Games

2014: Game of the Year

I’m stretching my usual definition of both ‘Game’ and ‘of 2014’ here, but this is undoubtedly the game I’ve played most of over the past 12 months, the one that’s given me the most pleasure, and the one that has most dominated my thoughts in idle moments. Kate ‘Mac’ McCaffrey had been building up her rig for weeks, feeling the hot glare of Jinteki’s spybots on the back of her neck the whole time. Working a several-levels-below-her-abilities data job to build up a stock of credits, surviving on cheap energy drinks while she built up a fearsome rig. Click, click, click, until… It was finally time. Welcome to Netrunner, a two-player card game set in a dystopian future of mega-corporations, hackers and elevators to the Moon. For anyone who has already taken Netrunner‘s red pill, the above won’t be too difficult to translate into a rough version of what’s going on at the table. Otherwise, I appreciate it’s probably impossible to visualise this as some cards on a table, so let’s try and lay it out: It’s early in the game, the fourth turn. The Runner player, who picked Mac from a broad roster of hackers, has spent the majority of her turns preparing for the moment we’re picking apart here. The most notable cards she has played thus far are the ‘Armitage Codebusting’ resource card, which sits on the table waiting to be tapped up for money, and a sturdy suite of three Icebreakers – we’ll get to those in a minute. This turn, she has used up three of the four ‘click’ actions she gets every turn to take six credits from Armitage Codebusting, and her prep is complete. It’s time to run. Mac rammed the cable into the port where her spine met her skull, tapped the ‘enter’ key, and she was in. All of Jinteki’s servers and defenses were neatly visualised, laid out before her. Without a moment’s hesitation, she went right for the company’s HQ. On their turns, meanwhile, the Corp player on the other side of the table (representing Jinteki, a Japanese mega-corporation best known for manufacturing clones) has been playing a very different game. While the Runner plays all of her cards openly, the Corp’s are kept face-down until revealed. This is what runs are for – hacks into the Corp’s servers, a risky foray into enemy territory to reveal their plans. There’s not just one game to master here, but two neatly interlocking ones. While the Runner player is constantly on the offence, the Corp plays defence. It’s not all they do, but the top priority is protecting every card they have from these hacks. And I mean every card: not just the ones they’ve decided to play into ‘Remote Servers’, but also their discard pile (aka Archives), the deck they’re drawing from (R&D), even their hand of cards (HQ). Jinteki’s defence systems stayed dark, letting Mac float right past. Suspicious, maybe, but no time to wonder why now: the files were in sight. Suddenly, there was a buzz down the line, that telltale sign of a rez command. BOOOOOM. The Corp protects their valuables with ‘Ice’ cards, stacked on top of each server – their hand or deck or a card ‘installed’ on the table – for the Runner to approach one by one. These can block entry, or charge a toll, or do some truly nasty things to intruders, and the Runner doesn’t have a clue which it will be until the card has been flipped over. Ice is played face-down too, and during runs the Corp has the option to ‘rez’ – activate the Ice’s defenses by paying a set cost – one at a time. In this case, our Jinteki player has three pieces of Ice in front of their HQ. They peek at the ice card nearest to the Runner, then consider the Runner’s line-up of Icebreakers – each of which can break through certain pieces of Ice at a cost, negating their effects but not damaging the Ice itself – and the state of their own finances. This gamble is Netrunner‘s heartbeat. For the Runner, hitting the wrong piece of Ice can be disastrous, but failing to run will eventually cost them the game. For the Corp, it can be tempting to rez a piece of Ice, but doing so will deplete their resources in a game where everything costs money, and give the Runner an extra piece of information. With all this in mind, the Jinteki player declines to rez their first and second pieces of Ice. When it comes to the final layer, with Mac getting dangerously close to the precious cards in their hand, they finally flip one over, revealing it to be a Data Mine. Back in the real world, a spot of blood dripped from Mac’s nose and splashed onto her console’, obscuring the loading bar that slowly filled on its vidscreen. She felt the metallic heat on her tongue as half-written programs combusted, and knew corners of her brain would never be the same again. Still, she’d managed to snatch a single file from Jinteki’s HQ – vital evidence. Normally at this point, the Runner could pay a couple of credits to stop the effects with one of their Icebreakers, depending on the type of Ice in question. If it’s is a Codegate, they’d need a Decoder; for a Barrier, a Fracter; for a Sentry, a Killer. But Trap cards like Data Mine are an exception, without a corresponding breaker type. There are ways, but they’re not common, and Mac doesn’t have any in her armoury – catching her out to the cost of one point of net damage. Netrunner isn’t a combative game, in any straightforward sense, but Runners can get hurt. The Corp can broadcast brain-damaging signals through the net, or just trace the Runner back to their poky flat and blow their entire building to smithereens. Reading the largely incomprehensible rulebook, this was the moment I fell […]

