A funny thing happened to me last year. After a lifelong habit of moving from game to game as soon as I felt I’d sucked the essential nutrients from them… I started finishing games. It helped that it was the year I got a PS4 and that, despite being awful in almost every other conceivable way, 2016 produced a bumper crop of great video games. So I thought I’d write about some of them. Not great sweeping reviews, but just little nuggets of writing that might clue you into whether they’re worth trying, or cause you to disagree violently if you’ve already played them yourself. Starting with…
Hey there, stranger! The blog’s a bit quiet these days, simply because I’ve been doing a lot of work for other sites. Work which includes some of the articles I’m most proud of, like, ever.
This weekend, I finished Steamworld Dig. That in and of itself is pretty remarkable. As much as I love games, these days I rarely finish them. Normally, I suck out all of a game’s ideas and mechanics, like the marrow from its bone, or get stuck or just bored, and then move onto the next one.
After a bit of a fallow year for gaming in 2015, when I played a lot of analogue cardboard games and MGS V and basically nothing else, I started this year by buying a PS4. I’m in that glorious post-new-console honeymoon period, where I suddenly have a huge library of games at my disposal. So as I cycle through games, I want to try and write about at least some of them. The plan is short blogs – not too much thinking ahead, not too much editing, just what I can shake loose in a single sitting – picking out one or two things I find interesting about each game. Here’s the first:
Oh gosh. I haven’t posted anything on this blog for the entirety of 2016 to this point. I’ve got a couple of things cooking, but in the meantime it seemed polite to let you know what I’ve been busy doing instead (namely, writing for other sites for actual currency that I can use to feed myself and my very hungry dog).
It’s another round-up! I’ve been leaving my wordy droppings around the internet again, but in case you haven’t spent the last quarter tracking my every move, I’ve collected the finest samples from the last few months and brushed them into one neat corner for you to sniff at.
In retrospect, waiting nearly a full year between getting my copy of XCOM: Enemy Within and actually playing it feels rather silly. I do think I know why I held out so long, though. The challenges of vanilla XCOM are well mapped, its enemies not so unknown any more – but the game is still about as difficult as reading a Thomas Pynchon novel translated into Latin. So the idea of an expansion introducing more moving parts, parts that I don’t know how to deal with, was frankly intimidating. But I shouldn’t have waited, because XCOMwith all of Enemy Within‘s additions is pretty much a perfect game. Yeah. Stick that on the front of your game box, Firaxis-of-18-months-ago. As an expansion, Enemy Within does everything right. Every new addition pushes and pulls at what was already there in the base game, and at the other new features. So, the introduction of collectible Meld capsules scattered across most levels, each of which expires after a set number of turns, encourages you to push forward and explore. But on the flip side, the squid-like ‘Seekers’ – with their ability to sneak up to your soldiers unseen, then reappear and strangle them with their horrifying mecha-tentacles – punish you for letting a single member of your squad get too far from their teammates. The missions themselves are a little more varied than the standard bug hunts of the original – including one memorable effort to stop a zombie-spawning infection at a boatyard that ended with the last survivor calling down an air strike on his own head. The smaller details get a little extra colour too, right down to the tiny posters on the walls of mission location, which help sell the idea that these are real, lived-in places torn apart by XCOM‘s cast of ETs. There are new customisation options for your individual soldiers too, including stat-boosting medals you can award for valiant conduct, plus some cosmetic tweaks. The latter is just a cupboard’s worth of helmet designs, some paint jobs for their armour and a handful of foreign languages, but it’s more than enough to cement each character’s personality. The big back-of-the-box selling point, though, is augmentation, which comes in two affront-to-God flavours. Cybernetics lets you saw off the arms and legs of your infantry to create hulking MECs, while Gene Mods use alien technology to transform them into super soldiers. Like the the Meld canisters and Seekers, MECs help to re-shape movement around XCOM’s battlefield. You can push them out in front to draw fire, while your infantry stays in the rear, but they can’t be relied on to soak up bullets without exploding. They’re basically tanks in any given WWII game, but with tiny yelling faces. There’s a nice mirror to the MEC in the aliens’ ‘Mechtoid’ unit, almost identical but for the swollen head of a Sectoid popping out, the Area 51-style greys that traditionally filled the role of early cannon fodder. Even non-iron-clad Sectoids can now lend a psychic hand to a Mechtoid pal, transforming it from healthpoint-endowed nuisance to a wall of utter mechanical bastardry, in a relationship reminiscent of TF2‘s classic Heavy/Medic romance. None of your units fill such an explicit support role, but having to pick off the vulnerable Sectoids hiding in the distance before