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Beta Report: The Finals

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I spent 20 hours with The Finals over the last week and my dominant thought by the conclusion of the beta was this: could I reasonably fit a game’s pre-release playtest onto my game of the year list? That would be crazy, wouldn’t it?

The Finals is competitive first-person shooter from Embark Studios, a Swedish game development outfit founded by former DICE developers. It is not a battle royale or an extraction game, but a traditional objective-based multiplayer shooter in which teams of 3 fight to bank the most cash in a flashy game show setting. In the beta there were a couple quick play modes—my favorite of those was Bank It, in which players must dump cash into rotating deposit boxes and risk losing all the money they’re carrying on death—and a ranked tournament mode, where I spent most of my time.

The quick play modes are great fun, but I want to spend most of this focusing on the tournament mode. Most of what I’ll say applies equally to both—there are only a few mechanical differences between the two.

The tournament mode is all about collecting one of two cash boxes and bringing it to a cashout box, where your team must then defend it king-of-the-hill style before it successfully scores. The mode feels like a blend of Capture the Flag and KOTH, and it is terrific. Rarely has a competitive mode catered to both chaos and careful tactical consideration this well, and there are several reasons for this.

The objectives rotate

For one, The Finals brilliantly mixes up its objective placement in such a way that practically guarantees you will always have to be thinking on your toes… as far as I know. In the 20 hours I played there didn’t seem to be any way to reliably predict where the next objectives would spawn. The cashout boxes rotate every couple of minutes in the Bank It mode, and in tournament mode a new box spawns when one has successfully been scored on. You’re constantly being made to visit every part of the map, to attack and defend every possible site from every possible angle. This means every match feels incredibly dynamic and unpredictable.

Cash boxes that are being deposited can be “turned” to another team, scoring for them instead

Next, waiting for the cash box to successfully deposit takes time, and if another team manages to break through your defenses and reach the deposit box they can actually turn the cash over to their side. The benefits of this mechanic are twofold. First, it forces a defensive battle over the cash no matter what, so there’s no easy scoring for anyone. And second, it can lead to huge momentum swings when a team unexpectedly overcomes the defenders and “steals” the deposit at the last second, jumping into first place out of nowhere.

The maps are destructible

The Battlefield background of this studio is readily apparent in how dramatically the maps can be torn apart, one of the game’s key selling points. Walls, floors, ceilings, and entire buildings can be reduced to rubble by explosives, sending players toppling down multiple stories and completely changing the objective site. The deposit boxes themselves aren’t nailed down; it’s possible for a rooftop objective site to become a decimated ground floor battleground at a moment’s notice. One of my most memorable matches involved a building that quite literally split in two, the objective being buried under multiple floors of debris. I managed to crawl my way through the wreckage and steal the cash for my team, and then had to try to survive as a sniper fired shots through openings in the rubble. They ended up picking me off, and it was awesome.

Map and mid-match modifiers

The game only includes three maps at the moment, but a list of map variants and match modifiers keeps things feeling fresh and, again, unpredictable. Every match can have a map modifier applied to it. These can alter objectives by suspending them in the air or placing them on moving platforms, or alter the map by raising the elevation higher or destroying part of it entirely. And there are different temporary mid-match modifiers that trigger as well that can introduce low gravity, orbital lasers that strike stationary players, falling meteors, and more. These can have huge impacts on strategy; low gravity being triggered means your team’s plan to jump pad onto an objective is suddenly out of the question, and the modifier that causes eliminated players to explode makes a close quarters rush a foolish endeavor. I’ve really enjoyed these modifiers and wonder if Embark plans on introducing more over time. There were a couple that never appeared in the beta, like Molten Madness that dumps lava on the ground and another where a duck mascot apparently destroys part of the arena.

Character weights, weapons, and gadgets

Surrounding all of this mayhem is a character class system and a selection of weapons and gadgets that appear to have quite a bit of untapped synergy. You could see players’ strategic thinking shift over the course of the beta, with stun guns and sword ambushes becoming especially popular near the end. The three classes available are simply named Light (low HP, fast movement, close and long range weapons, evasive abilities), Medium (average HP and movement, offensive and defensive weapons and gadgets), and Heavy (high HP, slow movement, bulky weapons, destruction focused.) All three have their own selection of abilities, weapons, and utility items. Crucially, cooldowns for everything are pretty short across the board, encouraging players to use what they have and to not save their big plays for the right moment that may or may not come. Ammo is also unlimited, which feels great.

There’s quite a lot happening in The Finals—not so much that the game is tactically overwhelming, but enough that it becomes more than a mindless shooter. It can still be this in the game’s quick play mode, but I found the ranked tournament environment to be really engaging and satisfyingly challenging.


Two lingering questions at the conclusion of this playtest:

1) What will be the long-term role of AI voices in The Finals and in Embark Studios’ other projects? This has been the most controversial element of the game since it was revealed that Embark uses a mixture of real voices and AI text-to-speech for the announcers and character barks. Embark’s website pitches its studio as being a particularly strong embracer of new technologies so it’s probably wise to assume this is just the beginning. Like many others, I have a lot of concerns about the long term health of careers that are steadily supplanted by AI, and it’s undeniably worrying to see it utilized to such a degree in a game that has a chance to hit it big. Are human voice actors really that much of an obstacle, and is this tech truly fulfilling the studio's creative ambitions in a way no person could? I have my doubts about either.

2) Balance! Weapon and class balance in this playtest didn’t feel too out of whack to me, though near the end of the beta it became apparent that the dominant killer in any match is a light class with the evasive dash ability and the silenced pistol. This combination was absolutely devastating, and I found it impossible to take these players out as they blinked across the screen and domed me with a weapon that’s almost certainly a bit overtuned… but we’ll see how it shakes out. Weapon balance is always a frustrating topic when it becomes unclear if a weapon is genuinely too much, or if the other player is just simply better. In the case of the light class and what it’s capable of, I’m leaning more towards the former. But I could be wrong! We’ll see what changes Embark makes for the game’s release.

