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Golem Review — Pet Rock

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Knowingly or not, media products often reflect the unconscious biases of the societies that spawn them, helping to etch and entrench ideas of cultural identity. Edward Said’s 1978 book Orientalism explored the ways in which Western cultures have divided the world along lines of otherness, portraying themselves as heroic and rational as a contrast against a mysterious and emotional East. Although healthy debate has raged in the 40 years since that text and art has made immense strides towards a spirit of global unity, some media continues to rely on the shorthand established by the colonialist mindset to convey ideas and atmosphere. Golem, the latest project from Toronto-based developer Longbow Games (known for the Hegemony series of RTS games), is one such product, couching competent puzzles and platforming within the language of difference.

Rather than aiming for verisimilitude, Golem takes place in an imagined setting, seeming to blend Indian and Africa influences into a composite whole. Rejecting the familiarity of Classical edifices, Baroque lines, or Gothic arches, the game wears otherness as a badge of honour, deriving architectural design from naturalism and pre-modern India. Emphasising the age of the world, the inner walls of the tower at the heart of the title are inscribed with simple images to convey unremembered stories, bringing to mind both prehistoric cave paintings and the artworks of Ancient Egypt. The intention appears to be to imbue the playspaces with a sense of historicity—making them feel impossibly old—yet the design also acts as a cue for mystery and the unknowableness of the architects by drawing upon signs and symbols long established as alien to the Western mind. Despite the transparent nature of the visual make-up, the aesthetic achieves its goals. Players are transported to and immersed within Longbow’s world courtesy of cohesiveness, which is aided by the audio.

Silence often reigns in the untrammeled depths and soaring heights of the tower, with the ambience and music accentuating the strangeness of this place. Rarely does the soundtrack swell, but, when it does, the dominant tones are those of ethereal woodwind instruments as opposed to the more familiar strings and keys, again seeking to locate Golem somewhere beyond the realms of the comfortable. Furthermore, the protagonist makes nary a sound throughout her journey. Noises are instead reserved for the groans of long-dormant machinery and the padding footfalls of the eponymous creature. By thus drawing attention away from the player’s avatar, the backdrop takes primacy. The vast scale and entrancing design of the environments make this choice a sensible one, but the decision to carry the world-focused approach into gameplay is less wise.

The evocative worldbuilding rife throughout Golem is performed in service of mechanics that feel more suited to touchscreens than traditional interfaces. Eschewing the direct control of Super Mario Bros., LittleBigPlanet, Black the Fall, and countless other platformers, the title utilises point-and-click gameplay, requiring users to direct the protagonist by interacting with objects and the background. While the system works—particularly in the level of fine control it allows over the golem’s increasing suite of skills—it furthers the distance between player and character. Because the attention is focused on the surroundings, the protagonist fades into obscurity; she becomes less a means of exploring the world than an obstacle to progression, with this feeling amplified in the multi-planed levels.

Although a 2D platformer at its core, Golem includes several stages wherein the player navigates faux-3D space. The illusion is created through the incorporation of gateways and moving platforms that can be used to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. While the method allows the developer to extend its scope in ways rarely seen in platformers, it is imperfectly executed. In more complex levels, the alignment of the planes can be unclear, making navigation a frustrating experience. Consequently, the difficulty of puzzles is artificially heightened as the game descends into ill-defined orientation. These issues aside, the challenges are wonderfully designed to take advantage of both the skills and limitations of each form of the golem. As the game progresses and magical wellsprings are found, the creature evolves from the initial bipedal follower to a semi-autonomous gorilla and beyond, altering the ways it interacts with the world with each new shape. Novel challenges result, ensuring that the experience never becomes stale. However, one small disappointment does stem from the fact that the golem is incapable of reverting to earlier incarnations. Therefore, each level is designed around a core idea and a single solution. These obstacles are diverse enough to maintain interest throughout, as they range from basic navigation challenges to playing with the course of refracted light. While the lack of agency remains discomforting, Longbow’s decision to exclude it in favour of a curated narrative thread is justified.

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Golem’s story is told without words, leaving it open to interpretation. A young girl who seeks to gather water instead finds and awakens a mysterious orb, which unlocks a tower that has always dominated the skyline of her village. These early moments of clarity are almost the only ones in the game, as the journey becomes more important than the girl. Nonetheless, the history of ages is carved upon the ancient walls for those individuals with the wherewithal to care. Through the adventures of the girl and her new pet rock, the past unfolds, but the tale remains nebulous. As such, players will only receive as much story as they are willing to read into. While that fact will likely turn away some of those users seeking a thrilling story, the success of Dark Souls and Inside, which similarly obscure meaning, reveals that an audience exists for this kind of environmental storytelling.

