Sunday Musings: Nine years later, why Half-Life 2 is still a phenomenal game

It's a dreary Sunday in September, a typical autumnal day in London. NFL football starts in just over an hour, but for now I've got some stuff on my mind. It's been a while since I've blogged on a regular basis, so maybe this will be the start of a new thing, or just a one-off airing of thoughts. Regardless, I certainly appreciate anyone taking the time to read anything I have to write, and even though I don't write stuff like this with an audience in mind - I write it purely to get the words out of my brain - I'd still be interested in hearing any feedback.

Half-Life 2

The ultimate silent protagonist, and one of the best female characters in the past 10 years of games.
The ultimate silent protagonist, and one of the best female characters in the past 10 years of games.

I don't remember the exact sequence of events that led to me playing this game, which is now nine years old, by the way. I think the first seed of the idea was planted on Unprofessional Friday a few weeks ago, when Jeff played Garry's Mod; just getting to hear the weapon and enemy noises, see the guns and items, triggered a nostalgic centre of my brain. I'm not usually a very nostalgic person - I think that in many ways, video games are better now than they ever have been - but some games were so formative and so important to me that I can't help but think of them in the fondest possible light.

Half-Life 2 is one of those games. I don't remember how I came to acquire the game - I wasn't really "into" the internet video game community in 2004, but maybe I read a magazine, or a friend recommended it - and I hadn't played a lot of PC shooters before then. But I was instantly hooked on it, and probably played it upwards of a dozen times. Whenever an excuse to dust it off presented itself, I leapt at the opportunity - I even played through the game on the Xbox 360 when I rented The Orange Box. However, around 2007 my gaming habits changed; I would play only a handful of games, but I would play them obsessively (this is how I ended up playing TES4: Oblivion for well over 1,000 hours over the course of a few years), then I started acquiring and playing more games and favoured newer experiences over repeating the same ones ad nauseum. This new behaviour continued and intensified, and now I rarely play the same game twice, even ones I loved - I'm also playing a lot more games that don't have narratives, such as strategy games. So with all that in mind, it's probably been a good four or five years since I last played through Half-Life 2.

I jumped back in, and it was like putting on an old glove and finding it still fits perfectly. It's a strange thing to come back to a game that you've played through multiple times after a prolonged absence from said game, but honestly I was surprised by just how much of the game I remembered, from map layouts to enemy placements to puzzle solutions. To balance out this knowledge advantage, I'm playing the game on hard, so I've at least got a stiff combat challenge.

Half-Life 2's Soviet-inspired dystopian world is still as engrossing as it was nine years ago.
Half-Life 2's Soviet-inspired dystopian world is still as engrossing as it was nine years ago.

Half-Life 2 has aged extremely well. It was a brilliant, atmospheric, fully engrossing shooter when it was released, and while some of the textures now look a little grungy, while the once impressive NPC faces now look merely pedestrian, while it's now weird to play a game in which you don't use the RMB to aim down the sights of a gun, it's still been a ton of fun to play. Some things don't age, such as fantastic level designing, an immaculate attention to detail, brilliant sound effects, and a compelling world. The game's physics engine is also just as impressive as it was in 2004, although there have now been a number of games that have attempted to emulate Valve's technology.

I've played through quite a few single player shooters in the past few years (BioShock 1, 2 + Infinite, RAGE, Borderlands, Far Cry 3 etc.) and I still think that there hasn't been a game where I've derived more satisfaction from shooting than Half-Life 2. The guns are just so much fun to shoot, partly due to the tight controls and partly due to the world-class audio design; the firing noises for all the guns is exceptional, with the exception of the pea-shooter pistol, but the magnum, the shotgun, the crossbow, and the Combine rifle still stand out as the best.

So if it's been a while since you've played through Half-Life 2, or if you've not yet played this seminal game in the FPS genre, I highly recommend you give it a go. It's a game that, in my opinion, everybody should experience. This is just my view, but gamers should play this game to develop a better appreciation for the medium, and all game designers should be required to play it so they can learn from the masters of creating intricately crafted, superbly designed, utterly immersive games.