Overall impression: incredibly strong, but not without caveats. I’m a bit of a nomad when it comes to competitive games, going deep on certain titles before either burning out or being turned away by frustrating metas. While I won’t claim that The Finals has what it takes to be my forever game—I don’t think any game ever could be, barring my annual playthrough of Skyrim—I will say that it feels fresher and more promising than other competitive titles that I have grown distant from recently. There appears to be just enough room for thoughtful strategy and unpredictability to ensure that every match gives players a chance to demonstrate their skill and imagination, but also enough chaos to test everyone’s improvisation when buildings suddenly collapse and the objective falls through three floors of smoke and fire.

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Satisfactory Satisfaction

The home base, in an earlier time
The home base, in an earlier time

Nuclear power is finally in my sights in Satisfactory, but it's still so far away. Between myself and what I can only assume is the be-all and end-all of power generation: more milestones of increasing complexity and the realization that my facilities are absolutely going to need significant expansion to pull it all off. And I couldn't be more excited.

My steel production center is unnecessarily tightly packed, and retrofitting more processes onto it has been an enduring challenge
My steel production center is unnecessarily tightly packed, and retrofitting more processes onto it has been an enduring challenge

Satisfactory has dominated my free time over the last month or so and it's made me come to terms with a rather long-lasting love I've had for base building in games. As a kid I cut my teeth on Roller Coaster Tycoon 2, designing elaborate parks with massive food courts that made millions in profits and terrible rides that occasionally left guests mortally wounded. I spent loads of time in Fallout 4 piecing together rickety settlements and running power lines to the tunes of Diamond City Radio. Even more time was spent gathering resources in No Man's Sky to construct gorgeous space ports I will never complete, the shells of would-be galactic citadels lying dormant on verdant planets after the lone architect abandoned the project for the stars.

No such issue in Satisfactory, a factory/assembly line game that demonstrates the power of automation in ways that neither Fallout 4 nor No Man's Sky achieved for me in recent years. The game begins in familiar territory with hand gathering basic raw materials to turn into basic parts. But it's the machines and conveyor belts that transform these sorts of games, putting the focus not on building something and having that be the end of it, but on becoming an efficiency artisan of your own design. I haven't played a factory game before, but I am familiar with snapping things together on grids and on the uniquely pleasurable act of turning small objects into much larger constructions. Satisfactory felt great from the get-go, but the brilliance of its design became more apparent the deeper I got into it.


For one, Satisfactory is remarkably approachable. I love the game's progression; new parts and mechanics are unlocked by completing milestones, which require producing specific parts and launching them into space. Completing every milestone in a tier will complete the tier, and to unlock more tiers the player must complete phases of a mysterious overarching corporate project. This is done by contributing the game's most complex resources to the space elevator. These take longer to make than most other items, but they're always made with things the player's been making up to that point.

The game lets you build floating platforms easily, so scaling cliffs poses very little challenge
The game lets you build floating platforms easily, so scaling cliffs poses very little challenge

Importantly, these objectives are laid out in an order that eases everyone into the game, never overwhelming them with more than they could reasonably take on. It also understands roughly when the player will begin running into certain obstacles. The first vehicle is unlocked around the time you might be thinking of expanding your base, and when rudimentary biomass power production begins to bottom out the game introduces coal generators.

Adding to the game's approachability is how infrequently I feel that I am fighting against it. Fallout 4's base building was as imperfect as can be, and trying to get the AI to behave a certain way was just not a worthwhile undertaking. And for as much as I think No Man's Sky is a pretty terrific game nowadays, its modus operandi is to constantly push against the player with inventory and resource restrictions every which way it can. Satisfactory does not do this. There is an inventory, but its capacity upgrades at a rate that feels appropriate. Crucially, the game lets the player build from very far away, allowing for protracted conveyor belts and power lines without too much leg work. Other small touches, like power lines automatically becoming power poles when dragged off a building, add to Satisfactory's player-friendly attitude.

Aluminum production after dark. My factory layouts after 70+ hours are better designed, though evidently I'm still afraid to use space
Aluminum production after dark. My factory layouts after 70+ hours are better designed, though evidently I'm still afraid to use space

Two, Satisfactory allows for a wonderful degree of player expression. Single-player games are most often driven by static objectives and quests. Some of these games offer a choice of how to reach this goal; maybe with stealth, or with guns blazing. At its core this choice is really about which of the game's paths or mechanics to engage with, which doesn't feel particularly expressive. What's expressive about Satisfactory is how one chooses to construct their facilities. Very little outside of the game's most basic rules and part recipes is written in stone. It never instructs on the optimal way to build conveyor belts or how to arrange machines to maximize efficiency and minimize bottlenecking. Instead these lessons are learned by the player through their own experimentation.

My first construction project was this two-decker to house machines that would feed the part-hungry manufacturers on top
My first construction project was this two-decker to house machines that would feed the part-hungry manufacturers on top

Even then, the game doesn't require that everything is done perfectly. Save for a few specific late-game examples, where certain production lines are particularly susceptible to bottlenecking, the player is free to build out their factories as they wish. Organization is entirely player-driven, and thus everyone's facilities look uniquely personal. Maybe you want to build everything on the terrain, or perhaps you'd like to assemble structures to house everything. Is conveyor spaghetti appealing to you, or do you want nothing but straight lines and right angles? I love the way I've constructed my factories, not because they achieve any sort of peak efficiency, but because they are exactly what I would make.

I often think of Minecraft in relation to this game. Player expression in Minecraft is on a much grander scale; the act of terraforming a uniquely generated world and building anything on it obviously eclipses what Satisfactory is going for. But in some ways this game is a lot more satisfying, because the way you express yourself through your factory design directly leads to the completion of goals, which in turn rewards new things to play with.


Three, Satisfactory makes me feel smart. It also makes me feel dumb, but it's always followed by a genuine feeling of achievement. One of my favorite bits in Satisfactory has been retrofitting my own bad designs in the mid- to late-game. As the milestones began to require more complex parts I simply bolted more machines to my original lines, frequently asking myself, "Why in the world did I design this in that way?" I was initially hesitant to expand too far out, believing that the time it would take would be better spent at the home base throwing more things onto the pile. This worked for a bit; I was able to add new constructors and assemblers and create increasingly nauseating conveyor entanglements. This effort was helped by my too-late revelation that a single miner can output enough raw ore to feed into three or more smelters. I wish I had known that sooner. Nevertheless, it was working...

