Strategy

King of Booze: Drinking Game

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Race your friends to the bottom of an alcohol-infused board game.

PC Release: September 9, 2016

By Ian Coppock

Homer Simpson once said that alcohol is the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems. Whether it’s a cheap beer at the bar or a glass of something more expensive with a classy ladyfriend, booze is an endemic part of humanity. It gives the timid courage to open up about themselves, and the adventurous cause for even zanier, well, adventures. Tonight’s video game (the review of which was written while heavily under the influence) celebrates the fun, and chaos, of alcohol and brings people together to celebrate it. King of Booze, while not a narrative-heavy game nor a particularly high-budget creation, is that game.

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King of Booze is a multiplayer adventure game created by Daygames, confectioners of video games for the modern alcoholic. Whether it’s simply a Friday night after a long week, or perhaps the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day, there are few settings that King of Booze: Drinking Game is inappropriate for. Well, maybe more than a few, but the versatility of the game is the point I’m trying to make through this infernal cloud of drunkenness. Truly, Art as Games has fallen from grace when we’ve gone from reviewing serious art games to drunkenly stumbling through a booze board game at 8:00 PM on a Friday night, but hey; everyone has to cut loose every once in a while, and that’s precisely what King of Booze is meant to help catalyze.

King of Booze is a local co-op game meant for 2-4 players. The game is set up like a conventional board game, with each player getting their own wacky avatar. The goal of the game is simple: roll the dice, move around the board however many spaces, complete challenge that pops up, and ultimate out-drink foes in a shameless quest for drunken glory. Some of the challenges that come up are pretty tame, like taking a drink. Others might be quite a bit more outrageous, like giving another player a massage. Because local co-op games are best played in the living room, King of Booze comes packed with full controller support. Adjusting the resolution is about the only option on its options menu, though.

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Ooooooh boy.

That’s pretty much all there is to King of Booze. There’s no deep narrative compelling the colorful avatars on the board, no deep dialogue driving a relationship between them. The point is simply to get drunk, and have fun while doing so. While not necessarily a game of choice for the solitary story seeker or the multiplayer enthusiast whose performance depends on precision, King of Booze does an admirable job of including gamers both casual and hardcore. How? Well, all one has to do to “git gud” at King of Booze is drink. No grinding, no years of built-up skill, just access to booze and having fun while doing so.

King of Booze‘s inclusiveness goes beyond its alcohol-driven gameplay. The game packs plenty of challenges both benign and dangerous for adventurous alcoholics, but it also allows players to come up with their own challenges. Got a really great inside joke, or want to drive an opponent to madness with a challenge they’ll hate? Players can create these and other cards in the game’s customization menu. The challenges the game comes packaged with can’t be removed, so players who are averse to the idea of potentially being put up to downing a raw egg might get a bit queasy, but rules are flexible amongst friends. Maybe skip that challenge.

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Assassin’s Booze. Haha. Hahaha (I’ll be here all week).

King of Booze also allows players to decide how big the round’s “drink” will be. When a player lands on a “drink” space, the game leaves the size of the drink to be drunk nebulous. Making the drink size something that the players can consider is a good way to include gamers who don’t want to go quite as crazy as the challenge card “grind on Player A’s crotch” implies that they should. Whether a drink is a sip of Scotch or half a beer, players can establish that ground rule for themselves before embarking upon a round of King of Booze.

Of course, given how many drinks King of Booze expects its players to take, it’s probably safe to assume that the portions are supposed to be small. Some spaces on the board demand that players take upwards of 4-8 “drinks” once their turn ends. Actually, no, perhaps that’s a decent amount of drinks to take. The human liver is actually pretty amazing. Miraculous, even. It siphons harmful chemicals out of the body and develops cirrhosis so that the rest of the body doesn’t have to. Crazy.

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Oooh. Things are about to get steamy.

To further reinforce its party vibe, King of Booze is decked out in adorable, colorful graphics not dissimilar to other lighthearted indie games reviewed on this page recently (cough*Flix and Chill*cough). Don’t expect to find detailed facial features on King of Booze‘s avatars, but everything else in the game, even the salacious challenge panels, are cute and colorful. It all makes for a charming aesthetic.

A bit less charming is the game’s soundtrack. Sure, the various little songs packaged into the game’s background noise are cute, but they’re also canned, royalty-free songs that anyone who watches even a bit of YouTube will recognize. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the songs are pretty generic, and don’t do a great job of reinforcing this title’s party vibe. The other sound effects in this game sound depressingly canned, with noticeable tinges of static after the cracking open of a new beer. It’s not the end of the world to hear these sounds in-game, but it does reinforce the feeling of cheapness. Which, with a game that’s all about getting drunk, isn’t great.

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That is one sad ketchup-covered wooden tombstone.

As previously alluded to, there’s a lot of fun that goes into King of Booze. It does a good job of transitioning the drinking game format (think Kings Cup) to a video game, and helping to ensure a level playing field for gamers who might not play all that often. It’s an easy game to pick up and get absolutely sozzled over, and that it’s done with good friends makes it even funner.

Additionally, some of the challenges present in King of Booze make for great drinking fun. Players who don’t want to get too out of hand with the challenges can create their own in the game’s back-end menus. In the end, it’s a customized experience that allows for a lot of fun between friends, or soon-to-be-friends.

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ALL THE CHALLENGES

Although King of Booze doesn’t take all that long to figure out, the game has some potential depth to it that’s worth noting. Even if some of the challenges in this game are crazy, like downing a raw egg, it’s a good opportunity to see how well friends can persevere in the face of pure drunkenness. Who would be willing to wear nothing but a beer box in front of their friends? Or perhaps kiss that one acquaintance for whom a latent crush has burned? King of Booze‘s challenges can lead to all sorts of insanity, but they can also lead to new revelations about friendships. Maybe I’m just extremely drunk, but some friendships are forged in the fires of drunkenness. King of Booze affords players precisely those chances.

