Thursday, 31 December 2015

Games of the Year 2015

So a fourth year of picking out notable games released (approximately) within a calendar year. I guess that makes it a tradition for this blog.

Life is Strange

I've already written about why this game is emotionally resonant, necessarily pondering, and mechanically important for several genres. To quote myself this is "one of the most exciting things to come from a publisher in years". A slow and considered story about young adult (queer) women coming to terms with the world and growing into who they are. It's also the shot in the arm that graphic adventure games needed since coasting on the success of Telltale's first Walking Dead season and it's hugely informative for anyone working on the narrative systems for modern RPGs.

Visually the decision not to chase photorealism pays dividends with the brushwork even extending to things like rain splash effects and wet shaders - the cohesion tied together with a thoroughly modern engine to render it in detail without distracting defects. The one area which could really have done with more investment is animation - the audio performances are mainly incredible and are leaned heavily upon as the face animation is very basic. Max and Chloe('s voice actors) sell the game throughout with plenty of strong performances from others. When you're telling a love story, you need those two main performances to chime and they do. The fandom that grew out of this game have clearly found fertile ground to grow from.

Everything in Life is Strange is painted broad and universal but also small and specific. Everyone is a caricature but also given depth and time to show their quirks beyond the exaggerated surface. Most people can identify with the themes of the story and the main characters but this isn't a story about straight men. It works because the glut of stories about straight white cis men distorts what stories we commonly see told in major, "all audiences" media. It is an everywoman story in a medium where the notion of an everywoman is barely explored above a very low budget ceiling. Hopefully it is the start of a new wave of published-funded projects. [photo source]

Pillars of Eternity

As I mentioned earlier in the year, this is a classic CRPG right down to the painted backdrops and limited use of 3D acceleration to make it pop. Of course, coming 15 years after the height of that genre, this use of 3D now extends to fully 3D characters and monsters with very detailed artwork for the backdrops but this is more of a "what a classic CRPG could look like today" than even the modest fully-3D top-down competitors like Wasteland 2 or Divinity: Original Sin. This is a 2015 take on the Infinity Engine, not the Aurora Engine.

What PoE does add to the table is a much-improved interface and some systems changes away from GURPS/SPECIAL/(A)D&D that allow more playing of the game and less working through the rule system to find how to progress. The combat is deep enough that dungeons are a great time exploring your party's classes but it doesn't ever dominate the game (and things like a 15-level mega-dungeon are offered as completely optional content for those who want more time to enjoy that incredibly refined tactical real-time with pause system); it's a CRPG so most people will come for the story. You can feel the experienced writing team in every inch of the game's narrative - a story that manages to vault the bar of even a rose-tinted view of those classic CRPGs.

Cities: Skylines

Another game I talked about at the same time, this is what SimCity (2013) should have been. Offline (no always-on DRM), mod-friendly, simulational, and built to allow fans of the classic SimCity games to enjoy a similar experience with a new layer of infographics and citizen simulation to run on top of it. For this game, that means importing a lot of the transit simulation from the developer's previous Cities in Motion series into a core city-builder template.

Not every citizen is simulated in detail (something EA planned for SimCity 2013 but only managed to reach simulating 10% of the Sims as agents and those acted too stupidly to generate meaningful outcomes) but there are certainly enough of them milling around and travelling to make traffic quickly become a constant system you need to master to enable your city to grow. The initially small plot of land grows as your city does and you can pick where it expands to rather than just getting a centred square of land. But most of the rest of this game is the classic (low & high density) R,C,I city-builder you expect from the genre and which has only slowly evolved since SimCity 2000 solidified the template.

This is exactly what you want after EA's Maxis completely dropped the ball in every way and left the somewhat archaic SimCity 4 from 2003 as the latest proper entry in the series. A thoroughly modern, infinitely moddable, 3D city-builder that reacts exactly how you expect and with a deeper-than-expected traffic simulation that shows the developer's previous focus. Anyone who enjoys this genre should be satisfied by this budget release (even if the headline feature from the expansion actually turned out to be part of ongoing support and so robbed that additional purchase of much value).

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

So I grew up in very rural England. This game was to me what many games have been to people who grew up in locations like New York, LA, San Francisco, or London. This even goes back to around when I was born for the period setting. All rendered with incredible fidelity and underlaid by another exceptional Jessica Curry soundtrack. Just as in Dear Esther, the soundtrack really sells the piece and makes wandering around uncovering the places and narrative never feel plodding.

This is definitely far larger in scope to that previous game and you can see every inch of Sony's involvement in the assets, rendering these villages and fields in detail you expect from AAA, not indie. There are a couple of slightly unclean edges to remind you this hasn't had the funding and army of artists you get for Call of Duty, Assassin's Creed, or Battlefront; but otherwise it's amazing to wander round something that looks like where my life started.

The actual narrative, told via audio plays, helps to build a living, breathing space in which you are walking (after a cataclysm that has left every leaf untouched but no person remaining). It speaks to smart allocation of resources on the project and completely held me throughout the game. A game about isolation, searching, and small village toxicity that eventually falls to self-sacrifice and the tail end of the nuclear scare that fits the period.

The Beginner's Guide

As I touched on around release, this game has some meat to dig into both considering the text and the metatext that it has created. Advertised as 90 minutes of narrated game design, this follow up to The Stanley Parable shares a lot of the build process but uses it for a completely different exploration into game design.

