Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

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Eliminate foes and complete objectives in tense team-driven battles.

PC Release: August 21, 2012

By Ian Coppock

Reviewing a game as well-known as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive makes about as much sense as letting everyone know about this cool new thing called breathing, but hear me out: my editor-in-chief is on a mad power trip. She threatened to put me through Harry Potter Quiz Boot Camp if this essential title wasn’t covered in some amount of detail. Being faced with the possibility of being trapped in a dark room until I knew everything about House Elf culture has a funny way of enticing reviews of well-known games. So, in the interest of not losing my mind to the sound of a Mandrake, let’s take a look back at one of PC gaming’s most venerable shooters.

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Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is as endemic to the PC gaming scene as World of Warcraft or Team Fortress 2. Even PC gamers who’ve never touched it are at least familiar with its gist. A team of terrorists and a team of counter-terrorists spawn on a map and complete objectives, usually while trying to wipe out the entire enemy team in as brief a time as possible. The original Counter-Strike was a Half-Life mod that Valve bought and released to grand acclaim all the way back in 2000. Global Offensive is the fourth CS game in the series and hit digital shelves everywhere in 2012.

As one of the crown jewels in Valve’s multiplayer crown, CS:GO‘s impact on the world of video games is difficult to overstate. Since its debut half a decade ago, the title has attracted millions of PC gamers and remains one of the most popular multiplayer games on Steam. Ironic, considering that most multiplayer games released on that platform have a half-life of anywhere from a few months to a year. But then again, CS:GO isn’t most games. It’s a tense multiplayer experience, major eSport, and source of industry controversy all rolled into one.

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Freeze! Or we’ll start shooting your hostages! No, wait, hold on…

CS:GO players are divided into two teams: the terrorists and the counter-terrorists. Depending on the map, terrorists either have to arm explosives at specific points on the map or protect hostages. Counter-terrorists, meanwhile, have to either disarm those explosives if they get planted or escort hostages to safety. Players earn money for completing these objectives (as well as killing enemy players) which they can use to purchase new weapons at the start of the next round. Players who can kill lots of foes and complete objectives can rack up cash quickly, but be careful: teamkilling and other negative actions cause a penalty.

CS:GO colors this simple setup with five different game modes. Competitive mode is the playground for hardcore fans, and is not a kind place for players new to the scene. Casual mode is a relatively safe spot for newbs to get into the game or for veterans to warm up before a big match. Players can also participate in Arms Race and Demolition modes, which are CoD gun game-style mode that rewards kills with better weaponry. Finally, there’s Deathmatch, which is a good ol’ last-man-standing-style free-for-all. Though these modes are fun, most of them have been in Counter-Strike games for years, which risks making CS:GO feel like a mere graphical update to its predecessors.

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Lotsa ways to die, gentlemen.

One of the factors separating CS:GO from the hundreds of other multiplayer shooters out there is its tense gameplay setup. Rather than being able to endlessly respawn like in Call of Duty or Battlefield, players only get one life per round. That means that players only get one shot to complete their team’s objective, and if they die, they’re out for the rest of that round. This setup makes CS:GO‘s gameplay deliciously tense. Players can’t just charge into battle and respawn five seconds later if they die; instead, they have to play it safe. The only mode to which this setup doesn’t apply is Deathmatch.

Playing it safe and smart is the only way to succeed in CS:GO, which makes it a much more entertaining shooter than most of its contemporaries. It certainly results in more fidelity to actual hostage or bomb situations. Nothing beats the tension of creeping through a map, rifle up, ready to kill anyone who might be around the next corner. Players unconcerned with caution should remember that careless dying makes it that much harder for the team to win… and hell hath no fury like a CS:GO team that loses due to careless players.

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Oh boy, someone’s not checking their corners…

Another factor behind CS:GO‘s success is its excellent map design. Though the maps in CS:GO are small by, say, Battlefield standards, they’re laden with intricate paths and lots of opportunities to set up ambushes. Players have to take care not to get turned around in hallway networks or get caught out in the open for too long at a time. Each of CS:GO‘s maps features different terrain elevations and multiple paths to singular areas. They also feature different areas that objectives may pop up in, ensuring even more variety.

CS:GO‘s maps are quite pleasing visually as well. Games built in the Source engine age well, and CS:GO‘s visuals remain competitive even five years after the game’s release. Part of that can be attributed to Valve’s constant tweaks and fixes, but CS:GO‘s core visage is colorful, lively, and fun to explore. Each map, be it an Aztec ruin or a besieged office complex, is replete with strong colors and lots of extra objects for detail. CS:GO‘s map variety is also to be envied, with dozens of core maps compounded by player-created levels available for download via the Steam store. Valve adds new maps and other new content every so often through its perennial Operation events.

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The maps in this game are truly… global.

The world of CS:GO is further made engaging through rich sound design. Guns in this game sound and feel deliciously powerful; even as players can see a shotgun shell bowl an enemy over, the sound of the shot is loud and crisp. Same goes for everything from the rapid tempo of a machine gun to even running on different types of terrain. Sound design is key to making weapons feel as dangerous as their real-life counterparts, and Valve got that part of CS:GO‘s design down like a champ.

Speaking of guns, what type of armory can players new to CS:GO expect? Players who have a good round can spend hard-earned cash on most any type of weapon before the next match. Sniper rifles, SMGs, assault rifles, pistols, knives, shotguns… everything’s there and everything feels fun to use. Weapons are responsive and precise, which is key to a game in which reflexes can make the difference between victory and defeat. That different weapons can be bought between rounds allows players to test different loadouts to see what niche feels right in relatively short order.

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To the armory!

So what exactly is CS:GO‘s secret sauce? Why has it remained insanely popular while entire batches of other multiplayer shooters have come and gone? The key is the game’s simplicity. CS:GO, though difficult to master, is easy for shooter fans new and old to pick up and get into. The game’s casual mode provides a relatively safe space (for the Internet, at least) for newbs to get acquainted with the game’s ins and outs without getting grilled by vets. It runs well on systems new and old, it has a stellar options menu, and Valve continuously breathes new life into the title with fixes and content updates.

However, as with most popular multiplayer titles, there’s a dark side to CS:GO. The first and most obvious is that the game’s hardcore multiplayer community can be quite toxic. Because playing multiplayer games for extended periods of time apparently causes intermittent explosive disorder, vets are quick to tear into each other for the slightest perceived failure. This problem is hardly exclusive to CS:GO, but it runs pretty rampant in the game’s professional community. Casual mode is as much a place for learning CS:GO as it is a haven from explosively angry players.

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Dude, you’re sniping the wall. Calm down.

Though corrosive online communities are not exclusive to CS:GO, one problem the game seems to have in especially large spades is hackers. Valve Anti-Cheat is not the hack-proof software that Valve claims it is, at least if the sheer amount of cheater cheater pumpkin eaters in CS:GO‘s highest-tiered matches is any indication. There’s little to be done by railing against the evils of hacking, but it’s been a problem in the CS:GO community for years… one that players new to the scene should be aware of. Once again, Casual mode provides an inadvertent haven from a cancerous problem.

Even though Valve is less than effective at stopping hackers, the company’s good at matchmaking. CS:GO is pretty apt at matching players of a similar skill level, which helps minimize the aforementioned risk of a newb getting ravaged (verbally or in-game) by veterans. Valve runs dedicated servers for CS:GO but players can also try their hand at a private server, many of which have modes and maps not found in the core game. Some of these modes have nothing to do with running and gunning, challenging players to instead surf along walls or bunny hop between platforms.

