Thursday, January 01, 2015

My Year In Gaming 2014

I don't know how many people will ultimately read this post. It has been a long time since I've written anything down here, and I know my audience, which was already dwindling, has virtually evaporated over the past 8 months. A lot of things have happened, both in my personal life and within the gaming community which made blogging, especially about games, seem both not that important and more than a little dangerous this year. After seeing the things that happened to a lot of the people I follow on Twitter, people I consider friends, peers and mentors, and a number of people I look up to, getting pushed out of their jobs, their industry and yes in some cases, their homes, I'm very much on the opposition side of a particular hashtag. The fact that I don't even want to mention it by name, and yet I'm still afraid random people might show up here to try to "debate" the merits of said hashtag. I'm saying that knowing that I would financially benefit if they did though.

But that all shouldn't prevent me from doing my recap post for 2014. If I had been smarter, I would have written this throughout the year, but I wasn't so I'm going through my recent game list on Steam to get the order of everything right, and for the most part, it should be accurate.

Last year, I played 24 games across 12 months and this year I played 30, but I played one game for 4 months, so it is more like I played 29 games in 8 months plus one more for the rest of the year. With those kinds of stats, you know that this is going to be another LONG post.

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Don't Starve: Traditionally, the first game I start in the new year is a rogue-like/procedurally generated game, since they fit with the theme of restarting and putting a new spin on things with every new iteration. Don't Starve was much in keeping with that same theme. The premise is you wake up in the wilderness and you have to gather resources to craft things and feed/protect/shelter yourself. I found the experience of playing it largely enjoyable, but in the end, I was terrible at surviving. But it was fun trying, and that's all that I can ask of the experience really. And I love the art style so much. It has a wonderful art style, and to me, that is its most memorable feature. This was also the first of two games released by Klei Entertainment that I played this year.



Planescape: Torment: I tried... I really did. But I just didn't click with this game. I can understand why it is such a beloved game even now from my relatively short playtime, but I just couldn't get into it. The world had just started to open up for me, but by that point I had felt overwhelmed for quite some time trying to figure out how to make progress in the world, and knowing that every decision might have consequences made me really, really have to think about every thing that I said to every NPC I met. I know someone on Twitter who seemed to have the same experience I did, which makes me feel a little better. I have a sense that if I played this game back in the early part of the 2000s, I would have loved it, but I think that time has passed. It also made me a little fearful about trying to play some of the other older isometric RPGs I have, both of the Dungeons and Dragons variety and the old Fallout games which I think is a shame.


Euro Truck Simulator 2: This is very much one of those games that people think of as a joke until they play it... and a lot of people have played it now. This year, I had two separate experiences with this game this year. I played it in January and found the experience largely enjoyable, and much of my pleasure was derived from just seeing how Europe was recreated in the game since I've never been there, so it was something that appealed to my love of exploring spaces and seeing new things in games. When I had seen most of the map, I started to lose interest in the game. But I have to say, the driving was oddly satisfying, and building up my little company was sort of fulfilling. I then revisited the game again in November, partially as a transitional game after a long, long experience with another game, and partially because since I had played it in January, the developer had added Steam Achievements and additional content to the game, and I wanted to see how things had turned out since I had played it previously. Strangely enough, I have a bunch of memories attached to the music that was playing on the radio as I was driving. Like every time I hear Kajagoogoo's Too Shy, I think about driving into Paris from the east at sunset and having to go through toll booths, and Lily Allen's The Fear makes me think of driving north from Plymouth to Glasgow at night through construction zones and dodging speeding tickets, and U2's New Year Day reminds me of driving outside of Metz on route to Rotterdam in mid-afternoon... and I have so many memories/associations like this in my mind. I discovered a lot of great music, and for that alone, it was worth my money.



Super Hexagon: This is a hard game. It has 6 achievements, one for each of the levels, awarded for staying alive in the game for 60 seconds. I did not get one of them. And it is frustrating because it looks so deceptively simple. I wish I was better at it, I really do.Then again, Terry Cavanaugh is known for making hard games.