... but not for long. Eventually I needed to swallow my pride and admit that I was gonna need to take a hike in search of untapped nodes. But this presented something very exciting indeed: the chance to build new factories from the ground up, with all of the lessons I had learned up to that point firmly implanted. Thus, the brand new aluminum production line that I've just established on the edge of a dreadfully abhorrent gaseous swamp filled with the most terrifying spiders I've ever seen in a game is a lot smarter than my earlier efforts. But, in a nod to my previous point, the important thing is that it still feels like my design.

Four, it all just looks and sounds great. Seriously, I am extremely into the vibrant, playful-but-not-cartoonish aesthetics of Satisfactory. Everything animates really well; I especially like the way the zipline spins to life in my hand. The machines have a great hum to them, and the minimalist score fits very well. Not much else to say here.

And not much else to say about Satisfactory, at least until the release of Update 5, which will be my first update with the game. I'm secretly dreading how my factories might break--I heard the introduction of water and pipes was particularly troublesome for coal-dependent players-- while also totally stoked for what might come next. In the meantime, I have more aluminum to make. Nuclear power won't invent itself!

I've peeked at the desert, but haven't built out here yet. Someday...
I've peeked at the desert, but haven't built out here yet. Someday...


Half-Life is a platformer, and other things people didn't tell me about the 1998 classic

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One of the side effects of discussions about Half-Life Alyx this year has been a forced reexamining of the series on my part. That’s a long-winded way of saying that I had never played the first Half-Life game until now, and I felt I needed to correct that. It’s one of those gaps in my video game history that I always knew I’d address someday, especially considering that the first-person shooter is one of my favorite genres, and I love immersive storytelling in games.

So I played through Half-Life last week for the first time, 22 years late, and was surprised by a number of things. Here are those things:

The scientists are ridiculous

… in the best way. The way they look and talk is a perfect setup for every time one of them gets yanked through a vent, followed by their bloody bits comically shooting out. Every single time this happens it’s funny, and it was one of my favorite things in the game.

Many of its tricks still work

I got a kick out of messing with the computer and the alarm here
I got a kick out of messing with the computer and the alarm here

Half-Life pulls some neat little tricks with physics and scripted bits to create memorable moments. Early on in the game, after the experiment goes wrong, I was running through a hallway when a large mainframe on the wall exploded outwards, crashing down onto poor Gordon Freeman and splattering the physicist to pieces. In one of my personal favorites, I jumped down a vent shaft and saw a headcrab scuttle underneath a table I was about to land on. Upon landing, the legs collapsed and the tabletop crashed down onto the squealing headcrab, killing it instantly.

Even some moments that I knew were coming took me by surprise. I had seen enough Half-Life footage to know that I was going to fight some soldiers, but I was still taken aback the first time the military showed up and gunned down a scientist who thought he had finally been rescued. The ensuing gunfight felt like a scramble to defend myself as I realized I was now going to be fighting enemies that could shoot back.

What’s also impressive is how you can miss valuable ammunition and health pickups by not helping security guards around the facility. The best one of these is a guard early on who has his back turned to an approaching zombie. If you manage to save him before he’s taken, you get access to some much needed supplies.

The level design is pretty good

Finally getting this rocket to fire feels great
Finally getting this rocket to fire feels great

High praise, I know. But I enjoyed Half-Life's insistence on having you check every room for buttons to hit, systems to activate, or even just supplies to gather. I didn't often feel lost in the game, a testament to how well everything flows together--though the game doesn't always distinguish between doors that can and cannot be opened in a way that is consistent.

Some of the levels were quite memorable. Getting a rocket to fire to clear a tentacle monster, electrifying a big alien, reaching the surface for the first time, the bright green radioactive vats and spills, hopping across moving conveyor belts. Even though most of the game takes place in rather drab facility environments, the things you do in them often feel varied and interesting.

It’s a platformer

Seriously, though. First-person platforming is a bit maligned these days, and Half-Life is full of it! Crouch jumping, long jumping (we’ll get to that), running along pipes, crawling through vents, tiptoeing over desks to avoid electrified water, scurrying along ledges. I suppose the game deserves some credit for making most of this not incredibly annoying. At best it was a nice break from just holding W and shooting everything in sight. At worst, it was Xen.

The Xen levels aren't very good


Here’s a confession that hopefully won’t turn anyone away: I played through the back half of this game with god mode enabled. Heresy? Not the intended experience? I know, I know. But all I was interested in with this playthrough was seeing the game from start to finish. Some of the encounters and platforming sections in the back half are particularly nasty, and I wasn’t really keen on overcoming the challenges of Half-Life so much as I was interested in just getting to the credits and enjoying the little story vignettes that happen along the way. It was a solid way (for me) to experience this game.

Boy was I glad I broke that seal, because the platforming you have to perform in the Xen portion of the game is so immediately unpleasant that I literally noclip’d my way through it. Who thought the player would want to long jump across huge gaps onto moving platforms? Nonsense, I say. Sue me!

The final boss is the big baby from 2001: A Space Odyssey

Look at this guy
Look at this guy

What a ridiculous fight. But it’s actually kind of neat. There was no music and almost no sound effects, save for my own gunfire and some occasional deep-pitched humming from the large infant. The whole thing felt appropriately creepy and otherworldly. It was also total nonsense. Why is this massive toddler the final boss, and why is it named Nihilanth? The Half-Life wiki lets me know that this beastly juvenile has a backstory, which is just great. I like that.

Black Mesa is a thing that exists, and it’s better

I feel like I’ve heard whispers of Black Mesa for a very long time, which makes sense for a project that technically began in 2005. I decided to play it after finishing the original game, not the other way around, figuring that I wasn’t likely to play the 1998 Half-Life if I went through the remake first. That was a good decision, because seeing all of the levels and encounters reimagined in a more modern engine and with better physics has been a treat. I’m about halfway through, so I can’t speak to what the redesigned Xen level is like. But I’m definitely curious to see what that’s all about.


