My gaming in 2019

For several years now, it’s been impossible for me to write anything about the last 12 months of gaming without mentioning that a large number of high-profile releases utterly failed to engage me on any meaningful level, even if I actually took the time to finish them. This year is no different; Control, Resident Evil 2, Gears 5 and Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 were all landmark titles which I played through without much enthusiasm (The Division 2 was probably the most engaging of these; but also the most suspect in terms of exploitative online hooks and loot-driven mechanics).

In terms of games that I did find myself heavily invested in, there are five titles which stand out in this respect. I’m not going to rank them, so the following discussion is in chronological order only.

Days Gone

Sony Bend’s exceedingly ambitious biker epic is not a flawed gem - it’s just flawed, period. The lackluster combat, insanely repetitive side activities, terribly paced mission structure and narrative mishandling of several major characters all add up to what can only be described as a mess of a game.

However, I still really enjoyed playing Days Gone and experiencing its slow-moving storyline over the course of the 50+ hour campaign. While there were certainly plenty of mistakes made in the writing department, the story of main protagonist Deacon St John and his wife Sarah included a number of emotionally effective scenes and unexpected relationship complications that kept me interested in what would happen next (great performances from the lead actors sure helped a lot in this respect). Also, the sheer length of the game means that there is enough room to establish the characters and their relationships to each other over time.

Apart from the narrative elements, the game’s comparatively subdued and naturalistic take on the concept of a post-apocalyptic open world (i.e. a sublimely beautiful slice of Oregon largely devoid of traffic and people) is also a big part of the reason why this game kept me happily glued to the TV for a substantial part of my summer vacation. Sony Bend delivers some of the most detailed natural environments ever created for a video game (even Horizon: Zero Dawn’s lush landscapes look like garish comic strips by comparison).

Death Stranding

Since the gameplay of Death Stranding provided some of the most enjoyable activities and player progression I’ve experienced this year, none of the sound and fury surrounding Hideo Kojima’s heavy-handed allegories and endless acronym-filled lore babble makes any difference to me.

Below the surface level phenomena of motion-captured Hollywood actors struggling to bring life to an unwieldy and laughably self-indulgent script lies a beautifully constructed open world game with deceptively simple mechanics which slowly - perhaps a bit too slowly - develop and grow in satisfying ways as the player traverses the striking landscapes of BT-infested “America”. The feedback systems are granular enough to reward almost everything that the player does, and the impressively tactile movement controls make even the simplest of deliveries into a remarkably involving affair. Despite its weighty themes and morbid symbolism, Death Stranding can be an oddly soothing and meditative gameplay experience even when things are literally falling to pieces around you and your best-laid logistical plans go horribly wrong.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Although Three Houses wasn’t quite worth spending 120 hours with (and the latter third of the campaign dragged on in particular), there’s no denying the general addictiveness of the turn-based combat and character progression in this sprawling SRPG. The relationship building between party members can be hit-or-miss as far as the actual dialogue goes, but the sheer amount of story content available for the player to engage with (or not) combined with excellent New Game+ options certainly makes Fire Emblem one of the most generous full-priced releases of the year. At the Hard difficulty setting I found the combat to be consistently challenging throughout, and there were some wonderfully tense battles which kept me on the edge of my seat for hours on end.

Metro Exodus

The technologically advanced Metro Exodus is undoubtedly an impressive and wonderfully exploration-heavy shooter, but the game nonetheless turned out to be one of the bigger disappointments of the year because of my (perhaps unreasonably) high expectations. In terms of actual gameplay sessions, the magical hours spent in the Volga Basin region was probably the highlight of my gaming year, but as a whole this FPS didn’t come together in ways that I had hoped. The semi-open world structure became noticeably more linear and less interesting as the campaign progressed, and I found the story and characters to be just as clumsily written and haphazardly presented as in earlier Metro titles. Also, while the RTX features were subtly mind-blowing (if that’s a thing), I never quite found a sweet spot between resolution and performance despite having purchased a brand new gaming rig at the beginning of this year. As a result of this, my enjoyment of the game was noticeably impacted by sluggish controls due to an often inconsistent frame rate.