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In this custom server, we just set our guns on fire and dance.

CS:GO‘s biggest woes stem less from a game design flaw and more from some truly unfortunate business decisions. In 2013 Valve introduced skins to the game, and players can purchase boxes of random gun customizations in a microtransaction. The value of these skins ranges immeasurably, with some being worth a few cents and others thousands of dollars. While there’s nothing wrong with this cosmetics market per se, Valve’s hands-off attitude toward this market has cast a slimy shadow over CS:GO.

What is that shadow? A slew of gambling websites that allow players to bet on the outcome of matches using gun skins as a currency. These sites almost always nix verifying players’ ages, meaning that CS:GO has become a hotbed of underage gambling. Sure, some might say that the underage gambling is the fault of parents for allowing their kids to play an M-rated game, but Valve’s stunning lack of oversight has resulted in two class-action lawsuits against the company for doing nothing to prevent it.

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Are there casino maps in this game?

Most of CS:GO‘s problems have less to do with game design flaws than they do Valve’s reluctance to regulate Steam. For the discerning gamer who says no to shady gambling and can find the relatively hacker-free matches, CS:GO has a lot to offer. The game’s tense matches prevent it from feeling repetitive, and its outstanding technical performance and easy-to-learn gameplay makes it accessible to gamers of all experience levels. Players will never hurt for finding a match in CS:GO, and probably won’t for many years to come. Failing that, the game’s momentous eSports tournaments always make for great entertainment. Pick up a copy of CS:GO but remember not to shoot the hostages.

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You can buy Counter-Strike: Global Offensive 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.

Cry of Fear

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Survive a nightmarish mirror world full of monsters.

PC Release: February 22, 2012

By Ian Coppock

Video games have never shied away from portraying mental illness. Their interactivity makes them an ideal platform for doing so; it’s easy to read about depression in a book or see it in a film, but interacting with it firsthand is much more visceral. While not the rosiest of topics, depression affects a lot of people, and media that portrays what it’s really like can be cathartic as much as it can be somber. Many video games have presented their take on depression and anxiety over the years, but no horror title is more famous for doing so than Cry of Fear.

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Cry of Fear is a survival horror game developed by Team Psykskallar, a Swedish studio that also made 2005’s Afraid of Monsters. Like Afraid of MonstersCry of Fear puts players in a horrific alternate dimension and expects them to fight through a bloody blend of deformed monsters and creepy hallucinations. Cry of Fear is also a total conversion mod for Half-Life, running on the GoldSrc engine but using entirely original character models, sounds, textures and other production elements.

The unfortunate star of Cry of Fear is a depressed teenager named Simon, whose story begins as he walks around the streets of Stockholm in a depressed haze. Simon spots a wounded man begging for help on the sidewalk, and when he hurries over to see what’s wrong, a car comes speeding out of nowhere and strikes him head-on. When he wakes up, Simon finds himself in an unfamiliar part of town, with no people around and strange noises coming from around every corner.

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Simon wakes up in a very dark corner of… Stockholm?

After spending a few moments wandering empty streets and catching glimpses of strange figures, Simon realizes that the entire town is populated not by people, but horrifically deformed monsters. These creatures stalk him relentlessly through the cold Swedish night, and no one’s around to lend him a hand or even answer the phone. As Simon, it’s up to players to navigate the horrors of this strange city with only a few weapons and a flashlight app. He fights not only for his life, but to discover what is happening in this ghoulish city.

Like any decent horror game, Cry of Fear is played in first-person. Simon starts the game out with his cell phone (useful only for its light, as no one is answering 911) and a switchblade. Players can find additional weapons lying around, but the monsters won’t take kindly to having their property stolen, and some items are much more difficult to obtain than others. Players can dual-wield certain items (like the cell phone and a melee weapon) and use morphine syringes found in the game world to restore health. Using too much morphine can have some nasty side effects, but it’s nothing compared to the side effects of letting monsters get too close.

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NOPENOPENOPENOPENOPENOPE

Though the ability to dual-wield multiple combinations of items is a great way to let players find their groove, Cry of Fear‘s inventory system is rather clunky. Players can carry up to six items, but the user interface for assigning those items to quickslots and setting them up for dual wielding is… unrefined. Simon can quickslot up to three items, but there are no hotkeys for using syringes or other tools. That means at least one quickslot has to be devoted to a non-combat item. Sure, being able to pull out a syringe immediately is handy, but then players can’t quickly change between the knife and cellphone and, say, a pistol, for on-the-fly transitions between melee and ranged combat.

Fighting monsters in Cry of Fear is also clunky, because they use the same attack pattern over and over again. It becomes easy for players to encounter a monster, tease an attack out of it, and counter-strike while their combat animation is finishing up. Even though Cry of Fear features nearly three dozen different enemy types, about half of them use a slow melee attack that’s easy to dodge and then cut into. It renders many of the different enemy types redundant; the hammer psycho and fire ax lunatic may look different, but they’re logistically identical. Fortunately, Cry of Fear manages to preserve some variety with monsters that use ranged or other indirect attacks.

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WTF IS THAT WTF IS THAT WTF IS THAT

For all the sameness afforded by some of the monsters, Cry of Fear doesn’t pull any punches in making them scary. This game has a rogue’s gallery of truly nightmarish creatures, from eyeless mutants to screeching widows that have had their forelimbs amputated and replaced with blades. Unusually for a modern horror game, Cry of Fear also features boss fights, where Simon has to discover a monster’s weakness and then exploit it without getting chainsawed in half or smashed to pieces with a hammer. Simon can choose to run away from certain boss battles, but doing so may affect the game’s ending in adverse ways.

Because Cry of Fear was built in the GoldSrc engine, it’d be a lie to say that its visuals have aged gracefully. However, the game’s old-school visuals are more beneficial to its aesthetic than the most cutting-edge game engines around today (and they spare us from any potential CryEngine puns). Cry of Fear‘s rough, blocky character models help make the monsters look distorted and scary. The stiffness of some of these animations verges on amateurish, but holy crap do the creatures look more unnerving because of them. The game world itself has some pretty muddy textures, but the object models look good, and the muted color palette strengthens Cry of Fear‘s morbid atmosphere.

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Cry of Fear is… not a bright game.

One of the most important elements in horror game design is sound, and while Cry of Fear succeeds in creating a visually forbidding world, the sound design is much more hit-and-miss. To start with what the game does right, the soundtrack is one of the grimmest sets of music in horror gaming. These scores alternate between low, unnerving sounds for tense treks through the city, and sad, somber piano melodies for quieter interludes. The piano especially is apt at capturing the agony of Simon’s journey, though the larger soundtrack is a perfect musical mirror for this lonely odyssey.

Less excellent than Cry of Fear‘s soundtrack is its monster sounds, many of which crackle with static or sound just plain canned. This is particularly true of some monsters’ death screams, which sound like they’re emitting from a World War II-era radio. Other monster sound effects may not sound so full of static, but they may be strangely muted. A chainsaw-wielding maniac is far less scary if his chainsaw sounds like it’s coming through a silencer. The game’s other sound effects are largely free of technical errors and sound right at home in this nightmare-Stockholm—doors creak convincingly, walls break loudly, and weapons strike with delightful slashing and crunching sounds.

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Oosh. Cold.

