Well, you can probably guess what one of my favourite games this year has been from the feature screenshot. Yup, Titanfall 2's single-player campaign was excellent; visually stunning, solid mechanically, imaginative and with an engaging, if cheesy, robo-buddy story. Better than this years DOOM reboot? Hell I don't know, DOOM was also excellent but I'm not going to try and compare them. That would be almost as pointless as putting a numeric rating on a game and this is just an article on my best gaming experiences this year - so no ordering or rating.
So what did I buy this year? Here is a list in no particular order, I may have a missed a few:
- Titanfall 2
- Total War: Warhammer
- Gears of War 4
- Homefront:The Revolution
- Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
- The Technomancer
- Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen
- Rise of the Tomb Raider
- Dark Souls 3
- Sid Meier's Civilization 6
- Shadow Warrior 2
- Divinity Original Sin 2
- XCOM 2
- Dishonored 2
- Dying Light Enhanced Edition
- Titan Quest Anniversary Edition
- Victor Vran
So, not that many really but I've been trying to spend less money on games recently - I don't impulse buy and I get most of my games on sale. Also I nearly always do my homework, it's never been easier to find out how a game plays or whether there are glaring technical issues. Consequently, I rarely have technical problems or end up disappointed. I do, however, sometimes get pissed off quite quickly. For instance, I bought the enhanced version of Dying Light but what wasn't particularly obvious from any videos that I watched was how much the weapon degradation system just plain ruined what could otherwise have been the ultimate zombie game. I'd had enough after a couple of hours of play where at least two weapons broke and then I found out that weapons could only be repaired a few times! After that WTF moment I gave up on it. But all is not lost, it's moddable so I'll get back to it when I find a mod that cuts that ridiculous mechanism. So, it's not always possible to know enough about a game before you buy. But, I haven't gone too far wrong this year, no real stinkers. And yes, I know The Technomancer reviewed poorly but I quite liked it and I will continue to support the developers, Spiders, because I think they have interesting ideas. It's a shame they can't always follow through (or write believable characters) but hey, one day I think they'll get it right. Also, Paradox's space strategy Stellaris was something I had to put aside, a bit of a disappointment, I suppose, but one that I'm pretty sure the developers will have fixed by the time I get back to it next year.
Anyway, enough of that, 2016 has been a pretty amazing year for gaming, I can't remember when I've seen as much goodness on offer as this. It's also been a year of firsts for me, notably the first time I finished a Souls game and the first time I've actually enjoyed a primarily stealth based game. So let's go through my favourites.
I've already mentioned Titanfall 2 and DOOM two of the standout titles of the year. Both of which, obviously, are first person shooters, a genre that has become very dull over the last few years. DOOM especially has served to shake things up quite considerably, the wonderfully streamlined, frantic, move-or-die play had me enthralled from the moment the DOOM guy angrily pushed aside the story exposition in the first minutes of the game. That was a statement of intent from the developers, id, and gelled wonderfully with the unrelenting action of the game as your angry avatar blasted, punched and gouged his way all the way to the end credits. Pure gleeful fun. I suppose Titanfall 2 wasn't as novel in terms of the actual shooting but it made up for it in other ways. Namely, having two of the most interesting levels I have come across in a while and having a movement system (jump/double-jump/wallrun) that was an absolute joy. Many internet commenters and reviewers have said that they enjoyed the movement on foot so much they didn't really want to get in their Titans and consequently didn't enjoy the mech-on-mech action as much but I can't say the same, I found being in BT-7274 (your Titan's name, if you haven't played the game) just as good but for different reasons. The diversity of the loadouts and the relative lack of movement made the mech battles a nice tactical challenge especially when you were taking on multiple enemies.
If anyone had forecast at the start of the year that one of my most enjoyed games of the year would be Dark Souls 3 I would have cackled maniacally and told them to get a grip, after all, I can't abide difficult games and also found Dark Souls 2 to be an entirely miserable experience. DS3 was a game I bought because I felt I had to. The glowing praise from gaming sites, the dedicated fan-base, I wanted to see what it was all about. Well, I certainly did and the first thing I discovered, apart from the fact that the world is stunningly beautiful in a dark and melancholic way, was that the game isn't actually that hard. I'm not saying that as a boast it's just that if you are careful and have a plan you will make progress. The game rewards patience and preparedness rather than pure technical expertise, if you're charging through the areas not checking the corners you will probably get shanked quite quickly. The AI has no qualms about ganging up on you and most of the time the game is about careful positioning in order to avoid being surrounded or having the camera backed into a wall so that you can't see your character. So yeah, like nearly all third-person games there are occasionally some problems with the camera but over all it's not too bad. I not only played this game to completion but made multiple characters and played through the whole thing again! Finding the perfect build for you is part of the enjoyment, I messed around with magic and faith but ultimately found a strength-based greatsword-weilding character to be my sweet spot. Such a good game there's not enough room here to extol all of it's virtues - I might write about it in more detail at some point.