That sentiment applies to Golem as a whole. Far from attempting to elicit mass market appeal, the game targets a niche and shows itself to be a project from a developer stretching beyond what it knows best. Longbow Games’s heritage in RTS titles emerges in the point-and-click gameplay, yet, in most other respects, Golem is a departure. While the team’s attempt to create something complex and novel is admirable, its ambition occasionally outstrips its execution. Meanwhile, although the game’s reliance on colonialist tropes is slightly troublesome, it will be overlooked by most players who have much else to occupy their minds across this evocating, engaging, and challenging adventure.

Reviewed on PC.

Damien Lawardorn is an aspiring novelist, journalist, and essayist. His goal in writing is to inspire readers to engage and think, rather than simply consume and enjoy. With broad interests ranging from literature and video games to fringe science and social movements, his work tends to touch on the unexpected. Damien is the former Editor-in-Chief of OnlySP. More of his work can be found at https://open.abc.net.au/people/21767

Review

RAGE 2 Review – Glorious Guns but a Shoddy Structure

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RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 5

A Conflicted Beginning

The opening moments of RAGE 2 are reminiscent of little so much as Killzone. A gravelly voice gives a stirring speech about superiority and the need to quash the rampant spread of lesser humans. The speaker is General Cross, a bald, deformed head—Scolar Visari transplanted across the years and franchises—atop a robotic body. Furthermore, like Killzone, such charisma and character are reserved for the enemy faction, here known as The Authority.

Players quickly get the choice of either a male or female Walker before being tossed into a high-octane battlefield overrun by cyborgs and mutants alike. Armed with only a few basic weapons, Walker is an effective killing machine in this first conflict, and the gameplay experience is as satisfying as they come. The guns are responsive and feel powerful, while the level design invites the kind of non-stop strafing and perpetual motion popularised by classics such as Quake and DOOM.

As veteran gamers might expect from past experiences, the battle goes badly. The heroes are killed, and Walker’s hometown is razed. In using this premise RAGE 2 attempts tired pity-me story beats to invest the player (at this point, unsuccessfully). The hometown hero (and Walker’s mother figure) is slain in the battle, which begins a quest that combines personal vengeance with the global desire to do what is best for the world: stop the monsters.

Before that, players must first expand their skill set, and so the sublime first-person shooter gameplay is joined with RPG mechanics that promise immense depth to the gunplay out in the Wasteland, though the first of these so-termed superpowers is underwhelming, providing the ability to dash out of harm’s way.

RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 1

With the story set up, the game shifts gears, putting players into an armoured vehicle, and the grippy handling feels as good as the gunplay. The vehicle physics are decidedly arcade-infused, caring little for such nuances as terrain. Instead, all that matters is putting the pedal to the metal and tearing off towards the first objective (and trying to not get too sidetracked in the process).

Despite all of this—the satisfying gunplay, the competent (if so far unspectacular) story, the pleasurable vehicle controls—something feels missing in RAGE 2, a certain spark that will make everything just click.

Gunplay To Die For

Shaking the dust of the ruined Vineland from Walker’s boots for the first time is a bit like bungee jumping. Although the player’s time in the village has been short, they have become acclimatised to a certain po-faced tone and blazingly fast gameplay. Suddenly, though, the security of familiarity drops away as Walker freefalls into the wasteland.

Three story-focused questlines are provided as immediate options, but every path is peppered with distractions and side missions that beg to be roughhoused. After only an hour’s random exploration, the overworld map is littered with icons denoting all sorts of miscellaneous activities.

The Arks, in particular, call for attention. In the fiction, they are similar to Fallout’s Vaults in their stated purpose of repopulating the world post-apocalypse, but they serve primarily as a means of increasing Walker’s abilities. As enticing and—importantly—useful as the Arks are, they highlight a problem about the open world that manifests quite quickly: almost every Ark is blocked by a cohort of enemies, with another set arriving once Walker has acquired her newest skill.

Indeed, most of the activities scattered about the world amount to combat challenges against ever more dangerous foes. Occasionally, random NPCs will offer races, but these are not frequent enough to offset the sheer number of bullets that players will fire both on foot and in their vehicles. Thankfully, many of the enemy outposts, bandit dens, and bounty hideouts feature bespoke, open designs, meaning that players are never at liberty to settle into a single pattern of clearing these challenges.

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Further adding diversity (though not nearly enough) are the different combat proclivities of each faction. The Goons and The Shrouded will be the most familiar to gamers, each showcasing a combination of pop-n-shoot gunplay, explosives, and close-range attackers. The mutants are more animalistic, preferring melee. Meanwhile, The Authority uses brute force and high firepower to wipe out any opposition. Although players need to be aware of the unique tactics and skills of each faction, none force the player to change their strategy; the best approach is always to move fast and keep pulling the trigger and, eventually, every enemy breaks down into scattered giblets.