Mortal Kombat 11

With its surprisingly heartfelt commitment to the good old-fashioned joys of ripping spines and eating brains, Mortal Kombat 11 deserves mentioning as one of this year’s more memorable experiences. Although my fascination with the game subsided quickly after having wrapped up the story mode, I did have a ton of fun as I was punching and kicking my way through the wonderfully silly campaign. MK11’s character models are some of the best I’ve seen in a 3D game, and the whole presentation is a joy to behold as the colorful roster of sub-humans, über-Mensch and demi-gods duke it out in all sorts of extravagant locations. That the subplot involving Johnny Cage, Sonya Blade and Cassie Cage also delivers a wholesome dose of family values amidst all of that cosmic cacophony is such an awesome counter-punch to the moral panic associated with this series that you wish the time-twisting Elder Gods could be summoned to zap MK11 back to those infamous 1993 congressional hearings. Also, the game did inspire me to go back and play through the entirety of MK9’s and MK10’s singleplayer components as well (something I didn’t think I was ever going to do).

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Empathy from the Devil - Quick Thoughts on Vampyr

The first thing I did in Vampyr was to leave the safe confines of the starting area around Pembroke Hospital, venture off into the Whitechapel district and experiment with the combat mechanics against dangerously overleveled enemies. It was a suitably humbling and nail-biting experience that kept me coming back for more, despite many failed attempts to take down even a handful of Cockney-spouting goons.

To my surprise, the most satisfying aspect of Dontnod's new narrative-heavy action RPG (at least during these first few hours) has not been its extensive dialogue scenes or character-oriented mechanics but rather its wonky yet satisfyingly tense melee fights. The main protagonist has some good magic abilities but elements such as stamina, animation priority and enemy special attacks all combine to ensure that combat remains a delicate balance of risk and reward by quickly punishing players who get greedy and overplay their hand. One way to make the game easier is to feed off the friendlier inhabitants of London, but at least for now I'm aiming for a playthrough without shedding non-hostile blood (which the Internet tells me is possible, but will leave me permanently underleveled for the duration of the campaign).

As for the conversational side of Vampyr, the writing and overall delivery seems to be significantly less uneven than Dontnod's previous efforts. As much as Life is Strange means to me, I can't deny that the script had its cringe-worthy moments or that some of its actors weren't exactly consummate professionals. Vampyr's neo-Victorian prose can't match the feverish and sexually overcharged tone of Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, but there's a realistic complexity and quiet dignity to the cast of characters which suggest that empathy is a stronger underlying theme here than vampiric alienation from human society.

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Stumbling Towards Absolution - Quick Thoughts on HITMAN

I almost can't count the many times I've tried and failed to get into HITMAN since the first episode was released in March 2016. One of reasons as to why I haven't been able to get past the tutorial sections is my unhealthy perfectionist approach to stealth games. That specific trial-and-error approach fit the sublime puzzle boxes of the severely underrated Hitman Absolution like an assassin's glove, but is entirely at odds with HITMAN's well-documented and much-appreciated tendency towards chaos. In the new game, a single misstep typically cascades into a murderous slapstick and launches a thousand GIF-based Internet memes before poor Agent 47 is finally taken down by a security guard. And while it's obviously not impossible to memorize the levels, it's a much more time-consuming endeavour now that the virtual sandboxes are so much larger (partly as a result of the absurd criticism that Absolution's beautifully crafted levels were "too small").

And in case it wasn't already obvious, another mental hurdle which prevented me from getting into HITMAN for so long is that I'm still really grumpy about how unfairly everyone dismissed the previous Hitman game. I was raving about Absolution's intricate challenge designs and unparallelled world building for a good long time, but it was only with the release of this weird new episodic reboot that the world finally started to pay attention to how the developers were improving and expanding the gameplay formula after Blood Money (the previous fan favorite in the series).