Wargame: European Escalation: I really liked the presentation of this game. It is a tactical war game which presents a series of scenarios/campaigns based on hypothetical ways that the Cold War in Europe during the 1970's and 80's could have erupted into a full-fledged hot war, and each campaign is prefaced by a short cut scene explaining the situation that led to war... and as someone who studied a lot of these events in the past, most of the setup is stuff that actually happened and it is just the very end, the final flashpoint that ends up different. Like the setup for Able Archer... every thing that they mention except the actual outbreak of war happened. The game itself is also very nice to look at, and extremely detailed. Like you can pull all the way back to see the whole map of the engagement, and then zoom in level by level until you are looking at a specific unit, with a model moving around in real time in a detailed environment that is deforming under the conditions of battle. From the technical side alone on this, I was pretty impressed. I know the later games in the series have more dynamic campaigns and such, but I think I like the idea of these tightly designed scenarios put together as campaigns better.



Beat Hazard Ultra: This was the second time I played this game for a sustained time period. The first time I really played it, it was a time in my life when I was amongst the best players in the world at this game... a couple of my scores were in the top 20-30 in the world (and my old scores are still pretty highly ranked even years later). So, when Cold Beam Games announced that there was going to be new DLC coming and they needed late beta testers, I felt like I was someone who was very qualified to test that content out. While I didn't get the old feelings back for the game (since it was DLC that allowed people to play/build their own ships, so it felt like a different game), it was an enjoyable process. I don't generally like to see how the sausage is made when it comes to games testing, but this was a rare exception, and a couple of my suggestions made it into the final product to make the experience better for everyone, and I think that is a good thing.I created some popular ships for the workshop too, and while I had a lot of fun playing it, I can also tell that I will never be as good as I once was at it.



Guacamelee! Gold Edition: A wonderful lucha-inspired Metroidvania, with a visual style that is bright, cartoonish and yet totally fitting the feeling and story of the game. In keeping with that theme, the combat is more like a beat em up rather than using the shooting mechanics that these games typically use and it was an interesting design choice which I think enhanced the game. It recently received another edition with more content, so if you are thinking of getting this game, it would probably be better to get that version rather than the Gold Edition, which is roughly the same price of the new version.



The Walking Dead Season 1: A gut punch of an experience. I don't read the comic and I don't watch the show based on it either, so I was largely coming into the universe completely fresh. While the larger events are almost all set in stone, it is the smaller decisions and mistakes that haunt you and I respect that. And some people would complain that your interaction with it is minimal, so it isn't really a game, but I don't subscribe to that view. I legitimately cried while playing this game, and I'm glad that I played it with all the episodes available, since I don't think I could have waited to see what happened between chapters. I had doubts that an episodic game could be this good, but I totally understand now why this made so many GOTY lists last year. Stunning, simply stunning.



Sword of the Stars: The Pit: A traditional rogue-like with turns and randomized layouts, multiple classes and races etc that takes place in the universe of Sword of The Stars. And like its fore-bearers, it is a very hard game, and after a few good runs, I had made it to the 15th floor a few times, which sounds good, but I'm led to believe that you have to get down to the 25th-30th floor and then fight your way back up the way you came. Yeah, I'm not good enough to do that, and I don't know if I ever would be.



One Finger Death Punch: The genius of this game is it is literally designed with just two inputs, basically hit left and hit right and yet it works so well. It is basically a rhythm game, with an art style that is basically stick figures fighting in front of Asian-theme backdrops in short stages, but somehow it works brilliantly. And you'd think with only two inputs that it would be easy, but no, like a rhythm game, you have to hit those two inputs at exactly the right time for what you want to do... you can't button mash... it is designed to be precise and tight, while allowing for some improvisation. It is very good at what it does, and when you get it right, you feel like such a badass.



Pinball FX2: The post right before this is about this game, so I am not going to write a lot about it here. In short, I really liked it. The flipper action felt good, the tables are interesting, and I like the business model where they let you try tables before you buy them, and you only have to buy the ones you like in most cases, so you get the experience you want at a price you are willing to pay.



Mark of the Ninja: A magnificent 2D stealth game. Mechanically, it is solid as a rock, the difficulty is perfect, and the atmosphere and design choices are sublime. I don't generally like stealth, but the way Klei did it in this game made it a joy to play. The game even felt like the perfect length as well. Everything worked. This is the second Klei Entertainment game I played, and as you can tell, I really liked it.




Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic: When I tell people that I started but did not finish the game, they seem very disappointed in me.And it turns out, it was the second Bioware game this year that I abandoned in the middle of a playthrough. There are a couple of reasons this happened. One was a technical issue where the cutscenes (and there are a lot of them) would change my monitor resolution to play, and there were times when it somewhat crashed my game... and that soured me on the experience. Another thing was, I didn't like the combat.... it just rubbed me the wrong way and it felt weird. The story was good from what I played of it and as I'm playing this many years later, I have had a rough idea of where things were headed towards the end of it, but I wish those two major issues didn't get in the way of my overall enjoyment of this title.



Risk of Rain: Another procedural generated rogue-like game (I played a lot of them this year it seemed). This one is a side scrolling, sci-fi shooter/platformer and it was quite appealing to me. I had quite a few runs that seemed poised to end in victory, but they were all dashed. One of the interesting mechanics in this game is the fact that you are punished with harder difficulty if you dawdle too much, so you have to balance looking around for loot and moving on in the game so you can face the bosses and higher level creatures when they are easier. I think of the four of these kinds of games that I played this year, this would be the one I recommend the most.



Ring Runner: Flight of the Sages: Simply delightful. This is a strange little ship-based RPG, with a quirky story, awesome soundtrack and a lot of customization. The controls are a little odd, as they don't work the way you would think they would for a top down shooter type game, but you will pick them up quickly. Basically, you play as someone who wakes up from unauthorized surgery that has left you with amnesia and an AI talking to you in your brain, and you are looking for answers about what just happened to you in a picaresque kind of narrative. It really tickled my fancy. It was a labor of love by the crew at Triple.B.Titles, but they released a game I loved, so I was very much pleasantly surprised. I liked it so much, I helped fund their next game by preordering it on Kickstarter. 



Hearts of Iron III: This one was more of a lark, since I have experience playing Paradox games and some experience with this particular franchise. I just wanted to see if I could do anything as Turkey as a member of the Allies. The short answer is no. Even after getting overrun by the Nazis, I continued to watch things play out and what ended up happening is Russia took over EVERYTHING in Europe and Asia by the end. Yeah... that was certainly an unintended consequence of me losing as Turkey. It was fun watching it happen though.


Graviteam Tactics: Operation Star: Also known as Achtung Panzer: Operation Star. I remember reading about this game in a PC Gamer editorial by Rob Zacny, and it got me really interested in it. However, it has a really steep learning curve, and I didn't fully grasp how to play... I probably didn't help that I didn't read the manual, because it has been a long time since I've had to. I think I will eventually go back and give this game a second chance because I think the fault really was with me not understanding how to play it rather than it being a badly designed game.



Mount and Blade: Warband: I played the original Mount and Blade a few years ago, and I really enjoyed it. Warband is supposed to be an updated version of the original and all the things that I loved about the first game are still here. The combat is as satisfying as ever, and I enjoyed building my own personal army. The strategy aspects are fun too, as you really get to determine how you are going to engage the enemy when you are at war. 



Just Cause 2: I was not really a fan of the first game, but I had heard good things about the sequel and at first it was a very fun, over the top experience.The first time you do some of the crazier stuff, you really get a kick out of it, but that feeling fades away by the 50th time you have to do something. I didn't care about the characters or what they wanted, and most of the things they wanted me to do were boring. I started rushing to finish it, which is never a good place to be with a game, but I had committed so much time to it at that point, I just wanted to see it through to the end. Suffice it to say, I thought I wasn't going to play any open world games for a long time afterwards.



 Shadowrun Returns: When I first heard about this game, I was hoping that it was going to be like the version that was released on the SNES, and while it does have a narrative connection to that, the combat is more akin to something like XCOM, which isn't a bad thing. My major complaint is it is relatively short, but in buying it, you are also getting a toolset to create and play other people's scenarios and stories, so that vastly increases the content that is available to you as a player. I'm hoping to play a much longer story that someone has created with those tools in 2015, as there are a lot of assets and I know the modding community for most games can create amazing things.


Ikaruga: When they said this was a hard game, they weren't joking. It doesn't mess around. Given my prowess at Beat Hazard Ultra, I thought that I might be better at this game, but nope. It kicked my ass. I made it to the second level a few times, but I was never able to advance beyond it. But it was still an experience worth having, even if I was unable to master it.



Pac-Man Championship Edition DX+: This is a great short session game, and just watching the trailer makes me want to play it again. The speed of the game is exhilarating, as it slowly ramps up, and you start doing things faster than you thought you were capable of at the beginning. The way I played it, it was more like a side dish to another, more substantial game... the kind of game you play to refresh yourself, to take a break with and it's really good at filling that role. It's a fitting successor to Pac-Man and Ms Pac-Man for sure.



