2017: Already a Banner Year

We're quarter of the way through the year now and everyone is noticing that games are, on the whole, very good. Rather than the few outstanding releases that either chased the early year window or missed their holiday deadline last year, we've seen a lot of stuff that's pretty interesting to the point where some weeks there have been 3 hot titles coming out on the same day.

There have been several exceptionally good years for major gaming releases - providing innovation, quality, and sheer volume in many genres and platforms. I'd say 1997 possibly stands slightly higher than the rest for me. Fallout, MDK, Dungeon Keeper, The Last Express, Final Fantasy VII, X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, Theme Hospital, Carmageddon, Blood, Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee, Total Annihilation, Grand Theft Auto, Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, Age of Empires, PaRappa the Rapper, Sid Meier's Gettysburg!, Quake II, Ultima Online, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, & Final Fantasy Tactics (as this never got an official EU/PAL release, I'm going to count it as we had to import it).

But this isn't another nostalgia post where I look back at old games and how much I enjoyed them. This is about the now and remembering to appreciate things as they arrive. It's only March and already 2017 is shaping up to be one of those exceptional years. Here's a few games that have already released (or come out in the next few days) which you'll want to grab:

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Gravity Rush 2

Class struggle rarely looks this good and certainly doesn't involve playing with gravity in the real world.

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Resident Evil 7: Biohazard

Horror games in the AAA space return with a series that had lost its way (I'll give 5 a pass but really 4 was the last good title and only on Wii for the control fixes) but found something new from moving to first person and offering a complete VR experience.

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Tales of Berseria

Another Tales game but with some interesting characters to bring the series back to relevance.

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Yakuza 0

Sega jump back to 1988 and a time of plenty in Tokyo. Despite being a cross-generation title (two years ago this was released on PS3 in Japan but only just got localised) this looks ok and has a lot of flavour in which to get immersed.

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Nioh

Not really my sort of game, but I include it as enough friends have dived into it and found their Dark Souls itch being well scratched.

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Horizon: Zero Dawn

A stunning location built on top of enough tech to make a rising moon or weather system into something to just sit back and watch. A few years ago, this would have passed as pre-rendered. There's also an RPG with plenty of action there for when you can drag yourself away from just enjoying the landscapes.

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Torment: Tides of Numenera

There's nothing quite like a throwback RPG leaning on the dialogue-heavy excellence of Planescape: Torment.

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Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Nintendo have finally played Morrowind. Also there's lots of puzzle rooms and some slightly updated mechanics beyond that old Elder Scrolls title without becoming the drab design that modern ES titles descended into. Oh, and Prince Sidon [x] shivering smol Gerudo Link.

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Atelier Firis

Even the 18th instalment of the series, this is friendship and character that some other RPGs seemed to be missing this year.

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Nier: Automata

Machines given life and all the complexity of emotion while not being stand-ins for discussing just humans; on top of a totally serviceable Platinum shooter/action system; with some glorious decaying scenery and a camera that knows how to frame it to keep things exciting.

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Ghost Recon: Wildlands

Ok, this doesn't sit well with this list. It's not a GotY contender. But it's also regularly not bad if you come for the scenery and the feel of landing arcing bullet trajectories as the light starts to flood in at the break of dawn.

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Persona 5

Another title arriving on the list via a localisation delay, Persona finally returns after an eternity away (yes, P4 really was a PS2 title) with a soundtrack and interface that's dripping in style.

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Playing Mass Effect 2 Today

Mass Effect is an interesting series. I dove into the first game in 2007, going as far as to back-to-back my Paragon and Renegade playthroughs and jumping into those two early books by Drew Karpyshyn (once the second arrived in 2008). The first book (Revelation) added to the impressive world-building that the series started with. Small touches like using accelerated metal slivers to provide effectively infinite ammo with overheating as the only concern really added texture to the world, a mix of Babylon 5 and Star Trek from the studio who previously had the Old Republic license from Star Wars to build their binary morality play around. Even the music, inspired by late '70s SciFi, gave a very clear direction to the action.

It also fell short in many way, from endless duplicated assets for the side missions to clunky real-time combat and a terrible inventory system on top of a very basic upgrade curve. It was a game to love despite the faults. The story arc was broad but every mission provided masses of detail and an encyclopedia of additional notes. I read every entry, treasured every encounter, and saved the galaxy from a threat that was only the first prong of something much larger. I was very much ready for more from the series.

Then the second game happened. The larger story was put on hold as the series turned into a purely character-focused affair while the mechanics were made significantly better, allowing combat to become enjoyable without being part of something larger. The logical conclusion of this progression was Mass Effect 3 and the multiplayer combat mode which works entirely on loot crates and the intrinsic reward of how combat feels. But something more than the larger progression was lost as the series moved forward, that world building fell away. Those lore notes about how ammo wasn't a thing, only heat management? ME2 added thermal clips which, effectively, shunted ammo back into the series with a wave of the hand about how throwing away hot metal blocks allowed faster firing (blocks which never cooled down and had to be replenished from fallen enemies). There's a lot to write about how the series possibly peaked in Mass Effect 2 but never managed to eclipse the charm and world presented in that first game. Luckily someone else has already written that book and I agree with enough of it to make doing a full dive superfluous.

Fixing up a 2010 title in 2017 on a modest modern PC

But I recently went back to ME2 and wanted to share some of what I found there and what I got through playing the series on a modest PC. The first thing you'll notice, especially if you previously played on console, is that the PC port has absolutely no controller support. This is despite being developed for the same release as the 360 version and containing most of the assets and scripting for controller support. Luckily, modders have been bashing their heads against that problem in the intervening years and have now finished fixing that, all the way to changing the accuracy/recoil values back to their 360 equivalents. A full fix that exploits all the code for the controller UI that was left in the game but never officially accessible.

Another fix that is possible thanks to mods but this time makes sure the game works far more cleanly than the 360 (native or via XB1) or Bioware ever planned is to remove the large load videos. The way ME2 works, the loading screens have to finish playing at least one loop of the video before they can complete. Most of the loading screen videos have no information and are fifteen seconds long. On a modern PC with an SSD, the game loads in a fraction of a second. This is pointless and can be fixed by replacing the video files with much shorter ones.

Even with a low to medium end card such as the GTX 760, Mass Effect 2 is old enough to really be able to push the sliders up to 11. A native 1080p is obviously possible but so is the sparse-grid anti-aliasing that can deal with anything in the scene, thanks to a bit of driver hackery that now allows some Unreal Engine games on DirectX 9 to enable MSAA, something that was broken at launch. There is an outstanding issue with some Z-fighting caused by this fork of UE3 being designed for Windows Vista x64 (no, really) but it's not a constant problem. Outside of that, it's a very nice look for a game that has aged reasonably well outside of the cinematic animations.

Going back into the game & premium DLCs

This was when Bioware started to move further into their experimentation with a cinematic cut-scene camera. Still early days and you can see a few points where the scripting completely breaks but it's more than just a fixed camera and some talking heads. One of the things I'd not remembered from my original playthrough was how backwards some of the dialogue feels. This is Bioware, of smooching and progressive causes fame. Some of the choices here certainly feel out of place. And that scene isn't made any easier by the choice to use DLC outfits, so the NPC is trying to make a barb that doesn't even work due to the character not wearing what the dialogue expects.

Speaking of DLC, this game is rotten with it. Expensive DLC that never got the price cuts that the base game got. In 2011, when I first played ME2 on console, I didn't have any premium DLC (that I have to make that differentiation is thanks to EA's plans at the time to give you a "project $10" DLC pack with new copies to limit used sales being valuable - I did buy a new copy so I did have the Cerberus Network DLC). I got Zaeed, Firewalker, & the Normandy crash site but not Kasumi, Overlord, or the Shadow Broker. I still don't have Arrival, which is more of a bridge to ME3 yet was incapable of changing the stakes as ME3 was written not assuming anyone had played it.

I think this is one side of why I enjoyed myself more this time through the game (beyond savegame editing to remove the resource grind entirely - I'm not doing that twice): the premium DLC is generally pretty good while the Cerberus Network DLC is really not.

I don't care about or for Zaeed and never did. That mission seemed like it barely worked for playing Paragon. The Normandy crash site is a non-event they should be ashamed for if they charged for it. I guess Firewalker is meant to be the meaty one (by virtue of location count) but it also feels barren, filled with perfunctory vehicle sections, and lacking much narrative - if that was in an MMO, you'd call it lacking flavour text and that's a bad state to be in with a Bioware RPG.

Kasumi isn't that much content (especially as she lacks much additional dialogue for the main game, a single line dispenser on the Normandy rather than a character you go back to after doing the single loyalty mission) but it was pretty great content for that one loyalty mission. I wouldn't pay £5 just for that (see: this is what EA asked for on Steam in 2011 for the entire base game!) but as bundled in the PS3 GotY for £4, I can see this being a quid or two value.

Overlord seems like the weak link in the premium pack. Like, it's cool that they wanted to make a Lawnmower Man rip-off to add a horror edge to the mission and talk about tech but it's... not even a particularly good Lawnmower Man rip-off story they're telling. And that costs £5 to buy too.

Now, the Shadow Broker: going in I knew this was the award-winning one. This was also £7 to many so as much an an entire $10 indie game costs. It's up there with the quality of much of the base game, almost as if they would have, in days before DLC where you either needed to go full extra campaign with an expansion or put it all in the box, this would have gone in the box. I don't think it's the best companion mission in ME2, but it's top half and at least involves more fanservice than most of the rest of the recurring cast get from ME1. That SRP is really steep for what you're getting here.

And I've got no views on Arrival because I'm not paying £5 to play what reviewed as a very long but combat-heavy mission meant to bridge to ME3. I really don't care for ME3.