Alternatively, if you don't want to jump into the game yourself, it's obviously a popular game among Let's Players, and one that I can particularly recommend is Day[9]'s Day Off: Half-Life 2, in which Sean Plott aka Day[9], a StarCraft community luminary and an all-around swell guy plays through Half-Life 2 for the first time. Funnily enough, he started this let's play only a couple of days after I fired up HL2. Great minds and all that. Not only is it entertaining, but Plott is a smart guy and demonstrates some of the reasons why HL2's game designs shines through, such as how they made a mostly restrictive and entirely linear world feel expansive and lived-in. It's also very entertaining, and there are a lot of great moments but around episode five he runs into one of the game's first real jump scares, and...well, like I said it's well worth your time.

I don't know if I'll jump into Episode One and Two after beating the game - both the episodes are enjoyable, but Half-Life 2 is a tight and satisfying experience in itself, while the episodes are merely a reminder of the good work that Valve has left unfinished. To end Episode Two with a dramatic moment and a cliffhanger, onto to then not release another episode after six damn years is just mean. I've really enjoyed a lot of the games Valve has release since The Orange Box, such as Left 4 Dead 2 and Portal 2, but I still really want more Half-Life. Screw your DOTA and your living room box; I need more Gordon Freeman in my life.


Final note: even after all this time, I still find that no video game enemy terrifies me more than the poison headcrab in HL2, and by extension the poison zombie. They still creep me the fuck out. Even when I know one is lurking around the corner, I still feel some sense of cold dread; perhaps that's a part of my brain remembering playing the game as a 15-year-old, remembers the utter terror of not knowing that a poison headcrab/zombie is around the corner. There is something primordially terrifying about the poison headcrab. Part of it is how they look, and how they scuttle around the floor, and part of it is the terrific audio design; the poison headcrab looks like a big black hairy spider but sounds like a combination of a rattlesnake and a hissing cobra, and the poison zombie makes pained barely audible huffs and scratches, even cackles when it dies, and walks around with four poison headcrabs swarming around its body, which he'll chuck right in your face. It's fucking creepy. Not to mention that they can also be super lethal in gameplay; when bitten by a poison headcrab, it immediately drops your health to 1HP, and you have to wait for your HEV suit to inject antivenon into your body, recovering your health 10HP at a time. Poison headcrabs are not so lethal by themselves, but with a faster enemy nearby they are extremely dangerous, as after a bite you're one hit away from death. It's the worst.


Guys, I wrote waaay too much about the Microsoft XBONE policy reversal...

So a few days ago, I was on Memebase. In recent times, there has been a much greater focus on games on the site, with lots of game memes, videos, and news items, some of which are even funny or insightful. Anyway, Memebase's users have obviously been vehemently hating on Microsoft regarding the Xbox One, and hailing Sony as the saviours of the industry. While perusing the main page, I saw this post. For those who don't want to click through and try it for themselves, the header reads "Microsoft Finally Admits Xbox One Was a Failure", and below is a YouTube video which has a still shot of Don Mattrick.

I clicked the video, not really believing that Mattrick would say anything to that affect, but I was curious, and bored, and maybe a little tired, so I clicked it anyway. My suspicions were correct. The video that played was Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up". It was a good gotcha, especially considering how old Rick Rolling is as a meme at this point, and it gave me a pretty good chuckle. It's also only the second time that I've ever been Rick Rolled.

And I can't help but think back to that when I think of the complete reversal that Microsoft has made regarding their new console.

We all saw the news. Giant Bomb's own Patrick Klepek largely broke the story (much to the detriment of Giant Bomb's server load and engineering team), although he later said on Twitter that there was one other site, presumably not one with GB's readership and following, who beat him to the punch. The result was a mass outpouring of shock, confusion, and even joy from the gaming press and the internet in general at the announcement. The news was enough to make Giant Bomb's own Vinny Caravella pre-order an XBONE when he had previously chosen not to do so.