On a less profound note, perhaps wearing nothing but a beer box in front of friends is supposed to allow for humor, not deep friendship. For King of Booze‘s various challenges do allow for plenty of humor, from attempting push-ups while drunk to confessing “love” to various acquaintances. Even if some of King of Booze‘s challenges are a bit extreme, they allow for a lot of comedy, and comedy can fuel new friendships just as reliably as the “honor” of wearing a beer box.

Am I even making sense at this point?

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Nope. No way is my BAC that low.

King of Booze doesn’t set out to tell a profound narrative or shake the very definition of art as games, but it does set out to provide a fun time for friends and acquaintances, and largely succeeds in that mission. Some of its sound effects are a bit cheap, and its options menu is way too small, but it’s a fun little diversion from the end-of-week blues or a novel St. Patrick’s Day celebration. Plus, the game is only three bucks, and can reliably produce an amount of fun far exceeding that amount of money.

I only hope this review reliably produced information whose usefulness far exceeds my state of severe inebriation. While King of Booze isn’t getting out of here without a solid recommendation, please remember to drink responsibly. Don’t drink and drive, don’t let friends do it, and stay safe out there. Thanks for reading and happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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You can buy King of Booze 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.

Sniper Elite III

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Prevent the Nazis from building a doomsday weapon.

PC Release: July 1, 2014

By Ian Coppock

So often, the Sunday retro review is used as a chaser to catch the shortcomings of Wednesday’s big reviews. It’s become a depressingly familiar pattern, especially during this year’s tourney of big-budget holiday releases. Today’s review of Sniper Elite III marks two chasers in one: a hopeful chance to get some real stealth tactics after StarCraft II: Nova Covert Ops dropped the ball, and to build upon the mechanics of Sniper Elite V2, which were rough around the edges. Hopefully the developers of V2 were able to learn from their mistakes in crafting this new game, and move the series along in a meaningful way. That always happens with sequels! …Right?

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Sniper Elite III is a third-person shooter created by Rebellion Developments, a cabal of English game designers with a flair for graphic head shots. Despite what the title “Sniper Elite III” implies, the game is actually a prequel to Sniper Elite V2, taking place a few years before the first game and in an entirely new setting.

Sniper Elite III takes place in 1942, when World War II was still in full swing and when the Axis still stood a massive chance of winning the war. The game shifts the Sniper Elite series’ focus from Europe to the war in North Africa, one of the most pivotal, and most underappreciated, theaters of World War II. The game features the return (or rather, debut) of Karl Fairburne, the gravely-voiced OSS sniper from Sniper Elite V2, and Sniper Elite III opens as he joins the British defense of Tobruk, Libya.

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Karl returns to snipe more Nazis and kick more German hinturn.

Although the Brits lose control of Tobruk, they’re impressed by the heavy casualties Karl inflicts upon the Germans, and he’s seconded to British naval intelligence to partake in a special mission. Franz Vahlen, a top-ranking Nazi general and one of Hitler’s proteges, has been spotted traveling around Africa under heavy guard. Given Vahlen’s outspoken support of super-weapon research, the Allies are worried that he’s building something big out in the desert. Karl is also convinced that Vahlen is up to something especially nefarious, and sets off across the burning sands of North Africa to find and kill him.

Although Karl has the tacit support of the British army, he is almost always just as isolated as he was (or will be) in Sniper Elite V2. Though he’s adept at using the terrain to his advantage, he’ll still have to contend with the Third Reich’s elite Afrika Corps and their Italian allies in his quest to find Vahlen. As always, though, one bullet has the potential to change history, and Karl sneaks off into the desert with precisely that goal in mind.

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Breathe in…. breathe out… breathe in…

Like its predecessor (or sequel, depending on how one looks at it) Sniper Elite III is a third-person shooter that emphasizes stealth over shooting. Unlike many of its shooter contemporaries, Sniper Elite III sends players on lone wolf missions deep into enemy territory, with no backup and few options should they be spotted. Because Karl has no backup, is heavily outnumbered, and goes down in just a few shots, players who want any hope of success in Sniper Elite III will stay quiet. Sure, they can try to go in guns blazing, but they won’t get far.

With all of these factors in play, players have to look for means of mission completion other than SHOOT ALL THE THINGS. There are a lot of tactical opportunities out there in the desert, and taking advantage of them requires creativity and a keen attention to detail (something that linear FPS games usually do not demand these days). As such, stealth and shooter fans alike found common ground in Sniper Elite V2, but the question remains. What changes does Sniper Elite III bring to Sniper Elite V2‘s decent but roughshod production?

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What new challenges lie in this land?

Well, for starters, Sniper Elite III allows players to create and customize their own loadouts. As Karl, players can select from a wide array of sniper rifles, secondary weapons, and pistols. Whether it’s a Japanese bolt-action or the infamous Mosin Nagant from Russia, Karl has quite the reach when it comes to procuring firearms. Players can also choose from a wide variety of other tools, including health kits, hand grenades, land mines, and tripwire mines. Best of all, each weapon can be customized with different stocks, scopes, triggers, and other peripherals, allowing players to alter their rifle’s stats to suit their playstyle. Players who prefer total stealth, for example, will want to add peripherals that increase range and effective accuracy.

For Sniper Elite III to give players so much freedom in picking guns is fantastic. Anyone who’s detail-oriented enough to appreciate the game’s stealth will also appreciate being able to execute that in the manner that best suits them. Players will have a chance to pick and modify their loadout from each mission, and can maintain up to four concurrent loadouts for different mission profiles. For anything else that can be said about Sniper Elite III, it does a great job of allowing for an assassin’s greatest asset: preparation.

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Decisions, decisions…

Once Karl has selected his loadout and tools, it’s time to head out into the field. In significant contrast to the levels of Sniper Elite V2, which allowed for a few different paths but were still mostly linear, Sniper Elite III‘s levels are wide open. Karl will usually start at the bottom of each map, and complete various objectives that are scattered randomly around a circular map. This level design overhaul is a welcome change for the Sniper Elite series, as it grants players much more freedom in how they pursue their goal. Instead of being able to sneak through one of a few houses, as in Sniper Elite V2, players can use the versatility of Sniper Elite III to find many more paths. Does Karl sneak through a cave and take the Germans out from behind? Or snipe them from a tall cliff?

