quick can regain lost stamina, but spend too much time monkeying around and the stamina bar begins to permanently shorten. The only way to restore its length is with precious food and water.

I Am Alive‘s climbing challenges make for some of the game’s most tense moments. As the survivor takes longer to reach the nearest surface, an itchy little violin starts rubbing against players’ eardrums like a mosquito. Compound this with the game’s frequent use of unclear paths upward, and climbing can feel like disarming a ticking time bomb. It’s a brilliant mix of sound and level design where both elements can make even the most seasoned survivalist feel anxious with every passing second. Even planning a climbing route can only do so much to preempt that alarming violin. Risky climbing maneuvers cause the music to crescendo.

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Oh God oh God oh God go go GO!

Even more tense than I Am Alive‘s free-climbing is its combat. The survivor has a pistol and machete with which to defend himself against Haventon’s many bandits, but ammo for the gun is scarce. The survivor can trick enemies into thinking the gun is loaded, but pull the trigger on an empty clip and they’ll see the ruse for what it is. Players will often be outnumbered by foes, so figuring out who to shoot and who to tell to back up can be dreadfully tense. Players can also trick enemies into thinking they’re unarmed and cut them with the machete when the bandits get too close.

I Am Alive‘s concept of pre-combat being more terrifying than combat is fascinating, but the execution suffers from clunky controls. Players have to manage shifting between multiple enemies (some of whom will try to jump the survivor if he’s not looking) and the controls for doing so are pretty un-intuitive. Indeed, players are just as likely to die from not shifting the mouse quickly enough as they are from a bullet to the head. Fortunately, picking up on the rhythm of managing enemies is not that hard. Killing the mouthy bandit first is Post-Apocalypse 101.

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Alright everyone, back up! Back. The f***. Up.

I Am Alive‘s controls suffer in other departments as well. The character has to take wide turns and the camera feels janky. Sometimes the controls just flat-out don’t respond, which can be a problem when the player is trying to shoot a bandit or climb up a building. There’s more than one segment in this game where the survivor is within arm’s reach of a horizontal surface but can’t reach it, and not because of invisible walls. Similarly, shooting and looking controls may sometimes not respond.

I Am Alive‘s user interface also needed a bit more cooking time before Ubisoft pulled it out of the oven. Ridiculous as it may sound, it can be difficult to tell what types of supplies restore the health or stamina bars, and by how much. Does that can of beans restore the stamina bar to its proper length, or just replenish the amount of stamina that can currently fit in it? These issues could’ve been easily avoided with some simple UI fixes; hell, Ubisoft Shanghai makes the Far Cry games, and those have simple enough UIs. No such luck for I Am Alive.

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Y’all got any extra beans?

The story in I Am Alive is more impressive than its controls, even if it ends up taking a game-long detour. The survivor gets back to his old home in downtown Haventon, and finds a note his wife left behind nearly a year earlier. That’s about as far as his search for his family goes, as he quickly gets roped into rescuing another wife-and-daughter pair who are on the run from a particularly sadistic bandit clan. The survivor also teams up with Henry, a cagey local who seems to know every nook and cranny in the city.

Despite a valiant voice acting effort from Elias Toufexis as Henry, none of these characters are particularly memorable. The survivor is a pretty blank slate, offering rote observations of how bad things have gotten since the apocalypse but coming up with few original ideas. Most missions are helmed by Henry, who yells at the survivor to get going up this skyscraper or down that subway tunnel. The entire point of a nameless character is to get players wondering who they are, but the survivor is not that compelling. More’s the pity; there’s plenty of room for emotions of anxiety and longing that go unexplored in I Am Alive.

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Where are we going?

Despite the main narrative being, well… not that great (and ending on a huge cliffhanger that will likely never be followed up) players on the hunt for post-apocalyptic fiction can find it from a few other survivors throughout the city. Not everyone will shoot the survivor on sight but some are armed, so be careful about testing their patience. Unscrupulous players can kill “good guy” survivors and take their stuff, but these hardened individuals won’t go down without a fight. Still others are people in need of certain supplies. Usually they have nothing to offer in return, but do provide backstory on the Event.

