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Game Reviews

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.

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Game Reviews

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.

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Game Reviews

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.

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Game Reviews

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.

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Game Reviews

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.

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Game Reviews

CrossfireX: Operation Catalyst

I paid nothing for this game. Okay, not true. I subscribe to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, which is not free, and that subscription gave me access to this game for no additional charge above what I already paid. Operation Catalyst is exactly what I subscribe to Xbox Game Pass for.

Operation Catalyst is a single player modern military shooter based on CrossfireX, a multiplayer modern military shooter. As I understand, CrossfireX is based on Crossfire, which originated in South Korea and is extremely popular in Asia. Operation Catalyst, and its counterpart Operation Spectre, were developed by Remedy Entertainment, who made Max Payne, Alan Wake, and Control.

Operation Catalyst plays like a bog standard modern military shooter, which isn’t terribly interesting. You walk slow, aim down sights, and shoot other guys who are shooting at you. This one interrupts the basic gameplay with some sniping sections, but it’s otherwise a slog on foot. It feels pretty good. The weapons don’t sound very powerful but hits and kills are registered on the reticle and the enemies don’t just absorb infinite bullets. They stumble and act like they’re shot.

What kept my attention is the story. It sort of goes some places in a way that reminds me of Call of Duty: Black Ops 3. It introduces some of the supernatural and that’s always a bit of fun on top of the modern military shooter. It pulls up a bit short though, as it’s obviously continued either in Operation Spectre, or some other unreleased game.

I paid nothing for Operation Catalyst, and I’m quite pleased with what I got out of it. It’s not long, but I enjoyed the weekend with it. Even if I were not subscribed to Xbox Game Pass, Operation Catalyst is worth the $10 they are charging for it. Currently, Operation Spectre isn’t included with Game Pass, but I think I’ll pay for that anyway. It’s short and basic but fun.

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Game Reviews

Star Trek: Elite Force 2

A long, long time ago, I played Star Trek: Voyager – Elite Force. It was a fun, Quake 3, Star Trek FPS. I remember it being slightly bland but very Star Trek. It had some unique qualities, but it was a lot of blasting Borg, Klingons, Species 8472, and Hirogen with phasers and photon torpedoes, even if the photon torpedo is fired like a rocket launcher. For some reason, I never picked up Elite Force 2. It turns out I probably made the right call.

Elite Force 2, by its title, escapes the confines of Star Trek: Voyager and lives in a post-Voyager world. You’re still Munro, except now you’re on the Hazard Team on the Enterprise-E, captained by none other than Jean-Luc Picard. Your chief security officer is Tuvok! Even Barclay is here!

This is sort of where we escape the Star Trek known universe, and step into the realm of expanded universe. A lot of the plot involves Attrexians and Idryll, two species invented for the game. I also spent a lot of time blasting exomorphs, which are a bug-like species. The vast majority of this game is running through generic ruins without a lot of detail, blasting bugs, with common FPS weapons that are just reskinned to look a little Treky.

This is also built on top of Quake 3, which I’ve never really liked for this era of FPS. For some reason, this era of FPS is really sort of flat and linear. The levels in this game feel tiny. The enemies do this annoying thing common to a lot of Quake 3 games, which is that they run too fast, stop entirely to fire off a couple shots, and run somewhere else. They barely react to being shot. It’s not as bad as Red Faction, but it bothers me regardless.

The game does inject more Trek into the last couple levels, but it comes far too late. The vast majority of this game could’ve been ripped out and published with another title and it would’ve been forgotten to time as another mediocre FPS. Instead, we have another mediocre Star Trek game.

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Game Reviews

JETT: The Far Shore

JETT: The Far Shore is the followup to Superbrothers first game, Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP. That game came out more than a decade ago, and I only played it once, but it impressed me to the point that I got excited for JETT just from hearing it was a Superbrothers game. That excitement wasn’t misplaced, because I ultimately enjoyed JETT, but this game isn’t going to be the hit that Sword and Sworcery was.

JETT is a third-person action/exploration game. You are Mei. Your community has undertaken a 1000-year journey from your homeworld to an alien planet. As a scout, you have to explore this new world and plant the seeds of future colonization. This is all wrapped in a bit of religious or cult symbology.

The bulk of the game is flying your jett around the world. You can scan alien life, pick it up with a grapple and toss it, bother it with your jett’s engines, or flash it with your headlight. Different lifeforms react to this stimulus, and you use a combination of these things to solve some simple puzzles.

My enthusiasm for JETT hit a bit of a plateau at what I now know as the halfway point. My task was to grapple a glob a stuff, take it to one pool of liquid to energize it, and then throw it at a rock to blow it up. Simple. But the glob explodes before you can get it to the rock unless you drop it into a different pool of liquid that resets the explode cooldown. Still with me? Grapple glob, take it to the charge pool, carry it to the nearest cooldown pool, and then the next cooldown pool, until you get to the rock, and throw it at the rock. The throw even gives you an arc indicator.

