Friday, 30 December 2016

Games of the Year 2016

It's the fifth year of annual gaming celebrations on this blog. Picking up from the end of last year, Kerbal Space Program did make a big impression with me in 2016 and really soared thanks to the engine updates (especially 1.1 and the UI engine changes) and finishing touches (better fonts and communications in 1.2). An evergreen title of slowly building out your space programme, I spent well over 100 hours with the game in 2016 reaching for the stars. Also on my list of 2015 GotY contenders I predicted I'd find time for in 2016, Rise of the Tomb Raider got that PC release, even if I didn't think it was a step forward outside of the mechanical changes. Maybe 2017 will bring enough free time to actually complete The Witcher 3 and all that DLC, although I suspect I'm more likely to actually finish a commercial game project next year. But let's get on to the awards for games released in 2016...

Adult game of the year:

    Ladykiller in a Bind

This game, full title My Twin Brother Made Me Crossdress As Him And Now I Have To Deal With A Geeky Stalker And A Domme Beauty Who Want Me In A Bind, really takes it up a notch from the dev's previous work (Analogue & Hate Plus). In the very first scene (after the tutorial introduction) of this visual novel, I was the titular crossdressing character as she fumbled through an encounter with a cute boy in a dress. He fell apart under my stern questioning and we ended up making out; all the while my character explained to her twin brother how this was only happening because she was being forced to act like him for reasons not yet explained. Clearly, I needed to know more.

As the full title implies, this adult game in a somewhat fantastical setting works around issues of consent and power dynamics in relationships that contain (often explicitly negotiated) dominant and submissive roles. The dialogue is often smart, regularly funny, and very thirsty. Each scene feels both open and uncertain due to the option to pick an interjection or just allow the conversation to continue. Sometimes new responses will appear and old ones drop out as the scene progresses, or refusing to jump in will itself be considered unusually suspicious. Add in the game layer that's woven into the story of trading votes, managing suspicion, quickly building rapport... and you've got a lot more choices than many visual novels offer. Combined with the writing, this keeps everything moving along and reinforces the themes of the story. Clever and hot, even when playing with Christmas jumpers to hide the nudity, this game is for mature audiences only.

Soundtrack of the year:

    Mafia III

This game is an open world that's not about the open world. A few dozen hours of game that could have really been under fifteen without losing anything. A painful look at an era that's hard to look away from given the backdrop of White supremacy and racism driving currently rising political movements. What this game has that makes it essential is a revenge story that's incredibly acted and which drives you through a period setting without ever feeling like a reskined modern setting. Every piece of incidental dialogue, every shop you're not allowed in - these build onto the main story and show that this setting wasn't just some selling point or a "cool look" for a GTA-a-like, this game was built from the ground up to write about the era and race in America.

The game also manages to look great in places, with maybe a few rougher edges showing from the attempt to build out an open world. Sometimes the physics doesn't quite work, sometimes the textures look like they didn't quite have the time to give everything a detail pass, but sometimes the oppressive sky frames an incredible scene as you drive or walk through an area on your way to make the mob pay for what they've done. While many of the missions are mechanically repetitive, the story keeps you going; the atmosphere of the place keeps you locked in. You want to know everything about Lincoln Clay's story and the characters around him. Smartly framed, well written, great acting - from the very first hour, it's gripping.

Virtual city of the year:

    Tom Clancy's The Division

And coming at the experience of an open space from completely the opposite direction to Mafia III, this is all about the city and the stories that the spaces tell. Midtown Manhattan is rendered here with the only concession to making it a game world being the selective indoor sections and half the streets being cut out. But we're talking about something along the lines of half of the space it claims to represent actually being in here. This isn't a highly compressed map meant to invoke real spaces, this has been slightly cut down but is where it claims to be. Only this is weeks after the world ended. This is every piece of the end of society buried under inches of snow. This is the ultimate environmental storytelling setting rendered with incredible detail and that story hasn't even finished yet. When I play The Division, I feel like I'm waking into the period in The Last of Us after the intro but well before the main story. The post-apocalypse hasn't had time to settle yet, just the snow. The bodies are still very much on the ground, bagged and being taken to mass graves. From a distance they just look like piles of snow. And this isn't a playground to zoom around in, you're stuck on foot. It's not just that this small slice of NYC is rendered far closer to scale than has ever been attempted before, it's that the setting forces you to traverse it all on foot. Just as in Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, here the game makes clear this is a space you have to inhabit as you slowly make progress. The only concession to avoiding grinding traversal once you've already explored an area being the fast-travel system to base camps.