I Am Alive offers a small open world that has just as much vertical space as horizontal. Though players can spend as much time as they want creeping through gas stations and exploring subway tunnels, very little of this space has anything of value in it. There’s no impetus for exploration except the sake of exploration. Given how many bandits are roaming around, the chance to look at the environment is something most players will likely find too risky. Some areas can’t be revisited, so pick them clean.

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Just kickin’ it.

The other problem precluding exploration in I Am Alive is how ugly the game is. It’s a given that a post-apocalyptic game probably doesn’t burst with bright colors, but I Am Alive is done out almost exclusively in dull shades of gray. The textures and character models look atrocious, having more in common with a game that came out in 2004 than 2011. The objects in I Am Alive have no sharpness to them at all, looking more like smudgy polygons than anything else. Though the survivor’s climbing animations are decent, they’re about the only decent visual element I Am Alive has to offer.

I Am Alive‘s sound design is a bit better. The aforementioned climbing violin is a great way to ratchet up the tension, and the game also comes with some beautiful music driven by mournful piano chords. The voice acting’s pretty good; not great, but definitely serviceable. Guns go off with startling force, and players are constantly hounded by the sounds of groundquakes and distant cries for help. It’s a functioning stew of unsettling noises that does a better job of giving I Am Alive its haunting atmosphere than the graphics.

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HI BUDDY

Despite I Am Alive‘s many failings, the game’s biggest success is its portrayal of the lows desperate people can sink to. The game pulls no punches in its graphic depictions of violence, however poorly rendered they may be. I Am Alive also contains some of gaming’s most visceral depictions of sexual assault, which, while heavy to witness, reinforce the game’s hopeless atmosphere. The violence makes the player feel alone and afraid in a city full of monsters; not zombies, mutants or the creatures present in dozens of other titles, but the monsters inside of people—the creatures that even the best people can devolve into under the worst circumstances.

Video games that do these sorts of exposés on humanity are surprisingly few and far between. Gaming presents a unique opportunity for humanity studies, because players engage more directly with them than with books, movies, and television. I Am Alive is almost shocking in its portrayal of callous survivalism. Even though its enemies are just dudes with machetes, that context can make them more terrifying than even the most disturbing creatures in Amnesia: The Dark Descent or Soma. Humans are complicated, and though I Am Alive spends most of its time showing them at their worst, it also shows them at their best.

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In its own way, this is one of the darkest games ever made.

It’s a shame that the one thing I Am Alive does well is outweighed by all of its poor design decisions. Even players who are excited after reading about this game should know that its PC port is awful. Seriously, it’s garbage, and don’t even bother trying it out on an AMD card. In fact, I Am Alive‘s PC port is probably the worst such port Ubisoft has ever released; yes, even worse than Watch Dogs and Assassin’s Creed Unity. Crestfallen PC gamers interested in this types of horror game should take heart that others like it might be on the horizon. If I Am Alive can’t get props for being a functioning or well-designed game, it gets credit for being a horror game about the monsters inside of each of us.

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You can buy I Am Alive 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.

12 is Better Than 6

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Face off against every gun in the Wild West on a quest to remember your past.

PC Release: November 20, 2015

By Ian Coppock

Before the advent of air conditioning and rule of law, the Wild West was a lively mix of anarchy, sand, and cheap Colt revolvers. A place that, more than anywhere else, exemplified the idea of the law being only as strong as man’s resolve to enforce it. Western books and films tend to look back at that period with rose-tinted glasses, preferring to focus on John Wayne riding off into the sunset instead of the astonishing crime rate or the locals’ penchant for dirty booze. 12 is Better Than 6 crushes those rose-tinted glasses beneath a mud-crusted boot.

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Created by the rabid anarchists at Ink Stains Games, 12 is Better Than 6 is a chaotic top-down shooter set in the Wild West. Players assume the role of the Mexican, a nameless vigilante on the run from some bad dudes down south, as he tries to find a safe haven from his pursuers and undo his amnesia. The Mexican is wanted for some pretty heinous crimes, so players can bet that there are cowboys intent on making a “citizen’s arrest” around every corner.

