Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Review: Pinball FX 2

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When I was a kid, I loved pinball. I was always excited when I'd go to an arcade or a convenience store and they had a new pinball machine to play. The sounds and music from classic tables are still implanted in my brain even now, and I remember all the good times I had back then.

But the last time I really played a pinball game on a console or PC, it was way back in the days of the Atari 2600 with a game called Midnight Magic, released in 1986-7. I missed out on Space Cadet on Windows too, since it was a separate installation on Windows 98.

So now seemed like as good a time as any to try my hand at the ever-popular Pinball FX 2 for the PC (which is also available on XBLA, and on PSN/WiiU under the name Zen Pinball 2)

I played the game with a Logitech F310 controller, which is arranged like a PS2/3 controller, but which has Xbox color coding and inputs, so this review should be relevant to console players as well.

I've also played 36 of the tables, so at this point, I feel like I have a good understanding of both the mechanics of this particular game and the design principles that Zen Studios uses in making their tables.

At its heart, Pinball FX 2 is designed to be fun and challenging rather than being a 100% accurate pinball simulation, and I'm okay with that. That philosophy allows events to happen that could only happen in a game, like having two realistic 3D characters battle and move around the playing field while you play through a table event. It also means that when you encounter events that require magnets to hold balls and such, they work perfectly every time, which to me is a plus, but other people might not like that. These are not real tables, and I think the whole experience benefits from that.

The Avengers Table

Every table I've played so far has been fun and visually pleasing to me while maintaining the illusion of reality and verisimilitude in most cases. I've been especially drawn to the Marvel licensed tables, especially the ones from Avengers Chronicles pack, which is four tables which cover The Avengers movie, and the Fear Itself, World War Hulk and Infinity Gauntlet story lines. I'm also a fan of the Star Wars tables. Given the fact that most of the licensed tables are from now Disney owned properties, I wouldn't be surprised to see either tables linked to their animated movies or perhaps the Muppets in the future.

Iron Man Table
The sound design is also quite impressive. Along with the normal sounds that you'd expect from the bumpers, flippers and other staples of pinball, each table has its own individual music and voices, though with the licensed tables, they usually use stand-ins in place of their more famous counterparts, which is understandable. The sounds for the tables not attached to a property also feel fitting for older pinball tables in real life. They are subdued but thematically appropriate and I appreciate that. 

The Empire Strikes Back Table
The controls are also very responsive, and even though I don't often apply english to the table, I like the fact that it is available and it responds to direction. The flippers also trigger instantly and powerfully, which matches my memories of playing classic pinball. A lot of the tables also have mini-subtables that you might get access to after doing a particular set of actions. These mini games are fun and challenging, and at times bring new kinds of experiences (like I remember playing a Breakout-like sequence on the Fear Itself table involving Mjolnir) that a traditional pinball game couldn't provide.

Pasha Table
I am also a fan of the way they sell their tables. The base game (at least on the PC) comes with one table for free (Sorcerer's Lair), and you can start and play that one as much as you want. You can also try the other tables and decide if you like them before buying them. By selling them individually, or in bundles of themed tables, you can commit to just the content you enjoy, which for this game is a model that works very well.

In the end, it is very easy for me to recommend Pinball FX 2. It has been an entirely enjoyable experience and it is the kind of game I can both pick up and play when I have a few minutes to spare and one which I could devote a lot of individual time to. It is hard to find a game that scratches both those itches for me, but this is definitely one of them.

Saturday, March 08, 2014


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I've had a bit of a problem the last few years, one which I rarely if ever talk about. You see, I am generally uneasy playing multiplayer games online.

Don't get me wrong, local co-op and competitive gaming are both amazing and I love doing that, and in fact, they represent some of the best times I've ever had playing games. And I'd love to pick up a real world table top/pen and paper RPG some day, and I am genuinely excited by that prospect. But when it comes to playing games online, those experiences have not been as fun, and I don't even mean for the usual reasons people cited when talking about this subject.

I am not afraid of getting yelled at or abused by my fellow players, or receiving threats after a game. No, in my case, and I may be unique in this appraisal of things, playing games online with other people, even friends, gives me the same kind of introverted reaction that I would get if I was at a party with a lot of people I didn't know. It is stressful for me and it makes me tired. It is draining, and I feel like I need to stop and recharge rather quickly. When I started having this reaction, I didn't fully understand it. I thought it was strange and unprecedented, especially given the amount of time I spent playing MUDs in the late 1990's and again in the early 2000's.

And the strange thing is, I don't have anxieties about anything else online. I'll email anybody and I'll talk to anyone on Twitter/Facebook/chatroom/forums. it doesn't matter who it is. I have no fear about that sort of thing, and I really have never been shy online. It is as if being online has given me a persona which is an extroverted version of myself, one that is only available in this space.

But after having given the matter some more thought, it occurred to me that it was the pressure of failure, of screwing up, of letting someone else down, that has been weighing on me all these years. In those situations, you are making a commitment to another person and if you mess up or have to leave, you are wrecking their fun. That was the thought in the back of my head, and/or the pressure I felt while playing games with other people online.

