31 December 2015

Woa! Another year down! That one sure flew quickly! And just like the two previous years, I’m going to write a few things about the last 365 days, and of course, which games I’ve played and which one I liked the most. Now, if you follow me on Twitter, you probably already know what that is. Or maybe it was all a huge trap and there’s a big twist at the end of this article.

Don’t hold your breath, as this article is somewhat long and I wouldn’t want you to die.

So, 2015. Just like last year, I didn’t get to play a lot of different games. Most of my playtime was spent circling around League of Legends and Diablo 3. I also kept playing some Civilization V and Banished. Oh, and I got Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask again on my shiny new 3DS, and boy are they still as great as ever. As for the new games, there were quite a few interesting ones. I’ll keep my review of my actual GOTY for the end of this article.

The Delirium Corp year in gaming

First off, there are a few games that I’ve already talked a bit about: Shovel Knight, Ori and the Blind Forest, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and The Beginner’s Guide. Feel free to read those again. Now, for the games that I liked but did not find interesting enough to write more than a few tweets.

I picked Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon up because I found the first Luigi’s Mansion to be a flawed game with great potential. Dark Moon is probably a stronger title in that respect, although I think I prefered the Resident Evil-style exploration of the first game to the level based structure of this one. If you feel like your 3DS is gathering too much dust, pick it up, it’s a great way to spend your time.

Then there’s The Talos Principle. I’ve always liked adventure games, that is, games where a plot frames a series of puzzles. Back when I was a kid, I played a lot of franchises like Myst and The Journeyman Project. Navigating labyrinthine environments in action adventure games like Zelda or Metroid has also been a favorite activity of mine. And finally, I quite liked the physics based puzzles of Portal and Half-Life 2. So, The Talos Principle, with its glowing reviews, was quite up my alley. And even though the puzzles themselves can get tedious, its plot, its writing and arguing philosophy with an artificial inteligence kept me drudging through the very end. So, yeah, give it a shot.

I also picked up the legendary Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. I’ve never been a huge fan of CS at this point. When I first tried it, it was CS 1.6 and I absolutely sucked at it. I didn’t seem to grasp how to connect people with bullets, and I ended up believing I was just shit at shooters. Then I went on to play Call of Duty 4 and I was much better at it, so my conclusion was that I was shit at hard shooters. Anyway, a friend of mine pushed me to buy it, and I must say it’s great fun. It’s fast, it’s hard, every match is paced like a rollercoaster, and while I’m still bad, I feel like I have a chance of getting better if I try.

I’ve also played a few games of Civilization: Beyond Earth. The game continues the grand Civilization tradition of being a massive letdown until the first expansion, which then fixes most of the issues. It’s still gonna take some time before it replaces Civilization V in my lineup. As of now, the game feels quite easy. I don’t know if it’s how maps are huge by default and as such there isn’t a lot of border pressure, which means you get to tech up with no opposition, but still. It’s still Civ, in all its addictivity.

Oh, there’s also Shadow of Mordor, a game that starts off great and tapers off after the midway mark. In my first few hours of play time, I had so much fun with it that I was already ready to place it high on my GOTY pretender list. And then I realized that the game’s core unique feature, the Nemesis system, does nothing to break up the monotony of a typical Assassin’s Creed-class open world game. But here’s the thing: this is Assassin’s Creed with the Arkham combat system tacked on. The game is fun and exhilarating at the start when you’re weak and you have to scout ahead, acquire intel and plan your combat encounters, but once you’re past the mid point, you can just barge in and fuck everything up with brute strength alone while disregarding the Nemesis system as pointless busywork. And it gets even more ridiculous when you can instantly mind control enemies. Oh, and the ending is bullshit. In any case, it’s still worth your time, but you’ll need some self-imposed challenge, and probably a Steam sale.