2014: What I’ve Been Playing – Invisible Inc, OlliOlli, Peggle

Our final bit of catch-up blogging on every game I’ve played this year. After the laser focus of the last two posts – on Friday I wrote about the multiplayer games I’ve most enjoyed while drinking with friends,on Sunday I talked about my unexpected love for the Wii U – there’s no real pattern connecting the remaining games I wanted to talk about. So, I proudly present: The Rest of What I’ve Been Playing Permadeath, hacking and cartoony visuals. Random generation, of levels and baddies. XCOM‘s turn-based strategy, mixed with Splinter Cell‘s stealth. These are a few of my favourite things. Actually, when it comes to games, these are pretty much my absolute favourite things. Invisible, Inc has them all, plus a moody soundtrack, cyberpunk-meets-Mission:Impossible style, and the impressive pedigree of developer Klei (also responsible for the excellent Mark of the Ninja and Don’t Starve). Stealth is traditionally the preserve of third-person and occasionally first-person games, like Splinter Cell, Metal Gear Solid or Thief. Switching the perspective to the god’s eye view of something like XCOM is an unusual decision, which abstracts the experience slightly. Then again, with their light meters and vision cones, stealth games were hardly the most naturalistic to begin with. It also shifts the focus away from the moment-to-moment tension of being caught, and the voyeuristic thrill of watching from the shadows, towards careful planning. Information is still limited, but you’ve got much more to work with – I went back to Dishonored recently, and after playing Invisible Inc, the constant obfuscation of its first-person sneaking just felt wrong. With that extra information, and less concern about fiddly execution, it makes it easier to come up with an interesting idea – hey, if I distract this guard with a noise and lead him over here, I can sneak behind him, hack this panel, then switch the targeting on that turret so it takes him out. Without the potential for a fudged button press causing chaos, all that matters is that you have a sound plan. This gets even better when you consider that the game lets you control two agents simultaneously – or even three, if things go well. It allows for some great moments, as you close the patented ‘Clever Girl’ manoeuvre on an unsuspecting guard. Best of all, Invisible Inc is a work in progress. You can buy it on early access, with updates every couple of weeks – meaning the finished product could well make another appearance on these lists next year. My only encounter with a real physical skateboard ended with me running over my own arm, but as a kid with a chipped PlayStation in the early ’00s, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater is written deep into my gaming DNA. OlliOlli is a minimalist demake of those games, flattening its levels into a linear two dimensions, but keeping the sprawling objectives. These are often mutually exclusive, sometimes explicitly so: pull off this difficult grind; reach the end of the level without doing a single trick. It’s an encouragement to endlessly replay levels, bail after bail after painful bail, until the memory of every gap and rail is locked into your fingers. …Or something like that, anyway. Honestly, I find OlliOlli difficult to write about because the experience of every session washes away as soon as I close the lid of my laptop, but also because, while you’re in it, the game is so absolutely consuming. Any stressful thoughts you might be carry unspool in the face of hitting a grind just perfectly, that satisfying kiss of axel on rail, and the inevitable failure that follows it, your avatar’s face meeting pavement for the hundredth time in a row. OlliOlli is the most frustrating relaxation game you’ll ever play. After a years-long drought, 2014 was blessed with not one but two installments in the Peggle series. Peggle 2 is essentially a bigger, brighter remake of the original – itself a shinier version of pachinko or pinball, with a single aimed ball leading to all sorts of unintended consequences as it pings between pegs – with all the production values pushed up to next-gen levels. Peggle Blast, on mobile, pares back the Peggle formula so it fits into a free-to-play app. If pressed, I’d tell you Peggle Blast is the better game. The free-to-play model brings out the nastiest side of Popcap. The game gives you a limited number of lives that refill over the course of hours, it’s constantly pushing extra shots or power-ups in exchange for cash or watching an ad – but it also forces them to to be more inventive. Peggle 2‘s biggest trick is giving each of its five characters a different theme song. As your ball bounces around, it triggers a chime which gets higher and higher with each peg you hit, building up to the pay-off when the screen is finally cleared, rewarding you with fireworks and a climactic blast of soundtrack. Given how much Peggle has always been about disproportionate audio-visual feedback for its challenges, this certainly isn’t insignificant – especially as it manages to find songs as triumphant as the original’s Ode to Joy,and, in the case of Hall of The Mountain King, even more so. However, as Peggle Blast seeks to make the game harder and more addictive, in an attempt to pilfer pennies from players’ pockets, it has to keep finding new tricks. Secondary objectives; boss fights; pegs with different properties; colour-coded keys that unlock certain parts of the screen; even goo-spreading gnomes, for some reason. One of the original Peggle‘s charms was that it felt like no other videogame out there. Peggle Blast goes the other way, giving it the feel of an arcade game – and one that, for all my problems with in-app purchases, doesn’t actually require you to pop in a single quarter to have fun. So that’s everything I’ve played this year, pretty much – with one notable exception. We’ll be talking about that next week, though, when […]