I also think my play style isn't conducive to a lot of multiplayer games. When I play games, I like to explore, experiment and mess around and a lot of games predicated on multiplayer are more goal oriented. My play style is very much geared to the single player experience. The game that I immediately think of when discussing this is Torchlight II. I wanted to explore every nook and cranny looking for loot... but playing with other people, that isn't realistic. They want to get through the game in a reasonable amount of time, so I always felt rushed. I have a feeling that Borderlands would have been the same way. I want to look around, find everything I can and then move on. That's a problem online.

I've always loved playing games by myself, and talking about those experiences with other people, usually people who had themselves played those games, in chatrooms and forums for well over a decade. It is how I enjoyed games, a world where I would write AARs, tell anecdotes about the strange things I saw or just talk about strategies or the story/characters. I would almost call the way I play/talk about games, especially with the growth of the internet, I don't know.... single player plus? All the comforts of social networking, without the anxiety.

Come to think of it, the only game that I felt entirely comfortable playing with other people the past few years has been Team Fortress 2, and I think that was for a few reasons. Firstly, it felt casual so I could just jump in a game if I felt like it and leave the same way. There were also so many people playing on a single map that my overall contribution would likely not be the game changing factor in any match. Lastly, there were no feelings of social obligation for me. If I played, I played... and if I didn't, well then too bad, because if I didn't, there was always going to be another game for my friends to join. 

Now I am wondering what I should do. Should I try to force myself through these anxieties, especially given the fact that developers/publishers are increasingly shifting their focus away from single player games towards multiplayer experiences to increase the lifespan of their games and soften trade-in numbers, or should I be content to stay in this nice little box of comfort I am currently in?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Two Types of Geek Friendships?

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A few weeks ago, a thought struck me, one which I presented to a couple of friends who told me that perhaps I was on to something. I am just spitballing this here because I

Basically, I think there are two general types of geek friendships based on the nature of the individual geekdoms.

On one hand, there are the geekdoms which are predicated on not just enjoying things yourself, but by sharing them with your friends and colleagues. And then there are geekdoms in which you have to go outside of your peer group and seek out others who have an affinity for that type of thing and thus cultivate new friendships because of that shared interest.

For example, there are a lot of aspects of my geekdom that I am very public with, and I encourage my friends to experience them too, oftentimes evangelically. Off the top of my head in terms of games, I have tried to get a lot of people into things like Beat Hazard Ultra, A.I. War: Fleet Command and God Hand unapologetically. And I am recommending Brooklyn Nine Nine to everyone I know in an admittedly hardcore way.

And then there are things like Football Manager, which I really enjoy, but it's something which had limited appeal amongst my friends, given the fact that it is a menu/spreadsheet driven game about soccer. So to find people to talk about that particular interest, I had to seek out new friends based around that game online.

Most of those people lived in Britain and were significantly younger than me, and because of that, I wonder if in their lives, Football Manager falls more in that first kind of geekdom, since even stand up comedians make jokes about playing it there, so it is likely a very different geek culture for that across the pond, like there may be regional aspects to this theory as well.

Come to think of it, I had a little bit of a similar experience with Euro Truck Simulator 2 as well. 

I am imagining one of my friends who used to play Warhammer 40K had similar kind of thing with that game, since he made friends who were already into it by competing in local tournaments rather than trying to convert me or his other friends into players of the game. The barriers for adopting the hobby are the high cost in terms of both money and time in building your model army, the relatively small community, and the nature of gameplay which wouldn't appeal to everyone. By making friends amongst the existing player base, those barriers were eliminated.

Again, this is something that occurred to me recently, and I could totally be off, but does something I am talking about here seem anecdotally true for any of you as well?

Friday, February 07, 2014

I Am Going To Fight

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I think this has been a long time in coming, though I can see hints that this was a decision I was moving towards for months now. I've been writing this post for well over a month as well, and I kept putting off posting it because I've been a little afraid to say this, to come right out and say it rather than have it just sitting in my brain. 

I have resolved that I will no longer turn a blind eye to how certain vocal segments of the gaming community treat women.

What really crystallized this decision for me was what happened to developer Zoe Quinn recently after her free game Depression Quest entered the Steam Greenlight system for a second time and she was attacked mercilessly online and over the phone.

After seeing what happened to Zoe Quinn, I made the decision that me being silent was helping those who bully my fellow geeks. I was bullied as a kid, and let me tell you, I hate that crap. As a community, we all got enough of that stuff when we were kids, and we shouldn't be doing that to other people who share our interests, and we shouldn't be making it easier for the kind of people who do. It is like if at the end of Revenge of the Nerds, the Trilambs, having won control of the Greek council, start acting exactly like the Alpha Betas to everyone, because they are merely doing what had been done to them. If we want a better community, more people have to be willing to fight for it and I think I am finally ready to do that.

The reason this kind of thing is increasingly important to me is that core of male geeks are pushing back very hard on segments of the population that by default have been deemed not geeks... especially women. When I made the decision to just blog about video games, I started follow a lot of prominent women in the industry on Twitter, and I've been hearing a lot more stories and seeing male geeks trying to push women geeks out of our community, so it is becoming more visible to me now. 

