Star Wars: Dark Forces

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Stop the Galactic Empire from building a doomsday army.

PC Release: February 15, 1995

By Ian Coppock

A lot of the Star Wars expanded universe’s lore is convoluted or flat-out bad, but its removal from canon by Disney was still a somber day for Star Wars fans. It wasn’t surprising; how was Disney going to produce new movies within a 30-year-old framework of established content? Although the Disney-owned Lucasfilm has done a pretty good job of making new stories, from last winter’s Rogue One to Marvel’s excellent Darth Vader comics, quite a few exciting and memorable expanded universe narratives were swept under the rug, and remain so to this day. It’s time for some of those stories, like Star Wars: Dark Forces, to get just one more spotlight.

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Created over 20 years ago by the folks at the then-open LucasArts (another Disney casualty), Star Wars: Dark Forces is a first-person shooter that borrows heavily from DOOM and other mid-90’s titans. The bulk of the game is set immediately after the events of A New Hope (with the exception of a prequel level that was, at the time, how the Death Star plans were really stolen). Dark Forces casts players as Kyle Katarn, a grizzled Imperial officer-turned-Rebel saboteur who takes mercenary jobs from the Alliance.

Kyle’s latest assignment comes on the heels of the Death Star’s destruction. Rom Mohc, a dastardly Imperial general who thought that the Death Star was a glorified disco ball, proposes using deadly next-generation battle droids called Dark Troopers to deal with the growing Rebel threat. After pitching the idea to Darth Vader (the term “pitching” meaning “use the droids to burn down a city and kill everyone in it” in this context) Vader greenlights the droids’ mass production. The rebels, ever the eavesdroppers, catch wind of the Dark Trooper project and hire Kyle to shut it down ASAP.

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Holy nineteen ninety five-eroli.

Kyle sets out with his resourceful sidekick Jan Ors to take down the Dark Trooper project, starting with an investigation of the city that the Empire s***housed a few days earlier. Though Dark Forces very much bears the aesthetic of a straightforward shooter like DOOM, Kyle’s investigation is anything but. Finding and destroying the Dark Trooper project requires going up not only against stormtroopers, but also against various criminal and underworld factions that General Mohc’s got lined up. It’ll take all of Kyle’s guns, his skill with those guns, and the occasional wisecrack involving said guns to stop the Dark Trooper project dead in its tracks.

As can be gleaned from that screenshot where Kyle is pointing one pixel at another pixel, Dark Forces is as mid-90’s FPS as it gets. It’s almost shameful how derivative Dark Forces is of DOOM, down to the user interface and the guns being down the middle of the screen. None of this stops Dark Forces from being a good or perhaps even great game, but holy cow, LucasArts… no one needs three guesses to see which game the Dark Forces team loved to tears. Then again, everyone was copying DOOM back then, so perhaps it’s unfair to pin the copycat throttling solely on LucasArts. But, for anyone thinking about getting into this game… DOOM is a stellar litmus test.

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Is this a heat grate, or am I standing on the galaxy’s biggest hot dog grill?

And while on the subject of Dark Forces‘ visuals, it would be a lie to say that they’ve aged well. They have not. The player can usually tell which character that vaguely amorphous cutout of pixels is supposed to be, but that’s about it. Sometimes, that pile of grey pixels on the floor is actually a sophisticated piece of ordnance, but the only way to know that is to approach the damn thing and think to pick it up. Dark Forces has a lot to offer in terms of gameplay and narrative, but don’t go into the game expecting a visual feast. It might’ve been sophisticated in 1995, but, well… 1995 has long since passed.

What’s that, though? Dark Forces has a lot to offer in terms of gameplay and narrative? The gunplay in Dark Forces is classic DOOM; the player can carry nearly a dozen guns and pieces of ordnance and wield them all with lethal precision. Some guns are Star Wars mainstays, like the stormtroopers’ iconic E-11 blaster rifle, while the plasma cannon was created specifically for the game. Kyle picks these weapons up as the game intensifies and carries them with him into every mission. Point, click, and shoot. Most weapons are at least slightly guided to compensate for the game’s camera being locked.

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Taste the justice of flaming soup cans!

Combat in Dark Forces is not hard to understand. Just try to shoot the bad guy before he shoots Kyle. The enemies in this game are about as tactically intelligent as bags of hammers, but Dark Forces compensates for this by giving them all impressive aim and even more impressive damage. It pays to fire from behind cover (something that Kyle’s foes don’t also think to do) and replenish with health and shield pickups wherever possible. Dark Forces‘ enemies are pretty dumb, but there’s an impressive variety of them, from endless squads of stormtroopers to alien mercenaries armed with axes. That’s to say nothing of the insidious Dark Trooper droids that come after Kyle with swords and cannons.

When Kyle’s not busy shooting his way through an enemy base, he’s looking around for clues. Dark Forces challenges players to explore intricate environments for keys, buttons, maps—anything that can point him toward the Dark Troopers’ base of operations. The way that these goals are all set up is decidedly less diverse than the goals themselves (go up to the thing, press the thing, end mission) but that style of investigative gameplay adds to the secretive, gritty nature of Dark Forces‘ central narrative.

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Apparently Imperial personnel get stripped of their peripheral vision.

The story at the core of Dark Forces is more nuanced and sophisticated than its simplistic premise might imply. The Empire remains the chief antagonistic faction of the story, make no mistake, but the narrative does a great job of weaving other galactic factions into its mix. As previously mentioned, Kyle spends the bulk of his time fighting stormtroopers and mowing through Imperial installations, but his journey also pits him against smugglers, pirates, mercenaries and maybe even Jabba the Hutt. This means that Kyle spends almost as much time scouring the galaxy’s seedy underbelly of bars and hideouts as he does the pristine hallways of Imperial bases. It makes for an interesting investigation and allows for more level variety.