2014: What I’ve Been Playing – Wii U

Another installment from my attempt to document everything I’ve played this year. On Friday I wrote about the multiplayer PC games I’ve most enjoyed as an accompaniment to alcohol, today I’d like to focus on the small black box which started occupying a space beneath our TV this summer – and in my heart not long after. Me & The Wii U   The most common reaction from people when I told them I’d just bought a Wii U was: Why?. The implication being, I think: Why didn’t you buy a PS4 or an Xbox One? Or, depending on the person, and given that I was in the middle of buying my first home at the time: Why didn’t you just stick with the frankly ridiculous number of consoles you already have? The former is easy to answer. A larger quantity of pixels isn’t something I desperately crave, and the unique experiences on offer is only now starting to exceed what I could count on one hand. The latter… not so much. I’ll concede that the Wii U’s key selling point – that tablet-style controller – is slightly silly. Very few games have actually made good on its potential and, as even my 50-something parents (who have now inherited my original Wii, as hush money) pointed out, the chunky plastic controller looks rather ungainly and old fashioned in an era of iPad Airs. And yet, I can’t remember building such an emotional relationship with a piece of technology, not for a long, long time. Why is that? Well, it’s certainly not the selection of third-party games. I own two, ZombiU and Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, both relics of Ubisoft’s early dalliances with the console. Black Flag is a wonderful opportunity for period tourism across a string of 18th Century Caribbean islands, hamstrung by the tedious day-to-day of Assassin’s Creed games. ZombiU actually uses the controller better than most Nintendo-crafted games, pulling your attention away from the main screen and towards the smaller one you’re holding in your hands to create tension, while you rummage through a bag as the undead shamble ever closer to your delicious, delicious brain. Combined with the wonderful specificity of its East London setting and the RTS-vs-FPS multiplayer, it’s a nice addition to the roster for the sub-fiver prices you’ll find it for, but far from the reason to recommend picking up a Wii U. Maybe my love for the Wii U is driven by nostalgia, then? Nintendo Land provides probably the best evidence for this argument. At launch, the game filled the same role for the Wii U as Wii Sports did for its predecessor – a bundled-in package of mini-games built to show off the unique capabilities of the new controller. This means squeezing in features like the controller’s built-in camera, used to display the player’s hilarious facial contortions on the big screen, or touchscreen, to draw a line between obstacles that you can only see on the TV, or its microphone, to …activate a fan by blowing. Some of these inclusions are more successful than others, but the best games take full advantage of the second screen to keep the player using that controller more clued in than their opponents on the Wiimotes. Luigi’s Ghost Mansion (or ‘Cheeky Ghost’, as it’s known round our gaff) uses this to make one player the ghost, sneaking up unseen on four ghost hunters, armed only with a torch, and provoking some of the best jump scares I’ve ever seen in a multiplayer game. As in Wii Sports, each mini game in Nintendo Land – there are a dozen of variable quality, but with three stone-cold classics – is simple but surprisingly deep and satisfying, with the caveat that you need to be playing them with friends crowded round the TV. But, tellingly, where Wii Sports created a new setting – admittedly, a rather blank one – for its games, Nintendo Land dresses up each in the patchwork clothes of a familiar Nintendo franchise. There’s a Zelda-themed archery game, an F Zero X racer, a Metroid arena shooter, all of them using a sort of cargo-cult version of the series’ own aesthetic to fit the charmingly wonky house style, where everything is apparently handmade out of recycled cloth and clockwork and crayons. The effect is to make Nintendo Land a virtual museum of the company’s history. This is literalised by its setting, which frames each mini-game as an attraction in a theme park. You can explore this Nintendo Land on foot, littered with statues and familiar iconography and jukeboxes that bit of menu music you played as a kid, which are awarded to you for playing an old-school pachinko machine. It helps that (some of) the attractions contained within are so enjoyable, but somehow this isn’t anywhere near as awful as it sounds like it should be. I wouldn’t identify myself as a nostalgic Nintendo fan, despite the Gameboy and N64 being my first consoles as a kid, but it would be impossible to deny that the characters have built up a reserve of goodwill with me over the years, which Nintendo Land taps for everything it’s worth. Overall, though, the most honest answer to that Why? is simply this: Mario Kart 8. The Mario Kartgames have always been an indispensable part of life in the Spencer-Dale household, so buying the latest a new installment… well, there wasn’t really much question of us not buying it. Looked at one way, MK8 is just the latest in a long line of chunky, accessible racers. But looked at another… Who the hell doesn’t want that? MK8 is broader than any other Mario Kart game before it, and polished so much it practically glares. It still feels exactly right to tug the controller left and right to steer your kart around corners, the way most of us did anyway in the days before motion controls, tongues sticking out in concentration – and even the parts which sounded gimmicky in the […]

2014: What I’ve Been Playing – Drinking Games

For a while this year, I was convinced I could blog about every single game I spent a decent amount of time with. Then I remembered how life works. Playing something in 10 minute sessions over the course of months, or multiplayer with friends, isn’t really conducive to writing about it. So, over this weekend, I’m planning to post three breakdowns of the remaining games I failed to write up, split into rough categories. Starting with… Drinking games Games and alcohol, eh? The two are a reliable cocktail, one I’ve mixed in various ways over the years. When I lived at home, games were a accompaniment to pre-drinks – Peggle, WWE Superstars, B.U.T.T.O.N. – with loose drinking rules draped over them. In our London flat, they were for the morning after – Worms, Spelunky, Mario Kart –  a roomful of people hiding their hangovers behind competitive multiplayer. This year, especially since moving out to a bungalow in the far reaches of London, I finally cracked the post-pub game. Simple thrills that don’t lean too hard on your brain functions, that keep you awake with bursts of laughter. I’ve written about Nidhogg before, and that has stayed in healthy rotation over the course of the year, but there are also some new challengers for the 3am gaming crown. Towerfall: Ascension is possibly the purest example of the form. Four players battling on a single screen, each armed with a bow and a limited number of arrows. A single hit means death. Kill or be killed. That’s an incredibly simple formula, but the little details manage to make it feel complex. Arrows embed themselves into the scenery, pin crumpled bodies to walls, waiting to picked up by someone who’s prematurely emptied their quiver (it happens to the best of us). While players scrabble towards this errant ammunition, they have one weapon left in their armoury: a simple Mario-style jump onto an opponent’s head, as fatal as an arrow through the chest. That’s not the only lift from Nintendo’s leading practiser of turtle-head parkour. As in the original Mario Bros, each arena loops infinitely, so that dropping off the bottom of the screen will, bamf, have you immediately reappearing at the top. All this gives Towerfall the feel of a deadly bouncy castle. A typical game moves moves in bursts. After an early exchange of arrows that’s likely to fell the first player or two, the survivors will cautiously circle each other for minutes. But when it’s time, Towerfall‘s action happens faster than your conscious brain can really track – just your bare muscle memory versus your opponent’s. And so the tension builds slowly, and is quickly released, which is where all the laughter comes from. This is the same basic mechanism behind most verbal jokes and it’s also, I reckon, the secret of Nidhogg and Broforce. Broforce is the cheap thrill of a Steven Seagal film in the early hours on Channel 5, or of a just-before-the-shop-closes box of fried chicken, in the form of a co-operative shoot ’em up for up to four players. At first glance, the game looks like a no-frills remake of Contra or Metal Slug. In tandem with its roster of knock-off ’80s action stars with dodgy pun names (Rambro, Brominator, B.A. Broracus), you might expect Broforce to rely on retro nostalgia. Being completely honest, it does lean on these pleasures – but vitally, the game is also packed with smart and fresh ideas. The levels you shoot your way through, for example, are entirely destructible. Over-zealous deployment of explosives can make it impossible to reach the end, meaning that your own weapons are as much of a threat as the thousands of balaclava wearers you’ll run into. The way that the game juggles its enormous playable cast of ‘bros’ is pretty remarkable, too. Getting your hands on each new character, they feel just right. A Will-Smith-in-Men-in-Black bro comes equipped with a kickback-heavy Noisy Cricket, plus a Neuralyzer for stunning enemies. The twin Boondock Bros move, shoot and die individually, like Smash Bros’ Ice Climbers. A bro version of Rose McGowan’s character from Planet Terror propels herself through the air using her gun leg. But what’s even more impressive is the way these characters are built into the game. Levels are peppered with cages, which can be broken open to rescue the bro inside. This gives you an extra life, but also switches you to a random bro. It turns something as simple as a 1-Up into an interesting decision: if you’re currently playing as your favourite, do you take the life and risk getting Indiana Brones (arguably the best action hero, but inarguably the worst bro)? (In the multiplayer, if a fellow player is currently dead – which, given the chaos that ensues when four people play together, they will be – it simply brings them back to life. This is less interesting, though much more helpful.) Meanwhile, the game acts as a broad parody of jingoistic action movies, pitched somewhere between Team America and Hot Shots Part Deux. Each level ends with you blasting a besuited Satan then hitching a ride on a chopper as the level explodes below you, all to the soundtrack of a screeching guitar solo. It’s just funny, basically, especially to a brain that’s spent the last six hours pickled in long island iced tea. These trappings certainly help but, again, it’s the play itself which is funniest. Broforce is the rare kind of game where enemies not only hugely outnumber the player, but actually take more shots to kill. A single bullet ends your life in a sudden splurt of red pixels, and that’s funny enough, but watching a friend single-handedly master the rest of the level with Indy, only to be crushed by a falling square of concrete right on the finish line? That’s hilarious. I wanted to talk about The Jackbox Party Pack here, too – a compendium of five quirky quiz games, played on the PC and […]

