Category Archives: Game Reviews

Chorus

Two of my favorite games in the space dogfighting genre are Freespace 2 and Colony Wars. These games aren’t on opposite sides of the genre, but they represent two approaches to the genre. Freespace 2 is the PC keyboard full of controls and systems. There is a large array of pilotable ships and weapons to equip them with. There are multiple ways to toggle targeting and what is being targeted on each ship. It’s complex and rewarding. Colony Wars, a console game, has simpler targeting, fewer weapons and ships, but a emphasis on using the right weapon for the right target. You’ve got to wear down enemy shields with one weapon, and damage the hull with another. Chorus lands in the Colony Wars end of this spectrum, with some twists.

What Chorus brings to the genre is an open-world style of gameplay, and special abilities. Once I got out of the (slightly boring) tutorial, the map opened up and I was free to explore a big area of space with lots of little stories. Chorus isn’t the first to do this, but other games in this genre with an open-world are closer to Privateer and Freelancer, where trade is part of the equation too. Chorus has no trade, except the accrual of credits and spending them on weapons.

The special abilities also make Chorus stand out. The first is sort of radar that highlights objectives, enemies, items to collect, etc. Again, starting a little boring. But the second is a teleport that puts you behind the enemy you’re facing. These abilities only get more powerful from here, and it’s how this game makes it possible for one ship to take out dozens. In Chorus, I was rarely supported by allies. It was me versus the cult, and the cult always had me outnumbered.

I liked Chorus a lot. Despite the limited ship selection and arsenal, it delivered some really intense and varied action with the special abilities. The open-world gave me things to explore and find outside of the relatively straight forward main quest. It left the door open for a sequel, and I’d welcome it.

Simulators

I’ve played a lot of simulator video games lately. I’m not talking about your traditional sims, like Sim City or Flight Sim. No, I’m talking about what I’ve classed as “drudgery simulators”. I call them this because they make a menial, repetitive task into their core gameplay. Here’s a few of the ones I’ve played recently, roughly ranked from worst to best.

Lawn Mower Simulator

What it says on the tin. I rode around on a mower, mowing virtual grass in virtual lawns. When I wasn’t at 100% complete, I walked around with a weed-whacker and finished off the job. I had grass vision which highlighted uncut grass. Lawn Mower Simulator is about as enjoyable as actual lawn mowing. Your shoes won’t turn green but you don’t get the smell of fresh cut grass either. Not really my kind of boring.

American Truck Simulator

Putting this on the “worst” end of this scale might ruffle some feathers, but it’s just driving a truck on roads I could drive in real life. I see more appeal in Euro Truck Sim because those aren’t places I could see with road markings I don’t recognize. I’ve driven from Illinois to Washington. I’ve driven for 16 hours. I’ve even driven a big truck. This isn’t very fun for me. It’s a safe zone out game but too real.

Power Wash Simulator

Now we’re starting to get into the “hours of my life lost” area. It’s not much more than what it describes. I used a power washer to blast virtual dirt off of virtual buildings. The first time I played this, I made myself a little motion sick from bouncing my view up and down blasting dirt. There’s really not much progression here either. I bought more powerful washers and nozzles that let me reach further, but I was still blasting dirt. It’s a bit more satisfying than Lawn Mower Simulator because the results of my work were more obvious, but it’s purely repetitive.

Gas Station Simulator

Where the previous games were almost entirely repetitive, Gas Station Simulator is a juggling act. Yes, the focus is on pumping gas and I pumped gas. But there’s a convenience store, where I stocked shelves and swept and scanned items. I scooped mounds of sand and cleared out trash on my lot as my business expanded. I got a service garage and replaced tires, side view mirrors, and fixed scratches. I chased off an annoying child by throwing things at him, and watched him vandalize my store when I had no trash to throw because it was too clean. I had a lot of fun playing this because there was a lot of shallow little tasks to do. I only stopped playing because its performance is terribly uneven. The game runs fine for a while and then, for some reason, completely plummets into single digit framerate. This is pretty close to legitimate fun.

