First Impressions of The Last Federation

I can't tell how much of this game's vagueness & erratic behavior is from bad design and how much of it is from bugs. Planets won't die despite being sieged by enough starships to blow out the sun, diseases refuse to be vaccinated, and tooltips can be overwhelmed with so many Influence Change notifications that you can't read what they actually do.

Convincing a bunch of other races (that start out hating your guts) to form a federation is a neat idea, but this game overwhelms you with information and actions that (barely) shift things in your favor. The numerous bugs (that throw a monkey wrench into your actions) aren't helping. It sounds like there will be a large patch to smoosh most of the larger ones soon; I'll give the game another go once it hits. Until then, I'd stay away from this game (unless you're sure to want to buy it; it's 25% off right now).

It also makes me appreciate how a similarly-complex game like Dwarf Fortress can be interesting by graphically showing the important stuff (dead dwarves, miasma, carnage, lava floods, etc).

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The Limitations of a Favorite

"Is every superhero someone's favorite?"

I dug up a forum thread debating that question on a random Google search. Reading it further, there was the implication that superheroes who were nobody's favorite could be safely neglected (or unceremoniously killed) without ticking off anyone. The problem with that view came into sharp relief when someone commented:

"Aunt May is nobody's favorite character."

"Perhaps not," I thought, "but I wouldn't enjoy Spiderman as much without her."

The notion of a single favorite is artificial, based off an assumption our preferences aren't swayed by our mood or situation. It reduces ourselves to a one-dimensional stereotype who always prefers the same thing. It's why you see many Top 10 lists rebel against simple rankings by having multiple ties or refusing to rank them at all: why should you be asked to choose between two things that are similarly important in different situations? It loses the nuance of why we choose what we choose. It's better to ask why we chose them, what roles they fill in our lives.

For example, take my current favorite games:

  • D&D: Socialization, Storytelling
  • League of Legends: Competition, Time-Waster
  • Pokemon: Creativity & Expression, Competition
  • FTL: Multitasking Distraction, Challenge
  • Luftrausers: Quick Distraction, Challenge
  • Dark Souls 2: Challenge, Exploration, Competition

And let's flip it around to see which roles they fulfill:

  • Socialization & Storytelling: D&D
  • Competition: League of Legends
  • Creativity: Pokemon
  • Side Distraction: FTL
  • Quick Distraction: Luftrausers
  • Challenge: Dark Souls 2

Each of them is my favorite for completely different reasons. Each fulfills some role in my life the others don't. I would be hard-pressed to choose a single one as my favorite because they are equally important to depending on the situation. I like League of Legends, but I can't play it when I only have a few minutes to spare or I'm chatting with a friend; I go with Luftrausers or FTL for those situations.

If I chose a "favorite game" out of them, it would say less about the quality of said game and more about which want/need I value most. A good example of this is Zoe Quinn's Top Games of 2013 list; people got salty at her for including a bunch of free web games instead of the AAA fan favorites, even when she admitted up front her wants were different: "I’ve been more and more pressed for time and haven’t been able to sit down and marathon the 60+ hour long games that I fell in love with as a kid." The AAA games she excluded are still great games, but they're horrible at fulfilling her current wants: a quick game you can blast through in an hour or two that still leaves an impression. (This difference in wants is also at the core of Length vs Price vs Quality debates; people's answers to that depends on their situation.)

So here's a question for you: rather than ask what your current favorite game is, what are your current favorite games? And which want/desire does each fulfill that your other favorites can't do as well?

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Pokemon's Potential

I didn't expect to put 50 hours into Pokemon X over the past week. I had set off that time block for Dark Souls 2, then promptly saw those plans waylaid by a combination of Twitch Plays Pokemon and a sale on Pokemon X.

I was surprised I enjoy this "children's game" with its roots in the Tamagotchi craze over 15 years ago so much. It's a solid game in a neglected subgenre nestled between RPGs and pet simulators. It simultaneously satisfies my desire for interesting mons and strategic battles; every pokemon I captured because I "liked how it looked" ended up filling a useful niche in my party. The Super Training (get into the nitty-gritty of tweaking your pokemons' stats) and Pokemon-Amie (spend time petting & feeding your pokemon) modes emphasize this duality of strategy & pathos, the constant conflict (and attempts to reconcile) having the team you want and the team you need.