The characters in Dark Forces are a mix of big-name stars from the films and entirely new peeps made for the game. The former, like Darth Vader and Mon Mothma, make plenty of cameos, but Kyle and General Mohc have the most screen time. They don’t really develop all that much, but they still cut compelling profiles in this dark mystery. Dark Forces deals out clues about the Dark Troopers at a pretty even clip, giving enough pieces of the puzzle at a quick enough pace to retain attention spans without spilling too many beans. Even decades later, it remains one of the most compelling mystery narratives in the Star Wars universe… even if it’s no longer considered canon.

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It’s like talking to a bullfrog made out of congealed rubber cement…

Dark Forces‘ gameplay is 90’s shooter through-and-through and its story is interesting, but the game emulates a less welcome theme endemic to that period of game development: convoluted level design. Though Dark Forces‘ levels are expansive, the constant inclusion of twisting corridors makes it easy to get turned around or flat-out lost while out on a mission. Most of these areas are intricately interconnected, too, which can make it at once easier or more difficult to return to a previous area.

This level design issue is a problem despite the environmental variety that Dark Forces has going for it. Being able to switch between a ruined city, an Imperial base, and Jabba’s personal starship makes for great variety, but they all seem to pack some loopy level design here and there. Players can game the system by making careful mental note of where they’ve been, but don’t get surprised if Kyle ends up back at the entrance he just broke through. Bodies don’t disappear in Dark Forces though, so if all else fails, just follow Kyle’s trail of carnage. Think of the corpses as jelly beans. Bloody, rapidly stiffening jelly beans.

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I already shot up this glacial cirque!

The other interesting thing about Dark Forces is how it briefly re-entered the national media conscience when the first details about Rogue One got out. Until that movie’s release, the canonical theft of the Death Star plans was actually carried out by Kyle in Dark Forces‘ prequel mission. That story detail obviously didn’t make it into Rogue One (and neither did Kyle Katarn) but it’s worth pointing out the many similarities that Dark Forces and Rogue One share.

For a start, Director Krennic’s Death Troopers look an awful lot like the Dark Troopers Kyle fights throughout the game; they wear black armor, have lethal aim, and their speech is weirdly garbled. Cassian Andor greatly resembles later renditions of Kyle Katarn. Perhaps most significantly, Jyn Erso’s name sounds a heck of a lot like that of Jan Ors, Kyle’s mission partner. This is without mentioning more nuanced details like the comparable personalities of Krennic and Mohc. These may all or mostly be coincidences, but Lucasfilm has done an unexpectedly decent job of referencing stories from the old canon in their new narratives.

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Rogue One wasn’t the first time Mon Mothma put together a Death Star mission…

Dark Forces remains a fun and pivotal piece of Star Wars history. Not everything about it has aged well, but it makes for a gritty adventure whose gameplay is still accessible to fans new and old (not in the least bit thanks to updated emulation software). Dark Forces somehow forewent the grinding difficulty endemic to many shooters of its day (though the game is by no means a cakewalk) and it would later serve as the launching point for one of the best sagas in Star Wars gaming: the Jedi Knight series. Dark Forces is worth picking up for its murder-mystery atmosphere and easy-to-understand gunplay. Even if it’s not considered canon anymore, it’s still comparable to what the “new” Lucasfilm is putting out these days.

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You can buy Star Wars: Dark Forces 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.

Outlast 2

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Rescue your wife from a town full of insane cultists.

PC Release: April 25, 2017

By Ian Coppock

Grab a pitchfork and propose to a cousin, because Red Barrels’ long-awaited hillbilly horror game has arrived at last. After Outlast stormed the boards in the fall of 2013 with its eerie green-tinged environments and flat-out terrifying enemies, Outlast 2 was a foregone conclusion for many fans. Sure enough, Outlast 2 was announced a few years later, and much like a Mount Massive Insane Asylum patient barging through a door, could not be restrained by delays and obstacles. Now it’s time to delve once more into what could very well be the scariest universe in contemporary gaming.

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Like its predecessor, Outlast 2 is a first-person survival-horror game that emphasizes careful exploration and avoiding crazed monsters. The game is set some time after the events of Outlast, but features a new cast of characters and a setting far away from the original’s Colorado crazy-house. Players assume the role of Blake Langermann, a cameraman who along with his wife Lynn has been investigating the murder of a pregnant woman in Arizona. The couple’s sleuthing leads them to the state’s remotest desert region, and to what could be a big break for Lynn.

As Blake and Lynn prepare to touch down in the desert, a strange blast of light forces their helicopter to crash. Blake regains consciousness and finds his trusty video camera, but cannot locate his wife in the wreckage. He follows a spine-tingling trail of screams to what looks like a town… only, there’s not supposed to be a town so far out here. The word “town” is also quite generous. “Dilapidated village from Hell” is a more apt descriptor of this place.

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Oh boy.

It doesn’t take long for Blake to discover that the town is inhabited… by a vicious cult that believes the end times are upon the world. Barely managing to stay one step ahead of the zealous cultists, Blake also realizes that the townsfolk have captured Lynn, and are preparing to cart her off to a fate worse than death. Armed only with his camera, it’s up to Blake to rescue his wife and find a way out of this hellish little corner of the desert.

That camera is players’ only hope for survival in Outlast 2, as Blake is unable to fight back against the cultists (despite the entire town being full of farming implements). Blake’s camera is far more sophisticated than the one Miles Upshur used in Outlast, with improved zoom, night vision, and even microphones that can pick up distant footsteps. Blake can run, jump, and slide his way out of trouble provided his reflexes are quick enough, but the town’s inhabitants are armed to the teeth and none too shy about attempting a murderous 50-meter dash.

