Thursday 30 November 2023

The Long 2017 with Zelda (TotK reviewed)

2017 was a big year for games and next month I'll give you my GotY rundown on another year that included a huge open-world Zelda game and the next entry in the Forza Motorsport series (games: they can take a while to bake nowadays). But, given it took quite a space to dig into why Zelda: Breath of the Wild wasn't going to come close to making my list of top games, despite being at the very top of so many best-of lists in 2017, I thought I'd break out the Tears of the Kingdom talk into another post entirely.

You can play as a girl?

And here we start with the great calamity: while BotW was disappointing in how it becomes the solo story of Link the Twink, we come back six years later to find that the intro does a great job of setting up the new big bad and a pair of plucky adventurers. But that's it, sorry. Zelda is now a pre-rendered cut-scene character (excluding some illusions/misdirection) for the rest of the game. And the real killer to my enthusiasm was the narrative payload of 18 pre-rendered videos pointed towards a much better story than is in any of these open world Zelda games. I want to play that game! I want those scenes to be part of my deep RPG progression. Half of the cast of characters you "meet" in this game are in a totally different game you get to see in a handful of video files from that other game about Zelda fighting the original big bad in his origin story or in ghostly form, to explain the plot to you.

I was repeatedly reminded of The Witcher 3 (which I replayed recently) where you do get to play as Ciri, because this is her story even if anchored to the conclusion of Geralt's trilogy. That we see so little engaging story in TotK, despite some clear effort to make areas of the world evolve as the story progresses (as the sequel reforms the world anew), is disappointing. And not just a single moment of crushing realisation. I went through the tutorial and expected to find Zelda at some point, which then becomes the entire central thrust of the mainline quests. "Surely it's more than just some unlockable video files? Surely this isn't a 100 hour RPG constantly saying the princess is in another castle?" Then, by about the midpoint of the main quest, you realise the full extent of the plot design and realise that Zelda is gone and will just be some videos from long ago. Barring the obvious very last scene, where the narrative weight of decisions in that other game (you only see in videos or text entries) is undone by the magic of storytelling for children.

A game written for children

Because this game is written for children, old enough to read (as very little of it is voiced dialogue, feeling like a throwback to earlier times, especially given how well BotW sold and so the unlimited budget they should have had to make this game) but certainly not written for a teen audience. Nothing makes it into the script that will be too much for a twelve year old. Nintendo knows who they're making these games for, even if many critics who obsess over these titles are in their 30s to 40s and love to reference classic games much older than most of the primary audience when making comparisons.

Every time I read over another line, I couldn't help but notice the word choice, the repetition, and the focus on guidance. For a game all about the freedom to explore anything, it sure is worried you're not going to understand any concept that a dozen other titles have taught anyone who has been playing games for a while. That you need the most plain, simple language and cartoon comedy to keep you clapping. I'm quite old at this point, but I can at least enjoy some good all-ages (especially queer-friendly, which we didn't get much of when I was that age) content into the teen angst (who doesn't like to look back on a misspent youth?) of "young-adult" fiction. But I get almost nothing from this - I'm chasing after ghosts (of a better story with better writing).

The performances are all fine, when there is dialogue (I played with Japanese audio, which is how I play most narrative games from Japan except for some very Americanised releases like a Kojima joint or some Capcom output). But there's nothing behind it (and that becomes all the more obvious when you only get a few audio hoots while reading the text-only conversations). I'm not sure how to engage with a critical consensus that seems to claim that Assassin's Creed: Odyssey (especially in the final patched version with all that freeLC and two expansions) is not as well written as Tears of the Kingdom (or BotW before it). That anyone could put forward that the quest writing and narrated journey through those worlds is better in TotK boggles my mind - it seems openly contrarian in the way someone might push back against a Hollywood period epic (which can be a bit "cringe" in spots) by pointing at a basic children's movie and calling it the more substantial script.

A scattershot expansive open world, doubled

That the back-story (the better RPG we didn't even get) is told in a randomised order doesn't manage to actually drive my investigative desire. I don't know why it was designed like this rather than each time you find an ancient tablet or a dragon's tear it unlocks the next sequential bit of the back-story. Outer Wilds is one of the games of the decade for me and nothing here implies a familiarity with how deftly that game managed so much back-story that could be unlocked in an order depending on how the player wishes to investigate. I crave for a huge RPG that learns those lessons for this sort of thing.

If I randomised the shrines, you would not know. Outside of the initial tutorial shrines on the first island, they are not really intentionally placed. Lots of tutorial shrines are ones you might encounter in this go-anywhere game in hour 40 of your play. Oh, and of the over 100 shrines I completed, there were a couple dozen types with less than most actually interesting. Lots of very rote combat puzzles or straight up mechanics tutorials which you already had been doing for hours. Many teaching you (combat) controls could have been an on-screen prompt in the open world combat.

The shrines have the double burden of acting as fast-travel points and so being forced to exist in the density and distribution to help feed that system but also be content in their own right. I often found myself asking why this shrine existed, if it wasn't just because they needed a fast-travel point around here. And then we still have Korok seeds and so on. Just a random location with some thing dumped in it with no real connections to the surroundings. "I guess we need a pebble here, as there are no other pebbles around so this denotes a Korok hiding spot." "Look for this tree stump in the woods, because we could have just omitted it but then how would we restrict your carry capacity?" At least most good collectibles are to show you that you found a path less travelled and here is the consolation prize to tell you you have now completed down this dead end, but given how open the terrain is (even in the down below; the sky rarely had multiple paths worthy of calling something a side-path) then that doesn't really apply in TotK.

I played through most of the content I found, both above and below; rather enjoying the dark depths, until I realised how little there was to actually do there outside finding copy-pasted combat (tied into a very long quest chain) or mines. I sometimes got frustrated that it wasn't actually nearly as open as everyone said, with several systems or quest chains locked and no signposts to even note that this would be unlocked later or how to advance towards that.

Some quest lines that seemingly don't have to be finished before rushing to the end boss are locking vital upgrades and features. Some soft signposting that does exist is actually eventually required to be engaged with so how optional are they to the main quests? But also there's not a huge amount of content there (you can very quickly jump from the five cities to the temples without really exploring those areas and sometimes it even feels like the game is uncertain if some stuff is to return to later for collectathons or actual content you should do while there). I know I did the mazes relatively early on but my mind blanks on if they ever tied back into the wider plotlines because so much of the game feels like some stuff designed to chew through that's not even important inside its own internal lore (contrast to the weight of every bit of a Dark Souls game).

Coming apart at the seams

As I ended up doing a lot of collectathons and exploration, I got to the second tier of batteries, the blue ones. And promptly found out that most of the really cool vehicles, if they don't disappear via leaving them temporarily (once you step over an invisible area boundary) or a level load screen resetting the world (outside chests that are permanently removed and monsters that respawn on the blood moon timer), will blink out of existence before you even get to the chance to fully use them. No gliders going long distance, no balloons actually letting you get to the sky unless you pay for a lot of them so go much faster - it's not that this stuff prevents you sequence breaking, just makes you farm for mats to build larger machines that can go much faster. It removes the fun of Link being a little guy making fun little vehicles to cruise around in (that don't cost many resources). This may well be a technical limitation of an engine creaking at the seams.

Early in my playthrough, although you may encounter this at any time, I was rebuilding a village and after dragging over a dozen tree logs over the hills (using the magic physics gun to stick all the trunks I'd chopped down into a single blob, as there seems to be no limit on what the physics hand can hold, then just sprint over the land because building a vehicle would have been no faster and used up resources for a vanishing vehicle) I had to help rebuild five houses. What fun physics puzzles would the creators of 150+ different shrines [spoilers: the shrines aren't that diverse] have thought up to show me helping rebuild this town?