We're moving through Stuyvesant Town, a second wave of reservists who just got activated and are ordered to crack down on factions fighting for control of the region and work out why the first wave vanished. This is about half way through the campaign story. We're looking at looters who have no options left, a faction of workers who have a religious fervour for fire and wiping out the plague that's caused this disaster, and ex convicts looking to pay back some of what was done to them. These are the civilians flagged as enemies up to this point, but they're not the big bad. We're slowly learning about the enemies we'll face at the story concludes, the PMCs that helped orchestrate the attack and stayed around to profit from the disaster. But this game doesn't just provide an easy out (as many games do) for the true enemy: private military.

As we get into a scene of a last stand, the near-future tech we carry recreates the scene. Unlike previous scenes of the first wave controlling the civilians and slowly cracking down on factions, this was where the first wave finally lost. Desperate voices short on all supplies scream out, a reservist military force who had just found out central command was pulling back support but not pulling anyone out. They're left sheltering civilians as molotovs smashed through the windows. This was the humanisation of what had seemed like a force descending into the authoritarian role then taken over by the PMCs. This, it turned out, recorded the defection of the first wave. Sold out by command, left to die, even those who fought for what they thought were positive ideals needed to survive. These are the ultimate enemies: not an evil PMC; this was us, us in two months. A game about the cost of survival pointed to the enemy and showed how we would become them without flinching. Cowardliness from US military command leading to US troops becoming the US civilian murderers we were sent in to stop. Along with the "bad" US civilians (as our future tech clearly announces before we even have a gun drawn on us) flagged by faction affiliation and who we are told must also be stopped. Where other games tread lightly, making the enemies into foreigners or everything sci-fi, this doesn't look away. It's not coherent in that anti-military message, this is a Tom Clancy game based on that "Ooh Rah" framing, but it does a lot more to unsettle the notion than most other games do.

There is a dissonant reading to all this. The Division repeatedly pushes the dual messages of a clear good/evil while also subverting it with scenes that point to moral gray and survival coming before morality. It can be read as garbled, several different writers who didn't read each other's scripts. I take it as a unified whole, the protagonist is never directly questioned (your actions are always "necessary" and you are always in the right to deploy your might) but everything about being a division agent ends up being touched by those conflicting messages and fragments of how other reservists act (in the found narratives)... and then it becomes the self, the other side of a message saying you're losing connection to the eye in the sky central command, as you enter the DZ.

The seamless player-vs-player mode in this game is a region in the heart of Manhattan that's been walled up and cut off from real-time communications. Here, all players you meet can be enemies. In the other areas the only players you meet are those you invite to play with you - you're safe and the main story continues to say you're a hero for saving good civilians from the bad factions. The player could always pretend they were right and ignore the echoes of what's really going on, as long as they keep shooting and ignoring the things they find, until they meet more current reservists away from prying eyes of command in the DZ. Then it's all up for friend or foe; the narrative and mechanics make this explicit - if you want that loot, you may shoot another second wave reservist as long as the eye in the sky is off. There's more than a GotY summary to this strand of thinking about the stories presented in this 60-hour RPG and that's sitting in my drafts pile.

I don't think I've played a game in a long time that has been as pulse-raising as the DZ solo mulitplayer experience here. The visuals are remarkable work, even for these AAA teams used to building virtual cities. I'd thought the era of actual-RPG shooters, where Deus Ex provides you with a gun but if you don't skill up then you can't hit the broad side of a barn, was over but here they are in a game with a clearly huge budget. Mechanics, visuals, range, scale - this was not a perfect game but enough of what it does is special. Don't miss out now it's on sale and the DLC/updates are continuing to expand what's here.

