Saturday, 29 December 2018

Games of the Year 2018

So in recent years I've been doing this based on games that released (1.0 versions) in a given year. But as we talk of living games and Early Access, there's a lot more going on that maybe makes this harder to do right. I'm going to generally try to keep to that broad concept - a list of new, complete games of that year that stood out to me - while maybe considering a lot of games that are for sale but didn't necessarily announce a 1.0 version number. The big addition is games that feel close to release and could be seen as the equivalent of many 1.0 titles that go on to get bigger via incremental patches.

The previous requirement to see a 1.0 number has led to some slightly weirdness. When considering RimWorld's 1.0 release in the later part of this year, I'm considering a game I mainly played (and even wrote about) almost two years ago. Maybe that would have made more sense to be considered last year or even in 2016. I haven't talked about Factorio much here but I've been enjoying that once more and it's getting close to that 0.17 release which is basically feature complete and lays the way for a 0.18 update in early 2019 that will be the official 1.0. That seems like a game that can be considered for this year's list. Slay the Spire is missing their expected 1.0 release window but it's been close to done since I first talked about it.

On the other side of the fence, Mashinky continues to see new development along a roadmap but is very much not done in the way those earlier games are. I think it's not up for this year's list despite having really enjoyed the game as it exists so far. There is a clear point in each playthrough where you reach the end of the line and find the "coming soon" notice - it's not just a game that will get deeper with patches, it feels like the core progression is still very much being built (as a normal part of Early Access). The final balance of the progression may well change significantly during polishing because we don't even know how a full run plays out yet. Rounding out the examples, Life is Strange 2 is in no way finished yet so will be considered for next year. While Half-Life 2 had 'Episodes' as standalone expansions, LiS is this more modern understanding of seasons that work as one cohesive package (released at a reasonable pace and purchased as a season bundle).


    Strategic 'Mech of the Year:

BattleTech

My first taste of BattleMechs made digital was the oft-forgotten Westwood RPG (back before they were known only as an RTS studio) BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk's Inception from 1988. Two years later the turn-based combat gave way to real-time tactics battles in the sequel, The Crescent Hawks' Revenge, and paved the way for Dune II and ultimately Command & Conquer. That universe became lore I absorbed over decades of various games as the original wargame designers built their own FASA Interactive team and then Microsoft acquired them (leading to a slow decline). But Jordan Weisman is back crowdfunding all his old IPs and showing there is value left in them (previously: the recent Shadowrun RPGs). So BattleMechs are back on the menu and it's time to go back to basics with a turn-based tactics RPG.

The individual skirmishes in BattleTech are just some of the most chewy tactical decisions around, with plenty of damage output and equally lots of armour that'll evaporate when you block that incoming fire. As I said when it came out, you can just play and play that layer but it's the arc of the strategic layer that really binds it all together and turns the grinder of each mission into a desperate search for the next contract between the story missions. Much of that has been further tweaked over time and several mods (and an official expansion) have really refined everything so you can get the challenge you demand to match the tone of the game. My view hasn't changed much since I wrote up that review (and the news the developer is now a Paradox subsidiary, so potentially a lot of piecemeal DLC is planned after this current season of expansions) and I expect to head back for even more in 2019 as they slowly expand the combat scenarios and develop the strategic layer with DLCs.


    Platformer of the Year:

Astro Bot: Rescue Mission

I'm not a huge platformer fan. They're fine but I started out on hardware that was never great at them - lack of hardware support for scrolling meant each screen was much more about what we now call (action-)adventure rather than the purity of smooth platforming. I've enjoyed myself some Sonic recently but since the industry move to 3D, I've not found much that really pushes me towards the purity of jumping (when I can get more from games that incorporate that into a larger genre as good traversal). But there's something about VR that really helps ground you and physically peering round for secrets and hidden locations is a delight that I'll probably not even start to tire of for a few more years. Collecting all the things while bashing the baddies in a kid-friendly environment is just more fun as we wait for VR to become capable of supporting bigger games (Homeworld: VR when?) where that's just one element (Assassin's Creed isn't scheduled to become a VR title soon with VR's limited play times to avoid simulator sickness).