Luckily, 12 is Better Than 6 ensures that players are equipped to deal with hordes of bloodthirsty banditos. The Mexican can wield any of the pistols, rifles, and shotguns found throughout the game, as well as sticks of dynamite usually found stuffed inside Bible drawers. Players finish each mission by killing all the bad guys and completing objectives. If the Mexican gets outgunned, players have to start that stage from the very beginning. Though deaths in 12 is Better Than 6 are a dime a, well, dozen, respawns are instantaneous.

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Now THIS is what I call a fiesta!

Between its top-down gameplay and instant respawns, 12 is Better Than 6 draws obvious inspiration from Hotline Miami. As with that game, players can quickly move around large maps loudly firing at enemies or quietly slitting their throats. The Mexican can only take 1-2 hits before dying himself, so finding cover and using tactics are vital to survival. Unlike Hotline Miami, players can find money and items stashed around the environment and use them to upgrade the Mexican. An old conquistador’s chest plate works wonders for stopping bullets, but only if the Mexican can cough up the pesos.

The levels in 12 is Better Than 6 comprise a tight mix of open desert and constrictive buildings, forcing players to switch combat styles on the fly. Most enemies go down in one hit, but players have to remember to cock their gun before each shot. That little detail is both fealty to history and an added layer of challenge. 12 is Better Than 6 does an admirable job switching between environments so players don’t have to worry about shooting up samey saloons (say that five times fast) over and over. From desolate canyons to bustling towns, 12 is Better Than 6 succeeds at bringing the Wild West to life.

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Must’ve had some of that reaper pepper chili.

12 is Better Than 6 is drawn in a gorgeous monochromatic style that includes hand-drawn characters, environments, and objects. The only color the game does sport is red, which flies all over the map during the many, many gunfights. The game’s characters are beautifully animated, though their giant hats can make 12 is Better Than 6 look like someone is playing chess with little 10-gallon caps. The Mexican sports a particularly large sombrero that, while awesome, can make it difficult to tell which direction he’s facing.

Though it can occasionally be difficult to tell whether the Mexican is facing the gunfight, 12 is Better Than 6‘s controls make gunslinging a cinch. Players can move quickly from cover to cover and aim whatever heat the Mexican’s packing with deadly precision. The Mexican can pick ammo up from bad guys or simply take their weapons from their cold, dead hands. That latter option is a lifesaver when there’s no time to reload. In addition to the story missions, the Mexican can also take side quests from folks in town. Almost all of them revolve around killing lots of people. Wild West indeed!

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Before HR, this is how coworkers resolved disputes.

The missions in 12 is Better Than 6 are fun bouts of top-down shooting, but they have a dangerous tendency to blend together. No matter the goal the Mexican is pursuing, it usually lies on the other side of about two dozen raging rodeleros. Even though retrieving a package or killing a bandit read like different objectives on paper, the gameplay for each mission goes through the same paces. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does run the risk of making 12 is Better Than 6 feel repetitive. Luckily, that feeling of repetition is staved off by the game’s varied level design.

Come to think of it, the actual narrative in 12 is Better Than 6 is a bit repetitive too. The Mexican starts the story out just trying not to die, but eventually wins a few allies and starts trying to figure out who he is. The convenient amnesia trope has been beaten into video gaming at this point, and 12 is Better Than 6 sure doesn’t try to reinvent the spoked wheel. The Mexican gets pointed toward someone who can help him discover his identity, everything goes to hell, and he ends up getting just enough information to lead to the next piece of the puzzle. So on, and so on.

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All I wanted was a little gold dust. Is that so much to ask?!

12 is Better Than 6‘s narrative is no different from the other amnesiac revenge stories in gaming, but the title’s frantic pace and humorous writing will keep players invested in the Mexican’s story. The Mexican himself is an uncomplicated villain, a character who doesn’t busy himself with notions of fairness and is instead only interested in killing as many non-Hispanic people as possible. If he can’t shoot his way to the solution, it’s not the solution he’s looking for. The character’s near-complete lack of humanity makes him curiously compelling.

