Is the Racing Game Gravel Worth Your Time?

I scan the games on sale section on Xbox each week, because well, I have a gaming problem, and a few weeks ago the racing game Gravel popped up for $5 and some change. I’d never heard of the game. A quick look at the reviews by users revealed a common message of “Good for what it is.” Looking at some of the big review sites like IGN revealed fives, and sentiments such as, this is a mediocre racing game that is at least a generation too late. Ouch. I figured what the hell and decided to give it a try.

Paradoxically, the user reviews and professional reviews are accurate. If you compare Gravel to the other arcade-ish racer that came out in 2018, Forza Horizon 4, it’s a piece of dog shit. Gravel is much more of an arcade racer than Forza though, and when it is viewed through that lens, it totally holds up. The game isn’t flawless, but it is a great diversion over a weekend.

Gravel is at its best when you have the pedal to the metal, and you are careening down a hillside. The handling is good. I turned the sensitivity up a bit on my wheel. It felt fine with a controller. Little camera tricks keep the action feeling intense. One thing that I became a big fan of during my playthrough with the dynamic lighting. Just about every ramp has fireworks that blast off when you go over it. Random right? Details like this are what give Gravel its charm.

Take the vehicle selection for example. Rally trucks and cars, which are all somehow manufacturer licensed, and then…armored vehicles. What? Don’t get me wrong. They are fun to drive, but it seems so random.

Then there’s the cringeyist setup ever for the entire game, the Gravel Channel. Apparently, this whole thing is a fever dream of reality television, with no-name drivers, that you must face off against. Each driver scowls at the camera before you take them on, wearing racing suits with no insignia. The whole thing seems so fucking weird. Yet, the racing is a lot of fun.

There are some decent tracks, although by the end of my 12-hour playthrough, I was ready to wrap it up. You can customize your car setup. I never touched those settings once. They have a decent number of cars for this type of game. I had a few favorites and didn’t give a shit about the rest. 

My first gripe with the game is that you don’t really know how cars stack up with one another. There should be an acceleration, top speed, and handling rating or something. There isn’t. You see info about horsepower and drive train, and that’s about it. There’s also a relatively severe bug where when you reverse time, your car is invisible for the remainder of the race. Weird that they left that one in.

Here’s my verdict. Gravel is an excellent game for $10 or less. They want $25 for it normally. Don’t pay that. It is a really fun arcade racer to play if you’re looking for a fresh diversion. Some of the features in the game feel a bit bolted on, but the core racing and decent tracks are all there. Give it a try if you find it on sale.

Is Cyberpunk 2077 Worth Playing After the 1.5 Patch?

I was as hyped for Cyberpunk as anyone else before the release. Huge surprise here, I loved Witcher 3, and had gained a lot of respect for the Polish developer CD Projekt Red. I even pre-ordered Cyberpunk 2077. Some of you might pre-order games all the time, but I’ve found that I’m frequently let down by my pre-orders. My expectations are often too lofty, and if I can just wait 3 months or so, I can usually snag that same game at a deep discount. Despite this commonsense approach, I pre-ordered Cyberpunk 2077 well in advance, and I got burned. Or did I?

When the game launched, I was a bit confused with the reviews. IGN gave it a 9, PC Gamer gave it a 78%, Gamespot gave it a 7, and the internet was screaming that it was broken. A little context here. Cyberpunk launched December 10 of 2020. A new generation of consoles had just come out. The previous generation of consoles, the Xbox One and the PS4 were very long in the tooth, and the game ran like absolute garbage on those systems. Now, you might be saying, stop being such a cheap wiener and buy yourself a next generation console if you want to play the shiny new thing, but as of March 10, 2022, it is still extremely difficult to get your hands on the Xbox Series X and the PS5. This is largely due to the Coronavirus pandemic and the illuminati.

Jackie securing a next-gen console.

I made a deal with the lizard people and was able to obtain a Series X shortly after launch, but after I saw the reviews and how pissed people were at state of Cyberpunk, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to ruin the experience by trying it. There was some serious hate floating around. Playstation dropped the game from its store, and Microsoft was offering refunds. Could it really be that bad? I wasn’t going to find out. I threw it in my back catalog and decided to wait for a signal that CDPR had righted the ship.

That signal finally came mid-February of 2022 with the 1.5 patch. This had several quality-of-life fixes along with the smoothing out of numerous bugs that had plagued the launch version. I’m not going discuss all the changes, but I will mention some of the scuttlebutt that kept me away in the beginning, and what I think of the game in its current state.