Cry of Fear‘s design elements don’t hit every note, but they do create an atmosphere that drowns in dread. An entire nightmare city crawling with monstrosities isn’t light fare to begin with, but the game’s sounds, visuals and gameplay all combine to make Cry of Fear‘s environment even scarier. As players work their way through this frigid nightmare world, the constant attacks by the monsters and long stretches of walking through alleyways create a strong sense of isolation. Players will frequently catch glimpses of the rest of the city from afar, which is a great way to reinforce the feeling of being a tiny insect in a monstrous labyrinth.

The central motif of Cry of Fear is depression. Without going into too much detail, Simon’s journey has more to do with his crippling depression than he might think. Cry of Fear is a game that’s pretty rough around the edges, but it does an uncommonly good job of capturing the sense of futility that accompanies severe depression. The character’s resolve to press on is challenged as much by his depression as the hordes of monsters that are hunting him. He tries to do the right thing, but forces far beyond his control make it difficult, which is so often how depression affects the mind in real life.

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Being chased by a chainsaw murderer IS pretty depressing…

Cry of Fear‘s story delivery is hamstrung by a few inconsistencies. The developer gets a bit of a break for not speaking English as a first language, but that doesn’t stop Cry of Fear‘s voice acting from sounding uninspired or the writing from being sub-par. The audio on much of the voice acting is also imbalanced, with even Simon’s loudest talking constituting a small whisper. Some of this game’s cutscenes are painful to sit through, both for the voice acting and for how clumsily they’re written.

No, the best parts of the story are the long walks through the freezing Scandinavian night, when Simon is learning the mysteries of the world around him and trying to find a way to press on. These sequences thankfully comprise the vast majority of Cry of Fear, and they’re also where that aforementioned sense of depressed loneliness really shambles to life. Cry of Fear‘s rawest storytelling comprises Simon, alone in the dark, battling a combination of horrid monsters and his own deep-set depression. The game also features a co-op campaign for players who are too afraid to tackle this world alone, but its storytelling isn’t quite as good as that of the main game.

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A moment of peace is worth its weight in gold to a depressed person.

Cry of Fear‘s production is rough around the edges, but the game’s masterful presentation of mental-emotional hopelessness pushes through its more roughshod design facets to make it a visceral, meaningful horror game. Its solitary treks speak volumes that cutscenes cannot, and its sense of isolation is unparalleled. Not every depressed person shares the same perception of that condition, but they do know the feelings of isolation and hopelessness that come with it, and Cry of Fear captures them brilliantly. As such, it makes for a good horror game, one that fans of the genre should pick up if they already haven’t.

Here’s the first game hint: it’s free on Steam.

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You can buy Cry of Fear here.

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

Call of Duty: Black Ops

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Prevent a sadistic Soviet general from destroying the United States.

PC Release: November 9, 2010

By Ian Coppock

This weekend’s back-to-back Call of Duty review series (much like the games themselves) continues its inexorable march toward a full-blown identity crisis. What have we learned thus far from reviewing these games? All Russians and brown people hate America, getting into a helicopter is a death sentence, and anyone who hates ‘Murica is objectively evil. Simple as that. Of course, this information was front and center in previous Call of Duty reviews, so why another one? Why a review of Call of Duty: Black Ops? Because it’s actually a pretty good game. In fact, it may be the best Call of Duty game ever made.

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Released in the fall of 2010, Call of Duty: Black Ops is a military first-person shooter set during the Cold War. The game was developed by Treyarch (the studio keeping Call of Duty alive these days) as an indirect follow-up to 2008’s Call of Duty: World at War. Though the two games are set in the same timeline and feature similar first-person gunplay, Black Ops trades out World at War‘s raging battlefields for furtive covert operations and a grittier, more personal storyline.

Black Ops‘ narrative is told in medias res and begins with a CIA operative named Alex Mason getting strapped into a chair and interrogated by two shadowy figures. Mason’s captors believe that he knows about an upcoming Soviet attack, and though he swears innocence, he agrees to retrace his steps with the interrogators. Mason’s flashbacks comprise the main story of Black Ops, and as players progress through the story, he’ll chime in with his thoughts and opinions on how things went down.

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Better dead than red!

Black Ops takes place during the 1960’s, a decade when the Cold War was really not all that cold. The game marks several significant changes from previous Call of Duty titles: it’s the only Call of Duty game to be set primarily during the Cold War, and it allows its protagonist to actually, y’know… talk. Like World at War, Black Ops features big-name celebrities in its voice cast, including Sam Worthington, Gary Oldman, Ed Harris, and Ice Cube. Black Ops is an otherwise familiar Call of Duty production, featuring all of the first-person shooting and chopper-getting-to that fans could want.

Anyway, Mason begins his recollection by admitting that he was part of a CIA op to assassinate Fidel Castro, but was captured and sold to a Soviet general named Nikita Dragovich. Dragovich takes Mason to a Soviet labor camp, wherein Mason befriends a disgraced Red Army captain named Viktor Reznov… the one and same Viktor Reznov from Call of Duty: World at War. Reznov, who has his own reasons for hating the Soviets, conspires with Mason to break out of the labor camp. After being thoroughly checked for communist cooties—or coomies (TM)—Mason is ordered by President Kennedy to assassinate Dragovich.

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In Soviet Russia, rail leans against YOU!

The rest of Black Ops documents Mason’s worldwide hunt for Dragovich, and the gradual revelation of the Soviet general’s plans for America. Mason serves as the protagonist for most missions, but players occasionally switch over to other operatives for specific or concurrent covert ops. Mason is accompanied in most missions by Frank Woods, another CIA operative who inhales America and defecates communism, and Joseph Bowman, a more reserved agent whom Ice Cube does a pretty good job bringing to life.

Even though the phrase “black ops” brings secrecy and furtive stealth missions to mind, Black Ops still packs all of the explosions and American overkill that Call of Duty built its brand on. Sure, Mason spends plenty of time sneaking around slitting throats, but one mission quite literally dumps the player into the middle of a Vietnam battlefield. Even the more low-key missions, like escorting a defector through the alleyways of Hong Kong, pack plenty of foes to gun down. Players shouldn’t expect Black Ops to change up the series’ emphasis on first-person shooting or gently patronizing them for stepping on a grenade.

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OH BOY I LOVE BEING SO SNEAKY AND QUIET AND SUBTLE!!!!!!!

The debate of which Call of Duty game marked the series’ descent into mediocrity is ever in flux, but there’s one Call of Duty trend that Black Ops originated without a doubt: gimmicks. Call of Duty games these days are well-known for giving the player a cool toy like a hang glider or robotic sniper rifle, but only for a little bit of playtime before it’s put away forever and it’s back to shooting. Black Ops is where this trend really took off, giving the player a newfangled spy gadget to use for five minutes before it magically disappears. Then it’s back to shooting the reds for another 10-15 minutes.

That mindset of scripted gadgetry is unfortunate, and it represents a missed opportunity to innovate Call of Duty‘s game design. It’d be much more interesting to have a level with organic, player-chosen opportunities for rappelling or hang-gliding or whatever, instead of a short, scripted sequence that serves mainly to break up the monotony of the shooting. The question of why this innovation never took place is rhetorical: it’d be a lot more work for the studio. But, that doesn’t stop the possibility from coming to mind. It certainly doesn’t stop players from wondering where that crossbow that shoots grenades just disappeared to.

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But I just got INTO this thing!