On that note, Sniper Elite III‘s levels also contain a lot more vertical variety than those of Sniper Elite V2. Karl can ascend up rocky hillsides or hunker down in oases; either route works for reaching the target. Each level also contains a lot of open and closed areas, from wide desert dunes to claustrophobic slot canyons. Karl will also wind his way through a diverse palette of ancient ruins, desert villages, military bunkers, and other structures. The sheer variety of terrain, buildings, and paths in Sniper Elite III comprises a remarkable improvement over that of Sniper Elite V2, one that players will be all too eager to take advantage of.

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Sniper Elite III’s levels are some of the shooter genre’s most diverse.

The gameplay of Sniper Elite III has also received a significant overhaul from that of Sniper Elite V2. The two biggest, most immediately noteworthy changes are that Sniper Elite III abandons its predecessor’s health regeneration system in favor of first aid kits, and also does away with any sort of cover system. Neither change may seem all that big at the outset, but they’re actually very clever implementations for a stealth game. With first aid kits, players can’t just charge into battle and take cover to regenerate when things get too hairy. Since Karl has to use first aid kits, and can only carry so many of them, this forces players to be much more careful about what fights they pick. Likewise, the lack of a cover system means that players have to manually duck behind objects instead of just magnetizing to a wall until a patrol passes.

The actual shooting gameplay hasn’t changed too terribly much, though. Karl can still tag enemies with his binoculars and, of course, squeeze the trigger to shoot fascists until their bodies are sufficiently riddled with lead. Sniper Elite III does afford the player more tactical opportunities, though, like loud noises to mask shots and the ability to make melee kills. The gloriously gory x-ray kill-cam returns with more detail and viscera than ever, allowing players to see the internal damage of most every sniper shot fired. This system does get a bit old after seeing it for the 100th time… but not that old. Sniper Elite III also includes a few multiplayer modes that pit snipers against each other rather than NPCs. They’re okay, but nothing to write home about, and the online community has died down a lot in the last two years.

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The x-ray kill-cam returns better and bloodier than ever.

Another major change Sniper Elite III makes to its gameplay is a complete revamp of enemy vehicle encounters. In Sniper Elite V2, vehicles made easy targets because one bullet to the gas tank would take it out and all its surrounding troops with it. In Sniper Elite III, most vehicles’ vulnerable points are heavily armored, requiring Karl to shoot them 3-4 times before he can pierce a gas tank or radiator. This change makes vehicles incredibly dangerous foes in Sniper Elite III, as they should be, and forces players to contend with a foe that will know their location with every shot. Sniper Elite III also introduces a wider array of vehicles, bringing Panzers back from Sniper Elite V2 but also introducing light tanks, turret trucks, and other vehicles.

Finally, Sniper Elite III‘s enemy AI has received a hefty tune-up after the overpowered omniscience of Sniper Elite V2‘s foes. Whereas one wrong move in Sniper Elite V2 would alert every German in Berlin, the enemy AI in Sniper Elite III is much fairer. Players have a bit more time to get behind cover if spotted, and enemies react with shock and surprise at seeing Karl instead of a half-second gun-sling. Sniper Elite III also does a better job of tracking enemies’ location of Karl, giving players more elbow room to slip away and try again after the alarms die down. This isn’t to say that Sniper Elite III is easy, but the challenge it offers has been polished down to a more fun, reasonable level.

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In a complete flip from Sniper Elite V2, getting spotted by a tank is now dangerous, and getting spotted by one soldier is no big deal.

Another thing that Sniper Elite III gets right is its setting. There’s nothing wrong with the bombed-out European ruins, per se, but that motif has been done to death in dozens of World War II games over the years. By taking the action to North Africa, Sniper Elite III avoids looking like another grimy European grind-fest and espouses a novel setting rarely discussed by historians, students, or the general public these days. The scorching African desert, and all the jungles, oases and savannahs it hides, are to the ruins of Berlin as day is to night, and what a nice change of pace it is.

On top of all of that, Sniper Elite III looks beautiful. The environments burst with color and contrast despite what a desert setting might imply, and each map espouses all sorts of different terrain, from canyons to villages to dunes. Character animations are smooth (Karl’s awkward prone animation from Sniper Elite V2 has been fixed), as are the animations of tanks and artillery. The world is coated with grit from high desert winds and incoming storms. The sound design accompanying this world is also in good shape; enemies speak at a normal volume (unlike in Sniper Elite V2) and the world includes noises from wildlife, machinery and warfare. All in all, it’s a compelling package of a world and a visual feast to boot.

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Ooooooh…

For all that Sniper Elite III has improved upon with its gameplay, visuals, and level design, the one area that it fails to elevate to that same height is the story. In Sniper Elite V2, Karl’s mission to find the scientists behind the V2 rocket program was less a narrative and more a series of checkpoints. Start a mission, kill a guy, end mission. Unfortunately, Sniper Elite III has the exact same problem. Karl remains just as unknowable and uninteresting as he was in V2, speaking only during the mission briefing and maybe a few times during the actual levels. In the case of the latter, it’s almost always Karl talking to himself about a better sniping position instead of, y’know, meaningful dialogue. Karl finds an object or kills a guy in one level, it leads him to the next one, rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat.

Sniper Elite III also fails to elicit an emotional connection from the player, and its attempts to do so are pretty pathetic. In Sniper Elite V2, the game tried to make players feel panic when the last scientist standing tried to launch the V2 rockets, but the tension only lasted one level, so the panic had died pretty much as it’d begun. Sniper Elite III tries to coax empathy from the player when a buddy of Karl’s dies during a mission, but he’s a buddy we’ve only known for that one mission. If Rebellion hopes to create a narrative worthy of remembrance, they’ll have to try a lot harder than a level-long arc of emotion. Indeed, the game’s premise makes little sense either. Why are the Nazis building a super-weapon in North Africa? Wouldn’t it make more sense to do that in Germany, where there’s more infrastructure and security? For all the beauty afforded by Sniper Elite III‘s new setting, it and the narrative within it are completely disconnected.