Every single one of them had two rings and the puzzle was for me to cut down another tree (this time a longer one) and drop it into the rings vertically as a central pillar. Only it was high up enough you always had to climb up to the top to get the height to use the physics hand to drop it in cleanly. In an area where it rained far too often so you couldn't climb up without falling back down (because I'd not yet done the 12 side-quest chain to unlock the "sticky" suit to remove this annoyance) and even when I got half way up, the platforming control on thin geometry show this game is not nearly as polished as you'd want for doing that sort of precision movement. Link fall down (or goes off to get more materials to build ramps).

Again, fine to do once or twice but every single building required the same exact thing to be done. This took 6 years, while starting from an engine that seems to very much be similar to the BotW renderer with much of the interactions preserved, that reuses the basic underlying world shape from the last game (expanded here). Thousands of people worked on this. Because it'll sell tens of millions to make it one of the highest grossing games of the year (maybe the highest without online/microtransactions?) but we get this copy-paste everywhere, next to no VO, etc etc. It's just frustrating what this could have been. Sticking vehicles together isn't enough.

Wrapping it up

The game is systemic but in that systems are simulated rather than that they build puzzles actually expecting multiple paths (if you sequence break or find another path, that's due to systems complexity not consideration of the puzzle design). Immersive sims build several paths depending on your character and you get to pick a path or use the way systems interact to "break" the game and use none of the paths. Here you can break many puzzles but they are clearly designed for precisely one "correct" answer. Also some of the systemic stuff is very light: you don't have to use these metal blocks put next to the puzzle to connect the electricity source to the detector to open the gate, you can grab any random metal object or even the metal weapons you carry with you but if you use an electric arrow then absolutely not, you can't trivialise puzzles by thinking around the requirements (no cheating like that).

And talking of arrows, this is not the great hope for Far Cry crafting but even more varied and interesting with being able to craft a batch of enemy-seeking flaming arrows which can teleport to mirror jumping enemies. There are 500 items you can combine with your arrows and you will use precisely four of those items 1000 times (via a secondary menu, no crafting batches here or being prepared for combat) while every other item you will use once then ignore. It's not actually interesting or deep, there's just a lot more busywork and possibly even farming depending how committed you are to fully utilising the additional tools open to you (or giving up on a system because I'm not going to farm mats for that). Which is a lot of this game.

At least we can all agree that the fifth ally quest chain feels like it drags on (I'd even pre-completed a few parts of it many hours earlier, those which you are allowed to). That's not to give the game praise for being non-linear, because there are several hours of my life I'm never getting back, which I alluded to earlier in this piece, finding various things in the underworld that you cannot actually progress because they aren't activated until this very late game questline. And then you do a final dungeon run that I also didn't find at all interesting (even compared to the main temples, which are a solid three out of five if ever there was) and get to a damp finale anyone over the age of six sees coming, with meh writing throughout.

It has been a bit over a month since I completed TotK myself, a game I played through May, June, September, and finally October. I possibly liked it significantly more than BotW, especially those first dozen or so hours. And yet I still find it a far more frustrating game, full of half-baked ideas and pointless divergence from slowly established genre conventions (that also ends up replicating mistakes from a lot of earlier games in the open world genre) despite what many say about those issues actually being secret strengths (but to go over this would be to repeat my BotW comments). With an injection of a lot more reactivity (like Baldur's Gate 3 offers) or production values (like most AAA games do, especially after the last game sold well over 30 million copies; which Nintendo rarely discounts as deeply as other publishers) or building more narrative framework that embraces a slightly older audience, this could have wedded systems and story into something special. I can see the embers of what others love, but it's all turned to ash in my mouth!

Saturday 31 December 2022

Games of the Year 2022

An entire year without posting eh? I'd like to say a lot of exciting things have been happening behind the scenes but actually the cost of living inflation bomb and a constant sequence of national political crises have required a bit more attention than I usually give to making sure my situation stays solvent. It does mean that I have wrapped up a few things and may actually get back into making games over the coming years, as the economic outlook is poor for most but relatively stable for how I have things now set up. At a certain point it would be highly desirable for a few games on Steam to start generating a trickle of income directly back to me, if I can set that up over the next decade.

Outside of wrapping up my old consulting business and managing daily life, I've had some time for games but very little for the more recent AAA productions. The big RPG series I (re)played this year was The Witcher, which I am still in the process of polishing off due to the December release of the latest patch for the third game in the series. Moving onto a (thin) laptop as my primary (low power) work machine due to exploding local electricity prices has also come with a focus on going back to a few recent titles that can do well out of a 3050 via DLSS (just patched into The Witcher 3) or digging into more legacy AAA games. Although you can actually get a surprising amount out of the lowest-end Ampere GPU you're allowed to call a Series 30, especially when using Tensor-accelerated upscaling to boost quality.

Meanwhile, the crypto nonsense around GPU prices has ended but we're still dealing with inflated prices over what you should expect two years after the SRPs were initially set for RDNA2 & Ampere, which shows no sign of being washed away with RDNA3 or Ada, at least in the near-term (and despite huge warehouses of GPUs that are not selling at current prices and are impacting the quarterly results of every GPU vendor). But it's not just GPUs that are in silly season, with the PS5 getting a Sony official price hike rather than a price cut going into the third year on sale. The die shrinks are no longer providing a major reduction in price per transistor and war instability in Europe plus the continued supply-chain issues from the pandemic - I would say we've got to wait for things to get better but at this point it seems like a never-ending chain of problems that are likely to be joined by ever-more-frequent climate shocks and other issues. This could start to feel like a new normal and the 3080 will be the last truly great GPU to wipe away the previous generation (a card that was near impossible to get at launch and almost immediately followed by silly-season street price spikes due to crypto demand). If Intel ever sort out their driver stack (including ensuring popular older games run their best) then maybe something interesting could happen from aggressive competition rather than AMD happy to sit back and merely price-match nVidia with their raster-first RDNA design.

Enough complaining about the world of gaming hardware. At least I recently picked up a 5800X3D for my AM4 desktop so, when I get back from my laptop gaming break, I'll be most likely to drive a new 120Hz 4K OLED display (which I hope someone will announce at CES in a big desk-friendly size but without white sub-pixels) at the maximum refresh rate in a wide range of titles (using VRR to hide any inconsistencies) and jump back into VR. I present, my games of the year 2022:

  Citizen Sleeper

This narrative game lives on the atmosphere it brings to a world that has already seen a major collapse but is now teetering on the edge of an actual fall, as everything that can no longer be advanced finally stops being able to be maintained anywhere near where it was during the golden years. You wake into this world as a cloned consciousness in a company-owned body, escaping the indentured servitude your donor placed you into. It's one of those scifi stories and is very happy to linger on classic questions while wrapping it all in just enough detail and character to feel like a lived-in reality. It's the execution that sells it: the characters you meet and the things they've done and want to achieve as much as your need to keep running and make the most of what time you have left.
The main gameplay system as you move around this large space station is a daily set of six-sided dice that are rolled each morning, depending on the condition of your body the night before, and give you energy to engage in activities during the next day. Maybe a 3 will unlock a specific digital lock you need to decode today or only a 5 or 6 can get you past a check unscathed. All the while, lots of counters are ticking over as the rest of the story progresses forward. You have a decent amount of control over what part of the story you focus on developing next, although all paths will ultimately either reach a natural conclusion point or the end of the road. I never found I was totally on-rails or trapped by the net closing around me, just sufficiently energised to slip through a few moments where it seemed like everything was popping off at once and I couldn't possibly respond with the actions I had allocated each day. Eventually a regression to the mean should mean your pace is rather predictable and so something the gameplay can be tuned around, even assuming the dice rolls are random rather than guided by an invisible narrative hand to keep you where the story wants you to feel you are.

All of the writing and choices you're making throughout this game are backed by some really detailed character portraits and such sleek flat shaded 3D elements that the brutalism seeps from the space station overview back into the story. And the music that underlies everything keeps you in the zone. I was extremely glad to spend a dozen hours in this world, seeing most of the paths the story takes (as when you come to a definitive ending, you can reload back into the game just before you make a pivotal choice about how you are going to try to leave).