It was a necessary move. This is a console war, after all, and Microsoft were dying a terrible PR death in the media and among enthusiasts, due both to their own bumbling attempts to articulate their own vision, and due to Sony's confident and emphatic dedication to the status quo. We don't know exactly why the reversal of policy came about, but one can only assume that the higher ups at Microsoft either saw console pre-order numbers, or listened to the opinions of the media, or got negative feedback from their people on the ground from E3. But regardless, this was a financial decision. They saw the hand they were dealt by Sony. They envisioned their console that people hated before it was even out going up against a competitor who was not only beloved and supported by the populace, granting them greater consumer freedom, but who was also selling their console for cheaper. They saw the writing on the walls, and pulled the plug on the all digital future.

And I for one can't help but be kind of sad that they did.

Don't get me wrong, Microsoft earned their unpopularity due to how bad their messaging was, but ever since the XBONE announcement, and all through E3, I kept thinking to myself that maybe Microsoft is on to something here. Maybe their error is not their idea, but rather their messaging of said idea. Maybe, once the dust has settled, we'll see Microsoft as visionaries who saw the way the currents were running, and built a system to embrace the future, and see the PS4 as a relic of the pre-all digital dark age, a fossil, an artefact from the "wrong side of history".

I think describing Microsoft's original idea for the XBONE as being "heroic" or "visionary" is giving them way too much credit, but there is a part of me that is kinda sad that they've back-tracked so heavily on said vision. I would have maybe expected more of a compromise between the progressive and the status quo - less stringent restrictions on consumer rights, changing the requirement for the connection to the main server to longer than 24 hours. But no, they decided that desperate times call for desperate measures, and they pulled the rug out from under themselves.

I know the all digital future is only compatible with a very small percent of the population compared to the compatibility of an average console (i.e. do you have electricity and a television? OK, you're good!), and for those people not being able to use the system as designed, if at all, is a massive bummer. But at the same time, I want the all digital future to happen. I'm so over discs. And yeah, I am one of the people lucky enough to have good stable broadband, I live in England, which is obviously one of the countries that was getting XBONE, and since I bought my 360 in 2007, I've never taken it to a place where I couldn't get a broadband connection. And yes, I can afford to buy almost all of my games new, and I haven't lent or traded games with anyone since I used to trade GameCube games with my cousin. I am, in many ways, the exact person that MS had in mind when outlining the digital future of the XBONE. That doesn't mean I had one pre-ordered - if I were going to buy a console day one, it'll be a PS4 - but in some ways, I'm actually less interested in the XBONE now than I was before.

The Microsoft vision of the all digital future was obviously misguided in a few ways. First, they didn't do a good job of explaining what the benefits of all digital were. I buy Kindle books because they're often cheaper and so I don't need to carry a whole bunch of books around. I buy digital music because it's usually cheaper - in some cases, a CD can still be cheaper, and if I can find a CD of an album for the same price as digital, I buy the CD every time, mostly because my car is a decade old and doesn't have an MP3 dock. I use Netflix and Sky TV for films and TV, and 90% of the time I'm going to watch something once and be done with it. I buy a huge majority of the stuff I buy on Amazon, so I don't have to leave my house, which is something I often detest doing. And since 2010, a great majority of my game purchases have been via Steam, because they look and run better than console games on my reasonably good PC, they're cheaper - especially with Steam sales - and I don't have to faff around with discs.

Microsoft didn't make their consumers want an all digital future; they outlined a few reasonably promising benefits to the system, such as sharing games, not having to have the disc in the system to play physical copies of games, and the use of the cloud, but that promise was outweighed by the prospect of an intrusive ecosystem that farmed data from your every action, demanded a daily internet check, destroyed well established current business models, and so on. I think a lot more people would have warmed to the all digital future if there was a clear message from Microsoft that the digital games would be cheaper, or that Xbox Live granted users free games in much the way PS+ currently does - and I'm not talking about old games like Assassin's Creed II and Halo 3, both of which have had multiple sequels since release - or that games would go on sale at large discounts.