Going back to technical considerations, note how the above clip shows a pet peeve: in-engine captured footage spliced with actual in-engine shots. We all humour people who say they really can't tell 900p from 1080p and some genuinely can't (these people need glasses). Here, in a DLC mission, the captured footage used is pretty clearly taken from the 360 build, so 720p without anti-aliasing. That's a pretty chocking transition from the current real-time rendered PC version of the visuals. Even if you're watching the clip in a window or on a 720p screen, the difference in sub-pixel accuracy in motion is apparent. It's a reminder of how this game looked to most of the people who played it (as it sold best on console) and how the limitations of real-time rendering change over time, even given identical assets and the same engine. Mass Effect 2 looks quite good today, if you play it in a way that most people couldn't when it was released.

There are clear reasons why you add in video clips to avoid loading large level chunks to make cuts with an engine that can't stream in the assets fast enough (for which UE3 was famous) but, personally, I always try and find a different way round this problem (caveat: having never had to work in a large studio, I can make such a choice). Naughty Dog are well known for using this method to completely mask their load times and they also make some of the best 'game asset but tweaked engine' rendered output you'll find - even if it's not good enough for a port, as seen with the PS4 re-releases of their games requiring them to capture out whole new video files to prevent the issue above of a very visible drop in quality from the real-time rendered scenes. Finally, note that in the above clip there is a load screen at the start. The ME2 logo would normally be a 16 second long video of a wireframe ship being spun round. It's good to only have to wait for the actual asset load required on a modern system.

Wrap it up

I'd almost forgotten how much fun Mass Effect 2 is to play. I still think ME1 is the pinnacle of the series' storytelling and world building - it's hard to beat the original, especially as the series slowly moved away from that late 70s aesthetic and soundtrack - but the sequel did enough with the characters to make up for the ultimately disappointing ending and lack of any real progress in the series' arc.

[Blog was originally posted here]

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Shivoa's Top Games of 2016

It's the fifth year of annual gaming celebrations on my blog. Picking up from the end of last year, Kerbal Space Program did make a big impression with me in 2016 and really soared thanks to the engine updates (especially 1.1 and the UI engine changes) and finishing touches (better fonts and communications in 1.2). An evergreen title of slowly building out your space programme, I spent well over 100 hours with the game in 2016 reaching for the stars. Also on my list of 2015 GotY contenders I predicted I'd find time for in 2016, Rise of the Tomb Raider got that PC release, even if I didn't think it was a step forward outside of the mechanical changes. Maybe 2017 will bring enough free time to actually complete The Witcher 3 and all that DLC, although I suspect I'm more likely to actually finish a commercial game project next year. But let's get on to the awards for games released in 2016...

Adult game of the year: Ladykiller in a Bind

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This game, full title My Twin Brother Made Me Crossdress As Him And Now I Have To Deal With A Geeky Stalker And A Domme Beauty Who Want Me In A Bind, really takes it up a notch from the dev's previous work (Analogue & Hate Plus). In the very first scene (after the tutorial introduction) of this visual novel, I was the titular crossdressing character as she fumbled through an encounter with a cute boy in a dress. He fell apart under my stern questioning and we ended up making out; all the while my character explained to her twin brother how this was only happening because she was being forced to act like him for reasons not yet explained. Clearly, I needed to know more.

As the full title implies, this adult game in a somewhat fantastical setting works around issues of consent and power dynamics in relationships that contain (often explicitly negotiated) dominant and submissive roles. The dialogue is often smart and each scene feels both open and uncertain due to the option to pick an interjection or just allow the conversation to continue. Sometimes new responses will appear and old ones drop out as the scene progresses, or refusing to jump in will itself be considered unusually suspicious. Add in the game layer that's woven into the story of trading votes, managing suspicion, quickly building rapport... and you've got a lot more choices than many visual novels offer. Combined with the writing, this keeps everything moving along and reinforces the themes of the story. Clever and hot, even when playing with Christmas jumpers to hide the nudity, this game is for mature audiences only.

Soundtrack of the year: Mafia III

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This game is an open world that's not about the open world. A few dozen hours of game that could have really been under fifteen without losing anything. A painful look at an era that's hard to look away from given the backdrop of White supremacy and racism driving currently rising political movements. What this game has that makes it essential is a revenge story that's incredibly acted and which drives you through a period setting without ever feeling like a reskined modern setting. Every piece of incidental dialogue, every shop you're not allowed in - these build onto the main story and show that this setting wasn't just some selling point or a "cool look" for a GTA-a-like, this game was built from the ground up to write about the era and race in America.

The game also manages to look great in places, with maybe a few rougher edges showing from the attempt to build out an open world. Sometimes the physics doesn't quite work, sometimes the textures look like they didn't quite have the time to give everything a detail pass, but sometimes the oppressive sky frames an incredible scene as you drive or walk through an area on your way to make the mob pay for what they've done. While many of the missions are mechanically repetitive, the story keeps you going; the atmosphere of the place keeps you locked in. You want to know everything about Lincoln Clay's story and the characters around him. Smartly framed, well written, great acting - from the very first hour, it's gripping.

Virtual city of the year: Tom Clancy's The Division

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And coming at the experience of an open space from completely the opposite direction to Mafia III, this is all about the city and the stories that the spaces tell. Midtown Manhattan is rendered here with the only concession to making it a game world being the selective indoor sections and half the streets being cut out. But we're talking about something along the lines of half of the space it claims to represent actually being in here. This isn't a highly compressed map meant to invoke real spaces, this has been slightly cut down but is where it claims to be. Only this is weeks after the world ended. This is every piece of the end of society buried under inches of snow. This is the ultimate environmental storytelling setting rendered with incredible detail and that story hasn't even finished yet. When I play The Division, I feel like I'm waking into the period in The Last of Us after the intro but well before the main story. The post-apocalypse hasn't had time to settle yet, just the snow. The bodies are still very much on the ground, bagged and being taken to mass graves. From a distance they just look like piles of snow. And this isn't a playground to zoom around in, you're stuck on foot. It's not just that this small slice of NYC is rendered far closer to scale than has ever been attempted before, it's that the setting forces you to traverse it all on foot. Just as in Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, here the game makes clear this is a space you have to inhabit as you slowly make progress. The only concession to avoiding grinding traversal once you've already explored an area being the fast-travel system to base camps.

We're moving through Stuyvesant Town, a second wave of reservists who just got activated and are ordered to crack down on factions fighting for control of the region and work out why the first wave vanished. This is about half way through the campaign story. We're looking at looters who have no options left, a faction of workers who have a religious fervour for fire and wiping out the plague that's caused this disaster, and ex convicts looking to pay back some of what was done to them. These are the civilians flagged as enemies up to this point, but they're not the big bad. We're slowly learning about the enemies we'll face at the story concludes, the PMCs that helped orchestrate the attack and stayed around to profit from the disaster. But this game doesn't just provide an easy out (as many games do) for the true enemy: private military.

As we get into a scene of a last stand, the near-future tech we carry recreates the scene. Unlike previous scenes of the first wave controlling the civilians and slowly cracking down on factions, this was where the first wave finally lost. Desperate voices short on all supplies scream out, a reservist military force who had just found out central command was pulling back support but not pulling anyone out. They're left sheltering civilians as molotovs smashed through the windows. This was the humanisation of what had seemed like a force descending into the authoritarian role then taken over by the PMCs. This, it turned out, recorded the defection of the first wave. Sold out by command, left to die, even those who fought for what they thought were positive ideals needed to survive. These are the ultimate enemies: not an evil PMC; this was us, us in two months. A game about the cost of survival pointed to the enemy and showed how we would become them without flinching. Cowardliness from US military command leading to US troops becoming the US civilian murderers we were sent in to stop. Along with the "bad" US civilians (as our future tech clearly announces before we even have a gun drawn on us) flagged by faction affiliation and who we are told must also be stopped. Where other games tread lightly, making the enemies into foreigners or everything sci-fi, this doesn't look away. It's not coherent in that anti-military message, this is a Tom Clancy game based on that "Ooh Rah" framing, but it does a lot more to unsettle the notion than most other games do.

There is a dissonant reading to all this. The Division repeatedly pushes the dual messages of a clear good/evil while also subverting it with scenes that point to moral gray and survival coming before morality. It can be read as garbled, several different writers who didn't read each other's scripts. I take it as a unified whole, the protagonist is never directly questioned (your actions are always "necessary" and you are always in the right to deploy your might) but everything about being a division agent ends up being touched by those conflicting messages and fragments of how other reservists act (in the found narratives)... and then it becomes the self, the other side of a message saying you're losing connection to the eye in the sky central command, as you enter the DZ.

The seamless player-vs-player mode in this game is a region in the heart of Manhattan that's been walled up and cut off from real-time communications. Here, all players you meet can be enemies. In the other areas the only players you meet are those you invite to play with you - you're safe and the main story continues to say you're a hero for saving good civilians from the bad factions. The player could always pretend they were right and ignore the echoes of what's really going on, as long as they keep shooting and ignoring the things they find, until they meet more current reservists away from prying eyes of command in the DZ. Then it's all up for friend or foe; the narrative and mechanics make this explicit - if you want that loot, you may shoot another second wave reservist as long as the eye in the sky is off. There's more than a GotY summary to this strand of thinking about the stories presented in this 60-hour RPG and that's sitting in my drafts pile.

I don't think I've played a game in a long time that has been as pulse-raising as the DZ solo mulitplayer experience here. The visuals are remarkable work, even for these AAA teams used to building virtual cities. I'd thought the era of actual-RPG shooters, where Deus Ex provides you with a gun but if you don't skill up then you can't hit the broad side of a barn, was over but here they are in a game with a clearly huge budget. Mechanics, visuals, range, scale - this was not a perfect game but enough of what it does is special. Don't miss out now it's on sale and the DLC/updates are continuing to expand what's here.

Best new spin on a classic 2016: Rez Infinite

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Rez is back with another remaster. Since the 720p and 5.1 of the HD re-release, it seemed like Rez was already ok for modern systems. A simple style that held up well even on the Dreamcast, who needed yet another port?