While still constrained by the limited GPU of the PS4 (you're not getting nearly the anti-aliasing you need for great VR visuals), Astro Bot is a really clean looking game that oozes light charm and playfulness. The sound helps set that stage but it's little things like bumping the playable character with your controller as you both float in space between levels that is not just playful but helps fix you in the world. Oh, a glowing orb during the short loading screens? I bet I can bounce that with my controller... *orb bounces with a satisfying chime sound*. The game itself is pretty traditional for a platformer, with enough variety to keep it engaging for the eight odd hours it takes to play through it. Hit checkpoints, collect coins, rescue the other robots (who fly up and into the controller you're holding - VR is still somewhat magical when the tracking works perfectly so you see the controller exactly as you're holding it but with the freedom to render it however the game wants), figure out the puzzles and secrets. That rarely used touchpad on the DS4 gets a good workout (will be a shame if the PS5 comes out and cost-saves that out of existence). You already probably know what this is, it's a very good one of those and one of the best games to showcase VR (sorry Lucky's Tale, the bar has risen significantly).


    Tomb Raiding of the Year:

God of War

I love me some Tomb Raider. But as we come to the conclusion of the most recent trilogy with Shadow of the Tomb Raider, I'm left feeling like the initial step forward in the reboot didn't find enough further progress and the narrative left me pining for 2013's ensemble cast (and what they might have done with developing those bonds). But this is a God of War sequel, why start talking Lara's recent escapades? Surprisingly enough, this is the sequel to that 2013 game I wanted: an action-adventure around a semi-open world; quite linear chapters with wide paths and a lot more open areas and reasons to return to collect items or complete side-quests in any order. The world feels more concrete and open (and is certainly less linear in how you approach the different quests) without sacrificing the crafted story and potential for an evolving environment (with some gating and areas that transform as the main plot changes, without making anything inaccessible). As we've seen Uncharted: The Lost Legacy start to poke at wider paths, Lara is starting to look outdated five years after popularising the transition (that avoids falling fully into the open worlds that feel like a different genre).

That's a lot of words about other games but it's important to understand this new God of War as being very much in a new lineage as well as being a sequel to the previous games in the series. The director having previously worked on the Tomb Raider reboot before taking on this project with a list of ideas that didn't make it there (like the camera that never cuts) is how to understand what is on offer here. The major genre-switch from those games being the primarily "stylish action" melee combat in place of ranged weapons or playing for stealth.

The story of family bonds, while leaning on a small mainly-male cast of often-stereotypes, is elevated by the performances and quality of rendering. Christopher Judge perfectly leads the VO cast in a game always ready to fill traversal with anecdotes (which have plenty of spaces to trail off and get continued later as you break for action) and then provide useful information during combat (where the close camera makes calling out attacks as vital as the danger indicator arrows). The core narrative feels like it's something much more reasonable (20 hours?) than what you're finding in open worlds this year (eg RDR2, AC:O) without there not being stuff worth doing if you've got 20-30 more hours you want to put into getting deep into the craftable equipment and ability upgrade trees or just hearing some more anecdotes and side stories while catching the amazing sights - Sony continuing to show how far devs can push their system. Huge areas of the game world are left for optional quest lines on top of a roguelike-like zone (reconfiguring dungeon with a poison mechanic that offers a poison resist gear progression to finally crack it with a run to the treasures at the core) and combat (challenge) arena zone.

I usually open my GotY post (or give the top picture slot) to the game that is my top game that year (everything else is not even trying to be ordered by preference) and this year I've flipped between this and BattleTech a few times. Ultimately, the performances here elevate a story that is too reliant on clichés (and women who are dead or wish to die - the small cast doesn't help allow a diversity of traits for any marginalised voice included) so despite being a gorgeous game I really enjoyed almost every moment with, it misses out on my top spot. But I really look forward to what comes from this team next and finding out if they course correct on some of the narrative stuff (or do a David Cage and double down on the issues with each iteration).


    Lumines of the Year:

Tetris Effect

Lumines was my most played PSP game. Designed to be something like Tetris (without access to that license) while mixing in the synaesthetic reactive music and visuals the team had worked on a few years earlier with Rez. Now that team is back with the actual license (after offering an update to Rez in VR two years ago) and it's Tetris like you've never seen before, as the surroundings explode around you in VR.

I had a GameBoy back around 1990 so I gave the original game some energy (but never experienced the Tetris effect with it, something I did experience with Arkanoid: Revenge of Doh and Columns around that time) and this takes that gameplay (with the few updates to the official formula now considered standard) to another level. Something about the expertly chosen music, sequenced to grow and adapt to the length of your session and button presses, and the visuals keep everything fresh. So does the decision to make the levels contain slower and faster drop speeds based on progression to a line-clear goal, giving the music slower and faster sections, rather than the constantly increasing speed of the classic game. Beyond the many Journey (campaign) levels that tie different visuals and music to the game, there is also plenty of challenges and leaderboards that ask you to focus on slightly different modifiers that can give you a more chilled experience or force you to deal with a single aspect of the game. Particularly, the Mystery challenge offers some extremely non-standard randomised elements that mix up the Tetris formula.