The problem is that the arc indicator is not accurate and I constantly overshot the pools. I did this over and over as I learned the true arc of the throw. All the while, jett movement when you have the glob is very slow. I spent way too much time slowly carrying a glob and throwing it sloppily and missing the pools or missing the rock. This was the first time the mechanic game up, and it essentially never came up again. I don’t know why this sequence was in the game.

This led me to my other frustration. The basic plot of the game is fairly simple. The world around it is confusing. It’s wrapped in the mysticism of a fictional civilization that isn’t particularly well explained. To make matters worse, everyone speaks a made-up language with English subtitles. An awful lot of dialog comes from your co-pilot mid-flight. This is fine when you’re just cruising around, but he’s telling me what’s going on and what to do while I’m being attacked. I can focus on not-dying or I can read subtitles.

If I sound down on JETT, it’s because it’s close to a good game. When I was cruising around in the jett, exploring and taking in the atmosphere, I loved it. It was beautiful and alien and wonderful. But the little annoyances added up and ultimately detracted from that fun. I finished JETT and I’m no closer to understanding it than I was from the start. I just happened to have some fun along the way.

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Game Reviews

Solar Ash

I loved Hyper Light Drifter but I had a problem with the lack of narrative. Heart Machine obviously took that feedback to heart (ha) because Solar Ash has a lot of narrative. But they also reduced a lot of the complexity of gameplay between Drifter and Solar Ash, and the trade-off is where we start getting critical.

Solar Ash is a combination of Shadow of the Colossus and extreme sports. Instead of laboriously climbing enormous monsters to slowly stab them in their weak spots, Solar Ash makes you race from weak point to weak point, or else you’re immediately tossed off and forced to start over. Between giant monster slaying, you also get to explore some really creative and beautiful environments, doing mini versions of the weak point stabbing and collecting the voice logs of the people who came before you.

The weak point runs are part platform puzzle, and part speedrun. It’s either about taking the correct path to hit the weak points or taking the fast path. Even if you know which path to take, you then have to execute on getting there. The good news is that game is fairly forgiving. I rarely felt cheated out of run.

Solar Ash also gives you everything you’re going to use to play the game upfront. There are no mechanical upgrades. If you see something that looks out of reach, it’s not. You can reach it one way or another. This was something that wasn’t entirely clear to me, and I kept expecting a new ability that I never got. I found that revelation, when it came, fairly refreshing. Instead of waffling back and forth on whether I was an idiot or just not far enough along, I knew I had the tools to get something done and I just had to figure it out.

But how about that narrative? It’s got voice acting! It’s got a story! And the core plot is pretty coherent. But it’s also super heavy on in-game jargon that I can’t repeat without sounding like I’m doing Star Trek style technobabble. Your world is going to be consumed by a black hole, you have a tool to stop this, and you need to activate the tool to do that. To go any further than that, I’d have to explain the Ultravoid, the Starseed, the Remnants, the Voidrunners, and that’s ignoring the side stories. I was 90% of the way through the game and I was still questioning where this story was going, but it became rather clear at the end.

Solar Ash is a simpler game than Hyper Light Drifter, with a narrative that’s far more obtuse than it needs to be. The gameplay was plenty to motivate me to get through it, but if you’re here for the story and don’t enjoy the core gameplay, you might feel pushed away before it wraps up.

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Game Reviews

Axiom Verge 2

Axiom Verge 2 (AV2) does a lot of what I loved about Axiom Verge. If you think you’re going traverse the level one way, and you just need to find that upgrade, you’re wrong and you’ll be doing it in a different way, sometimes subverting tropes of the genre.

Here are one and a half examples. Early on, I was dropped into a large underwater section. Like all underwater sections in games, my movement was limited. I couldn’t jump as high. I couldn’t run as fast. In most games, this is used to gate progress until later in the game. In AV2, I almost immediately found an upgrade that not just made movement underwater the same as movement on land, but better because I could jump higher underwater. I also came across the common Metroidvania obstacle, the platform just a bit too high. All I need is a double-jump to get up there. You do not get a double-jump in AV2. You get something else that is both more limited and more useful. I loved this as I loved exploring the map.

Where AV2 falls a bit short is in the narrative. It plugs along just fine, but it ends abruptly and in a manner that obviously sets up a sequel. Since this game isn’t really a continuation of the first, it’s more like the first part of a two part series. It’s awkward for a game called Axiom Verge 2. Axiom Verge 3 is all but guaranteed by the narrative, but I would’ve rather had more closure at the end here.