Do I like Half-Life? Tough to say. I enjoyed those small moments, like the goofy scientists being torn apart in vents and headcrabs being squished under tables, more than the package as a whole. And that’s probably good enough.


Ubisoft is looking to redefine Rainbow Six Siege as it enters its fifth year

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The Six Invitational 2020 wraps up today, and Ubisoft held its annual panel detailing the year ahead for Rainbow Six Siege. This time, they revealed roadmaps for Years 5 and 6 and detailed a load of new features coming to the game over the next 12 months.

I came out of the Six Invitational last year thinking that 2019 would be Siege's best year, but it ended up being fairly standard. The addition of Reverse Friendly Fire was game-changing, and probably the single best thing to happen to the game since 2017's Operation Health. But based on what was shown today, 2020 is likely to be the most significant year for Siege and everything surrounding it: the community, the esports scene, and the game's overall growth.

Year 5

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Year 5 is described as a "hybrid year," with the game transitioning from two new Operators per season to one new Operator beginning in Season 3. By reducing the number of new Operators, Ubisoft hopes to allow for more significant gameplay tweaks and reworks each season. This will also manifest through regular arcade playlists that offer limited-time modes with unique rules. The first one coming in Year 5 is an homage to Goldeneye's Golden Gun, wherein players fight with one-hit kill pistols that must be reloaded after every shot.

The map reworks here are exciting. Really interested to see how exactly they change House, which is notable for being the map shown in the game's E3 2014 reveal. Not shown here is the Tachanka rework, something that Ubisoft had previously said they weren't going to do. His mounted LMG is being turned into a primary weapon, and his new gadget is an incendiary grenade launcher. That sounds awesome.

Ubisoft will also be doing regular battle passes beginning this year. They've run a couple over the last few months to test the waters, with the most recent one contributing to the Six Invitational's prize pool.

Finally: a small rework of Lesion was revealed. His Gu mines will no longer be visible without line of sight, and they will no longer cause initial damage when stepped on. This might be enough for my team to stop banning him every match.

New Additions

Match Replay

  • An in-game match replay system will be added in the first half of Year 5. Players will have access to the same spectator tools used in Pro League, including an overhead free camera. This will be huge for content creators and for players looking to relive their finest (and worst) moments. I'm already stoked for this.

Enhanced Ping System

  • Likely inspired by the success of Apex Legends, Siege's existing limited ping system will be getting an overhaul that will allow Attackers to mark Defender gadgets and traps. This one's interesting; the only time you'll ever hear me be any kind of "Siege purist" is if we lose the art of verbally communicating the exact placement of traps in specific rooms to your teammates because you can just ping them now and forget about it... but let's be honest, this will be great for new and veteran players. There's already enough to talk about during a round that I really can't complain.

New Gadgets

  • Siege hasn't seen any new gadgets added in a while. Ubisoft teased a new gadget for both sides: a hard-breach gadget for Attackers, and a Proximity Alarm for Defenders. The hard-breach gadget is clearly the bigger story here, since breaking through reinforced walls has previously been restricted to three Operators. If the gadget's capability is limited enough, it could be a great way to bring more flexibility to the Attackers when pushing rooms without a hard-breacher.

Map Ban in Ranked

  • Teams in the Pro League vote to ban maps before a match, and a version of this will be coming to Ranked. Teams will be ban 2 maps from a random pool of 3 at the start of a match.

New Reputation System

  • A little unclear as to what this entails exactly, but Siege will be getting a score-based reputation system determined by a player's behavior. Sure, why not?

Lara Croft?

  • For some reason, Ash will be getting a new Elite Set in Year 5 Season 1 based on the original design of Lara Croft. Crystal Dynamics was mentioned in the panel as a partner in its design. Sure, why not?


Yesterday, Ubisoft detailed some specific tweaks being introduced in the first season of Year 5.

Redesigned Barricade Destruction

  • A long requested tweak, player vision will no longer be blocked by pieces of wood when breaking through a wood barricade. Punching a barricade will create a clean hole, while still leaving tell-tale debris on the ground. This needed to happen long ago, and I wonder if it was a particularly difficult technical challenge. Nearly everyone who has put time into Siege has had their vision obstructed by debris that may or may not have been visible on their opponent's screen, creating frustrating scenarios.

Prep Phase Droning

  • Attacker drones will now start at the player's first spawn choice during the round prep phase. Previously the drones spawned in random locations around the map.

Resigned Multiplayer Menu

  • Nothing game-changing here, but the screen listing the game's modes will be getting a new design that actually looks fairly similar to Overwatch's menu.

Year 6

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Ubisoft didn't go into tremendous detail about Year 6, but it was brought up to show what the 2020 transition year will lead into. The most exciting thing to me that was teased for Year 6 is the Rainbow Six Cup, an in-game tournament system that will take place on weekends and feature skill-based brackets. The Custom Games feature allows for the creation of private matches between two teams, but that requires manual organization by the players. Hopefully this feature will have matchmaking, so you only need four like-minded friends to participate.


Siege esports is moving to a regionalized format beginning in 2021. I have only very casually followed this scene for the last few years and couldn't possibly explain the significance of this myself. Ubisoft wrote up a post about it today.

New Cinematic

Finally, Ubisoft debuted a new story cinematic. I wish they could do more of these. It's still weirdly uncanny to see these characters, who are normally quite rigid and not very chatty during a match, given this amount of life, but I'm way into it.


It's easy to feel rejuvenated and energized for the coming year of Siege with a new roadmap. It's probably no coincidence that Ubisoft chooses to reveal their upcoming plans shortly before the grand final, when fans are already at their most excited. But it's impossible to not come out of this year's event feeling extremely confident about the game's direction and continued growth.

My only request for Year 5 that was not addressed this weekend: delete Villa from the game. Thanks.

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Rediscovering the mysteries beyond the sea

"I came to this place to build the impossible. You came to rob what you could never build. A Hun, gaping at the gates of Rome. Even the air you breathe is sponged from my account. Well, breathe deep ... so later you might remember the taste.”