Another game that surprised me was Arkane's Dishonored 2. Historically I have always found stealth gameplay to be too tense for me, as someone who is suffering from very high levels of anxiety on a daily basis the last thing I need is to play a game that adds to it! Plus, I have always found hiding from your adversaries somewhat, how can I put this, dishonourable? Anyway, I got this game in Steam's recent winter sale as a sort of experiment and haven't finished it yet, in fact I'm only four missions in, but I can say that it is already a firm favourite and, well, I'm not exactly sure why. Yes, it has some of the most beautiful, detailed and storied environments that I have ever seen but looks aren't everything. I'm not sure, but I think what makes the difference for me is the sheer number of options that you have available to you. When I'm discovered (inevitable, for me) that's not necessarily game over. I'm playing as Emily Kaldwin and as well as being able to fight competently, I can move very quickly transporting myself through thin air or deploy a doppelganger of myself which can also fight. Remember, this is only early game, these powers are all upgradeable and agreeably weird. One thing I really appreciate is thay you can fight face-to-face and not have it end up with your opponent dying, a well timed block gives you the opportunity, to turn the tables on your adversary and knock them out. Maybe, it's these options that mean that I can play this game or maybe it's that my stress levels are starting slowly to get better? A little bit of both maybe. Other good things: the characters, story and art design are all great so far. Did I mention that it is a very beautiful game? It's worth repeating. It has a painterly style, almost like watercolours, that combined with the art design of the environments and characters makes this game a visual treat.
Along with the new games there have been other older games, notably Fallout 4. I've been modding the hell out of it and replaying with different factions, even got the Far Harbour dlc. I don't know what exactly it is but, on release, Fallout 3 and 4 both immediately became all-time favourites. I just enjoy setting out in the morning and seeing what trouble I can get into whether it's ghoul hunting, getting stalked by deathclaws or tracking an alien. It's just a weird and grisly adventure playground. A story generator. Sod the actual story! So yeah many an enjoyable hour there too.
Ok, from an older game to one that isn't out yet. Larian's Divinity Original Sin 2 is still in Steam's Early Access and due out next year I think. I enjoyed the previous game a lot, it had the best turn-based combat system I've come across. This new game is shaping up to be something special and I've spent quite a lot of time tinkering with it, you only have access to a small part of the game at present but it's already pretty damned good and, dare I say at this early stage, an improvement on the original in many ways.
Right, what have we got left. Oh yes, bloody XCOM 2! The only reason I got this is because I knew it would be moddable. On paper (and if you didn't know about my anxiety issues) this should be an ideal game for me, turn-based tactical combat with a sci-fi back-drop and inspiring story, sounds pretty yummy. But it's just too hard! On the lowest difficulty your squad of noobs regularly miss aliens that are a couple of metres away from them and have so little health that they can be two-shotted and that's when they are in full cover. Once they have become more experienced they get a lot better but by that time the combination of number of enemies and their massive health bars is just too gruelling, not enjoyable at all. So what I did was go into the game files and tweak some stats on my soldiers. I gave them better starting health, aim and dodge. And only then did the game become enjoyable for me. I just don't see the point in hiding a game behind that level of difficulty, having an 'easy' level that is anything but easy. I'm the first to admit I'm a bit crap at games like this but I do enjoy this sort of thing. I don't get why you'd want to block someone from playing it. It doesn't make sense to me that...... Aaaaaaand stop. Apologies people I just got started on 'Difficulty in Games' something that I can get quite worked up about. Anyway, XCOM 2, a game I very nearly didn't get and had to actually change to get any enjoyment out of. Not an unequivocal recommendation, but it really is quite good if you can put up with its idiosyncracies and illogical inconsistencies. Oh, and while I remember, fuck that final battle! Thanks Firaxis, you bunch of sadists.
