Light on AAA showstoppers aside from Bethesda’s Rage 2, May was a perfect month to branch out into some intriguing videogame titles from smaller developers, and to dip into the VR space. Read on to find out what’s worth catching up on from the last few weeks.
Now here’s something that’s not all that interesting, narratively speaking, with a world that’s not all that striking and characters who aren’t all that fleshed-out, and a title with “rage” in it that doesn’t make me all that enraged after playing it. But there’s something to be said for the exquisite art of lodging a bladed boomerang in the torso of a mutant while popping a Mad Max-ian punk rocker’s head like a pimple with a rifle from afar. It’s Rage 2, where it’s all about raging through an apocalyptic landscape (most times in a tricked-out A.I. monster car) and dealing with semi-robotic adversaries — and that’s all you really need.
As I’m sure most players quickly realized on purchase, Rage 2 doesn’t hold past knowledge of Rage 1 as a prerequisite. It’s a soft reboot or legacy-quel, in Hollywood speak, in that the basic premise is there but you’re playing as a different character. Regardless of the gender you choose, you’re Walker, the last of the Rangers, who are (er, were) basically soldiers equipped with mech suits that grant them superhuman abilities and weapons that can be upgraded as you level up to unlock all sorts of different ways to rage on.
The game flirts with the camp of its Fury Road-style wasteland setting and its over-the-top residents, who could all find a home in Tina Turner’s Thunderdome, but it never leans into the camp fully, and the result is kind of… meh. Rage 2 is not as bonkers as the trailers make it seem, but you can still find opportunities for… theatrics!
And that’s the point of Rage 2. Everything else, for better or worse, comes second (or third, or fourth) to the truly outstanding combat. Right from the start, the action is seamless as you get to know your primary assault rifle and starter abilities. The more you upgrade and acquire new weaponry — through finds like the Nanotrite cartridges that improve your abilities and Arks that contain new gadgets — the more combinations of creative rampaging you unlock. And that’s where you can get creative: headshots, hover shots (that’s when you hover in midair and just empty your entire ammunition into whoever or whatever), nasty combinations of abilities and firearms, or literally body-checking an enemy until he explodes.
Over time, even this gets somewhat repetitive, and with a lack of a compelling world or compelling characters, it can become forgettable, especially with Death Stranding pre-orders out there sliding into your mentions. Grade: B- –Nick Romano
Trover Saves the Universe
As a work of semi-improvisational meta commentary on videogame tropes, Trover Saves the Universe does its job well. For example, instead of orbs or coins or some other generic videogame knickknacks, hidden collectibles in TSTU are little green creatures Trover likes to house in his eye sockets to get high, and he’s quick to tell you so. Using a control scheme the developers have referred to as second-person, players inhabit a stationary, chair-sitting alien who uses an in-game controller to move Trover. Conceptually, this conceit is fun, and it leads to plenty of fourth-wall-breaking rants directly at the player from accomplished on-the-fly ranter Justin Roiland, but as an actual game, the VR platformer from the Rick and Morty co-creator leaves something to be desired.
Aside from Roiland’s barrage of stream-of-consciousness jokes about the game’s characters, mechanics, and collectables, Trover boils down to a less-than-thrilling platformer with wonky VR-oriented camera angles. The game’s raunchy comedy should be enough to please fans of Rick and Morty, particularly the show’s loosely scripted Interdimensional Cable sequences, but there isn’t much of a compelling reason for Trover to be a videogame instead of, say, a streaming video series. Roiland’s fans may be better served by putting a Rick and Morty binge on in the background while playing a game that’s more fleshed-out. Grade: C+ –Evan Lewis
Outer Wilds is peculiar in the sense that it is as inviting as it is daunting. Within a framework of reckless but well-meaning scientific pursuit, developer Mobius Digital has managed to combine the folksy comfort of a campfire marshmallow roast with the wonder of boundless intellectual curiosity and the existential dread of dying alone in space. If not for the warm serenity of Timber Hearth, the game’s sequoia forested campground of a home planet, the barrier of entry to Outer Wilds’ driving mystery would have been a tall order to overcome. At its core, the game is about pure exploration, sending an astronaut up in a makeshift rocket to explore a small solar system of puzzle-covered planets, moons, and comets.