Often I think that exploring the mysteries of a piece of fiction, be it a video game, a film, or novel, is only an excellent experience the first time through. Perhaps my most damningly disappointing example involves my second watch of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that had me utterly transfixed on every beat of its weird, orchestral heart, but that on a second viewing felt more like watching a sort of languid dream version of what I thought I remember the film being. Is it still one of my favorites? Absolutely. Will I watch it a third time? That's a trickier question.

Bioshock is a game that I played through quite a number of times back in the day. But with the dawn of the current generation of consoles I left Rapture behind, having successfully collected every audio diary, explored every cranny (and all the nooks, too), and even completed the whole thing on Hard without using those Vita-Chambers. It's a testament to how much BioShock's wonderfully imaginative world and inspired story grabbed me that I was able to play through it as many times as I did, but I was unsure how it would feel going back to it now after so many years, this time as part of the Bioshock Collection.

BioShock has always been a collection of moments for me, both large and small, narrative and gameplay-related. All of these contribute to how positively alien the city of Rapture feels, so hopelessly lost in its grandest ambitions that it was blind to all of the lesser vices, hiccups, and other flaws that together would prove fatal to the society's structural integrity. All the chain metaphors in the world couldn't save Andrew Ryan's utopia from the pitfalls of faction rivalry, rampant drug addiction, and poverty. If leaking pipes and ceilings in a city underwater is the least of someone's problems, something has gone terribly wrong. What's amazing is that rediscovering Rapture and its numerous failures is just as enthralling as it was the first go-around, in large part because those moments still hit so well.

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A Buckshot Ballet

One of my favorite moments occurs early on in BioShock, in the Medical Pavilion. It's time to get a shotgun, a supremely satisfying weapon that's... actually not that great on Hard. But for about 30 seconds after picking the shotgun up, it's the best gun in the world.

With BioShock, Irrational Games sought to give players a chance to use new weapons and Plasmids immediately after acquiring them. This particular shotgun is located in a dimly lit room next to a bloody corpse illuminated by a fallen sign. A case of buckshot next to it helpfully indicates that the weapon is ready to go, which is nice because the lights immediately go out after grabbing it. Following a bit of maniacal laughter and the pattering of footsteps, a spotlight shines down on the center of the room and a murderous dance of gunfire and bodies begins. Splicers attack from all sides, running in from the shadows to beat Jack into the ground. But Jack has a shotgun.

You can use Plasmids and the Pistol here, but that would be missing the point. Jack has a shotgun, and it absolutely flattens the attacking Splicers. In any other game, this moment of player empowerment happening at a time when Jack is supposed to be in over his head would feel out of place. But the Splicers planned this exact moment, knowing full well that Jack would be equipped with a weapon so devastating in close quarters the Germans protested its use in the First World War. And thus it becomes clear that the wanton casting away of human lives is the order of the day in Rapture.

It's worth mentioning too just how entertaining Splicers are as Jack's primary opponent. They're absolutely crazy and completely fearless of both death and the embarrassment of someone eavesdropping on their inane conversations with themselves. They sing, complain, and rant, usually to no one in particular. They're unbelievable fun to mess with in combat. A single hit with the Enrage Plasmid will turn a Splicer against his or her compatriots; if a Big Daddy wanders into the scene and catches the wrath of the Enraged Splicer, a comically one-sided affair unfolds. It's ridiculous.

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It’s What You Don’t See

One of my favorite tricks in games is having things in the environment change when the player looks away. BioShock isn’t quite a horror game, but it gets some decent mileage out of changing things behind your back to spook you. There’s a great one late in the game, when exploring an optional flooded room that has some treasure in the back corner. The room has a bunch of discarded mannequins standing about when you enter, but when you pick up the loot in the corner some of these mannequins are replaced with motionless Splicers. If you don’t notice the change, like myself, you’ll get a good jump from the upcoming ambush.

My personal favorite occurs in Arcadia, an arboretum in Rapture that acts as an oxygen supply for the city. A Houdini Splicer tempts you to chase after him through a twisting passageway beneath creaking floorboards. Eventually you come to a table with some money on it, where the light flickers and his silhouette unexpectedly appears on the wall. Turning around reveals the Splicer standing just a foot away, who then remarks, “Hello beautiful!” before vanishing.

BioShock has plenty of exciting scraps with groups of hostiles, but this scene manages to pull off a terrific and powerful encounter with just a single enemy. I get a kick out of reading how other players reacted to it, especially the ones who walked away to take a smoke break.

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Sander Cohen's Masterpiece

“Ohh, I can smell the malt vinegar in this one…"

After following the instructions of the affable silver-tongued Atlas for a few hours, having spent just enough time to get accustomed to the way of life in the big city, an enormous curveball is thrown and the bathysphere that's supposed to take Jack to the next level suddenly descends into the sea. Moldy, bleach white human figures rise up on both sides of the platform as if presenting the grand opening of an extraordinary event about to take place. At center stage, a colossal rabbit mask ascends in place of the bathysphere. A man comes over the radio, having successfully jammed Atlas' transmissions. It's time for a show.

Sander Cohen is to art what the mad Dr. Steinman, encountered early in the game, is to medicine. Though he may have been a paint-and-canvas artist early in his career, Cohen’s creative method as encountered in BioShock is more closely related to human experimentation than anything else. Killing his own students is his way of dishing out punishment for poor performance. And those papier-mâché-looking figures found around Fort Frolic are in fact human corpses set up in various poses, a fact you wouldn’t actually know unless you took a swing at one with a wrench and saw the blood.

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Jack is given the task of killing several of Cohen’s students and taking a photograph of each corpse to display in the artist’s latest masterpiece. These encounters take Jack all around Fort Frolic and serve as miniature boss fights. Regardless of the ambitions or egos of these pupils, they all end up sharing the same fate: corpses in murky, sepia-toned photos adorning the quadriptych of a madman.

Cohen belittles Jack frequently during his stay at Fort Frolic, calling him “little moth” in between outbursts of rage against his haters. In a particularly memorable moment, after installing the third photograph Cohen suddenly screams out his disdain for the doubters before unleashing a group of Splicers to attack while Waltz of the Flowers plays over loudspeakers. “Fly away, little moth!” he shouts to Jack who, in a moment similar to the shotgun ambush, finds himself dancing around enemies in a spotlight trying to avoid having a death soundtracked by Tchaikovsky. It’s a moment so passionately absurd you might find yourself believing in the joy of this particular brand of destructive chaos if only for a moment.