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Come back! I have to murder you!

Even though Sniper Elite III‘s narrative is a bust, this game gets massive props for doing an uncommonly good job of improving over its predecessor. Rebellion’s story writing still needs a lot of work, but the studio did a fantastic job at overhauling and fine-tuning literally every other facet of their game design. From level design to gameplay, from audio design to graphics, there is no area of game development that Sniper Elite III doesn’t represent a considerable improvement in. Hopefully next February’s Sniper Elite 4, which will send Karl off to 1943 Italy, will complete the puzzle by adding a compelling narrative. For now, shooter and stealth fans will definitely want to check Sniper Elite III out. Its story ain’t no epic, but its gameplay makes it a great tactical shooter.

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You can buy Sniper Elite III 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.

StarCraft II: Nova Covert Ops, Chapter 3

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Finish the fight against the Defenders of Man.

PC Release: November 22, 2016

By Ian Coppock

The end of the year is quickly approaching. 2016’s been a colorful year in the world of video games, with a variety of indie darlings up against a smattering of big-budget games. Some were wins, a lot were losses, but the overall variety of titles available to gamers continues to grow. In that spirit, the series of reviews on the strategy-heavy Nova Covert Ops series continues today, with a (hopefully) epic conclusion to be found in Nova Covert Ops, Chapter 3. Blizzard has managed to tweak the StarCraft II formula with this campaign’s new focus on stealth, but reviewing Chapter 3 is the only way to find out if this shakeup sticks the landing.

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Chapter 3 is the third and final installment of Nova Covert Ops, a bonus StarCraft II campaign set years after the conclusion of the main StarCraft II trilogy. As with the previous two chapters, Chapter 3 stars inveterate psionic assassin Nova Terra, on a mission to save the Terran Dominion from a mysterious faction of dissenters. Although these missions retain the real-time strategy mechanics that the StarCraft series was built on, Nova Covert Ops also encompasses stealth missions in which Nova goes solo against bases full of baddies. It’s a surprising olive branch to stealth fans coming from StarCraft II, but Nova Covert Ops also emphasizes tactical upgrades to various units. Even more than in the main StarCraft II campaigns, tactics is king in Nova Covert Ops.

Chapter 3 comes hot on the heels of Chapter 2. After a harrowing trio of missions across Dominion space, Nova finally learns who the leaders of the Defenders of Man are and contrives a plan with Emperor Valerian Mengsk to bring them to justice. Nova finds them readily enough, but Alarak, leader of the Tal’darim, arrives to attack the Dominion and slaughter anyone standing between him and the Defenders. Alarak hasn’t reneged on the deal he and Nova made in Chapter 2, but he did promise to destroy the Defenders wherever they hide, even on a planet teeming with innocent civilians.

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Never bargain with snarky psychopaths.

Nova and her black ops regiment steel themselves for a battle on two fronts. With the Tal’darim mindlessly slaughtering innocents on one side and the Defenders of Man making their escape on the other, it will take all of Nova’s wits and resources to keep the Dominion’s enemies at bay. So begins the third and final Nova Covert Ops mission pack, one whose mission is to continue refining that which was introduced in previous chapters and bring this mini-narrative to a successful conclusion.

Like the previous Nova Covert Ops packs, Chapter 3 emphasizes a blend of solo stealth encounters and the more classic StarCraft II base-building and army-fielding mechanics that the game is best known for. Nova’s time is spent both infiltrating enemy facilities by herself, and commanding her battalion of elite black ops soldiers out in the field. To supplement these missions, Nova Covert Ops allows players to customize Nova with a variety of guns, grenades, stealth suits, and other equipment, as well as share elite spec ops technology with her troops.

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Nova is all about the stealth.

Not that Chapter 2 wasn’t a fun mission pack, but its abject lack of Nova stealth missions was a little weird coming from a miniseries that promised lots of, well, stealth. Indeed, there were only two such encounters in the entirety of Chapter 2, and both were optional side objectives about retrieving old equipment. Chapter 3 slits this problem in the throat by starting Nova off on stealth in the very first mission, as she moves in to apprehend the Defenders of Man’s leader. This mission is undeniably the best of Nova Covert Ops’ stealth’em’ups, scattering invisibility-shattering laser beams and hordes of sentry drones across a labyrinthine map.

After that, the cadence of the following two missions settles back into the wide-scale battles StarCraft II is known for. The second mission comprises repelling a huge army of Tal’darim invaders, and the last mission, a final, epic showdown with the Defenders of Man. Even though both of the latter missions are much more conventional StarCraft II fare, the tail end of mission three features Nova, alone against the enemy she swore to track down. That setup is quintessentially Nova Covert Ops, but how well does it bring the series to an end?

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The only thing better than a lightsaber is an INVISIBLE lightsaber.

To touch on the gameplay a bit more, the stealth odyssey in this mission pack is the best the series has to offer. It’s considerably longer than any other stealth mission in Nova Covert Ops, and encompasses a wider array of challenges and opportunities. Nova has a new power that grants her mind control over any one enemy unit, opening up the floor for some pretty fun sneak attacks. Forcing enemies to fight one another is also the stuff of subterfuge, so it’s nice to see the mission pack get a bit sneakier with Nova’s powers (it’s also fun to sick a Thor onto a squad of unsuspecting Marines).

Additionally, the Defenders of Man have tightened their security against Nova’s attacks, exponentially widening the arsenal of defenses she’s expected to tackle. There are no flame turrets, thank God, but there are laser beams that both alert nearby units and disable Nova’s passive invisibility. Not even Nova can stand against all the units crammed into the mission, so players have to be a lot more considerate of their stealth tactics. Couple this with an array of sensor drones in both unit and building forms, and the result is a mission that does a great job at forcing players to switch mental tracks constantly.