It wasn't long until I began getting attached to some of my pokemon. My starter pokemon, the firefox, was a cute little bugger. My mature stoicness quickly melted after I fed him a few treats and scratched his ears. If I held the 3DS far enough back for the camera to register my face, he would tilt his head when I tilted mine. Such damn basic responses, combined with a bit of animated personality, still reminded me of my old pets. That feeling got stronger as I captured more pokemon that reminded me of... something. A Lucario that kept wanting to duel me. A Lapras I always wanted to hug I nicknamed "Nessie". An Amaura that had a haunting trill for its cry. A Disaster Hound that reminded me of an old friend...

Years ago, I had a dog named Trouble. She got her name after an exasperating week of dealing with her as a puppy; it stuck. I still remember the feel of her fur, the way she ran around on three legs (she lost one when a car hit her on the highway; we were just happy she survived), the dopey grin on her face... Trouble seemed like the perfect name for the Disaster Dog I captured, and I found myself reminiscing whenever I sent her into battle or scratched her ears. When I played the original Pokemon Red in my childhood, surrounded by a dozen dogs & cats, I never quite got the draw of it. I don't know if it's the improved emphasis on playing with your pokemon, or the fact all my old pets have died and I've been in apartments where pets aren't allowed ever since, but Pokemon hit me hard in the gut. I felt like the critic in Ratatoille, smashed by a wave of nostalgia from what was supposed to be something simple & trite. Silly? Perhaps. As silly as a kid's bond with a pet...

Somehow, Pokemon did this right. It might be the animal-based designs, or their background as natural parts of the world, or the simplistic plot of a young boy traveling the world with his friends, or even the fact they don't actually speak, but Pokemon nails the strong bonds between a kid and his pets. It avoids the dual threats of treating the mons as amazingly fantastical creatures, thus divorcing it too much from reality (like other mons RPGs), and removing all danger from the experience until the pets are simple playthings (like other pet simulations). It represents the way kids imagine their relationship with their pets. It's an all-too-rare feeling in games, and the most unique thing about Pokemon.

So where can it evolve from here? More than the usual "add more Pokemon" approach, I think Nintendo should double-down on making the Pokemon feel more alive. I want my mons to have a few quirks and odd rivalries/friendships I have to take into account, just like when you have multiple pets in the same space. I want the vague bookkeeping aspects, like storing and releasing pokemon, fleshed out to the point you start caring about what you do to them, too. I want more reasons to give up absolute combat efficiency in order to be a better caretaker for my mons. I want Pokemon to remind me more of my youth, when it was me, my pets, and treks together into the backwoods...

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Dark Souls 2 Character Journal: Light in the Darkness

(Spoilers through first boss of Forest of Giants)

"That light wasn't there before," the Cartographer said, pointing at a small, flickering flame above the map etched into the stone floor. I glanced over at it from my spot leaning against the pillar, then at him. I tried to remember his name, but couldn't; he told me it when we met in that dark tunnel, but I had more immediate concerns like the half-dozen archers waiting just outside. And the fortress walls I had to traverse past that.

It didn't matter much anyway; there were so few people about I didn't need names to tell them apart. The Blacksmith, the Armorer, the Cartographer, the Herald... all that really mattered was their role and what snippets of our original selves we could recall. The Blacksmith has a vagabond daughter (Did I have a daughter too? I vaguely recalled a child...), the Armorer can barely remember why he's trying to make money in such a gods-forsaken land, and the Cartographer loves maps. He loves them so much he's willing to risk his life traveling just to prove the ancient stone map he found on the floor of the manor he's squatting in is an accurate map of Drangleic. He can't remember why he originally came here, but the map gives him focus, staves off his Hollowing.

I nodded in understanding when he first explained his quest to me. We are kindred spirits: explorers driven to check out every nook & cranny. I still remember my original quest to break the curse, but seeing what's around the next corner keeps me going day after day, when breaking the curse seems impossibly far away. The fortress in the forest had its share of mysteries: trees that looked more humanoid than plant; a sword large enough for three dozen men to stand on embedded into the wall facing the sea; fire-breathing lizards guarding dark corridors; numerous secret passages pointed out in messages left by other wanderers.

