Category Archives: Game Review

2014 in games.

1. This War of Mine (PC)

This War of Mine “In modern war … you will die like a dog for no good reason.”

I needed to reach the end of my game before I could safely say this is the best game I’ve played this year. It’s a simple survival sims, but it captures so much of what it’s like to be a helpless civilian caught in the middle of a pointless war, or so I imagine. Yet that’s its strength, that it effective communicates an experience like no other, and it does so interactively.

The sheer grind of scrounging for wood to heat your shelter through the winter, the difficult decisions to starve for just a little bit more so the food will last longer, the agony of wondering if we should loot that helpless elderly couple for their supplies. This game isn’t fun in the traditional sense, but it reaches emotions that are rarely explored in the medium, and does so with grace and authenticity. For this, it deserves my vote.

2. DreamQuest (iOS)

DreamQuest

“Don’t be afraid to eat the squirrels”

It’s perhaps to its credit that the game doesn’t track hours played, because I’m fairly certain my phone exist mostly as a dreamquest machine right now. A sublime blend of two highly compelling gameplay systems (deckbuilding and roguelikes), the game has consumed all the stolen moments in time between life. Waiting for the bus; play dreamquest. Idle moments at the bar; play dreamquest, lounging between dives; play dreamquest. Drowning out relatives constant droning; play dreamquest. The art is horrible yes, but only goes to show that strong game design can often trump the superficial need for the graphical arms race.

3. Wolfenstein: The New Order (PC)

BJ

Who would have thought Wolfenstein would provide a thought provoking meditation on the nature of war and its cost. That a game that features Nazi moon bases, clockwork robotic dogs and Nazi mad scientists engineering the end of the world would be a establish real human characters. That the name BJ Blaskowicz would invoke a soft-spoken, soulful man caught in a war of regrets. Apparently Machine games did. I haven’t wanted to play through a single player FPS like this since the original half-life, and this is so much more.

“Right now, it’s going to be loud.”

4. Dragon Age: Inquisition (PS4)


12 companions

This was always going to be on the list somewhere. DAI is the game Bioware was destined to make. Expansive open worlds to explore, secrets to uncover in every nook and cranny; A large cast of characters that joke, cajole, fight, and codex entries that could cover an entire series of books that George Martin will take the better part of a century to write. I hope the next Mass Effect takes its cue from DAI. Few game studios ever create worlds and stories like Bioware does and DAI is a showcase at just why they are top of the RPG game.

“Cassandra greatly approves”

5. Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor (PS4)

Nemesis
I struggled a little with the 5th entry on this list, trying to decide between games like Dark Souls II, Alien Isolation, or Legends of Grimrock II. In the end, Shadow of Mordor wins out with one simple reason; the Nemesis system. When it first announced, I wondered how they would do it, I wondered how it could even work. And now that I’ve played it, I think it has finally ushered in the age of next-gen gaming. It’s not graphical wonkery, nor technical mastery, it’s design

The rest of the game is a serviceable hodgepodge of gameplay systems, married to an incredibly trite story, set in world that is a little too bland. Kudos to the team though for not thoroughly defiling Tolkien’s world building which some had feared early on. It’s a shame that Mordor itself has to be the dark serious gritty brown world of brutal violence and ancient elven ruins instead of something more interesting.

On the other hand, I really like that the world existed beyond the player’s presence, with its wildlife, orcs and ghouls all reacting against one another.

Yet it’s the nemesis system that will inspire games to come, and I hope to see the future where it isn’t tied to just Orcs, but perhaps mafia dons, Templar Agents, assassin targets, et al.

“You have to visualize your goals”

The Godfather Award

1. Android: Netrunner (LCG)

SMCI still go to a game almost every week. I can’t help it. They release a new pack every month or so, and a big box every half a year. There are new card combos to try out, new concepts to build around, (My fave of the year being the Social Justice Warrior deck) new games to play, and often, new friends to make.

Few games are ever alike, (apart from the those bastards playing NBN Astrobiotics.) and each is a contest of wills, maths, and lies. There’s nothing the tension when a game can hang in a single click, or the high when your glory run connects, or the joy when your janky combo actually fires that one time.

I’ll probably be playing this far into 2015 as well, so expect to see it nominated again next year.

“Last click, Run.”

Honorable Mentions

1. Alien Isolation: A good job on bringing back the survival space horror genre, with a great AI to anchor the entire system. Shame about the pacing, the repetitive key hunts, and those last few sections.

2. Dark Souls II: It felt more like DSII was made by a bunch of talented forgers trying to ape what Dark Souls did right, but it missed out a lot of the secret sauce that held the original Dark Souls together.