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Now you see me…

Indeed, switching tracks is the name of Chapter 3‘s game. After Nova completes her mission and the Tal’darim attack, mission two switches gears over to defending against Protoss invaders on six fronts. Not two, not four, six. Nova’s got some assistance from mainline Dominion forces, but this mission is a delectable exercise in multitasking. To escalate matters further, she has to slay over a thousand Tal’Darim before the mission ends, making the mission an exercise in endurance as well as versatility. Of course, this mission’s structure feels derivative of the Shakuras Zerg slaughter mission in Legacy of the Void. It goes without saying that Nova has no time for pensive stealth solos in this mission.

The last mission of Chapter 3 and indeed the mission pack comprises Nova’s final showdown against the Defenders of Man, a space platform brawl reminiscent of the maps from the original StarCraft. Like the previous mission, this last sortie deals with defending multiple targets against constant enemy attacks, all while fending off a giant baddie that keeps coming back for more. Like the missions of Chapter 2, this mission feels quite bombastic for a series built on stealth and tactics, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. Or a lot of fun.

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Matt Horner even shows up to help Nova out.

Overall, the gameplay of Chapter 3 is fun, but it never quite gets to the core of what Nova Covert Ops promises to be about. Ironically, the very first mission pack of the series is the stealthiest of all. At least half of that pack is spent playing solely as Nova, with two solo stealth missions and even a classic high-speed highway chase with enemy agents. The second mission pack drops the ball by focusing exclusively on action, and though the stealth mission in pack three is great, it’s just the one mission. The rest is classic StarCraft II, albeit with more versatile mission and hero upgrades.

The level design in this pack is nothing that StarCraft II fans haven’t seen before. The stealth-centered mission is definitely the most maze-like that the series has yet produced, containing the most elaborate traps and trickery. However, the remaining two missions are big brawls that any StarCraft II fan will have fought. They might be a bit unfamiliar to players brand-new to the series, but that only begs the question: how would someone stumble upon StarCraft II and then Nova Covert Ops without first playing the main campaigns? There is no logical way these missions won’t look familiar to anyone.

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Nova doesn’t get nearly enough stealth time.

The other question at play with this mission pack is double that of its predecessors. Is its own narrative any good, and more importantly, does it manage to bring the overarching Nova Covert Ops story to a satisfying end? The pack’s own sub-narrative isn’t terrible, but it’s clear that the writers rushed things along to get to a speedy ending. No sooner does the player know anything about the Defenders of Man’s leader than they’re engaging the enemy in the final showdown. Valerian Mengsk’s subplot from Chapter 2 is barely extrapolated upon in Chapter 3, and the confrontation with Alarak is abruptly aborted without any explanation of why the Tal’darim hated the Defenders of Man. Presumably, the Defenders attacked the Tal’darim to force them into fight with the Dominion, but Alarak usually has more creative answers than that.

As for the overarching narrative, it, like so many video game narratives before it, is okay until the last five minutes. Nova engages in a satisfying standoff with the Defenders’ leader, but makes a decision at the very end of the game that needlessly implicates her and forces her on the run. Without divulging too many details, she basically makes a decision that makes no sense and had no running-up in the narrative preceding it. Perhaps this last-minute 180 was made to leave the door open for future StarCraft plots, but boy does it feel shoehorned in. One minute Nova is executing the emperor’s orders, the next she abruptly decides to do something different because “it’s better this way”.

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She just wanted to be a rebel…

It sucks to say it, but for all the fun to be had in its battles and sneaking, Chapter 3 is the worst of the three mission packs that Nova Covert Ops has to offer. Its gameplay is fun (if a bit stale by round three) but Chapter 3‘s gaping plot holes make Nova Covert Ops go out with a scratch of the head rather than a raise of the fist. There is an inherent challenge in squeezing a compelling story into three packs of missions released months apart, but that still doesn’t excuse this mission pack’s abrupt, confusing ending. Nova Covert Ops‘ writers started out strong on a wave of space-age intrigue, but it dwindles down to baseless changes of character at the very end of the series.

Overall, the Nova Covert Ops series is neither a must-avoid nor must-have for fans of StarCraft II. It toys with some new concepts here and there, but is otherwise another plate of missions that are quite derivative of the main campaign. Couple this with Nova Covert Ops‘ subpar writing and abundance of plot holes, and it comes up noticeably short in comparison to previous StarCraft II efforts. A few promised features, like being able to walk around Nova’s ship like Jim Raynor did the Hyperion, also go unfulfilled. StarCraft II fans considering a purchase would do well to hit Nova Covert Ops up much like Nova would herself; wait for a (sale) opportunity, and then strike. Otherwise… meh.

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You can buy StarCraft II: Nova Covert Ops, Chapter 3 here.

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

Spore

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

PC Release: September 7, 2008

By Ian Coppock

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

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

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

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Aw, it’s so cute!

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

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

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

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

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

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ME WANT PIZZA (pounds chest)

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

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

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Change the world. Change the galaxy.

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

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

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Spore is a bright, colorful adventure.

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

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

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…Please stop staring at me like that.

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

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

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Oh God, not THESE guys again…

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

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

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A perfect 10, huh? Feels too generous.

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

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You can buy Spore here.

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

Sniper Elite V2

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Kill or recruit top Nazi scientists before the Soviet Union makes off with them.

PC Release: May 2, 2012

By Ian Coppock

“One bullet can change history”. That sentence is the mantra of the Sniper Elite series. It suggests a mentality of finesse and subtlety, which is sorely underappreciated in the world of today’s shooters. Indiscriminately firing into crowds of bad guys is all good and fun, but today’s shooters bear immense, and often underdeveloped, potential for tactics. Crysis is a great shooter because it forces players to think laterally. It creates a much more immediate sense of danger and requires players to be smart about how they approach enemies. However, there’s another tactical shooter out there bereft of invisible nano-armor, making players rely even more on tactics than that venerable shooter. Sniper Elite V2 is its name, and tactics is its game.