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I suddenly have a lot more respect for adult diapers.

Although the basic run-and-record gameplay of Outlast 2 is nothing that fans of Outlast won’t be familiar with, the sequel does make a few crucial tweaks that refine the first title’s gameplay. For instance, the player can now look behind themselves at any time instead of just when sprinting. Additionally, the retinue of hiding spots has increased dramatically, and the player now has a wide selection of barrels, troughs and ponds to hop into when Cousin Cletus comes knocking. The whole camera setup feels a bit too derivative of the first game, but it remains a fluid setup indeed.

Outlast 2 also makes some rather malicious modifications to the game’s survival systems, doing away with the health regeneration of Outlast in favor of limited health and bandages. This mechanic is a great way to up the tension. Players can still expect to find batteries lying around, but Outlast 2 demands far more usage of the night vision mode than the first game did, so players have to be resourceful when whipping the camera out. Outlast 2 also does a much better job than the first game did of hinting to players when an event is worthy of recording, and allows players to review footage they’ve taken for clues and Blake’s insights.

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There’s no “Killbilly” Instagram filter.

The enemies that Outlast 2 throws at Blake are even more terrifying that the mutated inmates at the first game’s insane asylum. Something malicious has clearly driven these townsfolk over the edge, and as an outsider, Blake is the unlucky recipient of the village’s collective ire. The villagers are smarter and more thorough than the monsters in Outlast, using more intricate search patterns and working together in teams to hound the player. It’s an impressive AI upgrade over what Outlast provided, though the villagers are little less oblivious to when the player is walking right behind them.

Outlast 2 also succeeds in providing a greater variety of foes than the first game. For all their admitted scariness, the inmates in Outlast constituted a single enemy type. As Blake progresses through the village, he has to put up not only with angry villagers, but sickened outcasts that crawl around and stalk the player from a distance. The heretics, a splinter faction opposing the town, are little friendlier to Blake than the villagers but are brutal ambush predators. None of this is to say anything of the game’s unique and particularly gruesome villains, like the 8-foot-tall pickax lady.

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Nothing to see here ma’am, just a metal drum minding its own business… (whistling).

Outlast 2‘s most dramatic change over the original Outlast is in the level design department. The game abandons the constricting linear environments of the insane asylum in favor of open hamlets and corn fields. This shift in level design is a refreshing change, but it certainly doesn’t stop the monsters from being thorough with their patrols. The corn fields represent the zenith of this transition, as players have to adjust from creeping down asylum corridors to blindly pushing through corn stalks while who knows what waits in the next patch over.

Unfortunately, this transformation to a starkly open environment makes it difficult for players to know where to go next. A few areas here and there are marked with telltale lights or a pushed-over cart pointing toward a door, but too often finding the path forward becomes an obnoxious spate of trial-and-error. Players have to run around an environment hoping that they blunder into the exit, but might very well blunder into Billy Jean’s ax and have to start all over again. For the visceral new sense of terror afforded by Outlast 2‘s much more open design, the game loses a lot of structure in the process.

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An actual haunted corn maze is pretty terrifying.

The real heart of the problem with Outlast 2‘s format change has less to do with the change itself and more to do with how enemies act in it. This game is rife, absolutely rife, with scripted chase sequences, which the player is still expected to navigate even while in an open area. It becomes dull and frustrating to endure a chase scene over and over again because the player can’t find the direction the game wants them to run in. There’s something inherently dysfunctional about applying a linear chase sequence to an open environment. It happens a lot in Outlast 2, and it’s less scary than irritating.

Despite the drawbacks of Outlast 2‘s world, it remains one of the scariest game settings developed in years. This spooky Arizona backwater is intricately detailed with decaying buildings and ghoulish religious iconography, all of which gives it a dreadful atmosphere. The game certainly doesn’t let up on showering the town with (literal) buckets of blood, bodies, and gore, all of which is carefully arranged to show, not tell, additional little stories. These details, plus a heap of sophisticated lighting and weather effects and outstanding PC performance, make the town even scarier than the setting of the first game. Outlast 2‘s comprehensive options menu doesn’t hurt the game either.

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Mount Massive’s been given a run for its money.

The other thing that makes Outlast 2‘s setting so scary? The horror. The pure, visceral, unleashed, unrestrained horror. The horror of watching the pickax lady murder someone for not muttering Biblical phrases properly. The horror of being licked by an all-too-amorous cultist who really wants to feel the spirit. The horror of watching townsfolk get stretched on the rack, flayed alive, and then burned at the stake. The horror of being vomited on by a plague-ridden cultist before watching him retreat to a cabin half-sunk in his own feces.

Yeah, Outlast 2 does not hold back in its portrayals of graphic violence. Indeed, it might be one of the most violent games ever made, and for this medium that’s saying something. Red Barrels’ decision to go full-throttle on portraying the very worst excesses of the human mind means that most players will experience the game while under the duress of a perpetual heart attack. Even iron-hearted horror aficionados may find themselves flinching at some of the torture and assault portrayed in this game. For better and for worse, Outlast 2 digs its adrenaline-tipped barbs into players’ hearts and doesn’t release itself for most of its 8-9 hour playtime.

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I do not want to watch how this shakes out.

This constant cringe also creeps into the main narrative, thanks to some talented writing and horrifyingly brilliant voice acting. Unlike Miles Upshur, Blake can talk, and usually gives very realistic reactions to the awful things he witnesses. As Blake makes his way through the village, he also begins having flashbacks of unpleasant events at his Catholic elementary school. These scenes are wound together with the main game into a foreboding miasma, one with implications of unspeakable acts whose portrayal in media is usually taboo.