The other wanderers... dozens, maybe hundreds, of Cursed exploring the same ruins as me. I only caught fleeting glimpses of them, but their messages were a godsend. They encouraged me to take another look at how I approached things: hit that boulder, hit that door, watch out for the ambush around the corner, is there something strange about the placement of those powder kegs? The only secret passage I found that wasn't marked by them involved fiddling with a strange Contraption and discovering an illusory wall; I left my own message upon finding it to repay the favor to the anonymous wanderers. But all the messages were short, concise, unable to answer questions about the greater mysteries I found. I could only wonder about them myself and gleam clues from the other inhabitants...

I suspect the flame appeared when I killed a dessicated, shackled giant deep below the fortress, a lost prisoner of an ancient war. Was he one of the giants who invaded Drangleic? No, he couldn't be... unless he shrank. He couldn't have wielded the giant sword I saw. Perhaps I would find answers deeper in the fort; the giant had carried a soldier's key on him, presumably from a captor who got too close to him, which opened deeper passages into the fort for me. I had grown weary of fighting so many Turtle Guards exploring them, hence my return to the Town and conversation with the Cartographer. Unfortunately, he didn't have any answers for me, just statements that prompted new questions.

I finished talking with him and took my leave. My enemies were getting nastier, and I needed to make sure my gear, and my skills, were up to the challenge. I was getting better at dual-wielding a sword & dagger, but I could still improve it...

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Starting from Scratch: How Leagues & Races Keep Path of Exile Fresh

My initial runthrough of Path of Exile lasted for about a month. I beat the game on Normal difficulty, dipped my toes into the Cruel difficulty, got bored and left. A half-year later, I decided to revisit it on a whim. Soon afterwards, I had a half-dozen characters created, was participating in game events, and eagerly leveled a new character up to 30 when the new expansion was released yesterday. What had changed? Why was I spending so much more time playing Path of Exile on my second try?

Because they gave me a reason to keep starting over.

Resetting the Economy: The 4-Month Leagues

Path of Exile's standard & hardcore modes are several years old, filled with heavily-inflated prices, legacy items, and Level 90+ characters. It felt intimidating starting as a novice amidst all the veterans. I looked for an alternative; I found the leagues.

Each league is a new shard of the game with a few modifiers thrown in, like shrines that give bonuses or chests of loot that spawn monsters when opened. Each league starts out fresh; nobody can import equipment or characters into a league. It spices up the standard game, experiments with new items & mechanics, and starts everyone out fresh with a new economy. It gives the novices a chance to start on equal footing alongside the veterans who want a twist on the old game. Players are given several challenges to complete over the league's duration; once the league is over, their characters are deposited into the longterm standard & hardcore modes.

But I don't know if I'll touch my former league character in the standard mode again. I've already figured out a few mistakes in her build and created her twin in the new league. Each new league feels vibrant and active, compared to the comfortable, settled standard mode. It gives me a reason to renew my interest in the game every 4 months.

Speedrunning for Profit: The Races

I got into the Path of Exile races on a whim: I wanted to play for a bit and one of the one-hour races was going on the same time. I joined up, made a new character, and got a few points for reaching a certain level within the time limit. But while I played, notifications were popping across my chat about the milestones other players were hitting. The highest ones were three times my level at the end. I was astonished they could get that high; could I level that fast? And how would that improve my standard gameplay?

I joined a dozen more races over the course of a month and created a new character for each race. I steadily grew better, fixing and tightening builds, rebuilding the same character over and over for a few-hour rush. They were automatically deposited into the standard mode after the race, but I quickly stripped their gear off and deleted them; I was already figuring out how to make their next iteration better. As I raced, I earned points towards unique items I could use on my league characters. Improving my racing improved my other characters' gear.