I'm sure it's great in 2D on a TV but to me the game is another that shows off what VR can do with low latency, making anything musical just perfectly timed and where a fully enclosed environment makes even a classic puzzle game swim around you and put you inside the virtual space.


    Management Sim of the Year:

Factorio

How have I not written about this on here before? It's been a good year for builder games, often incorporating detailed pawn simulation in new ways. The bitter cold and series of bad or worse decisions in Frostpunk built an atmosphere and progression that mixed in a lot of how survival games can weigh you down, all with very impressive visuals (and patched in some additional scenarios beyond the initial campaign). Meanwhile, Surviving Mars randomised the tech tree and offered a range of event chains rather than a limited set of fixed scenarios to mix up each playthrough. And later in this list I'll get to RimWorld.

But Factorio has none of that pawn management; it's a builder with a single (controllable) protagonist who you inhabit while doing much of the construction stuff you'd normally do in a god game. You develop robot helpers in the later stages of each run to provide remote construction and management (usable via the map view that zooms into something that looks like the normal view in areas with radar coverage), at which point you can start playing it more like a builder. It's almost like the modded (huge) tech trees of Minecraft, except this retains the top-down view of classic management games. Ultimately, as I iteratively design these huge chains of machines that take in raw material and convert them to final products which can be used to fund more research or placed to expand the factory, it feels a lot like a more open ended version of the puzzles in many Zachtronics games like Infinifactory.

Always, I keep an eye on the power use of everything, watching the pollution which will waft out and enrage the warrens of hostile creatures that live on the planet I've crashed on. My playstyle leans on efficiency and relatively green operations (while still fundamentally mining out the local resources), unlike the really expansive players who ramp up and consume the world with their endless smog and high power factories. You can dump hour after hour into tweaking designs and working out exactly how best to feed various intermediate stages in the factory process here, which is where I feel it sits next to a Zachtronics game (almost offering a way to gamify circuit layout or similar tasks without overlapping with existing programming-style games around that theme - it's all conveyors, loading arms, basic detectors, circuit conditions, and very simple logic here). It's almost at version 1.0 with a load of great mods (and a simple interface to enable them) and a final rebalancing and polishing pass currently underway so now is a great time to jump into a game that's been in Early Access for years.


    Mouse of the Year:

Moss

Sometimes you just want to listen to a story of a mouse as you play though some action-adventure dioramas that VR allows to look perfectly scaled, allowing you to understand the tiny world you're looking into. Weirdly, this wasn't the only mouse game that arrived earlier in the year; Ghost of a Tale was far more of a full (if unexceptional) RPG but lacked the way VR allows you to really feel the scale of everything. This second VR game on the list (also somewhat of a platformer) is also exuding charm but in a completely different way to Astro Bot. The cuteness is strong here and the mix of direct controller controls and reaching into the scene continues a theme this year or games getting more confident with the additional inputs VR offers while staying with a sitting-down, controller-led experience.


    Runaway Card Combo of the Year:

Slay the Spire

This year Valve brought in MtG creator Richard Garfield to design their new digital card game (that is unfortunately pay to play on top of an initial price tag) and Magic: the Gathering itself got a new digital version with MtG: Arena that more closely mirrors the online play rewarding booster packs used to great effect in Hearthstone (moving away from the buy and trade model used by Artifact and MtG: Online). But the digital card game I really enjoyed this year isn't about buying boosters, it's the purity of roguelike-like deckbuilding. When Slay the Spire left its small beta and arrived on Steam Early Access, I mentioned how complete it already felt. Back then the plan was to call it 1.0 later in the Summer but they decided that 52 weekly patches was what it needed before calling it gold so that means the final release is now imminent.

I didn't spend the entire year going back to slowly refine my card preference and climb up the Ascension ladder (unlocked difficulty modifiers) but I've had a good time with this and been back to enjoy some daily challenges. It's exactly the sort of solid design that means you can dive in and spend a few dozen hours and feel satisfied, not the eternal treadmill of new seasons and boosters (and corresponding demand for more money). That said, now it is almost released, we are hopefully going to see some expansions that add a new character and cards at some point - a good excuse to dive back in once more.


    Pawn (Sim) of the Year:

RimWorld

The current generation of Dwarf Fortress inspired games have managed to move away from being far shallower clones and into the territory of actually offering something different. RimWorld is probably the most popular and it finally fully released this year, quite a different beast from the very early version that just looked like a Prison Architect asset rip.