12 is Better Than 6 also features a supporting cast of kooky characters, including a crippled bandit who styles himself a true Robin Hood and a white guy who smoked a little too much ganja and is now convinced he’s Native American. These dudes are hardly ideal companions, but that’s what gives 12 is Better Than 6 its grim atmosphere and moments of off-color humor. As the Mexican adds more and more factions to his enemies’ list, he meets foes that are similarly ridiculous or dangerous in their composure. All of this culminates in an ending that, while abrupt, is perfectly in character for the game.

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I wonder what horse meat chili would taste like…

No top-down shooter is complete without a great soundtrack, and 12 is Better Than 6 comes to that gunfight fully prepared. The game’s OST is a rollicking jamboree of southwest rock, with lots of heavy electric guitars, drums, and gravelly harmonicas. The music, like the game itself, is fast-paced, enhancing 12 is Better Than 6‘s top-gear gunslinging. Occasionally the music incorporates other instruments and sounds, like the proud brass blaring of a trumpet, but is always built on a foundation of fast drums and guitars.

12 is Better Than 6 compounds its rocking tunes with excellent sound design. Guns pop off with alarmingly loud force, and knives cut through tendons with cringe-worthy slicing sounds. Occasionally players can mount cannons to take on large groups of enemies, and the sound those things make could shake the thorns off a cactus, I tell ya what. Good sound design can do wonders for a shooter’s adrenaline factor, and it kicks into overdrive for 12 is Better Than 6.

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I’ve been killin’ on the railroad…

12 is Better Than 6 comes with a few other game modes for players who aren’t interested in gunslinger tales. There’s an arena mode where players can face off against waves of foes, and though it doesn’t have any sort of narrative, it’s a lot of fun to play. There’s also a challenge mode unlocked after the story where the Mexican… faces… off against waves of foes? Okay, so the two modes are functionally identical, but the latter is a bit harder and is more of a post-narrative brawl than the arena mode. Both are fun, so no worries.

12 is Better Than 6 could’ve done with a better options menu, though. The game has lots of options when it comes to modes and challenges, but its graphical and audio toggles could’ve done with, well… more graphical and audio toggles. Players can only rely on a catch-all graphics quality slider, an FPS toggle, and gameplay and music volume sliders to control their 12 is Better Than 6 experience. The game is not visually complicated and can run on most machines without a hitch, but there’s nothing wrong with including as many options as possible to deal with potential issues.

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Decisions, decisions…

12 is Better Than 6 overcomes repetitive gameplay with fantastic top-down level design and beautiful black-and-white visuals. Its story is nothing new to video games or to the western genre, but it livens up old plot points with funny writing and a self-deprecating fixation on Wild West tropes. All told, it’s a challenging and fun shooter that does more than merely scratch the Hotline Miami itch. It presents an affable story and fun gunplay in a gameplay format that fits the Wild West like a glove.

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You can buy 12 is Better Than 6 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.

Double Action: Boogaloo

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Take down enemies with high-flying action movie stunts.

PC Release: October 23, 2014

By Ian Coppock

Even though the 80’s happened nearly a third of a century ago, nostalgia for them is still alive and well. Sometimes that fondness takes the form of listening to Rick Astley… other times it’s a hetero man-crush on Kurt Russell. Arguably the most common kind of 80’s nostalgia, though, is avid appreciation for that era’s action movies. Double Action: Boogaloo shares its enthusiasm for such films to the point where the game’s DNA seems to scream Lethal Weapon and Die Hard when examined under a microscope.

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Double Action: Boogaloo is a Source multiplayer mod that lives and breathes 80’s action tropes. The title was released for free onto Steam a few years ago and, in the words of developer Double Action Factory, seeks to recreate the high-flying, slow-motion thrills endemic to the 1980’s movie scene. Double Action: Boogaloo benefits from the Source multiplayer options menu that puts virtually every other options menu out there to shame, and it also starts players out with the fast-paced, horns-filled music that anyone who’s seen a buddy cop film will instantly recognize.

