2018 Book And Game Report By Matt Rorie, Age 39
2017 was the best year for gaming in a long, long time, so it wasn’t too surprising that 2018 pumped the brakes a bit. I didn’t play as many games this year and I didn’t finish a lot of the games that I did play. There are a few notable games that I still need to get around to (RDR2, Spider-Man, Tetris), and a lot more than I wish I had made more time for (especially big RPGs like Divinity Original Sin II: Definitive Edition, Pillars of Eternity II, and Pathfinder: Kingmaker). I gravitated more towards comfort gaming this year, preferring to stick to games that I could spend half an hour with and come away satisfied with my gaming session. Hey, I’ve got dogs that need to poop, preferably outside the house, and a ladyfriend that apparently likes it when I talk to her in the evenings.
While I bounced off of western RPGs this year, I did manage to get through a few JRPGS, including Final Fantasy XV: Windows Edition and most of Final Fantasy XII: Zodiac Age on the PC. FFXV is one of the most bizarre gaming experiences in recent memory, with unlikable characters and story/gameplay design that seemed like the entire thing was thrown together from three or four different design documents. It was probably more fun to play than FFXIII, but that’s...really not saying much. I can only assume that Zodiac Age must be one of the weirder games to watch someone play, on the other hand, as I spent most of my time powerleveling at 4x speed only to sit and pay attention to the cutscenes when they came along. The story is as good as I recall but it’s still an awfully strange way to play a game!
The less said about WoW: Battle For Azeroth the better, so here’s a bunch of text: this is a bad expansion, definitely the worst since Cataclysm for me, and maybe just the worst expansion period. The Saurfang cinematic is one of the game’s high points from a narrative perspective but every part of the gameplay just felt like a letdown, especially after Legion turned out so well. It’s too bad because this WoW has traditionally been the king of the mindlessly-hitting-buttons-while-watching-30-Rock-for-the-eighth-time genre, but sometime after the first month I found myself doing that “log on, take a look around town, then immediately log off” thing rather than actually spending time playing it. When warmed-over content like Warfronts and goddamn Island Expeditions are what you’re pushing, you know you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere. In the end I, of course, probably spent a couple hundred of hours playing this anyway, but what they’ve revealed for 8.1 isn’t exactly revving my engine.
Before I get into the game stuff, though, I wanted to share some things that I read this year. I’ve been reading a lot the last few years as a result of new advances in Kindle technology and what I’ve been learning isn’t really insomnia but just a body clock that says my bedtime is 2 A.M. every night. That leads to a couple hours of reading a night, usually, so I’ve clocked through some interesting books! Here are some recommendations!
The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch
This is absolutely my book of the year; it’s one of those books that makes you angry the author hasn’t written more stuff so you can binge it all. Holy shit, y’all, someone took a goddamn space nightmare and made it into a book. Some critic described this as Inception meets True Detective but I think it’d be more accurate to say that it’s What The Fuck meets I Want To Stop Reading This Before I Go Crazy meets But I Can’t Stop. A very unique reading experience, with a mouthfeel similar to House of Leaves if you left out all the weird Johnny Bartender stuff. I don’t want to describe it any more than that, but I’m not sure I really could if I tried. Try a Kindle sample! It starts off fucked and only gets worse!
Ack-Ack Macaque and Embers of War, Gareth L Powell
You can buy the Ack-Ack trilogy for 8 bucks on the Kindle and it’s something like 1100 pages long. That’s as long as War and Peace or Infinite Jest! It’s not quite as good as either of those novels are, but then, neither of them star super-smart monkeys that solve their problems with akimbo revolvers, do they? Checkmate, English majors! Embers of War is more hard sci-fi with echoes of Speaker for the Dead (but with more shooting), and I also encourage you to check that out.
Command and Control, Eric Schlosser
This book is all about America’s attempts to keep its nuclear weapons safe and secure after we made like 50,000 of them in the decades since World War II. Shocker: we didn’t always succeed! The amount of times the world has come close to ending in a nuclear fireball simply because some pilot got drunk and/or went crazy is...startling. Read it and weep!