Best new spin on a classic 2016:

    Rez Infinite

Rez is back with another remaster. Since the 720p and 5.1 of the HD re-release, it seemed like Rez was already ok for modern systems. A simple style that held up well even on the Dreamcast, who needed yet another port?

Luckily, this is anything but a port. As a base, the 4K Rez offered here is faithful to the original game. Even though the textures are as low res as they've ever been, this presentation is still lovely due to the heavy reliance on flat-shaded primitives. But then you put on the VR headset and can actually jump into Rez. Not only is that almost as magical as first reaching Area 5, it also turns out to be the best way to play the game. Looking to focus the lock-on cursor is absolutely something that reinforces what makes Rez so great - the visuals pulse and react to movement so nodding along to the beat reads as yet another step into synaesthesia. Playing the classic mode in VR is everything you imagined it might be 15 years ago when playing this on the Dreamcast and thinking about clubbing at the weekend.

But, just as Rez only reveals itself in Area 5, so this version of the game also comes with a major unlock once you've travelled the base game. Area X is a wholly new game built with a new visual style, new track, and removes the strict rails from the experience. In Area X, you can boost and even stop your movement; by looking around you can change your direction of travel. It's not the perfect culmination that Area 5 was, but it's a great new direction with a good track behind it and some visuals that you'll be amazed by. If you've ever wanted to go swimming in a pool of light particles, this is as close as you can currently get to that. Now when can we expect to see Rez 2 bringing this new style to a full game built around several new tracks?

Level design of the year:

    Dishonored 2

When they released Dishonored in 2012, it combined a great art style and a new take on the stealth gameplay of an immersive sim. The range of abilities really offered the extra mechanical depth to play through without ever killing or being seen (the classic "hard mode" for the genre where fans count mandatory kills in each level). The spaces explored were incredibly memorable and detailed, even the DLC levels that included some they'd dropped during development of the main game.

This game refines the world and visual language, bringing in an entirely new style for the new location of Karnaca. The mechanics are extended and offered in two flavours for the base game (previously you needed the DLC to switch things up) and the levels are taken to a whole new tier. Tightly designed, filled with detail, and with enough totally unique hooks that it's a master-class in level design. As a massive fan of the subgenre and specifically the previous game, I didn't need much for this to make my list. But they really managed to make this far more than just more Dunwall-inspired stealth.

Blue skies of the year:

    Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

It's the best Uncharted game. I mean, there's a lot you can write about it but really that's what you need to know. The story is stepping up, even if it recons its way to get there (not the first time the series has decided to expand the cast/scope by doing so). The settings continue to expand both technically and artistically on what started out on the PS3 nine years ago. Set pieces that go even further; mechanics that continue to develop what is asked of the player (now with functional stealth systems); a control system that's not a weird step back from Among Thieves that took them a dozen patches to fully fix/revert.

This is Uncharted, but more so. As a series that continues to be a better classic Tomb Raider than any of the non-open world games in that series, that's a great achievement. Naughty Dog are still at the top of their game despite the development hell that was pretty apparent from the talent that left this project (and what was said about those high-profile departures and the leads from the other ND team coming in to take over the project, along with their different vision for the story/cast).

Please come fuck me up 2016:


The great thing about VR is that everything is optimised for minimising the movement to photon delay - the time it takes between an input (like head movement) and the new output on the screen that creates photons for your eyes. Rhythm games, which have for years had to account for the latency of flatscreen technologies, are now able to go back to offering games with a consistent input. The only difference now in the reaction window is in visual processing times for players. But no longer is there up to 150ms of TV delay just to see the new rendered frame.

Thumper is a percussion-driven rhythm game that just bleeds onto the screen, ideally in VR. A slow building series of long levels (each with dozens of individual stages including some shorter or longer blocks), this game takes the front cover of an abstract metal album and animates it to a soundtrack that plays back and forth. First the audio gives you a quick treble of the arrangement you're about to encounter, then you need to read the various inputs on the track and kick them back with the full bass joining in. Many of the inputs can be missed but some will take one of your two lives if you get it wrong, with that second life recoverable at the end of each stage. Some of the arrangements require you to master the pattern and failure without dying will organically loop you round to the start of the pattern for another shot.