What's more, Microsoft outlined some of the ways in which games communicating with the cloud and so on would be great for developers, and would actually make games better, but it's not as if there were any developers falling over themselves to tell people that Microsoft was telling the truth. The general reception to Microsoft's recent mentality and policy has seemed pretty poor, and in some cases they seemed to have deeply alienated the people that make the games that people will buy on the XBONE - case in point, the justifiable outrage at CD Projekt Red when it was revealed that Poland, where CDPR is located, would not be one of the countries where Microsoft would be launching the XBONE.

And second, Microsoft maybe didn't pick the best time to unveil their vision of the future. Microsoft announced their plans for the all digital future at a time when the general populace is starting to think real hard about digital rights.And in many ways, the XBONE became the central point of the debate. It became pretty clear that a great majority of people aren't ready for the all digital future.

We've accepted digital rights restrictions in the past - such as the number of device restriction on iTunes purchases - but the current crisis as to what we are actually buying when we buy a digital game is a legitimate cause for concern. It seems as though users have little to no rights when it comes to their digital purchases, but maybe that arose as the status quo because we allowed it to. We weren't asking these tough questions before, but now we are. People weren't talking about Steam as an evil platform that restricts the rights of its users, despite the fact that there is literally zero opportunity for you to lend or resell a game once you've bought it and activated it - although current rumours suggest that Valve might be trying to work out a system for game lending on the platform.

I'm not saying the two cases are comparable, and people claiming that XBONE and Steam are the same thing are misguided; they're forgetting the open nature of the PC platform compared to the completely closed system of a console. But one of the main difference between people's opinion of Valve and their opinion of Microsoft is due to image and presentation. Valve present themselves as massive nerds who understand their customers, and want everyone to be able to play the best games. It doesn't hurt that they have also made some of the most beloved games of all-time. They are ostensibly a platform holder and a publisher, but they act like a developer, and present themselves as such. Much the same can be said about Nintendo because of their strong first-party games, and that helps feed the cooling fires of the locomotive of Nintendo fandom. Microsoft come across as a corporate enterprise who view their customers not as people, but as data and demographics. The people selling you the system aren't the people who made Half-Life.

Anyway, to go back to the digital rights issue, it's obviously a broad one, and must be addressed across a spectrum of industries and media. It's easy to see large scale legal disputes arising; many people were already predicting the XBONE would violate European fair use law. And maybe the law courts and governments of the world's nations need to decide what the status of our digital rights is in an era where digital media is becoming increasingly ubiquitous, as opposed to allowing publishers and manufacturers to set the de facto standards on a case-by-case basis. If the all digital future is imminent, we need to know where we stand; there need t be clearly defined guidelines for what I am buying when I buy digital goods, what my rights are, and what punishments should be dealt for violating said rights. I don't have a huge degree of confidence in governments setting up guidelines and standards that are consumer friendly - the fact that recently the government of Australia didn't seem to know how many of its agencies were able to block websites without due warning, fair discourse, or even an explanation as to why, should give you some idea of how much modern governments "get" the internet - but the law courts are a somewhat different matter.

So now that I've outlined why Microsoft made a mistake in how they went about presenting their vision of the future, and the ways in which that vision may have been misguided or ill-timed, let me now present a few reasons why Microsoft had the right idea.

First: we've all seen the ridiculous comments Don Mattrick made to Geoff Keighley regarding the matter of people whose circumstances prevented them from being able to embrace the all digital future. The suggestion that the 360 was an ideal console for those people is ludicrous, and obviously the response was overwhelmingly negative. Those aren't the statements you make during a console war, especially when your competitor is offering greater customer liberty and very similar hardware specifications for a lower price. The obvious answer isn't that the 360 is the alternative to the XBONE, but rather that the PS4 is.

But when you think about it, maybe it's not such a bad idea.

Microsoft had a very obvious demographic and consumer base in mind when unveiling the XBONE, so much so that they actually provided a list of countries where they would be launching the XBONE at launch, a list which offered a huge middle finger to Africa, most of Eastern Europe, South America, and the two countries which between them represent a third of the planet's population - China and India. But if Microsoft believed that if they made a system that tailored to that demographic, and that they could turn a profit by selling to that demographic, then why not? Say what you will about their idea for the XBONE, but it would have been a system with a very clear identity, something which is rare in the modern age.