What if Pikmin was a 3D platformer? No one had asked this question before and yet the answer is obviously joyous. Rather than only collect the little flower creatures to help blow stuff up and move stuff around your large open zones, what if they could help build you ladders to jump to new heights or build bridges or connect up electrical lines? What if your own mobility was far more exciting and your little helpers were just the boost to get you into the various perfectly crafted puzzle parts of this large vertically interesting world?
This is a world made up of several large connected areas, a tiny person in a very big house where you can collect a lot of different things (don't worry, there is a reasonable "you got most of them, you can move on" goal associated with the real collect-a-thon spam items in each level) as you would in any other 3D platformer but also slowly amass enough of the little critters to power yourself up to climb any gap and cross every barrier as you complete various tasks to ensure the NPCs of each area are happy and their objects have been moved to where they need to go.

The core traversal of this 3D platformer feels just right and all of the puzzles are just engaging enough to be fun to tick off while never leaving you totally stumped. It's good solid level design and movement fundamentals which has clearly been iterated on a lot. I loved early Pikmin games but was feeling like the announced fourth title needed to do more than just rehash that again to get me excited but here is clearly what I was actually waiting for. I'm more of an open world traversal game fan rather than strict inheritors to those early 3D platformers but this really drew me in and got me thinking through how to 100% the levels, despite collecting literally everything not being a requirement to progression or even the primary completion awards. And then it all wraps up with a very cute story and a gloriously animated visual style.


This is the Zelda I am talking about when I say I'm a fan of that series (a conversation I had recently where I realised that the other person had no idea about pre-3D or mobile Zelda and so did not understand what I was referring to) - top-down action RPGs with plenty of exploration. Perfectly recreated here with some pastel flourish and very clean 3D edges, which occasionally comes into the gameplay by allowing hidden paths obscured by the camera angle.
What really elevates this is a dash of Fez making the world slightly more than it appears and injecting some meta-narrative puzzling into the game world, binding you to uncover both the game's story as experienced by the protagonist and the game's story as you uncover the construction of the mythical release of the game you are playing. This mainly, although not exclusively, manifests in uncovering pages of the game manual as you explore the world. These pages are primarily in a made up language you do not ever need to decode (so not exactly like Fez - it is only a drop of essence used) with sparse localised text and plenty of diagrams. These will explain how you play, provide map outlines, and also implies an experience of getting an import RPG back in the day before you could look anything up online and so have to work out how to play and what to do using only the manual, which you could not read. It's a great gimmick for providing hints and letting most of the game tutorialize itself, slowly ensuring you know what's going on and allowing you to dive quite deeply into the game world they've constructed.

This game has been getting hype at conventions for years with early demos available but the final package is more than worth the wait. The clarity of the blooming visuals, the detailed and diverse level designs, the backing music, and the carefully paced progression: it all drives you towards a really nice conclusion. And it got me into the right mood to dive into last year's Death's Door, which shares a couple of mechanical choices and a soft contrast visual style with very clean 3D art.

  Hardspace: Shipbreaker

We're returning to space for this pick and another corporate nightmare where you don't even own your own body, will seemingly never climb out of the debt that has been thrust upon you, and there will be a lot of days of hard work in a spaceyard between you and the conclusion of the game. But unlike my top game this year, this is more of a simulation of a future job with the narrative acting as trimmings around the edge and justification for the gameplay loop, not the core of the game itself.
As the eponymous ship-breaker, your job is to use a cutting laser to either carve through plates or burn away components that make up derelict spaceships. Each of the ship templates that you slowly unlock as the complexity of the game advances can be reconfigured in a number of ways before you get to it and each of those can also have requirement changes depending on your current tasks. But no matter the details, the main task is always to work out how to safely cut the ship into pieces small enough to shove into one of three bins: the metal furnace, the material processor, or the component barge. Everything has a price so trash the least amount of stuff with the laser, don't let too much stuff blow up, and don't mix the three types of material when you yeet them towards one of the bins. Oh, and try not to die in a workplace accident; those clones you're using are expensive and they'll be added to your debt.

This is one of those zen games where you get into the zone and just start doing a fake job for half an hour to relax. "Ah, this is a Type 4. I know how to depressurize the inside of this without anything exploding and the extra airlocks they usually throw onto every side is going to make a lot of money once I've burned through all the locking blocks holding them together!" The use of air pressure and some slightly tricky fuel and computer systems that need to be drained in the right order and with a time pressure ensure that even when you're going zen, there is always a chance of that panic as things are not quite going as well as you expected or a tether didn't actually bind hard enough to pull a big block of metal out the way before you needed to dive through, meaning now you're on fire and no one wants that.

As the story ramps up, there's some good space trucker unionisation talk and a fun conclusion. My only criticism I hope is fixed in a sequel is that there are only so many ship types and variants of those types in the game (and you quickly see everything before the story has time to conclude). As I understand it, the way they design everything into the puzzles that are the atmospheric and fuel systems on top of all the basic physics for making everything a surface you can either cut or blow up means it's impossible for modders to be allowed to make new ships or even just shuffle new variants. Steam Workshop support for a moddable ship builder would turn this from a really fun game you play to completion to one of those forever games where you can throw many hundreds of hours into everything the community have built for you to play around with and puzzle out.

  Against the Storm

This almost made my list last year (I was thinking about both it and Timberborn as my strategy early access picks to throw up before waiting for a 1.0 release). Back then it was in early access on Epic and was already a deeply engaging city builder with a unique twist. Now it is still not quite at 1.0 but has had a year more updates added to the foundations, tuning what was already there and significantly expanding the rest of the mechanics, factions, and art.

In the campaign structure of this game, you are not building a permanent city that will eventually tower over everything around it, slowly consuming all available space. You are just building some temporary settlements with which to extract resources from the local area, send some back to your home capital, and then get out before the conditions get too harsh and eventually the storm arrives and wipes everything away. Between each storm cycle you will usually get in half a dozen settlements of various difficulties, always starting out in a small glade and deciding when to explore into the surrounding glades by chopping down all the trees between you and them. In some of those glades will be hazards that require creature-power and resources to pacify, but if you don't expand then you'll also run through whatever resources you have available.

The way each run of the settlement building process is kept fresh is via a lot of randomisation. Each time your small band of settlers arrive (of several species with different affinities for work and needs to provide for), you only have access to a subset of buildings unlocked. As you complete goals (which are also randomised), you will get to choose between three options to unlock and so extend your construction horizons. Each area has a different subset of resources at play and each glade within the area will only have a couple of them on offer. Some of the Anno-style recipe chains will have alternative formulations that mean missing out on one resource is never the end of the road but if you can't find anything or a range of resources then you need to look at going in another direction.

When you complete your goals and return to the capital, you then use resources gathered in the settlement to permanently unlock new perks and create a meta-progression, ensuring that even if the conditions and randomisation repeat eventually, you'll be at a different stage in your campaign progression and so respond differently. If you play Anno games or any of the Banished-following indie settlement titles, this is very refreshing but also just similar enough that you know quite a bit of how the game needs to work so you're rarely lost.

  Two Point Campus

Two Point Hospital released in 2018 and, despite absolutely loving Theme Hospital back in 1997, something about the crash-prone experience I had and bits of the fit and finish of the game never quite let me love it. But the sequel, going to a series of campus maps to ask that you balance the books while building out huge institutions of learning, felt a lot more solid to me so I had a blast.
There is also some very useful cadence in the academic year, where a lot of the virtual people you need to satisfy are only going to be around for a few years. This contrasts with the patients in a hospital whose stay time should typically be rather shorter. Build out facilities, achieve goals, improve grades, and get ready for the next intake that you can probably make larger for a greater tuition and rent contribution as long as you're making sure to expand facilities so everyone can be housed and taught. It's a simple foundation (coming as a spiritual successor to games I was playing literally 25 years ago) but the formula still works.