Luckily, this is anything but a port. As a base, the 4K Rez offered here is faithful to the original game. Even though the textures are as low res as they've ever been, this presentation is still lovely due to the heavy reliance on flat-shaded primitives. But then you put on the VR headset and can actually jump into Rez. Not only is that almost as magical as first reaching Area 5, it also turns out to be the best way to play the game. Looking to focus the lock-on cursor is absolutely something that reinforces what makes Rez so great - the visuals pulse and react to movement so nodding along to the beat reads as yet another step into synaesthesia. Playing the classic mode in VR is everything you imagined it might be 15 years ago when playing this on the Dreamcast and thinking about clubbing at the weekend.

But, just as Rez only reveals itself in Area 5, so this version of the game also comes with a major unlock once you've travelled the base game. Area X is a wholly new game built with a new visual style, new track, and removes the strict rails from the experience. In Area X, you can boost and even stop your movement; by looking around you can change your direction of travel. It's not the perfect culmination that Area 5 was, but it's a great new direction with a good track behind it and some visuals that you'll be amazed by. If you've ever wanted to go swimming in a pool of light particles, this is as close as you can currently get to that. Now when can we expect to see Rez 2 bringing this new style to a full game built around several new tracks?

Level design of the year: Dishonored 2

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When they released Dishonored in 2012, it combined a great art style and a new take on the stealth gameplay of an immersive sim. The range of abilities really offered the extra mechanical depth to play through without ever killing or being seen (the classic "hard mode" for the genre where fans count mandatory kills in each level). The spaces explored were incredibly memorable and detailed, even the DLC levels that included some they'd dropped during development of the main game.

This game refines the world and visual language, bringing in an entirely new style for the new location of Karnaca. The mechanics are extended and offered in two flavours for the base game (previously you needed the DLC to switch things up) and the levels are taken to a whole new tier. Tightly designed, filled with detail, and with enough totally unique hooks that it's a master-class in level design. As a massive fan of the subgenre and specifically the previous game, I didn't need much for this to make my list. But they really managed to make this far more than just more Dunwall-inspired stealth.

Blue skies of the year: Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

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It's the best Uncharted game. I mean, there's a lot you can write about it but really that's what you need to know. The story is stepping up, even if it recons its way to get there (not the first time the series has decided to expand the cast/scope by doing so). The settings continue to expand both technically and artistically on what started out on the PS3 nine years ago. Set pieces that go even further; mechanics that continue to develop what is asked of the player (now with functional stealth systems); a control system that's not a weird step back from Among Thieves that took them a dozen patches to fully fix/revert.

This is Uncharted, but more so. As a series that continues to be a better classic Tomb Raider than any of the non-open world games in that series, that's a great achievement. Naughty Dog are still at the top of their game despite the development hell that was pretty apparent from the talent that left this project (and what was said about those high-profile departures and the leads from the other ND team coming in to take over the project, along with their different vision for the story/cast).

Please come fuck me up 2016: Thumper

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The great thing about VR is that everything is optimised for minimising the movement to photon delay - the time it takes between an input (like head movement) and the new output on the screen that creates photons for your eyes. Rhythm games, which have for years had to account for the latency of flatscreen technologies, are now able to go back to offering games with a consistent input. The only difference now in the reaction window is in visual processing times for players. But no longer is there up to 150ms of TV delay just to see the new rendered frame.

Thumper is a percussion-driven rhythm game that just bleeds onto the screen, ideally in VR. A slow building series of long levels (each with dozens of individual stages including some shorter or longer blocks), this game takes the front cover of an abstract metal album and animates it to a soundtrack that plays back and forth. First the audio gives you a quick treble of the arrangement you're about to encounter, then you need to read the various inputs on the track and kick them back with the full bass joining in. Many of the inputs can be missed but some will take one of your two lives if you get it wrong, with that second life recoverable at the end of each stage. Some of the arrangements require you to master the pattern and failure without dying will organically loop you round to the start of the pattern for another shot.

The levels slowly build in complexity, teaching each new input with a corresponding visual style and increasing the demands of the patterns to the point where you'll sometimes have to go through a pattern a few times to understand it before perfecting it. A scoring system promotes going back and really mastering each level. But the core here is this impressive oppressive style of music and visuals coming together so amazingly as you fly down the metal and red tunnels, desperately trying to keep up. Playing in VR jut makes it feel all the more aggressive.

Stylish gameplay loop of the year: SuperHOT

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In medias res, I enter the scene as the person to my rear left is shattering into pieces from the discharged gun of the person in front of me. Everything is creeping forward as if through treacle - time crawls. The person in front of me is reloading and pointing straight at my head. I grab an ashtray from the table and use it to hit a guy on my right, reaching out to lift his gun out of the air as he releases it. I spin it round to shoot the guy on my left and he shatters into a thousand pieces. I narrowly dodge the bullet from the guy in front of me, who finished reloading. I finally reach the point where the next bullet has loaded into the chamber on my pistol and headshot the guy in front of me. I break for cover and the entire world speeds up to normal as I sprint in a hail of bullets.

The initial pitch demo for this game always showed there was a spark here. What the full game and VR sequel does is show how that short gameplay loop can extend out to fill a few hours of game perfectly. The narrative hooks and interstitials are few but sturdy and allow the fiction to be supported without draining the game of that speed that can only come from giving the power to manipulate time to the player. It's not a long ride and it's not going to be something you keep coming back to, and there certainly are a few rough edges showing the indie budget, but there is nothing quite like this and every moment bleeds style. You can't do better in 2016.

The games that didn't quite make the cut:

Forza Horizon 3 - A return to form for the Horizon series that was dragged down by a terrible PC port at launch and the lack of signage on the store; this game phones home every boot so if you're not online it won't even start on Windows 10. That unmarked DRM alone prevents it making the list this year and an £80 premium package that doesn't even include all the DLC doesn't help the value of what is effectively a rental. Wait for some deep discounts in a sale and then enjoy Australia.

Doom - This is one of the best game engines around. A lovely piece of work that's perfect for ensuring 60fps at all times with amazing sub-pixel stability and plenty of effects. It brings back Doom as the classic experience rather than leaning on the dark suspense horror of Doom 3 and it's exactly what you want. But it's also only that, a success built on low expectations coming from development hell and a multiplayer beta no one enjoyed. Don't believe the hype and you'll have a much better time but it's not a GotY contender in such a strong year.

Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak - I love the Homeworld games. I liked this. But the campaign story seemed a bit limp compared to other RTS, the sides too similar, the package a bit too budget. and the 2D space a step back from fighting in actual space. There is no one major flaw that prevents a recommendation but with some extra budget the vision here could have been done justice and another classic RTS birthed.

Bound - Another game that's really good but just doesn't quite make it to the big header above. Dancing through a stylish platformer and enjoying every polygonal backdrop, this had some great visuals that went for showing off the polygons as they all flowed around you. It feels almost demoscene inspired. Add in atmosphere over explicit narrative and this wasn't quite on my list but deserves a nod. The VR support wasn't quite there but maybe another patch can fix that.

The 2016 games that I really need to find more time for in 2017: Watch Dogs 2, Shenzhen I/O, The Witness, Gears of War 4, Hitman, The Last Guardian, Inside, Atelier Sophie, Titanfall 2, Zero Time Dilemma.

[Originally posted on my blog]

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Mining for Fun and Profit

So I've been preparing for the KSP 1.2 patch (which will involve building out a satellite network to ensure communications with unmanned craft - I've never tried the mods that add similar functionality) by poking at the ore refinement system they added back at 1.0. Give me some practice with precision vehicles/landing and all that before the added risk of loss of communication is added into the mix. Yes, it's a photo blog!

I started out with sandbox mode and some over-engineered monstrosities in space around the Mun to work out what was what (hint: gravity is bad).
I started out with sandbox mode and some over-engineered monstrosities in space around the Mun to work out what was what (hint: gravity is bad).
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So when moving into a real save, I built some large mining rovers to initially throw at Minmus (yes, they come in for a hot landing straight onto the wheels).
Even with the ore canisters empty, they're not exactly light to get off Kerbin (and you've got the wrap them to stop the wheels causing aerodynamic horrors).
Even with the ore canisters empty, they're not exactly light to get off Kerbin (and you've got the wrap them to stop the wheels causing aerodynamic horrors).

Of course, you've got to know where on the surface to land the rovers and for that you need scans from a polar orbit.

I may have gone somewhat fancy with the satellite design so one design can be sent to anywhere in the system with enough of an initial shove.
I may have gone somewhat fancy with the satellite design so one design can be sent to anywhere in the system with enough of an initial shove.
But when an area has been flagged then the rovers can congregate and pin down exactly where the best ore deposits are (they can also kiss when they meet).
But when an area has been flagged then the rovers can congregate and pin down exactly where the best ore deposits are (they can also kiss when they meet).
And all that ore needs a processing plant (and empty fuel tanks to spare) to turn it into unlimited fuel (and house the Kerbal who overclocks the drills when they hook up). Almost ran out of fuel landing this one.
And all that ore needs a processing plant (and empty fuel tanks to spare) to turn it into unlimited fuel (and house the Kerbal who overclocks the drills when they hook up). Almost ran out of fuel landing this one.
Finally, the complete unit is assembled on a deposit and ferry shuttles can drop down to grab fuel payloads which they push up into orbit for ships passing by.
Finally, the complete unit is assembled on a deposit and ferry shuttles can drop down to grab fuel payloads which they push up into orbit for ships passing by.

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Lessons in rendering (NMS is muddy but not due to low res)

So there has been lots of talk about internal render resolutions and game output this console generation. Is this game a 900p one, does the XB1 get forced down to 720p and then upscales it? It's a good topic for people who care about technical quality (say, all us render engineers who write the often boring code to throw polygons at screens via GPUs) and an endless swamp of people intent on having "heated debates" about their favourite consoles and which is best.

Anyway, No Man's Sky has come out and lots of people have mentioned that it looks muddy or low res, even on PC. Some people are speculating on it being rendered at a lower internal res and upscaled to explain what they are seeing. From everything I can see, this isn't correct but it's an amazing opportunity to dissect what is really going on and why it looks like that might be the case.