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Sniper Elite V2 is a third-person stealth shooter made by Rebellion Developments, a British studio that also handled the task of publishing the game. Sniper Elite V2 is a half-remake, half-sequel to 2005’s Sniper Elite, refining that game’s shooter gameplay while also adding expanded levels and a narrative. Unlike most military shooters, Sniper Elite V2 is a stealth game, compelling players to be sneaky and smart about taking out enemies. The term “V2” is a nod both to this game being a remake, and to the German V2 rocket program that serves as its narrative core.

Sniper Elite V2 takes place during the final weeks of the European theater of World War II, when Nazi Germany teetered on the brink of collapse. Even before the death of Adolf Hitler, the United States and the Soviet Union began angling for pieces of the Third Reich in anticipation of what would ultimately become the Cold War. Among all the Nazi secrets both sides wanted was to know how to build V2 rockets, the world’s first long-range ballistic missiles and the most advanced rocketry of their day. To that end, the OSS dispatches elite operative Karl Fairburne to Berlin to recruit top Nazi scientists as part of Operation Paperclip. Failing that, he’s to kill the scientists before the Soviets can get their hands on them.

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Time to hunt for German nerds.

Not long after arriving in Berlin (or what’s left of it), Karl obtains a list of five Nazi scientists who are associated with the V2 program, and makes recruiting or killing them his top priority. He’ll have to take care, though; the Wehrmacht and the Red Army are fighting for control of the city, and he doesn’t have the luxury of reinforcements should he be sniffed out. It is not for Karl to charge blindly into enemy ranks, shooting as he goes. Instead, he must be a ghost of Berlin, creeping through rubble piles and taking back alleys.

That premise also serves as the basic gist of Sniper Elite V2. As Karl, players start out each level in a different corner of Berlin and must take one of many possible paths to their target. Alerting the enemy will bring the entire Wehrmacht upon Karl, so players instead have to rely on stealth and subterfuge to navigate the ruins of Berlin. Indeed, it’s best to think of Karl’s sniper rifle not as a weapon to be used heavily, but a precise, surgical tool best used only a few times. Sniper Elite V2‘s infamous “kill-cam”, a mechanic that shows the player the precise skeletal and internal damage caused by each sniper shot, is gruesomely entertaining. Rebellion caught some flak for allowing players to watch an x-ray slow-mo of a Nazi’s skull exploding, but nothing is more cathartic after a long day at work than precisely that spectacle.

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I seeeeeee yoooouuuu…

As Karl, players start out each of the game’s 11 missions armed with a sniper rifle, a pistol, and a secondary weapon (usually an SMG or shotgun). Karl also comes with a backpack full of landmines, and the ability to regenerate health once behind cover for long enough. Even though Sniper Elite V2‘s armory sounds conventional for a military shooter, the game encourages tactics and trickery. It’s far better to kill a Nazi and booby trap his body with a landmine than try to shoot the entire squad with a shotgun. Karl’s secondary weapons are meant to serve as a Plan B in case of discovery. Otherwise, it’s best to take cover and avoid enemy patrols while sneaking toward the target. The fact that Karl will go down in a handful of shots adds expediency to this strategy.

Because of its furtive focus, Sniper Elite V2‘s gameplay is set at a more thoughtful pace than other romps through Berlin. This is no Call of Duty: World at War, where the player has virtually unlimited ammo and dozens of troops backing them up. The sense of isolation emanates just as much from Sniper Elite V2‘s gameplay as its premise or narrative. If Karl gets spotted, no one can help him, so patience is key to success in this game. Karl can mark targets with his binoculars to help keep track of enemies, or throw rocks to distract them, so Sniper Elite V2 isn’t as merciless as it might sound.

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Sniper Elite V2’s sense of isolation is profound.

Then again, maybe the game is more merciless than even the developer intended. The enemies in Sniper Elite V2 have that overly sharp AI programming that can make gameplay a frustrating bout of trial and error. Remember how the thieving in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is broken because guards can somehow hear the Hero of Kvatch sift through a desk? The soldiers in Sniper Elite V2 are similarly omniscient in their vigilance. Players who are even a microsecond too late to grab cover will alert every Nazi from here to Hamburg faster than split infinity. This doesn’t make sneaking in Sniper Elite V2 impossible, but it feels unreasonably difficult in more than one instance. It’s not exactly fun to signal every Russian on the next 10 city blocks because Karl wiped his nose too loudly.

Contrary wise, some encounters in Sniper Elite V2 are far too easy. Karl frequently has to deal with German or Soviet military convoys as he stalks the city, and they’re all protected by big ol’ tanks. Sounds terrifying, right? Wrong. Because each one can be blown to smithereens with one shot to the gas tank. Combine this with the tank’s slow aiming, and the result is a profoundly neutered heavy enemy challenge. To say nothing of how the explosion usually kills all the soldiers around it in one go. Indeed, a tank is usually a welcome sight, because all it takes is one bullet to blow it up and level every outpost on the city block.

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Tanks inspire relief and inner peace in Sniper Elite V2, rather than trouser-soiling terror.

The level design that hosts all of this sneaking and shooting is a curious blend of linear city streets and open, bombed-out buildings. Karl can take a few different paths to his objective, and nearly all of them will lead past enemy lines. Though there are several unique routes to uncover in each level, most missions in Sniper Elite V2 still feel quite linear. Each of the paths Karl can take still generally point in a straight line, and checkpoints placed in specific doorways and corridors further choke out any feeling of being open-ended. Still, the levels are serviceable for what the game is trying to accomplish, and are still head and shoulders more open than the set pieces of today’s linear first-person shooters. Some missions even force Karl to sneak over and under skirmishes between the Nazis and the Soviets, killing men from both armies as he goes.