  Opus: Echo of Starsong - Full Bloom Edition

This was a game I knew absolutely nothing about going into it. An RPG (advertised as a "visual novel style adventure game") out of Taiwan with a series that apparently goes back two previous games to 2015. Continuing a recurring theme, we are back in space and in a period of somewhat managed decline after a major war, where corporations are busy ensuring the exploitation of the resources available but with some of the more advanced technology being lost to the current inhabitants.
But rather than the influences of the previous games with this broad outline, this is a lot more like swashbuckling JRPGs like Skies of Arcadia. We have witches and mystical events and space pirates messing everything up for everyone involved. People fall in love, make mistakes, and have great battles as the game, played entirely in flashback, jumps through several pivotal moments for the core characters. The side-scrolling action sections mean there is more here than the very text-heavy choice prompts of Citizen Sleeper (which is most similar to the space exploration sections) but even in the more action-heavy moments it's certainly not going to get confused for a fully open exploration RPG or a mechanics-heavy simulation like Hardspace: Shipbreaker.

The entire thing lives or dies on your tolerance for the rather heightened emotional storytelling of typical JRPGs, which it clearly derives a lot from (even some of the sparse visuals can often feel like they're pointing back towards a previous style of simplistic shapes evoking detail that couldn't be rendered at the time - although looking through how many games are using a similar style on my list this year, it is clearly a production style favoured by indies in the now). This 2022 definitive edition with additional content is helped by the new voice work that provides a lot of dialogue with the emotional notes that a text-only version would lack. I suspect it won't be for everyone but I really appreciated the brisk 10 hours and hope the studio continue to grow their budget and production values for future releases.

  Dwarf Fortress

The original colony sim. Well, at least the template on which everything has built in the last 20 years it has been around. If you like RimWorld or games of that sort, you should at least try the original. This new Steam release is still not as forgiving as the imitations but you do at least get an official readable tile-set (not ASCII art), a tutorial, and some menu updates. If this game is for you, you probably already know.

  Last Call BBS

Zachtronics' swansong (although it sounds like the band might be getting back together anyway as Zach Barth didn't take to an alternative career in education so may be starting a new team) wrapped around themes played with in several previous titles (you dial into a retro server to download some illicit software titles - they are actually a set of games that explore the sorts of things previous games have, so expect lots of iterating on designs then looking at histograms telling you that actually you could have achieved that result with one less component or in two cycles less per iteration).
It might be a good grab-bag to get introduced to a lot of the gameplay mechanics seen in previous games but maybe the light introduction text to each title and short tutorial onramp of puzzle difficulty means this is more for existing fans to play around with (despite only appearing on my GotY list once before, I generally hold the majority of Zachtronics titles in high regard) while previous titles are the best place to start off?

  Ghost Song

An indie Metroid-style game that's certainly hewing closer to that model than Ori did while simultaneously walking towards the same emotional notes that that series is adding, along with more NPC engagement. The early parts of the game, as I explored the non-linear map and felt out the various hard gates on progress every Metroid-style game uses to direct progress, seemed rather punishing and lacked a difficulty change option. But as I unlocked better mobility options and new tools in my arsenal, I found the game had a lot to offer. I just wish it was better signposted early on which ways you may want to explore to find the upgrades that would mean most to your play style.

As I said upon completion, I really wish the boss battles integrated the weapon unlock soft-requirements better into the narrative of the game and also boosted the rest of the story-telling the game clearly wants to get involved in. This is a game that could do great things with some added content and a final pass on the good stuff that is here. It was teetering on the edge of my GotY vs coming in the listings below but looking back after a month, I think it hangs with the rest of these titles in my personal estimation, even if the critical consensus did seem a bit mixed in the few outlets which actually considered it notable enough to review at all.

  Not Making the Top List 2022:

Signalis - This is a retro tech-horror game going hard on that theme but without forcing horrible tank controls (I cannot embrace that retro convention - it's just a frustration; if the character should be slow to turn/move then encode that into their maximum turning speed to create delay between me pointing where I want to go and them executing it, don't force me to use tank controls). And it had some really great atmosphere in that opening couple of hours, richly mining influences beyond just gaming. As soon as it released, some friends were talking about it as their top game of the year (I think Citizen Sleeper would be hard to push off my list, especially given the common scifi themes). They know I'm into a lot of these games.

But I can't get past that aliased flickering mess every time the camera moves. I'm not "looking between the pixels to craft a horror unseen", I'm just getting depressed that the vibes don't match the technical execution. And this is clearly intentional. They wanted this low res retro aesthetic that evokes early games, not quite PlayStation 1 but maybe a PC a year earlier with software rendering doing the absolute most. There is a scene early on where you're at the top of a large hole into the earth and around the snow-white scene there is a dark pattern denoting the edge of the hole. Only the pixel aliasing is so bad that when the camera pans over the hole, it resembles a pure random noise pattern rather than an authored texture implying consistent defined shape. Almost immediately after this, during a more significant cut-scene, the game uses a (full output resolution) perfectly clean depth of field blur effect (on top of this pixelated aliased 360p rendering) so they're not even actually sticking to the limitations of the low res pixel grid.

I find it a shame that the CRT filter is not enabled by default, because that clearly improves things a bit (especially if you're running it on a nice small 4K monitor so that Trinitron emulation can run some very fine R G B vertical lines through the final result). Unfortunately even this is marred with a flaw I found almost fatal while trying to play in the classic horror settings - night, alone, lights off, sound up, enjoying the perfect inky blacks of an OLED. Some of the noise added in the CRT filter squashes the blacks and whites, destroying pure black OLED output (adding noise compresses the dynamic range unless you carefully account for it, because you can only add noise in one direction to pure white or black - pushing them towards mid-grey).

Immortality - Her Story was a runner-up in my list for 2015 and since then, I don't think any of these games have managed to recapture the same novelty and focus of that game. It has started to feel like the only trick they've got to put forward and while this isn't literally repeating the same mechanic of database searches that was reused in Telling Lies, the ability to click on objects in frozen frames of the footage is a step back in my opinion. The search process for uncovering new snippets of footage is now more random (especially how the linking between frames has been chosen here, with more adventure game "logic" binding between some of them than the well-crafted database keyword lists of previous titles).

I got a couple of hours into unlocking footage and so I did not uncover all secrets and know when I'm satisfied but a lot of the themes it seemed to be touching on didn't draw me. While the productions of era content may have been well processed to give archival quality, I think they reached too far with the FMV production itself in trying to make hours of footage from three theoretical movies plus auxiliary content to the point where stuff looked kinda bad in ways that did not seem to be in-line with the intentional aesthetic of cheap old movies. I think a better gameplay hook would have helped push me through that to unlock the actual meaning behind the clips but it would still have been hard for me to love this threequel that some clearly absolutely love.

Weird West - I need to give this game more time but this was not what I expected from the team who moved on after making Arkane (Dishonored) games. The world seems like something it could be fun to learn more about but the top down gameplay did not have anything about the kinetic focus of the stealth from Arkane games which I find so compelling.

A Memoir Blue - I liked this well enough but in a year with a lot of indie titles doing a lot, this didn't quite do enough for me. A biographical exploration story with some quite clear budgetary limitations on the fidelity of the rendering, I feel like this has become a very saturated genre with lots of titles published by this new tier of prestige indie publishers (who do a lot of deals to get these games onto subscription services like PS+, GamePass, etc).