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Straight off, how the game is running for me just in case this isn't true for you. SSAAx4 (rendering at 4x res and downsampling from inside the game) in the settings straight isn't working at all. No effect. I'm not the only one who has noted this so I'll call it either widespread or a feature that's not actually implemented yet. The other two options are FXAA or no AA. My experience is that FXAA, if it does anything when turned on, isn't the implementation you should have built into this game to make it actually fix aliasing issues. I also assert that anyone using SweetFX or drivers to inject SMAA/MLAA/FXAA into their game at the end of the render chain is also doing next to nothing for their game in the same way that doesn't work when you upscale a game and then apply it. (FXAA looks for the typical shapes [eg L shapes] of aliasing in high-contrast areas and selectively blurs them, but this only works when you've got those shapes as pixel-wide features to find.)

The reason why and the reason why lots of people seem to think this game is rendering at a lower res than stated or is just "really muddy" (as the pros have called it): because there's a 1px Gaussian blur being applied to this game before output. I would explain this is part of a HDR/bloom solution; only it isn't, it eagerly blurs everything, not just highlights. It's a blur on everything that weights significantly from the non-central pixel in the neighbourhood; a strong blur compared to what you normally see in real-time graphics.

And here's the major issue with that: it blurs the scene without any anti-aliasing being done first. This gives a bloom (light for highlights, dark for low features) to every bit of severe aliasing including the thin line geometry and shader aliasing going on. It does soften the aliasing, but this means FXAA can't find it and clean it up because it's no longer a hard line but a blurred one.

"But Shiv, doesn't the blur fix everything wrong so what's the issue?"

Glad you asked - this is where slicing up what we see in screen captures of NMS really pays off. We do complex anti-aliasing (when rendering, even though it's often pretty expensive and comes with technical limitations that tie our hands) and not a blur because a blur doesn't work right.

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Above is an example I generated to show anti-aliasing. It's zoomed up somewhat to make the pixels clearer but that was a clean zoom so each pixel edge is preserved (unlike how you'd normally blow up an image that also blurs it - the same is true of the zoomed in bits of the top image below). Take an aliased line (1) and blur it (2) and you get a bloom around an aliased line. This is a very clear visual and you'll be spotting it in No Man's Sky all over the place. But if you run anti-aliasing on that first line (3) and then blur that (4) we can see how that line looks good under the simple Gaussian 1px blur.

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This is why you can't just use a blur: it leads to something that's still very much a stair-stepped but not with clean edges you can fix (it's a right pain to make line 2 into line 4 and AFAIK totally impossible to do that fast enough for real-time rendering; however making line 1 into something very much like line 3 is much cheaper/easier). If you want to run a blur for artistic reasons on your scene then anti-aliasing first will give the blurred line a really great and clean profile. The blur works with the anti-aliasing to give a result that's hard to deny. (Sorry, rendering is cool. Especially when such a simple example clearly shows a right way of doing things.)

An aside on this blur and using DSR/VSR to fix it:

A really weird thing I noted when finding this: the blur is always a 1px blur; same when running at 1080p and 4K. But there are twice as many pixels per inch of screen with a 4K render (outputting to the same display) and the scene being rendered is the same for both. The game-distance from any point to any other is the same but the pixel count to get there has doubled.

Why does that matter? It means the higher the resolution you set NMS to, the smaller (in scene size) the blur radius used and so the less annoying (for me*) it is. This i not how you should do a blur if you want it for an artistic effect and means anyone playing at 720p is being coated in a much larger radius blur than high-res players. I find that really helps to recover the "sharpness" of the scene so rendering at 4K and downsampling to 1080p leads to a much nicer scene than using 1080p native, just because there is less blur to muddy the scene.

* And I like soft rendering - if it was a good blur that improved the scene not drew glows around every bit of aliasing, I'd be all for it and the artistic justification behind wanting a blurry final scene for the visuals of this game). I'm one of the few people who thinks TXAA was actually an ok AA solution despite it being very soft. I will take soft and stable (my eyes really don't like visual instability) over sharp and flickering every time.

[Crossposted from my main blog about games]

Update: see my post below. The patch on 18/8 actually removed the blur pass from the game and fixed the anti-aliasing settings so they all actually work on PC. Leaving this up as it's still interesting to poke at how games render their scene, even if the current NMS build no longer has this issue.

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My History with Forza (inc F6:Apex Review)

[Getting to] Forza Motorsport (xbox, 2005)

I initially played a bit of everything: from Destruction Derby to Carmageddon's focus on more combat than racing, from the more pure experiences of the endless Need for Speed titles to Screamer. If it arrived on PC, I probably had a go on at least the demo. On the MegaDrive it had been the likes of Out Run, Virtua Racing, and Super Hang-On that kept my attention. But, by the time Forza started out, I'd settled into some early-2000s series that stood out. Burnout was just getting started, pure arcade handing and innovative exploding puzzles. Midtown Madness was going back to the more open checkpointing of something like Carma that later defined Rockstar's racing attempts, amongst others.

Sega GT didn't quite connect for me but the Dreamcast had been where Metropolis Street Racer and San Francisco Rush 2049 took hold. The more relevant of those two to Forza, MSR had also spawned two Xbox sequels under the Project Gotham Racing name before Forza even arrived, and PGR3 was known to be coming for the new console out that year. While not aiming to be realistic, PGR had helped teach me I needed surround-sound for driving games just to hear where the car behind me was before a corner. Those lovely drifting corners that felt a million miles away from the arcade grooved arcs of Mario Kart or Ridge Racer.

The other series that was letting me know the importance of audio positioning was TOCA Race Driver (later named GRID). Two games deep before Forza arrived, this was where I probably first got a serious taste for something less arcade-y. PGR was at least demanding you brake for the corner and plan your trajectory, but the TOCA games pushed that a bit harder and asked that you not sweep the back end out as you did it if you wanted to keep pace. By no means a sim, they did expect a bit more and set those expectations on real-world tracks - something which allows driving games to tap into your memories even between series as you know every corner of a track layout after playing it over several different series.

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Finally, I can't end this pre-Forza introduction without talking about RalliSport Challenge. Where Colin McRae Rally had never quite captured me and Sega Rally had been some fun I possibly didn't fully grok at the time, RSC felt like it arrived just in time for me and was everything I wanted from a timed challenge on a set of tracks you needed to learn. Like PGR2, RSC2 leveraged the new Xbox Live system for online and, crucially, leaderboards to compare my times to everyone I knew. I still read lots of references to the series as a high point for rally games and there are a lot of giants in that genre it competes with.

I enjoyed the original Forza well enough but I wasn't throwing tens of hours into the series on the original Xbox. Therefore, I don't actually have particularly strong memories of the first game, possibly in part due to it coming at the very end of the generation. Likely more relevant was all the far more arcade-y racing and driving titles I'd played before this, detailed above.

Forza Motorsport 2 (360, 2007)

This game seems to be seen as potentially a slight low point in the unbroken chain of the initial four numbered titles. Moving to a new platform but without radically pushing forward from the original strong showing. My memories of the game are of a launch window 360 that was dying by the summer of 2007. My online profile doesn't even record that I played this game, because the networking had already died on my 360 before it arrived. Offline only, leaderboards were gone.

But I continued to enjoy the series with the difficulty assists on (effectively arcade-ish mode), but now really taking advantage of that dynamic racing line that allows you to learn a track without being terrible at each corner before you get a feel for the braking point you need for each car. An assist that allows you to drive at least somewhere close to passable on your very first attempt at a track: these are the teaching touches that let me really get into a game. Rather than making the game easier, it removes a stage of forced memorisation from being good at taking each track with each car.

Later it was while playing Forza 2 that the console finally gave the final white flag, the Red Ring of Death that got it swapped out for a warranty replacement by Microsoft. Bad memories, even if mainly by association. By the time I was ready to dive back in, the sequel was arriving...

Forza Motorsport 3 (360, 2009)

This where they really got me. This is the start of my phase of easily dropping 100 hours into a Forza game upon release and then going back for more every now and then until the sequel had arrived.

Just as Forza 2 had made the racing line a dynamic indicator to avoid needing to memorise braking points for the standard racing line, this game added the rewind assist. And what an addition that was, even if we'd already been playing games that gave limited access to that feature from Codies the year before. TOCA Race Driver was now without that brand association and called GRID but in 2008 they came out with Flashbacks - a rewind that meant if you messed up a corner then you could go back and try it again. Turn a race-ruining mistake into a second chance to keep going to the finish line. Colin McRae Rally was now called DiRT and also added the same assist, giving Codies two runs at the formula before Turn 10 had a chance to release their attempt.

The difference here, compared with Codies' system, was that you weren't limited. Turn 10 let you go wild with racing the perfect lap - if you had the patience, you could drive how you wanted. But it wasn't a clean lap. And this is a small stroke of genius for how this assist worked to give you more time racing on the edge without breaking the leaderboards with your friends. Cut a corner, use another car to change direction, draft for a boost, or rewind and your lap time was flagged as dirty. The leaderboards not only ranked your best laps but also automatically ranked clean laps above dirty ones. Even the slowest clean lap was worth more than a dirty one. You wanted to rewind to avoid disaster and being forced to restart a race but the leaderboards at the end were all about getting that clean lap. They also noted which assists you had on when you got that lap time.

This was the start of my journey into getting the depth of the simulation in the Forza games. The lists of top laps not only strongly encouraged me to worry about cut corners and making that one perfect lap (without using the rewind to fix a mistake) but also showed how all my friends were doing with assists on and off. After a while, I started experimenting with turning down the assists and seeing how the various cars handled without the more arcade edge. By 2010, I realised that with rewinds there to undo mistakes, I could experiment with the cockpit view and started to get a taste for it and the kinetic feel of that view.

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Forza Motorsport 4 (360, 2011)

And here, here is where it all really came together. Forza 3 had captured my attention and put me on a path to wanting to know how the game was meant to be played, how the fake cars provided detailed feedback to do more than throw them through a corner and hope for a good exit. The dual games of starting off in the pack and working through the other cars cleanly and quickly before racing the top spot, then driving into the sunset to get those clean laps for the leaderboard comparison at the end. Checking for more optimal paths where the racing line was too conservative or suggested braking where it wasn't required.