Hardspace: Shipbreaker

Yes, I wrote a whole review for this, but it’s deep in the same vein as the rest of them. This is probably my GOTY. I had a lot of fun cutting up those space ships and learning how to cut them up faster and more efficiently. While ships follow a particular pattern, they’re all different and I learned how to be a better shipbreaker with each ship I dismantled. It’s the best kind of repetitive task: the kind that teaches me a skill that I can’t use in the real world.

Hypnospace Outlaw

Hypnospace Outlaw looks like it’s for us olds but maybe not. It is an adventure game taking place in a fictionalized version of America Online. You play as an “enforcer”, which is a moderator. You search for violations, identify them, report them, and eventually ban the user once they’ve notched enough violations.

I sort of speed ran the “main quest”. This fictional world is dense and it’s packed full of secrets, but my old brain remembers AOL. I remember that there were so many useless and meaningless pages. I play Hypnospace Outlaw and I skip all the “good parts” because I see something that reminds me of wasted time.

What I didn’t crash through as fast as possible was fun. It beautifully replicates a weird internet world in the best and worst ways. But bring a notebook and play it in regular sessions. I forgot something critical between a large gap in playtime and I got the worst ending because of it.

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.

FAR: Changing Tides

Take FAR: Lone Sails, replace the train with a boat, and now you have FAR: Changing Tides.

Okay, that’s not exactly fair. Changing Tides is longer too.

Okay, that’s also not fair. There is more to do in Changing Tides, though it felt like they mostly added to what you do in the boat rather than out in the world. Lone Sails stopped the journey fairly frequently to get out, solve some puzzles, and continue on your way. Changing Tides may be longer but it felt like it had longer stretches of just the journey. This repeats the pattern of keeping the steam engine hot, but not too hot, or keeping the wind in the sails. With so much going on, it’s sort of hard to relax and enjoy the trip. That makes these long stretches the lows of this game. Busy work.

Changing Tides also puts more environmental storytelling into the world. In Lone Sails, you get an idea that some catastrophe happened and now the world is mostly dead. Changing Tides makes you walk past murals depicting events from before but I’ll be damned if they told me anything. I still finished knowing no more about the world than I did at the end of Lone Sails. There’s a narrative connection between the two games, and you should play Lone Sails first.

This may sound like I’m really down on Changing Tides, but I enjoyed it. The problem with it is that it is more of Lone Sails, which was a tighter experience. It doesn’t quite overstay its welcome, but it pushes it. Lone Sails, by being a shorter game, makes better use of its time.

FAR: Lone Sails

FAR: Lone Sails is a simple and short but effective game. It’s a two-buttoner. One button jumps, the other grabs. Nothing you do requires more than jumping, grabbing objects, and pushing things or buttons with your body. I completed it one day, two sittings.

What it does so well is create a world without words. There’s no dialog. There are signs, in English, but they’re just that: signage. In this game, I traversed a world in a steam-powered train-ish vehicle. I don’t know why, though I now know the goal. I see the remains of a world and I don’t know what happened to it, though I’ve got some informed guesses. What’s here and what isn’t communicates a story.

If I write much more, I may spend more time on this review than I spent playing the game (mostly joking). A sequel is coming soon, and that prompted me to revisit this. It’s one of the better Limbo clones.

CrossfireX: Operation Spectre

This one did not come free on Game Pass. It cost me all of $9. It was worth it.

Operation Spectre is the followup to Operation Catalyst. This time, you’re playing on the opposing side of the conflict, Black List. I love the Spy vs Spy nature of this story. Black List were evil villains in Catalyst, and Global Risk are evil villains in Spectre. They pull this off without completely recontextualizing the characters in Catalyst, but it works.

Operation Spectre is shorter, but a tighter, more exciting, and better looking experience. The visual difference is pretty dramatic. Catalyst is a sea of browns and dust, where Spectre is the blue/orange of a Battlefield game, sparks and exploding light everywhere. Not as many interesting collectibles, but they put more effort into the good ones.

Operation Spectre is a good game, verging on great. It still plays well but it’s so brief that I am left wanting more. I am really looking forward to what comes next from this series. These two campaigns have made me a fan.