Think about how homogenised the two major consoles (sorry Nintendo...) have become, not just in technical specs but in features offered. The 360 was seen as the bro console with all the shooters, but Call of Duty came out on PS3 too, and it's not as if Sony wasn't trying to crack the market with Killzone and Resistance. The 360 was seen as the heavily American focused machine, as compared to the stronger emphasis on Japanese and European games on the PS3, but Final Fantasy XIII came out on 360, and just as many European developers embraced the 360 as embraced the PS3 - The Witcher 2 was a 360 console exclusive.

Isn't there something to be said for a platform that tries to do something different? Yes, that would mean putting certain highly anticipated games such as Titanfall, Quantum Break, and the next Halo game from 343, behind a barrier that for some users is impenetrable. But isn't that like being a kid who could only afford a Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, a kid who lauded over NES owners for two years but then spent all of 1991 hearing his friends talking about Super Mario World? The divide between one console's fanbase and another's is not new, and while it's by no means a perfect comparison, it's something to think about.

And Microsoft's back-tracking opens the doors to a competitor. Let's say Apple does what people have been speculating they would do for years and announces an all digital console with no physical media at all, but it's a great multimedia machine, and it plays all the third party games and sells them for less. I can't imagine they would expect to sell as many consoles as Microsoft and Sony, but such a device could potentially be revolutionary for the demographic that Microsoft was targeting with their XBONE plans. Now I'm no business expert, and it's possible that such an initiative would result in an Apple Pippin-eque disaster, but it's still a possibility.

And while people were irate about the limitations on selling used games, they were effectively, and indirectly, fighting in defence of GameStop's business practices. The used game market is an anomaly in media, perhaps due to the higher price of games compared to CDs and Blu-Rays, and it's one that, according to many people, isn't necessarily healthy for the industry. Games are thriving on the PC, which has almost zero used games freedoms, so let's not assume that restrictions on game rights would kill the XBONE platform. Platform holders are still beholden to brick and mortar stores, which might not be good for the growth of the industry. In the music industry, many bands have decided to cut out the middle man and sell their music to you directly, rather than through a label, and have thrived. Microsoft is still a third party in the transaction between the developer and the customer, but it's still a healthier practice than them also having to cut retailers in on it. Physical retail locations are not going to go away, and there are some things that people will always want to go to a store to check out before they buy it, but the general trend in media and entertainment has been away from retail, and that should include games. Online retail is bigger than ever, and has already begun to kill the brick and mortar stores, and it's in the interest of platform holders to not let retail have so much power over them when there are so many viable alternatives, such as Amazon or directly selling to their customers via digital sales.

And finally, the world isn't ready to go all digital in 2013, but maybe Microsoft should have had more confidence that by making sure their console was ready for the digital future now, they'd be prepared for when it comes. Think about how the 360 and PS3 were when they were launched, and how many features have had to be awkwardly bolted onto it due to new expectations and trends in media. Changing the infrastructure mid-way through a console's life is like trying to change horses mid-race. It wasn't necessarily a bad idea for Microsoft to take the forward thinking approach and make sure that the system was ready for the future even before it arrived.

Microsoft's reversal of policy stinks of failure and desperation, but if they had clearly outlined the positives of their plans, and made it so those positives outweighed the negatives, then the story could have been completely different. One of the things that designers and manufacturers of technology need to do is to anticipate the needs and desires of their customers before they've even thought of them themselves; to show them what they wanted, but didn't know they wanted. This is what Apple has done in the past, with great success. The iPod was a no brainer - MP3 players were a good idea, but no one made a really good one until Apple - but the iPhone and iPad weren't certainties, and when the iPad especially was announced there was a definite feeling among the internet that asked the question "why does this thing exist?". Well, Apple that there was a market for it, and that that market was pretty damn big, and changed the industry so much that the tablet market developed due to other companies following their lead, and even traditional laptop manufacturers started making tablet-notebook hybrids.