I am thinking of all those stories of girls going to conventions and having to vet themselves again and again because they do not conform with this image of what a geek is... and being told that they are fake if they screw up. Imagining myself in that scenario, I would hate that. Or the stories of being sexually harassed again and again and again as both developers and members of the press.

I had known about things like this in the past, but I never really understood how endemic it was.

I would like to say that it is because of my time spent in the early 00's on a couple of web design forums that  had vocal and prominent female members and founders, and it was through those outlets that I ended up playing my first real online multi-player FPS, Unreal Tournament with a group of men and women from that site, where there wasn't any push back on the women because we all knew each other and they were also some of the best players. And then I played a lot of years of single player PS2 games. Then, when I returned to multi-player gaming, it was in Team Fortress 2 on Steam, and I never heard or read anything in any of the games I played that was really problematic... not even rage when you were on a losing team. It was a playing experience that seemed ideal to me, and rather divorced from the horror stories of abuse in games like Battlefield and COD... know, scratch that. The truth is, I've been a coward. This is a problem that has been here all along and I just didn't want to see it or confront it. I was willfully ignorant.

I had an indication in the late 1990's, within my first 2 years of using the internet that it was a problem. And in retelling the story, I had someone who I deeply respect basically tell me the same thing.

Yet, I didn't want to really understand.

When I learned about the site Fat, Ugly or Slutty, I asked my female friends about it, and they recounted stories about things that happened to them that were very much in keeping with the things that were said and posted on that site.

And again, I didn't really want to understand.  

Sure, I was sympathetic and horrified by the stories of dick pictures and awkward, gross and actively hostile messages sent their way... but in the end, I didn't say or do anything to try to make things better, and that is all on me.

If I am going to be honest, when I look back at some of my earlier posts when I was writing about pop culture as a whole, I do notice that young female celebrities got a lot of negative attention from me, a disproportionate amount. At the time, I didn't see the problem with it since they were prominently featured in entertainment news, but in retrospect, it wasn't entirely fair of me to do so. If I am going to be a vocal part of this solution, then I have to acknowledge that I haven't always been entirely without sin when it comes to these matters.

It is so easy to criticize or make fun of a celebrity, since they are likely not going to see what I wrote about them. It feels harder to go after the kind of people who make life hell for others in the gaming community because you are often confronting them directly. I am generally non-confrontational, so even though I am resolving to fight, part of me is still telling me not to.

Back before I started Culture Kills, I used to blog somewhere else in a community that was largely conservative. I am very much the opposite of that. For a time, I was the second most popular blog in that community (and even when I was not, I was still in the top ten), but being a voice that was relatively moderate in amongst a larger group of people who were fighting over politics wore me down. I didn't enjoy fighting. I was good at it, really good, but it left me feeling angry all the time.

And for the most part, when I left there to start this blog, I largely sidestepped the fighting. I was part of a larger group of other pop culture bloggers and in general, we were all pretty polite and cool with each other, even when we disagreed, and I liked that. It is something that made blogging enjoyable for me.

But in fighting against this entrenched, sometimes anonymous group of people, I know I have to be prepared for, at the very least, some unpleasantness and I think I finally am. So I am going to be calling that stuff out here, and if I see it out in the wilds of the internet, I am going to be pushing back against it there too.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

I Am Trying To Understand Gamer Rage Over GOTY Lists

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When the PC Gamer Game Of The Year selections were slowly being posted, I'll admit that I took a perverse glee in reading the asinine and outraged comments beneath each one. Like how dare PC Gamer come to a consensus about some games they enjoyed and share those conclusions with the world.

For example, I am a subscriber to the magazine, so when they decided that Spelunky was their Game of the Year,  I had remembered that in an earlier issue, that they had given it a score of 96/100. Looking at Metacritic, there are only a few games that they have given equal or higher scores to: Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, Half Life 1 and 2, Minecraft, Civilization II, Crysis and The Sims. So it should have been no surprise that PC Gamer gave the award to Spelunky.

Some people didn't agree:

And that one is a rare comment that actually mentioned other games that it should have been instead. Most do not. They simply complain about the choice without offering up an alternative.

Part of the humor for me comes from the fact that I really don't understand the anger. It makes me seriously ask, does a website or magazine picking a title that they didn't like somehow invalidate these people's entire existence? It is someone or a group of people saying they liked something... it isn't a personal affront to you or your way of life. 

The game that ended up being the gold standard of this kind of angry denunciation by gamers in comments this year was Gone Home. It was ugly... it is the only way to put it. It was a perfect storm of a game that was relatively short, had a female protagonist and told a story in a non-violent way through the exploration of a house in a non-horror setting. It won a lot of awards, and certain segments of the gaming community hated not just the fact that it won, but that it even exists. They went out of their way to spoil key plot points of the narrative and say things like it was destroying gaming, or that it wasn't a game at all or other awful things. These comments were flowing as the lists were being announced, so it was a long term process. (And don't get me wrong, there are an exceedingly large number of people who enjoyed and loved Gone Home in the fan community as well).

Again, no one is forcing you to play it. No one. You like something else? That's great. That is your game of the year. Because there is a definite difference between having a respectful disagreement and setting out to wreck the future experience of other players by deciding to tell everyone what the story is of a short game. It's not cool. That is beyond the bounds of spoiler etiquette.