The gameplay in Black Ops‘ multiplayer mode is less scripted but largely dead. It should come as no surprise that a seven-year-old Call of Duty game has had its multiplayer undergo complete rigor mortis. A tiny ember of a community still burns from time to time, but there are much better, livelier multiplayer experiences to be had in other games. Call of Duty‘s multiplayer might be the talk of the town whenever it hits stores, but let’s be honest; between the mode’s tiny maps, non-dynamic environments and paltry selection of modes, players are better “multiplaying” it up in Battlefield.

It’s hard to believe, but the zombies mode that was in Call of Duty: World at War was almost cancelled. Now it’s considered an essential element to the series’ formula. Black Ops is where the zombies formula expanded from a fun little map into essentially its own campaign. The game’s defense map features an anti-zombie all-star squad comprising JFK, Fidel Castro, Robert McNamera, and Richard Nixon, who all fire off funny little quips just as often as bullets. There’s a story-lite campaign in the zombies mode, but most of it is available only as DLC. Womp womp.

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I call dibs on my zombie apocalypse name being Tallahassee.

Thus far, Black Ops doesn’t sound too terribly different from any other Call of Duty. Sure, it’s set during the Cold War, but the shooting and the scripted kill-toys are endemic to other CoDs set in other time periods, so what’s the big deal? Well, Black Ops innovates the Call of Duty series in the last place anyone would expect a Call of Duty game to innovate: the story.

Treyarch’s narrative gets a big boost with all the movie stars they brought in to voice the characters. Gary Oldman is in unmistakable form as Soviet defector Viktor Reznov, and aptly brings that character’s thirst for revenge to life. Ed Harris brings his steely-eyed demeanor to the fold as fellow operative Jason Hudson, who quietly becomes one of the best supporting characters in any Call of Duty game. The least impressive performance comes from leading man Sam Worthington—his delivery is emotional enough but he alternates between an American inflection and his native Australian accent with alarming carelessness.

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G’day, comrade!

Even if Treyarch hadn’t called in some big guns to bring Black Ops‘ characters to life, the narrative itself is a sorely underrated venture into the darkest depths of the Cold War. It helps the main story immeasurably that the protagonist can talk; in previous Call of Duty games, the player was meant to be a silent witness to the events rather than an active participant. Because Mason is fully voiced and the story is driven by his decisions, players can feel a much stronger connection to the plot than in Call of Duty games past. Mason’s character is further fleshed out in the cutscenes and dialogue between missions.

The focus on a singular character makes Black Ops‘ larger world flow together nicely. Even though the plot jumps back and forth a few times, it’s not as jarring to suddenly be dropped in a new locale, because Mason’s there to explain why. Black Ops‘ story even features a few elements of psychological horror, digging deep into Soviet-era sci fi to breathe fresh life into a premise as tired as the dastardly Soviet general. The story gives itself time to build colorful backstories (some of which are even more tragic than Mason’s), culminating in a shooter whose atmosphere is bleaker than a Siberian winter… and richer because of it.

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Quick! Before they morph into vodka-powered snowmen!

A nice little touch layered on top of all of this is that Black Ops finally de-glossed the IW engine. Yep, whereas even the most bombed-out objects in previous Call of Duty games looked polished and pretty, Black Ops finally mastered the art of making objects look dirty. One small step for game development, one massive step for Call of Duty. As with other, older Call of Duty games, Black Ops‘ visuals have aged remarkably well. The music isn’t the most memorable, but the sound design is great. Have those speakers taped down in case the tank fire rattles them off the desk.

In closing, Call of Duty: Black Ops is not the highest-rated CoD ever made, but it has far and away the best narrative of the series. The depth of storytelling Black Ops achieved was a breakthrough for the series in 2010, and no Call of Duty story penned in the seven years since is anywhere near as good. Even gamers who aren’t much for shooters should consider picking Black Ops up on a sale. Yes, that’s a serious recommendation to pick up a Call of Duty game for the single-player campaign.

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You can buy Call of Duty: Black Ops here.

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

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

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Find a terrorist who’s trying to start World War III.

PC Release: November 10, 2009

By Ian Coppock

Ah, Call of Duty. So many choppers to get to, so many Russians and brown people to shoot at, so little innovation to be had. When Call of Duty: WWII hits shelves this fall, this series will have churned out a new installment every year for the past decade. It’s hard to believe. Despite its ungainly reputation and Activision’s shameless money-grubbing, the Call of Duty series is one of gaming’s biggest tour de forces, and can’t not be a focal point when discussing where video games have come from and where they go from here. In that spirit, it’s time to go back to 2009, when Call of Duty had much more goodwill among fans, and when Modern Warfare 2 released.

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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is the sixth installment in the Call of Duty series and was developed by Infinity Ward, one of the three studios that produces CoD games under Activision’s all-seeing auspice. Modern Warfare 2 was the last Call of Duty game created with the involvement of Infinity Ward’s original founders, who were then fired by Activision in 2010 and went on to greener, more Titanfall-esque pastures. Before all of that went down, Infinity Ward set out to create a follow-up to 2007’s wildly popular Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and continue that game’s emphasis on contemporary combat.

Modern Warfare 2 is set in 2016, five years after the events of the first game. In an eerily accurate prediction of mid-2010’s geopolitics, Modern Warfare 2 envisions a world in which Russian-American relations have badly deteriorated and good old Mother Russia is being run by ruthless authoritarians. Meanwhile, America continues to be bogged down in hotbeds of terrorism around the globe while a shadow war of terrorists and covert operatives rages just below the surface. For a game that was released in 2009, Modern Warfare 2‘s idea of what 2016 was like is pretty spot-on.

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See any COMMIES?!

As in Modern Warfare, players see the action from the perspectives of a few silent protagonists, but the main player character is Gary “Roach” Sanderson, a British special ops soldier. Roach is under the command of John “Soap” MacTavish, the protagonist of Modern Warfare, who has since ranked up and appears in the game as an allied NPC. Players also spend a few levels playing as a U.S. Army Ranger fighting stateside and a CIA operative. Of course, for all the talking and character development that these dudes have, they’re functionally identical.

Even though Soap and his buddies stopped the big Russian baddie in Modern Warfare, that dude gets replaced by his most zealous disciple, who perpetrates a terrorist attack against his own country and pins it on America so that Russia declares war. The game includes a level in which players help that terrorist mass-murder civilians. Infinity Ward caught some flak for it, but it’s a good (if ham-fisted) way to make the player hate the bad guy. The rest of the game, like its predecessor, is a mix of covert ops behind enemy lines and voracious front-line combat.

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‘MURICA!

Does Call of Duty‘s gameplay really need to be explained at this point? It’s freaking Call of Duty. Pick up a gun and hold down the trigger until all the people pointing guns at the player have crumpled to the ground in bloody heaps. Throw a grenade or get stabby with a military knife to switch things up a bit. That’s pretty much all there is to success in Call of Duty; sure, the player might get to hop onto a turret or drive a vehicle every so often, but it’s by and large just grabbing a gun and mowing down every Russian between the mission’s beginning fade-in and its debrief screen.

Does the gameplay ever innovate beyond that premise? Not really. The game’s core of shooting bad guys from a first-person perspective is pretty solid, but Infinity Ward was content to remain within that comfort zone for Modern Warfare 2‘s entire production. If the player ever isn’t shooting Russians, they’re planting bombs or sitting on turrets that also effect the deaths of Russians. This setup is also true of the game’s multiplayer, of course. What else would one expect of Call of Duty? Some players might expect a zombies mode, but Modern Warfare 2 doesn’t have that.