So that brings me back to my original point. I didn't want the original Microsoft vision for the XBONE, because I had little confidence that it would be bring tangible benefits to users, but I kinda want someone to have the vision to say "this is the future, this is what you want, and we're going to make it, and do it right." I want someone with a clear vision, reasonable expectations, and good business practices to fill the void left by the XBONE becoming another x86 based platform with a strong reliance on physical media.

The wider world might not be ready for the all digital future, but maybe I am. Being afraid of the future, the new, and the unknown is natural, it's happened as long as human civilisation has existed, and it's rarely a good idea to take crazy risks when your first priority is running a profitable business. But if I'm not the only one ready to fully embrace digital media, then maybe there are others. Maybe there's enough of us that there is actually a market for a console that does everything Microsoft promised, and much more.

In 2013, the decision to reverse their policy seems like a complete no-brainer for Microsoft. But will we still see things that way in 3-4 years time? I'm not so sure.


p.s. I ended up writing waaaay more than I intended, and I've spent so long writing it that I can't actually be bothered to proof-read it. So please point out any factual errors or anything of that nature. And of course, please tell me all the ways in which I'm wrong, and if you make a good point, I'll try and come up with a considered retort.

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I Have Some Things To Say About The Walking Dead (spoilers)

An hour or so ago, I finished The Walking Dead. I played it over the course of two weeks in five sessions in which I played through each episode start to finish; it took me about 10 hours. I have a lot of good things to say about it, but I'm also ready and - as it turns out - able to nitpick about the game's story and question why it wasn't as triumphant and awe inspiring an experience to me as it was to so many others.

First though, my choices for Ep. 5.

- I didn't chop my arm off; I was dead anyway, so since I'm the only one in the group capable of getting shit done, I decided that Lee had a better chance of getting to Clem with two working limbs.

- Got pissed at Kenny; dunno exactly what happened in that sequence, and how things could've gone differently, so...

- Gave up my weapons; I wanted to play along, see how far this guy was willing to go. I went in not intending to kill him, but I would if I had to - I just wanted to get Clem out.

- Clem shot him; I screwed up a QTE I guess, because he had me pinned down on the floor and Clem shot him in the head.

- I had Clem shoot Lee; she needed to do it. She needed to have closure. It was important to her that I not become a walker. And besides, I wanted to show her that she could do anything, no matter how hard it was, no matter how much it hurt. She had to be strong going forward, because that's the only way she'll survive.

I lost Ben in Episode Four, and Kenny died on the rooftop incident, so I only had Omid and Crista at the end. My epilogue was Clem in the countryside seeing two figures in the distance.

I didn't cry at the end, or at any point during the experience. I don't cry. If the film Incendies didn't make me cry, then a video game, no matter how was devastating, sure as hell wasn't going to. It's not because I'm a super macho guy who's not in touch with his feelings. It's not because I have no heart. It's probably because I have Asperger's syndrome. My feelings at the conclusion at the episode were definitely sorrow, but not devastation. I would describe it more as an...emptiness. But I was always in control; there was never a case where I physically didn't want to press a button to do something - even when I shot Duck, I did it quickly and decisively (he wasn't a innocent kid any more. He was one of them) - and I never had a situation where I ran out of time to choose a dialogue option. I'm not even sure what happens if you don't get there in time; does the game choose one for you, or do you just say nothing if that's an option?

I have to laud the ambition of this series, even if some of it's storytelling is a little uneven and some of its characters less than engaging. The core principles of TWD - the relationship between the two central characters, the dialogue, and the atmosphere - were absolutely marvellous. The issues I had were with certain beats of the story, and with a certain disconnect that arose when certain options were made that didn't reflect how I actually wanted them to go (thinking of a very specific moment in Ep. 5 where I made a dialogue choice and Lee's reaction was very different to the one I had intended).