I was going over the same hour-to-2-hour block of the game, trying to get through it ever faster, steadily pushing deeper & deeper into the game on the razor's edge of failure. I began looking at the game in a different light; no longer was it a leisurely trek of killing every monster I found & picking up as much loot as possible to sell, instead I started skipping some monsters & only picking up immediately-useful loot. Risky plays, like pulling large groups of monsters or entering an area underleveled, gave you XP faster, but if your character died you were out of the race. Death notifications announced when someone in the Top 10 rankings got a bit too reckless and bit the dust, removing a competitor from the race. I began to plot out skill advancements & memorize which quest rewards I wanted. A few weeks in, it hit me: I was learning to speedrun.

The developers had formalized speedrunning their game as a competition. As I thought about it, I realized how smart it was. Like Diablo, in Path of Exile you go through the same campaign 3 times while leveling up your character. Once you've played all the characters, you've exhausted everything the game has to offer, right? Most people would just leave after that, put the game away, until an expansion piques their interest. But speedrunners to play games years or even decades after their release, diving deeper and deeper into them in an effort to improve their times. What better way to encourage your community to keep playing your game than to encourage them to constantly speedrun it? Toss in racing modifiers like No Projectiles or Endless Ledge, keep the Random Loot Generator to vary the runs a bit, and you can keep people interested in your game with minimal new content.

It seems to be working. I finished Race Season 6 with 28 points, enough for 3 items I plan to use in the new league once they're unlocked in 2 weeks. Yet I was only ranked 6434th. That's a lot of active customers.

Why Respec When You Can Restart?

I used to wonder why Path of Exile didn't let you respec your characters, but after playing in the leagues and races, I think it's because they don't want you constantly playing your old characters. They want you starting from scratch over and over again, in new leagues, in new races, getting better and better at the content they've provided, tightening your gameplay until you can level up an optimized character from 1 to 30 in less than two hours. Like the Dead Rising series, the constant repetition and restarting makes for a unique, polarizing style that drives some players away, but encourages others to stay for years.

I used to be in favor of letting players respec their characters. But participating in the leagues and races, constantly starting from scratch just to advance better and faster than the last time, has given me a level of appreciation and enjoyment in the game I didn't get from Diablo 3 or Torchlight 2. Rather than constantly tweaking and playing my old character, I've enjoyed playing dozens of characters over a variety of modes. Variety is the spice of this game.

Most of my old characters are deleted now, their equipment stored for future characters to wear once they get sent to the standard mode. I'm leveling up a scion for the new league; she's my 3rd support scion so far. I think I've nailed down the optimal build & skills for her... and then a Burning Arrow skill gem drops.

"...Well, this is interesting. Let's try it out."

Now I'm considering making a few tweaks to my build for my newest useful skill. Every new character has the potential to surprise you...

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Banished for a Year Each Day

Over the past few weeks, Banished has slowly become my preferred side game: the game I launch and keep running on the side (or in the background) while watching streams or chatting with friends. At first, I thought it was too easy of a city builder to keep my interest, but bumping the difficulty to Hard and trying to keep my town alive & thriving forced me to analyze its systems and see how it all works together. To break down my interest in the game (and encourage others to try it), I've decided to make a new town, play it for one year each day, and post what happens to this thread.

The first step of establishing Burgeto is choosing the settings and the seed. Note that you do not see the map the seed generates; you can play the same map again later, but otherwise you go into each map blind.

Here's my starting position. Notice I have a bit over a dozen people, 9 of which are old enough to work, and a Supply Cart. First order of business is to scan the surroundings and figure out what I want to build where.

I pop open the Minimap and zoom out to look around. We've started right next to the main river with a huge forest on the other side. On this side, several hills and a stream will hamper my town-building. There's plenty of hills I can mine, but where do I want to place them so they don't get in the way of my food-gathering and town-building?

Here's my long-term strategy: build the town on this side, slowly snaking around the various hills and streams. Keep the other side of the river pristine for lumber & food to feed my growing town. I'm still not sure where I'll put the quarries & mines, but they'll have to be out of the way; they reduce the happiness of nearby houses and permanently use up any space they're put on.

First, though, I need to make sure my town survives the first few years. Shelter & food are my first priorities. I'll need to worry about tools & clothing next year, but for now those can wait. I plant a few initial foundations and pause them so work doesn't start on them immediately; I'll activate them one at a time as I gather the necessary resources.