Crashing onto an inhabited planet, a bunch of pawns who all have their own wants and needs must be wrangled into actually doing the important task of living and building up a colony that can survive raider attacks, wild creatures, and natural disasters all while the seasons turn and friendly factions offer trade (and the opportunity to kidnap new members if you can woo them sufficiently). What if The Sims except occasionally a bunch of marauders turn up and you go into a direct-control battle mode? Oh, and less time spent dictating hobbies and more time making sure there are enough crops harvested and refrigerated before winter or actually constructing the items the commune needs from raw resources all based on skill levels of each pawn. Some of the rougher edges and design decisions around pawn psychology have been tweaked via the vibrant mod community and as the game has developed further towards 1.0 (hitting a few moths ago) then a lot of the older usability mods have become core features in the base game. Today, it's a huge story generator without the learning curve cliff that Dwarf Fortress is best known for.


    Oscar for Just Falling Short Every Time:

Forza Horizon 4

My view of the original Forza Horizon has slightly improved with time (especially as the expansions were fun and the micro-transactions that I cited against it have now infected all of AAA). But my fear of it becoming a semi-annual franchise that fails to evolve sufficiently has really cursed the entire Forza franchise (the main series still finds Forza Motorsport 4 as a pinnacle of design, features, and progression that later games have repeatedly missed). It's a series I keep on not quite giving a space on these lists.

In a year where Need for Speed is totally absent without it being a loss (after repeated failed attempts to release something meaty recently) and The Crew 2 arrived as a step back rather than a confident second title (diversifying vehicles while failing to capture the fun of the dynamic challenges that helped cruising round Weird USA in the first game or even retaining the online racing or bad F&F knock-off story elements). So it's time to evaluate the Horizon spin-off series within the crumbling ruins of open city/world driving games.

Horizon games are still good driving, and that means they're by far the best out there now. A new landscape every two years; enough stuff to dump hour after hour into, becoming familiar with every bend; and some nice tech updates each time (running ahead of the 60fps main series while coming to PC has - sometimes imperfectly - enabled 60 with those shiny new dynamics). This year the new tech involved repainting the landscape for each season, on top of the previous dynamic weather and time of day updates. Unfortunately the weight of all these iterations feels like it has almost crushed the core game, now lacking any sense of progression (outside the carefully paced tutorial hours) as everything rests on the roulette wheel of unlocks and endless treadmills of unlocking events that adapt to whatever vehicle you happen to have unlocked and bring along.

Everything adapts. So nothing ever gets harder or feels like a better vehicle would make easier. Whatever you drive up in will work, unless you pick a road car for an off-road challenge. The slight wrinkle here is winter and how that makes a few more cars unsuitable for the slippery conditions. It also means all of the small challenges dotted around the map (which all share a single leaderboard that doesn't account for the seasonal conditions) become pointless as you wait for summer to actually beat your friends. It feels like a live game (the season cycle weekly based on server time and come with "new" events that are actually just recycled existing events with a new marker over them) and the hourly challenges give a reason to meet up with other actual players and all contribute to some shared goals but it quickly runs out of new challenges to share (many of them are already just the existing small changes with a new communal total every individual attempt adds onto so it's repetition not high-score chasing as a group activity).

The lack of a feeling of real progression extends to every event, which are in the classic categories and almost too numerous to count. They all bring up a list of "balanced" opponents (the algorithm used feels like it needs some tweaking as I've noticed the same buggy selections that infested Forza Motorsport 7 last year) based on whatever you care to drive from your roulette wheel of winnings (gone is selling cars back to the garage so you can't even make some money on a car you don't want unless you're prepared to spend hours on the Auction House selling it to another real player and undercutting anyone else trying to offload yet another car they don't care about because it's all random). You don't even have to try and win an event or push down the assists as the small extra credit bonus for less assists doesn't really matter (when looking at $15m player housing with bonus effect) and not even the map tracks when you actually won anything. It's a mess of inconsistent iconography where only the small map challenges even denote stars for doing more than just finishing something in any time.

And this is the best we have right now, by quite some margin. Hopefully the console generation transition (and being a now wholly owned studio inside the Microsoft beast) will give Playground the impetus and security to try and do more than iterate because if Forza Horizon 5 doesn't radically change the formula, it might be time to put a fork in the open world driving genre. We can all go back to playing remasters of the ten year old Burnout Paradise.



    2017 overflowed with so many games that I missed a lot of 2018, these are all pending:
Exapunks, Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden, Marvel's Spider-Man, Hitman 2 (not Silent Assassin), Assassin's Creed: Odyssey (Xena Simulator), Vampyr, Paratopic, The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories, Into the Breach, Red Dead Redemption 2, Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire, Artifact, Valkyria Chronicles 4, Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, Phantom Doctrine, Frozen Synapse 2, Ashen, & Ni no Kuni II.

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