Upon the completion of the masterpiece, the artist himself makes an appearance, descending a grand staircase to canned applause and confetti. He thanks Jack for his help in the endeavor, restores communications with Altas, and unlocks the way forward. You can actually kill Cohen here and take a picture of his corpse to unlock a trophy/achievement called Irony, or let him live. In a terrific coda to his depraved existence, he can be fought and killed later on by attacking two dancing Splicers in his apartment.

In a game full of characters pushing the limits of their own sanity, Sander Cohen is perhaps the most far-gone of them all. To have no choice but to play by his rules, with no chance of contacting anyone outside of his domain, makes this entire section of BioShock absolutely unforgettable.

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Dear Diary, Etc

In the years since BioShock, countless games have deployed audio logs as a means to supplement narratives with the expository musings of various characters, both major and minor. Curiously, I can’t think of any game that has done it quite as well the first BioShock, which I’d also put above the other two entries in the series. Of course, no matter how you slice it the placement of these audio diaries in the environment, and the improbability that they’d still be there intact, is completely ludicrous. But that’s beside the point.

BioShock's audio diaries, aside from being terrifically well-written and acted, allow the player to follow the stories of side characters in addition to fleshing out important scientific, social, political, and economic elements of the city. Diana McClintock leaves a trail of entries detailing the fall of Rapture as it happened and her own transformation in its aftermath. Another series involves a couple trying to find their daughter, who has become a Little Sister. There are entries from scheming businessmen and mechanics, as well as from major players like Andrew Ryan and Yi Suchong discussing their own work and philosophies.

This kind of a narrative delivery mechanism became a sort of running joke due to its increasing prevalence in games, but I’ll always appreciate BioShock's diaries for being as compelling as they are.

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Andrew Ryan is Here to Ask You a Question

“Before the final rat has eaten the last gram of you, Rapture will have returned. I will lead a parade. "Who was that," they'll say, as they point to the sad shape hanging on my wall, "who was that?”

"I'd explain the science that renders what you're trying to do impossible, but that would be like playing Mozart for a tree frog.”

"Imagine the will it took to create a place like this. And what have you built? Nothing, you can only loot and break. You're not a man... you're just a termite at Versailles.”

In truth, it’s unlikely much else needs to be said about Andrew Ryan. But as I continue to play games that fail to make their villains compelling, I’m drawn back to this particularly ill-fated visionary time and time again.

The BioShock games love grand ideas and the people who embody them. A great deal of Ryan’s success as the big bad is in part due to his unwavering commitment to his ideals, no matter how flawed. But it’s also in the way he carries himself, in his use of language to expound on the significance of his vision and to denigrate those who would seek to undermine it. He’s an absolute quote machine, especially when Jack begins closing in late in the game and his insults and threats become even more pointed and creative.

The climactic confrontation with Ryan really sells his legacy. His death-by-9-iron lacks the sort of finality one might expect from the killing of a cult of personality figurehead. His final moments aren't even spent fighting for his prized creation; instead he's hitting some golf balls in his office. Ryan achieved what he had set out to do, and though Frank Fontaine may have gotten the better of him in the end, he still built a city under the sea, just as he said he would. He goes to his death knowing that no one else will achieve a similar feat, and likely gains a bit of satisfaction from the fact. After all, it's Jack and Fontaine who are now stuck in the confines of his creation, a fact they'll never forget.

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Even now as I write this there's a pull that I feel to jump back into BioShock yet again, to experience everything it has and to marvel at what the team at Irrational was able to craft. It not only changed how I think about narrative in games, it instilled in me the importance of the many worlds and characters that fiction creates and how crucial it is for these things to be well-realized. Of all the games I wish I could experience again for the first time, it's likely that BioShock tops the list. But unlike other mysteries, where some of the magic wears off once you know the secrets, BioShock's allure never quite fades.

"Rapture is coming back to life. Even now, can't you hear the breath returning to her lung? The shops reopening, the schools humming with the thoughts of young minds? My city will live. My city will thrive. And, when that day comes, we'll use your tombstone for paving tiles."

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Being a bastard, a maker, and everything in between

Busy! Over the last few weeks I have installed games, uninstalled games, finished games, and written about games. Most of them were excellent. Here are some words about them.

Finished and Written

Void Bastards

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What an amazing surprise this was. I knew nothing of Void Bastards' existence until a recent Beastcast, and thanks to its availability on Game Pass I was able to easily give it a shot. I'm very glad I did, because this game is just great. I was immediately struck by its phenomenal art style, and eventually hooked by its satisfying progression that made it so that dying and losing my character didn't feel totally defeating. Everyone should give this a shot.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered

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Doesn't exactly meet the Finished qualification but I wrote about it regardless. Call of Duty 4 is probably my favorite game of all time (I really ought to just drop the "probably" from that.) That I was able to get sucked back into its multiplayer over a decade later proves that if I had to pick a forever-game, it would probably be this one. No, definitely.

Finished, but Unwritten

A Plague Tale: Innocence

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I haven't decided yet if I've missed my window of motivation to write about this game, but you should know that it's excellent and worth a look. It's a narrative driven stealth game set in 14th century France that has been overrun by an Inquisition and millions of rats that devour everyone. Gameplay revolves around using light and fire to create paths through rat swarms, stealth killing or evading Inquisition guards, and just generally running around an annihilated French countryside. Its characters are great, the performances are great (played with French VO), the graphics are amazing. Definitely one of my favorites this year.

Currently Playing

Crash Team Racing: Nitro Fueled

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My only experience with anything Crash related was a PS1 demo disc that had CTR on it. I remember liking it quite a bit, but I never got the full game. Playing this remaster (remake?) has been mostly fine, save for some frustrations. The powerslide mechanic is difficult to get a hang of, though I think I'm finally starting to get it. Some of the track design is also suspect. There's one that features a big jump onto a portion of track that you can't see, and when you land you immediately drive into a wall because it's a 90 degree turn. That doesn't feel great.

