Wednesday, January 01, 2014

My Year In Gaming 2013

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.


Kal said...

Hell of a post. I am not a gamer. I made that choice for good or ill a long time ago but you sure make me wish I was just by reading about the sheer variety of games you play. And I find mental stimulation adding captions to cat pictures. There is something wrong with me. I realize I have no practical tactical knowledge or real life problem solving skills. I couldn't get through the first level of any of those games. Damn you Galaga. You ruined me for anything better than 8 bit.

MC said...

Games have their own lexicon, just like film and literature do, and once you are familiar with the conventions, you can jump into most things. Like if it is a game in a particular genre, for the most part, the controls and objectives will be the same.

But with your Galaga skills, you can now work for S.H.I.E.L.D.

Kristyn said...

I'm mostly an MMORPG player. I've been with WoW on and off for, um, 9 years now. I also gave TOR and Neverwinter both a try this year. Though I enjoyed them, I still went back to WoW.

The only other type of game I play is Final Fantasy on console (whichever number, but ten was really my favorite) and I LOVE hidden object games. I have a subscription to Big Fish and I rip through them like nobody's business.

Oh, and I tried Marvel Superheroes on PC and couldn't get into it. Probably because the controls are awkward and I kept getting motion sick. Same problem with Skyrim. I couldn't get past the intro because I kept getting sick.

My husband, on the other hand, plays a wider variety of games. He's into sports games on Xbox, he LOVES the Grand Theft Auto series and he plays Neverwinter (and a few other MMOs when the mood strikes, like Star Trek and TOR). I may just have to get him Saints Row, since you liked it so much and are a fan of GTA, he probably would too.

The only game I really wanted to play but never got around to getting was Bioshock Infinite. And, I think the reason I never went for it was that I have a few PC games others liked that I couldn't get into (like, Skyrim). Maybe I'll still give it a shot, if it's also on Xbox.

Happy New Year, MC!

MC said...

Kristyn, I've also heard a lot of really good things about Sleeping Dogs in terms of open world, city based action games.

I think part of the reason I really liked Saints Row The Third so much is Grand Theft Auto really started to take itself way too seriously, and it was fun playing a game that told you it was going to be crazy from the start. Was I looking for sophisticated satire and story telling... no.

Marvel Superheroes... was that the Lego one or that FTP one on Steam, because I was very hyped about the free to play one, because like I said, I loved Marvel Ultimate Alliance, but then I saw some of the reviews for it and it turned me right off the game.