Tomb Raider: This was my first real experience with the Tomb Raider series, and I have to say, it made quite the impression on me. I enjoyed it very much, and I loved the fact that in many ways, it felt like I was playing through a horror game rather than a pure action adventure one. I felt much the same way playing this game that I did last winter playing Batman: Arkham Asylum. It was the perfect difficulty for me, so when I failed to do something, it was entirely my fault, and the construction of the world and discovery of each part of it felt natural. If it wasn't for another game on this list, I would probably have said it was my game of the year.




A Wizard's Lizard: Another rogue-like, procedurally generated game that was released this year. This one feels a lot like A Link to the Past in terms of your movement speed and the way levels are designed. And like Rogue Legacy, as you play it, you can slowly build up resources which make the game easier and more varied as you go through the dungeon, so with every new life, you have more options to work with, and you can start to find a playstyle and loadout that really work for you.



Scribblenauts Unlimited: A fun little game. If you've never played a Scribblenauts game, the object is basically to solve people's problems by using your magic notebook to write down something that will help them. The database of things you can use is huge, so your solution will likely be very different from someone else's, which is great. And it is fun to play around, just thinking of the craziest thing you can and seeing if your collection of adjectives and nouns will pop into existence. However, like my experience with Lego Marvel Super Heroes last year, I don't really feel the need to revisit this franchise as I've gotten my fill of the mechanics and humor from just one game in the franchise.



Super House of Dead Ninjas: A procedurally generated action platformer with an 8/16-bit aesthetic with short, fast games in mind. It was fun (and as one of the first Adult Swim games released on Steam, my description seems to match a lot of the kinds of things that their games are known for), but ultimately, it didn't keep my attention for long. Good mechanics and charming retro feel for sure though.



Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed: A Kart-style racer featuring mostly Sega characters. It is a great game, though again, the Mario Kart franchise is still the king. But for a game that appeared on every other non-Nintendo platform, it is really good. I enjoyed the fact that the game wasn't limited to just driving, as most courses also had air or water elements, which allow for different racing techniques. I especially loved the inclusion of Wreck It Ralph, and while they didn't get John C. Reilly to relive the part, the substitute is pretty good. I think the fact that the stages were all based on Sega properties hurt the title a little bit though, since some of the properties didn't lend themselves to that particularly well, and some non-licensed tracks would have added some variety and spice to the game. But I still had fun, and that is the important thing.



Skyrim: Wow, what an experience. The fact that I waited so long to play this game makes me sad now.  How much did I like this game? I played it and only it for 4 months and I loved every second of it. And this wasn't the first time I had visited Tamriel since I had played Morrowind a few years back, and I was deeply enthralled by that, but it did not prepare me for this experience. It was completely engrossing, and any time I might have gotten bored, there was always something new to try, someplace new to explore, and it kept finding ways of taking me in new directions. Put it simply, t wasn't just the game I enjoyed most this year, but it is arguably the best game I've ever played. I'm saying that without hyperbole. Usually when I play a game, there is a moment where my enjoyment starts to trail off, a moment which tells me that perhaps I should start playing another game or start moving towards the end of the narrative so I can stop playing. I never had that experience with Skyrim. After playing it so long, I made a decision that after I accomplished certain things, I would stop playing. But I didn't. I kept finding new things to do and new experiences to try and I kept getting achievements (I ended the run with 72 out of 75 of the possible achievements). I decided that I would rather stop playing it having loved it so much than ruin the experience by playing it until I finally got sick of it, and I think it is healthier that way. I could always go back if I want to experience that world again, but parting with it was hard, but it is better this way.



Olli Olli: For my first game after Skyrim... it wasn't going to go well for any game that came right after that. But Olli Olli did act like a good palette cleanser for what was to come next. It is a 2D skateboard game with tight time windows to do tricks and it starts difficult and just gets tougher from there. I respect it, but it didn't wow me... but again, the circumstances could have been better. It was like a rebound game. I played more ETS2 right after this, and that helped me get ready for the next game on this list.