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe

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I'm a bad Switch owner. I've had the console since 2017, but for whatever reason there's a ton of games that I just haven't bothered to pick up yet. CTR inspired me to check out Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, and boy do I enjoy this game way more than CTR. The tracks, the powerslide mechanic, and the general look and feel of this thing just gel with me so much more. CTR still kinda looks like a PS1 game, with a strange, grungy art style and lots of dark browns and orange. It's fun, but it just can't compete with flying Inkling Girl through space aboard an ATV. This game rocks.

Oh, and listen. This game has a couple courses from F-Zero X, one of my favorite games. It's probably (there's that word again) a top 10 game of all time for me. Playing those tracks, and hearing remixed versions of the soundtrack, brought me back hard to the N64 days. But now I'm mostly just upset that we aren't getting F-Zero games anymore. The concept is flawless: here's a bunch of futuristic race cars racing along tubes and wall-less tracks floating in the air at unbelievable speeds. Occasionally you get boost power and it's awesome. Where's my F-Zero Switch game? Let's go.

Super Mario Maker 2

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Super Mario Odyssey was the first Mario game I had ever played more than a few minutes of, so it's no surprise that I am truly terrible at 2D Mario games. Despite my lack of history with the franchise--the N64 was the only Nintendo console before the Switch that I owned, and I never owned a Mario game for it--I knew I had to get this thing after Giant Bomb's brilliant coverage of the first game. Seeing the courses people create and trying to put together my own has been a serious delight. The story mode is a great inclusion, but I wish there was a bit more to it. In fact, here's a general wish list for the game.

  • Building in Story Mode: Seeing the levels Nintendo has made with the in-game tools has been inspiring. It might've taken things a step further if the mode had puzzles that required you to build a solution, serving as way to introduce new players such as myself to the building tools. Something like, Get Mario from Point A to Point B using Tools X, Y, and Z. That would be neat.
  • Courses made by friends: Why does the Switch have a friends list if it's not even guaranteed that a Mario game will use it? It's wild that I can't just view a list of courses my friends have made. It has to be in here somewhere. Right?
  • Create multiple levels that string together: It feels like the next iteration of Super Mario Maker has to be the one to pull this off. I'd love to see what people can create when they're able to put multiple courses in one package.

I published my first course a couple days ago, code 9RJ-4P2-DMG. It's an objective course. I really like making those and dealing with the challenge of designing individual, self-contained puzzles that flow together and that are fun enough that if someone dies at the very end, they aren't frustrated with having to redo them to complete the objective. Also, it's a narrative journey through the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918. Mhmm.

Given Up

Outer Wilds

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I don't like Outer Wilds, but you should absolutely play it. It has so much going for it: an incredible soundtrack, a wonderful sense of discovery, terrific diversity of environments, and inspired, curious puzzles. I wish I had the patience to wrestle with the ship controls, but truthfully I wasn't sure I was even going to finish the game to begin with. It's a little too obscure for me, and I wasn't sold on following a walkthrough to get through it. There's already been a lot of people declaring this to be an all-time favorite game of theirs, and I'm sure a lot more will be saying the same thing over the years to come.

Start the Conversation

Modern Warfare, Siege, Metro, left trigger, right trigger

March is apparently FPS month for me this year. Let's chat real quick.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered

It is so good to be back here
It is so good to be back here

Playing this thing feels like visiting an old friend who has aged wonderfully. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is probably my favorite game of all time, but until this month I had never played this remastered version. And boy, what a truly phenomenal game this is, even after all these years. I spent practically the entirety of 2008 playing and mastering every inch of it, to the point where I've been able to jump into MWR and immediately recall sight lines, flanking routes, the timing on every gun's reload... this thing is just a part of me now. I'm really glad they've kept the same music, soldier callouts, and sound effects while wrapping the entire package in the look and feel of a modern Call of Duty. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't fully expecting to dump a hundred hours, if not more, into MWR this year alone.

I can't seem to identify what it is about the Call of Duty series that has felt so incredibly off this generation. Perhaps its the insistence on releasing a new $60 release + season pass every year when really, all you need are these maps and these guns. If anything, MWR has strengthened my conviction that the series should just exist as "Call of Duty," a singular title that gets supported for years like other multiplayer games. Its annual release schedule feels so archaic now.

Last thing: I feared the addition of microtransactions and loot boxes to what has always been such a "pure" game, but thankfully they're completely non-invasive and don't include any of the original Call of Duty 4 content.

Operation Burnt Horizon is here

I have no idea if these two will see play in the Pro League, but I'm excited to see how people use them
I have no idea if these two will see play in the Pro League, but I'm excited to see how people use them

I look forward to every new season of Rainbow Six: Siege. This was especially true after I struggled mightily in the last season of Ranked, being placed in mid-Silver and only reaching Gold IV near the end of February. I keep a spreadsheet of my kills, assists, deaths, wins, and losses with every Operator across every map, and for whatever reason I killed it on defense this past season but played horribly on attack. My hope for Year 4 Season 1 is to get back to the basics of not getting shot in the head by a Jager poking his gun through a hole in a wall. Thankfully I was placed in Gold this season, so I won't have to make that climb again unless something goes terribly wrong. If everything goes right, I'd love for this to be the first season that I hit Platinum. Let's do it!


This new map seems decent and looks great. I really like the garage area and it feels pretty easy to move around and flank. Definitely too early for any definitive impressions but I'm excited to see how strategies develop here.


Gridlock is a 1-speed Operator which is a tough pill to swallow just by default, but her gadget--a throwable that deploys a series of large spike traps that multiply over time--seems really effective. We got obliterated on Bomb the other night by an attacking team that planted the defuser, covered it in her spike traps, blanketed the area in smoke, and had a Monty stand in the middle of the hell zone protecting everyone. It was utterly impossible to counter once it all fell into place, and it was kinda awesome.


Admittedly I don't drone a whole lot in Siege, which probably contributes to my lackluster K/D on attack recently. Because of this I'm not sure how much I'll play Mozzie, who can actually capture the attackers' drones and drive them around himself. But it's really satisfying to do, especially if you can capture a Twitch drone and zap her with it. Extremely worth it.