I am invested in the games and other things I love doing well and getting critical recognition. There are genres of games that I don't like. If a game from one of those genres won a Game Of The Year award over a game I loved, I'd be still okay with it. I wouldn't spend my time ripping on the game that won in the way a lot of these commenters do.

And I am saying that as someone who wrote a twitter diatribe against the RoboCop remake to the official account for the movie... so I still have moments of geek rage.

EDIT: Well, someone wrote an article recently for the International Business Times which seems to answer this very question. The article is titled Why Do Gamers Obsess Over Review Scores?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Digital Backlogs: Don't Be Ashamed

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Recently, Polygon and Kotaku posted articles about a problem that a lot of people ruminate on... that of the digital backlog people who use Steam and other digital services develop as they use them.

Whenever this kind of topic gets brought up, especially when it comes to digital libraries, the question that a lot of commenters tend to ask is: why do you buy all these games that you don't play?

From someone who has quite a collection of digital games, I have a few answers for those people.

But the first thing we have to discuss is how people get large libraries in the first place. There are three real factors in terms of library inflation that people who aren't part of the community wouldn't really understand, because they haven't really experienced it.

Indie Game Bundles

This is a huge culprit in library inflation. So many times, even with "beat the average" pricing, paying for a full bundle just to get 1 or 2 titles ends up being cheaper than getting those titles individually, even when they are on sale. And in buying the bundle, you end up with a group of games you never really wanted in the first place, but which are now part of your library. You never wanted it, you didn't put your money into the bundle to have it, but now you own it, and I am sure there are other people who have huge libraries would tell you the same story about a sizable amount of their collection. It is like you are buying dinner at a restaurant, and you just want a burger at a reasonable price, but with the meal you end up with a huge platter of fries as well, most of which you will never eat, and you'll just bring it home, stick it in your fridge and never think about them again. Well, not until you look at your fridge and wonder how it got so full so fast.

Digital Store Game Bundles

At Steam this sort of thing used to be more common but in recent years, the number of bundles that they offer has been greatly reduced. However, they still tend to offer franchise bundles, which can end up being very tempting. For example, during the most recent Steam Winter Sale, the most recent Tomb Raider game had a few days when it was 80% off, making it 10 dollars. There was also a package that was the reboot plus every other Tomb Raider game on Steam for 4 dollars more, so if you had any interest in playing the older titles, well, paying a little more to have them all seems to make sense. Even off of Steam this happens. Recently I bought a D&D bundle from Good Old Games, which was 10 games, 7 of which I wanted. When I tried to remove one of the games I did not want, the price of the remaining games skyrocketed, so it was in my financial interest to buy them all. So in this scenario, you are buying a number of games to get most or all of them for future play. There was another short-time sale during the most recent Steam sale where there was a game (Toki Tori 2) which was more expensive by itself than the bundle it was also included in by a decent margin. Would you pay 4 dollars for a game or 2 something in a package that has 3 other games in it when confronted with a choice like that? I have a feeling nearly everyone would pick the latter.

One Game, Multiple Listings

Then there are times when you buy a game, and you end up with multiple game listings for it in your library, each of which count as a different title. Sometimes it is a game and its expansion, sometimes it is the game and then its beta version, but each time that happens, it inflates the size of the library, making it look like there are more games than there actually are. The most egregious example of this kind of thing in my own library was the Arma X Anniversary Edition which I bought in December. It is basically 2 games... but every expansion that came with it ends up with its own listing in my library, ballooning it to 8 games. Telltale Games' Back To The Future game has individual listings for each of the chapters of the game. These are just two common examples, and because a not statistically insignificant number of games do this, the number of games most people have in their library is smaller than what Steam counts them as.


When you take these factors into account, I think it is likely that for the average Steam user, if they were to eliminate titles that fit into these three categories and merely counted games that they willingly bought, their library size would shrink by at least 40% if not more.

Now, I am not going to say how many games I have on Steam, but I will say that it is a substantial number. Even when you filter for the factors I've discussed above, I still have a sizable library of games that I've purchased willingly and that I have not yet played.

My own rationale for having so many games is really a matter of choice. I like having options, if I am looking for something to scratch a particular itch and only a new experience will do it. So if I am looking for a hard platformer, I have a few just waiting to be played. If I want a RPG with choices and morality, I have a few of those. If I want racing, grand strategy, management, fighting, open world... I have games on hand that I can just install and play any time I am in the mood.

If a game is sitting in my library unplayed, it also means that I bought it on sale, likely at 75% off. I've done the rough math on this and it turns out it isn't that bad. If I bought all the games that I've played so far at full price and compared that price to the amount I've spent on amassing my library, I've spent about 20% more to have these options. I think that is a more than fair trade-off really.

As I was writing this piece, it occurred to me that many of the same people who ask their fellow players why they buy so many games that they don't play likely use a service which gives them access to vast amounts of content that there is absolutely no expectation they are going to get through in its entirety.