Payday 2: I generally don't play multiplayer games, so when I bought Payday 2 and most of the DLC during the Steam Summer Sale, I was actually mad at myself because I thought I would never play it and I had wasted my money (my other concern was the install size, which at the time of purchase looked like it was around 25-31GB, something that was also tweaked so it takes up a lot less hard drive space). But still, I wasn't convinced... but the new DLC kept being on sale, and I told myself, well, if it was on sale for another day, another week, maybe I would buy it... and inevitably, it kept doing just that. So, when everything for the game was on sale during the Fall Sale, I was keyed up... I was ready and excited to play this game. How excited? I played over 100 hours of it in 2 weeks. How insane is that for me? I don't think I played a game that much in such a short period of time since I was in high school. To put that in perspective, I played Skyrim for 4 months and racked up around 240 hours and I did 150 hours of Payday 2 in about a month.


Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition: I bought this in the summer sale with the belief that Namco-Bandai would ultimately drop Games For Windows Live and migrate it fully to Steamworks, and that came true, so my only objection to playing it disappeared by the end of the year. I was prepared for this to be a punishing game, and I'm slowly making progress in it. I don't know if I will ultimately beat it, but it certainly is fun trying at the moment, and satisfying when you do make progress or discover the secret to beating an enemy you thought was almost impossible to harm, let alone defeat. But we'll see how well my resolve holds up when I can no longer make progress... because that will likely be a breaking point for me. It seems like a good game to finish the year out with as well.


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This year, I think I have to grade the list of my favorite titles on a curve in a way because I loved Skyrim so much that it doesn't seem fair to pick it and then 4 other games, because again, I'm on the record saying it was arguably the greatest game I've ever played and that is using a long, long history of playing games to judge it against.

What I'm going to do is make a list my top 5 games aside from Skyrim and I think how it shakes out in that context is this:

1. Tomb Raider
2. The Walking Dead
3. Payday 2
4. Ring Runner: Flight of the Sages
5. Euro Truck Simulator 2

Number 5 was sort of a toss up between Euro Truck Simulator 2 and Mark of the Ninja, but I gave the former the edge because of the number of hours I played it and the fact that I revisited it after Skyrim and it held its own for a decent amount of time in that slot.

So how did I do on my to-play list for this year? Pretty good I'd say.

From the end of last year's post (I've bolded all the games I did get to) 

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 did so well on that initial list during the first half of the year, I had to make a second list of new goals... which I was slightly less successful at achieving:

 

So, for 2015, in addition to Pixel Piracy, Long Live The Queen and Batman Arkham City (I'm taking the Bioshock games off the list for the moment), I also want to get to Ultimate General: Gettysburg, Steam Marines, The Walking Dead Season 2, one of the King's Bounty games, probably A Wolf Amongst Us, one of the EA arcade-racing games I have (either Burnout Paradise: Ultimate Box or Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit), and if Gnomoria finishes development and comes out of Early Access, I'm probably going to play that too.

If Bulletstorm or FUEL dropped GFWL/Securom, I'd play them in a second. But I don't think that is going to happen this year or any year.

And looking at that list above, it seems to be a lot less AAA-oriented than some of my lists in the past, and I'm ok with that, especially since I never know how a year is going to turn out, because I pick up a lot of games during any given year, so the games I absolutely love in 2015 might not even be on my list of things to get to right now. My game of 2015 might not be out yet, or it could be sitting in my library, an acquisition from a long forgotten bundle that I know nothing about at this moment, but which for any number of reasons, I discover to be a masterwork in its genre, something that just have to play.

That is half the joy in playing games... finding something unexpected and new... and the more people who make games and the more voices there are in the industry across the board from developers, producers, writers and artists to reviewers, critics and academics, the easier it will be to find that strange, entertaining new thrill, and I don't want that to go away. It vexes me that 2014 is tainted because so many voices were silenced and pushed out of industry and I think about all the games I won't be able to play or hear about because of it.

One hashtag left the gaming industry poorer this year in so many ways.

2 comments:

Semaj said...

Welcome back to the real blogging world. Feels good doesn't?

I will read your post in full. I just have to finish up a review, (get over a cold) and write something about that Magazine incident that just happened.

But it is good to see you blogging giving the personal things you have to deal with. For me, writing helps me from going off the deep end. So, I think you should keep writing.

MC said...

I'll say this. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you haven't blogged in a while, a year end wrap up is not the best way to get back into shape.

It is like being used to running every day, stopping for a long time and then trying to run a half marathon the first time you get back out of the track.