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This game’s as CoD as CoD gets.

Modern Warfare 2 is a strictly linear game; the most open this game gets is letting the player rifle through the occasional side building. If Modern Warfare 2 isn’t hinting to players where to go with a conventionally car-choked street, it’s flat-out telling them with invisible walls. Go down this path, kill the neat arrangements of bad guys along the way, and don’t stop for too long to look around. Modern Warfare 2 does have little collectibles for discerning players to find, but all it takes to be discerning in Call of Duty is slowing down for five seconds to take a look around.

All of that said, Modern Warfare 2 does allow for a teensy bit more vertical space than Modern Warfare or World at War. Some levels expect players to leap across slum roofs or climb around castle walls. Even if there’s more space to jump around, though, the maps remain linear. It’s not surprising for a series as fixated on getting to the chopper as Call of Duty is, but it, as always, wastes an opportunity to do something different. Don’t go into this game expecting an open-ended firefight with lots of high ground or opportunities to use tactics. Just grind through the enemy lines.

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The only way past the enemy is through ’em. ‘MURICA.

For all the samey linear paths that Modern Warfare 2‘s levels provide, at least they look different. Like Modern WarfareModern Warfare 2 packs a world’s tour into its campaign, taking players to Afghanistan, Russia, Brazil, and the suburbs outside of Washington, D.C. Even if each level has basically the same design, players can expect to traverse desert, Arctic and urban terrain in the span of a few levels. This lightning-quick globetrotting risks making the campaign feel disjointed, but it also keeps Modern Warfare 2‘s world from becoming too stale.

While on the subject of Modern Warfare 2‘s world, the game’s visuals and sound design have aged surprisingly well. For anything that can be said about the IW engine, its visuals tend to age gracefully, and Modern Warfare 2 still looks remarkably snazzy 8 years after release. The textures have aged and some objects look a great deal more polygonal than intended, but Modern Warfare 2 still looks damn good for a game that hit store shelves in 2009. The engine does do that Call of Duty thing where everything looks really glossy, even the bombed-out houses, but the lighting and shadow effects do a good job of providing a wartime atmosphere where the glazed textures do not.

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If this series is to be believed, choppers are death traps.

Modern Warfare 2‘s world also benefits from solid system performance. Eight years on, this game can run on even the most basic systems and still maintain 60 frames per second. The options menu is quite nice, with lots of adjustments for texture resolution and shadow buffering to help spec the game however needed. The game’s multiplayer community is pretty much dead, but let’s be fair; this is an eight-year-old game from a series that churns out new installments on an annual basis. One or two matches might crop up occasionally, but that’s it. Hilariously, the DLC packs for this game are still full-priced. Oh Activision. You’re adorable.

Anyway, with Modern Warfare 2‘s multiplayer gone the way of the dodo, the biggest thing that Modern Warfare 2 has going for it is its campaign. The gameplay is pure Call of Duty, the set pieces are diverse, and the sound design ain’t bad eight years later. It’s a big, cinematic-looking thing of a campaign that does a pretty alright job of picking up where the first game left off and spinning a new story out of it. The question is—even if players come for the gameplay and stay purely for the gameplay, is the story that strings all that gameplay together worth any mention?

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Get to the… submarine?!

Anyone who has played a Call of Duty game knows that storytelling is not the series’ strong suit. Even the first Modern Warfare, for all its eloquent cutscenes and grounding concepts in reality, is not the magnum opus that ardent Call of Duty fans claim it is. The truth is that while Modern Warfare 2 picks up from where the first game left off, there’s not any character development or what some might call “raw” storytelling. Characters move toward a military objective, and the outcome of that mission serves as the pretext for the next one. So this setup goes until the game’s conclusion.

That sort of “storytelling” isn’t objectively bad. It’s certainly standard fare for the Call of Duty series. The issue is that the game’s idea of being “deep” is just fiery, abstract speeches about the merits of military service instead of something more organic like a character’s reaction to the idea of Russia invading the United States. After the speech rolls, it’s boots on the ground to shoot Russians or brown people until the next cutscene speech, with lots of big-budget cinematic effects in the background. It’s an uncomplicated, sequential setup that isn’t objectively flawed, but it still prevents the characters in the game from expanding beyond their niches.

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Everyone has their weapon, their grenades, and their pre-assigned personalities and talking points.

No matter the setup of Modern Warfare 2‘s storytelling, the game also struggles with a few concepts and plot points that raise more questions than they solve. Modern Warfare‘s story was decent because it was believable: America invades a Middle Eastern country and British special forces hunt down a Russian terrorist. Modern Warfare 2‘s notion of Russia invading the entire United States requires suspending a lot more disbelief. Love it or hate it, Russia doesn’t have the logistics and manpower to invade the United States. It just doesn’t. Invading a country because it might have perpetrated a relatively small terrorist attack also seems like an overblown response.

Modern Warfare 2‘s central plot twist is also an eyebrow-raiser. Basically, somebody gets angry that no one hates Russia enough, and wants to put the two countries into a war because… #Murica? Modern Warfare 2 fails to articulate that plot point clearly, and, like the idea of Russia conquering America in retaliation for a false flag attack, necessitates suspending all the disbelief. Funnily enough, one of the player’s squadmates claims that that dude was never trustworthy to begin with, which makes one wonder why he didn’t bring this up until after the twist happens. Moral of the story? Never underestimate the ability of clumsy writing to confound and confuse.

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Wait, what are we doing now?

Anyone thinking about picking up Modern Warfare 2 should do so for the gameplay, not the narrative. The first half or so of the story is pretty well done, but it almost completely collapses after that point. Modern Warfare 2 runs well, looks good and has lots of fast-moving gunplay, so players looking for those will get them in spades, but anyone hoping for the tight level-by-level thrills that Modern Warfare provided will come away a bit disappointed. Sure, Modern Warfare 2 provides a few cinematic action thrills, but unlike Modern Warfare, they raise questions rather than answer them.

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You can buy Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 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.

F.E.A.R. 3

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Survive being hunted by a ruthless supernatural entity.

PC Release: June 21, 2011

By Ian Coppock

What’s worse than a ghost that tears people apart with her mind? Two ghosts that tear people apart with their minds. That’s the premise of F.E.A.R. 3, a game that attempts to wrap up the legendary F.E.A.R. series. The saga started off on strong footing, with the original F.E.A.R. presenting an apt blend of Half-Life 2-style gameplay and heavy influence from Japanese horror films. F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin picked up where the first game left off, but was content to be a slightly unsettling Call of Duty clone that had forgotten the definition of subtlety. Where does all of that leave F.E.A.R. 3?

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F.E.A.R. 3 (or F.3.A.R., because someone decided that F.Three.A.R. sounded cool) is the third and final installment in the F.E.A.R. series of horror-shooters. Unlike the first two F.E.A.R. games, F.E.A.R. 3 was developed by a little-known studio called Day 1 instead of Monolith. John Carpenter, director of 1982’s The Thing and a fan of the original game, directed F.E.A.R. 3‘s cinematic custcenes. Steve Niles, the writer of 30 Days of Night and Simon Dark, was also brought in to help pen the game’s narrative.

