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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (402)

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The Deep Paths: Labyrin... 3/5
The Vagrant 4/5
Avadon: The Black Fortr... 2/5
Mass Effect 3 3.5/5
Mass Effect 2 3.5/5
Mass Effect 2.5/5
Knightin'+ 3.5/5
Indivisible 3/5
Final Fantasy XIV Onlin... 2/5
A Total War Saga: Troy 3/5
Stardew Valley 3/5
Soulcalibur VI 4.5/5
Owlboy 3/5
Battletech 3/5
Bloodstained: Ritual of... 3/5
The Legend of Zelda: A ... 4/5
Hob 3/5
Assassin's Creed Odyssey 4.5/5
Ittle Dew 2 4.5/5
Luigi's Mansion 3 4/5
Xuan-Yuan Sword: The Ga... 3/5
Star Trek: Bridge Crew 3.5/5
King's Quest: The Compl... 3/5
Strange Brigade 4/5
Metro Exodus 3.5/5

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Zero-K   PC (Steam) 

Zero Fun    2/5 stars

I don’t enjoy the RTS genre. My first experience with it was way back in the halcyon days of the PlayStation 1, when I played that console’s port of “Warcraft II.” I didn’t like it, and soon sent it packing to my Friendly Local Game Shop (in hindsight, I had a LOT of similar experiences on the PS1). It wasn’t until several years later when I was a tender underclassman in college that a buddy of mine insisted that “Age of Empires” was the best game ever. Having just discovered the joys of ancient history and Classical mythology, I eagerly bought a copy… then quickly grew bored with it, as the gameplay loop just didn’t grab me, and I spent a few hours recreating the Battle of Ilium in a custom map before putting it away forever. Somehow, this same friend convinced me to buy the sequel, and “Age of Empires 2” managed to consume even less of my time, as my medieval history courses had shattered my illusions of the era created by the High Fantasy genre.

It seemed to me that the only people who really got ‘into’ RTSes were the competitive types who couldn’t get enough of networked PvP matches. My early impression of the genre turned out to be largely right on the nose, as the RTS genre evolved into, then was almost completely supplanted by, the MOBA genre, which distills the RTS down to its most basic, competitive form.

Much later, as a grad student in college, I met the only new friend I would make during my time in higher education. This friend was also obsessed with RTS games, and insisted on revealing their glories to me via a LAN party with a well-shared copy of “Warcraft 3.” The experience did nothing to change my mind, and indeed merely cemented my previous opinions even more strongly.

That grad school friend is now an erstwhile member of the MJ Crew, and has been whining around for years how he wished he could find an RTS with co-op so he could proselytize the glory of the genre to the rest of us. His efforts were stymied for a good long time because the RTS is a competitive genre by its very nature. Cooperative modes were scarce, limited, and restricted in number of players. Expecting to find nothing, and perhaps purge my friend of his delusions in the process, I helped in the search, and ended up shooting myself in the foot, as I discovered that, yes, indeed, in 2018, there is one, single, lone, monolithic RTS with a cooperative campaign in ALL of PC gaming: And that game is “Zero-K.”

“Zero-K” is an open-source, free (not Free2Play, just free) game built in the Spring Engine. While originally a very copyright-infringing fanwork based on a 1997 RTS called “Total Annihilation,” Zero-K was eventually reworked into an original, if horrifically generic, IP of its own. The engine itself is based on LUA scripting, while the visuals are a mix of heavily bump-mapped textures draped over somewhat simple 3D objects.

Visually, “Zero-K” isn’t all that impressive to look at. Most of the units look similar enough that at-a-glance identification can be problematic. The tool tips are somewhat helpful in this respect, but ultimately don’t go quite far enough, as it’s necessary to hold Spacebar and click on things to get a fully-detailed tooltip (which then doesn’t go away by itself). All of the units are mechanical, and all of them are rather generic and boring, which leaves “Zero-K” without a strong visual identity.

Audiowise, “Zero-K” is accompanied by a variety of incredibly out-of-place music that seems to change somewhat randomly. Sound effects are simple enough, and get the job done, but I can’t say a single bit of it is memorable.

As an open-source RTS, “Zero-K” suffers from typical open-source design mentality. The people who make open-source software are very, very, VERY into their software, and typically are so far-gone down the rabbit hole that they are no longer capable of understanding how other people might look at their software. Thus, the UI is “Zero-K” is a wreck, the shortcut keys are overwhelming and even override each other at times, and if you think any RTS fanatic who is obsessed enough to write their own game would ever consider native Xinput support, you clearly know nothing about the RTS fanbase. Thankfully, the Steam controller worked quite well for me, and is the only reason I was able to stick with the game for any amount of time whatsoever.