What I’m Playing: Hitman Go

I dedicated the last four posts of What I’m Playing to an attempt at figuring out what makes a good mobile game. And then the very next game I played was another mobile game which didn’t fit into the grand pattern I’d mapped out for the posts. Such are the dangers of trying to write honestly about every game you play, I suppose. Hitmango isn’t a game about the popularity of tropical fruits, sadly, but a mobile adaption of the popular games franchise about leading professional killer, baldie and hide-and-seek champion Agent 47. Before I drop in a screenshot, let’s talk about the first thing you’re going to notice about Hitmango. Namely, how uniquely gorgeous it is. A few months back, I talked about how Hearthstone went out of its way to imitate a physical card game, but Hitmango goes further still. In an attempt to distill the Hitman formula down into something that will fit on the small screen, it miniaturises the whole thing – the disguises, distractions and player-engineered deathtraps – and turns it into a board game. From the game-box loading screens to the plaque on the wooden bezel of each level, this is something you could imagine turning over in your hands. Or admiring the craftsmanship of the sculpted figurines that stand in for 47 and his targets, like a tourist gawping at one of those elaborate mechanical clocks in a German town square. Hitmango plays like a board game too. You move your piece along a set track, one marker at a time, and then your opponent – in this case, an AI-controlled squad of bodyguards – takes their move. Just like clockwork. Which is to say, smooth and well put together, but a bit stiff and mechanical too. Hitmango almost feels like it’s satirising the lack of choice offered by most games – how, for example, a lot of stealth games is just watching for the gap in a routine patrol pattern. But if taking a Bioshock-style jab at the illusion of autonomy genuinely is the intention here, the Hitman franchise is an odd place for it. The Hitman games have always thrived on giving players as much choice as possible. Do you want to put a bullet in your target from a rooftop half a mile away, or pose as a waiter and slip poison into their caviar? While Hitmango recreates these actions, it puts them quite literally on rails. Being fair, there are some choices to be made here. Each level has additional achievements, which are often mutually exclusive – kill everyone, kill no one – to encourage replaying, but this only highlights how narrow the perfect solution is. Too often, the answer is bouncing back and forth between two squares a maddening number of times, until a guard’s patrol slips out of sequence. In a way, Hitmango is more like a handsomely-furnished Threes than any of the other installments in the Hitman series, and I’ll give the same disclaimer as I did in my blog on that: maybe it’s just a failing of my brain. Here’s the thing, though. There’s a bonus pack which which adapt possibly the series’ high watermark: the Blood Money level ‘Curtains Down’. Taking down two targets in a theatre, Agent 47 switches a prop gun for a real one, then watches from the balcony as an actor accidentally executes your mark, firing the remote min he’s stuck on a chandelier at just the right moment to crush the another. It’s a moment of memorably inventive violence which Hitmango faithfully reproduces, but it doesn’t have the tool set to replicate its thrills. After all, the joy wasn’t in merely watching these assassinations play out. It was the knowledge that you could have just charged in with a sub-machine gun instead, the feeling that you’d discovered these alternatives yourself. In Hitmango, these aren’t choices. They’re mandatory checkpoints you drag your Agent 47 figurine towards. You’re not a genius professional killer earning his million-dollar bonus; you’re a competent snakes-and-ladders player. Other games what I’ve been playing: NIDHOGG HEARTHSTONELEGO MARVEL SUPER HEROESMONIKERSTHREESHOPLITEOUT THEREXCOM

