Game: Metro 2033
Recommended price: $15
Metacritic Score: 81
Completion Time: ~12 hours
Buy If You Like: Half-Life meets STALKER meets FEAR
Metro 2033 is one of the most surprisingly authentic post-apocalyptic FPS games I have ever played. A game’s “realistic simulation” aspect is never something I particular care about, as all too often it is used as an excuse for bad gameplay mechanics. In the case of Metro 2033 however, all of the simulation bits impact the game in nothing but positive ways. For example, you start off with a flashlight with a fairly weak default luminosity that can be juiced with a handheld Universal Charger. To do so, you put your gun away, bring out this scrappy-looking device, and then pump the mechanism by clicking the mouse over and over while watching the smudged dial slowly increase with each pump. Although you will be performing this ritual hundreds of times over the course of the game, there was something so… correct about the activity that I actually looked forward to those moments. There are several weapons that require similar attention – an air-pump speargun, an electric railgun-esque weapon that shoots ball bearings – and the fidelity they engender as you huddle against a wall in the darkness or behind your increasingly fogged/damaged gas mask is wholly unique experience in videogaming.
Beyond those brilliant touches, the rest of the game itself is similarly well-designed. Although most of the game occurs in subway tunnels, the environments are surprisingly varied; you frequently are required to head to the toxic surface, which ironically feels more oppressive than the tunnels by its hostile nature, or exploring abandoned military complexes. There is a good mix of fighting mutants and humans, exploration is rewarded with pre-war ammunition (which brilliantly doubles as the game’s currency), stealth mechanics are actually supported, and the difficulty curve is relatively smooth while still escalating throughout the game. At one point there is a section where you carry a child on your back through this mutant-infested area, and the child’s weight impacts your ability to turn and aim at the monsters he is warning you about.
This is the kind of game Metro 2033 is, and I would not have it any other way.
Game: Blocks That Matter
Recommended price: $3
Metacritic Score: 79
Completion Time: ~5 hours
Buy If You Like: Indie puzzle games with robust player-generated map support
Blocks That Matter is one of those “pure” puzzle games that starts with an unique, arbitrary premise and goes on to demonstrate how deep the gameplay can go. With the, ahem, building blocks of a 2D platformer, the “schtick” is that you collect blocks either by breaking them Mario-style or drilling them horizontally, but you can only place them in connected groups of four (at least one block has to be attached to a surface as well). Getting to the exit portal is usually straight-forward, but the real mind-melting begins when you decide to go after the treasure chests on the various levels. Later on, the characteristics of each block begins to matter (sand falls down if not supported, wood burns, etc) and when layered upon the sometimes extreme platforming aspects of later levels, it can definitely lead to frustration if you aren’t prepared for it.
One of the best aspects of Blocks That Matter though, are the hundreds of player-generated maps available for free download via the interface. While I only tried a handful, each one was rather brilliant in its own way and definitely complementary to the ~40 in the normal game. These maps can be sorted by highest-ranked as well, so you are sure to come across additional hours of entertainment if you enjoyed what came before.
Game: Far Cry
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 89
Completion Time: ~13 hours
Buy If You Like: Being kicked in the balls by a FPS
Far Cry is hands-down the hardest, most frustrating FPS I have ever played. Setting Metro 2033 to Ranger Hardcore mode might take the cake, but you would actually have to make it through the chef cock-slapping you through the kitchen normal-mode that Far Cry offers before you could even think of baking said cake. I seriously uninstalled Far Cry twice, before achieving that head-smashing zen state necessary for slogging through the game to the bitter, bloody end.
Typically, frustrating difficulty is due to bad game design and isn’t something I suffer gladly. In Far Cry’s case, the insane difficulty actually stems from a coherent nod towards realism that says getting shot in the face or eaten by a Grue kills you. Which is fine, whatever. The frustration that settles in is how Far Cry operates entirely on a Checkpoint Save system wherein you can systematically kill 40 enemies without taking any damage, achieve 2/3 of the objectives, and then die to a rocket that was launched from a mile away, slip off the side of a mountain, stand too close to an exploding barrel, or any manner of “oops!” deaths and be forced to start all over again. There are checkpoints within levels, but you never know where they are or when they will kick in, sometimes leaving you stranded with 30 health a door away from a massive firefight you have zero chance of exiting alive. At one point in the game, I was making my way across the deck of a ship and had to learn via trial-and-error, e.g. dying, the location of the nine guys who killed me in their opening salvos. On the 10th checkpoint reload, I killed them all losing only 80% of my HP, only to be shot by a tenth guy at the end of the stern.