Martha Wells’ Murderbot series
This kind of got progressively less fun and interesting as the stories rolled out, possibly because the first novella got a bunch of award nominations and then it was immediately announced that there’d be three more long novelletes/novellas/whatever they call them now in 2018. None of them were as compelling as the first (All Systems Red), but I still thank that first novella for introducing me to Martha Wells, who has a distinctive voice. I’ve tackled a couple of her fantasy novels and I look forward to reading more of her stuff.
Six Wakes, Mur Lafferty
The author says this novel was inspired by the cloning station on her iPad run of FTL! I didn’t know that until I finished the book but it makes sense as it’s about a spaceship full of clones that have to solve their own murders after someone hits the “oh no” button and they all wake up floating in their own viscera after having been brutally killed. It’s a great concept with some good twists.
Redemption’s Blade /Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky
I was going to say that it’s rare to see an author shift between fantasy and sci-fi and do both well, but then I thought about it and realized that was stupid: a lot of people write in both genres. I wasn’t familiar with Adrian Tchaikovsky until Children of Time started turning heads a couple of years ago but didn’t get around to reading it until this year. It’s got all the usual sci-fi tropes: terraforming gone awry, generation ships gone awry, giant spiders gone awry, etc., but everything flows really well and it’s also really well-written. Redemption’s Blade is more of your standard magic-swords-and-big-dragon fantasy stuff, but it all takes place just after the world’s big bad guy gets killed, which is an interesting take on things.
Anyway, here are some games that hit the pleasure button in my brain this year!
I really, really liked AC Origins, so it was kind of shocking at just how much I enjoyed transitioning over to Odyssey when it came out. It’s kind of stunning that both this game and Origins were in development at the same time, considering how huge they both wound up being.
It all starts with Kassandra, who reminds me a bunch of Horizon’s Aloy in that they both share an easygoing confidence in their own abilities and a fun incredulity that no one else in the game world seems to be willing to give them their due. Kassandra’s writers give her a great balance of anger and humor and sassy-ass comebacks to all the weird stuff and people she keeps encountering and she’s just kind of charming to hang around with as you play.
The gameplay changes dip into what are obviously intended to be superhuman abilities for the first time that I can recall in the series, and the simple addition of removing falling damage makes the entire game a lot easier (and more fun) to play. There are some pacing issues (it can take a while to get through the teen levels, but after that everything starts moving really quick) but that’s counteracted by the sheer amount of shit to do here. On any given night I can decide to do some questing, blow up some boats, enforce regime change on whichever weak-ass faction I decide to pick on, or just take some mercenaries down to Headshot City with my super-bow that turns every normal arrow into a goddamn fire arrow that also sets people on fire.
There are games that overstay their welcome and I 100% can see how people would think that Odyssey would be one of them, but unlike, say, Shadow of War, I still find myself looking forward to coming home and murdering some people in Odyssey after playing it for almost two months now. I’m 75 hours in and there are entire huge regions of the game I haven’t even set foot in yet, and I think I’ve only tracked down maybe two-thirds of those damn cultists. I’ve got a lot more to do here but I’m looking forward to doing it!
Path of Exile has always been one of those games that I’ve wanted to like more than I actually liked. I mean, I get it: a free-to-play hardcore action RPG with a huge skill tree and endless permutations of character builds to fool around with, what’s not to like! I’ve spent 50 or so hours on this throughout the years, possibly stretching back to the original beta, but I’ve always bounced off it after a few hours because, well, I don’t know if I mentioned how huge that skill tree is? Follow a build guide if you want, but hope you like trying to figure out sentences like “4 link soul mantle can do up to T9 maps easy with 2x Kik and flag. But you'll want a 5l or higher to be comfy past that.” I’m nobody’s fool and I like complicated games but I’ll still admit that it took me way longer than I’d care to admit to actually get what the hell was going on and how gems work and to just start following a passive skill guide rather than blindly throwing darts at the intimidatingly oppressive skill tree.
Once you get past the build guide shibboleths and start actually getting into the meat of the game, though, it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer variety of stuff there is in Path of Exile. Although this came out first in 2013, a fairly large update expanded the game’s length from four acts to 10 last year, and three more content patches and new ladders have appeared this year as well. There’s a main storyline that plays out as you proceed through the game, but many of the content patches have added optional events as well, most of which can appear at random as you play, which means that all kinds of crazy shit can and will occur as you’re just out murdering things and minding your own business. There’s a shitload of institutional knowledge that is just kind of assumed as you play through the game or deal with the community, and for the most part you just need to assume that you won’t understand most of what’s going on without alt-tabbing out and digging through the game’s official wiki (and even then there’s a lot to sort through).