Starting from the left, I've placed a Fishing Docks and two Houses next to a Storage Site & Barn. A Woodcutter, Tailor, and Blacksmith have been placed next to the Storage Barn, followed by two other Houses and a Trading Post. (The Trading Post is important once you no longer have to worry about initial survival; it's the only way you can get seeds & livestock on Hard difficulty.) I've also plotted a bridge across the river to the vast forests on the other side; they'll be a vital source of wood & food.

My first problem is the greedy townsfolk: the moment their houses are built, they snatch up a stash of firewood & food. The 2 houses on the right got shafted on the firewood & food, hence the Cold & Hungry icons over them. I need to give them a surplus fast, else they'll starve or freeze to death while their neighbors stay warm & fed. (I don't know why the townsfolk won't share a bit of food with each other; maybe they were banished for ruthlessness?) I quickly built that Fishing Dock and prayed they'd get some food before they starved to death.

Luckily, they managed to get some fish during the winter and hold off starvation for a bit. By the next spring, our food stores are still nonexistant, and 7 of our 10 workers are trying to gather food (4 fishers, 3 hunters), which will severely hamper constructing other buildings. By next winter, we'll need a Tailor and a Blacksmith to replace the rapidly depleting clothes & tools. With luck, we'll also have a Gatherer's Hut to diversify our food. (If citizens only have 1-2 sources of food, they fall ill.) We've survived the first year, but we have even more goals to accomplish next year.

In the meantime, I've planted a few more foundations in the town: several more Houses, a School, and a Well. It'll probably be several years before I get around to building it, though.

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Driving by Ash Lake

When Patrick finished Dark Souls yesterday, he missed out on one part of the game: the secret, optional zone of Ash Lake. People in chat recommended it, but he just shook his head:

"Nope, not bothering with it, want to finish up this game quickly."

In doing so, he missed out on a beautiful area that epitomized the Dark Souls themes of exploration and dark beauty. Ash Lake is a well-hidden secret zone with a haunting look, almost no enemies, and a surprising NPC. Most players never see it, but that's the point: how many games would hide one of their most beautiful zones behind 2 illusory walls? That says a lot about what Dark Souls tried to accomplish.

And Patrick just passed by it.

Previously, Patrick talked about the difference between reviewers' quick playthroughs and fans' devoted understanding of their favorite games, and how reviewers can skim over aspects of the game that are vital to its popularity. Patrick skipping the secret zones of Dark Souls so he could "clear it from the queue" and begin The Banner Saga is a good example of this. Sure, he still enjoyed Dark Souls, and he'll probably write a glowing article about the game now that he's finished it, but he missed a vital part of the game that reveals just how much its developers reward exploration.

I hope he takes the time to visit Ash Lake in the future, and he goes through Dark Souls 2 at a slower pace to explore more nooks & crannies.

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Difficulty Due to Being Different

I was reading a debate over whether Dark Souls is difficult or just different when I realized it was similar to my difficulties playing The Banner Saga: most of the difficulty came from wrapping my head around game concepts that felt contrary to years of tradition. Familiarity with other games in the same genre can be detrimental when dealing with such games, since you're fighting years of habit to play the game properly. Here's a list of games that have this type of difficulty, and my explanations for why they do:

Dark Souls: Probably the best example on this list. Dark Souls is notorious for being utterly difficult, but people who have played it swear it isn't that hard. The key is learning to slow down and not be impatient. Dark Souls teaches players to adopt a slower pace (and reverse years of rushing through action games) by brutally punishing them whenever they get reckless. Peeking around corners & waiting for a solid opening to attack is recommended, instead of charging blindly forth and wailing on enemies.

The Banner Saga: Focusing down one enemy at a time leads to defeat instead of victory here, thanks to the interplay between 2 mechanics:

  1. The strength of characters' attacks are tied to their health. A character near death will barely scratch its enemy.
  2. Turns always alternate between the two sides, no matter how many characters are on each side. (A side with 4 characters gets the same number of actions as a side with 12 characters.)

An enemy with 3 healthy, strong opponents will wreck your champions, while an enemy with 9 injured opponents will be quickly mopped up by them. I had to break my old habit of killing each enemy before moving on to the next one, encouraged by dozens of games where an injured enemy hits just as hard as a healthy one.