Forsaking nuance in favor of ramming through as much brutality as possible is not as foregone a horror game strategy as many gamers might think. It’s easy to look at games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent or the Doorways saga and automatically assume that they pack all sorts of unspeakably atrocious things into its production. While it’s true that both games have plenty of content that’s terrifying more for its implication than what it is, horror games usually still have at least some restraint when it comes to portraying things like sexual assault and child abuse. Outlast 2 doesn’t. And that bestial lack of restraint is all that the game seems interested in.

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This game has some truly gnarly stuff in it.

For better and for worse, Outlast 2 seems interested purely in being scary. In cramming as much gruesome stuff and shocking subject matter into its audience’s eyeballs as possible. In so doing, Outlast 2 forsakes the narrative that’s supposed to hold this all together; the reason that all of this horror is being experienced to begin with. Even more than the level design, the game’s focus on overwhelming terror in place of a terrifying story is where the whole production really starts to fall apart. Outlast 2 is uninterested in answering the questions that its own narrative raises, which is a major problem.

It’s difficult to say much more without getting into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that Outlast 2 starts the player off with a lot of questions and ends without having answered virtually any of them. Everything from why the rednecks have kidnapped Lynn to why Blake is having these flashbacks goes unanswered by Outlast 2. At one point Blake actually spots the source of a major plot point, but doesn’t investigate or otherwise comment on it, content to just leave it hanging. Outlast 2 prefers to focus on pure scares instead of why the scares are happening. This game’s plot holes outweigh its plot.

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Why is any of this happening?

It may seem paradoxical to take a horror game to task for focusing exclusively on being scary, but that approach transforms Outlast 2 from a great horror game (like Outlast) into a tacky scare-house. The game’s idea of throwing constant scares at the player without rhyme or reason smacks more of desperation than competency. Outlast 2 isn’t interested in why the cultists hate Blake, or why it might suddenly start raining blood… it only expects the player to be awed by the spectacle. It’s only interested in getting a reaction from the spectacle.  Anyone can make a game full of spectacle, but few can make a game full of substance. Outlast 2‘s lack of substance makes it a bitter disappointment, and patently unworthy of the asylum adventure from whence it spawned.

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You can buy Outlast 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.

Star Wars: Empire at War – Gold Pack

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Liberate, conquer, or corrupt the Star Wars galaxy in a strategic war for dominance.

PC Release: September 4, 2007

By Ian Coppock

Tonight’s review of Star Wars: Empire at War marks the end of strategy month, and this game’s Star Wars motif in no way hints at what next month’s review theme will be… nope, not at all. It’s an interesting time for Star Wars fans to be alive; some people (probably not Expanded Universe fans) might go so far as to call it a Star Wars renaissance, on the order of the early 90’s when Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy was released. Though there are lots of upcoming Star Wars games to look forward to, tonight’s review looks back at Empire at War, a strategy game set in that most beloved galaxy far, far away.

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Star Wars: Empire at War is a real-time strategy game developed by Petroglyph, a Las Vegas-based studio best known these days for their 8-bit series. Empire at War was the first Star Wars RTS developed since Galactic Battlegrounds in the early 2000’s, and remains the most recent such game set in the Star Wars universe (Battle Orders for iOS doesn’t count).

Like Age of Empires II and other real-time strategy games, Star Wars: Empire at War emphasizes building bases, training units, and relying as much on tactics as force to win a match against an enemy army. Players can assume control of either the Rebel Alliance or the Galactic Empire, each with its own retinue of units, buildings, and technologies. The Forces of Corruption expansion pack adds a third faction, the Zann Consortium crime syndicate, whose troops sport exotic black market weaponry. All of this content is rolled together in the Gold Pack edition of the game being reviewed here tonight.

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Time to conquer the universe.

Each faction in Empire at War also has its own playstyle reflective of its cinematic counterpart. The Galactic Empire is a military powerhouse whose tactics focus on taking and holding territory. Each of their units, from a platoon of stormtroopers to the mighty AT-AT walker, is useful for players who like to win through sheer force. The Alliance, by contrast, fields lighter units that are better for hit-and-run attacks. Beset by AT-ATs? Use some snowspeeders. The rebels are great when it comes to fast raids and cheap, innovative solutions against waves of imperial troops.

The Zann Consortium, a faction unique to Empire at War and an entity almost certainly rendered non-canon with Disney’s acquisition of Star Wars, utilizes units with weird and creative weaponry, like metal bullets that can pass through shields and second-generation Separatist battle droids. These weapons make for some cool gear, though the idea of a crime syndicate waging conventional warfare is comically ridiculous.

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Oh we’d better get going, the Mafia’s armada will be here soon (snort).

Battles in Star Wars: Empire at War are waged on a galaxy map comprising upwards of 50 planets, ranging from movie staples like Tatooine to lesser-known locales from other Star Wars video games, like Knights of the Old Republic‘s Taris. In most modes, whoever can capture all of the planets wins the game. Each planet offers its own perks for the player occupying it; shipbuilding worlds like Kuat are useful for building big warships, while wealthy worlds like Bespin and Coruscant give the player extra resources. Some planets have natives that will side with one faction or the other other—aliens on Outer Rim worlds tend to fight for the rebels, while the well-do-to human suburbanites in the Core side with the Empire and its housing associations.

Capturing a planet in Empire at War is a two-stage process: players have to first engage in a space battle and destroy the enemy space station. Players can use space stations to build fleets of ships, from squadrons of TIE fighters on up to mighty Star Destroyers. Players can only field so many vessels at once, but if the battle starts to turn south, they can call in more ships for backup. Similarly to ground units, space units in Empire at War utilize a variety of weapons to take down different classes of enemy ships. Bombers are great against capital ships, corvettes can decimate fighter squadrons, so on and so forth.