This video shows my first fumbling attempt to explore Paris on the Xbox One X version of the game (I bought the PC version well over a year ago, but having the spectacular environments displayed on my new 4K TV seemed like a better way to experience the game).

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My Year in Gaming 2017

Unlike most fans of interactive entertainment, I have very conflicted feelings about the state of gaming in 2017. So many big tentpole releases which enthralled millions of players during the last twelve months left me completely cold. Despite heroic efforts I just couldn't bring myself to spend much time in Zelda: Breath of the Wild's barren and directionless open world or push through more than a handful of its well-designed but unoriginal physics-based puzzles, the remarkably tense shooter action of Playerunknown's Battlegrounds was ultimately rendered pointless for me since the game is another match-centric multiplayer chore that I can't muster any enthusiasm for, the astonishing beauty of Horizon: Zero Dawn's post-apocalyptic environments was never enough to keep me coming back to the unsatisfying combat or rote mission design, Resident Evil 7's myopic "back-to-basics" philosophy and curiously restricted environments didn't hold a candle to RE6's sublime anime bullshit in my book and don't even get me started on the soulless grind that was Destiny 2.

The stark contrast between my own general apathy and the raving reviews and delirious Internet chatter made me think a lot about what it is that I actually want out of games. I spent many hours with Bioware's ill-fated Mass Effect: Andromeda (a decent but forgettable action RPG), but the rewarding systems and haunting world building of Prey made Arkane's underrated immersive sim the first release that really engaged me in 2017. After having gone back to the same developer's 2016 title Dishonored 2 (the actual best game I played this year), Uncharted: The Lost Legacy became the experience that more or less restored my faith in triple-A releases by delivering a lot of satisfying exploration combined with tight, effective storytelling and excellent performances. I thought I had grown tired of linear plot-heavy action titles over the past few years, but UC:LL's spectacular visuals and narrative highs left me with an unexpected desire for more experiences of the same kind. As a result, I went back to Naugthy Dog's own The Last of Us and challenged myself to the point of exhaustion by playing through the game again on the highest difficulty.

During the autumn, Life is Strange's unexpected return via Deck Nine's Before the Storm proved once again that we desperately need more developers (and publishers) who aren't afraid to use the interactive format to explore new stories and themes which don't fit the narrow genre categories still dominating the market. And while Wolfenstein: The New Colossus was a flawed first-person shooter, the razor-sharp ideological awareness which imbued every line of the game's blood-soaked script skillfully addressed the current political climate while also providing a fascinating deconstruction of white male power fantasies.

Finally, the confident return of Ubisoft's flagship series Assassin's Creed (or Ass-sassin, sorry about the typo in this video) gave me exactly what I wanted out of an open world adventure in 2017. The jaw-dropping landscapes, impactful combat and complex characters weren't quite enough to make Origins one of the best entries in the genre ever, but this was the first AC game in the series which left me wanting more after the campaign was over. Even after 50 hours spent on that impossibly large map, the sumptuous recreation of ancient Egypt still retained an extravagant sense of mystery which no other game this year came close to delivering. And its somewhat meandering main storyline notwithstanding, the narrative as a whole was surprisingly ambiguous and thoughtful in its representation of political struggle and the effects it has on individuals and the delicate fabric of society. As far as the moment-to-moment gameplay goes, Origins also benefited greatly from ditching the fancy but weightless stabbing of previous AC titles and replacing it with a weighty, Dark Souls-inspired melee combat which made tense duels out of even the most routine enemy camp exploration.