What I’m Playing: XCOM

So far in our journey through mobile gaming, we’ve shuffled tiles with Threes, murdered demons with Hoplite and explored wordy galaxies with Out There. Throughout, I’ve been trying to work out what makes a good mobile game. What is the right balance between complexity and simplicity? What length of game works best? How important is randomisation? Should you be able to abandon a game and come back to it days later?Or does none of that actually matter? Originally a PC game, with very little changed en route, XCOM is in many ways a terrible fit for mobile. It requires your full attention, revolves around drawn-out battle sequences that are a little fiddly to control and impossible to drop and pick back up without disastrous consequences. The app annihilates battery, and if you play for too long my phone, at least, burns the tips of my fingers. One particularly heavy session left my right hand a rigid arthritic claw for days afterwards, something I haven’t experienced since my mid-teens. Luckily, while XCOM might be a bit rubbish as a mobile game, that doesn’t really matter on account of it being just a fucking great game. It’s probably my favourite of the past however-long-it’s-been-since-Spelunky-first-came-out, and in spite of all those problems, XCOM actually feels pleasantly incongruous on the tiny screen. It’s a blockbuster miniaturised and bottled like the city of Kandor. The screenshots peppered throughout this blog don’t do it justice, but in motion the game is Aliens and Independence Dayand Starship Troopers squashed down into something you can play on the bus. If you pull at XCOM‘s edges, and tease it carefully apart, you’ll find it divides into neat halves: a resource-management base building game and a turn-based strategy game. The turn-based battles are the star here. Half a dozen soldiers are dropped into an invaded city, or UFO crash site, tasked with hunting down every alien in the area and welcoming them to Earth in the fashion of a young Will Smith. You have to keep as many of them alive as possible. It’s taut, tense stuff. Especially if you plug in headphones – another way that XCOM is out of sync with most mobile games – and take in the soundtrack. Ambient birdsong and the odd chirrup of alien tech gives way to an electronic score, building agonisingly as the soldiers push back the fog of war, praying they’re not about to uncover a nest of Mutons. Occasionally, screeches suggest the position of nearby enemies, then suddenly the soundtrack explodes into action-movie techno as an entirely new species steps out of the darkness. Make it through all that, and any remaining squad members get to fly back to HQ, to treat their wounds, collect their promotions and pick out a special ability. This is the other half of XCOM and, though it might be possible to prise them apart, you soon realise that the two halves describe a perfect yin-yang, feeding endlessly into one another. Each mission gathers you resources which you can use to build equipment for the next foray into alien territory, or artefacts you can study to unlock new technology. Which can be used, in one instance, to take aliens prisoner and bring them back to base for autopsy. Which unlocks… Each long-running game of XCOM is its own clockwork construction. Appropriately, it’s also one that runs on time: in the battles, with each soldier granted two actions per turn, and also back at the base. The latest discovery might take a few days to research, building and launch a satellite a whole fortnight. This adds up to a compelling list of interlocking tasks. Three days until the new recruits arrive, five until your latest superweapon is ready. It’s here that other mobile games might take the opportunity to squeeze in buy-with-real-money gems to speed up progress, but there’s no forced grind. You can fast-forward as much as you want, racing towards that next unlock – but lean on that button too heavily and you’ll be accelerating your own demise. Every few days, there’s a new city being invaded for your soldiers to rescue – or, worse, two or three simultaneously, of which you can only attempt to save one. Constantly ticking away beneath all this is a monthly timebomb, in the form of the end-of-term reports issued by the shadowy council of nations behind the XCOM project. Fail to protect a country and it might abandon the project, taking precious income with it. Lose enough countries and it’s game over. Ignore Hamburg because London is under threat? Expect panic to spread in Germany, and a highly unfreundlichcall from Merkel. So, that satellite I mentioned? You’re going to need it to stop Germany tipping over the brink. You sell all the unusued alien tech you can on the grey market to raise funds, then realise you need to build an uplink facility in the base before you can launch it. Then, as you skip through the agonising weeks, it hits you. Council report: 10 days. Building completion date: 11 days. Auf wiedersehn. Countries and cash are big abstract resources to threaten the player with, but speeding ahead has another cost. Every squad you send out on a rescue mission is made up of a half-dozen fragile human beings. With their own speciality – there are four different classes: sniper, assault, heavy, support, plus some added psychic business later in the game. Their own rank – awarded for successful missions and kills, giving each character access to a class-specific tree of special skills. And most cruelly of all, their own name.Meet Jeff Jefferson. Nowadays, that’s Colonel Jeff Jefferson, Support Division, but he’s been with me since the very first mission, when the game automatically generated his hilarious name and Canadian origin. I have a Canadian friend called Geoff, so naturally I tweaked Jeff’s appearance to match, posted a screenshot on Facebook, laughed when he was assigned the nickname ‘Rogue’. And then I started to catch myself pulling Jefferson back from the action. To safety. Each mission is […]