The big innovation here that brought the series and how I played it into alignment was Car Clubs. World or even region ranked leaderboards are pointless, I've not got world class reaction times and I'll never be able to compete at that level even if the developer is keeping them completely cheat-free. Friends are where it's at. But I only have so many friends who play driving games and sometimes I'm playing quite early on after release and an empty leaderboard is no good. Forza 4 split the difference and provided a way of joining up with enough people to always have a leaderboard with some competition without it just being anyone. I joined a club with all my friends and got to know a few new names that became my regular competition for the better times.

I started out in 2011 with assists already scaled back somewhat from the end of playing Forza 3 but during my time with Forza 4, I definitely started to push further into the higher classes without going back to the assists to manage all that power. This was all automatics but I was otherwise clean: no ABS, STM or TCS. Using a basic joystick, the steering was on normal because you need to be able to flick the stick to make small adjustments while it damps the input to take that as a small wheel turn too fine to make on a basic thumb stick.

Earlier I noted that by 2005 I knew surround was essential for hearing the engine of the car behind me to know which side it was potentially going to attempt to pass on. By 2011, I had moved to only use cockpit view so started out with Forza 4 that way. And I got much better at using my ears to get a better feel for an assist-free way in which Forza tells you what you need to do. I'd not grasped this so clearly in Forza 3, starting out with assists (even for the slower cars) and an external view. Front speaker for your engine, four surround speakers for each tyre. Each one shouting out information about where the braking or acceleration is going to let go and how likely you are to hold this turn at this speed. Perfect.

Forza Horizon (360, 2012)

And this was where they started to lose me. The cadence of the series stepped up to annual releases. This game was great, from the open world to the soundtrack framed around a music event. It showed that the handling model could be extended to allow the tyres to touch something other than tarmac without destroying the feel. It had a great day-night cycle and some gorgeous visuals for the location on the 360. And a few days after release I had 980/1000 achievement points (one online thing I didn't care to grind to get between me and completion) and had done everything in the game. Without perfectly tuned race tracks and all their variants to go over with car after car and refine, it was a very short journey. Fun while it lasted but just a minor stop-gap before the Motorsport series returned.

Forza Motorsport 5 (XB1, 2013)

Then the Xbox One happened. An underpowered and overpriced system focussed on an American TV customer that got hit doubly hard in Europe due to exchange rate moves. This was more expensive than a launch PlayStation 3 where I live and was clearly an inferior model of PS4 with different exclusives. It wasn't even as if it was a strikingly different silicon design. MS paid AMD to put a cache in rather than a 50% larger GPU and opted for weaker memory bandwidth to guarantee they'd get 8GB from the first plan to enable a larger OS footprint. Forza 5 launched with a severely cut back selection of content compared to the last Motorsport game as they moved to higher fidelity assets. I had a quick poke around on a friend's copy and decided to wait two years for the version packed with more content. They even doubled-down on the paid cheats and broke the progression curve to try and force more players to pay for currency, something I'd noted was starting to fester in the series when Tokens got added to Forza Horizon.

Forza Horizon 2 (360 & XB1, 2014)

This failed to recapture the magic of the first game for me. I wrote at the time "more devoid of life than the original, certainly a weaker sequel" after a few hours of play. I was quite happy to live in the somewhat more arcade-y (especially with those strong brakes) world of DriveClub that year, with dynamic weather and time of day making every race into a dynamic discovery of exactly what the race track had to offer (rather than an open world).

Forza Motorsport 6: Apex (PC, 2016)

Last year offered up Forza Motorsport 6 (XB1, 2015) with the promise that the progression has been walked back from the almost F2P-inspired design of Forza 5. But the console was still not priced well and I was happy to continue with DriveClub and jump into DiRT Rally.

So here we are today. Forza runs on Windows 10, at least in a free (and currently in beta form) variant to test the waters. There are some major issues that come out of this being a stripped down experience. There are some issues which may reflect poorly on the series as it diverged from my personal perspective of achieving a peak in Forza 4 (and the path it didn't take towards perfecting that specific design). But I am now using a manual gearshift and flirting with moving the AI difficulty from Pro to Unbeatable (a tier missing back in Forza 4), so it appears to be back to pushing me to go deeper even with those issues nagging at me.

This should be a quick review of F6: Apex and speculation about what it may mean for the next numbered Forza game. As you may have gathered from earlier in this blog post, Forza was the series that got me to care about the more simulational aspects of driving and racing games. And this does need to be made distinct. When I'm playing DiRT Rally, it is an off-road driving game. When I am joining some friends to bash round a track in PGR then it is a racing game. My preference is for the former but I also like a touch of the latter (with AIs or humans - as long as they're not playing bumper-cars, doing anything crazy that can't help anyone in a sim-style game) to spice things up at times. And Forza, Forza gives me both.

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By the time I'd stopped throwing dozens of hours into each game in the series, I was driving an automatic with no vehicle assists and the braking line to jog my memory of each track and provide per-car guidance, cockpit view with each speaker talking to me about each wheel I needed to keep on top of. The AIs in Forza 4 and Horizon were pushed up to the top tier but my main interest was in finally breaking past the front AI and getting some clean air to compete with my Car Club for the leaderboard of clean laps in the car class. Earlier events in the career provided more time to get precise with the controls and demands of the tyres, later events generally provided longer races and so the same opportunity to get some clean laps before the end, even with more challenge handling the cars and getting out in front.

Being a cut-down version of the main Forza 6 title, this is about testing the engine for Windows 10 as part of Microsoft's realisation that the vast majority of gaming people they sell something to are buying Windows, not Xbox. So it's not got the progression curve that allows you to get familiar with a vehicle on a selection of tracks before deciding to try another car as you slowly ramp up the speeds and so difficulty. The lack of many tracks is less of an issue because the price tag is free [you can pay cash for unlock credits for the cars - this is a lot less gross in a free product than a $60 game and is also entirely superfluous here as you will unlock every single vehicle]. Rather than unlocking cars with currency, you complete three objectives per event which gives you points and those points in an event unlock up to three medals - your medal total defines which cars you have access to. No purchasing is certainly a very different feel but that plus the lack of customisation (beyond paintwork there is nothing, no custom decals or performance parts for changing vehicle class or even moving inside the classes) left me far more detached from my cars. So the progression curve has been obliterated from every angle - hopefully just an experiment for this free cut-down edition and not a serious consideration for the next retail game. Considering the damage done to the series pushing F2P micro-transactions with a broken curve in Forza 5, hopefully they will keep looking to refine the series to mix progression with constant novelty.

Along with the three optional objectives, which are a nice way of encouraging removal of assists or certain feats while racing, there is a main objective that gates "completion" of the event. Then your completion time and multipliers from the AI difficulty and assists settings adds up for a final event score. There is also a 4th, top score reward which turns the medals into a platinum - it would be nice if this had been set slightly higher as if you're playing without assists then your multiplier will quickly make it trivial to get this once you've grabbed the three challenges. The completion time or a fastest lap time should weigh more significantly on this total score calculation to provide real differentiation as if you've not got a challenge to hit a certain time then it almost seems as if lap times don't matter at all.

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This also infects the leaderboards for each event which are now all about your score and not about your lap time. Not only does this replicate the issues noted above about removing the focus on a single clear fast lap from the earlier implementations but it also doesn't even track clean vs dirty. It's just a single event and in that event you'll surely have drafted or done something to dirty some of it so everyone is unclean and it is entirely absent from the tracking. As I noted when recounting my history with the series, this goes completely against my impression of what was the core of the series. The ranking that put even the slowest clean lap above the fastest dirty one.

Not only are Car Clubs missing, hopefully an oversight from the cut-down nature of this game, but the leaderboards that do exist are ranking us on chasing challenges and abusing turns while minimising our assists. Those are still tracked by the leaderboards but as they act as multipliers for the score then they also push the rankings. As I got into Forza 6: Apex then I moved to manual transmission with clutch to enjoy a new challenge and assist both braking and acceleration but the score multiplier is now such that I have to really mess up to do badly on the leaderboards. This seems wrong; I no longer have an incentive to play through the campaign (what of it there is here) with a focus on clean fast lap times or even with the option of seeing those ranked once I finish an event.

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I do appreciate that since Forza 4 they have added a new top tier of AIs, pushing me away from "Pro" to challenge myself to be able to cut through the pack and get past an "Unbeatable" leader (who seems to be driving an automatic from what I can tell, which does mean they're not impossible to catch). The Drivatars seem totally unremarkable when you turn off the "aggressive" mode that ruins them but that's a big step up from Forza 5 - although you do have to wonder how a series spent so long working on a system that ultimately basically replicates the AIs before they started tuning profiles to try and match humans. One area where progress is desperately required is the weather and time of day.

The problem with playing games in a post-DriveClub world is we know what fully dynamic time of day and weather provides to keep a track exciting, lap after lap. Now DriveClub was divisive, enough to break some reviewers into fabricating justifications for why they just didn't enjoy it, and wasn't aiming for the same level of sim as Forza. But every time I went to a night track or had to adapt to the deep water on a rainy tract in F6: Apex, I wished for the more dynamic way that DriveClub handled it. "You can lock it down to give you something to learn precisely but the game excels at making sure every lap can feel a bit different to keep you on your toes." This needs to be part of the next Forza. We deserve to be able to learn that a couple of laps into a 4pm race on this track then corners 4 and 6 will involve being blinded by a low Sun and for that to be a dynamic feature, not a static constant. The deep water here is great but how much better would it be if it came or went depending on conditions as you took a 10 lap event on the track. Bright day turning into pitch black with track-side lights to help guide your progress as your headlights fought against snow or fog that has just rolled in: this is something we can have with modern engines with no pre-baked lighting.

There is great potential for the series here. A full game that steps away from some of these issues noted (some of which will almost certainly be rectified by a retail release with enough content to justify the price) could not only recapture any lost fans but also grab at all the PC fans of driving games or people who had a PC and a 360 but now only have a PC and PS4. The visuals are slick (perfectly fine on a GTX760) and the dynamic settings keep the main game's frame-rate up, even if it sometimes has to make the rear-view mirror into a slideshow to maintain it.