Aside from masochism, one of the things that kept bringing me back though was the compelling nature of the enemy AI and open-endedness of the game itself. You are being pitted against a mercenary force that reacts to noises, fans out in search of intruders, engages in pincer maneuvers, investigates dead bodies, and otherwise works together in a completely non-scripted way. Sure, a lot of the time they can magically spot you in the bushes from 100 yards away. Sure, sometimes their incidental gunfire leads you certain doom while you desperately search for a medkit. But this was the first FPS I have played in which I actually felt hunted, or at least surrounded by an intelligent enemy that fostered a sort of manic paranoia.
Like a particularly difficult bowel movement though, I am glad Far Cry is finally over and I am not looking forward to similar experiences again. At least, not ones lacking quicksaves.
Game: Atom Zombie Smasher
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 75
Completion Time: ~8 hours
Buy If You Like: Compelling indie strategy games
I basically already reviewed Atom Zombie Smasher in a post entitled Population: 1. This is one of those indie games which justify the existence of indie games, and the continued need to ensure that more such works of brilliance are supported and nurtured.
What I will add though, is that I hope the game continues to go through some additional iterations. The city gameplay is excellent, and between the random selection of troops each month (“What? Only barricades, landmines, and TNT?!”) and the random buff/debuffs, even the same city layouts can feel like entirely new games each time you load it up. The map gameplay that nests the city gameplay, however, needs some work. It is ridiculously easy to fall behind and essentially make winning impossible. Similarly, a few early wins can make the rest of the game largely a joke. So while I am glad that developer chose to focus on the city gameplay as opposed to the map gameplay, the unfortunate side-effect is that the replay value suffers for it, at least to me. If they can tighten up the map, it may actually give me reason to keep playing.
Recommended price: bundle
Metacritic Score: 81
Completion Time: ~2 hours
Buy If You Like: Innovative retro 2D platformers
VVVVVV is a retro indie game that takes the traditional elements of platforming and stands them on their head.
…that pun was lame, even for me.
Essentially, instead of a jump button, VVVVVV simply flips the gravity of your character around such that you end up walking on the ceiling. Since you cannot change direction in mid-air, this leads to some pretty fiendishly novel puzzle-platforming situations in which you have to make full use of ceiling and floor. Gameplay is pretty brisk, and the frequent use of checkpoints and a focus on single-room platforming (with some exceptions) means it is all action, all the time. Which, of course, means you end up beating the game pretty quickly as well. The game gets pretty difficult towards the end, and I ended up dying in a single room 50+ times, but overall the experience was pleasant.
For the length of gameplay though, the retail price of $5 is a bit much; it makes for a perfect indie bundle though, if you find one with VVVVVV in it.
Game: Far Cry 2
Recommended price: $5-$10
Metacritic Score: 85
Completion Time: 19 hours
Buy If You Like: Novel, immersive FPS games with bad pacing and one-dimensional missions.
Grand Theft Africa
The very first thing to understand about Far Cry 2 is that the designer intent is for you to be immersed in the story and setting. Unlike most games that also want this to occur, Far Cry 2 is unapologetic about its meta-story approach. Every single mission involves either killing a guy, or blowing something up and then killing a guy. These missions are not meant to be interesting, nor are the reasons you are given for doing them. Rather, the idea is for you to muse on what it means for you to be doing them, and why every mission is repetitive nonsense but you do it anyway.
Of course, the danger is always that too much is being read into what is objectively a beautiful, immersive if badly-paced game. I am giving the designers the benefit of the doubt though.