What I’m Playing: OUT THERE

Moving house and not having an internet connection has put something of a dent in my proposed fortnight month-long series of blogs. But that’s all done with now, which means we’re back on track with our look at mobile games and what makes them tick – and hopefully less of the maudlin introspection that has frequented the subtext of this blog for the past six months.Now, onward with the games blogging! Out There is, essentially, a modern update of the choose-your-own-adventure book. You know: You are an astronaut stranded out in space, alone. Through the viewscreen, you see a constellation of stars. Do you pilot your ship to the YELLOW DWARF or the distant NEUTRON STAR? The similarities are most obvious in the chunks of text the game displays when you arrive at each new star system, a sort of randomised captain’s log. Some of these provide a bit of flavour (“99 alien races and not one looks like a pretty girl. Damn you, Captain Kirk”). Or they might unexpectedly damage your ship’s hull, or dump a bounty of desperately-needed supplies in your cargo bay. Or they might hand you another decision: You encounter a giant alien pyramid. Do you FLY INTO ITS DARK HEART or FLEE LIKE A COWARD? The remaining majority of Out There is compromised of basic resource management. Each star is orbited by a handful of planets, broken down into three types: rocky planets which can mined for minerals to repair your hull or build new equipment; gas giants which can be probed to extract fuel; and, best of all, the oxygen-rich Garden Planets inhabited by alien lifeforms. Even here, though, the simple binary choices the game presents – do you go to one planet, or all of them in sequence, or just switch on the hyperdrive and continue on to the next star – and the often unexpected consequences of those decisions still retain that same choose-your-own-adventure feeling. The key difference is that when you do inevitably make a mistake, when the fuel runs out leaving you stranded orbiting a planet that you have single-handedly exhausted of its natural resources, there’s no option of cheatily flicking back to the last time things were okay and trying to work out where you went wrong. It’s back to page one.This might sound familiar if you’ve read my last blog on Hoplite. At its heart, Out There is another roguelike. A slightly peculiar one, admittedly, stretching that ‘like’ to its elastic limit, but built around the same two vital components: a randomly-generated word to explore and a start-the-game-all-over-again fail state. The most obvious roguelike(-like-like) comparison is FTL, which also put you in the seat of a spaceship captain, but Out There lacks that game’s focus on combat and crew. FTL evokes Star Trek or Star Wars or Firefly. Playing Out There feels more like… actually, I’m not sure there is a completely accurate film comparison for Out There, and that’s wonderful. In Out There, you come in peace. Your encounters with aliens don’t end in violence, but in conversation, in the standardised gibberish spoken by the various races spread across its universe. Each time you come across an alien, they ask a question. Whether you answer correctly or accidentally threaten genocide, this will add a new chunk of language – just one or two words – to your arsenal, so that you have a better chance of understanding and saying or doing the right thing next time. This is the game at its most brilliant. In general, games’ most successful verbs are either ‘look’ or ‘kill’ but, by approaching language as a mechanical puzzle, Out There makes ‘talk’ into a viable alternative. More, for my money, than any Bioware RPG or Lucasarts point-and-click adventure ever really managed. The writing – not always perfect, but packed with giant warships chucking moons at one another, planets baked to caramel, and other pulpy sci-fi ideas – is the tractor beam that pulls you through Out There‘s weaker parts.Those weaker parts being the actual traditional ‘game’ bits of Out There. The resource management is basic, right up until it’s frustrating. Basic because the game is built around a mindless core loop: arrive at a planet, choose a drilling intensity out of 10, use the collected resources to top up the fuel, hull and oxygen bars, and move onto the next. And it doesn’t take long to figure out that 7/10 is the correct level of drilling, producing the highest yield with little chance of breaking your equipment. Frustrating because every ship is slightly too small to hold everything you’re likely to want. ‘Inventory Tetris’ can be a greatly satisfying sub-game, but there’s no way of knowing what you’ll need or collect next, and there are too many limits on when you’re allowed to use or move around the contents to free up space without having to chuck them out into the void.So, Out There is an unusual thing for me: a game made attractive almost exclusively by the way it’s written. The stories I tend to remember from games are the ones I authored myself, out of the unexpected way two parts of a system rubbed against another or from a scattered series of incidental environmental clues. The irony of ‘choose your own adventure’ was always that you did no such thing. The reader/played followed a firmly set path, with the only real deviation in mistakes and subsequent backtracking. There is a specific story waiting for you in Out There, with set twists and turns. But that took me a few dozen plays to even uncover, and it lets you tell your own story in the margins. The strange adventures of a space captain, stranded and going slowly insane.The text vignettes that make up this side story are shuffled with each playthrough, but what makes them really special is the context. Each event takes on a new weight when you know you haven’t got the resources to repair any of the damage that giant snowball did to your […]