I'm going to judge the game based on how it presents itself and what it was intended to be; I have no interest in complaining about what it isn't. There is one major problem with the game - and I'm only being negative here as a reaction to all the people flipping their fucking lids over this game, and the fact that it is gaining momentum on the GOTY circuit. The story is good, but not great. Sure, maybe it's one of the best examples of storytelling in games history, and it's ambition is incredible. But it feels inherently cinematic, and many of the examples of the game giving the player agency in the story are actually superficial. Even aside from that, if this was a film or TV series, it would be a good one, but probably not a great one. It's too predictable and formulaic. I haven't really gotten into the TV series of The Walking Dead - watched the first three episodes of series one, liked them, but didn't end up watching more of it. And I take issue with some of the characters. Yes, TWD does more to characterise its cast of NPCs more than any other game I've played, giving them arcs and meaningful moments, but that alone isn't enough; characterisation by itself doesn't make good characters, you need to fit all the pieces together. And the sad truth is that many of the side characters felt inessential or even detrimental to the experience, and many of them argued over stuff that was too petty and made decisions that were too arbitrary.

My best example of this is Episode Four (maybe me favourite episode), and having to decide to save Ben or let him die. This was a pretty easy decision for me. And it's a massive disconnect with the game, that it gives you this hideous oppressive horrific story where characters are seeing and doing some of the worst shit imaginable, and where a small mistake could cost you your life - and then I'm supposed to weep over having to let a stupid fucking kid, who put all of our lives in danger on multiple fucking occasions, drop to his death, when he specifically tells me to drop him for the good of the group. Ben had his heroic moment, which in some ways made up for everything that had happened before, but then the game's attempts to try and make me feel bad about it were annoying as hell. I played Lee to be as much of a nice guy and a team player as possible, but that was too much.

And then there's Kenny. Was he really supposed to be my buddy throughout the game, the guy that I related to and trusted with my life, with whom I would see this thing through all the way. Because when Kenny died, I didn't miss a breath. My heart rate didn't speed up. I didn't feel any significant loss or pain. I just shrugged my shoulders, thought to myself something along the lines of "well, there goes another one", and then I decided it would amuse me to say out loud "Oh my God! They killed Kenny!", "You bastards!"

The Walking Dead is inherently exploitative. Telltale made an engine that feeds on the tears of gamers everywhere, and they did a bloody brilliant job of doing a certain extent. For me though, their attempts to paint everything so bleak were hit-and-miss. By Episode Two, the game had conditioned you to expect the worse, to not expect anything good to come of almost any decision you make. And in Episode Three, when Lilly shoots Carley for no good goddamn reason, you also know that everybody in the group except for you and Clementine is fucking worthless, at least as far as surviving an apocalypse goes. Maybe this is realistic to how a zombie apocalypse would actually go. But there were plenty of occasions where I just wanted to throw my hands up and say "fuck all y'all, Clemetine and I are gonna go hide in a shed somewhere." And that's the opposite of what good game design is supposed to do.

The more I think about it, the more I realise that The Walking Dead is the antithesis of video games. It's putting a blank canvas in a gallery and calling it art. It's impossible to approach the game with the same mindset with which you play any other game, but you're still holding a controller/using a mouse and keyboard. The game still follows video games rules to a certain extent, and then does everything it can to take agency out of the hands of the player and direct them through a path that may be entirely variable, but ends at the same path.

The Walking Dead would have not been significant worse, or different, if it was a TV series. Seriously, what would be different about it? If a video game is structured like a duck, is paced like a duck, and begins each episode with a "previously on" and ends on a credit roll like a duck, then what is it? You'd only get one path to the finish as opposed to the variables that they added, but unless you wanted to play through the experience more than once, you're only going to walk down this road once.

Is the gameplay good? Shooting guns and melee combat is functional but not particularly visceral or engaging. And going through the dialogue wheels and interacting with characters was not more rewarding than any of the other great games I've played that have this as a core feature, such as those made by Bethesda (especially Fallout 3) and BioWare (especially Dragon Age: Origins). Does the game do a good enough job of putting an avatar of the player into this world? No, because it's too limited. Because the game didn't give me the choice back at the motor inn to say to Kenny and Lilly "fuck you and your squabbling, I'm clearly the only person in this group that's able to make a sensible decision. I'll fucking be in charge!" Kenny even says in Ep. 5 that Lee was always the smartest, and Carley talks about thinking you would be the best person to lead the group. But unless I missed it, the game gave you no opportunity to actually be a leader until significantly later in the series, and certainly not while Lilly was around.