Overall, Assassin's Creed Origins and the four other games featured in this video reminded me that a very particular mix of escapism and emotional investment drives my continued interest in video games. And as difficult as it is to pin down what makes a particular game tick the right boxes for me, the crucial elements have never been about experimenting with finely balanced mechanics in a logics-driven sandbox which so many of the most popular releases of this year seemed to excel at (I would put both Zelda, Super Mario Odyssey and perhaps even PUBG in that category). While I'm still a bit bewildered by the disconnect between my own experience of gaming in 2017 and that of everyone else, reflecting on the games that actually did work for me has been a worthwile and illuminating experience.

Games I didn't play (much) in 2017 but might have liked:

Nier: Automata

Divinity: Original Sin II

Dishonored 2: Death of the Outsider

Yakuza 0

Elex

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Quick Thoughts on Life is Strange: Before the Storm - Episode 3: Hell is Empty

According to the game's post-credits statistics screen, there's a fifty-fifty split (or 49% to 51%, to be precise) in the user base between people who chose to tell the truth to Rachel in the final scene of Before the Storm and those who chose not to. As far as metrics go, that's a pretty good indication that developer Deck Nine managed to create a meaningfully difficult choice for players to wrestle with and disagree about.

But none of that would matter at all without us being invested in the characters, and that is the true triumph of this unlikely prequel as a whole. Despite the developer-related changes and the first Life is Strange's near-apocalyptic ending, Before the Storm delivers a strong narrative experience which complements and to some extent surpasses its predecessor. It was a risky move to let players finally meet the near-mythical Rachel - whose mysterious absence cast such a long shadow over Dontnod's original episodic adventure - but the new writers and actors strike a near-perfect balance between mesmerizing charisma and authentic teenage angst in bringing this remarkable girl to life. Although Deck Nine doesn't do a whole lot with recurring characters such as Nathan or David, Chloe's newfound friends from Blackwell are better than most of the supporting cast from LiS and that annoying boyfriend-wannabe Eliot is a quintessential "nice guy" which the script rightfully exposes as a self-obsessed creep.

Most importantly of all, Before the Storm replicates the unflinching earnestness of Dontnod's game and treats its young protagonists with the emotional seriousness that they deserve. And to be honest, some of that dialogue which sounds cringeworthy to a 35-year old like me is probably just fine with the game's target demographic; i.e. just the kind of players who would agree with Chloe that there's nothing inherently wrong about dyeing your hair blue (even though their parents might wearily ask, just like Patty Chase did in My So-Called Life, if it died of natural causes...).

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Quick Thoughts on Quantum Break

Much to my own surprise, the first game I finished on my new Xbox One X and 4K TV became Remedy Entertainment's ill-fated 2016 narrative-heavy third-person shooter Quantum Break.

The time-travelling premise and lengthy cutscenes with familiar-looking actors met with a mostly lukewarm reception last year, and the original Microsoft Store-exclusive PC version was so broken that I almost couldn't play it (and quickly gave up trying). The new Xbox One X upgrade is a tangible improvement over the blurry first console iteration, but still suffers from a number of technical glitches which give the impression that this game will never quite escape the long shadow of its troubled development cycle.

The origin story of Quantum Break's production is every bit as convoluted as the pseudo-scientific lore of the Fracture. Remedy's long-awaited follow-up to Alan Wake was inextricably bound up with Microsoft's over-confident and hastily abandonded console/TV entertainment hybrid scheme for complete world domination (or whatever the company's actual goals were at the time), and the ambitious plans for a live series which would exist independently of the game were scrapped entirely.

What remains is a curious mashup of linear third-person action and 25-minute long FMV cutscenes (unironically complimented by one reviewer as being roughly on par with a mid-tier Syfy production). The actors put in decent performances, but the time-travelling plot mechanics inevitably become a chore to keep track of and the script is weighed down by having terms like "countermeasure" shoved into every third line or so.