Cyberpunk 2077 is a very good-looking game.

Let’s begin with the most obvious thing about the game, the graphics. Cyberpunk is fantastic looking. On the Series X, it has a performance mode that locks at 60 fps and a ray traced mode, which locks at 30. This might be one of the few games that I don’t mind playing at 30 fps. I was told the game had a lot of framerate issues while driving at launch. I didn’t encounter any of those during my playthrough. The neon lighting of Night City is incredible. Main characters look great, animations are good, and the general ambiance of the world is phenomenal.

Since there was a dog pile of haters when the game launched, of course everything was nitpicked. Are there a bunch of in-your-face trans billboards and commercials? Yes. Are they distasteful outside the context of a future cyberhell? Yes. Do they fit this game. Yes. Everything is over the top. Everything has a cock, a pussy, and is addicted to meth. It works for the game, and I enjoyed taking it all in, even if it was a bit one-beat. It was kind of like just listening to one radio station in GTA. There isn’t a lot of depth in terms of culture commentary and humor.  

They have all the naughty bits.

Graphics are at the top of the heap for this game. On a 10-point scale, I’d give the gameplay a 7. Cyberpunk is built like a shooter, but it shoots like a clunky immersive sim from the early 2000s. It sounds good. It looks good. But it doesn’t feel good. At no point did the shooting in this game feel snappy, and it sure as hells seems like they want you to gun a lot of people down.  You get all of these quick hacks to launch, and yes, they are effective at destroying and distracting enemies, but they become repetitive, and more of a fire and forget type of weapon. Hacks are the same puzzle every time, and there isn’t anything compelling revealed as a result.  

I wish Cyberpunk was more of an immersive sim. What do I mean by that? Immersive sims give you a true sense of choice as to how to defeat enemies and traverse through the world. You can use super strength to stack boxes to reach areas, hack machines to open areas and find keys, stuff like that. Cyberpunk looks like it has that on the box. I think we all thought it was going to be a super-sexy Deus Ex in an expansive open world. It isn’t. It’s a B-tier shooter, in a world that looks great, but ultimately isn’t that interactive. The things you do in the world just don’t have much consequence. About three-quarters of the way through the game, I found myself getting excited because I could jump up on a dumpster and access an area that wasn’t immediately apparent as the main path. That’s when I realized that I was craving for something more out of Cyberpunk, and because I wasn’t getting that freedom, the game was becoming a bit flat, no matter how sexy the world looked.

Cool-looking world, but I just needed to climb a ladder to get in here.

Let’s talk about that world. Night City is incredible. It looks amazing as a backdrop for your activities, but that’s all I found it to be. At no point did I tell myself that I wanted to explore an area just because. The world didn’t pique my interest in a way good open worlds do. I think it might come down to not having worthwhile collectibles sprinkled around the map. Resources are plentiful, and I didn’t run into emergent scenarios on the streets that were worthwhile. Missions just kind of fell at my feet through the quest bulletin, aka the cell phone.

Stop fucking calling me!

The phone is a nightmare in the beginning of this game. It seems like every citizen of Night City is calling you and giving you a quest. Which, I get it, CDPR wanted you to explore the city, but the quests don’t have any urgency to them. When you go on these quests, you waltz in, kill everyone, and take all their gear, which is a huge amount of kit. You can either break these weapons down to generate parts for upgrades or sell them. I was spending way too much time breaking down weapons and gear that I didn’t want. The main story is interesting enough, and there are some relatively entertaining side quests, but they all basically boil down to non-interesting hacking to soften the defenses and killing everyone.

Do I regret playing Cyberpunk? Absolutely not. It’s worth seeing. Night City is awesome to look at even if it isn’t that compelling to explore. The shooting is serviceable. It might not be exciting, but it also doesn’t feel unfair. The driving is fine. I guess that’s a big improvement from what it was at launch, at least that’s what I’ve read. The main story is top-notch AAA stuff. I kind of just want to watch the movie though.

Me too Panam.