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This is a great example of how NOT to wage space warfare.

Once the space around a planet has been secured, it’s time to head to the surface and eliminate the enemy’s ground game. Players can fly their troops and vehicles into battle using landing zones. The more landing zones a player owns, the more units they can shuttle in for battle. The match ends when the invading player manages to kill all the enemy units and any structures they might’ve built, or when the defending player manages to kick their would-be-conqueror back into space. Each battlefield is sprinkled with build pads that players can use to erect turrets and repair stations. Players can build training academies and other facilities on their worlds to produce units between battles.

Empire at War‘s idea of resource gathering is quite a bit faster than that of Age of Empires or other RTS games. Rather than having players task gatherers on a resource, Empire at War direct deposits credits into each player’s account at the end of an in-game day (every few minutes). Players can make more money by capturing wealthy worlds or building mining stations on their planets, which automatically generate money for their owner. As a result of this resource model, combat in Empire at War tends to happen quickly and with ferocity. It may sound intimidating, but Empire at War‘s thorough tutorials and wide range of difficulty options make the game accessible to space commanders of all skill levels.

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Back, you frosted freaks! Back, I say!

Players have a few other options to consider if money’s running short or their fleet took a beating in the last battle. Empire at War allows players of all factions to hire smugglers to steal credits from enemy planets, and the Zann Consortium can co-opt an enemy player’s cash flow by bribing opponents’ planets. The rebels can bypass space battles and land a small army on enemy planets; with the right tactics, it’s possible to take a planet from right under the opponent’s nose. Each faction also has a gallery of powerful heroes whose abilities can turn the tide of battle, including Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, and Legends favorites like Kyle Katarn and Mara Jade. The Zann Consortium borrows a few infamous bounty hunters, like Bossk and IG-88, to serve as its heroes.

Winning the long game in Empire at War requires a strong economy, but its emphasis on planetary footholds means that players also have to know how to stretch and concentrate their forces. Does the player fortify core systems and leave outlying planets vulnerable? Or try to stretch their forces equally across what might be dozens of worlds? That choice, as always, depends on how well the wider match is going. That tension of wondering which world will be hit next can make Empire at War a thrilling strategy experience. The tactics each faction uses are faithful to their cinematic counterparts, lending that Star Wars adventure vibe to each game. A rebel raid against impossible odds feels very much like a plot point in a Star Wars film.

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All wings report in!

And speaking of plot points, Empire at War comes with a few story campaigns to flesh out its single-player content. The Empire and Rebel stories deal with both sides of the conflicts leading up to the Battle of Yavin, while the Zann Consortium’s narrative is a grand space heist set between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. None of these stories are particularly well-written or feature stellar voice acting (and they’re certainly no longer canon), but they contain exciting levels with unconventional design. Whether it’s detonating a giant space bomb over the Empire’s fleet, or breaking into Emperor Palpatine’s vault on Coruscant, the missions in Empire at War‘s story campaigns don’t hurt for interesting variety. It’s just a shame that the narratives don’t pack the same punch.

No matter the story and no matter the mode, Empire at War‘s gameplay has aged surprisingly well over the last decade. It’s an easy real-time strategy game to pick up and learn, given how fluid its unit production, combat, and resource gathering mechanics are. Though Empire at War still plays well, it’s easy for its battles to become repetitive, as the rinse-and-repeat of fighting in space, landing, and taking planets gives the aforementioned unpredictability element a black eye. The game also suffers from a few embarrassing bugs, including a real gem of a glitch that causes the game to crash if an Empire player uses the Death Star on a planet that Han Solo and Chewbacca occupy. It and bugs like it happen with relative rarity, but they still happen, so be on the lookout.

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STOPSTOPSTOPSTOPSTOPSTOP

Additionally, Empire at War‘s visuals have not aged so well over the years. This is one of those games where zooming in too close on a unit’s face reveals little more than squiggly lines and maybe the hawk’s beak of a “nose”, while character model colors look pretty smudged. The game’s environments are brightly colored but similarly morose when it comes to textural sharpness and use of detail. Soldiers look more like mannequins than real people.

The game’s sound design is also hit-and-miss; the audio in space battles is absolutely glorious, what with the thunder of Star Destroyer cannons (technically space battles shouldn’t have audio, but Star Wars has never adhered to that law of physics). Even though both space and ground battles implement lots of sound effects from the Star Wars films, they often sound distant or too soft. The sound design does manage to save itself with its soundtrack, but to be fair, it’s all from the films’ scores rather than any original content.

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Oosh, that’s rough…

Star Wars: Empire at War does not provide a strategy experience as in-depth as that of Age of Empires or Command & Conquer, but its gameplay is more fast-paced than that of either title. For anything that can be said about the game’s visuals or bugs, Petroglyph did an admirable job adapting the Star Wars source material to the real-time strategy formula. It’s fun to wage a war for the Star Wars galaxy, building up planets and engaging in huge last-ditch battles for supremacy. The game also has a thriving modding community; someone went and made a full-length Clone Wars-era mod called Republic at War, which can be downloaded from Mod DB.

Empire at War hedges its bets not on providing a deep, highly customized real-time strategy experience, but on being able to leverage that format to produce adventures on par with those of the Star Wars films. It’s not a perfect game, but it still largely succeeds in producing that potential for epic space battles and memorable campaigns. Star Wars fans should buy it, and strategy gamers on the fence about its shallower tactical focus might very well be won over by the chance to fire the Death Star.

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You can buy Star Wars: Empire at War – Gold Pack 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.

Yooka-Laylee

Yook1

Adventure through colorful worlds like it’s 1997.