But by far the biggest problem is that - unlike the somewhat overrated but similarily pitch-perfect Alan Wake - there's just nothing particularly compelling or memorable about the story or setting of Quantum Break. Its sterile sci-fi trappings might be just as meticulously constructed as the Lynchian pastische of Remedy's previous title, but it ultimately lacks both the playfulness and sheer entertainment value of Alan Wake's adventures in Bright Falls.

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Quick Thoughts on Wolfenstein: The New Colossus

Wolfenstein: The New Colossus doesn't just shove its double-barreled politics down your throat; it repeatedly pulls the trigger and is hell-bent on blasting your grey matter back to the Stone age. Everything about The New Colossus - from the fast-paced but challenging FPS action to the many surprisingly humorous and snappily edited cutscenes - is completely over-the-top, but Wolfenstein's ideological convictions are always unapologetically sincere - and the game is all the better for it.

Taking a stand against fascism might not be particularly controversial in and of itself, but The New Colossus - like its excellent but much less explicit predecessor The New Order - goes to great lengths to affirm and promote everything that the extreme right is opposed to; multiculturalism, socialism, queerness, feminism, anti-ableism (or whatever the proper word might be) and most other forms of progressive ideals and dispositions are all memorably represented and embodied in Blazkowicz's diverse group of rag-tag revolutionaries. When the assault on universal values is as all-encompassing as Adolf Hitler's totalitarianism, developer MachineGames seems to argue, the response must be equally wide-ranging and absolute.

The most audacious of Wolfenstein's many story-based ambitions is how the game draws parallells between long-standing structural inequalities in US society on the one hand and Nazi white supremacy on the other. As far as political commentary in a video game goes, this is more controversial than just about anything that's been previously attempted in a major AAA release like this. Even BioShock Infinite's vivid imagery of Christian nationalism was neutered by a cowardly "violence on both sides" stance that would've made the current occupant of the White House happy, and it's crazy to think that Wolfenstein's thoroughly American story of racism and resistance comes from a studio based in Sweden.

As much as I applaud the storytelling of The New Colossus, the frenetic shooter action is unfortunately not as good as it could have been. Superficially there are similarities to id Software's reimagined DOOM from last year, but the surprising difficulty of many encoturns TNC's combat into a protracted war of attrition that completely kills the flow of the combat encounters. Sometimes everything works just perfectly - like in the New Orleans mission featured in this video - but when it doesn't the game can quickly devolve into a tedious grind.

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Quick Thoughts on Assassin's Creed Origins

After having experiencing swarms of revolutionary citizens filling the streets of Paris in the spectacularly over-ambitious Assassin's Creed Unity three years ago, I didn't think Ubisoft would dare to dream big again. The immediate follow-up Syndicate was delightful in many ways but fundamentally played it safe by returning to the less demanding urban simulations of earlier entries, and after that the series took an unprecedented year off.

The new installment Assassin's Creed Origins is awesome, in the original sense of the word. While neither the gameplay or the story represents any significant new developments as far as the time-honored AC formula is concerned, the enormous open world does ancient Egypt justice by being an achingly beautiful place with a rich history and culture just waiting to be uncovered and explored.

The developers chose to set the game in late Hellenistic times rather than during the heyday of the great Pharaohs, and that's a bit of shame - Cleopatra and Ptolemy are cool and all, but it would probably have been even more exciting to, say, meet Akhenaten and Nefertiti during the Amarna Period. That being said, there's still a strong sense of stepping into a fascinating and mysterious pre-Western world which is utterly unlike all of those European societies we see in most games with historical themes and settings. And who could really ask more than that from a series that's always been the ultimate vehicle for triple-A escapism?

I never quite warmed to the Han Solo-esque roguishness of fan favorite AC protagonist Ezio Auditore, and generally feel that Ubisoft's character work has been rather uneven throughout the series. Syndicate's bantering twins Jacob and Evie were quite charming but they largely stuck to the Ezio playbook, whereas the more serious heroes have tended to be a bit dull and forgettable (AC1's Altaïr and AC3's Connor etc.).