Without much to go on, the player is sent to find whatever there is to find and unravel a compelling mystery related to an ancient race of spacefarers called the Nomai, whose artifacts and texts are scattered across neighboring celestial bodies. Complicating matters is the 22-minute time loop in which the protagonist is caught. Hearthians, the humanoid inhabitants of Timber Hearth value the pursuit of the unknown more than self-preservation, and for a game with no combat and few encounters with hostile life, it’s surprisingly easy to get killed. Danger often stems from the finicky and challenging-to-master controls for the spaceship, which can sometimes feel incongruous with the rest of the game’s laid-back vibe. But what fun is probing the unknown without the danger of an abrupt and lonely demise? Grade: B+ —EL
A Plague Tale: Innocence
If the entirety of 14-century France were a stealth survival dungeon — which, if you were a poor peasant susceptible to myriad causes of death, it basically was — you’d get Asobo Studio’s impressive if familiar third-person quasi-puzzler. You play as a dauntless, noble teen named Amicia who must protect and escort her hunted little brother, Hugo, while evading Inquisition soldiers, rats, and a supernatural-ish darkness. (It’s the mention of the rats in particular that seems to accompany casual descriptions of Plague Tale — and yes, once they show up with their light-hating mechanics, the game simultaneously becomes slightly sillier yet also slightly less anxiety-inducing.) Though its objectives don’t blaze new territory, it’s nevertheless a patient, cinematic little game with a compelling story, painted with the broad strokes of an eerily hostile medieval world but filled with small narrative moments that come roaring out of the blue with their quiet intimacy (like Amicia’s first kill and her subsequent devastation, or an early scene when Hugo stops to put a flower in his sister’s hair after a harrowing chase). The controls are simple enough, and both the atmospheres and gorgeous score shine especially brightly. Is it fun? Not exactly. Is it easy? Not particularly. But it is a beautiful, brutal proof of concept and developer promise? Bloody right. Grade: B —Marc Snetiker
Blood & Truth
London Studio’s Blood & Truth is a full VR title based on the buzzy early PSVR demo The London Heist, and its origins as a tech showcase absolutely shine through, for better and worse. As Ryan Marks, Army veteran and super-enforcer for an embattled crime family, players charge through London’s underbelly, guns blazing. The story is fairly standard action blockbuster fare, executed well enough to keep things exciting, if not especially engrossing. But the action, when it reaches its campy, dual-wielding-pistols, jumping-out-of-exploding-skyscrapers peaks, is dizzyingly entertaining (and sometimes just flat dizzying).
Visually, the game is ambitious for a VR title, featuring recognizable actors like Colin Salmon in moderately realistic motion-capture roles. During gunfights and action set pieces, the environments are rendered well enough to be fully immersive. However, as with any VR title, the graphical fidelity isn’t perfect, and can cause some strain during longer play sessions. Speaking from the personal experience of one extremely queasy Saturday afternoon, I would highly recommend activating the game’s “comfort mode,” which alters in-game movement to reduce VR sickness.
There are some clever activities that make use of motion controls in interesting ways — climbing scaffolding, picking locks, interacting with art exhibits — but generally speaking, everything that’s not a gunfight tends to come across as filler. At its best, Blood & Truth feels like a worthy at-home successor to frenetic, Time Crisis-style on-rails shooters, but it isn’t exactly a gaming revolution, VR or otherwise. Grade: B- –EL
Roguelikes are dangerous territory. If the balance of aesthetic, gameplay feel, and persistent reward isn’t just right, they can all-too-easily fall victim to the tedium of repetition. Void Bastards, leaning heavily on the strength of its slick comic book looks, strategic gameplay, and generous upgrade progression, manages to avoid many of the genre’s traps.
Set in a strange nebula of derelict spacecraft, the main gist of the campaign is to travel from ship to ship and find various parts that are necessary to build items that can get you out of the area. Playable characters are an endless supply of expendable “clients” — convicts with variable perks and starting weaponry — who raid various ships for parts and recyclable supplies until they meet their ends at the hands of hostile, warped inhabitants called “citizens.” Each ship in the nebula contains a set of terminals, ranging from dining rooms full of food to FTL engine rooms containing ship fuel. Mapping a path through each ship’s chambers to find what’s needed while minimizing risk requires a satisfying level of planning.
The thing that holds the sci-fi FPS/dungeon crawler back most is its writing, which is especially disappointing considering developer Blue Manchu is helmed by a veteran of story-driven titles like System Shock 2 and Bioshock. The game aims for Portal-esque drollness, but often lands in the realm of the early 2000s Flash game, where the word “genitals” substitutes for actual jokes. Still, mechanically, Void Bastards is one of the better roguelike hybrids to come out in a while. Grade: B –EL