I really hope CDPR takes another crack at this one. They should take what they have in Night City, totally recycle the assets, and then riddle it with alternate paths and meaningful secrets. Oh yeah, and touch up those shooting mechanics up a bit. The game needs more guts. The outside coat is looking great, but there needs to be more on the inside. I recommend picking up Cyberpunk 2077 up on a deep discount.

while True: learn() – Trick Yourself Into Thinking You Know About Machine Learning

while True: learn() describes itself as “a puzzle/simulation game about even more puzzling stuff: machine learning, neural networks, big data, and AI. But most importantly, it’s about understanding your cat.” After playing through the game, I’d say it does an excellent job using your quest to understand your cat through app development to drive the story. Understanding how machine learning really works? Not so much. Maybe some high-level concepts, but don’t expect this game to teach you how to code. That being said, while True: learn() is an excellent puzzle game.

Round peg, square hole…wait…

while True: learn() is all about sorting. At the most basic level, you need to route colors or shapes from the data stream, or the left side of the screen, to their intended targets on the right side. The developers,, throw some interesting challenges your way as you progress. You’ll need to use nodes that exclude colors to create your own custom filters. There are time requirements that need to be met. You can only use a certain number of nodes. Toward the end of the game, you will need to train your machine learning nodes before deploying them.

This might all sound extremely technical, but you could play this game without knowing a lick about computer programming. If you like puzzle games where you need to automate resource management, you’ll probably have a lot of fun with this one.

I see graphics cards represent real-world prices. lol

The game has a store where you can buy upgrades for your equipment. I had no problem gaining money and buying upgrades as they became available. It was nice that I could upgrade my equipment, but the upgrades were relatively transparent to me.

You can invest in startups throughout the game as well. These require you to create the machine learning backbone that will run the startup’s systems. Once again, it sounds complicated, but it really isn’t. It’s just another puzzle, which is okay.

while True: learn() is a relatively short puzzle game that will twist your brain at times. The only puzzles that I got stuck on were optional side jobs, so after I got sick of thinking about them, I just moved on. The game has a great visual style and fun story and presentation. The overall game felt even in terms of difficulty through most of it. Although by the end, I felt as if the nodes were doing more work, and the challenges became easier. I didn’t necessary understand why it was doing what it was doing compared to earlier parts of the game.

Clever, clever, computers

I found while True: learn() to be a cool game and a welcome departure from games that I usually play. If you’re looking to switch things up a bit and want to feel smart (or dumb), give it a shot. 

Wreckfest is Vehicular Mayhem at Its Best

I don’t know how I didn’t try Wreckfest until now. I guess I assumed it was a B-tier driving game with poor controls and a shitty game engine. It turns out I was REALLY wrong. Wreckfest controls like a dream. It feels outstanding with a wheel, absolutely blowing Forza Horizon 5 out of the water in that category. If you don’t like playing nice while you drive, this is your game. I liked the game so much, I compiled some crashes with some of that heavy metal.

Chorus Is Amazing

Chorus takes about 20 hours to complete and is $40. It’s also the best space combat game I’ve ever played. Here’s a gameplay trailer to give you an idea of what to expect.

Tomb Raider is Even Better on New Consoles

I picked up the Tomb Raider: Definitive Survivor Trilogy on the cheap this past Black Friday on Xbox and decided to give it a go on my Series X. The first in the series, Tomb Raider, was released in 2013. On the Series X, S, and PS5 Tomb Raider enjoys an FPS boost to 60 FPS and HDR support. On the Series X and the PS5, the resolution goes up to 4K. The Series X gets Dolby Vision, which is gorgeous. These fantastic upgrades right out of the box help an excellent game that released 8 years ago feel like a contemporary release. If you like third person shooters with a good dose of exploration, Tomb Raider is a must. If you played it back when it came out, it might be worth revisiting, especially on new consoles.

Plenty of good combat to be had.

I played Tomb Raider when it originally came out and remembered being surprised by how murderous and lethal Lara becomes as you progress through the reboot. The body count is high. One thing that struck me as I was playing this time was how fresh the combat stays throughout the campaign. There might be auto-aim settings, but on a normal difficulty playthrough, they weren’t enabled. Aiming is not forgiving, but also not unwieldy, making combat encounters fair and intense. Instead of being able to hide behind cover perpetually, enemies will either destroy it or flush you out with explosives or molotovs. Enemies rush your position in numbers but never in a way that is unreasonable. They keep you on your toes, which is a good thing.

Challenge tombs are a hoot!