Talking of Firaxis, I almost forgot Sid Meier's Civilisation 6. I've only played Civs 4 through 6 but I think that this is probably the Civ that is the most complete at launch. A game that is a solid basis for any additional content as opposed to a game that will one day become something worth playing with the addition of various paid DLCs. So that's a change. There are some other pretty good changes too. The new district system is excellent. I wasn't sure about the new visual design at first, more cartoony would be the best way of describing it, but it grew on me. The AIs are predictably insane (depending on difficulty level) but it wouldn't be a Civ game if that wasn't the case. Example: Catherine of Medici (France), has been spying on me for most of the game, stealing money mostly. I let it slide because I'm trying to be a nice guy. But then she says 'right, enough with the spying' and declares war. Well, that's all fine and dandy but she had virtually no army and I had the most powerful military in the game. You'd think her spies would have told her that! So, I took all of her cities except one. So yeah, you'd think that she might want to appease me at this point and to be fair she did contact me multiple times. But she kept asking for all of my gold reserves just to keep the cities that I had already taken from her. Doh! Of course I wiped her out of the game, who wouldn't. As long as you have the patience to put with this sort of weirdness then you're good to go and I would heartily recommend this game, but you have been warned. Also, being able to win a game with religeon is a bit disappointing/ridiculous but at least you can turn that victory condition off.
So that's the main titles for me, the ones that got my gaming juices running, although XCOM 2 got my blood boiling as well. Honourable mentions go to Rise of the Tomb Raider early in the year and to Gears of War 4 which I had initial doubts about but ended up rather liking. RotTR was a grand adventure but, like it's predecessor, ultimately it was a cover shooter with some exploration thrown in which is not ideal for a Tomb Raider game. GoW 4 was, well, more Gears, except when it wasn't really. What I associate with a Gears game is a bunch of gruff, muscly men stoically and heroically chainsawing their way through weird alien creatures on a seemingly doomed planet. And that both is and isn't what this iteration is about. Gruff muscly man Marcus Fenix is back, and yes one of the first things he does is chainsaw the shit out of something, but this game is thematically different, it's all about the importance of family as I understand it. It felt different, refreshing and the game had a much lighter tone. I ended up having a ton of fun with it. Oh and it doesn't hurt that it's the best looking Gears yet. Another mostly excellent game was Shadow Warrior 2 which was great fun but I found the loot system underwhelming and the boss battles a little dull.
Because, I just bought a bunch of games in the Steam winter sale there are some games on the list that I haven't got around to yet. Total War: Warhammer looks wonderful (shame about Sega's DLC strategy, paying for blood effects anyone?) and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided also looks promising from what little I've played of it.
So, what did I miss or decide to ignore this year?
- No Mans Sky looked intriguing but we all know how that turned out. I don't quite get why people were so hyped for it though. A resource gathering game in a procedurally generated universe? It sounded quite dull to me even if the programming behind it was quite advanced.
- VR is still too expensive and too clunky, maybe in five years?
- I was put off Ubisoft's The Division after hearing about the bullet sponge enemies and poor loot but got the chance to try it recently. It has changed a lot apparently, I played for a few hours and it was surprisingly good for a third person loot'n'shooter. I might pick it up in the new year.
- Space Hulk: Deathwing was looking pretty good right up to the point where actual gameplay was out. How a developer can make a first-person Warhammer 40k game about shooting tyranids in massive, gothic, spaceship wrecks look so dull is a bit of a mystery to me. Pass.
And probably much more that I'm forgetting right now....
So, hardware and stuff. My Intel i7 4790K / NVidia GTX 970 / Windows 10 / 16GB RAM combo for 1080p is still going strong. Actually, the only thing that could do with an upgrade is the graphics card but that's not an option at the moment. The newer NVidia 10 series cards look good but the GTX 1060 doesn't seem like a big enough improvement and the 1070 is over £400 at this time, far too expensive. We'll see what prices are like next year or maybe AMD will finally release something at the 1070 level of performance that doesn't run hot and loud, who knows. It's all good though, my system seems to be rock solid and I've had so few problems with games it's ridiculous. I think I had a crash with Shadow Warrior 2 and one with The Technomancer but that's probably it and performance has been fine even if I can't run newer games at their highest settings. Even Dishonored 2 runs really smoothly on high settings at 1080p for me and that's supposed to be 'unoptimised' apparently according to quite a few Steam users. Guess I'm just lucky or, possibly, I have realistic expectations and know how to maintain a PC. Wait, no that can't be right.
Well that's it for this year. Next year holds a lot of promise too from what I can see, these are the titles I'm most looking forward to:
- Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War 3,
- Nier: Automata,
- Mass Effect: Andromeda,
- Divinity Original Sin 2 &
- Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
And maybe, just maybe, we'll have news of CD Projekt's Cyberpunk 2077. Happy gaming!