The ever-expanding suite of options, compelling gunplay, varied level design, and satisfying difficulty all ensure that these encounters are never boring, but these traits are not enough to prevent a growing sense of tedium. In many ways, venturing unstructured through the wasteland feels as though the developers had a hammer of a gameplay loop, so every problem had to be a nail.

The bungee jumping analogy, then, comes full circle. After the thrill of freefall, the cord snaps back and the jumper, before too long, arrives back on terra firma. RAGE 2 follows this pattern, as the freedom of tearing across a vast environment always reins itself in to fighting.

However, novelty is not that not-quite-identifiable thing that lurks just beyond reach. Even moving from vehicle to foot changes things up, and the ridiculous amount of options in combat keeps things perpetually fresh.

A Story Lost Amidst the Bombast

The claims about story being a focal point of RAGE 2’s development ring hollow. A forgiving estimate of total narrative-led play time would clock about six hours—a realistic estimate, four. The disappointment spans more than just the brevity, however.

Walker is exactly the kind of faceless, figureless protagonist that has plagued the shooter genre for years. Her bland, no-nonsense demeanour is a dampening lens through which to view this madcap apocalypse, and it undercuts the otherwise energetic tone. Whether interacting with the dour John Marshall or the despicable Doctor Kvasir, Walker remains unflappable, the consummate professional, and that is to the detriment of the whole game. Indeed, her personality—or, rather, the lack thereof—is a clear demonstration of that missing something that has proven so elusive. More on that later, though.

With the story being so short, the lack of impact should come as little surprise. The invasion of Vineland in the opening moments is, by far, the most interesting plot point of the entire game. Such narrative necessities as momentum, surprise, and emotion are jettisoned in favour of a straightforward quest for revenge. Unfortunately, the story is so comprehensively forgettable that nothing else is worth saying about it.

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To return now to that something; Walker may want for a personality, but the game does not, and this juxtaposition highlights a central shortcoming: a lack of cohesion. RAGE 2 feels like a Frankenstein’s monster of conflicting visions. The remarkably tight combat and hand-crafted locations are designed for the most frenetic of shooters. However, the wider world makes the gunplay feel like just one part of a design that incorporates meaningless RPG progression and purchase mechanics and a considerable amount of driving from one location to another, with regular pit stops to clear enemy hubs (until that process becomes more tiresome than it has any right to be).

Even the world feels disparate, the map stitched together out of box-ticking biomes. To be fair, the deserts, jungles, waterfalls, and canyons all bear the same breathtaking beauty, but they all blend together into a meaningless mish-mash, with the gameplay locations instead being primarily industrial warehouses. The natural environment is wasted, which makes the open world seem like nothing more than padding—another area where mismatched design principles lead to a game that wants to be everything and suffers because of that ambition.

A Slipshod Structure

Bethesda has already laid out a roadmap of post-launch support for RAGE 2, and that has raised fears among the community that the game adheres to a service model. Such concerns can safely be laid to rest. Although the storyline leaves much to be desired, RAGE 2 is plump with content, as evidenced by the dozens—maybe even hundreds—of markers sprinkled across the map.

Unfortunately, the game suffers too much from its freeform design. Players are immediately free to hunt down the Arks that unlock new abilities. As such, every skill and weapon can be unlocked within a handful of hours, which is disastrous for pacing. Even more troublesome, the RPG mechanics serve no real purpose. Players need never purchase a single upgrade to succeed, and the sheer number of different currencies make doing so a chore anyway.

Because of this lack of structure, a game that could still be interesting 30 hours in can also feel worn our within a dozen, and that suggests the post-launch support will likely only appeal to a dedicated fanbase. The challenges, vehicles, and events scheduled to arrive in the coming months will likely not change up the core gameplay structure all that much. Instead, judging by the little information already available, they may simply give dedicated fans more of what they desire.

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On a completely different note, but equally as concerning as the game structure is the enemy design. Beginning with General Cross and extending across the Goons, mutants, and other factions, RAGE 2 seems to take a perverse pleasure in vilifying the Other, the outsider, the disabled, the religious. Even Doctor Kvasir, as a former Authority scientist with questionable morals, is a deformed being. By contrast, the undisputed heroes are all healthy and whole. While problematic in some respects, this subtle and most likely unintentional subtext is easily overlooked and unlikely to affect the enjoyment of most gamers.

Simply put, RAGE 2 is a strange beast. Perhaps that was inevitable as the follow-up to a middling first effort developed across two very different studios. Perhaps that shared production is also the reason for the lack of unity. Whatever the reason, RAGE 2 is clearly best suited to a particular kind of player. The game offers an often-beautiful environment combined with easy, enjoyable traversal mechanics. Comprising the bulk of the experience is some of the finest and most diverse gunplay combat to be found gaming today. However, these charms are let down somewhat by the lacking story and structure and a general feeling of a tonal mismatch between the bland protagonist and the madcap world.

OnlySP Review Score 3 Credit

Reviewed on Xbox One X.

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