As to the base game: make the challenges and event points about buying car unlocks, not leaderboards; bring back Car Clubs and a focus on clean laps; add a fully dynamic system for track conditions; push in the expected features (multiplayer, visual and parts customisation, cars and tracks, a full career progression) and Forza Motorsport 7 for Windows 10 could be something to get very excited about. As a free preview, this does more than enough to justify anyone downloading it to take a look. Those with a racing wheel should keep an eye on the development blog for when that support gets added into the beta.

[This blog post was originally published in two parts here and here]

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The Fall and Rise of Tomb Raider

I've enjoyed the Tomb Raider series(s). I mean, I've enjoyed all four (five?) of the different series of games that are called that or offshoot from that original 1996 title. [So this is less a review of the game than just talking about the series and then about PC gaming and some concerns this game raises - hence this as a rambling blog post, not a review. I don't aim to spoil the game for you but there are also shots and discussion of late game content so if you're waiting for the PS4 and don't want to know anything before going in, this isn't the post to read.]

History

All shots (shrunk by GB upload) taken from the game with medium-high settings. This is mid-range PC visuals.
All shots (shrunk by GB upload) taken from the game with medium-high settings. This is mid-range PC visuals.

The grid-based frustration of the early games, back when exploring Croft Manor on PC was part of the post-Quake explosion of 3D that eventually resulted in me saving for a (3Dfx Voodoo powered) Orchid Righteous 3D. That amazing moment where buying new hardware suddenly made a load of games I already had into completely new games, jumping forward a generation. After the 3rd game in as many years, I started to lose track and the reviews started to indicate the series was coasting into the drain. That grid-based movement system could only survive so long and when analogue sticks were the norm, it made very little sense (especially by 2003 for the 6th game in the series). Hell, I even went back to that first game when it came out on mobile the same year as Angel of Darkness (where the grid was a better match for the nGage's digital buttons than the PS2 evolution of the series).

Then the series was rebooted in 2006 with a trilogy of games that completely redefined how the input system worked. Rather than being forced to perfectly input what the level demanded, the system looked at what the user was pressing and then did the most sensible thing. Pointing in the vague direction of something catchable and pressing the jump button probably means the player wants to jump there. The reboot, Legend, was a great romp; the remake of the first game, Anniversary, reminded me of those hours spent in 1996 while feeling completely contemporary in 2007; but I started to feel fatigue at the greater focus on combat (rather than exploration, traversal, and working out puzzles), the slightly rough edges on intuiting what input was demanded, and the increasingly fantastical plot in Underworld. But this was also the time when Naughty Dog was starting to make an exploration/puzzle-light, combat-heavy (and unfortunately bullet-spongey), very cinematic push into the sub-genre with Uncharted. Underworld was the first Tomb Raider that had to compete with Nathan Drake and I preferred the WWII zombies to the Norse zombies.

So the AAA Tomb Raider games went dormant again in 2008. Nathan Drake was left to take control of that sub-genre and move it even further away from puzzles and towards combat. But Lara Croft emerged as a budget series that courted mobile. 2010 saw Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light emerge on consoles, PC, and mobile. A co-operative puzzle game with more of a challenge arena design than a linear progression, it managed to get a console sequel and spin off to a pure puzzle game on mobile, last year's rather enjoyable Lara Croft GO.

The Current Series

While that was happening, AAA Lara Croft came back for another reboot. A new origin story this time, rather than repeating the story first laid out in 1996. 2013's Tomb Raider would have made my list, if not for the fact I didn't get round to playing it until the start of 2014. It polished those controls (including removing suicide from most of the traversal controls, leaving it for the QTE moments), expanded the combat so periods of action actually felt good, and completely reimagined progression into a semi-open world. This was a series of areas in which you could really explore, with collectibles to encourage full discovery of every surface. The story was a lot more grounded, despite still engaging with fantastical elements (as Uncharted does), and everything was just the right side of the reboot scale to feel both fresh and familiar. A 1996 relic had been completely transformed into the new series. The only thing I really missed: it lost the tomb raiding. There were hardly any puzzles left, leaving the traversal to feed into the open area designs and upgrade paths that unlocked new paths as you came back to areas. It all worked to make a great game but I remarked at the time that this was the best Uncharted game ever made. Better combat, more open areas and backtracking to justify the traversal as more than busy-work in linear levels, and a great story: this was the natural evolution of Uncharted. But it had shed the puzzles and lack of combat focus that made Tomb Raider games distinct from what Naughty Dog makes.

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Which brings us to Rise of the Tomb Raider, released on Xbox last year but just this week arriving on PC (and coming to PS4 at the end of the year due to Microsoft paying to give Uncharted 4 some breathing room - something I'm sure Sony are none too unhappy about).

The 7 optional tombs of the last game have been bulked out, both each being larger puzzles and including 9 of them; the combat feels a bit better but I couldn't narrow down why; and the traversal skills have been slightly refined on top of the already-great power curve. It's all rather minor tweaks rather than any radical departures but as the sequel to the reboot of both mechanics and story, this game was always going to feel incremental. It's not a knock against the game, which feels every bit as great to slowly unwrap as the last game.

The engine has been completely rebuilt, although a 360 port does exist to enforce some consideration for 2005-era silicon on the general design. Within those constraints, the game (and 2013's title was never bad looking on PC and did reasonably well as a 1080p port on the current console generation without much tweaking to that PC template) can occasionally look stunning and rarely less than competent under a range of lighting conditions.

But is it any good?

The 2013 reboot managed a diversity of locations and conditions hard to believe could exist on a single small island (because they couldn't, welcome to suspension of disbelief), giving it a great visual range. Rise fails to quite live up to that standard and, while it is by no means just a game about the same looking ice and snow, this is disappointing. There is a brief intro chapter in the desert to remind you of the old jet-setting level design ethos the series once had and some short cinematics in a room of Croft Manor and a small apartment but this is another exploration of a single contiguous space. Just like in 2013, that means a few very large and non-linear levels, many more linear sections you pass through a few times to hoover up optional tasks or travelling back for story reasons, and some corridor sections that literally exist to allow narrative to play or provide a break from the action as you move between areas - single use traversal or combat puzzles. As you spend most of your time in the large areas with fast-travel available throughout, this may contribute to the lack of variety felt. The large areas are not all the same but not as different as in the last game.

Rise is mechanically solid. The combat is still good enough to feel like you're getting a change of pace when it arrives, and you can upgrade out both skills and weapons to tailor that experience. Range with a rifle or bow or focussing on throwable makeshift gear, all the way into a melee-focussed character - the options are there and you can expertly switch it up as your upgrade tree fills out. Stealth and using the traversal tools during combat is not the deepest experience but is enough to facilitate competent stealth play. While the last game was contemporary to the Last of Us, this one feels like it maybe references back to that range of combat experiences - although that could be more down to how similar they both played in 2013 so a 2016 sequel that refines either one would maybe look like it was moving towards the peak of the two. If you can't see 6 different objects (mainly bottles) to throw and distract an enemy near you, you're in an area where combat is impossible.

Traversal is still an almost Metroidvania-lite experience of slowly collecting all the tools needed to travel anywhere and travel quickly. This isn't a game focussed on combat everywhere (small patrols that repopulate areas after first cleared are trivialised by the mid-game combat upgrade curve so just become resource dispensers) and lots of the more open areas rely on traversal being diverse with the more linear stuff needing each tool to be fun to use. Rise stands up to this task just like the last game, although there is now even less focus on QTEs, almost completing the transition away from their heavy use in the 2006-era trilogy. But those few times when the controls don't read my desired input correctly and result in a needless death feel all the more frustrating today (especially when it is one jump that consistently misreads my intent until I realise what input combo is actually required or direction to request the jump in). This is not to say Rise is worse that earlier games; it is not, and the checkpointing means you will never lose a collectible and usually only go back seconds. But my standards are always rising and it feels like Tomb Raider is standing still on this. It's not yet to the point where I never look at the death screen and think "that's not what that input is requesting happens!"

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So incredibly solid, a worthy successor to the last game, and something everyone should play if they got any enjoyment out of the 2013 reboot. But why don't I feel the same passion for this as the last game? On the one hand, this is more of the same and not a heady combination of familiar and fresh - this isn't the series realising something Enslaved or a Naughty Dog game hadn't: going more open with the levels can be really good.

On the other hand, it's also the story and, crucially, the characters. The last game wasn't perfect, but when you got on that boat at the end there was a reason to care about the ensemble cast of secondary characters who made it with you and the ones who didn't. That cast is largely not returning and, strangely, not being replaced either. This is not the solo logs of Lara Croft raiding tombs, but the characters that do appear feel little more than vessels of ideology (which is better explored in the collectible texts) and functional story progression. Lara Croft is possibly the only vaguely human person in Rise. And that really hurts the story's urgency in a game filled with side-missions and collectibles. I hate to use the tired phrase, "this story is really video-game-y" but I'll say that this story presentation wouldn't have been out of place in a game released next to Underworld, where I last felt the narrative was losing me. World-weary, depressed Jesus fights the evil papal army sounds like an Assassin's Creed parody. Better characters and dialogue could have made a mechanically identical game to this stand a lot taller.

Wait, the review wrapped up but there's more to say?

Finally, I need to address a potential disaster for PC gaming. In 2013's Tomb Raider, I played at max settings and 4K to remove aliasing (SSAA). This one I could only get near high settings at 1080p30 (with FXAA) and changing most settings or even resolutions lower than my picks did not make the game much better. Short of completely turning off the real-time shadows entirely, not much moved the needle and nVidia's numbers indicate this isn't just my mid-range machine (awaiting FinFET GPUs, and hopefully HBM2 if that gets into the affordable enthusiast tiers). "Newer game requires faster machine" isn't news and I accept that this is a better looking game and I do like the higher settings I struggle to run the game with. However, I have gotten to a place where the game is consistently around 30fps in all areas with my current settings. Except for when it isn't.