F.E.A.R. 3 takes place nine months after the events of F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin and stars the Point Man, the protagonist of F.E.A.R. Following the events of the first game, the Point Man was captured by the dastardly Armacham Technology Corporation and taken to a hideout in Brazil, where he’s been interrogated ever since. True to the demeanor he displayed in the first game, the Point Man never talks, remaining a silent protagonist even as he’s getting punched up by bros in flak jackets.

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The Point Man is back, baby! Or as that zombie might say, “PURNT MURN URS BURK!” (it’s the zombie of Scott Stapp)

Just as the Point Man’s interrogators give up and decide to kill him, he’s rescued by Paxton Fettel, the psychic cannibal antagonist of F.E.A.R. Fettel is still sore over how things shook out in the first game, but tells the Point Man that they need to hurry back to the city of Fairport. Alma, the enraged ghost at the heart of all of F.E.A.R.‘s supernatural phenomena, is about to give birth, and there’s no telling what kind of monster her baby will be. To make matters worse, both Fettel and the Point Man are being hunted by a mysterious monster called the Creep. The two men form a shaky alliance to stop the Creep, though the jury’s still out on what they’ll do about Alma.

Like the previous F.E.A.R. games, F.E.A.R. 3 is a first-person shooter. The Point Man is proficient with the many pistols, shotguns, assault rifles and other weapons found throughout the game, and he can also snap to cover behind various in-game objects. The Point Man retains his signature slo-mo ability, which allows players to slow time and pick off enemies with surgical precision. The Point Man can also occasionally hop into a mech suit to tear s*** up with missiles and gatling guns.

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That’ll teach you to take me to Brazil and keep me from the beach.

F.E.A.R. 3‘s story campaign can be played co-op, with Paxton Fettel taking on the role of deuteragonist. Unlike the gun-crazy Point Man, Fettel uses his psychic powers to take the fight to the enemy, throwing objects around and possessing enemy soldiers. Playing as Fettel makes for a clunkier experience than playing as the Point Man, but it’s still fun to throw things and pop enemies’ heads like pimples. Fettel doesn’t appear as an allied NPC if players decide to tackle F.E.A.R. 3 solo and can’t be used in solo mode until after that level’s been completed at least once as the Point Man.

Standing between the Point Man and Alma is the Armacham Corporation, whose soldiers are still trying to contain the supernatural mess that Fairport has become. These troops are none too picky about their targets and come after the Point Man with a few tricks of their own (like soldiers that can phase through walls). The city has also become infested with Left 4 Dead-style mutants that come running at the player brandishing everything from hatchets to bare fists.

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Chopping enemies’ heads off usually does the trick.

Unfortunately for horror fans, F.E.A.R. 3‘s visage and gameplay are much more in line with F.E.A.R. 2 than the original F.E.A.R. Like the second game, F.E.A.R. 3 draws clear and shameless inspiration from Call of Duty with conventional shoot-till-they drop gunplay that no shooter fan hasn’t already seen a million times. F.E.A.R. 3 also uses the Call of Duty-style health regeneration system. Getting rid of medkits is a great way to kill tension in a horror game, because players don’t have to worry about whether they’ll survive the next monster attack and can simply take cover while the Point Man magically heals himself.

To F.E.A.R. 3‘s credit, the game does have a few sequences that allow suspense to build, but these are the exception rather than the rule. Sometimes the Point Man will be walking around a grocery store and hear things rummaging through shelves, or see something in the shadows snatching corpses, but this happens, like… two times throughout the game. Most times it’s just mowing down hordes of screaming zombies or taking out an army of machine gun-wielding frat boys. Top this all off with being able to use mech walkers for combat, and the result is a game that is a perfectly average shooter, and a perfectly mediocre horror game.

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(sigh)

F.E.A.R. 3‘s level design is somehow even more linear and constricting than the design of F.E.A.R. 2, with strictly defined paths forward unto more enemies. The developers attempted to pretty up the linearity with conveniently placed car blockages and concrete barricades but that won’t help players feel like the game isn’t shunting them from firefight to firefight. Just keep moving forward. Keep shooting the bad guys and keep moving forward. Any areas that have a trace of openness to them are dinner reservations for boss fights.

At least F.E.A.R. 3 isn’t drowning in film grain like F.E.A.R. 2 was, and its volumetric lighting is exceptional for a game that came out in 2011. F.E.A.R. 3 also makes use of a strong color palette in doling out its environments, whether it’s a house covered in blood or a bridge littered with wrecked cars. The object placement and use of color is sound on a technical level but it also makes Fairport look just like the dozens of other bombed-out cities endemic to the shooter genre. F.E.A.R. 3‘s cinematic cutscenes also look absolutely atrocious, with the stiff character animations and heavily pixelated aesthetic one might expect of a 90’s-era cinematic, not a 2010’s one.

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You can have the on-sale items if you crawl under the shelf into that pitch-black alcove that’s emitting growling noises. Have fun!

The nail in F.E.A.R. 3‘s bargain bin of scares is the story, which feels rushed and unevenly paced. The game can’t seem to decide which plot point is most important for the Point Man and Fettel to focus on. First, it’s stopping Alma. Then, it’s rescuing someone. Then, it’s stopping the Creep. F.E.A.R. 3‘s storytelling is so disjointed that each level almost feels like its own game, a problem that’s reinforced by those levels taking place in completely separate areas. First it was a suburb. Now it’s an airport. Now the Point Man’s magically back at the Project Origin facility. The hell’s going on here?

These problems start to make sense when taking a look at F.E.A.R. 3‘s development. The game’s initial release date was October 2010, but it got pushed to March 2011. In March, it was pushed to April. In April, it was pushed to June. In June it finally hit store shelves, but games don’t get delayed that many times in such short order without something worrisome happening behind the scenes. Whatever happened with F.E.A.R. 3, the result is a conventional scares-lite shooter that manages to be even more of a disappointment than F.E.A.R. 2. The game manages to end the series on a satisfactory note, but players have to suffer through 6-8 hours of fragmented storytelling and pedestrian shooter gameplay to get there.

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F.E.A.R. 3 is all getting to choppers and no ghosts.

F.E.A.R. 3, like F.E.A.R 2, is patently unworthy of the original F.E.A.R. and a disappointing title in its own right. The game offers some fun gunplay here and there, but can’t hope to get players invested in its story when it itself is so disinterested in storytelling. The game strips out any sort of ancillary exposition and crams what little story it does have between strictly divided set pieces. All of this makes the game feel impatient, unfinished, and uninspired.

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You can buy F.E.A.R. 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.

Star Wars: Battlefront II

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Fight on the front lines of Star Wars’ biggest battles.

PC Release: November 1, 2005

By Ian Coppock

Right off the bat, anyone who came here somehow expecting a review of this November’s Battlefront II is going to be sorely disappointed. Not even Art as Games can acquire titles that early. No, this is a review of the old Battlefront II, or what some old-school and expanded universe fans call the real Battlefront II. As the last Battlefront game to be released under the banner of LucasArts before the series’ decade-long hibernation, Battlefront II deserves a quick look back. Before Electronic Arts got its claws on the Battlefront license, what was LucasArts’ take on galaxy-wide shooting?

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Originally released in the winter of ’05, Battlefront II is a shooter set in the prequel and classic Star Wars eras. Players can duke it out in galaxy-wide wars for supremacy as the Republic or Confederacy of Independent Systems (CIS), or as the Rebel Alliance or Galactic Empire. The action takes place on over a dozen iconic Star Wars worlds, whether it’s boots on the ground or in the cockpit of a starfighter. In most modes, whoever kills all the enemy combatants first wins the match.