What I’m Playing: HOPLITE

Part two in a promised four part series, trying to figure out why mobile games so rarely make any impact on me. Hoplite is a roguelike. Comfortable with that bit of game jargon? Then you can skip the next section. But if not, allow me to quickly explain: Named after Rogue, a 1980 game that cast the player as an adventurer pushing deeper and deeper below the crust of a fantasy world, the roguelike is a peculiar little subgenre. As in the original, movement and combat most are commonly based around tiles and turns. Heroes are upgraded by levelling up and/or collecting equipment as you descend. But most importantly: every death is permanent, whisking you back to the start of the game to face a whole new set of randomly-generated dungeons and monsters. More recently, the likes of Spelunky and FTL have distilled the genre’s spirit into something frothier, keeping the permadeath and different-every-time levels but translating them into platformers or strategy games. These game are known as roguelites.(Suggested Further Reading: my potted history of the genre for IGN.) Hoplite keeps the same quest structure as classic roguelikes: you play a chunky little Spartan warrior, tasked with the retrieval of the Fleece of Yendor. (The name is a dual reference to the McGuffins from Jason and the Argonauts and classic roguelike Hack.) The Fleece is on the sixteenth level down, protecting an ever-increasing number of enemies. Once you’ve picked it up – which took me a few dozen attempts – you can choose to port back to the surface, ending your game in victory, or push further and deeper for a better score and the simple thrill of challenge. In fact, while it feels like a roguelite, Hoplite is actually a remarkably orthodox example of the genre. As well as the permadeath and random levels, it maintains the turn-based combat: your avatar is able to move one hexagon at a time, slaughtering anyone on an adjacent hex, or take one action, then the forces of hell take their go. The big difference is that Hoplite is built from the ground up with mobile in mind, streamlining the experience to fit the small screen and fat fingers. Classic roguelikes utilised an entire keyboard’s worth of commands, even down to capital letters having a different effect to their lower-case equivalents. Hoplite does away with all that, leaving only movement and three attack commands: use shield, jump, or throw a spear. Combat feels like a puzzle, thanks partly to this limited arsenal and partly to the clean Fisher-Price presentation, which displays attack paths for any character you hover a digit over. It encourages the player to think ahead a couple of turns – if I jump over this baddie’s head, running him through with my sword, I can use this demonic demolitions-expert as cover from that archer, and next turn deflect his bomb back at them both – for my money, more than Threes ever did. You’ll need that kind of forward planning as you descend further. Each successive floor pushes up the number of enemies by one and adds new flavours of demon to the mix – the most fearsome being the sorcerer, who can shoot fireballs across almost the entire screen. Before long, each level is  painted with a convoluted criss-cross of attack patterns leaving only one hex safe, and often tantalisingly out of reach. To balance this out, there are altars on every floor where your Spartan can pray – in a shouty Scottish accent, if 300 is to be believed – for one of five upgrades. It’s the levelling up process simplified to its absolute core principles, minus skill trees or item augmentation. The upgrades on offer range from prosaic (an extra healthpoint, a quicker reset on the shield bash attack) to game-altering (the ability to teleport to any hex your spear lands on), and can be expanded through the game’s achievements system. Restore your health with a single heart remaining, for example, and next game you’ll be able to pray for a pair of winged sandals which let you leap across much further distances. These upgrades, once unlocked, are available from the same altar each time. That’s useful for planning but it’s also indicative of Hoplite’s one major issue . The game in general could do with a little more randomness. Each floor always features the same number and type of enemies, with only their placement and a few scattered lava tiles to differentiate it from the last time you made it this far. Maybe that won’t matter the first few dozen times. But after your hundredth battle with the third level’s two swordsmen, one archer and one bomber, it starts to feels a little restrictive. And make no mistake, your playthrough count will reach the triple figures. It’s shocking how well the pecularities of the roguelike suit mobile. Just about any chunk of dead time can be transformed into a string of enjoyable deaths, a couple of minutes apart. In fact, once you’ve done it a couple of times, beating Hoplite – that is, picking up the Fleece and teleporting back to the surface, presumably to be carried on the shoulders of your cheering comrades and paraded through the streets as a hero, never to sleep alone again – can be done inside of ten minutes. But as the challenge of grabbing the Fleece fades, the promise of cheers and endless lovemaking for your little Spartan pales into insignificance next to the promise of a few extra points, a new level reached, a new ability unlocked. You push deeper and deeper, taking more chances, deftly avoiding the attacks that would have felled your younger self. Until you suddenly realise you have to jump off at the next stop, and abandon your hero’s epic tale, never to be finished. So what? You’ve lost maybe fifteen minutes of your time. It’s not like you would have done anything good with it in the first place. Other games what I’ve been playing: NIDHOGG HEARTHSTONELEGO MARVEL SUPER HEROESMONIKERSTHREES

What I’m Playing: THREES

I’ve been moaning since 2010 that I don’t have enough time to play games anymore. With an hour-and-a-half of dead time to fill each commuting day, mobile games should be the perfect solution, but I’ve struggled to find anything I really loved. This is the first of four posts going up over the next month or so, looking at the mobile games that have been dominating my tube journeys of late, and trying to work out if there is anything that can change my mind. Even as I’m playing Threes, I don’t really understand why I’m doing it. Threes is a puzzle game where you move around tiles with multiples of three on them. If you can get two matching numbers next to each another, they can be combined into a single double-value tile. Two 3s become a 6, freeing up more space and, once the game is over and points are being counted, exponentially growing your score. The exception being 1 and 2 tiles. Firstly because, as the more eagled-eye of you may have noticed, they aren’t multiples of three. And secondly because they can’t be combined with themselves, only with the other corresponding number. Two adjacent 1s other aren’t any use to you, but a 1 and 2 can be squashed together into a 3. This is a game of mathematical speed dating, and to matchmake these tiles you have to move the whole board. Each turn you have four choices: move all free tiles up, down, left or right. Trace Three‘s family tree back a few generations, and you’ll see that it’s a direct digital descendant of those plastic sliding block puzzles found in Christmas crackers and at the bottom of 99p lucky bags. The key difference is that, being a virtual game rather than a disappointing toy, Threes is able to introduce more tiles with each turn. Move everything to the right, and a new tile will pop up on the left. This also introduces a fail state: let the screen fill up and you’re out of moves. Game over. Sat at the top of the other major branch of that family tree is Tetris, and like that mighty Russian patriarch, Threes presents you with a preview of the next tile, so you can control roughly where it will land, and make space for it to get intimate with a compatible number. In theory, you can predict what comes next, what you need to do, what the smart move is. In theory. In practice, that doesn’t happen, at least not for me. Threes should be one big balancing act. I should be massaging my chin, muttering to myself: ‘Right, if I move this, then this will squidge into this, but this will block this’. But for a puzzle game, I rarely feel like I’m solving anything. That preview of what’s coming next doesn’t make me more strategic, it just makes me reactionary. The sky is constantly falling, and I’m thoughtlessly swiping to avoid any chunks landing on me. I look for easy matches, never thinking more than one move ahead and worse, it doesn’t feel like I really need to. Once, out of curiosity, I tried to force a game over, sliding my finger around randomly, and was disheartened to find the game lasted another couple of dozen turns – probably longer than if I’d actually been trying. You might have noticed we’ve switched here from the second person ‘you’ to the first person ‘I’. I can’t escape the feeling that the fault is with me. Honestly, I can’t quite work out why I don’t like Threes more. The game removes any complexity of controls, which so often trip up mobile games, in favour of a single motion. The focus is put firmly on challenging the player’s mind rather than their aching thumb joints. Each game is randomised, meaning it’s endlessly playable. And most of all, the presentation is gorgeous. Everything has its corners rounded off like a safety-tested child’s toy – all the way down to the fonts and icons and the pastel colour scheme. Every tile has its own little face, more detailed and filled with personality for each increasing number. Here’s the thing: I’ve played a hell of a lot of Threes. But I still find it very difficult to recommend. There’s no elation when I beat my previous high score, no real feeling of defeat when that last immovable tile fills up the screen.  Around the time I started playing Threes, a lot of my life was waiting for stuff to happen, stuff that was out of my control, and that’s how the game feels to me, a process of swiping and watching things fail and then press restart until the allotted time is over. The fancy big-money word that cropped to mind, then and now, is ‘anhedonia’. In my Hearthstone blog, I said that game might have been better off with its fantasy trappings removed. Playing Threes suggests I was wrong. For all its visual charm, the game lacks any real theme or flavour. It’s too abstract to give you the pleasure of filling a character’s shoes and playing out their role, or just moving around in their world. I was about to say that I can’t work out why I’ve spent so much time playing Threes – but that’s not quite true. It’s the ne plus ultra of a certain aspect of mobile games Threes is a precision-crafted time killer. A few rounds tesselate perfectly into a tube journey, or a waiting room, or an early morning trip to the loo. It’s a process for gobbling up dead time. And it’s great at making that time disappear, but it entirely fails to do anything more with it. Of course, that might just be a problem with me. I’m the guy who doesn’t like Angry Birds or Bejeweled or Tetris. Other games what I’ve been playing: NIDHOGG HEARTHSTONELEGO MARVEL SUPER HEROESMONIKERS