Sometimes the game will, when rendering something that I've seen it do before at 30fps, crunch down to a stuttering mess. We're talking ~10fps averages. Unplayable. It can also drop down in-between this and normal performance. At one point the performance woes got so bad (8fps average, indoor area) the map menu, which stops rendering the game (check your GPU logs, the load is <10%), couldn't get past 15fps - something was bogging down the CPU (an aged i5-2500K but also clocked at 4.5GHz so almost indistinguishable from the perf seen by newer mid-tier Intel parts) so badly it couldn't dispatch enough calls to render a 2D menu. The only thing I consistently found (as I can only report what I see, although my day job as a coder who has done rendering code means I have a fair idea how to read those tea leaves) was that restating the game fixed it; going down to 720p or turning all the settings down didn't and the GPU logs didn't indicate something on my end like a heating issue or even something as visibly broken as Just Cause 3 had (logs showed the GPU totally stalled the same moment that game degraded into low perf mode). Reviewers have mentioned this issue. And I've heard this being reported on nVidia and AMD GPUs so it's not a specific driver bug.

I also want to bring in a 3rd PC port from the last 12 months and talk frankly about potentially ruining the experience of paying customers. Batman: Arkham Knight. The Denuvo (seemingly memory-resident rather than on-start one-time-check) anti-piracy technology is used in all three of these games that have unpredictable and somewhat setting-agnostic performance issues that (at least in my experience of Rise and JC3) seem to be a degraded perf mode that the game drops into. The game is capable of doing the job required, but sometimes it stops and you have to restart it to get back to the normal perf mode. And this happened more than once or twice. Both those games I've put in tens of hours and have encountered at least that many times when I've needed to quickly restart after the game massively chugged (as a persistent state, whatever the location I moved to) for no good reason and with no alleviation coming from turning the settings all the way down. It's random as I've had it happen within a minute of booting the game up and also had no issues for several hours solid gaming.

Rise is better than JC3 on my machine: I was annoyed but once I realising this wasn't my settings/machine but a bug causing a degraded perf mode, I could quickly react to seeing perf had stalled and restart to get back into the game. Frequent checkpoints find another use and SSDs show why they're mandatory for the PC experience when that loses you less than a minute. JC3 hit that degraded perf mode so regularly that I had to stop playing it for a few weeks. Some patches and my machine getting an OS wipe (moving from Win7 to Win10) later and it was still there but with about the frequency I find in Rise, so I could complete the game. I really hope this is just a coincidence or some bug in some shared code between Rise and JC3 (both Squidix published) because if this new anti-piracy software is getting in the way of the game code talking to the GPU drivers and stalling into a low perf mode, we are going to get a lot more bad PC ports that should really sing on a mid-range PC. I include Batman on this list because, despite having somewhat different perf issues, it was something the devs said simply wasn't fixable and if the anti-piracy layer was broken then those devs could not fix that if the publisher would not accept simply disabling it.

[The was originally posted on my personal blog]

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Shivoa's Games of the Year 2015

So a fourth year of picking out notable games released (approximately) within a calendar year. I guess that makes it a tradition for this blog [GB blog archive had a database oopsie this year that seemed to wipe the blog posts from this archive and yet the total comments count shows the replies still exist somewhere in the system.]

Life is Strange

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I've already written about why this game is emotionally resonant, necessarily pondering, and mechanically important for several genres. To quote myself this is "one of the most exciting things to come from a publisher in years". A slow and considered story about young adult (queer) women coming to terms with the world and growing into who they are. It's also the shot in the arm that graphic adventure games needed since coasting on the success of Telltale's first Walking Dead season and it's hugely informative for anyone working on the narrative systems for modern RPGs.

Visually the decision not to chase photorealism pays dividends with the brushwork even extending to things like rain splash effects and wet shaders - the cohesion tied together with a thoroughly modern engine to render it in detail without distracting defects. The one area which could really have done with more investment is animation - the audio performances are mainly incredible and are leaned heavily upon as the face animation is very basic. Max and Chloe('s voice actors) sell the game throughout with plenty of strong performances from others. When you're telling a love story, you need those two main performances to chime and they do. The fandom that grew out of this game have clearly found fertile ground to grow from.

Everything in Life is Strange is painted broad and universal but also small and specific. Everyone is a caricature but also given depth and time to show their quirks beyond the exaggerated surface. Most people can identify with the themes of the story and the main characters but this isn't a story about straight men. It works because the glut of stories about straight white cis men distorts what stories we commonly see told in major, "all audiences" media. It is an everywoman story in a medium where the notion of an everywoman is barely explored above a very low budget ceiling. Hopefully it is the start of a new wave of published-funded projects. [photo source]

Pillars of Eternity

As I mentioned earlier in the year, this is a classic CRPG right down to the painted backdrops and limited use of 3D acceleration to make it pop. Of course, coming 15 years after the height of that genre, this use of 3D now extends to fully 3D characters and monsters with very detailed artwork for the backdrops but this is more of a "what a classic CRPG could look like today" than even the modest fully-3D top-down competitors like Wasteland 2 or Divinity: Original Sin. This is a 2015 take on the Infinity Engine, not the Aurora Engine.

What PoE does add to the table is a much-improved interface and some systems changes away from GURPS/SPECIAL/(A)D&D that allow more playing of the game and less working through the rule system to find how to progress. The combat is deep enough that dungeons are a great time exploring your party's classes but it doesn't ever dominate the game (and things like a 15-level mega-dungeon are offered as completely optional content for those who want more time to enjoy that incredibly refined tactical real-time with pause system); it's a CRPG so most people will come for the story. You can feel the experienced writing team in every inch of the game's narrative - a story that manages to vault the bar of even a rose-tinted view of those classic CRPGs.

Cities: Skylines

Another game I talked about at the same time, this is what SimCity (2013) should have been. Offline (no always-on DRM), mod-friendly, simulational, and built to allow fans of the classic SimCity games to enjoy a similar experience with a new layer of infographics and citizen simulation to run on top of it. For this game, that means importing a lot of the transit simulation from the developer's previous Cities in Motion series into a core city-builder template.

Not every citizen is simulated in detail (something EA planned for SimCity 2013 but only managed to reach simulating 10% of the Sims as agents and those acted too stupidly to generate meaningful outcomes) but there are certainly enough of them milling around and travelling to make traffic quickly become a constant system you need to master to enable your city to grow. The initially small plot of land grows as your city does and you can pick where it expands to rather than just getting a centred square of land. But most of the rest of this game is the classic (low & high density) R,C,I city-builder you expect from the genre and which has only slowly evolved since SimCity 2000 solidified the template.

This is exactly what you want after EA's Maxis completely dropped the ball in every way and left the somewhat archaic SimCity 4 from 2003 as the latest proper entry in the series. A thoroughly modern, infinitely moddable, 3D city-builder that reacts exactly how you expect and with a deeper-than-expected traffic simulation that shows the developer's previous focus. Anyone who enjoys this genre should be satisfied by this budget release (even if the headline feature from the expansion actually turned out to be part of ongoing support and so robbed that additional purchase of much value).

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

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So I grew up in very rural England. This game was to me what many games have been to people who grew up in locations like New York, LA, San Francisco, or London. This even goes back to around when I was born for the period setting. All rendered with incredible fidelity and underlaid by another exceptional Jessica Curry soundtrack. Just as in Dear Esther, the soundtrack really sells the piece and makes wandering around uncovering the places and narrative never feel plodding.

This is definitely far larger in scope to that previous game and you can see every inch of Sony's involvement in the assets, rendering these villages and fields in detail you expect from AAA, not indie. There are a couple of slightly unclean edges to remind you this hasn't had the funding and army of artists you get for Call of Duty, Assassin's Creed, or Battlefront; but otherwise it's amazing to wander round something that looks like where my life started.

The actual narrative, told via audio plays, helps to build a living, breathing space in which you are walking (after a cataclysm that has left every leaf untouched but no person remaining). It speaks to smart allocation of resources on the project and completely held me throughout the game. A game about isolation, searching, and small village toxicity that eventually falls to self-sacrifice and the tail end of the nuclear scare that fits the period.

The Beginner's Guide

As I touched on around release, this game has some meat to dig into both considering the text and the metatext that it has created. Advertised as 90 minutes of narrated game design, this follow up to The Stanley Parable shares a lot of the build process but uses it for a completely different exploration into game design.

Here the question is not about the illusion of choice in constructing levels but how a game developer can cope with the stress of the indie game process. How does an artist hold it together to complete a project? How do they deal with other people (or other facets of themself) during development and sharing their creations? How does feedback or just the act of letting a work grow without you pull on a fragile nerve?

It's a game that benefits from going into blind but being prepared to work for your fulfilment. You will spend 90 minutes with a narrator and look at a series of levels but this is like describing an audio-book as 4 hours of listening to someone speak: technically accurate but saying nothing about the actual experience of listening. If you have any interest in small-scale game development or discussions of mental health then this is an outstanding game to play.

Until Dawn

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Do what the writers of Agents of SHIELD refuse to and construct a scenario where we can all enjoy watching Ward die, permanently. Then watch it a few more times, you deserve the catharsis if you've been putting up with that TV show. Also contains plenty of Peter Stormare emoting, again, and that's almost worth the entry fee alone.

While this had a tough development cycle (originally a PS3 Move-controller game), the final product shows none of that uncertainty. This is a confident horror story with state of the art performance capture the likes of which Sony normally only get to roll out for their David Cage projects (Heavy Rain, Beyond). It's also structurally very similar to those games, with emphasis on decision making and branching narratives driving a cinematic experience.

The advantage that Until Dawn has is competent writing and editing staff that bring together a post-Cabin in the Woods horror story that nods at the genre tropes while offering a game where, depending how you play it, everyone (individually) can live or die. American teens painted to been just unlikeable enough that their gruesome deaths aren't too much of a downer for the plot but don't destroy your investment in at least some surviving. As is necessary in the modern era of horror, tropes are either played with or inverted left and right so you're never quite sure what will be played straight and the different paths allow for some genuine unexpected moments as you know that theoretically everyone can survive whatever situation they're in.