Unlike EA’s 2015 Battlefront reboot, Battlefront II is a class-based shooter that can be played in first-person. Players can pick from one of several specialized classes that each sport different weapons and strategies. Stormtroopers make for great general assault units, while scout troopers come with sniper rifles. Generally, each faction has assault, sniper, explosive, and support classes, as well as a few specialized units that can usually only be used after the player racks up enough points. Battlefront II also features space battles with three starfighter classes and a few types of capital ships.

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The weather outside is especially frightful today, buddy.

Gameplay in Battlefront II is pretty simple. On the ground, players simply shoot enemies to death with their class’s firearm and can also use grenades. Crouching behind objects is, believe it or not, a great way to avoid getting killed, as is making liberal use of health and ammo packs. Most maps also feature turrets and vehicles that players can hop into. Depending on the map, players might be able to access AT-AT walkers, Homing Spider Droids, or any number of tanks and speeders. Like EA’s Battlefront, players who rack up enough points can temporarily play as a hero character, such as Darth Vader, General Grievous, Luke Skywalker, or Yoda.

In space, players score points by destroying enemy starfighters and damaging the opposing capital ship, and whoever achieves that score first wins. Hopping into a starfighter to wreak havoc from above is all well and good, but players less suited to flying can also land on the enemy ship and sabotage critical systems. That latter one is a great way to rack up points quickly, but Battlefront II‘s flying controls are fairly simple to pick up. Just don’t barrel roll into a Star Destroyer.

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Art as Games does not advocate drunk flying, even if it stokes courage.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that Battlefront II‘s multiplayer is pretty dead. It’s still technically online thanks to GameRanger, but don’t go in expecting a vibrant community with an endless server list. More introverted shooter fans will be glad to know that Battlefront II supports computer matches, but it only takes one match to know a computer’s habits. If for nothing else, playing against the computer can be entertaining because of its spurious decision making, like using its resources to buy extra medical supplies instead of a capital ship.

Fortunately, Battlefront II‘s Galactic Conquest mode is much livelier than its multiplayer. Comparable to a turn-based Empire at War, Galactic Conquest gives players about a dozen worlds to conquer. Each victory brings in money that players can use to unlock new soldier classes, build new fleets, and acquire perks like extra meds and ammo. Even if the mode’s AI and sequence of space-land battles becomes a bit predictable, Galactic Conquest is a fun mode to try. It’s like chess but with Star Wars instead of chess.

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The droids are back in town, the droids are back in town…

When EA’s Battlefront launched, the game got a lot of heat for lacking a single-player campaign. This absence was made all the more conspicuous by the single-player campaign present in Battlefront II, a story that chronicles the elite 501st clone legion as the Republic transitions into the Empire. To be fair to EA, this story mode is not the tear-jerking war drama that ardent old-school fans claim it is, but it’s still a substantial helping of colorful battles across iconic Star Wars set pieces. Even if the exposition is restricted solely to an old clone’s narration, it’s fun to wage the climactic battles that drove events in the Star Wars films.

Each mission also forces conditions upon the player that aren’t present in multiplayer modes. Some missions might give players only a small handful of troops for a greater challenge, others might have arbitrary restrictions on which vehicles can be used. Still others might feature cross-era confrontations, like the missions where the Empire has to destroy a holdout of Separatist war droids. The core gameplay of running and gunning goes little changed in the story mode, but it does tinker with a few things here and there to provide novelty unseen in the multiplayer mode. It also toys with the idea of what happened to the clones after Order 66, though this narrative is no longer considered canon.

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You worms are no match for the dark side!

Battlefront II‘s gameplay has aged pretty well, certainly more than its visual or sound design. Though Battlefront II‘s visuals were considered cutting-edge back in the day, that day has long since passed, and the game’s visual design is left looking a little shabby. Muddy textures and awkward character animations are classic LucasArts fare, but the muffled sounds of everything from blasters to lightsabers is a bit more worrisome. None of this detracts from the gameplay’s entertainment value… in fact, one might consider dated visuals a plus, if for nothing more than to laugh at a rectangular pile of snow.

A game this old runs on pretty much any machine these days, but Battlefront II is still known to occasionally crash or fill its cutscenes with visual glitches. The game’s options menu is quite impressive and allows for fixing almost any performance issue, but players thinking about picking this up might want to wear a visor in case the cutscenes go schizophrenic. But the keyword in that sentence was occasionally; by and large, Battlefront II runs just fine and its 2005-era processing requirements constitute barely a whisper of effort on modern machines.

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All systems are go.

Battlefront II‘s legacy can still be felt in subsequent Star Wars games. Even EA’s Battlefront, despite some fundamental design differences, draws clear inspiration from this classic title. EA may have decided to forgo the class-based combat, but capturing objectives in Battlefront is an obvious echo of gameplay in Battlefront II. The new Battlefront II (the one coming out in November) seems to have embraced its predecessor’s design a bit more by including a story campaign and combat set in multiple eras.

Even if players look past or lack Star Wars fandom, Battlefront II is still worth considering because of its fluid class-based combat. In this age of play-your-way platitudes and endless character customization, class-based shooters have become somewhat endangered. Despite its massive popularity, Team Fortress 2 is really the last megabastion of such gameplay left in the contemporary PC scene. Players who yearn for that era will find it in spades with Battlefront II.

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Teamwork makes the dream work.

Battlefront II has aged, but only visually. Like a fine Corellian brandy, the label on the bottle might seem faded, but the beverage within is succulent and well-balanced. Players picking this game up for the multiplayer will want to head over to GameRanger to find a match, while everyone else is still in for a delectable mix of turn-based strategy, instant shooting, and a fireside story about clone troopers in the era of the Empire. It’ll be interesting to see how else, if at all, this November’s Battlefront II stacks up to the original. In the meantime, this venerable game is worth a shot.

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You can buy Star Wars: Battlefront II 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 Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy

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Become a Padawan learner at Luke Skywalker’s Jedi Academy.

PC Release: September 17, 2003

By Ian Coppock

Well folks, we’re coming up on the end of Star Wars Month. How fitting that tonight’s game is the fourth and final chapter of the Kyle Katarn saga. It’s a bittersweet moment, because Kyle Katarn’s adventures are regarded as some of LucasArts’ best work before their eventual shutdown years later. At the same time, Jedi Academy shares a contentious rivalry with its predecessor, Jedi Outcast, so part of tonight’s review will also settle the question of which game is better. For now, though, get ready for blastoff into Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy.

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Some old-school fans might take issue with calling Jedi Academy a Kyle Katarn game… and that’s because he’s actually not the player character this time. Players instead assume the role of Jaden Korr, a Jedi initiate who’s admitted to Luke Skywalker’s Jedi Academy after building a lightsaber with no prior instruction. Though Kyle is not the star of the show, he takes Jaden on as his Padawan and appears in many missions as an allied NPC. Jedi Academy can still be considered part of the Kyle Katarn series because it was built in the same engine as Jedi Outcast, features much of the same gameplay, and picks up from a few narrative threads left behind in Outcast.

Anyway, Jedi Academy is set 10 years after the Battle of Endor and two years after Jedi Outcast. Following his battle against Desann, Kyle decides to become a full-time Jedi again and takes a teaching job at the Jedi Academy on Yavin 4. Jaden Korr, the player character, can be customized from the ground up to be male or female. The character can also be human or one of several alien races, some of which are restricted to one gender or the other (of course the Twi’lek can only be female, and comes with some pretty risque clothing options). Players can also create their own lightsaber from a broad selection of blade colors and hilts.