Chorus/Chorvs - Really glad that space combat sim games from the original Wing Commander to Descent: Freespace 2 happened during my childhood, where I absolutely loved every second of them. From the freeform movement and combat to the amazing space nebula vistas, from the hammy sci-fi acting to the rather more interesting underlying narratives being strung together to create reasons for several mission archetypes. Because trying to get into this game, I was completely lost to if this was just a bad game or if I'd lost my tastes for the entire genre. Given how friends have reacted to this and how I've not found a space sim to get my teeth into for literally years and years, I suspect it is simply a genre I can no longer get enthused about (insert pithy comment about how I'll likely feel about the eventual Star Citizen: Squadron 42 solo campaign that I paid for back in 2012).

As Dusk Falls - Not sure if the unusual visual style of mixing static animation frames from FMV into 3D rendered scenes, which is what caused everyone to take notice the second a trailer for this arrived, actually does a lot for me. It's certainly a way of conveying emotion from the actors in a fast effective method over the top of the audio performances but when we have stuff like The Callisto Protocol and The Quarry showing what digitising actors can do in current engines, I'm not sure about this throwback with clearly high production values. Didn't get far enough into the story to know if it goes anywhere interesting.

Norco - Maybe I come back to this in a few years and love it but nothing about that first hour or two hooked me visually or narratively. Another game some are very much loving so worth trying for yourself.

Trek to Yomi - This game seemed fun for the few hours I played it and has a lot of style. The budget limits come through in some of the animations but the post-processing is excellent from a team who have been really able to do stuff with their tech for years (Hard Reset from 2011 still sticks with me as interesting indie rendering choices).

I missed them last year but really enjoyed this year - Death's Door; Boyfriend Dungeon; Omno; Life Is Strange: True Colors; Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy; Road 96.

List of 'Best on PS5' [Coming to PC Later?] games when PS5 is more expensive than last year so definitely not hardware I'm buying yet - Horizon 2: Forbidden West; God of War: Ragnarok; Gran Turismo 7.

To play, hopefully with a new well-priced GPU, in 2023 - Pentiment; A Plague Tale: Requiem; Terra Invicta; Syberia: The World Before; Total Warhammer III; Return to Monkey Island; Somerville; Expeditions: Rome; Scorn; Elden Ring; Stray; Marvel's Midnight Suns; The Callisto Protocol; Dying Light 2; Evil West; The Last of Us Part I; The Quarry & The Devil In Me; Hard West II; CoD: MWII (the second, not the remake or the first MW2).

Friday 31 December 2021

Games of the Year 2021

With my GPU going well past its fifth birthday (currently sitting next to a CPU that's a bit newer than that but still no longer exactly new), this was a great year for really focusing on older games and those 100 hour RPGs that seem to build up in the backlog. Because PC games will always look better next year, including the ones released years ago (thanks to nice 4K screens and the endless work of tweakers and modders to push what older engines can do). But, despite putting a few games down in anticipation of when the GPU market finally returns to normal prices and stock availability in the future, I did manage to complete some new games too.

    Beavers of the Year:


This little city builder game about beavers building up a post-human society while preparing for seasonal droughts has been eating up my time this year. In Early Access, plenty of things are going to change before it is completed but there's already something here worth diving into, starting from the question "what if beaver Banished?" The answer is both significantly more adorable and possibly going to end up being mechanically more interesting than that 2014 indie hit. You know the drill: place blueprints, assign jobs, and make sure the needs of your critters are satisfied so that you can continue on into the future. Do it right and you can grow a small community into a thriving town. Mess around and, like Cities Skylines, find out just how water simulation can ruin your day.

This game had public demos early in the year then went into full Early Access a few months ago, with the first major update to the stable branch hitting a few weeks ago and a public experimental branch for all owners if you can't wait for those changes to percolate down. The development process currently needs to figure out a few teething issues with later colony management (how do I efficiently get resources moved around storage zones and prevent all these beavers from doing lots of inefficient work rather than smartly managing jobs so haulers wait to move logs from the active chopping areas to where they are needed) but you'll take a dozen or more hours to get to the point where this is holding you back. Before that you already have two family types who have interesting tech trees to develop down and slowly master the various scenario locations by building plenty of dams and vertically arranging your cities.

    Civ of the Year:


I say I love Civilization (specifically that sub-genre of historical non-space 4X game) because I've played hundreds (thousands?) of hours of those games and loved my time with them. Civ 2 is very hard to go back to and the undifferentiated civs somewhat flattens it (just like going back to an RTS when everything was mirror matches rather than imbuing factions with mechanical character). I find Civ 4 is starting to get hard to go back to because so much has moved to hexes now and the death stacks plus AI spiral of hatred makes the latter game less than amazing. Civ 5 was my first "wait, do I like the last one more" but probably I'd say that despite the happiness mechanic brutally punishing expansion, it's probably the game I'd play the most today. Civ 6 feels like it tried to fix 5 and failed, even if merging units to create semi-stacks kinda works and the other changes help move it away from constantly butting against constraints (I have not played the expansions - I bounced off it that hard; especially when they sold a New Frontier Pass or Anthology Edition because they wanted even more paid DLC after the two full expansions shipped).

But before Civ 6 was introducing districts to expand your city on the actual map (despite still only allowing you to grow into the classic 3 tile range of your centre and not allowing more than one of any district type - making them little more than added costs before you could build up the specialist building stack in any city), a little game called Endless Legend was already doing districts. It was a fantasy 4X game which is definitely not a Civ-like: important hero units, customising equipment like a space 4X (MOO style), and turning quests into far more of an RPG layer to name but a few features. That team is now back with their own actual Civ-like and I found it excellent.

Humankind in some respects resembles Civ 6, although this is certainly not a clone (especially, as noted above, some of those Civ 6 similarities come from a previous game from this team doing their own spin on districts etc before Civ did). Another way to consider it is that this is a look at what an alternative evolution of Civ 4 might look like today. The path not taken by Firaxis. Unit stacks exist but are limited and work very differently as combat resolves in a mini turn-based battle on the hexes around where combat started (including options for reinforcements if any other stacks are close). Districts grow a city (bounded by population and local happiness) but are not unique or a storage block for other buildings but those cities are places on pre-defined geographic areas they control and automatically work by proximity not a population placement mechanic. Each area can be joined to a city to form larger blocks or put under provisional control via a cheap outpost where provisional control does not enforce hard borders so skirmishes happen far more often. The list goes on and on but every inch of this game feels Civ-like (as each actual Civ sequel may change any given mechanic but still retains the feel) - just not a Civ you've ever played before.

What feels so incredibly fresh about Humankind is the way you can actually have a bit of friction with other Civs without it becoming a diplomatic nightmare or some endless war that builds and explodes in the later game. Endless Legend modelled this as earlier encounters being flagged as in the age of skirmishes - when border conflicts were normal but not formally war between nations - before you developed formal relations technologies. The use of outposts to cheaply control land with only what armies you can muster to enforce a demand for a border there do much the same here. The casus belli mechanics here also feel a lot more like a Paradox title (in fact, I'd love an expansion that moved even further into Paradox war mechanics with preparing frontlines and supply lines when formal war does break out) than how it worked in Civ 6. You also have a pre-city era where you scout the map and hunt wild animals for resources before you establish yourself, so everyone starts out with far more local awareness than a Civ race to found.

But what I've also done here is buried the lede: each era (which you race towards via getting stars in various categories rather than just racing on scientific research) you get to pick a new civ which combines an eternal perk that lasts into the future with era-specific perks that make it a lot like a modern Civ game but you're not trapped chasing the win condition based on the perks you picked before the game begins. If you need to get a boost to science or your economy or are about to start a large war then you can tailor your perks to that, assuming your pick isn't already taken by someone else getting to the era first and taking them. There are also some catch-up mechanics to give slower players a bit of assistance despite having their choices limited, although I hear this works less well in an online game against other actual players (I primarily play my Civ games solitaire). This is a feature I will find it hard to go back to playing without in other games. But with Humankind and Old World showing there is more to Civ-likes than just Firaxis games, this sub-genre feels healthier than ever before.