DiRT Rally

Proper rally games that you can play on a standard joypad are back.

There's always a bit of give and take developing a game about driving (and with rally it's always about driving; racing is for people who are fighting the other cars, not the cliff face that will squash them if they don't take this corner [caution jump into right 4 tightens] just right): how demanding should the game be vs how much money can be spent on something that only appeals to a few driving game fans. In recent years it seemed like all rally games moved further and further from the sim side of the scales and towards arcade handling and difficulty.

This is where a small skunkworks team at Codies came in and decided to fix that. Get their old engine, throw out the handling model, and try and build a semi-sim game that is the equivalent of Forza or GT in providing a soft sim focus that can appeal to people who want to take things seriously but maybe don't want to spend £300 on a wheel and pedals. People who want a challenge and for track condition to matter, to need the co-driver to guide them. DiRT Rally is an incredibly solid attempt at that which just made final release after a period on Early Access. If you fondly remember games like RalliSport Challenge or the Colin McRae Rally games, this is for you.

Notable Runners-up

Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes - Just good clean cooperative multiplayer design that points to hopefully an explosion in asymmetrical knowledge co-op games coming soon (may get talked about more next year due to VR support).

Her Story - Fun, revered, almost made my list. I think the impressiveness of the design of the search system wears away with distance. While you're playing it, hunting the keywords to unlock the new videos you crave to make sense of the narrative, it seems really clever. Given distance, you start to wonder exactly how carefully constructed it all was and how it was somewhat inherent to the nature of language. It's a fun short ride through a bad search engine that is absolutely worth playing.

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Just Cause 3 - From that very first moment, this game is totally upfront about how nothing is serious and everything is on fire. A sequel that refines the movement tools and builds a new sandbox. What little narrative there is shows sparks of self-awareness that raises it above the tired skeleton it is attached to. But it's the fluid traversal tools that make this game stand out; an itch that, last year, was satiated by inFamous. Just like that game, JC3 is rather copy-pasted in structure but it's all about using the varied tools to keep yourself engaged - hour 50 of Forza is only different to hour 5 because of how you make your own progression and a basic unlock chain you walk down with some freedom of selection. But it can't go on the main list because the performance (on console or many PC configurations) simply isn't there, the bugs are too many, and some of it is unquestionably stuff considered "known shippable" and that's not ok.

Lara Croft GO - Not just a reskin of Hitman GO. A really nice, cheap puzzle game with style showing how much can be done with mobile GPUs without chasing photorealism.

Sorry Undertale, I think Caro does a great job of explaining why you're not on my list. Just as with Brothers, this gets a mention for how far my views diverge from the consensus of reviewers in general and specifically critics who generally share my tastes (and politics).

Not Enough Hours in the Day

Kerbal Space Program - I just didn't have time to do more than watch others play it while working - finally out of Early Access and looking great. Space physics and rocket science, or at least an approximation of them in a construction game.

Rise of the Tomb Raider - Sorry Xbox, I'm calling this a 2016 release as I played the last game at 4K on PC and loved it, not going to sub-1080p (variable res) and buying an XBOne just to play this a couple of months earlier. When Steam put up their presale page saying this will release in January, I wondered how many people started eyeing the 30-day refund period on their 2nd console purchase.

Cibele - I didn't have time to grab this but I'll mention it as I did play Freshman Year this year. Both released in 2015 by the same dev as last year's how do you Do It? and about topics larger games fail to engage with so well worth checking out. FY is another really short vignette piece like hdyDI.

The Witcher 3 - This would take a lot of hours and I was playing quite a few top-down RPGs this year (as the last few years have been thick with new takes on the classic perspective/game systems). It helps that there is almost certainly going to be a 2.0 patch and the end-of-DLC edition, if previous games are any indication.

[This piece was first posted on my blog]

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Life is Strange shows a new path for dialogue choices

Life is Strange is a narrative game about making choices. There are countless examples of this genre from RPGs to the popular modern Graphic Adventures but LiS embraces an element of save-scumming to remove the short-term experience of finality that drives a lot of those decisions. When players are allowed to fully explore every dialogue tree, a game about choices becomes one that can really focus on the cause and effect that occurs more than within the immediate moments after a choice is made.

Anyone who's played many games built around choices will remember plenty of occasions where the designers have reinforced the idea of consequences by inserting gotcha answers into the dialogue trees. Pick the wrong answer, see the "amusing" failure and either be thrown back into the same question to pick an acceptable answer or hit game over and reload from the last save. The equivalent of the tabletop GM getting tired of your crap and bringing the freestyle nonsense to a swift end.

Fallout 4 mod: Full Dialogue Interface
Fallout 4 mod: Full Dialogue Interface

The classic model, before gigabytes of audio data came with every game, was to have players read their choices, pick an option, and then jump into the response. The player was the protagonist who decided a response and then jumped into the corresponding reply, possibly with some key bits voiced for effect. Then "cinematic" because the only way to sell games and everything had to be voiced. Eventually the player character was forced into a voiced role (and so the narrowing of the avatar into only roles that matched the recorded dialogue) and it was decided that the player should not have to read the full dialogue before making a choice and hearing it delivered by the voice talent. A decision that has given us the modern dialogue wheel and which many people will push back against. Now you have to guess at roughly what your avatar is about to say and so are guessing at the reaction it will evoke once removed.

But Dontnod Entertainment, expanding on the time-manipulation sections in their previous game, Remember Me, have found a path forward that retains the voiced dialogue without requiring the player to guess at what is going to be said or putting paragraphs of text up before a choice is made. This freedom can clearly be felt in the long dialogue blocks that can be triggered when the player picks what to discuss. But none of it is a permanent, locked choice due to the mechanic by which time can always be rewound and other choices made. The player is never left screaming at the screen as their avatar does or says something they would never have wanted to role-play in a tabletop version of the story.

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I've previously discussed how Life is Strange manages to carefully genericise the setting and story to allow this European young-adult tale to play in America or elsewhere (even tagged as a story in a fictional Oregon coastal town). It doesn't quite stick the landing on that, especially when measured against specific local expectations ("Well I didn't talk like that when I was a kid"). But it does provide widespread familiarity for a story that generally doesn't get funded by the publishing model for computer games. That's the reason why the narrative of this game is one of the most exciting things to come from a publisher in years: a reasonably highly funded studio project about two queer women finding love amongst the background of ubiquitous rape culture in higher education.

But it's also mechanically interesting and a step forward for the genre of games that provide the player with narrative choices. How can you go back to a game that offers some broad categories and emotions on a wheel and pretends that the player is making an informed choice to role-play by fumbling through the dialogue when this system offers the player genuine choices about how to interact?

The cost is that you can no longer embed gotchas into your dialogue systems. Players don't need to game the system with save-scumming to undo immediate reactions to their choices but this just means they no longer are playing a game of second guessing the writers and avoiding picking the selection under which a mine has been hidden.

Life is Strange is a game all about choices, tying the ludic and narrative strands together into a coherent whole. And none of them are a cheap way of punishing choices. When necessary, as seen at the end of episode two, the ability to see all options is restricted to avoid exploitation of the game (with save-scumming or reaching for a phone to look up a FAQ) but in general the point of a game about the effect of actions is to show them occurring over the spread of days and even years. At no point does denying the curious player the chance to see what other options the writers put into the dialogue tree ruin that.

[Republished blog, originally published here]

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Legalised theft

I've used the phrase "legalised theft" a few times talking about Microsoft's policy of currency conversion that moved their digital stores from MSP (Microsoft Points) to local currency balances/credit.

Any Microsoft Points that you had remaining in your Microsoft account have been retired, and we’ve added to your Microsoft account an amount in your local currency equal to or greater than the Xbox stores’ value of your Microsoft Points. This value we added is promotional and will remain in your Microsoft account until 1 June 2015. However, the currency you purchase and add to your account will not expire.

You cannot, for a single moment, believe that last line. Adding credit to your current MS account will provide absolutely no guarantee that the currency you purchase and add to your account will not expire. We know this because the entire transition to local currency described before this explains how they have stripped the non-expiring nature of the MSPs you purchased before. This is theft, but done in a way as to be technically legal.

You should never buy credit for an MS store (say, in a sale or other offer) that you do not intend to immediately use because their statement on credit expiry is known false. You may use this example of dishonesty as a reason to blacklist MS and totally avoid their digital stores, I know I will be less likely to spend money in their stores after this behaviour.

But some people seem to think I'm grossly exaggerating or lying when I make the claim this is theft, even if qualified to be a spin on theft that has been crafted to be technically legal. Let's look at exactly what happened and could happen again to see if we think this looks like theft.

  1. Someone offers for sale currency for their store (advertised as not expiring, can be used forever) and a supply of goods to be purchased using this store credit. Items have a real value of the real money required to be converted into this store credit to make that purchase.
  2. People use this store and buy credits in advance of needing them (the store actually makes it impossibly to by exactly the credit you need, you have to buy it in blocks), converting their real money into the equivalent value of store credit.
  3. The store owner, after accumulating significant real world money that is not spent but sitting as store credit that cannot be converted back to real money (thus avoiding the legal requirements applied to actual banks who provide an internal balance for people paying in real money), decides to end this situation.
  4. The store owner removes all items from sale using the store currency, making the value (in purchasable goods) of outstanding credit to be zero. But the credit has been guaranteed to not expire so cannot be removed. It is simply made worthless by removal of places to spend it. This is the opening for theft.
  5. A new store is created by the original store owner that sells the same goods and for the same real world prices, only there is a new store currency. This is where the people realise they've been stolen from.
  6. The store owner offers to convert the old, worthless currency to the new currency for use in the new store but the conversion process will create new currency credit that does expire. This is the scam that softens the theft, allowing users to sign over the non-expiring nature of their store credit for access to the credit in the new store (credit they previously thought they could spend on goods in the store forever).
  7. The store owner assures everyone that the new store currency you can buy will result in credit that never expires. Somehow the store owner doesn't think the people are on to their scam.

[This piece was first posted on my blog]

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