I'm of course talking about Netflix and Hulu Plus (amongst other services). And what about people with DVR's full of shows they haven't watched? They are paying a fee every month for those services Why are using those services socially acceptable and encouraged, but somehow having the same kind of freedom in terms of a video game library, especially in the digital realm, is not?

In essence, we are both paying for entertainment, but somehow the person with a digital game library with unplayed titles is looked at with a little bit of derision, like somehow we are all doing something silly at best and completely idiotic at worst. I think that is a profound disconnect.

Even the language we use to describe having a gaming backlog works to perpetuate that same disconnect, because think about how often the word shame is used. You don't just have a backlog, you have a pile/stack of shame or shameful backlog. If you have a lot of unwatched movies, TV shows or unread books, one very rarely refers to that as something you should actively be ashamed of. If you put "pile of shame" into Google, you get almost 1.4 million results, with all the top results being about games. Movies and books pop up once in a while, but it is usually about games.

To me, a pile of shame sounds like the phrase you would use to tell someone who had, in a drunken fit, defecated or vomited on your carpet that they did so... that they left you a pile of shame. It shouldn't be used to describe some entertainment products that you haven't yet experienced.

Having a backlog shouldn't be a bad thing. Having options shouldn't be a bad thing. I think it is time for people to stop apologizing and feeling defensive about having more than a few games they haven't played. We have them and we shouldn't feel ashamed about them anymore.

And yes, the irony that I am finishing a post where I defended having a backlog with a statement about not feeling defensive about having one is not lost on me. 

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

My Year In Gaming 2013

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Once again, we are at the start of a new year, and I am feeling a little retrospective. Since this is now a gaming blog, and I did this last year, I thought it would be fun to do it again.

I don't play a lot of different games comparatively speaking, and I generally am sort of picky when it comes to the games I install. I have to really want to play it, and for the most part, I never really follow a game with another one that is similar, and you will probably notice that.

This year, I also had to do a full wipe of my hard drive and then buy a new one, so I had two fresh starts in terms of my installed library, and with a fresh start, I was willing to try games that I had previously never thought to play because they were such big downloads, or my specs were closer to the requirements rather than the recommended ones. I liked having that freedom.

This is a long post. I am just giving you that warning right now.

FTL: This was literally the first game I installed this year, and after finagling my way into getting it to work fullscreen on my monitor, I had many a tense game trying to outrun the rebel fleet. The game it reminded me of the most is Oregon Trail which, like a lot of kids who grew up in the 1980's, is a good nostalgic memory. While I have never been able to beat it, I have been close on a few occasions, and given the length of each individual game, it seems to be appealing for both casual and hardcore gamers. I am also not surprised that it is coming to the iOS soon, since it seems to be the kind of game that is perfectly suited for that platform. I've read a lot of stories about people naming their crew members after friends and family and getting upset when bad things happened to them, but that was not the game this year that had that effect on me.

Out Of The Park Baseball 2013:  I am not a fan of baseball. At all. But I am a fan of games like Football Manager, so I thought it was worth trying this game to see if it could get me to love baseball. It did not, as I really don't have the background to fully understand managing, and while I did enjoy reading a bunch of books about sabermetrics around the same time to see if I could pick up the finer points of building a team, I was not entirely successful with that either. And then I decided I was going to start an entirely new league full of fictional players in 1871 and act as the commissioner, and that is where I found joy in this game. I found the zen of it all, and I marvelled at all the details. But at that point, I wasn't really "playing" the game. Sure, I was manually doing expansions, naming awards, franchises and stadiums and such, but I wasn't really experiencing the game the way others would, but nonetheless, it still ended up being enlightening.

Retro City Rampage: This is a love letter to 8 and 16-bit gaming as filtered through the lens of the first two Grand Theft Auto games. I think that is the best way I can describe this game. I love the art style (especially since you can choose between a lot of different console and arcade styles and color schemes), and I was a big fan of the references sprinkled throughout this game, and it had solid controls, but I just didn't finish it, and with my first hard drive wipe, my progress was gone.

Saints Row The Third: I loved this game. Loved it. In the past, I've expressed a fondness for the Grand Theft Auto series, but after playing this game, I am firmly on Team Saints from now on. I appreciated that it  revelled in audacity, and every time I thought that it had become as crazy as it possibly could, it seemed to always top itself, and there seemed to be new wrinkles and toys popping up mission after mission. I played it through twice in a row, and if you know me and open world sandbox games, I never do that, but it was such an enjoyable experience that even after I got my achievements, I wanted to keep playing. I did a lot of stupid stuff... the kind of stuff I love doing in these kinds of games, and it always seemed like there was always more things to try around every corner. It had a great cast and a stellar soundtrack and a wacky story with some dark edges to it. If my computer could run the fourth installment of the series, I probably would have been an early player of that as well. This was the first game I installed after I wiped my drive, and I likely wouldn't have installed it if I hadn't had to do that, because I sort of figured at that point, I had nothing to lose by trying it and I absolutely do not regret that.

Unity of Command: I used to try to play games like this in the past, and then get frustrated because at times I play way too aggressively, and the computer would beat me. This game proved to be no exception. I can tell it is a well-crafted game, and the AI was very solid, but in the end, the experience wasn't the most enjoyable for me. That is totally on me, and not the fault of the game. Additionally, when I first installed the game, I was repeatedly getting false flags from my anti-virus software about the game executable, and I had to really do some digging to fix that problem, which further alienated me from the game.