Finished: Metro Exodus

I wrapped up this thing over the weekend. Recently I've bemoaned how the Far Cry series has gotten away the focus on immersion and survival that Far Cry 2 went so hard into, which probably explains why I ended up enjoying this game so much. It feels like a spiritual successor to FC2 in a way, both in its dedication to those two elements and in its sometimes overwhelming clunkiness. You really have to put up with a lot to get anything out of it, but I found the game to be absolutely worth it.

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These words available for a limited time only

Each week I tell myself a lie about finally chipping away at a backlog. What happens instead is I fall back into my rotation of multiplayer games, currently dominated by Apex Legends but with frequent interludes into Rainbow Six Siege. In the last few months I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the state of multiplayer games, and I’ve largely come away disappointed.

Every generation brings with it its own host of innovations and problems, but something about the ongoing proliferation of the games-as-a-service/live game model feels particularly insidious. It doesn’t have to be this way, of course, but we’re beginning to see this model used as a way to take content that previously would have been available permanently and arbitrarily restricting it to a limited time window.

Fortnite has very directly inspired the selection of rewards in Black Ops 4's battle pass
Fortnite has very directly inspired the selection of rewards in Black Ops 4's battle pass

Black Ops 4 and Battlefield V, in a slightly different way, play with this idea of forcing players to grind during a certain period of time to unlock weapons and vehicles that directly impact gameplay. The grind in Black Ops 4 is beyond comprehension, all but guaranteeing that anyone without 10 hours to play every day would have to drop some money to even have a hope of unlocking both weapons in that game’s battle pass, which are conveniently located at spot #50 and #100 in the tree.

Battlefield V’s system isn’t nearly as poisonous as this, but the point remains that introducing new weapons and vehicles only to take them away after the window of opportunity has passed is utterly antithetical to the idea of long-term content growth for a game, and only serves as a lame attempt to maintain player engagement. I cannot think of a single reason why Battlefield 1, my favorite in the series, would have been improved by taking its many new weapons away from players who hadn’t unlocked them in time. Instead, anyone jumping into that game right now with the Premium pass—a feature of the series that I will always, if controversially, defend, especially in light of this nonsense—will find a whole host of weapons for them to unlock, with no timers and no tweets from the official Twitter account warning that this is their last chance to unlock the newest tank.

Why does there need to be a last chance? Many players have been convinced that this is a solid replacement for loot boxes and season passes (which Call of Duty still has), because technically you can unlock everything for free, just by playing. But I think we all need to value our time more. If something costs me a weekend of grinding, an undertaking I might feel compelled to do because the item is going away in a few days for no reason, then it’s not free. The untold number of hours it takes to burn through Black Ops 4’s battle pass to get a new weapon is a lot of time, and Activision knows this because you can pay real money to just skip tiers. It’s grim, and I hope it changes.

Apex Legends, Or How I Learned To Love The Hot Drop

Taken shortly before our third wheel fired a Spitfire haphazardly at distant enemies, blowing our spot
Taken shortly before our third wheel fired a Spitfire haphazardly at distant enemies, blowing our spot

Apex Legends is a thing of beauty. This game is so satisfying to play, in large part because the weapons sound so incredible. But I also think not enough has been said about its map design, easily my favorite of all the battle royale games. Kings Canyon has no wasted space, something that I think PUBG and Fortnite struggle with quite a bit. It’s not an inherent fault--something can be said about sprinting across an open field in PUBG hoping you don’t catch a sniper round. But everything in Apex Legends’ diverse map feels measured. Named locations feel like multiplayer maps, the paths between them twist and turn through canyons, and many of these named locations are set lower than the surrounding terrain, so you always know what you’re getting into when you approach.

It’s just brilliant. I’ve knocked out a bunch of wins with friends, and a few with randoms, in the last couple of weeks and I just cannot see myself stopping any time soon. I’m really interested to see how their battle pass goes. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have concerns because of the current pricing model in the in-game store. But we’ll have to wait and see. That team has a lot of good will towards it at the moment, a rarity for multiplayer studios, and it would be just awful for that to be squandered pointlessly on something like this.

Metro Exodus Doesn’t Feel Right, But That’s Okay

I'm still in this early section of the game, but I really like the look of it
I'm still in this early section of the game, but I really like the look of it

Amidst my frequently-renewed annoyance about the state of multiplayer, I felt compelled to support single-player first person shooters, the first type of game I ever loved, by grabbing some of that Metro Exodus. Admittedly I don’t remember much from the first two games. I think I liked the first, and I remember not liking the second much at all. Couldn’t tell you why.

Metro Exodus feels off. It has that B-game flavor that I honestly kind of miss. I like walking around these dirty environments, wiping my mask off, changing air filters, pulling out my map, pumping up the pneumatic rifle, charging my flashlight. The shooting isn't great, but in a way these games are the true successor to Far Cry 2 that I wish Ubisoft would make already. It’s a real clunker, but one I can get behind.

Rainbow Six Siege Could Be Heading For It’s Best Year Yet

The cinematic released for Siege is hopefully indicative of more to come
The cinematic released for Siege is hopefully indicative of more to come

This is by no means a smart thing to say in a world where anything and everything can go wrong, but the Year 4 preview we were treated to at the recent Six Invitational gave me a lot of hope for this year in Siege. Year 3 struggled a bit, with Lion practically breaking the game’s meta in a wildly irritating way, crouch-and-lean spam ruining engagements, and a growing list of tweaks and features that the game could really benefit from. Many of these features are coming in Year 4 in addition to the regular release of new Operators, and I couldn’t be more excited.

Recent Site Contributions

The wiki gets nowhere near the attention it used to, but I’ll be damned if I let that get in my way.

  • I filled out the Battlefield 1 wiki page, everything from Multiplayer onwards. I seriously adore this game and jumped at the opportunity to write about it.
  • Speaking of the Great War, the Chauchat is one of my favorite historical weapons. That thing deserved its own page.
  • I dug up a review of Far Cry Primal I wrote a couple years back and published it. I had forgotten how bereft of enjoyment that game is.
  • Also wrote about Resident Evil 2, a game I’m super conflicted on. Abby’s playthrough of it has been a great way for me to revisit what I liked and disliked.