3. Legends of Grimrock II: It charming to get back to the fundamentals of the dungeon crawl, even if I had to do it one step at a time.


Deus Ex: Human Review

I spent two weeks of my youth relentlessly playing the original Deus Ex.

Every night, for those two weeks, I travel halfway across the country from my army post, to spend 3 hours of the only time I had in actual civilization in the midst of computerized conspiracy. On weekends, I barely bothered with a social life that was the only thing keeping me sane amidst the military madness of my national service. It was Deus Ex, and nothing else. It’s an indelible part of my gaming history, and it seemed I was not alone. It’s depth of gameplay, sense of aesthetic, and myriad of gaming concepts touched a whole slew of then hardcore gamers, clamoring for more. 10 years later, we get Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

It isn’t perfect, but it’s close.

Creepiest level by far.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution does manage to tug the nostalgic strings of those two weeks of gaming nirvana. With all its concessions to modern gaming, it keeps many of the original’s gaming concepts that I love intact, albeit with some tweaks and iterations, and introduces a few new ones that are interesting in the context of the game. Perhaps it can’t beat how the original influenced my concept of what games can be, but it does a pretty damned good job is reminding me that this sort of game play hasn’t died and perhaps there’s hope amidst whatever new trend will emerge in the AAA space that isn’t military shooter #314, F2P madness or button press to win content tour.

I’m glad that the small open world game play is still viable. That Deus Ex hews closely to a hub city structure, where I get to criss cross on various storied side quests, unfolding the world of transhumanist sci-fi one hack at a time. I like the freedom the game gives me to explore all my options, rarely rushing me through the levels in some vain attempt to put tension on my actions. I love the attention to detail in the level design, building a place that is at once game-ified, but plausible in vision. I love that the story in Deus Ex isn’t just in the cutscenes, but in how I move through the world, uncovering bits of conspiracy, debating philosophies with terrorists and humanitarians and in all the incidental detail borne from the back story that only a geek like me might recognize.

Home, Noir, Home

It still falls short in several areas though. For one, it’s a lot more deterministic that the original’s simulationist approach to goals and levels. There are one too many consequences in this game based on decisions that seemed escapable but weren’t, and many of these consequence end up being a footnote and a reward right after. The original had consequence far down the line in the game, a convention on the Witcher was able to successfully incorporate.

Then there were the boss fights, perhaps a note passed from Squeenix, or a rogue idea that came from Metal Gear rather than the original’s approach in designing climatic encounters. Either way, they were tedious affairs that put the player in a situation from which there was little preparation. How I would love to find a kill-switch.

And the ending, oh the disappointing ending. 30 hours of stealth story gameplay, 30 hours to uncovering truths and debating nuances, 30 hours of character motivation only to be dumped in puerile philosophy lessons. There was no emotional cartharsis, no resolution to characters and their stories. No consequences from the final decision, no emotional impact. Just a series of slideshows.

It’s a shame, because up to that point, Deus Ex does a stellar job in actualizing its science fiction setting. It’s definitely got a firmer grip on its science than the original and it wisely chose to focus more on characters in the majority of the games. Major and minor characters alike felt well-realized for the setting, and nothing highlighted that more than the conversation battles, a truly innovative use of dialog trees and dialetics. Conversation as a boss fight, ducking, weaving, coaxing, crushing, empathizing to get what you want. It was a joy to play. Sure I may be debating computerized characters and pre-written dialog, but it’s a pleasure that such empathetic nuance is brought in as part of the game-play, instead of relegating it to dialog no one reads, or backstory few else cares about.

That way lies the sequel, hopefully.

I’m not sure DXHR will engender as many playthrough as I did the original. Beyond that initial two weeks, I must have played the original at least 3 or 4 times, discovering new things each time. I still have yet to try out The Nameless Mod, a massive total conversion of the original, but I’m not my eyes can stand the dated graphics, with or without augs. I’m glad that I manage to experience the game once over, and perhaps another time later if the DLCs prove worthwhile. The game play is solid, and still touches the pleasure centers of my gaming brain. There are probably certain parts of the game I’ve yet to uncover, though I suspect its modernization allows for less hidden and emergent content that the original did. Yet for a story that managed to get it hooks in me at the start, it’s disappointing ending is unlikely to be upgraded away. What a shame.

Stray Thoughts

– SINGAPORE REPRESENT! Also, the second best level by far in terms of sneaky sneaky gameplay. Only the Hengsha Docks comes close in layout, challenge and interest. Too bad it’s Singapore in name only. Now if only the guards spoke Singlish, I would have spared some of them. As it is, bunch of foreign workers here to steal our jobs and our scientists. Yeah, that’s a headshot.