What I’m Playing: MONIKERS

A quick break here before we launch into a four-part special, ignoring the huge backlog of games I’ve made notes on and instead talking up a game I first played last weekend and just couldn’t keep quiet about: Monikers doesn’t really exist as a game yet. The version I’ve played was printed, by me, onto some card we had lying around the flat. The lovely pictures I’m using throughout this post are nicked from the game’s Kickstarter. Which brings us neatly to the reason I’m writing about it now, rather than any of the other games I need to get written up before Mario Kart 8 arrives and dominates my playtime for the next half-year. While Monikers quickly passed its rather conservative $20,000 goal, you still have the chance to help the campaign push past its various stretch goals and essentially help improve the game you, and everyone else, will play. And unlike most Kickstarter games, you can be guaranteed of Monikers‘ quality. Why? Because I’ve played it, and I’m telling you it’s ace, obviously. And also because you can play the same demo version yourself, for free. Monikers is based on a public domain game called ‘Celebrity’. You might not have heard of the game, but you’ll have played a variant of it. Split into teams, pick a bunch of famous names from a hat, set a timer, and try to get your teammates to guess as many as possible using verbal clues. Taboo + the Copycat cards from Cranium + that ‘Who Am I?’ game they play in Inglourious Basterds where one of the Nazis is King Kong. You play with a partly random, partly chosen deck of cards shared by both teams – each player picks up seven, throws out two they don’t fancy, and combines them all into a big pile. This gets whittled down in a series of 60-second rounds, as the correct guesses are plucked out of the deck and the remainder are shuffled back up and passed to the next player. You keep playing until even the names that nobody’s heard of (Punxsutawney Phil and Thomas Kinkade were the ones that killed our group) have been guessed. The range of names on offer is Moniker‘s first stroke of genius: a mix of history, celebrity and internet culture that feels carefully picked to guarantee the maximum amount of conversational silliness. The second is that the process I’ve just described is only round one. Once the two teams have worked their way through the deck, the the whole cycle begins again. The scores at the bottom of each card are counted up to find each team’s score, then the cards are shuffled back together. Welcome to Round Two, where teams again have 60 seconds to guess as many names as they can, but this time they can only use a single word. Eventually, the deck will be conquered once more. Count. Shuffle. Round Three. Where those same few dozen names have to be conjured with only gestures and sound effects. Using charades to convey, say, ‘David Foster Wallace’ is a pretty tall order, but because the card will have cropped up at least twice before, your pathetic impression of a lobster stands a fighting chance. Unless, of course, ‘Sebastian the Crab from The Little Mermaid‘ is also in your deck. Because you’re working with a finite number of cards, of which each player saw five before the game even began, you can start factoring traditional game skills like memorising and elimination and card-counting into your strategy. All of which might sound like cheating, but it’s not really. This is how Monikers wants to be played and, because it’s a chaotic party game you’re most likely playing with a drink in hand, it’s hard to get too serious about things. Instead, this strategy manifests as a makeshift shorthand, a language each team constructs as they play. (And I have to admit, as beautiful as the cards in these pictures are, I’m a bit concerned about the effect that the added descriptions will have. Our version of the cards just feature the name and a category, meaning that when you encounter ‘Krang’ (the brain-in-a-belly villain from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, fyi) and have no clue who they are is, you either have to find a unique angle of approach (“like the cartoon sound effect for two swords clashing against each other”) or give up and move onto the next one, something that’s explicitly encouraged in the game’s rules. Whereas in the forthcoming version of the game, when you’ve got a minute to fire through as many names as possible, and you hit the same card and there’s a helpful 50-word biog of someone you’ve never heard of, the most sensible thing to do is to read it out loud. It’s also the lame thing to do, and I doubt anyone I’d want to play this game with will rely on it, but the temptation is certainly there.) As it is, though, Monikers balances both halves of the party game equation beautifully. It gets competitive in a way that Cards Against Humanity, generally considered the gold standard around these parts, never does but it also encourages you to be even more inventive, more silly, more filthy. Unlike Cards Against Humanity, you don’t have to work blue – only a few of the cards are rude (‘Fluffer’, ‘Goatse’, ‘James Deen’ with that vital second ‘e’) – but it quickly goes that way because your friends are disgusting human beings. Take the example of ‘Rick Santorum’, which cropped up in one of our group’s games. Santorum is a US Republican Senator most famous for being a vocal opponent of gay marriage, but as far as clue-giver Dav ‘Ain’t No Stinkpen’ Inkpen is concerned, the single most salient fact about him is that his surname has been coined, in a moment of beautiful internet vengeance, as the term for a slushy byproduct of anal sex. Our team has no idea about any of this. But when the cards finally […]