PC Release: April 11, 2017

By Ian Coppock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The hoops have eyes…

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

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

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

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

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

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Reports of a camera control apocalypse are premature.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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You can buy Yooka-Laylee here.

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

Age of Mythology: Extended Edition

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Use the power of the gods to rule a world of mortals and monsters.

PC Release: May 8, 2014

By Ian Coppock

Real-time strategy games can be a lot of fun, but sometimes they can also be a bit dry. Training an army and sending them to destroy a castle is a pretty straightforward process. It can allow for unexpected creativity, especially when using sheep as spies or monks to wololo, but the sight of a battle in an RTS game can be little more exciting than the minutiae that went into planning for it. There’s usually room for strategy games to liven things up a bit, be it through faster gameplay or fantastical elements, or through a compelling story. Age of Mythology: Extended Edition may very well have all of these things in spades.

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Originally released by Ensemble Studios back in 2002, Age of Mythology is a spinoff of the Age of Empires games that sends players to a mythological world — a world where the ancient gods are real, strange creatures roam the earth, and sheep can, well, still be used to spy on enemy players. Age of Mythology received near-universal acclaim when it first released, charming players and critics with its apt blend of real-time strategy gameplay and exotic mythological elements. It layered a bit of magic, a bit of mysticism, onto the fine-tuned strategic gameplay Ensemble had already pioneered with its Age of Empires games.

Age of Mythology allows players to play as the ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Norse civilizations, while a later expansion pack added the Atlanteans. The Extended Edition being reviewed here tonight rolls both games into a single title, as well as adds HD capabilities, integration with the Steam workshop, and a few graphical touch-ups. Forgotten Empires, the studio that makes the new expansions for Age of Empires II, made an expansion for Age of Mythology that adds an ancient Chinese civ to the game.

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Yeah, we COULD produce soldiers and siege weapons, but can’t we just put our spears down and make some gyros instead?

Each civilization in Age of Mythology has its own gods to worship, from the Greek Zeus to the Norse Odin. Players can choose one of three major gods to worship within each civ, and this selection has a massive impact on how the player’s culture will grow. Because of this dynamic, Age of Mythology provides much more variety than a total selection of 4-5 playable civs might suggest. Even though Zeus and Poseidon belong to the same Greek culture, two Greek players picking each god will end up with noticeably different bases and armies. The same can be said of Egyptian players who pick Ra or Set, Norse players who pick Thor or Loki, etc etc.

After picking a major god, players are given a town center and a few villagers, which is classic Age of Empires. And, just like in the Age of Empires games, villagers can go out into the wilderness to gather wood, food, and gold. Unlike Age of EmpiresAge of Mythology features a fourth resource called favor, a sort of godly currency that allows players to train mythological creatures and research top-tier technologies. Each civ has its own way of gaining favor that reflects its respective gods. Because the Greek gods are vain, Greek players gain favor by assigning villagers to worship at temples. The Norse, by contrast, gain favor by killing enemy units and are therefore way more bada**.

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If only prayer was this awesome in real life.

As players gather resources, they can grow their civilization by building out a town and training military units. Similarly to other Ensemble strategy games, the key to success in Age of Mythology is a strong economy. Gathered resources do no good unless they’re being spent, which means that players can expect nonstop unit production and technology research. With a proper balance of resource income and military buildup, players can train enough troops to defend their town or go on the offensive in relatively short order. Research allows for units to be faster and deadlier, and for buildings to be better fortified against attacks.

The mechanic of advancing to a new age returns in Age of Mythology, with a twist. When advancing to the next age, players can pick from one of two minor gods within their civilization. Like the major league gods picked at the start of the game, these gods have perks and rewards that can alter playstyle. Bast, a minor Egyptian goddess, grants agriculture benefits, while Greek party boy Dionysus improves certain unit attacks through the power of… alcohol? Different assortments of minor gods will appear depending on which major god is picked.

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Thor shows favor to those who doth freeze their butts off in the middle of nowhere.

Minor gods provides two perks that definitively set Age of Mythology apart from Ensemble’s other strategy games. The first is that each minor god has his or her own mythological unit, which can be trained at the temple. These units are usually pretty expensive and always cost at least a bit of favor, but they excel at destroying human enemies. Frankly, each civilization provides some pretty awesome monsters to train. The Greeks have centaurs, of course, but later in the game they can also build giant colossi that tower over the battlefield. The Egyptians, who are apparently fans of The Mummy franchise, can train up plague-bearing zombies and half-arachnid, half-Dwayne Johnson scorpion men. The Norse have dragons. Because they are the best.

Over the course of the game, players can also acquire something even more pivotal to gameplay in Age of Mythology: god powers. This is where Age of Mythology‘s ability to shake up the dryness of the Age of Empires formula really comes into play, and where players can change the course of a battle in a split second. Whether it’s conjuring a lightning storm that kills every enemy on the field, or an earthquake that swallows an entire town, players can harness the powers of the gods to shatter foes in ways that human armies can’t. This mechanic adds dire unpredictability to an Age of Mythology match, because players never know if that town they’re about to sack is packing a meteor shower. Some powers can be used multiple times; others, only once.

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The most fervent players build their bases in hell. Better fire powers down here.

Like the Age of Empires games, the units in Age of Mythology are unknowing participants in a massive game of rock-paper-scissors. Cavalry beats archers, infantry beats cavalry, myth units beat infantry, etc etc. Players have a much greater chance of beating the opponent by building an army composed of several different unit types. It’s tempting for wealthy players to simply field an all-myth unit army, but even the monsters in Age of Mythology have an Achilles’ heel: heroes. Each civilization can train specially gifted human heroes that can put even the mightiest minotaur to shame.