My very first impression of Assassin's Creed Origins' Bayek (voiced by Abubakar Salim) was of a rather generic and straight-faced leading man, but several early scenes revealed a warmth and disarming humor which changed my mind. The reunion with Bayek's badass spy master wife Aya (Alix Wilton Regan) was satisfyingly tender and bittersweet, and I definitely want to see where the story takes this fetching couple (apart from all that Templar/Assassin stuff, which is always dreadfully boring).

While Assassin's Creed Origins doesn't shy away from the dirty Realpolitik and daily squalor of ancient Egypt in a time of decline and turmoil, the game is also quite eager to indulge our romantic notions of that long-lost empire centered on the Nile. No more is this evident than in the desolate district around Giza - already a ruin of previous eras by the time Bayek rolls around - where the grand monuments of Pharaohs past dominate the landscape and the sweltering heat gives rise to haunting mirages. Climbing the impressively large pyramid of Kufu for the first time was probably one of the strongest individual gameplay moments I've had in a game this year...

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Quick Thoughts on Destiny 2

Destiny 2 begins as a proper space opera should. There are swelling orchestral soundtracks, planet-invading battle cruisers, evil aliens with subwoofer-obliterating baritones and a sassy ass-kicking robot voiced by Firefly's Mal Reynolds doing a passable Nathan Fillion impression (or was that the other way around?). It's definitely what you'd expect from the developers who created Halo, but this level of crowd-pleasing pomp and circumstance was also notoriously absent from the studio's first multiplatform pseudo-MMO, a curiously meager and grim-faced shooter which went out with a whimper at launch exactly three years ago now (although subsequent expansions apparently alleviated some of its initial problems).

The troubled production process of Destiny 1 has been well-documented, and everything about the first few hours of the sequel feels like Bungie is overcompensating to the point of parody - albeit mostly with enjoyable results. The actual loot-driven gameplay loop - and especially the focus on multiplayer, which doesn't fit with the way I consume games - does leave me a bit cold, but there seems to be enough spectacular scenery and set pieces in the campaign to at least warrant a complete playthrough of all the main missions (and the same couldn't be said of the first Destiny, which I gave up on halfway through the singleplayer content).

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Queer as Folk: Quick Thoughts on Before the Storm

Before the Storm begins with protagonist Chloe Price standing on a railroad track, perilously close to being overrun by a freight train coming her way. Apart from establishing her devil-may-care attitude, it's an apt metaphor for this unlikely adventure game series as a whole.

The original Life is Strange always balanced on a razor's edge in its ambitious attempts to celebrate the lives and loves of teenage girls in small-town America without coming off as a third-rate young adult novel written (as the game largely was) by a bunch of thirty year-old French dudes. LiS ultimately both earned and delivered a number of strong emotional payoffs - by sheer episodic persistence, if nothing else - but the road to catharsis wasn't exactly a smooth ride. Uneven dialogue, odd pacing and questionable puzzle design gave the impression that developers DontNod were courageously struggling with a difficult subject matter in a tricky genre they didn't have much previous experience with.

The first episode of Before the Storm (developed by another studio, Deck Nine) has some of the same problems as its predecessor, but thankfully manages to keep the strengths of the first game as well. The unabashedly melodramatic narrative doesn't so much pull at the heartstrings as it bludgeons them with a sledgehammer, and the second half of the episode has some of the best character interactions in the series to date (even though some of the lines still sound more like a middle-aged guy's idea of what a young girl would actually say). The adventure game elements have thankfully been pared down, and there are no more time-rewinding powers or other supernatural elements to take the player's attention away from the relationship drama.

Given that this is the prequel to a game which had a notoriously dark and traumatic ending, it's going to be interesting to see whether Before the Storm can continue to stand on its own during the remaining episodes, or if the shadows of futures past become a distraction as the story progresses.

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