The objective in Double Action: Boogaloo is simple: engage other players in a prolonged battle while completing small objectives that randomly pop up during the match. These usually consist of killing a wanted man or taking a briefcase full of loot. Each match is a free-for-all; don’t expect any teams or backup from friends in Double Action: Boogaloo. This setup comprises Double Action‘s sole gameplay mode, and even though the game is free to play, that’s a pretty paltry selection for a multiplayer title.

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Yes, yes, begin with the dramatic panning shot over the crime-filled metropolis…

Players start out each match by picking from one three tough-looking 80’s action heroes (one of whom looks like Nick from Left 4 Dead 2). Players then pick from a roster of pistols, assault rifles, shotguns, and other weapons, none of which will be new to shooter fans. Finally, players have to pick a combat specialty. Athletes are great at running and sliding long distances, while the Marksman class is for players who enjoy being able to aim. From there, it’s straight into the, well, action. Third-person action, to be precise.

Right off the bat, it’s a bit weird that there are only three player characters. Matches in Double Action: Boogaloo can support far more people, meaning that a full server will have lots of clone motorcycle greasers and well-dressed hitmen running around. Usernames ameliorate this problem somewhat, but the limited selection of characters remains conspicuous. Were doppelgangers a common trope in 80’s action films? Not to feed Double Action Factory excuses for their design choices, but that plot twist wouldn’t look out of place in the 80’s.

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Yippee ki yay, mother… uh… mother dearest.

Double Action: Boogaloo‘s main novelty is the ability to jump and slide around while shooting. Know those scenes in action movies when Bruce Willis or Simon Pegg or whomever is jumping through the air while firing two handguns at once? Double Action lets players recreate that stunt, jumping forward, backward, or to the side. Players can also perform this ability while sliding along the ground, whether the surface is linoleum or a big ol’ pile of rubble. Friction didn’t exist in 80’s action movies and it certainly doesn’t exist in Double Action: Boogaloo.

This jumping and sliding ability is funny for the first hour, but it doesn’t take long for Double Action‘s central novelty to wear off. Part of the problem is that apart from this one mechanic, Double Action‘s third-person shooting gameplay feels generic. When players aren’t shooting while jumping, they’re shooting while running around… much like in any other TPS title. Double Action‘s single gameplay mode limits the fun further; the game would’ve benefited from fleshing out its briefcase retrieval and hitman objectives into full-fledged modes.

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YAAAAAAAAAH!!!

The other element that makes Double Action‘s third-person shooting feel cheap is the character animations, which are among the worst such animations of any game reviewed on this page. None of the characters’ movements, from the bow-legged running to pistols being held high in the air, look natural. It’s funny in all the wrong ways, especially when characters abruptly snap into a sliding position while jumping through the air. The character animations in Double Action smack of many things, but not of being a professionally made Source mod.

Come to think of it, the other visual elements in Double Action don’t look all that great either. The Source engine ages less conspicuously than most other engines out there, but that sure doesn’t stop Double Action from having frayed character models and smudgy textures. The lighting’s alright and the level design looks believable, but the actual elements used to build up the game world look subpar. Don’t go into this game expecting a gorgeous action world.

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And here we see a random fog circle on that building.

For all the halted effort that went into Double Action‘s visual design, its sound design is much more enjoyable. Guns and grenades go off with startling force and most other sounds come through in crisp enough quality. The aforementioned music isn’t all that memorable and plays only on the menu screen, but it does a good job of capturing the fast-paced, campy spirit of the best worst 80’s action movies.

It would’ve been funny if Double Action had featured corny one-liners akin to Die Hard or Lethal Weapon. Maybe the game could’ve had a few lines inspired by Escape from New York or Big Trouble in Little China. Alas, the characters in Double Action are mutes. Sure, their visual design captures the feel of an 80’s movie quite well, but running around yelling cringey quotes about guns and hardships are just as pivotal to action films as the action itself. With the exception of the menu music and character design, though, Double Action‘s sole claim to being an 80’s homage is the aforementioned jumping mechanic.