The visuals used to flesh out all of these levels are surprisingly vibrant for a gritty war shooter. The game’s visage is bleak, but not dull. There are bright buildings in Berlin whose paint has faded under endless smoke, and impressive monuments that stand emergent from big mountains of gravel. Columns of smoke tower above the city, and stale wind pushes huge clouds of ashes across the broken cityscape. Sniper Elite V2‘s graphics have aged a tiny bit, and some of the rubble piles look too much like PNG images, but it all still looks just fine. Character animations are a bit wonky, though. NPCs just walking around in gameplay act natural, but are stiffly animated in cutscenes. Additionally, Karl’s prone crawl animation is a bit… twitchy. But, digression is called for. These are relatively minor flaws in an otherwise suitable core.

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Sniper Elite V2 looks fine.

Less suitable than Sniper Elite V2‘s visual design is an exceptionally rough audio production. No element of Sniper Elite V2‘s sound design is without some eyebrow-raising hitches. For starters, the enemy troops’ voices echo very loudly, as if each level is actually taking place in a cave. This reverberation is so powerful that Karl can usually hear enemy soldiers from the next street over, even when they’re whispering. This may have been an attempt by Rebellion to make it easier to detect soldiers, but unless Karl is part bat, there’s no way he should be able to overhear how many bratwursts the Wehrmacht ate last night.

The other unfortunate design choice bringing down the audio is the soundtrack. The music is fine; that is to say, it’s a serviceable but otherwise unremarkable batch of horns and string music. No, the issue is how severely the music tracks loop. It’s not just a little bit, where the song fades into nothing and starts over. No, the songs accompanying each level abruptly end, clip out, and start up again. It’s very noticeable and does more than a little to break the game’s atmosphere. Thus far, the only workaround is to turn the music off, which would be fine if it didn’t make the enemies’ loudly echoing conversation even louder.

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Excuse me, could you please pipe down a bit?

The other factor that gives Sniper Elite V2 pause is its narrative, or more precisely, its relative lack of one. Sure, Karl has a mission to infiltrate Berlin, but there’s no character development and no compelling storyline. The entire game is simply Karl starting a mission, killing a guy, ending the mission, over and over until the credits roll. There’s a little tidbit of thriller toward the end when one of the last scientists on Karl’s list tries to launch the V2 rockets, but it’s over in a single level, so the tension has no time to build. Karl himself is pretty unknowable, speaking only during the mission briefing, and of no topic other than his mission objectives. All of this isn’t really a narrative so much as a series of checkpoints.

None of this makes Sniper Elite V2 a bad game, but it does make the production conspicuously hollow. There was plenty of room for a gritty subterfuge thriller in Sniper Elite V2, but the game is more interested in showing off countless kill-cam vignettes than telling a story. Nothing wrong with the kill-cam, but each mission’s short briefing and then the game’s abrupt ending make Sniper Elite V2 much less memorable than it could’ve been. It certainly doesn’t help cover up the poor sound design.

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There’s really no story in all of this?

Sniper Elite V2 isn’t getting out of here without a recommendation, but it feels less like a compelling war story than a meticulous study concocted by hardcore World War II nerds. Y’know, those military history enthusiasts who are more concerned with the precise trajectory of a ship’s cannon than the emotional brevity of whatever that cannon was firing at (see also: ARMA 2 fans). Though Sniper Elite V2 has its sound and AI problems, and its narrative is a far cry from a World War II drama, its competent sniping and sneaking will sate anyone looking for something different.

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You can buy Sniper Elite V2 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.

StarCraft II: Nova Covert Ops, Chapter 2

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Race to save thousands of lives from a vicious Zerg attack.

PC Release: August 2, 2016

By Ian Coppock

Holy moly. The 2016 holiday season actually produced a well-optimized PC game. Watch Dogs 2, no less! In a rare showing for an otherwise dismal holiday season, a major publisher managed to produce a game that not only ran on its opening day, but runs quite well. Ubisoft is the unexpected savior in this situation, but let’s be fair, the year 2016 has been full of unexpected situations. Unfortunately, I had already given up on the prospect of Watch Dogs 2 being any good (the first one is not good) but we’ll still have a good time. Why? Because it’s time to return to one of gaming’s proudest sci-fi universes, and the continuing saga of Nova Terra.

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After this spring’s release of StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void, the single-player saga of StarCraft II pretty much ground to a sudden, albeit satisfying, end. The game’s multiplayer ecosphere continues to rage with battles between Terran, Zerg, and Protoss, but the grand narrative of Kerrigan and Amon does not. Wanting to keep players invested in the StarCraft universe’s story, Blizzard released the first of three planned mission packs back in March, starring the psionic operative Nova. Nova may not have gotten her third-person shooter debut in the cancelled StarCraft: Ghost title, but Blizzard kept her around for their subsequent titles, and now she gets her own series over a decade later.

Set years after the events of Legacy of the Void, the Nova Covert Ops mission packs chronicle Nova Terra’s journey to defend the Terran Dominion against a new, human threat. The first set of missions saw Nova escape from the Defenders of Man, as they’re called, and take command of an elite black ops regiment to hunt down and destroy the dissenters. The mission pack sported a novel blend of the usual strategic gameplay that StarCraft II is known for, but also featured isometric, Diablo III-style stealth missions in which Nova sneaks around enemy bases ad furtim. Well, Nova finds out that the Defenders of Man are luring the alien Zerg to human worlds to make the Terran Dominion look weak. The second set of Nova Covert Ops missions opens as our heroine races to the Defenders’ latest target, to try to save thousands of innocents from overwhelming Zerg forces.

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Nova is intent on stopping the Defenders’ latest scheme.

Even as Nova fights to defend innocent civilians from the Zerg, she and her loyal spymaster Riegel fight to discern the identities of the Defenders’ leadership. Whoever they are, the group seems to think that Emperor Valerian Mengsk is too weak to lead humanity effectively in the Koprulu Sector, and seeks to discredit his reign by luring Zerg to heavily populated worlds. They can then take the credit for swooping in and saving the day, humiliating the Dominion. Nova spent some time prior to the events of the game working for the Defenders, albeit while brainwashed, and struggles to remember anything useful about them.