Exploration consists of two layers in Tomb Raider. The first being items sprinkled along as you progress through the main storyline. As you go through areas, you can find all sorts of ancient artifacts and journal entries. These do a good job of fleshing out the backstory and providing interesting historical context. The second layer is the challenge tombs. These areas involve a series of physical puzzles which must be solved to unlock the main artifact. The puzzles in Tomb Raider are fantastic and you could skip over most of them by not seeking out challenge tombs. Of course, if that’s the way you rolled, you’d miss out on many upgrade opportunities for Lara and her weapons.

Lara is underpowered in the beginning of the game. She has a basic bow and even lacks the ability to perform melee attacks. As you progress, you can apply meaningful upgrades to your weapons and Lara’s abilities. Lara needs these abilities as the combat gets more intense. Enemies you encounter by mid-game and beyond are heavily armored and are carrying shotguns and machine guns that will absolutely cut you down if you’re not careful.

Be prepared to get up close and personal.

Punctuating the overall combat are wave attack sequences and boss battles. These are done extremely well. I found myself frantically looking for cover and trying to blow up explosive barrels to hold enemies at bay. If an enemy made it through that initial line of defense, I’d quickly switch to my shotgun for close quarters combat, often having to dodge as they closed in. As you upgrade Lara’s abilities, she gains takedown skills and stun finishers. Nothing feels overused in Tomb Raider in terms of combat. I didn’t stick to one weapon or one type of attack. Because of the different enemy types and how they were attacking me, I would often utilize slightly different weapon combinations. My bow, assault rifle, shotgun, and pistol were all viable options, and their effectiveness changed as I upgraded them. For instance, I wasn’t a fan of the assault rifle early on, but as I upgraded it, I got a grenade launcher attachment and more lethal ammunition.

The visual language in the environment is outstanding.

Tomb Raider has some of the best visual language you’ll find in this type of game. It’s an essential element to keeping the action moving while promoting a good amount of exploration. I can’t think of a moment in Tomb Raider where I didn’t know where to go. Exploration isn’t just handed to you either. I still needed to look for the tell-tale yet subtle white paint on ledges and walls letting me know they were climbable. I appreciate how exploration is blended into the overall experience of the game. It’s very much in your best interest to explore, and there are some common indicators that let you know to look in certain areas, but if you really want to poke around, you can always find some more items, without getting lit up by enemies. Once you clear a combat encounter, you can explore without always looking over your shoulder.

The story in Tomb Raider is good overall. There were a few moments where it felt like the characters were playing dumb in terms of major plot points. As the player, the answer seemed obvious, and a few times Lara was a little slow on the uptake, especially for an uber explorer. Tomb Raider effortlessly fuses grounded combat and exploration with supernatural elements. It’s admirable how the developers managed to make this happen without seeming cheesy or completely unbelievable. The marriage between realism and mysticism makes for a mysterious and exciting experience.

Tomb Raider is an awesome adventure!

If have a PS5 or an Xbox Series S or X, I highly recommend giving the updated version of Tomb Raider a playthrough. It’s an outstanding game, and the performance and visual upgrades make it feel entirely fresh. Look for the 3 games together in the Tomb Raider: Definitive Survivor Trilogy. This includes all the DLC for the games.

Insane Matrix Unreal Engine 5 Demo on Xbox Series X

The future is looking very bright for video games indeed. Epic Games released an Unreal Engine 5 demo featuring the Matrix. This raises the bar for narrative storytelling and video games in general. This demo was created in a year’s time by a small team at Epic. The demo and all of the systems will be made available to the public to use in their own projects! The fully explorable, 16 km city was procedurally generated. There are over 7,000 cars that can be driven. I can’t wait to see where this technology leads both video games and movie making.

Read more

Singularity, the Forgotten First Person Shooter

Singularity did poorly when it came out in 2010. Ironically, the time-mechanic focused shooter was more of a victim of its release time than poor design. Activision pushed the release of Singularity away from Modern Warfare 2, which came out in 2009, to give Singularity some breathing room and more development resources. When Singularity released in 2010, it was slammed by most reviewers as a half-baked Bioshock clone. The taste in first person shooters had shifted, and although Singularity presented an interesting combination of horror, physics puzzles, and time shifting mechanics, the world just wasn’t having it. So how does the game stand up in late-2021, now that the gaming world’s current flavor of FPS (mostly) doesn’t involve linear narratives? I’d say surprisingly well.

Oooh…a rave!