Counter-Strike: It's an old game, but I can imagine how much FPS players struggled with this game when it first came out compared to Doom, Quake, and Unreal. It had no respawning until the match was over, no weapon pickups, and attacks were more lethal. Like Dark Souls, it discouraged charging in recklessly by making death painful.

Other games that would be difficult due to being different: Genre-creators & any game that changed its mechanics in a way where previous experience hampers players. I believe Dune 2 (created RTS genre), Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War (squads, morale, gain resources by taking objectives), Ikaruga (you want to be hit by certain-colored bullets), and Disgaea (geo panels, stacking/throwing, purposely "broken" leveling) are other examples of this type of game.

Games that are not difficult due to being different: Games like Super Meat Boy, Spelunky, and I Wanna Be The Guy are difficult, but they aren't that different from their predecessors. Gaming veterans can quickly adapt to their mechanics, rather than being tripped up trying to play counter to years worth of habits.

What other games do you think are difficult due mainly to being different like this?

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MikeLemmer's Thrifty 2013 Games of the Year List

2013 was a rough year for me. Trying to find a new job was tough, and my savings dwindled into the triple digits several times. I couldn't buy AAA releases while I was worried about having enough to eat for the month, so I had to rely on free or cheap indie games for nearly all of my entertainment. In celebration of the new year (and finally getting a job), here's my Thrifty 2013 Games of the Year List:

10. Path of Exile: It's a miracle this game exists. It gives Diablo a run for its money with a dark setting and a meaty advancement system, it's free-to-play, and it doesn't have any pay-to-win mechanics. I've seen games half this ambitious practically begging for your money the moment you log in, while Path of Exile just goes, "Hey, if you're enjoying the game, why not support us by buying a nifty pet to follow you around? How about an effect that makes your sword drip blood? No? Okay, that's cool." I'm loathe to give any free-to-play game my money, but Path of Exile earned it.

9. Reus: A god game about connections and synergy that sucked more time from me than I care to admit. You place plants, animals, and minerals which interact with each other to produce enough resources to meet each village's goals while dealing with limited space, time, and upgrades. It might have been a bit obsessive to sketch out resource placement on graph paper to figure out how to maximize my food harvest when I invested all my upgrades in minerals, but I enjoyed it.

8. Drox Operative: Try to gain influence in a randomly-created, constantly-changing space sector using just a single ship and skillful manipulation of the factions there. It's so chock full of stuff happening it's nearly overwhelming. Systems are conquered, planets are destroyed, and races are exterminated as you speed from system to system, trying to twist the tempest to your advantage. Its ambitions remind me of No Man's Sky. It may fall a bit short of what it aimed for, but it's a tantalizing look at what games could be.

7. Shadowrun Returns: A short-but-sweet RPG set in a unique future meshing magic & cyberpunk, it gave the Shadowrun community the tools to make their own adventures and left me hungry for more. It's like Neverwinter Nights for a fantastic noir setting, and it gives me high hopes for the other Kickstarter RPGs coming out.

6. Monaco: This heist-with-friends game is just as interesting when you're deftly pulling off robberies without anyone the wiser as it is when things go horribly awry and you're all trying to escape as hell breaks loose. There were screams, tears, and laughter. The best co-op video game I played all year.

5. Sang-Froid: Tales of Werewolves: Take Rainbow Six's planning phase, then tack it onto a first-person trap defense game set in the wilderness of 1800s Canada to folk music. Interesting gameplay with a setting that oozed character. My favorite surprise of 2013; I still hum the theme occasionally.

4. Saints Row 4: My one AAA splurge for the year. Gloriously stupid, gleefully broken. The most utterly joyful game I've played all year, full of stupid shit and hilarious moments. The Dubstep Gun is my Weapon of the Year, and this is the reason I play What is Love? whenever I'm flying a spaceship in other games.