you can make any dent in the Mechtoid barrelling through your squad is likely to give you some tactical ideas of your own. It probably wouldn’t be a revelation to anyone who hadn’t avoided Total War-style strategy games their whole life, but manoeuvring MECs into position then withdrawing when it gets too hot, with the cover of less iron-clad infantry? That leaves me feeling like the General Patton of alien invasions, the Sun Tzu of plasma rifles. Genetic modification, meanwhile, offer yet another way to further tweak and personalise that infantry. The original XCOM featured a bonsai tech tree of special abilities afforded by a character’s class. As a sniper rises through the ranks, for example, she can take a perk to expand her view of the battlefield, or to target and disable enemies’ weapons. The Gene Mods allow you hang extra baubles from that tree. So that same sniper might have the muscles in her legs modified so she can leap entire buildings in search of a good vantage point, or get her eyes augmented to improve her aim once she’s up there. Along with the medals and the languages and the paint jobs, GMs are another way to encourage you to build an attachment to individual soldiers. While these Captain America-a-likes are capable of superhuman feats on the battlefield, they’re still as fragile as the rest of their fleshy comrades – and they’re more of an investment. So, fair warning: when your favourite modded-up-to-the-literal-eyeballs Assault unit ceases to be, it’s going to sting. Holding up a dark mirror to these GM soldiers is EXALT, the terrorist cell which introduces human enemies to XCOM for the first time. Made up of alien sympathisers, EXALT is toying with a more the same gene tech as you but, based on their scaly skin and sickly glow, on a considerably more DIY basis. It’s a reminder of the dangers of playing with alien genes, and of the humanity being sacrificed on both figurative and chopping-off-your-men’s-limbs levels. In all senses, EXALT embody the ‘enemy within’ of the title. Unfortunately, EXALT don’t slot into the game’s mechanics quite as neatly as they do thematically.There’s no real explanation of how to deal with the gene-altering bastards, or what the repercussions of their attacks are, until a new menu pops up to further obfuscate XCOM‘s base management game. When the time comes to deploy your squad against EXALT, though, it’s thrilling. The missions provide a chance to throw down with a mirror image of your own squad which evolves throughout the game, like a genetically-modified version of Gary/Red/Blue/That Nob-end From Primary School You Named Your Rival in Pokémon After. Enemy Within might have been gathering […]
There’s something strangely utilitarian about the experience of playing a mobile game. Unable to compete with the experiences offered by a PC or games console, each has to fill a specific gap in your life. Maybe it’s bus journeys or toilet trips or hidden under the table on a really bad date, but I reckon the actual game’s quality is a secondary concern to how snugly it fits into the chosen scenario. And it’s here that Super Stickman Golf 2 runs into trouble. On one hand, SSG2 is a gleeful adaptation of the good-walk-spoiling sport that suggests how a Nintendo mobile game might feel, if the Big N were ever to change its mind on that issue. The game flattens golf into a simple 2D game of aiming and charging up your shot, then adds power-ups and fantastical courses. The result bear as much resemblance to Super Mario Bros 3 as it does Tiger Woods 11.Mixed in among the usual sand traps and water hazards are sticky goo surfaces, swinging platforms and hard-to-hit shortcuts. Navigating these holes is made easier by the addition of a bag of seven power-ups. These include a rewind power that lets you take the last shot again and a whole load of balls: water-freezing ice balls, pink goo balls that cling to walls and ceilings, magnetised balls that I still don’t really understand how they work. These additions enliven golf, the mildly diverting activity I’ve dabbled in a couple of times in real life, and turn it into something more colourful, satisfying and overtly game-y. It’s a fairground-mirror adaptation of golf that gives me a little more appreciation for the sport itself, just as Wii Sports and Wonderputt have in the past. So, in one way, SSG2 is a contender for the title of best mobile game I’ve ever played. But it has one fatal flaw: You have to hold the phone sideways.That might not sound like a big deal, but SSG2 fits a very particular niche. It’s not a toilet game, it’s not a coffee break game. It’s a black hole that consumes your time and attention – in other words, a perfect public transport commuter game. And if you have ever origami’d yourself onto the Northern Line at rush hour, you’ll know that the amount of space your elbows will need to control a game with both thumbs is just not going to happen. I realise it’s my very specific set of circumstances that are causing this problem. And I know the game has to be that way – golf isn’t a particularly horizontal game, as I understand it. It’s not even a crippling enough flaw to stop me playing SSG2 even in the face of dropping my phone, as has now happened on not one but two crowded tubes. But, for better or worse, this is the strange relationship we have with mobile games. They have to fit like Tetris pieces into our lives, or they’re just no good. I’m looking for a neat L block, and SSG2 is one of those long thin bastard red ones.