The levels slowly build in complexity, teaching each new input with a corresponding visual style and increasing the demands of the patterns to the point where you'll sometimes have to go through a pattern a few times to understand it before perfecting it. A scoring system promotes going back and really mastering each level. But the core here is this impressive oppressive style of music and visuals coming together so amazingly as you fly down the metal and red tunnels, desperately trying to keep up. Playing in VR jut makes it feel all the more aggressive.

Stylish gameplay loop of the year:


In medias res, I enter the scene as the person to my rear left is shattering into pieces from the discharged gun of the person in front of me. Everything is creeping forward as if through treacle - time crawls. The person in front of me is reloading and pointing straight at my head. I grab an ashtray from the table and use it to hit a guy on my right, reaching out to lift his gun out of the air as he releases it. I spin it round to shoot the guy on my left and he shatters into a thousand pieces. I narrowly dodge the bullet from the guy in front of me, who finished reloading. I finally reach the point where the next bullet has loaded into the chamber on my pistol and headshot the guy in front of me. I break for cover and the entire world speeds up to normal as I sprint in a hail of bullets.

The initial pitch demo for this game always showed there was a spark here. What the full game and VR sequel does is show how that short gameplay loop can extend out to fill a few hours of game perfectly. The narrative hooks and interstitials are few but sturdy and allow the fiction to be supported without draining the game of that speed that can only come from giving the power to manipulate time to the player. It's not a long ride and it's not going to be something you keep coming back to, and there certainly are a few rough edges showing the indie budget, but there is nothing quite like this and every moment bleeds style. You can't do better in 2016.

The games that didn't quite make the cut:
Forza Horizon 3 - A return to form for the Horizon series that was dragged down by a terrible PC port at launch and the lack of signage on the store; this game phones home every boot so if you're not online it won't even start on Windows 10. That unmarked DRM alone prevents it making the list this year and an £80 premium package that doesn't even include all the DLC doesn't help the value of what is effectively a rental. Wait for some deep discounts in a sale and then enjoy Australia.

Doom - This is one of the best game engines around. A lovely piece of work that's perfect for ensuring 60fps at all times with amazing sub-pixel stability and plenty of effects. It brings back Doom as the classic experience rather than leaning on the dark suspense horror of Doom 3 and it's exactly what you want. But it's also only that, a success built on low expectations coming from development hell and a multiplayer beta no one enjoyed. Don't believe the hype and you'll have a much better time but it's not a GotY contender in such a strong year.

Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak - I love the Homeworld games. I liked this. But the campaign story seemed a bit limp compared to other RTS, the sides too similar, the package a bit too budget. and the 2D space a step back from fighting in actual space. There is no one major flaw that prevents a recommendation but with some extra budget the vision here could have been done justice and another classic RTS birthed.

Bound - Another game that's really good but just doesn't quite make it to the big header above. Dancing through a stylish platformer and enjoying every polygonal backdrop, this had some great visuals that went for showing off the polygons as they all flowed around you. It feels almost demoscene inspired. Add in atmosphere over explicit narrative and this wasn't quite on my list but deserves a nod. The VR support wasn't quite there but maybe another patch can fix that.

The 2016 games that I really need to find more time for in 2017:
Watch Dogs 2, Shenzhen I/O, The Witness, Gears of War 4, Hitman, The Last Guardian, Inside, Atelier Sophie, Titanfall 2, Zero Time Dilemma.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

A Period of Absence

So... long time, no posts.

The why is pretty simple: I've been finishing off a PhD, which I just successfully defended. Along with doing enough work to pay the bills, I've basically been left out of energy for writing here.

Anyway, the drafts folder has been slowly filling up with notes and half-written posts about games from Mass Effect 2 to The Division. Expect to see at least the monthly cadence of this blog return in the new year. I have managed to play enough games to continue the GotY list tradition - it's been a good year for games (quite a different selection vs last year but still a great time to be playing games).