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Review

STONE Review — Rough Around the Edges

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When making STONE, developer Convict Games aimed to make a narrative adventure that bridged the gap between Bukowskian characterisation and arthouse accessibility. With the title being described in this way, onlookers may expect a serious, realism-focused project akin to Dear Esther or What Remains of Edith Finch, but, instead, STONE takes place entirely in a world of bizarre, anthropomorphic Australasian animals. The result is a The Big Lebowski-esque snapshot of contemporary developed life; half-whodunnit, half-love-story, STONE is unafraid of grappling with what is real underneath its cutesy veneer.

The studio’s effort is a love letter to the absurdity of Australia, noticeably rough around the edges with a heart of gold, much like its eponymous protagonist. As already revealed in the project’s trailer, the game begins vividly, cutting straight to Stone as he awakes from a night on the sauce to find that his lover, Alex, has been kidnapped. In typical Dudeist fashion, Stone employs his skills as a private investigator to find Alex himself, retracing their steps through the clubs and bars of Oldtown. Distrustful of the police, players and Stone must believe in their own intuition to find his beloved “Chookie.” Sudden breaks to action is a feature of the game, which, in place of gradual movement or slow transitions, viscerally cuts between different scenes. In some ways, the sharp transitions fulfill STONE’s goal of extending the non-conformity of arthouse cinema but feels unsatisfying in gameplay terms. Some open-world segments between chapters or perhaps even a scene of Stone driving to the next destination might have been a better choice. Often, the snapshots to different scenes, whilst purposeful, leave the player feeling oddly disconnecting from the scene’s action.

With STONE being a low-budget effort, its developer can be forgiven for not including expensive open-world or transition segments, but the Unreal Engine-run game does end up feeling oddly skeletal, more akin to a tech demo than a full-fledged experience. A few visual bugs signify a lack of polish for the game, but, at the worst of times, STONE feels barely put together, acting more as an ersatz version of the studio’s true vision. Luckily, the title’s strong writing, art direction, and sheer zaniness are enough to carry it through its playtime of a few hours. As with most narrative-focused games, the title runs in at roughly two or three hours, which, if players embed themselves in the pacey story, flies by.

The story initially presents itself as a comedic alcohol-driven mystery, but the nuances of the game’s plot present themselves in surprising yet natural ways. Many of the characters, particularly the “British band” of foxes, are written hilariously. Stone’s best mate, Les, is a clear copy of The Big Lebowski’s Walter: a family man in a Kanye shirt who spitballs conspiracy theories about government drones for hours. STONE shines in how it deals with the real stuff, however, tackling topics, emotions, and lifestyles that bigger budget titles blush at. To give these subjects away would be spoilers, but those put off by STONE’s party aesthetic will find plot discussions and themes that match any mature, moody walking simulator out there.

To boil the gameplay down, STONE has players traverse through several areas of Oldtown, talking to people in each area in hopes of finding clues via conversation. These conversations come with two responses, usually allowing players to choose “soft” or “hard” responses. Whilst much of the dialogue feels uncontrived and zippy, the responses seem to yield no punishment. No matter what direction Stone chooses, the conversation always reaches the same end. Each location, too, only has one person to talk to and few items to interact with. STONE’s lack of locations, combined with their shallowness, leaves the revisiting as a tiresome experience. The maps initially act as strong summations of segments of Australian nightlife, but their depth is drawn away on repeated visits. When the title’s toolkit is so bare, the systems need to have a decent amount of depth or avenue for replayability, which STONE simply does not have. The best walking simulators do not only have a fantastic narrative, they have potential for their stories to be told in alternative ways or for player agency to at least have some impact on the plot’s presentation.

Some little idiosyncrasies stay nice throughout the game, though, with Stone’s interactive drum machine in his apartment and the jukebox at the Smoky Possum as standouts. Visiting the cinema or watching public domain films on the TV act as honest representations of stoner pastimes, too. The biggest flaw in the game is how shallow the explorable areas and the consequences are, making the whole process of conversation feel more tiring than it should.

STONE

While the following praise may provide the impression that STONE is a poor experience, the soundtrack is the most impressive part of the whole game. Not only is the selection of hip-hop, dance-inspired songs tonally relevant, but the way they are integrated into key plot moments is also superb. STONE lives up to its cinematic goals most when the music is blaring and relevant, which is thankfully most of the time. STONE’s biggest strength and weakness is how the game is designed as a cinematic experiment first, game second. Considerable credit can be given to STONE’s international array of audio and visual artists, which is surprising given the project’s wholly Australian theme. The soundtrack includes Perth trap artist Luchii , Australian artists Golden Grove and Grand Oyster Palace, UK-based House artist James Tottakai, North Carolina resident Ryan Little, and Finnish musicians Biniyam Real Love, Noah Kin, Color Dolor, and Warchief. The visual lead, Ivan Pozdnyakov, hails from Moscow, and his use of neon-lit and contrasting colours is a major force in STONE’s morning-after vibe.

STONE, like its protagonist, is bloody rough. Channelling the tough on the outside, soft on the inside of its literary inspirations—Post Office, for example—STONE’s buggy visuals and lack of polish almost exist as a statement in themselves. By presenting a story about an unkempt rebel’s life, the choppy visuals benefit the game. Overall, the experience’s worth will be strongly dependent on the player. Similarly to most great arthouse experiences, sometimes viewers must ignore the dodgy presentation and appreciate the heart of the piece. STONE, and its protagonist, have a lot of heart, and that shines the most.

Reviewed on PC.

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.

RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 2

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.

RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 6

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.

RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 8

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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