NBA 2K13: I played a few of the NBA 2K games back in the PS2 era, but I had never finished a season on one until I bought 2K13. But in those other editions, I didn't have the opportunity to play as just one player.At the beginning, my skills as a player were lacking, and I sort of messed up the Rookie Showcase, so I ended up going 19th in the draft, ending up on Orlando. If you are familiar with what happened with Orlando in the 2012-13 season, you know that that was not the ideal place to start out as a rookie. We had a little bit of a rocky start, and I was still learning the game, so I wasn't getting a lot of minutes every game, but I started to figure out what my role was, and I began to become a real contributor to the team, especially as a 3-point shooter. And then we really started to get on a roll, and soon I was carrying the whole team on my back (no word of that a lie), and I had some epic games. How far could we go? Could we make the playoffs? Could we win it all if we made it? At every turn, I was surprised and thrilled with how the story turned, and on the whole, it was a great journey, and this game reaffirmed my belief that while games with designed narratives are beautiful, there is also beauty in the narratives sports games spin based on the circumstances and your own actions as well.

The Witcher Enhanced Edition: This is a game that I kept putting on the short list to play, and then picking something else instead. Off the top of my head, I know in 2012, I played the first two Mass Effects and Fallout 3 instead of playing this, and in retrospect, I don't regret that at all. That being said, I was really enjoying this game, especially the way the morality system worked (since there could be unforeseen negative consequences for every decision you made in game), and I was willing to give the sometimes wonky combat a pass because I was engrossed by the story and the world that surrounded these complex and surprising characters. However, I happened to be playing this game when I had to replace my hard drive, and when I reinstalled it, I didn't really get back into it which is a shame because I know there was a lot to like here. But in general, if I stop playing a game with a narrative, I am probably not coming back to it, and I have a feeling in this case, I am really going to regret that.

La-Mulana: This game is certainly a tough little slice of nostalgia. It is a 2D metroidvania that was designed from the beginning to be hard and really something that pushes back against how easy a lot of modern games have become. I was totally sold on this game just from the music in the trailer, and I bought a copy in a bundle before it was released on Steam, and got an activation code when it made it through the Greenlight process. It certainly lived up to the hype as well. But it's difficulty made me question my abilities as a modern gamer vs how I played as a child.

Total War: Shogun 2: This was the first major game I installed on my new hard drive. I loved the original Shogun Total War when I played it back in the early 2000s, so I fully expected to have the same kind of experience with this iteration. However, it seems like I moved away from this kind of game in the past decade. It is a well designed game, and really good at what it does, especially in the battles, which still look and feel glorious... but I guess I built my expectations up a little too high and it just could never live up to my expectations or even my memories of the first game. I don't know if I will ever go back with some many other games to explore. In fact, if I was running low on space, this would likely be the first game I would remove from my drive because it takes up a lot of space, and I could probably install 20-40 indie games in its place. This was another one of those games that I would have never installed if I wasn't making a fresh start. 

Distant Worlds Shadows: It took me a little bit of time to get into this game, and the relatively high price was definitely a issue for me getting into it, but I love the ideas and scope of this game series. I wrote a rather long review earlier this year that sums up my feelings quite well. I think I am going to play this again in 2014. If it was cheaper, I'd recommend everyone who likes 4X games play it with no hesitation. But at the price point it is at, even on sale, that makes it a far more difficult thing for me to do.

Crusader Kings II: I loved this in 2012, and I loved it again in its return appearance this year with the added content and expansions that Paradox had given the game. After a few short and brutal games, I finally started one which I was able to play for the long term. As I had some experience, and I was playing with about 50% more time on my side, I decided to start as the lowly Count of Schwyz and just see what happened. As it turns out, my dynasty climbed the ladder pretty well, with the Hunfridings ending up first as the rulers of Denmark and eventually the Holy Roman Emperors. I witnessed the destruction of the Byzantine Empire, the kingdoms of Hispania and the embryonic princedoms of Russia, and the rise of Hungary as a superpower before it was torn asunder by the Mongols and Timurids. It was a fabulous experience, and I have a feeling that it is going to be something I play every year for 80-100 hours every late summer/early autumn, because there is a lot more meat left on the bone for me. I still haven't really played as a Muslim, Orthodox or Pagan ruler yet, and I haven't played a game with the Aztec invasion DLC activated yet either. And the fact that I can now export the world that was created from this game into another game from the same developer makes playing another round much more tempting.

Rogue Legacy: I had heard so many good things about this game that I bought it for almost full price during the Steam Summer Sale, which is something which, up to that point, I had never done on Steam (though I did preorder Torchlight 2 the previous year). I still more than got my money's worth and I really enjoyed playing it from beginning to end. I wrote a longer review for the game a few months back, so I will keep this brief. This was the first game I ever got all the achievements for, which is sort of a milestone for me. But I don't know if I will go back and play it again, even with the additional content Cellar Door games has added recently. But there will always be a soft spot in my heart for the theme to the Dungeon section of the castle.