Here the question is not about the illusion of choice in constructing levels but how a game developer can cope with the stress of the indie game process. How does an artist hold it together to complete a project? How do they deal with other people (or other facets of themself) during development and sharing their creations? How does feedback or just the act of letting a work grow without you pull on a fragile nerve?

It's a game that benefits from going into blind but being prepared to work for your fulfilment. You will spend 90 minutes with a narrator and look at a series of levels but this is like describing an audio-book as 4 hours of listening to someone speak: technically accurate but saying nothing about the actual experience of listening. If you have any interest in small-scale game development or discussions of mental health then this is an outstanding game to play.

Until Dawn

Do what the writers of Agents of SHIELD refuse to and construct a scenario where we can all enjoy watching Ward die, permanently. Then watch it a few more times, you deserve the catharsis if you've been putting up with that TV show. Also contains plenty of Peter Stormare emoting, again, and that's almost worth the entry fee alone.

While this had a tough development cycle (originally a PS3 Move-controller game), the final product shows none of that uncertainty. This is a confident horror story with state of the art performance capture the likes of which Sony normally only get to roll out for their David Cage projects (Heavy Rain, Beyond). It's also structurally very similar to those games, with emphasis on decision making and branching narratives driving a cinematic experience.

The advantage that Until Dawn has is competent writing and editing staff that bring together a post-Cabin in the Woods horror story that nods at the genre tropes while offering a game where, depending how you play it, everyone (individually) can live or die. American teens painted to been just unlikeable enough that their gruesome deaths aren't too much of a downer for the plot but don't destroy your investment in at least some surviving. As is necessary in the modern era of horror, tropes are either played with or inverted left and right so you're never quite sure what will be played straight and the different paths allow for some genuine unexpected moments as you know that theoretically everyone can survive whatever situation they're in.

DiRT Rally

Proper rally games that you can play on a standard joypad are back.

There's always a bit of give and take developing a game about driving (and with rally it's always about driving; racing is for people who are fighting the other cars, not the cliff face that will squash them if they don't take this corner [caution jump into right 4 tightens] just right): how demanding should the game be vs how much money can be spent on something that only appeals to a few driving game fans. In recent years it seemed like all rally games moved further and further from the sim side of the scales and towards arcade handling and difficulty.

This is where a small skunkworks team at Codies came in and decided to fix that. Get their old engine, throw out the handling model, and try and build a semi-sim game that is the equivalent of Forza or GT in providing a soft sim focus that can appeal to people who want to take things seriously but maybe don't want to spend £300 on a wheel and pedals. People who want a challenge and for track condition to matter, to need the co-driver to guide them. DiRT Rally is an incredibly solid attempt at that which just made final release after a period on Early Access. If you fondly remember games like RalliSport Challenge or the Colin McRae Rally games, this is for you.

Notable Runners-up

Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes - Just good clean cooperative multiplayer design that points to hopefully an explosion in asymmetrical knowledge co-op games coming soon (may get talked about more next year due to VR support).

Her Story - Fun, revered, almost made my list. I think the impressiveness of the design of the search system wears away with distance. While you're playing it, hunting the keywords to unlock the new videos you crave to make sense of the narrative, it seems really clever. Given distance, you start to wonder exactly how carefully constructed it all was and how it was somewhat inherent to the nature of language. It's a fun short ride through a bad search engine that is absolutely worth playing.

Just Cause 3 - From that very first moment, this game is totally upfront about how nothing is serious and everything is on fire. A sequel that refines the movement tools and builds a new sandbox. What little narrative there is shows sparks of self-awareness that raises it above the tired skeleton it is attached to. But it's the fluid traversal tools that make this game stand out; an itch that, last year, was satiated by inFamous. Just like that game, JC3 is rather copy-pasted in structure but it's all about using the varied tools to keep yourself engaged - hour 50 of Forza is only different to hour 5 because of how you make your own progression and a basic unlock chain you walk down with some freedom of selection. But it can't go on the main list because the performance (on console or many PC configurations) simply isn't there, the bugs are too many, and some of it is unquestionably stuff considered "known shippable" and that's not ok.

Lara Croft GO - Not just a reskin of Hitman GO. A really nice, cheap puzzle game with style showing how much can be done with mobile GPUs without chasing photorealism.

Sorry Undertale, I think Caro does a great job of explaining why you're not on my list. Just as with Brothers, this gets a mention for how far my views diverge from the consensus of reviewers in general and specifically critics who generally share my tastes (and politics).

Not Enough Hours in the Day

Kerbal Space Program - I just didn't have time to do more than watch others play it while working - finally out of Early Access and looking great. Space physics and rocket science, or at least an approximation of them in a construction game.

Rise of the Tomb Raider - Sorry Xbox, I'm calling this a 2016 release as I played the last game at 4K on PC and loved it, not going to sub-1080p (variable res) and buying an XBOne just to play this a couple of months earlier. When Steam put up their presale page saying this will release in January, I wondered how many people started eyeing the 30-day refund period on their 2nd console purchase.

Cibele - I didn't have time to grab this but I'll mention it as I did play Freshman Year this year. Both released in 2015 by the same dev as last year's how do you Do It? and about topics larger games fail to engage with so well worth checking out. FY is another really short vignette piece like hdyDI.

The Witcher 3 - This would take a lot of hours and I was playing quite a few top-down RPGs this year (as the last few years have been thick with new takes on the classic perspective/game systems). It helps that there is almost certainly going to be a 2.0 patch and the end-of-DLC edition, if previous games are any indication.