Even with all of those qualifications, I have to say that I feel extremely fucking badass when I login with my Arc Totem Hierophant build and lay down my little murder lightningbots that just zap the shit out of anything that comes my way. I don’t even have to attack anything! I just set down my little pillars of love and run away; they do the killing for me! I’ve also been fooling around with something called a Toxic Rain Pathfinder build and I haven’t gotten very far with it but when I shoot the poison pods and hit the enemies something else pops out of my head and also shoots the poison pods at the enemies and everything dies very quickly and this game is very fun. Join our community Discord and we’ll chat about it.
Also it’s well worth pointing out that PoE has one of the most user-friendly free-to-play setups of any game that I’ve ever come across: practically everything is cosmetic aside from stash spaces, and while certain builds are better with certain uniques, all of those uniques are obtainable through trade with other players. There’s precious little grinding that I’ve come across and unless you want to chip in for guild stash or limited-entry tournaments it’s pretty easy to spend zero dollars on this and still have a hell of a time with it. I’ll kick ‘em some money at some point, though!
I don’t know if this is the first time anyone’s had the same game on their GOTY list in back-to-back years, but the Switch port of this game let me play it again...for the very first time! All hyperbole aside, the port is fantastic and easily the best way to play the game and I’ve gotten much farther in it than I ever did in the PC version. I have the same qualms about it that I did last year, especially with respect to the mapping system, but it’s still one of those games that rewards commitment and skill with some real dope moments of satisfaction after you finally take down a boss that you’ve been butting heads with for a couple of days. I know as much about the story as I did with any of the Souls games that I played (queue a million “YOU HAVE TO READ THE ITEM DESCRIPTIONS!” tweets) but hey, this is still an amazing port of what’s clearly an all-time great Metroidvania.
What a weird-ass game! It starts off with you getting having a fucking nuclear bomb dropped on you and then you pop into a weirdo castle that’s being all couped up and you’re shootin’ mouse people in the back with a goddamn actual gun and then the rest of the game is all “let’s sing Kumbaya and try to find a way to heal the world.” It’s hard to think of a game that started off more hardcore and then backslid more drastically into milquetoastery.
This is a simple game with simple pleasures and one simple flaw: it was way too easy when it launched. I coasted through the game in around 50 hours and I think I only Game Overed once in an optional dungeon which had a 20-level difference between the first monsters and the end boss (who I wound up not even being able to hit). I didn’t mind overmuch (it was better than the grinding that the end of NNK1 sort of required), but it was still a little weird just blowing away every story encounter in a few minutes, generally without thinking of strategy beyond the occasional use of a healing item. They added difficulty settings in a patch, but that came well after I had already beaten the game.
Despite the lackluster story, which seriously must feature a half-dozen speeches or dialogues about Coming Together As One People Despite Our Differences, it’s still fun to fall into the rhythm of blasting through battles and getting more items and extracting wealth from your townspeople in the form of what’s clearly some onerous tax rates and spending it on new weapons. It’s not a game that requires much of you, but the PC port is bright and well-done and there’s something to be said about a game with a bit of optimism about diplomacy in the Year Of Our Lord What The Fuck Is Going On.
This game is really dope and I wanted to play more of it but it really felt like it was something that required a fair amount of time to commit to it each time you sat down to play it. The performances are great and that first fight scene with Evil Jeremy Davies is one of the coolest things to come along in a game in a very long time.
Anyway, this is clearly a great game that I didn’t get nearly far enough in to judge thoroughly. I think I go to a fight with a dragon which was pretty amazing! I’ve been holding off on finishing it until we pick up a PS4 Pro which we haven’t managed to get around to yet, but I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of the game. I’m assuming it’s an uplifting story and everyone gets what they want and everyone’s happy at the end?
I honestly have zero interest in the ongoing storyline of Destiny, so I didn’t really care that much when Cayde-6 got capped; I just kind of hope they pull the plug on Failsafe at some point, too, as she has to be the most annoying character I’ve come across in a game in years. Even so, and despite the very real financial concerns regarding Blizzard’s expansion model, this is still the best pure shooter around, and the PC port looks great and feels great to play.