3. Star Wars: Edge of the Empire: The best Star Wars game to come out in years is a tabletop RPG focused on the seedy underbelly of the Star Wars universe. The goal? Make money on the edges of society; there's a million ways to do it and a millions ways to get into trouble doing so. Try to cash in on a Hutt's bounty, broker arms deals between crime lords and the Rebellion, smuggle spice past Imperial blockades, and race against other scavengers to loot a wrecked Star Destroyer. The mechanics encourage improvisation and lucky/unlucky twists to the story, and the personal tales of success & loss on the galaxy's fringes are more interesting than a dozen world-saving plots.

2. Dark Souls: "Welcome to 2011." Yeah, I know. I'm still counting it. If anyone had released a game in 2013 that caused the same awe and frustration and sheer determination to beat the damn game, I'd nominate that instead. But they didn't. After 2 years, Dark Souls is still a unique beast, and it would've made as big of a splash if it had been released this year. It's a game that deserves the renewed interest of the GiantBomb community; I'm glad I finally got around to playing this damned game and I hope Dark Souls 2 blows it out of the water.

1. League of Legends: I know it's 4 years old. It's still sucked more time out of me than any other game on this list, and its developers aren't scared to mix things up each season. The Season 4 changes? A complete revamp of the ward system, turning it from a gold race to a rock-paper-scissors interaction between the different wards. More variety in support items. Changing the layout and pacing of the jungle. I've played League of Legends for 2 years and I'm still just as interested in it as I was when I started. That sounds like Game-of-the-Year material to me.

Just how thrifty is this list?

With the Steam Christmas sale going on:

Total Cost: About $150

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Prepare to Be Humbled

Jeff Green started playing Dark Souls as a joke, an old man playing the hardest game of the generation. He didn't expect to enjoy it. He didn't expect to continue it. He certainly didn't expect to get better at it. But after a dozen streams of the game, the "Mr. Magoo of Dark Souls" is making progress and improving his gameplay. Alongside the backseat driving and rants about him doing something wrong, a good chunk of the audience is cheering him on. "You know I used to chortle into my neckbeard thinking what would happen if he got to Smough and Ornstein, but he's getting better so quickly." "That was better than my first try at the Gaping Dragon. Jeff will be forged into a videogame warrior of steel by the time this is done."

Why are they so understanding? Because they've all been there.

Dark Souls veterans admit it isn't as hard as people think, it's just different. It tests your patience & caution instead of your reflexes. It's easier for novices to learn than the twitch reflexes needed for Call of Duty or Street Fighter, but gamers have gotten so used to throwing caution to the wind it utterly trips them up. Dark Souls is an antithesis to the era of quick saving, zerging, and Leeroy Jenkins. Novice and experts gamers alike are unprepared for the challenges Dark Souls offers, but the experts have the arrogance to think they can handle it. "I've played and beaten plenty of games. This'll be a walk in a park."

Dark Souls promptly humbles them. Rush into a fight? Death. Get too impatient? Death. Get a bit sloppy fighting next to a cliff? Death. The moment you act like you've got everything in the bag, Dark Souls brutally corrects you. The veteran gamers, not used to such punishment, declared Dark Souls "the hardest game ever", and the legend was born. And it is, in a sense.

It's hard to toss out years of gaming experience and start back from square one, to admit you're clueless about how to play, to unlearn and then relearn how to play a game. Dark Souls makes novices of us all. Its challenge shows no favorites, it's equally difficult for everyone. The comparisons to Legend of Zelda are apt; that game was the first action-adventure game for many of us, and Dark Souls replicates that feeling of playing something new & unknown.

It also provides a shared experience: the game makes fools of us all. We've all fallen off a cliff, or gotten backstabbed by an enemy we didn't see, or died to some trap we should've expected. No one got through their first run of Dark Souls easily; everyone took their bumps. When we see people like Jeff & Vinny stumble their way through the game, proclaiming they're "not that good", we emphasize because we all "weren't that good". We watch and encourage them because we also know what happens next: you take your scrapes, you learn your lessons, you improve, and then you beat a game you thought was impossible.

Dark Souls breaks you down & humbles you to build you back up. There is no gap between experts & novices in a game that makes novices of us all. Everyone can relate to that one stupid death, that one surprise, that one boss you finally beat after hours of attempts. That's why we want others to struggle through the game and beat it; if we can work our way up from scratch to defeat it, everyone can.

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