As Nova sets about defending cities from Zerg attacks, she receives an unexpected visit from Alarak, leader of the Tal’darim Protoss and by far the most interesting character from Legacy of the Void. Alarak also wants the Defenders of Man destroyed, and offers to strike a bargain with Nova: lead him to their base, and he’ll help her uncover her lost memories. Nova senses little good in trusting Alarak, but, much to his delight, agrees to help him. Hoping that she can trust the Tal’darim, Nova embarks upon a new leg of her journey aimed at defending the innocent from the Defenders, and then striking back against them. All the while, she’s left wondering if Alarak can be trusted.

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Alarak returns in Nova Covert Ops to gleefully bargain with Nova (much to her chagrin).

Like the previous pack of Nova Covert Ops missions, Chapter 2 comprises a set of three levels with varying challenges and gameplay. Unlike the more furtive level design of the first pack, the second pack boasts sprawling battlefields much more reminiscent of the main StarCraft II campaign. Nova and her covert ops regiment are forced to emerge from the shadows to fight hordes of feral Zerg, and be ready for anything that Alarak might have up his sleeve.

The two most noteworthy elements of Chapter 2‘s mission design are their mission variety and fealty to the design of the main game. Nova is thrown into some of StarCraft II‘s most chaotic situations with this pack of missions, from fighting off waves of Protoss and infected Terrans simultaneously, to actually being forced to protect a Defenders of Man base. Chapter 2 also features a mission set on Antiga Prime, which old school fans will remember as a turning point in the original StarCraft‘s Terran campaign. Indeed, though the gameplay in Chapter 2 is much more familiar than the stealth missions of Chapter 1, it forces players to contend with multiple enemy factions and side mission opportunities that must be acted upon quickly.

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Time to go nuclear. No pun intended.

Even though the gameplay in StarCraft II is more visceral than most missions in the main game, that didn’t stop some of them from feeling a bit derivative. The first mission pitting Nova against Zerg, Defenders of Man and the Tal’darim is a pure strategy thrill ride, but the next level is essentially a repeat of the race to gather Terrazine from StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty. Just like when Jim Raynor descended upon the planet Bel’shir, Nova has to gather gas and prevent Protoss from destroying it. Sure, the level throws in some infested Terrans for good fun, but these creatures fare poorly against most anything players can field. The last level is a good ol’ one-on-one brawl against feral Zerg, but it lacks enough novelty to make it stand out from all the other Zerg brawls out there.

These level design inconsistencies are due in no small part to the near-total lack of isometric stealth missions. Whereas Nova’s solo sneaking comprised most of one level and half of another in Chapter 1Chapter 2 only features two small, optional stealth vignettes within a single level. It’s a bit weird to see a miniseries that built itself up on covert ops revert solely back to grand tactics. The stealth in Nova Covert Ops is a bit clunky, but it’s in keeping with the mission packs’ black ops theme. Hopefully these jaunts into sneak-land make a comeback in Chapter 3.

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The missions in Chapter 2 do a surprising about-face back to conventional StarCraft gameplay.

Luckily for the gameplay, Nova returns with the ability to upgrade her units and suit for different playstyles. Unlike the human upgrades in Wings of Liberty, these pieces of tech come free, but each one can only be assigned to one type of unit at a time. Most upgrades make it easier to employ special tactics in StarCraft II or bump up certain stats to tilt the scales in the player’s favor. The Marines’ rifle extension and the Goliath’s biosteel upgrades are both must-haves for the conniving black ops spymaster.

Even though the unit upgrades in Nova Covert Ops remain cool as ever, the same cannot be said for all of the mission pack’s units. The Viking walker/fighter is swapped out for a new contraption called the Liberator, a supremely clunky unit that can attack air targets while mobile, but must become stationary to do anything else. It’s alright as a mobile turret, but not having the transforming Viking walker? Come on! That thing would be the epitome of black ops badassery. Alas, there are no Vikings in this cosmic longboat.

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Subtle? No. Furtive? No. Incredibly awesome? YES.

The art and level design in Chapter 2 remain as impressive as ever for a StarCraft II campaign. Each level has good terrain variation and plenty of tactical opportunities for the discerning space commander. Choke points are the name of the game in this mission pack, although constant attacks from enemy forces make building bunkers and turrets a challenge. Visually, the mission pack continues StarCraft II‘s proud tradition of sharp animations and big, colorful environments. The tropical city planet in the first mission is a refreshing change of pace from the gritty environments Nova traversed in Chapter 1, although the pack goes right back to those for the second and third levels.

The narrative that all of this informs hits a more admirable high than what Chapter 1 was starting out with. The race to defend the Terran Dominion takes a sinister new turn with the Tal’darim’s involvement, and Alarak’s sharp, condescending wit is a welcome addition to a story packed with stony-faced humans. Nova herself undergoes little character evolution, but does suddenly display a regard for human life that was ambiguous until this point. It’s just too bad that she spends every waking moment of this mission pack taking orders from Riegel, who seems to telepathically know every hidden item and every best tactic around. That’s a spymaster’s job, to be fair, but Nova never takes any initiative. Only orders. Isn’t she supposed to be in charge of this mission?

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Nova’s character development is stymied by writing that favors the convenient inventor sidekick over, say, the heroine.

Chapter 2 omits a few key notes, but it increases the overall value of Nova Covert Ops and adds some more mystery to a galaxy that’s become a bit devoid of it. It returns this miniseries to classic StarCraft level design, but remains fun despite giving up Nova’s stealth missions. It also turns up the narrative by adding mystery and suspense rather than high drama, and finds creative ways to streamline the Tal’darim and other StarCraft II tidbits into its narrative. Core fans and real-time strategy enthusiasts will enjoy this mission pack immensely. Hopefully Chapter 3 will reincorporate the stealth missions and the best of both packs.

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You can buy StarCraft II: Nova Covert Ops, Chapter 2 here.

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