Because of myth units and god powers, matches in Age of Mythology are usually a great deal more chaotic (and fun) than their Age of Empires counterparts. It’s fun to surprise the opponent with a massive column of cyclops, and the sight of monsters can strike more terror in an opponent than the columns of human troops to which RTS games are restricted. God powers can make or break a match, and knowing when to use them adds a novel bluffing element to Age of Mythology. 

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It ain’t no San Francisco, but this fisherman’s wharf will have to do.

For players who are new to real-time strategy games or lukewarm on the idea of multiplayer, Age of Mythology features a single-player story campaign. Unlike the campaigns in the Age of Empires games, which are often split between multiple civs or characters, Age of Mythology features a single, massive campaign starring Arkantos, an Atlantean general, as he travels the world in pursuit of the evil cyclops Gargarensis. The campaign is by far the most compelling narrative Ensemble Studios ever crafted; the writing isn’t great, but its 30+ mission length allows for a surprising amount of character development, exciting battles, and references to ancient myths.

The other neat thing about the campaign is that even though Arkantos is Atlantean, his campaign is split into roughly three chapters that cycle through usage of Greek, Egyptian, and Norse units, whom Arkantos rallies to his cause as he journeys around the world. It’s a novel way to introduce each civilization to the player while in the context of a grand adventure. Plus, with each level featuring missions ranging from infiltration to massive battles, players won’t be hurting for level or objective variety. Because the Extended Edition of this game includes the aforementioned Atlantean expansion, players can play another, albeit much shorter, campaign starring Arkantos’s son Kastor. Despite its reduced length, its scenario variety rivals that of the main campaign.

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The story of Arkantos is hands down the best story campaign Ensemble ever made.

Whether players are interested in the single-player campaign or a round of multiplayer, everyone’s in for quite a visual treat. Age of Mythology‘s game world is absolutely beautiful, perhaps even more so than the maps in Age of Empires III. From verdant Greek hills to scorching Egyptian deserts, Age of Mythology features a rich variety of maps inspired by locations all over the world. Each map is beautifully detailed with rugged terrain and ancient ruins, as well as populated by dozens of different animals (elephants, gazelles, zebras, polar bears, the list goes on).

The graphical improvements introduced with the Extended Edition include some well-implemented texture and resolution touch-ups, as well as a day/night cycle and better water rendering. These improvements don’t quite put Age of Mythology on graphical par with modern RTS games, but between the title’s bewildering variety of maps and strong use of color, polygonal precision falls by the wayside. Couple this with the game’s memorable, relaxing soundtrack of deep drums and Mediterranean guitar, and the result is a deeply immersive ancient world that’s a lot of fun to explore.

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(Don’t make a P.F. Chang’s joke, don’t make a P.F. Chang’s joke…)

Because it’s an older game with simple processing requirements, Age of Mythology runs problem-free on modern machines. The Extended Edition adapts the game to newer software well, and the options menu allows players to make tweaks to almost anything in case problems do occur. Though it’s not as big as Age of Empires II‘s resurgent multiplayer community, Age of Mythology has experienced a revival thanks to the Extended Edition. Players have also taken to the game’s Steam workshop with rigor, producing a few custom units, skins and even campaigns that can be downloaded for free.

Unfortunately, though, Age of Mythology is not without one major flaw, but it has less to do with the game and more to do with the Tale of the Dragon DLC released shortly after the Extended Edition. To put it frankly, it’s one of the buggiest, most poorly designed pieces of DLC on Steam, and that’s not exactly a light statement. The Chinese units the DLC adds suffer from pathing errors, and the entire production is rife with bugs and glitches. The campaign mode features a particularly game-breaking bug that casts an assassination target as an essential NPC. In short, stick with the main Age of Mythology game. It’s great. Tale of the Dragon is a hot piece of garbage.

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No no, attack the farm… attack the… attack the FARM, DAMN YOU WATER DRAGON THINGS!

Luckily for Age of Mythology, its big flaws are restricted to a single piece of DLC that can easily be glossed over in pursuit of the main game. The gameplay in Age of Mythology makes for a well-oiled strategy machine that has aged well despite having originally been released in 2002. Its multiplayer community has been resurrected, and the single-player campaign presents an affable world tour of diverse mythological lore. Strategy fans would be remiss to not add this game to their library immediately. It’s not the most popular game Ensemble Studios produced… but it is the best.

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You can buy Age of Mythology: Extended Edition here.

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

Bulletstorm: Full Clip Edition

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

PC Release: April 7, 2017

By Ian Coppock

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

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

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

Bullet2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bullet4

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

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

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

Bullet5

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

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

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

Bullet6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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You can buy Bulletstorm: Full Clip Edition here.

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

Prophour23

Proph1

Grow body parts and defend them from hordes of insects.

PC Release: October 22, 2014

By Ian Coppock

Prophour23 is the discerning gamer’s go-to title for killing insects with internal organs. If that statement isn’t attention-grabbing enough, what about the notion of a horror real-time strategy game? Or a game played out in an art style inspired by the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci? If all of those things, niche as they may be, sound interesting, imagine them cobbled together with blood vessels and a bit of gristle. Imagine Prophour23, a gruesome entry in this month’s strategy game lineup and the subject of tonight’s review.

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Prophour23 is a game whose bizarre premise lends it a great deal of novelty. The game is a top-down strategy title that faces players off not against columns of enemy troops, but swarms of insects. Ants and cockroaches, to be precise. And what is the player attempting to prevent these baleful bugs from eating? An intricate and awesomely gross web of internal organs. It’s difficult to discern what inspired Prophour23 if not nightmares of being eaten alive by bugs, or the scarab scenes from The Mummy.