Legend of Grimrock: A grand old throwback to 3D tile-based dungeon crawlers like they used to build in the late 1980's and early 1990's. I really liked the minimalist story and the art style, and I look forward to checking out the sequel when it is released in the future. I also liked projecting some of my own back story onto my characters, though that was of course an optional feature. Again, I wrote a review with some of my thoughts about the game, so I can keep it short here.

Droid Assault: 99 minutes. That is how long I played this game. It wasn't bad... it was just the developer gave everyone who bought the game a code that temporarily unlocked a very powerful robot and I got really far while I had access to it, and after it disappeared... well, the game suddenly didn't seem as fun as it once was. It is very much in the tradition of those old school arcade games where you are trying to wrack up a high score, which is the kind of game that Puppy Games loves to make, as they do a lot of work re-interpreting and updating older game concepts. In the case of Droid Assault, the premise is you are a robot fighting your way through levels filled with other malfunctioning robots. You move with the keyboard and aim with the mouse, and you can take over some of the robots you are fighting and add them to your squad. It is good for quick play sessions, but I didn't really feel committed to it.

Wizardry VI: When it was released on Steam earlier this year, I was intrigued by the idea that I could take the characters that I built in the sixth game and take them through the following two games of the series. I had wanted to play a Wizardry game ever since I read about the version that was released on the NES back when I was a kid. It was soon on sale at GOG, and I was determined to try it. But the long and short of it is, I ended up spending more time planning out my party on paper and such than I did actually playing the game. My major problem was basically down to limitations of the time period. You see, every room looks pretty much the same, and the only way to the developers added some color to the experience is by using a little bit of text here and there to tell you that there was something in the room (outside of enemy encounters I mean). Even with making your own maps, this made the game far more difficult that I had originally anticipated. This is a game that beat me, and proved that I am a little too superficial at times.

A Valley Without Wind: A procedurally generated 2D platformer where you are tasked with taking down an Overlord by destroying his lieutenants and slowly building up a base on a continent. It wasn't a great game I have to admit but the concept got me interested, and it looks like Arcen Games did a lot of post-release tweaking to make the game better than it was when it first came out. It is still a little rough around the edges (and there are some segments that are ugly and garish), but I had quite a bit of fun playing it, and with the way it is designed, you could in theory play it almost indefinitely, but I couldn't see myself doing that. One continent was enough for me. 

Joe Danger and Joe Danger 2: The Movie: I bought these two games during the Steam Halloween sale and started playing them about the same time as each other. While on the surface they look like racing games, they certainly share a lot of characteristics with hardcore platforming games like Super Meat Boy as well. I know my hands certainly hurt the same amount after sessions playing it. It was a little frustrating, but in the end ultimately satisfying, even though I didn't put an epic amount of hours into them. At one point, I was the #1 player in the world on Raptr for the PC version of Joe Danger 2, which is just bizarre to me. These games also gave me an opportunity to dip my toes into the Steam Workshop as a creator, and in doing so, it made that aspect of the service seem a lot less daunting.And because of my experiences with these games, I was especially saddened to hear about the offices of Hello Games, the developer of these games, was flooded recently and their insurance won't cover the damage.

Deathspank: I have to admit that before I got it in a bundle, I thought it was some naughty game in the same vein as something like Leisure Suit Larry based on the title, but it is just cartoony and silly. This was a game that I decided to play while I was waiting for the next game on this list to come out. It was a fun little action RPG with a quirky story and sense of humor, but it wasn't very long, so it was perfect for the purpose I had in mind. I ended up getting all the achievements and completing the game in about 12 hours, and if I am ever in a situation where I need a quick interstitial game between longer games, I will likely play the sequel, Thongs of Virtue. It was a nice palate refresher.

XCOM: Enemy Within: It had been a long time since I had played a turn based tactical game, but XCOM: Enemy Within was the perfect choice to break that drought. EW is an expansion to Firaxis's 2012 reboot of the XCOM series Enemy Unknown, and I am glad I waited to play this until Enemy Within was released because it is an augmentation to the original story rather than a new scenario, so I got to experience the game completely fresh and see everything as new. This was the game I was referring to in the FTL write-up above. Even though my squad was made up of a random group of soldiers, I started to feel attached to them, so when I would lose someone, it hurt and not just because the squad had been weakened by the loss. There was a story behind every death and every victory. I had an Argentinean Heavy who had survived the whole campaign, starting with being the sole survivor of a tutorial based massacre, an Italian sniper who thrived in the early game, but again was a sole survivor of another meat grinder mission, and I always felt that if there were spelled out interrelationships, she would have developed a relationship with the Heavy. There was also my promising Assault who was gravely wounded in a mission, and volunteered to become a mech, and she made it almost through the entire game before being mortally wounded on the last mission. I am sure if you talked to anyone who played Enemy Within or EU for any length of time, they would have a war story or two to share, filled with lucky escapes and tragic losses. It is one of those games that really draws you in.