I’ve been troubled for years by the vision of a game where you control an evil Superman flying through the skies and terrorising civilians with his laser eye-beams. Such is the dreadful burden of creative genius. Earlier this month, I finally found an outlet for this weird little brain-loop by writing a piece for MyGeekBox on superhero comics that deserve their own videogame adaptations. You can read the piece, and the rest of the magazine, here – or by subscribing to MyGeekBox. (If the page-turner isn’t to your liking, there’s a download PDF option at the link.) For your trouble, you get four red-hot ideas, as well as a handful of throwaway gag ideas, including She-Hulk: Ace Attorney, which Tim allowed me to steal from his brain. My only regret is that I couldn’t find space for his equally excellent Dick Grayson dating simulator, which I would have entitled Getting Down with Dick, or possibly Cradle Robin.
In 2015, I’m trying to get into the habit of writing shorter, more frequent blogs, and save the ponderous word-monsters for the stuff that really needs it. Normally I’d give the whole thing a clever name and format, but instead I’m just going to write the damn things. Call it a New Year’s Resolution if you like. Super Smash Bros for Wii U To this day, the original Super Smash Bros on the N64 is the perfect example of what I want a fighting game to be. Super Smash Bros drew me in with the prospect of a punch-up between Mario, Link and Pikachu – the kind of thing that had my ten-year old salivating like Homer Simpson over sixty-four slices of American cheese – but the thing that stuck with me was its streamlined combat. The game eschewed the hard-to-memorise combos that will inevitably fill the arthritis clinics of ten years’ time with old Tekken and Street Fighter players. In their place was a neat two-button system which put all of its weight on timing, anticipating your opponents’ moves and and understanding the differences between characters. These are the same things a devotee of the genre will tell you about competitive Street Fighter 2 but to a novice like me, the barrier to entry is just too high. In Smash Bros, each character essentially has four unique moves to learn. Add a pile of items, each introducing a pinch of chaos to the match when it drops from the sky, some creative levels, and you have the complete Smash Bros formula. Unfortunately, each subsequent installment seems to have lost confidence in the simplicity of the game’s core loop, and leant instead on the latter half of the formula: the big pile of stuff. More characters, replacing distinction with duplication; more game modes; more items, cameos, trophies, unlockable macguffins… By the release of Super Smash Bros Brawl in 2008, it was less the lean fighting game I’d fallen in love with, more a virtual museum exhibit of videogames’ roaring nineties. This is the bit where, if you haven’t yet played the catchily-titled Super Smash Bros for Wii U (or SSBWU for short), you may be expecting me to say ‘…and it takes the series back to those gorgeous basics’. Nope. SSBWU stacks yet more on top of this swaying Jenga tower of features. For the first time, eight players can get their smash on simultaneously, crowding the screen with colourful fighters. You can customise each character to your exact specifications, making them faster but more vulnerable, or punchier but slower. The series’ ever-growing roster has, from an initial dozen on the N64, now broken the half-century mark. This is further bolstered with the ability to use personalised Mii characters, meaning you can punch your best friend in the face, without having to get dragged round his house by your mom to apologise. The game is bloated like Kirby after inhaling an opponent with his B attack, but somehow SSBWU adds such an insane amount of stuff that it manages to come out the other side of these problems and, like a zen master, find peace among the chaos. The finer points of combat can still get lost in a mess of particle effects, especially when there are eight players on screen at once, and the wider range of characters means less distinction between the silhouette. (Seriously, compare Marth, Ike and Robin – I think that’s who they are, but frankly who knows – in the screenshot above.) But I can still pick up a controller blind and immediately know how Fox McCloud’s down-B attack works, from the time I learned it 15 years ago, or appreciate the subtle changes in how SSBWU‘s iteration of Samus Aran handles. I can even try out a new character and get to grips with the weird new mechanics they add in the space of one three-minute game. Partly, I admit, that’s a case of personal bias – Smash Bros happens to be the game I invested hundreds of hours into when I was a kid – but it’s also the simplicity of that two-button, four-directional combat system. Underneath the clutter of SSBWU is the same wonderfully elegant game, refined and expanded and shining through more than it has in years. (Oh, and the other thing I love as much today as I did in 1999 is the freezeframe mode, which which now allows you to snap photos, save them to an SD card, transfer them to your PC and then upload them to a blogpost until you have far, far too many to actually justify as illustrations. I’ve dropped another dozen of my favourite shots below.)