Unlike most strategy games, a round of Prophour23 is quite short, usually about 15-20 minutes. The goal of the match is to prevent the insects from destroying the player’s heart, which is positioned at the very center of the field. Players can grow other organs around the heart using blood, which pops up on the screen at regular intervals and must quickly be gathered before it dries up. Each body part serves a different function: eyes allow players to see at night, while rib cages, believe it or not, make for great protective walls.

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Nukes can’t kill roaches, but maybe a mouth covered in thorns can.

Prophour23’s gameplay is a bit more complicated than building walls to keep out bugs. The game features a rapid day-night cycle that can render the player blind to the insects, so be sure to grow some eyeballs around the heart (bet no one expected to ever hear that piece of advice). Some organs can only function if they’re powered by a muscle, and the two have to be tethered together by a tendon. Though most structures are good for keeping the bugs out, the best way to truly destroy them is to grow thorns. Harden the heart, as it were.

Similarly to most real-time strategy games, players can grow more elaborate organs the longer they can last in the match. These higher-tier organs serve more sophisticated purposes than their mainline counterparts. Growing a stomach, for example, is a great way to harvest extra blood. However, even as the player’s organ network becomes more formidable, so too do the waves of insects that ooze in from the screen’s edges to eat the player’s heart. Organs can sometimes cease functioning or even become diseased, and maintaining all of them is one of the game’s biggest challenges.

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Ohhhhhhhh gross gross gross gross GROSS!

Prophour23‘s bizarre world can be a lot to take in. Players with strong stomachs probably won’t get queasy, but if the visuals and oozing animations weren’t enough, the game also comes with some super-squelchy sound effects to round out the grossness. These various elements combine to give Prophour23 a sickly, nigh-bubonic atmosphere consistent with similarly repulsive survival horror games. Fighting off rounds of cockroaches with diseased eyeballs just seems to have that effect… for some reason.

No matter the strength of the player’s stomach, though, Prophour23 seems to have a hard time stomaching its own gameplay. The game’s tutorials, while extensive, do a poor job of explaining how exactly to play the game. There’s a difference between illustrating the function of each organ and illustrating how best to use it in-game. There’s also scant inspiration for how the organs are supposed to function together, which is an obvious problem for a game that casts itself as being built up on strategy. Each tutorial is also played in a far, far shorter round than that of the main game mode.

NewProph4

Aaaand the armbone connects to the, uh… eye… bone?

It’s especially unfortunate that this game’s tutorials don’t quite do their job, because Prophour23 is a difficult game. That 15-20 minute round seems short on paper, but when constant streams of cockroaches come pouring in from around the map, it seems quite a bit longer. Much like a night at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, success in Prophour23 requires constant and meticulous micromanagement. That’s hardly something to be missed in a strategy game, but multitasking on a jacked up difficulty without an adequate tutorial? Not great.

Yes, the secret to success in Prophour23 is to “git gud” and endure the sight of countless hearts exploding before getting anywhere decent. Though the game’s high difficulty may be a turn-off to casual strategy fans, it provides an inadvertent boon to someone who’s conquered all the things in other RTS titles and is looking for something fresh. There’s an innate satisfaction in crushing a bunch of cockroaches with the force of pure screaming, and then going home and playing Prophour23.

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Medieval warfare as imagined by a Bodyworlds exhibit.

Although Prophour23 makes itself difficult to get into and is then (literally) bloody challenging, its gameplay is truly one-of-a-kind. It’s no hyperbole to say that Prophour23 is the only game out there where players grow organs to fend off bugs, and the novelty of that premise means that, for all its flaws, the game is quite creative. It envisions a gross world of homeless human organs protecting themselves from pestilence, and excels at carrying that hair-raising atmosphere endemic to other horror-themed titles.

It’s also not unfair to also say that Prophour23 is as much a tower defense game as a real-time strategy title, what with each organ serving a distinct purpose and endless foes to beat back. Prophour23‘s RTS elements come primarily in the form of gathering resources, and paying lots of attention to how structures are laid out and the battle is being fought. Organs can be moved around to defend against new streams of insects, which is handy, and players can use organs to activate additional combat abilities.

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Ew…

Prophour23’s gameplay and atmosphere found a perfect match in the title’s art style. Inspired by the anatomy drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, each background in Prophour23 bears the appearance of a weathered page from one of his sketchbooks. The organs themselves are drawn out in a style similar to da Vinci’s, and everything from the game’s gorgeous font to illustrations of medical implements is pure Renaissance. The options menu underpinning these features isn’t great, but Prophour23 runs well and its visual simplicity precludes processing issues. The game’s performance is much more bug-free than its matches (ba dum tss).

The soundtrack is also awesomely gross, with a collection of sickly sweet violin strings and deeper, darker tones that accompany each match. If Prophour23 demonstrates difficulty with welcoming new players, it compels them to stay with its beautiful and highly original artwork. It isn’t quite pretty enough to make players forget that they’re growing body organs to fend off bugs, but it’s not supposed to; it reinforces the game’s diseased vibe and novel premise.

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“Enough blood to grow thorns” sounds like the title of a book of poetry.

Prophour23 gouges itself in the eye with its underwhelming tutorials and high difficulty, but players who can surmount these design flaws are in for a memorable strategy experience. It scratches that resource management itch as only an RTS game can, while also providing a deeply unsettling atmosphere endemic to the horror genre. All of this is played out against a smart backdrop: a living anatomy sketchbook. No other visual setting would’ve fit this game’s premise so perfectly. Prophour23 won’t suit all tastes but it’s definitely worth at least trying. See how managing columns of troops translates to growing body organs and experience a whole new kind of bug repellent.

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You can buy Prophour23 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.