Spelunky: This was a game that I was ready to buy its first week of release on Steam, but my computer didn't meet the minimum requirements on the site, and at the time, it seemed like the port had some problems. However, there was a thread in the discussion forums for the game that led me to believe those requirements may be higher than what was really necessary, but I wasn't willing to take the risk on buying a full price game that I might not be able to run, or may have had unresolved bugs. So I waited, and when I was 75% off during the recent Autumn sale at Steam, it seemed a much safer risk. And I am happy to report that it runs rock solid on my computer and there have been no issues at all. What's more, it is a very well-designed game, and one which is very compelling to me because of its difficulty. If you are unfamiliar with Spelunky, it is a roguelike platformer where your character is trying to collect as much treasure as they can before they die. It is a very difficult game, but it has always felt generally fair to me. Knowing how tough it is, seeing some of the amazing runs that people have had this year makes me want to keep playing it. I have a feeling I will never beat it, but I think I am going to keep trying, especially since there is something called the Daily Challenge, which is a level that everyone has access to and can play once, with the goal being getting a high score. It is a brilliant marketing and design philosophy to keep people coming back to play, and it is a selling point of the PC version.

Lego Marvel Super Heroes: I've played Lego games in the past and they never really grabbed me. But when I saw the trailers for this game, I really wanted to play it, probably because I was a big fan of an earlier game with a similar premise called Marvel Ultimate Alliance on the PS2 (which back in 2009, I named my 9th favorite PS2 game of all time). Basically, this is the Lego version of the post-Iron Man 3/Thor: The Dark World Marvel Cinematic Universe if Marvel Studios had access to the characters from Spiderman, the Fantastic Four and X-Men franchises that are held by competing film studios. Turns out, it is a lot of fun. It is full of great little references, especially to the film career of Samuel L. Jackson (and there is an achievement for playing co-op as Captain America and the Human Torch called "Don't I Know You?" so clearly there are a lot of in-jokes throughout this game. As it was a game geared towards both kids and adults, it wasn't that hard, which some people might find annoying, but which I found refreshing, especially since I was playing this around the same time I was playing the previous game on this list. There is a lot of things to do in this game and a lot of items and characters to collect, so it will take a dedicated gamer quite some time to get everything, and with over 100 characters to pair up, and hidden items that are only accessible by playing the story missions with different characters, there is quite a bot to explore even after you've seen the end credits (and before you ask, yes, it fits into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in that way as well). It is certainly non-canonical, but it was still fun for the audience.

Batman Arkham Asylum GOTY Edition: I bought this game back in mid-2011, but I had never played it because it was saddled with Games For Windows Live and Securom, but with the end of GFWL coming in 2014, the Batman games are now completely Steamworks, and I no longer had any excuse for not playing this title. I was not disappointed. I can say that Arkham Asylum is the best Batman movie I've ever played. It has a great story, uses the voice talent from the animated series, the gothic touches from the Burton films along with a lot of the grit of the recent Nolan movies. It is also one of those rare games that I would be hard pressed to find something negative about, and that never happens. The combat is great, the stealth is compelling and the pacing and difficulty were perfect for me. It just hit every note just right. It was one of the first games in a long time with collectibles that I decided I wouldn't consult a walkthrough to help me find some of the trickier items, and in a way, that helped me feel like I was playing one of those great SNES metroidvanias from my youth. This is a GOTY Edition that truly lives up to its name. It was an entirely enjoyable experience for me. But I don't want to play it through again, or at least not at the moment.

Europa Universalis IV: I have to admit when I started playing this last week, I wasn't entirely digging it. I had a lot of hours in the second game of this series, so it definitely had some big shoes to fill in my mind. Another minor issue was the fact that the UI was a little too big on my monitor, which is pretty much the exact opposite problem other people are having. But I stuck with it, and I discovered a game that had the kind of depth that I am used to from a Paradox game with an added layer of accessibility. It is a beautiful blend of features. The fact that I am continuing my old Crusader Kings II game through a converted file is merely the icing on the cake. It is early in my playtime with this game, but it does have a lot of interesting angles to pursue for me, and I could see a few long playthroughs in my future which, given my history with the series, is an easy prediction to make.

So it was a pretty good year for games for me. Even the games that were disappointments for me were still well-executed and designed experiences. When I can clearly state that the problem was with me in terms of those games, you know it has been a decent year. There were no real duds here, though if I was going to have to pick one regret, it would be Wizardry VI because I should have known better based on my experience playing games that it might have been problematic for me.

And if I was to pick the top 5 games I played this year, it would probably be:

1. Saints Row The Third
2. Batman Arkham Asylum
3. Crusader Kings II
4. XCOM: Enemy Within
5. NBA 2K13

And what are a few games that are going to pop up on next year's list from the games I have at my disposal at the moment? Probably at least one older D&D game, like Planescape Torment (at least this one), and maybe a Baldur's Gate or Neverwinter Nights game. Don't Starve is definitely on the playlist, and I will probably get around to the new Tomb Raider and season one of The Walking Dead. I'm also interested in trying Euro Truck Simulator 2 (with no irony attached, I've heard it is really good) and maybe, maybe Just Cause 2.

I think 2014 is going to be another awesome year for games... well, at least in my little sphere. Hopefully gaming was good for you in 2013 as well and that trend continues for you in 2014.