Exploring imagined environments is a not so secret pleasure of mine. Ambient designs, implicit narrative, experiential interactions – I think these are the fundamentally unique experiences games can deliver to us. So when I heard of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter by The Astronauts, I was excited. Being in a place – such a beautiful place too – that primarily focused on letting you exist in a place sounded like what I’d enjoy. I’ve played The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and, while it didn’t quite deliver exactly what I expected, its unique approach and beautiful ambience are well worth experiencing for yourself.
Paul Prospero is an eminent psychic detective, called to the rural town of Red Creek Valley to investigate the vanishing of the young boy Ethan Carter, at the boy’s behest. Upon arrival in Red Creek Valley, Prospero discovers a number of bizarre and brutal murders, all linked to the mysterious Ethan Carter. Using his supernatural power of psychometry, Prospero works to get to the bottom of the mystery, and perhaps save Ethan Carter from whatever fate he is enduring.
Much of the story is told through watching re-enactments of scenes that you find, retelling events in time as they occurred. After solving a puzzle you are rewarded with some kind of story cutscene that plays out the events related to the puzzle. You will also find notes scattered around the environment, all related in some way to the world you are inhabiting. Occasionally things get embellishment through one of Prospero’s sporadic, brief, deliberately dramatic monologues. But much of the story is told through the environments themselves – environments which reflect the nature and content of the scene of a puzzle or mystery. It is a little heavier-handed in places than I appreciate, but it’s a story told deftly and confidently, and its telling fits in with its themes.
While the story sets itself up as a supernatural murder mystery at the start, it’s really a tale of childhood imagination and escapism – one where innocence is interrupted by paranormal drama. Ethan Carter himself represents narrative escapism from rural malaise, something otherworldly come to invade a stagnant life of drudgery. And his situation is something to identify with at the heart of the murder mystery fluff. I cared more about Ethan Carter as a character than I did about solving the various murders of extraneous characters, and his personality drives the story. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, then, is aptly named, as the town of Red Creek Valley is defined by Ethan Carter’s lack of presence.
In many ways The Vanishing of Ethan Carter reminds me of Gone Home, in that it is about exploring an imagined place that is defined by the presence of an absence. That is, perhaps, the highest praise I can deliver to a game like this – it’s like Gone Home.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter diverges from the purity of Gone Home’s environmental storytelling, however, by adding in things to do beyond walking and looking. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, as a paranormal mystery game, requires the player to solve loosely demarcated but distinct and unique puzzles.
Paul Prospero interacts with the world through highlighting and experiencing locations, that in turn lead to other items and places. Each place you examine provides inherent context for the puzzle, as well as opening up further interaction options. Essentially, it’s a variation on find the clue, but with each clue cleverly integrated into the world. Occasionally you have to find an actual item to use on an object, but there is no inventory system – one is not needed with how simple item use is integrated into puzzle solving. Each puzzle is completely different to the one before, giving delightful variety and freshness to each problem, and all adding to the narrative weave of Ethan Carter.
There is an issue, and it comes down to the balance between obtuseness and replayability. Ethan Carter dumps you in its (gorgeous, wonderful, amazing) world with no tutorial or hints on how its mechanics work. For example, there is a mechanic where you interact with a puzzle object and word clues pop up. Looking around directions either push apart or coalesce the words, and making them overlap perfectly points you to the physical object of the clue in question. The only problem is this mechanic is not introduced in any way – you have to figure it out yourself somehow. By the time I’d figured this out, I’d made it half way through the world, missing several puzzles. Additionally, each puzzle is complete-able within a certain zone, although this isn’t clear. To compound matters, subtle cues that indicate a change in zones are really quite obscure, and by the time I worked this out, again, I was half way through the world. The sheer obtuseness of it lead me to miss most of the early puzzle solutions. Until you learn these cues and learn its navigational and gameplay language, you’ll be so far into the game that backtracking is just not a desirable option.
To top it all off, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is completely linear. The conundrum, then, is that learning all the subtleties of how the game communicates location and puzzle cues is perfect for subsequent playthroughs, yet the game’s linearity of plot and gameplay lends itself to single playthroughs. For a single playthrough game, the communication of gameplay is too slow and gentle to appreciate initial content and eliminate time-wasting backtracking.
Don’t misunderstand – I do appreciate how gently the mechanics are introduced. The feeling of joy when you figure out how the game works is delightful, and the lack of hand-holding is refreshing. And I can’t see the game’s plot being as affecting as anything other than a linear story. I just wish that perhaps there was a way to experience the entire game’s puzzles fresh while understanding how the game communicates.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is undeniably visually stunning. It is pretty. So so pretty. This is entirely down to The Astronauts’ use of photogrammetry. Objects and textures are, quite simply, the best I’ve ever seen. Better than Crysis. Better than Battlefield. Better than real life. Scanning and rendering objects into virtual worlds is a new tech that is becoming more mainstream, and Ethan Carter shows us how it’s done. Combining object and texture tech with the rural, autumnal setting, through the prism of attentive art direction creates a game space that is a delight to be in. Technically, however, the game is still an Unreal Engine 3 creation, and sometimes the older tech base shows its colours, holding it back a little in the lighting and post processing departments. Overall, though, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’s object and texture work is far and away the star, making any of the foibles of UE3 fade away. It is completely, uncompromisingly stunning.
Ethan Carter complements its stunning graphics with a quiet forest ambiance and a gentle, restful soundtrack. It’s suitably, predictably ephemeral, the exact type of soundtrack you’d expect for this kind of contemplative experience. That’s not to downplay it – lonely piano meanders and aching strings offset the frequent lightness of silence beautifully. It works together perfectly, unsurprisingly. Voice acting is perfectly functional, but not exemplary.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a beautiful, atmospheric, sometimes impenetrable experience. A triumph in world building, Ethan Carter delivers on its slightly esoteric premise with rich story and atmosphere, wrapped in some of the most gorgeous graphics I’ve ever seen. That the mechanics aren’t well introduced in the first play and the mystery can only be experienced once is its only significant flaw – one that should not prevent you from enjoying the two or three hours it takes to witness just how beautiful a world The Astronauts have created.
Reviewed on PC. Review code supplied by The Astronauts.
RAGE 2 Review – Glorious Guns but a Shoddy Structure
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Reviewed on Xbox One X.
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