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Heh. Okay, that’s kinda funny.

The final nail in Double Action‘s coffin is that its multiplayer community is dead. Despite the fact that Double Action Factory has a dedicated server for its game, players will be lucky to find even a single match going on at any given time. Additionally, those matches typically have only 2-3 players in them; very rarely will players find a match with upwards of 8 people in it. It’s hard to know if Double Action ever had a thriving online community, but if it did, those glory days are long gone.

That’s really about it. Double Action is multiplayer game about sliding around and shooting people. That the game is free only does so much when there are only three characters, eight maps, and one gameplay mode to choose from. The third-person shooting is as generic and basic as third-person shooting gets, and though the sound design is pretty good, it’s not any better than Source games with better gameplay and more active communities.

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(sigh)

That Double Action: Boogaloo is free only does so much to doll up its skeletal offering as a game. The title seems less focused on capturing the tropes of 80’s action movies as a whole in favor of a singular fixation on being able to jump sideways while shooting a gun. It’s a funny little gimmick, but one funny little gimmick isn’t enough to save an otherwise underwhelming third-person shooter from feeling as basic as Double Action: Boogaloo. Even though the game is free, players aren’t missing much by avoiding it. That hour or so spent being entertained by side-jumping is better enjoyed watching the 80’s films that inspired it.

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You can buy Double Action: Boogaloo 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.

No More Room in Hell

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Team up with other survivors and outlast the zombie apocalypse.

PC Release: October 31, 2011

By Ian Coppock

When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth. That George Romero tagline is the byword of No More Room in Hell. Apparently Hell is already full (phew) but that means the zombies have arrived once more! No More Room in Hell is not the first or only video game to envision the zombie apocalypse, but it might be the only one that puts such a visceral emphasis on teamwork. When the dead rise, the living can only count on one another to beat back the zombie tide. Even more than that Dawn of the Dead quote, the teamwork of the living is No More Room in Hell‘s central motif.

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Created by the one-man band of Matt “Maxx” Kazan, No More Room in Hell is a co-op zombie survival game that draws heavy inspiration from Dawn of the Dead and Valve’s Left 4 Dead series. Like the other multiplayer games being reviewed here this month, No More Room in Hell is a Source mod that leverages gracefully aging visuals and Valve’s powerful programming to deliver its multiplayer experience. Unlike this month’s other multiplayer games, No More Room in Hell focuses less on players killing each other and more on them working together to survive against hordes of zombies.

That’s really all there is to this title’s gameplay. Grab some friends, sort the ones who are good with guns from the ones who are good with melee weapons, and get cracking on surviving the zombie apocalypse. There are only two game modes in No More Room in Hell, and they both revolve around teamwork. Objective mode forces players to work together to find an escape vehicle, while Survival consists simply of outlasting zombie waves. Both modes are fun, though it’s a shame No More Room in Hell only has two of them.

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We must stop this bank robbery and bring the zombies to justice!

No More Room in Hell‘s modes are not that remarkable. Anyone who’s touched a zombie game has probably run to the chopper or made a last stand against the horde before. No More Room in Hell prefers to make its mark not with game modes, but with the actual gameplay and an acute focus on realism. In this case, “realism” stands for no heads-up display, limited health, and short-term stamina. Maxx Kazan decided to go with the low-key survivor motif instead of the flashy action hero. Even if zombies have been overdone to death in this medium, games that attempts to bring realism to the scenario are rare.

As a survivor, players have no ammo counter on their firearms. Their character will occasionally yell out how many mags they have left, but that’s about it. Even though the player is flying blind on their ammo, No More Room in Hell makes a curious attempt at forcing teamwork by allowing a player’s teammates to see their ammo readout instead. That’s an interesting choice for a game with such a strong focus on realism, and though it doesn’t make much sense, it does encourage players to keep an eye on each other. Conversely, it also causes players to scream “DUDE BRUH HOW MUCH AMMO I GOT???” every two seconds, which is irritating.

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You started with two shells, now you have none. Do the math, Einstein.