Singularity begins with you helicoptering in on a mission to a remote Russian island, and of course, all hell breaks loose. As the narrative unfolds, you discover that the Russians were working on time manipulation, and well, shit went bad. Using a Time Manipulation Device, or TMD, you gain the ability to alter time and even pass between 1955 and 2010 to alter events and ultimately save the world. It’s an interesting setup that makes for a fun narrative flow and coolish puzzles.

A good analogy of my experience with Singularity is going to see your favorite local band. Some of their songs are absolute bangers. But they also have a few where they haven’t quite figured out the ending. And the drummer’s drunk and misses a beat occasionally. If that band were to get some extra support and polish, maybe they’d release the best album of the year…or maybe they’d get lost in the shuffle and wouldn’t be as interesting. That’s how I feel about this game. It has some awesome action sequences. The time mechanics and story are cool as hell. The monsters are fun, and the overall atmosphere is good, but aspects like the time-based physics puzzles could have been expanded. Instead of a physics playground like Half-Life 2, you get more of a sketch of what those puzzles could have been.

Singularity is uneven story-wise. Some parts, especially a quarter of the way through the game are tight as hell. It’s one exhilarating time travel bit after another. It feels like you’re playing through a competent SyFy Channel movie, but the game’s story lulls three quarters of the way through. This isn’t surprising after you learn about the game’s development. Activision almost canceled Singularity entirely after they realized the development was in trouble. Raven was given a second chance, but they went into what they described as “triage” mode and chainsawed the story while trying to maintain as much of the good meat as possible. What you get is a lot of good ideas, some interesting, and some leaving you scratching your head.

The Seeker is cool!

Take the weapons for example. There’s a weapon called the Seeker. It’s a semi-automatic assault rifle that allows you to guide the bullet in first person mode with your mouse after you pull the trigger. It’s a cool idea and a lot of fun, especially when you make the heads of bad guys explode. There’s another guided weapon, the grenade launcher, where you can roll a grenade around with the W, S, A, D keys and detonate. Using that weapon is also fun, but your view doesn’t change to the grenade like it does with the Seeker, so it’s kind of limited. It felt as if there weren’t enough opportunities to use the grenade launcher as it was meant to be used. There were many times in Singularity where one of these special weapons would be resting against a rail, clearly meant for me to pick up and use in the next combat arena, and I wouldn’t want to, because my normal loadout was better.

You’re probably wondering why the hell I would recommend this game. Well, there are a lot of good things in Singularity. My favorite weapon was a sniper rifle where you can slow time and explode the heads of Russian soldiers with pinpoint ferocity. With your TMD, you can age soldiers to bones and dust. For some reason, you can also turn enemy soldiers into acid-puking freaks. I’m not sure what the logic is here, but you learn not to ask too many questions in Singularity and just enjoy the ride. You can disassemble bridges and reassemble them or reassemble decayed ammo and health pack crates. At one point you find yourself on a ship that’s rusting to pieces as you’re trying to escape. There are a lot of great concepts here. They are often utilized in cool ways, but sometimes, not so much. That being said, the missteps were never to the point where I though Singularity was a bad or even mediocre game.

There are definitely Bioshock feeling moments

Critics slammed Singularity as a middling Bioshock clone back in 2010. The game certainly shares similarities in terms of using your powers and storytelling, but in a world where Bioshock is a distant memory, Singularity is a welcome experience. The graphics were poo pooed back in 2010. Yes, the textures can be a blurry mess, especially in the environment, but the choice of bright colors has done this game a lot of favors as time has marched on. The visual style is interesting for most of the game and the 1950s time traveling tech along with the abandoned Russian science facility works well. There are some rusty, brownish areas, but thankfully, they don’t last long.

The AI is dumb as hell, but you’re dispatching enemies relatively quickly, so it really isn’t noticeable. When you familiarize yourself with your TMD and attack enemies by slowing them down, aging them, or throwing exploding barrels at them, Singularity feels great. The combat hits it’s pinnacle when you’re facing off against quick and deadly creatures that can time shift and pop in and out of the temporal dimension. You need to use your powers to lock them into your own time long enough to blast them. There’s plenty of that in the game. The fun gunplay coupled with the bizarro time traveling timeline keeps the game engaging throughout.

Singularity is probably one of the better games that you’ll play that not a lot of people have heard of. It was swept under the rug quickly by Activision due to poor sales and the company’s focus on the Call of Duty series. The game is currently $30 on Steam. Don’t pay that. I got it for $7.50 on sale on Steam. That feels fair. If you see it on sale again, I would say it’s worth a try.