    Time Loop of the Year:

The Forgotten City

A proven idea prototyped out as a finished game mod (here for Skyrim) then supported via various loans and grants for the arts so it can become a full commercial release (here moving to Unreal Engine)? This is a great example of where things are working the way we say they should from when it used to be a bit more common to pay attention to mods (and the free SDKs that enabled them were more prominent in AAA gaming). It may have taken five years to make but this small team have crafted something that feels both entirely itself and also the sort of thing you'd make if you prototyped everything inside Skyrim, right down to how the conversation camera zooms in to show who you're talking to (without worrying about the budget for a cinematic conversation camera system).

You are a modern day traveller who has awoken on the banks of a river as a mysterious figure asks you to explore the surroundings and find a missing stranger who just recently walked past. In very short order, you are flung back to a tiny Roman civilization trapped in an underground city and cursed by the Gods to ask what is the nature of sin, for breaking the rules will unleash an armageddon destroying everyone there. But the current leader has done a side deal with one of the deities and when that final day comes, they can rewind time back to the previous morning. This is where you come in: you must talk to everyone here, find out who is going to break the rules, and stop them. If you fail, run for the portal that brought you in and the day will restart.

What follows is an engaging adventure game that's almost entirely about talking to characters, working out what's actually going on, and making sure everyone does what you want them to on this loop or making sure next loop you have in your pocket the thing you're currently missing (theft is definitely a sin here, but what's one more iteration of the loop if you really need to pickpocket that trinket and know you can make it back to the portal easily from here). Where does the writing land? If this had come out when I was an undergrad, it would probably have topped my GotY list. There is also plenty of smart game design around making sure you rarely have to do things multiple times, because someone will give you a hand if you tell them what you did last time so they can effectively advance the loop how you need it without repetition. There is also about an hour of combat through what I found a very interesting side story, which is entirely optional and warns you that it can get a bit scary and involves lots of aiming (presumably finding that some people found the mod was otherwise fun without this chunk that mixes up the gameplay significantly). Everything here feels polished by having tried it all before during the mod prototype.

    Halo of the Year:

Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye

My game of the year 2019 finally got some DLC that expands that solar system with another celestial body while explaining another facet of the history of that mysterious universe? Obviously, sign me up for another trip to Timber Hearth.

What you get, after discovering how something you could never see before has been hiding in plain sight, is a miniature halo world which, like the rest of the game, runs on its own clockwork timer as you count down to the supernova. If you've played the main game then you know roughly what to expect with lots of discovery and only the computer in your ship tracking what you've found between loops. What you don't expect, unless you've seen the trailer for this DLC, is the significantly more immediate horror elements (rather than the pure existential dread of spelunking between the ruins of a long-dead race in the original) that creep into this world and then creep up on you as you explore into the second new area. I will keep it vague to avoid spoiling any of the major reveals because this game and DLC is all about discovery but I will say that the remixed and expanded mechanics on offer here keep things fresh and I couldn't wait to find out where the story of this particular halo was going. My only complaint is that this DLC integrates fully into the existing game without giving a real narrative close to things with a bespoke ending (how the story concludes didn't have the finality I wanted and the small addition to the main ending doesn't get me to where I wanted to get). Given the main game provides several early endings that provided alternative firm closes to various avenues, I was surprised to not see one more ending available here (unless I just missed the signs and couldn't work out how to unlock it).

    Survivor of the Year:

Subnautica: Below Zero

I came to this series a bit late (given it had an extensive Early Access period 2014-2018) and thoroughly enjoyed my time descending into the depths with Subnautica. Combining a single designed underwater world (no procgen or other randomisation more typical of this crafting survival sub-genre) with light narrative hooks (hints of Alien, but not aping that aesthetic at all) and a good mechanical progression through the various survival and habitat building paths, you get just enough discovery and crafted events in the original to feel a bit special. Explore the world, work out what's going on, then work out how you're going to solve it. Build then upgrade the submersible to enable you to travel deeper, which will unlock various parts of the story and access to resources you need to build the next tier of upgrades or a new thing. By the time they stopped patching it, everything was a bit slick and the modding community had even given you a few more options (from new crafting options to an entire map system that filled in the areas you'd travelled to rather than relying on just the navigational beacons and compass).

Below Zero is the standalone expansion that takes place on an entirely new area with significantly more above-water area and a lot more story. There are actual characters you will encounter and talk with along with a lot more story to discover about the planet the previous character was stranded on and what happened both before anyone arrived and after they left. A lot of the tech tree is back and lightly tweaked with new recipes to match the different resources available in this area. The visuals push things up to show off more land, demonstrate the colder climate and more varied weather, and make sure the different biomes always look their best. While billed as not a full sequel, I took about 20 hours to play through Below Zero (about the same as the original game) and cannot imagine playing an eventual sequel without knowing the story of this (which seems far more like the setup for that sequel, especially given what this one says about what happened after the original game). I will say that I did not hugely care for the new vehicles introduced in this but then my old Prawn was something I'd mastered in the original and took me through this handily. There is just enough of an edge of the horror part of survival horror (which the crafting survival sub-genre is linked to) in this series to keep you on your toes, although it is definitely not a combat game and most of it can be played at quite a leisurely pace, full of vistas that generate awe with only brief interludes of panicked fleeing. Putting this game right next to a section on Outer Wilds definitely gets my synapses firing, even if I'd not say they exactly shared a genre (but the Immersive Sim DNA is evident in both).

    Sequel of the Year:

Psychonauts 2

In the years since Psychonauts released in 2005, the abandoned result of a Microsoft publishing deal gone south, lots of people have discovered and loved it. I'm about 60% with them. The other 40% is that this was never a game that was good to play, even before we'd totally standardised joypad action-platforming controls, and something about the actual technical art is just supremely disappointing. You can kinda see what they wanted to do but couldn't, be that from budgetary restraints, trying to get a project to the finish line after being dropped by the publisher, or just tech limitations with the studio dev pipeline at the time.

In a supremely good turn of fortune, the sequel that was originally crowdfunded but later finished off with the backing of now-studio-owner Microsoft (funny how the circle turns) looks exactly how you'd want it to in 2021. What's more, it generally plays well too. I've never been a huge fan of the 3D platformer and related genres but sometimes the quality of the writing and interesting varied gameplay and visuals will keep me going and this is the perfect example of having more than enough ideas to sustain the duration of the game then also sticking the landing with actually implementing those ideas into something that plays well. No 60% agree on this one - it's a 100% banger!

We are getting to the place where "of course it looks like an animated movie" is starting to seep into our expectations but that shouldn't take away from how well Psychonauts 2 manages to capture some of the style behind the first game while actually making it look really good. Unreal Engine is once again doing a very solid job rendering everything in pop-out vibrant colours that the artists aimed for while also giving a cohesive set of effects to ground the various elements no matter how fantastical their inspiration. Even looking at it from a purely technical perspective, it's doing most everything right. Wrap it up in the narrative chops the studio is well known for (reaching into the minds of the various characters presented), shake with a few catchy musical numbers, and serve.

    RTS of the Year:

Age of Empires IV

Ensemble Studios made Age of Empires II in 1999. Over 20 years later, made by Relic Entertainment, this is effectively Age of Empires II-2. Everything you remember (possibly refreshed by the recent remaster of that earlier game) is basically here with a few new spins and a lot of new flourishes around the edge. The several faction campaigns (which I hope will be expended over time with campaigns for the remaining factions and even some new factions added to the game) draw you through some lavishly produced documentary videos explaining the history of the time and then dumping you into a short scenario map that allows you to have a bit of fun on something that approximates what the documentary was talking about, including with additional VO narrating the events as they occur in the scenario itself. It's a good binding layer that ties the RTS together while also offering little bites of historical facts about the actual events from primarily Northern Eurasian history.