– I really do like some of the characters introduced and cannot state just how disappointed I am in not being able to have a final discussion with Francis Pritchard, or to settle issues with Megan Reed, or see my Boss deal with the fallout of the events. The best moment I had was in rescuing Malik, but even then, I felt a little short-changed in how it was setup. Malik could have at least done more before and after.

– DXHR is better than Mass Effect 2, in almost all areas of RPGing, shooting and science fictioning.

– Playing DXHR makes me wanna watch Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex.

– That hacking mini-game is pretty neat. Best mini-game in an RPG so far.

Now that's a level worth exploring. Shame it's a Skybox


There's something in the Sea.

There’s a moment in Bioshock 2 where you wander under a leaking ceiling and stop. The water pitter patters against your brass helmet and you hear the tic toc of water echo through your headphones.*  More droplets drip down across the screen; water running down the window you’re looking through. It’s no secret that Bioshock 2 starts you out playing as the Big Daddy, so you’ve got the giant Brass Helmet from the get-go and the game makes full use of it as immersion.

Bioshock 2 is filled with moments like this. Vignettes of quiet distress juxtaposed against pulse pounding combat. It’s a game that tells its story through the way it allows the player to explore the world, through the nook and crannies of the underwater metropolis, the scattered audio logs of long dead citizens and the careful placement of architecture and art through the level. It is raining in Rapture, and you simply have to notice.

Bioshock 2 is in almost every way what Bioshock 1 should have been.

The biggest flaw of Bioshock 2 is that it is a sequel. The shock and wonderment of discovering a city build by Objectivism and its eventual downfall has already been explored. The Art Deco juxtaposition of Steampunk and Dystopia is no longer as unique as it once was. Yet, because it is a sequel, it doesn’t spend a lot of exposition on several of Rapture’s core concept. You should already know what a Big Daddy is, why Little Sisters are so important, Who Andrew Ryan is and the significance of project WYK. Bioshock 2 reintroduces a lot of these concepts, often with deeper insight. It’s a pleasure to once again partake in philosophical discussions, with guns.

Freed from the shackles of having to explain Rapture’s Origin, Bioshock 2 fully explores the underlying themes that build and eventually destroyed Rapture. Sofia Lamb is an altruist, the perfect antithesis to Ryan’s original Randian philosophy. Hers is the philosophy extreme you must combat, yet the game doesn’t stop there. It even takes the concept that Fontaine espouses and gives it polish. Rare is the game that allows capitalism to be the driving force of “good” against the extreme failures of “altruism”. It explores the concept of Rapture as well. What does it mean to have a city under the sea in disrepair? The game imagines this, and puts you squarely in that city. It’s more open than the first, its arenas more plausible, more lived in. It’s hard to explain with words how much better Rapture feels in Bioshock 2. You simply have to go there.

At its heart, Bioshock 2 is a more personal story. It involves you as the Bid Daddy into the story of the Little Sisters much more than the first one. The choices you make in Bioshock 2 are much more meaningful in how the game ends, and when it does, it does so with an explosive climax. Bioshock 2 manages the feat of having a climax be epic and personal all at once. A feat sadly missing in Mass Effect 2**. There’s meaning in the ending of Bioshock 2, because it draws from the entirety of your game. Your choices, your ending. Just perhaps not in the way you might expect.

As a game, it improves much over it’s predecessor as well. The movement and combat feel more solid. Perhaps it’s the heavy pounding of your Big Daddy boots as you stomp around the rubbles, more likely it’s the Drill and your ability to charge forward, smashing into a splicer’s face and spinning it. The combinative use of Plasmids and guns opens up tons of tactical combat decision and the playground concept of the combat arena allows you test them to your liking. The sound design* is just as solid. An upgraded shotgun sounds like a cannon, empty casings echo across the floor after being spat from the machine gun and the shriek of the big sisters will send shivers down your spine. Also, Mmm-Marshmellows!

I’m tempted to end with this old chestnut. If you loved the original Bioshock, then Bioshock 2 is a must play. If, on the other hand, you were ambivalent about it’s predecessor, Bioshock 2 might have a few surprises in store for you. Yet I rather you simply play Bioshock 2 and experience Rapture once again. There really is no place quite like it, and Bioshock 2 does an incredible job of bringing you there.

The story is pretty good too.

Linky Links
Fidgit Interviews Lead Designer.

*You’re playing with headphones right? How can you not play this game with headphones?

** By Contrast, Mass Effect’s ending was stupendous. Mass Effect 2 ending was epic, but depending on how you played the game, lacked the same intimate feel that it’s Prequel and Bioshock 2 has. On the other hand, all these endings are infinitely better than Bioshock’s atrocious final confrontation.