“Zero-K” has a campaign. For a long time, when I was first introduced to the RTS genre, I didn’t realize there was anything more to them than ‘play map, play next map, play next map.’ “Zero-K” boasts a campaign with 70+ individual maps.

But just because it has a campaign doesn’t mean it actually has a story, or any narrative qualities whatsoever. It’s an almost universal truth that people who can write code can’t write prose, and vice versa. The few Renaissance folk who have the skills to create the art, music, script, and code for a game on their lonesome are incredibly rare… and it’s obvious none of them work on “Zero-K.” Sure, there’s some basic premise about war over resources in the future fought entirely by robots, but that’s not nearly enough to tie-together 70 missions! I have no idea who the ‘bad’ robots are even supposed to represent, and the entire thing comes off as far worse than the disposable (and now deprecated) single-player modes in a PvP FPS series like ‘Call of Duty.’

“Zero-K” actually does a lot of interesting things that shake-up the RTS genre that I approve of. It’s not actually a purely real-time game, as it’s possible to pause at any time, making it more of a RTwPS (Real-Time with Pause Strategy). I also strongly approved of the fact that coop in “Zero-K” allows all players to control all units on the same team, instead of plopping players into separate-but-allied teams. This allowed us to delegate certain gameplay tasks to players who seemed better suited for them… but ultimately our inability to do teamwork bit us in the butt. “Zero-K” also does away with most of the resource gathering that exemplifies the genre and replaces it with 2 basic resources: Metal and Energy. In streamlining the resources, “Zero-K” also streamlines its tech-tree, making EVERYTHING available from the get-go instead of forcing players to follow repetitive upgrade paths during each game.

The open tech-tree isn’t complete in the campaign, however. Indeed it seems that the only real motivating principal that pushes the player along in the campaign is the ability to unlock tech tree options for completing each map (as well as upgrade options for their Commander).

When I first experienced the RTS back in the ‘90s, the ‘Hero’ character, in “Zero-K” fulfilled by the Commander, didn’t exist, but seems to have been added some time around “Warcraft 3.” This character is a powerful unit who can both build and fight, but must also be protected, as losing him results in an automatic Game Over.

So how does RTS gameplay in “Zero-K” work? Well, first the player is dropped into a starting position on a top-down battle map and given an objective. The player will then take whatever starting units the map gave them and start trying to explore and expand their controlled territory. Builder units can create Metal Extractors at specific locations on the map (marked conveniently by circles), while Energy Generators of various types can be built mostly anywhere. Once the Builders have claimed some new turf, they need to fortify it with stationary defenses (towers, turrets, missile batteries, etc.) before moving on, though it’s important to leave a few Builders at the core of the player’s territory to build factories and assist in the manufacture of military units. These military units, on the other hand, spend all of this same time trying to find and eliminate poorly defended enemy positions. The enormous amount of casualties created by military conflicts leaves a bunch of metal on the ground, which – in a very novel and interesting mechanic – Builders can vacuum up and recycle. This gameplay loop repeats until either the player or the enemy has been ground down to nothing and their last unit or building is destroyed.

Nothing about this gameplay loop excited or entertained me. However, the real death knell for “Zero-K” in my book is in just how unbalanced and frustrating the campaign missions are. This is a campaign that is solo/coop only. This type of campaign is supposed to teach new players how to play the game by verbosely introducing new mechanics and gently ramping up the learning curve. By the end of the campaign, new players should be somewhat prepared to take on other new players in PvP… yet we didn’t even manage to finish the campaign because we simply couldn’t progress. We started playing on Normal difficulty, then got stymied by a number of maps, so we dropped down to Easy. After a bit more progress we got stymied by more maps, and with no difficulty below Easy simply stopped playing because none of us were having any fun. “Zero-K’s” campaign balance needs a lot of work, and it’s the type of rebalancing that will never happen because, as with the UI and everything else, it is literally impossible for the open-source coders who make “Zero-K” to look at it through eyes that don’t belong to an obsessed fanatic who knows every trick and detail by heart. Personally, I think the enemy units in the campaign are far too numerous from the start, either that or The Computer is a Cheating Bastard and has faster build speeds or less resource requirements than players. Either way, it felt about like playing a ‘90s RTS, which is something I hope never to do again.

Ugly, clunky, boring, and unbalanced. If these are the words you like associated with your games, by all means, give “Zero-K” a shot – it is 100% free, after all. If you actually expect your videogames to be fun, intuitive, intriguing, and polished, stay far, far away.

Presentation: 2.5/5
Story: 0.5/5
Gameplay: 2.5/5
Overall (not an average): 2/5



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