We do not get many classic RTSs and this is as classic as you can possibly get. It feels like how you remember those old games looking and playing, while actually bringing them into the modern era (unfortunately this means the actual game looks a lot more like a nicer version of a 20 year old classic rather than the initial menu and interstitial loading screens, which have an amazing gold-lined style that could look really good if implemented into the game itself). You also get a bit of variation with the faction designs moving forward and offering something slightly different when it comes to things like a nomadic faction who can pack up every building and who are meant to slowly deplete rock outcrops rather than rapidly mining them with many workers. It never feels like you'd be better off just going back to the AoE2 remake from a few years ago.

AoE4 also ensures that new players who are brought into this series via the ease of GamePass will not feel completely lost. I've been obsessively playing RTSs since Dune 2 in 1992 or maybe even Mega-Lo-Mania in 1991 (depending where you call the origin of the current RTS design) so some of the tutorials are not really something I can fully judge. But giving them a quick look over, and how the first couple of faction campaigns operate as elaborate tutorials for most of the core mechanics shared by all factions, it all seems like the sort of onboarding that will ensure someone isn't lost. If anyone wants to take it further, the game quickly highlights online multiplayer and practicing for that via AI skirmishes. But even if you just go through the campaigns, this isn't light on content.

    Rest of the Year:
Forza Horizon 5 - The sequel to Forza Horizon 4 is exactly what you expect the sequel to that game to be. Some of the visuals are definitely a step up thanks to being a cross-gen title for a new console generation but the underlying engine is still having increasing issues keeping foliage shimmer and other sources of aliasing under control when it only has MSAA (which is way too expensive if you force transparency MSAA in the drivers on PC to be a realistic option on my current system) to work with. Imagine what this would look like with a DLSS/XeSS patch on PC to clean everything up while also reducing the internal resolution so that it can run at even higher framerates consistently. They also clearly tweaked AI difficulty somewhat, especially in dirt events and it seems even more "win by a mile or never even have a chance because you start at the back of the pack" than before (all assists off, top difficulty) so maybe that could do with a few more iterations (before the expiring car licenses permanently delists this and any accumulated content updates or DLC in a few years).

Outriders - Some have called this a B game or ripped out of the PS360 generation but with a large online endgame, modern look, and responsive gameplay, this felt completely current to me. The disconnect may simply be that the narrative doesn't aim for the Sony house style or where the Call of Duty crowd has ended up. But B game is certainly not an accurate assessment of the assets on show, which are right up there with other AAA releases from big publishers (everything about this is a step up from when this team made a Gears of War title). From a technical perspective, I do not understand calling this "budget" while remaining absolutely silent on how Metroid Dread is priced as a AAA game but competes almost entirely with $20 indie titles (which look no more constrained by budget). Outriders is a good loot shooter with plenty of optional missions to give you reasons to return to the quite linear path through their interesting world. My main gripe is the tone never quite settles down and this comes to a crescendo near the end when they choose to place some combat encounters in an abandoned concentration camp (which would have been a lot more effective as a hauntingly silent walk).

The Riftbreaker - Part base builder, part top-down action shooter. This is one of those little hits that bubbles out of nowhere and possibly will not be remembered by that many in a few years but was fun while it lasted. The use of persistent bases that you move between, with different environmental hazards in each region and a slowly explored tech tree, creates a good campaign flow that feels unlike a traditional RTS but also not just a tower defence level-based game. Layer the (chatty - with generally enjoyable VO) mech suit you pilot on top as a super-unit in a game otherwise devoid of controllable units while infested by a lot of hostile critters and waves of attacks - it's both quite frantic and something where you feel you can usually come back as long as you put your attention in the right place. We haven't had a lot of RTS games, classic or slightly weird variants, for a while so this was something to savour.

Sable - This really wowed quite a few people but I have to say it didn't hit me nearly as hard. The visuals reflect their influence well but something about the aliased edges really rubbed me the wrong way about how to digitise the original art style. To the point I injected FXAA and fixed it for myself (something the sparse graphics options do not offer). It's very much an open world game that's more about the act of traversal (both climbing and by customisable ship) than much of the actual fetch quests you get during your travels. What the story said about finding your place in the world: that bit was a big miss for me.

Exo One - This is just an incredibly visually lush experience. You control a probe, built to specifications beamed into the solar system, and have the power to increase your local gravity tenfold or reshape into a disc that glides on the breeze. Travel through several planetoids as you try to make sense of what happened after taking control of the probe but really this is a game about vibes and enjoying the act of traversal.

Next Space Rebels - I didn't see this bothering too many people's lists but I did want to just make a note of it because Kerbal Space Program but with a full narrative wrapper (around YouTube toy rocket stars and dark shadowy internet land-grabs, all done with FMV) isn't something you see every month. The 2D rocket designer never quite matched the precision of KSP and neither did the actual flight controls but at least people are trying to make their own spin on the formula. More of this sort of thing.

Myst (2021) - Name another game that has, for a single game world - so direct remasters/rebuilds only not stealth sequels or other offshoots - been rendered both by offline render (1993) + real-time (realMyst onward) during different iterations and has used their own internal 3D engine (realMyst using Plasma), Unity (realMyst: Masterpiece Edition), and Unreal Engine (2021). This 2021 rebuild of the classic 1993 game (based on the work done last year for a VR port) completely remakes everything once more and clearly eclipses the original offline renders in every single way. Is it the best adventure game for modern tastes? Not really but if you half-remember most of the puzzles and haven't played one of these 3D remakes in almost twenty years then it's quite fun to go back.

Twelve Minutes - I didn't hate this nearly as much as the eventual critical consensus but I also went in after the discourse had said it doesn't stick the landing so buyer (and pre-release hype believer) beware. I quite liked the VO performances, felt the eventual plot twist was gratuitous but no worse than what many reach for looking for shock value, and enjoyed working out the path through the loop - even if I possibly didn't find them all. (Why was Dafoe playing two different roles in an identical voice? Was that ever explained?)

Unpacking - This hit a lot of people's lists but was a bit too slight for me to rank it in my top games. A short sweet tale of environmental storytelling you can finish off in a single sitting.

    Waiting for a PS5 or New GPU:
Everything new in VR - The Valve Index deserves it; Scarlet Nexus - Something about how the PC port runs isn't quite right but hopefully a patch, mods, or brute force GPU power can fix it; The Medium - Beautiful survival horror slash adventure game? Can't wait; Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy - I didn't mind the story part of "the bad" Eidos Marvel game last year so looking forward to a universally liked one; Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart - PS5 exclusive is PS5 exclusive; Returnal - Run-based action shooter that dials the particles up to 11? Ok; Halo Infinite - A year of post-release patches and a new GPU should make this sing (please add DLSS/XeSS because the current TAA upscale is… definitely something); Deathloop - DXR visuals are worth waiting for, along with the online being reinvigorated by what I expect will be a big Xbox and GamePass release in a year; Resident Evil Village - RE7 was very good in VR and on PC but given the lack of the former here, I'm sat waiting for them to fully fix that completely broken PC port; Kena: Bridge of Spirits - Lovely animation and a consistent art design (worth playing looking its best); The Ascent - Top-down ARPG fun but a bit too heavy for my current GPU.

    To Play Next Year:
Even in another quiet year, some titles I just didn't find time to play. Luckily they will still be there next year, along with everything else in my backlog. The Artful Escape, Shin Megami Tensei V, Far Cry 6, Tales of Arise, Inscryption, Life Is Strange: True Colors, Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes, Hitman 3, Lost Judgment, NEO: The World Ends with You, The Gunk, Oddworld: Soulstorm, Biomutant, Recompile.

Monday 30 August 2021

Intel XeSS: Joining nVidia in Tensor-Accelerated TAAU

Back in May I wrote about the evolution of per-pixel rendering costs, expecting the imminent announcement of AMD's next generation temporal upscaling technique, offering a competitor to DLSS 2.x that would run on hardware from multiple vendors and even provide a fully open source option to inspect or even improve upon (if it wasn't a perfect match to one vendor's underlying hardware) the offered technology. That ended up not happening and FidelityFX Super Resolution, while an interesting alternative to more basic spatial upsampling, didn't quite match my hopes for some real competition to nVidia's RTX-only DLSS.