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Players create their own Padawan in Jedi Academy.

After creating their Jaden, players arrive to Luke’s academy and are taken on as Kyle’s apprentice. Players learn a few basic abilities in the tutorial before selecting from a wide variety of missions set all over the galaxy. Some missions have to do with investigating a mysterious Sith cult that’s suddenly cropping up everywhere, but others are the type of benevolent superhero work that the Jedi have always been known for. Jedi Academy presents its missions to players in batches of five (playable in any order) followed by a story mission that closes off that act of the game and opens another. There are about 20 missions in total.

Jaden is not alone in his/her journey to become a Jedi. Kyle features prominently in the game as Jaden’s Jedi Master, and when he’s not giving orders over a comlink, he’s there fighting alongside the player. Rosh Penin, a fellow student, quickly becomes a passive-aggressive rival to the player and is the only other named student character encountered in the game. Jedi Academy also features cameos from Luke Skywalker, C-3PO, Chewbacca, Wedge Antilles, and other iconic characters from the Star Wars films. To further establish its place in the Star Wars universe, Jedi Academy uses a mix of iconic songs and sound effects from the films.

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Oh my God, that’s HIM! Can I get your autograph when you’re done barbecuing me?

On the surface, Jedi Academy‘s gameplay is nigh identical to that of Jedi Outcast. Players can use their lightsaber to deflect blaster bolts and cut down foes, but they can also use ranged weapons to keep the action at a distance. Jaden can use grenades (excuse me, thermal detonators) to blow s*** up, which, while not a very Jedi-like thing to do, is a great way to give a stormtrooper a spontaneous skydiving lesson. Players can also use the Force to jump higher, run faster, and get around the environment much easier than their non-Force-sensitive foes. Just don’t careen into a wall or over any cliffs.

Though all of that gameplay is borrowed from Jedi OutcastJedi Academy makes some hefty retrofits to it. Lightsaber combat has been refined and smoothed out to give players more control of their blade, which is especially important considering all of the Sith cultists running around. Jedi Academy also introduces new Force-powered acrobatics that allow players to wall-jump, cartwheel, and perform other elaborate gymnastics at the touch of a button. Not only does this make the combat far superior to that of Jedi Outcast, it also gives players much more freedom in navigating the battlefield. Outcast let players decapitate enemies. Academy lets players decapitate enemies by wall-running and then front-flipping over them.

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Academy’s gameplay is a huge improvement over Outcast’s.

Just as Academy gives players more physical freedom than Outcast, it also gives players more freedom in shaping their characters. Whereas Outcast dropped players off with a random assortment of weapons and Force powers, Academy allows players to pick their loadout of guns and grenades before each mission. Even better, Academy lets players select which Force powers they want to upgrade instead of upgrading predetermined powers a la Outcast. Some core powers only improve with each set of completed missions, but players are still free to upgrade powers like Force Lightning and Force Healing as they will. It’s a great way to let players shape their ideal Jedi.

Finally, and most awesomely, Jedi Academy eventually lets players trade in their lightsaber for a double-bladed one (like Darth Maul’s) or learn how to use two lightsabers at once. Want to recreate the final fight scene in the Phantom Menace with two unlucky Sith, or just chop everything up with dual blades? Jedi Academy lets players have at it. Each style of lightsaber combat comes with its own moves, which are further diversified with a selection of strong, medium, and fast fighting stances. Not only is this system versatile, it feels fluid and badass, and it remains one of the most fun melee combat systems in gaming despite being 14 years old.

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…Not quite sure what’s happening in this shot, but she has two lightsabers so it’s automatically fine.

Jedi Academy also dramatically overhauls one of Jedi Outcast‘s less admirable features: the level design. Academy replaces the maze-like, confusing level design of Outcast with much more intuitive set pieces. Despite being more linear, these levels are far easier to navigate and still allow for lots of fierce combat. It’s far easier in Jedi Academy to know where to go and what to do, especially when combined with a plethora of environmental hints that point the way. Most of Academy‘s levels still allow for some exploration off the beaten path, but finding the beaten path again is easy once the player’s ready to move on.

All of that said, Jedi Academy was built on the exact same engine as Jedi Outcast, so it shares its predecessor’s awkward character animations and muddled textures. Even the new animations added for using a new kind of lightsaber remain a bit stiff. It’s not a huge surprise that Academy had little time to innovate, since it was released only 18 months after Outcast, but players hoping for an improvement over Outcast‘s stilted designs will find no such thing in Academy. This isn’t a deal-breaker, but players won’t have to look at the packaging to see that this game came out in 2003.

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Seriously, wtf is she doing?

It might seem like Jedi Academy has Jedi Outcast beat at this point, what with its overhauled gameplay and far superior level design, but that’s not quite the case. For while Jedi Academy does gameplay and level design better than its predecessor, it comes up short on storytelling. Sure, Academy has a central plot, but it has less to do with evolving a character and more to do with tying up a few narrative loose ends from Outcast. At least half of the game is also spent on one-shot missions that have less to do with stopping a Sith cult and more to do with the Star Wars equivalent of helping an old lady get her cat out of a tree.

As a character, Jaden Korr is far less interesting than Kyle Katarn. He/she is little more than a blank canvas with a few token sentiments about bravery and selflessness to boot. Sure, the character cracks the occasional joke, but it’s usually in response to the far more jokey Kyle, who retains the gruff likability that made him a star in previous Jedi Knight games. Jaden’s remarks are propelled entirely by observations of the world around them, and both the male and female voice acting for the character is… uninspired, to put it politely. Funnily enough, the character retains human voice acting even if they’re, say, a Rodian.

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Jaden is a bit of a bore.

So yes, while Jedi Academy provides fun gameplay and level design, it does so at the expense of the narrative grit that put its predecessors on the map. Even though Outcast‘s game design had some problems, the game still presented a compelling story with an acute sense of character development. Jedi Academy lacks that narrative cohesion, preferring instead to be more of a Skywalker-era Padawan concept piece. The game’s central story isn’t bad, but it’s certainly several steps down from the deeply personal storytelling that characterized Jedi Knight and Jedi Outcast.

As with many video game disputes, it’s not that Jedi Outcast is better than Jedi Academy or vice-versa; they each do some things well and some things not so well. Jedi Outcast has a great story but confusing level design and alright gameplay. Jedi Academy has great gameplay and level design, but a much less interesting story and main character. Games are like that sometimes; developers see what made their first game popular or unpopular and compensate for it in the next title. Jedi Academy is a clear-cut case of a studio that did a great job of fixing what was wrong with the previous game, but at the expense of what made the previous game decent despite those problems.

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Did I mention that you get to drive a speeder?

The main takeaway from all of this is that Jedi Outcast and Jedi Academy are both good games, for different reasons. One has a great story, the other has some of the most fun Star Wars gameplay ever devised. Because of that, Jedi Academy is worth any Star Wars fan’s time, and still provides a hearty conclusion to the Kyle Katarn saga even if he’s not the star of the show. The star of the show is able to take on a horde of stormtroopers with a double-bladed blue lightsaber and lots of Force Lightning while wall-running over a waterfall. If that doesn’t sound fun, then nothing will.

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You can buy Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy 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.