And finally, there’s Wolfenstein: The New Order, a solid shooter that checks all the boxes on the “how to please me” list and even manages to go the extra mile by presenting a compeling story with excellent pacing and attractive characters. In fact, it’s probably going to serve as the basis of next month’s article, so I’ll write my actual review at that point. Until then, feel free to grab a copy, it’s well worth your time and money.

Oh, I should also mention Ark: Survival Evolved, a game that I picked up for Extra Life 2015 and that I haven’t really let go off since. It’s far from perfect, but I had loads of fun playing it with my friends. I’ve always liked games where you can build things, and Ark delivers on that front. Despite its numerous flaws, most of which are performance-related, it’s still a great experience. If you can bring people with you, though, as there huge amount of grinding involved will probably turn you off if you don’t split it amongst multiple persons.

This year’s second best

So, the moment you’ve all been waiting for! What did I like the most this year? Well, first off, my runner up.

Cities: Skylines is the new game I’ve spent the most time with this year. It’s exactly what SimCity should have been: no always online bullshit, a working simulation model that doesn’t crumble under small loads, fast load times, large maps, plenty of depth and complexity, and so on. Really, SimCity probably had an atrocious development cycle with a tremendous amount of corporate-mandated features, which is EA’s standard policy when it’s looking for reasons to shut down a studio. Colossal Order had no such problems. It goes to show how it is possible for a small team to one-up large gaming corporations if they have the right vision and focus. Although, to be fair, EA kinda forced Matrix to commit suicide, so I guess the moral of this story is: don’t be as dumb as your competitor and you’ll succeed? So, as for my verdict: get it if you like building cities. Hell, get it anyway, Finland needs your money.

I don’t really have much more to say about it, since it’s essentially "SimCity done right". If you like city builders, you’ll love it, otherwise, you won’t. It doesn’t reinvent the genre, but it is well polished and it’s an indie game that managed to show the AAA giants how it’s done, and I always like to root for the underdog. The game was already great at launch, got better with its After Dark expansion, and thanks to a healthy moding community, will remain fresh and exciting for many years to come. Wait, that’s exactly what happened with Banished. Hell, by that standard it would have been my favorite game of the year. But, alas, something else came up. Something so good, I’m gonna be spending the rest of the article gushing about it. Get ready for…

This year’s best

It’s Undertale. And nobody was surprised. I mean, really.

I went into Undertale because people kept telling me it was made by a guy who loved EarthBound. In fact, he loved it so much he made a bunch of ROM hacks of it first. So, being a huge fan of the Mother franchise myself, I decided I had to give a shot. Plus, it was cheap. Anyway, long story short: one of the game’s ending made me cry. And I never cry.

Let’s back up a bit. Undertale is a game that was made by a single guy, with some help from others, over three years. It’s a labor of love: everything in it screams “auteur”. What I was expecting was a quirky little indie RPG with low production values and a good sense of humor. What I didn’t expect was a surprisingly rich combat system, an astonishing level of attention of detail, and insightful metacommentary about the implications of completionism and gathering experience in an RPG, of violence as way to solve problems in video games, and even about the nature of the player, the player character and the relationship between the two.

Undertale is a tough game to sell. It’s biggest strength is its ability to surprise you at every possible moment, so the more you talk about it, the more you lessen the experience. So, I could ask you to blindly trust me and just give it a try, but I understand that’s going to be hard with most of you. So I’ll try saying as much as possible without spoiling anything. Wish me luck.

The game is ostensibly about a child falling into a cavern. There’s no way up, so the only other option is to go forward into the underground until you can find an exit. Turns out this place is home to a bunch of monsters who were banished after losing a wars against the humans some time ago. In battle, those monsters use magic to directly attack your soul, which is represented by a little red heart. This turns fights into bullet hell shooter segments as you move that heart around, dodging projectiles and objects thrown at you. Every enemy has a different attack pattern, and many enemies have multiple such patterns, which can even change during battle depending on your actions. This means a particularly adept player could go through the entire game without taking damage.