Players also have no indication of where their health’s at, at least until they suddenly keel over and die. Indeed, No More Room in Hell‘s HUD might be one of the most minimalist such displays since 2005’s Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. This approach forces players to not only be much more conservative with their resources, but also to mentally juggle how many bullets and pills they’re carrying.

The tricky thing about the abject lack of a HUD is that it’s not necessarily more realistic than having one. No one knows what “percentage” their health is at all the time, but that’s why doctors give the the “scale of 1-10” question—because most people can at least approximate how they’re feeling, and that’s what a health meter represents. Stripping the health meter out is the video game equivalent of suspecting pain but being unable to feel it. As a stylistic choice, there’s nothing objectively wrong with it; but it’s not realism, per se.

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Tap your knee? HOW ABOUT YOUR FACE!

All of this HUD business means that No More Room in Hell is quite difficult. Players looking for a cinematic Left 4 Dead-style arcade experience probably won’t get much out of No More Room in Hell, but survivalists and challenge seekers may enjoy it. For anything that can be said about No More Room in Hell‘s severe approach to heads-up displays, the game does a pretty good job of capturing the feel of an average person in the zombie apocalypse. With limited stamina, ammo, and health, the game feels much more like a harrowing escape challenge than a shooter.

Either way, No More Room in Hell could do with a few more tutorials. The game does provide a brief control scheme graphic while the map loads, but a few more pointers on how to, say, get out of a zombie choke-hold would be nice to see in-game. So would a warning that it only takes two swings of the shovel to leave the player character winded. Thankfully, No More Room in Hell‘s controls are conventional for a shooter, and the game leverages that awesome Source options menu to help players get the most out of the game on their machine.

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Keyyyyy bindinnnnnnggggsssssssss…

No More Room in Hell‘s level design is more open than that of most Source mods. Rather than the constricting hallways and multi-tiered elevation endemic to Day of Defeat and Fistful of FragsNo More Room in Hell favors large single-story buildings with lots of corners for zombies to hide behind. Good stuff, especially for a game whose modes demand hunting for an exit. Just remember to stick together; No More Room in Hell‘s maps have a way of getting players separated.

The visuals that fill these maps out are more of a mixed bag than the level design. No More Room in Hell looks aged compared to mods and games that came out years before it. Most of the textures are pretty muddy, and the in-game objects could stand some more rendering. Curiously enough, the game characters’ arms look pretty good, but otherwise the game looks rough. No More Room in Hell also suffers from excessively dark environments, as in “too dark to see the room” type of dark. This doesn’t stop the game’s atmosphere from being morbid, but it might stop players from spotting an item.

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Ooooh boy.

Co-op multiplayer games are best played with friends, but No More Room in Hell still has an active community for players feeling adventurous. Playing with randos is a mixed bag these days, but it’s a testament to No More Room in Hell‘s longevity that its community is still kicking six years after launch. Still, No More Room in Hell is best enjoyed with a cabal of zombie-killing friends, and the fact that the game is free means that everyone can at least give it a try (it’s fun to misinform friends of how much ammo they have left).

At the end of the day, No More Room in Hell‘s mission is not to create a small-screen zombie blockbuster, but to imagine how a team of normal people might work together to survive a zombie epidemic. Not much of what the game brings to the table is truly original, from shambling Romero-style zombies to getting to the chopper, but few games take to that subject matter with such acute attention to realism. Players need to work together to survive, just as the living might need to do against the dead. That experience is brought shambling to life like no other in No More Room in Hell.

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Must… get… out…

No More Room in Hell presents an interesting take on surviving the zombie apocalypse, but the game remains rough around the edges in much of its production. The visuals look muddled, the lighting is mediocre, and the soundtrack isn’t all that memorable. However, the game is free, its gameplay is decent enough with a few wiki consultations, and it comes with nearly two dozen maps. Even though No More Room in Hell doesn’t hit all its notes, Maxx Kazan is onto something with his pursuit of realism and is hopefully refining what the original game missed in the forthcoming No More Room in Hell 2. In the meantime, this title might be worth biting into for the discerning zombie survivalist.

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You can buy No More Room in Hell 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.