The premise of Far Cry 2 is that you are a bounty hunter or assassin or whatever, flying into a chaotic African nation to kill The Jackal, an arms dealer who sold weapons to both sides and arguably made the conflict possible. After an extended driving sequence reminiscent of Half-Life’s opening tram ride, you arrive at the hotel and collapse from malaria fevers. The Jackal shows up in your hotel room, taunts you a bit, and leaves just as a civil war erupts outside your window. You stumble around in your fever haze, before collapsing just outside of town. As far as intros go, it is refreshingly novel. I do wish the designers saw fit to show you being bitten by the mosquito in-game, but malaria’s quickest incubation period is 7-10 days, so I suppose that is a point in favor of Far Cry 2’s realism.
Once in the game proper, you are given a few “this is your ass, this is a hole in the ground” tutorial missions before suddenly Africa opens up as your gasoline-soaked, civil war-tincted oyster. To move the plot forward, you get episodic missions from both forces of this civil war, oscillating between the two factions with apparently zero regard for tact and subterfuge. Both sides see you as their “secret weapon,” and send you unsupported to deal damage to the other side, in the form of assassination and blowing things up. The problem is that “unsupported” means that the soldiers of whichever faction you are working for will shoot to kill, which is fine, but more troubling is that these faction leaders never once suggest that you should, you know, not shoot their own soldiers. At the height of Far Cry 2’s absurdity, one of the faction leaders straight up tells you that he knows you are doing missions for the other side… and then carries on like nothing happened. There is no identity between the two factions, no choice in doing missions for one over the other, no real choice in declining missions (at one point you have to blow up experimental malaria vaccines), and since everyone shoots at you, no real difference between anything whatsoever.
But again, given the meta-story that becomes more clear in the game’s final hours, it may be less bug and more feature.
Measured in raw game hours, Far Cry 2 is more of a driving game than a FPS. The game takes place in two Acts, each with their own 25 square kilometer game maps featuring realistically shitty African roads winding all over the place. There happens to be instant transportation in the form of Buses, but most of these are at the far corners of the map and generally shave off only ~20% of the driving distance at best. Given the nature of these maps, there are rarely opportunities to avoid the frequent guard checkpoints – which I suppose is a primary feature of good guard checkpoints, so another point for realism – which inevitably results in firefights every 3-4 minutes. While your enemies are decent shots out in the bush, their bullets transform into auto-tracking, Jeep Wrangler-seeking projectiles when you try to speed past them. It was originally satisfying creeping into these checkpoints, killing everyone, and being awarded (achievement-wise) for “scouting” the bases, but it has zero long-term impact on the game. No matter how many checkpoints you wipe out, it will always be fully staffed and stocked by the time you return.
One of the more ballsy moves on the designers’ parts was having crosshairs disabled by default. In fact, generally speaking, there is no HUD at all until you reload or take damage. This definitely gives Far Cry 2 a more primal feel as opposed to arcade shooter, even though you look down iron sights most of the time. Reinforcing this primacy are little touches like how “health kits” are morphine ampules injected into your wrist veins. Indeed, if you are close to death, “healing” becomes pulling bullets out of your arm with needle-nose pliers, yanking your wrist/elbow/shoulder back into their sockets, cutting shrapnel out of your leg with a knife or extracting pieces of rebar out of your thigh. If you recruit a combat buddy, they can even swoop in when your health reaches zero to save you from a hard Game Over, in an extended sequence of dragging your semi-conscious form to cover before stabilizing you. All this happens wherever you are, not some stock footage, and that combat buddy will still be there helping shoot the enemies that (almost) took you out. If they go down, you have the option of returning the favor by stabilizing them, or putting them out of their misery with a coup de grace.
Ultimately, it is difficult to recommend Far Cry 2 as a game game when it plays out more like an interactive, philosophical art piece. The FPS elements are solid, but you only utilize them sporadically as you drive around. The sandbox feel of the maps and interface immerse you into the setting, but all roads lead to Rome. And the story… well, the story is disjointed and awful, but Far Cry 2 successfully transported me into the mind of the protagonist by the end. To me, that sort of experience is worth something… in the neighborhood of $5-$10.