I had started a draft post on implementing FidelityFX Super Resolution into your own engine but really, I'm not sure how much it adds. If you want to run a more expensive upscale to retain far more sharpness than bilinear (so not something where you're going to be also doing a blur afterwards) or you're already doing an expensive sharpening pass like FidelityFX CAS after an (optional) upscale pass then you absolutely should drop in FidelityFX Super Resolution any place where you'd otherwise be thinking about the value of Lanczos (because that's roughly what it is). As others have noted by now, this is already a choice players make because modern GPUs (when not doing upscale on the output monitor) implement this when setting the internal resolution lower than the output/native resolution of your system - I've often been quite happy running AAA titles at 1800p for a 4K screen (as long as the anti-aliasing was good) and FSR is an enhancement on that path (increasing quality with the option to composite the UI and any pixel-scale noise, like a film grain effect, at native res after the upscale).

Intel XeSS

What has recently re-energised my interest in upscaling techniques is the Intel Architecture Day announcement of XeSS. A next generation temporal upscaling technique, offering a competitor to DLSS 2.x that will run on hardware from multiple vendors and even provide a fully open source option (at some as yet unknown future date). So I had vaguely the right timescale for an announcement but had bet on the wrong non-nVidia GPU company making it.

XeSS outlined
DLSS 2.x outlined

We do not have full access to XeSS so for now we only have a rough roadmap of releases starting with the initial SDK for use with their Arc series of GPUs (hardware that will not become available until early 2022). The design of the new Arc (Xe-HPG) series goes hard on matrix (Tensor) accelerators and so it is a natural fit to offer something broadly comparable to DLSS, which is accelerated by these AI/Tensor cores. Intel is actually investing even more of their GPU into matrix acceleration than nVidia, so expect a major push to ensure software supports XeSS rather than leaving that silicon idle when running the latest AAA releases.

From the outline we have been provided by Intel, it is easy to see that beyond the similar hardware being tapped to run deep learning algorithms, the inputs are also very similar to nVidia's DLSS 2.x. We have a jittered low resolution input frame along with motion vectors noting the velocity of each pixel and a history buffer of previous frames from which to extract information (which, even when showing a totally static scene, provides additional information thanks to the moving jitter pattern). The only additional information nVidia are explicit about collecting with their API is an exposure value (although the current SDK, 2.2.1, has added an auto-exposure function since these nVidia slides were published) and the depth buffer (which Intel may implicitly include as part of the complete input frame).

Intel in comments to the press have discussed the possibility of the industry converging to a common standard for DL upscaling APIs, allowing almost drop-in dll swaps to make it trivial to support various alternatives. The way this is talked about as a future development means it is unlikely that the initial release of XeSS will be a drop-in dll replacement for DLSS 2.x (using identically named functions/entry-points and settings ranges). Although it remains to be seen how difficult it may be for ingenious hackers to work out how to bridge the differences and allow current DLSS titles to run a bootleg XeSS mode under the hood in the future (of course, not condoned by Intel itself).

DLSS time savings
XeSS time savings
DLSS savings scaling

This brings us to a major point of differentiation (vs nVidia) and something very exciting to various users stuck with our current supply-constrained GPU market (which will not improve sufficiently to allow everyone to upgrade to an RTX card even by late next year): XeSS will provide a fallback mode that runs (be it somewhat slower) on GPUs without hardware (XMX) matrix acceleration. Added to nVidia for Pascal (Series 10), AMD for Vega, and Intel for Xe-LP on Tiger/Rocket Lake (11th Gen Core processors) there are some AI acceleration instructions for Int8 operations (DP4a) that can provide quadruple the throughput for dot products on packed Int8 values in comparison to 32-bit operations - this is effectively a mid-ground between trying to run AI workloads as generic shaders and getting the full acceleration of dedicated Tensor units.

With Intel so invested in matrix acceleration, it becomes more evident that AMD are being left behind - even mobile chips ship with limited amounts of this form of hardware acceleration (as I noted in 2019) - so this fallback is providing a vital half-step (which should more than pay for itself with the reduction in rendering cost of a lower resolution input image with no need for antialiasing). This also applies to the current consoles, which notably didn't get left behind on ray tracing acceleration but are starting to look down a long generational window without hardware matrix acceleration. The Xbox Series of consoles offers something equivalent to DP4a via DirectML (and Microsoft have said they are working on their own DL upscaling technique for use on those consoles in the future) but we don't yet know if Sony have an answer for the PS5.

In interviews it sounds like Intel are, at least initially, reserving the XMX path for their own Arc GPUs (despite nVidia RTX cards having equivalent matrix acceleration) so it will be a case of DLSS only on RTX going up against XeSS XMX (fast) only on Arc and XeSS DP4a (slower) everywhere else. But you could read the answers as being open to others coming in and dropping in their own engine (say nVidia Tensor engine rather than being forced down the fallback codepath on DP4a), but maybe not before Intel releases the full source code (for which a timeframe is not provided). In that DF interview there is also the suggestion of potential future developments where laptops do the main rendering on a dGPU then hand it off to the iGPU, where it has Intel matrix accelerators to run the final stages (XeSS upsample, composite UI etc). Given that current laptops with a discrete GPU already pass the completed 3D render to the iGPU to output via direct connection to the screen, this would only be an incremental step forward (rather than completely reinventing the path a frame takes today).

One can even imagine, looking at the announced AVX-VNNI instructions for consumer CPUs and AMX instructions for server CPUs, a future where those people working on interesting software renderers could stay entirely on the CPU while taking advantage of DL upscaling, assuming there was enough throughput that was power efficient enough to provide a worthwhile wow factor. Real-time software renderers are not competitive with modern GPU-accelerated renderers (an embarrassingly parallel problem on hardware designed around accelerating just that) but they are still an interesting hobby niche that may enjoy playing with this new area of technology.

Non-DL-based clamping limitations
DL-based denoising limitations

Going back to a more broad discussion, the reason for this excitement around DL upscaling (as I hopefully outlined in my previous post) is that it avoids the poor TAA performance of rejecting or clamping values from the history buffer, which has evident detail loss or failure states around higher frequency information (as nVidia have made clear in their talks on this topic). When the buffer can be fully utilised, a well managed jittered history can reconstruct a lot of detail for any element that has already been onscreen for a couple of frames (with anything that hasn't been onscreen liable to be masked behind a motion blur) despite using an internal resolution significantly below native output. Direct competition between two different implementations should provide even more impetus for advancement in this area. We are only scratching the surface of what deep learning algorithms can do to enhance our current rendering techniques.

Of course, there are some problems that nVidia have considered potentially intractable, such as the many types of noise that their DLSS 2.x approach cannot deal with (as it cannot provide a generalised solution that accounts for all noise types) and so, if it cannot be avoided, must be denoised before DLSS is applied. This is something that can force a traditional TAA stage (at a non trivial rendering and memory cost) back into engines that would otherwise be able to drop it entirely; the ultimate goal being only relying on the antialiasing of DLSS to provide exceptional final results. Intel offers a second set of engineers looking at such problems who may have fresh insights into what is possible. Microsoft are working on their own Xbox DL upscaling. There are signs Sony are up to something too. While AMD did not announce their plans in this area with the recent announcement of FSR, I am still convinced that the future of AMD GPUs will involve Tensor units and that they will justify that use of transistors with a DLSS-a-like - but we will maybe be waiting for RDNA3 in late 2022 before we get that piece of the puzzle. For now, Intel are in the spotlight and anyone with a vaguely recent GPU (even the most recent iGPUs) is being invited to come along.