Iron Lung

Iron Lung is a short, atmospheric game whose degree of fun depends entirely on your ability to navigate blind. You have a perfect GPS and a map and you use them to traverse an area and take photos. If you don’t know how to navigate, you’re going to repeatedly run into the ocean walls and die. If you do know how to navigate, it’s a fairly short and tense experience.

The game does a great job of setting a mood. From the introduction to the gameplay itself and the tiny little details in your cramped space, it’s all building dread. When I got to the end, the word that came first to my mind when trying to describe it was “effective.” Iron Lung is effective at what it is doing.

Chasm: The Rift

When I was a kid, one of the first CD-ROM demo discs I played came from a PC Gamer magazine, and on that disc was a demo for Chasm: The Rift. I was impressed, but I never found the game. I had Doom 2 and Quake and I didn’t look back. Now, in the year 2022, I’ve been reminded of Chasm: The Rift.

Chasm is so weird. It looks like Quake, it has a linear but episodic structure sort of like Quake, but it’s actually closer to Wolfenstein 3D than Quake in gameplay. It’s completely flat. It’s all polygonal, but completely flat. There’s a jump button because they manage to put platforms in rooms, but the ceiling is still the same height. It also manages to have in-game cutscenes with talking heads. It’s doing all this in a software rendered engine. It’s absolutely wild.

Chasm plays great as a Wolf3D/Quake clone, but it’s really mean. I didn’t have to resort to cheats but I was tempted in several areas, especially in the second half of the game. Some of the melee enemies just eat up health, don’t stun easily, and every room is fairly cramped.

I’m not sure this is a game I’ll revisit again, especially not to play from end to end, but I’m glad I played it. It’s an interesting relic that will likely never see another release. It may be lost to time, but the “Chasm Portable” package has made it playable in 2022.

Outriders

I played Outriders on Xbox Game Pass, and I don’t think anyone should play it otherwise. You also shouldn’t play this game if you’re not playing it on an Xbox Series X. In fact, I put this down after my first 10-ish hours and I probably shouldn’t have picked it back up.

Outriders looks like Gears of War, but if you play it like Gears of War, you’re going to have a bad time. The game’s 4 classes restore health for different things, and, at least the class I played, meant doing the old stop-and-pop would not work. My class restored health with close range kills, so I spent the game running up to groups of enemies and whacking them with my time knife. It took time to figure that out, and the game seemed inordinately difficult until I did.

Also making the game inordinately difficult is the world tier system. This is a game that is meant for coop multiplayer. You’re supposed to go through it Diablo-like, over and over, with friends or coop randos. The world tier sets difficulty, increases the loot and XP you get as it goes up, and can be set to auto-increase. This might be fine if you’re playing with friends, but I played solo. I’m mildly competent but I ran straight into a difficulty wall because I was doing well and the world tier kept ratcheting up until I was no longer doing well. I had to dial it down and turn off auto-increase to progress, and then I had to turn it down another notch at the final boss because I was tired of getting mopped.

I’m sounding very down about this game, because I am, but one thing kept me going: the story. It starts strong but it quickly dangled a worm in front of me that it used to lead me on through the rest of the game to an unsatisfying conclusion. Its worst sin is committed in the last couple levels as I was monologued at by the equivalent of audio logs explaining what happened instead of just showing me what happened.

By playing this coop loot shooter solo on a previous generation of console hardware and caring about the story, I played this game wrong. Even though it was sometimes too difficult and ran like garbage, the real knife in the gut was the disappointing end. Since finishing it, I’ve gone back to play some of the side quests on my Xbox Series X, which plays the game much better. It’s still an always-online game that can be played solo for masochists like myself, and I’m still a People Can Fly fan, but this game is a miss in a lot of crucial ways.

Hardspace: Shipbreaker

Haven’t done one of these in a while, have I? I fell deep into an Elder Scrolls Online hole. I saw a lot of Tamriel and completed a lot of story quests and ate up a lot of time. I’m crawling out to play real (ha) video games again.

Hardspace: Shipbreaker lands in the category of fun disguised as work. Like Euro Truck Simulator, House Flipper, and Power Wash Simulator, this is a game about making the mundane fun. In this case, the fun is cutting up space ships with a laser cutter and taking them apart with a grapple beam.

There’s a story here, about how I’m playing a character who goes 1.2 billion credits into debt to a space travel company. I’m working off my debt shipbreaking. The company, however, gobbles up a lot of my earnings with fees. My tools are rented. My suit and my helmet are rented. My body belongs to the “Everwork” program, because shipbreaking is dangerous. My helmet shatters and I suffocate, or I accidentally drift too close to the furnace and incinerate myself. The story is about labor, and how me and my coworkers are exploited by the company we’re working for.

Shipbreaking is a skill, and I learned it over the course of the 25 hour career mode. If I didn’t take the ship apart in a particular way, I’d lose valuable salvage. It can be very forgiving, despite the nature of the work. The career mode is broken up into 15 minute real time shifts. There are salvage goals, and I frequently made those goals, but there was no particular punishment for not making goals. The worst that happens is you blow up some valuable salvage and don’t get as much out of the ship as you could. Maybe I was just a particularly effective shipbreaker but I never encountered a penalty. If I blew up something valuable, I could restart the shift. If I wasn’t into the ship I was cutting up, I could pick a new one on my next shift and start over.

There were other modes of shipbreaking, such as those without a shift timer and those with a speed timer, but I wasn’t really interested in them. I had a lot of fun in the mundanity of cutting up ships for salvage in 15 minute chunks. After my 25 hours, I had seen all the variety of ships and I’d puzzled out how to effectively cut them up. Conveniently, that’s around the time when I finished my career run.

Hardspace: Shipbreaker is a great way to lose time doing something boring and repetitive. The story is a little hamfisted, but the joy in this game is in learning a trade. When I wasn’t playing it, when I was doing my actual job, I was thinking about my space job.