And you’ll need to master those dodging skills because the game’s major twist is that you can play it without killing anyone. I know, that’s not a big surprise, it’s in the tagline. But here’s the thing: they mean it. Everyone can be spared. Even the bosses, which is a far cry from your usual pacifist runs, which typically involve “killing nobody except important characters”. The in-universe explanation is that monsters have weak souls and can therefore be weakened simply by befriending them. You have to listen to their queues and perform the right moves at the right time, all the while dodging or tanking their attacks, until they lose their will to fight, in which case their names turn yellow and you can end the fight with the “spare” action. Doing so earns you gold but no EXP.

And that’s the point: being a true pacifist means you’ll be spending the whole game at level one, with a small health pool. This implies that a more lethal player will have a easier time going through, which means the game essentially asks if you are ready to commit murder for the sake of convenience. And it is murder, because Undertale also makes sure to characterize everyone. “Monsters” are monsters in name only: they have names, stories, hopes and dreams. Major characters are introduced long before you have to fight them, and killing them has a huge impact on the rest of the game. So you have a to make a choice. Who dies?

Well, if you’re determined enough, nobody has to. And that’s the beauty of it. If you kill people, you are an asshole, and there’s nothing you can say about it. Spec Ops: The Line did the same, but in that game you were forced to do horrible things, and your only other option would be to stop playing. That was deliberate on Spec Ops’s part: every military shooter forces you to do those things, they just don’t call you out on it. And the game’s objective is to point out how these games are only good as long as you don’t think about them. Spec Ops ruined military shooters for me, because now I cannot play them without questionning the underlying context.

Back to Undertale. The game is funny. Really funny. You just end up talking and interacting with everyone just to see what crazy thing will happen next. But, just like EarthBound, under all those jokes is some weird feeling that something is wrong. Like the game is actually being serious. EarthBound could be understood as a metaphor for a child growing up, so the whimsical exterior was just a wrapper around a more disgusting and unsettling reality. And the game’s ending is the part where that wrapper explodes, which is the point where the aforementionned child loses his innocence and becomes an adult. It’s even a point of no return in gameplay, as you can’t get your innocence back. And in a way, Undertale is similar: it uses its humor and quirkiness to disarm the player and set up a twist. Or, well, multiple twists. Metatwists, even. It’s complicated.

Where Undertale and EarthBound differ is in how they approach that goal. EarthBound is a JRPG, and like JRPGs of its kind and time, it keeps its plot and gameplay separate. As such, fights only touch the above themes in the sense that they feature funny enemies at first and then increasingly strange and frightening as the game progresses, with very few story events actually happening during combat. Undertale is radically different in that it seamlessly blends story and gameplay in an attempt to use all its systems and features to support its ideas. It’s a great example of ludonarrative harmony: every single point of its design, whether it’s the interactive or non interactive parts, are working together towards a cohesive idea. For example, the combat system is deep enough to allow entire plot threads to begin and/or end within it without having to resort to noticeable cutscenes transition. The soundtrack makes use of themes and leitmotifs in order to foreshadow plot points. And the attention to detail is astounding: it’s as if the developer managed to anticipate every possible move the player might want to do, and account for it. You can keep playing it and always find new things hidden in every nook and cranny, which is one of the things that makes the game hard to explain without spoiling, since you want to keep those surprises under wraps. And near the end, it gets so meta, Hofstadter himself would probably shed a tear.

I can’t say much more without ruining it for you, so, get your determination high and buy Undertale. No matter what happens, I’m sure it won’t leave you indifferent. It’s one of the shiniest examples of gaming’s strengths that I have ever seen, and an excellent first step into that world for those who want to see what’s so special about it. It is, without a doubt, the best game I have played this year.

And with that, happy new year! I hope 2016 is filled with wisdom, courage, and friendship. I’ll see you in a month, with something that’s probably going to be about shooters.