If the game was really going to give the player agency in the story, then where was the option to put a bullet in Clementine's brain at the end of Episode One and let her die as close to an innocent little girl as possible? Is that not, in some way, a valid option? I'm not sure I'd have done it, but then again the whole game is based around her, and it's obvious that she's going to be the link into the next series. But I'd have thought about the ramifications of doing it. It only becomes apparent later that she can take care of herself, but whose to know what this whole experience has done to her. There are several points along the way where the game makes it very clear that everything is fucked, and all we're doing by carrying on is delaying the inevitable and being stubborn in that inherently human way. The game even shows you people who took the choice to take the "easy" way out, but gives you no opportunity to do so yourself.

I am nitpicking. I am nitpicking about a game that I think is probably one of the best games I've played all year - top ten, maybe on the fringes of top five, but it's been a less than great year in games for me. But it's telling that I feel the need to nitpick. It suggests that something is wrong, that I wasn't absorbed enough in the world and its fiction to look past it flaws.

I have two potential thoughts about this. First, is that appreciation of good controls and effective mechanics in video games is more universal than engagement in a narrative. Of the media in our age that is narrative focused i.e. not music and visual art, books are the most divisive, followed by films and television series, and video games last. Books do less than any of those media to empower the person who is experiencing it; you even have to create your own image of the world and the characters based on descriptions. I don't need every game to be an empowerment fantasy, but the most beautiful thing about games is how their mechanics work to provide a good amount of feedback and a satisfying experience to the player. The Walking Dead doesn't do that enough. So maybe a game like Dead Space having great controls, or a game like my Game of the Year, Crusader Kings II, having great mechanical systems, is more objectively universal than a game having a good story, which is inherently more subjective. That's a loaded statement, but it's a theory.

Second, if you're going to make a game in which it being a game is "relatively incidental" - a bold and incredibly flawed statement, but you know what I mean, so roll with me on this one - if you're going to do that, then you had better fucking nail it. If story is 99% of your game, then it better be brilliant. And maybe this is just a case where The Walking Dead came close, but not close enough. The argument that it's a better narrative than a video game has ever had holds no water with me, because it cannot compare to other games that I consider to have great stories (Dragon Age Origins, Red Dead Redemption, and BioShock to name a few), because those games strike a much better balance between a story that was emotionally engaging AND gameplay that was compelling, rewarding, and added to the experience. The games that can do both will always be more inherently impressive than games that do only one, even if they do it really well - this doesn't apply to games that are purely mechanical and have no fixed narrative, like SimCity or Civilization. Those games aren't worse for not having stories.

Regardless of how I felt about it, it's a game that I would recommend to anybody who appreciates games - I'm even considering recommending it to those that don't particularly have much interest in games. As far as games in 2012 that I respect the most? The Walking Dead is top two or three. In terms of games that I felt were best, or that I had the most rewarding experience engaging in, it doesn't beat Journey, it doesn't beat XCOM, and it sure as hell doesn't beat Crusader Kings II. I think it probably does beat Dishonored though...just.

The Walking Dead is a game that is important, and probably needed to happen for the medium to thrive going forward, but I at least will remember the game as an experience that had ambition and heart that is impossible to question, but was dragged down by its limitations.


Why Crusader Kings II is the GOTY, And Why You're All A**holes

Fact. Crusader Kings II is the best game of 2012.


Alright, it's an opinion, and one that I cannot 100% support until I have played more of the acclaimed games released this year. Many would say that one could not crown a game as the best of the year until they have played The Walking Dead, and while I have not yet played Telltale's zombie magnum opus, I own it and it's probably the game I'll play next.

But you know what I say? I say that no one can crown a game as the best of the year until they've put at least...let's say 30 hours into Crusader Kings II.

Also on the list of games I own but have yet to play are The Darkness II, Darksiders 2, and Mark of the Ninja. I have played enough Borderlands 2 and Torchlight 2 to know that those are both good games - TL2 is actually very good. I have beaten XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and I am very close to beating Dishonored; XCOM is pretty amazing, and Dishonored is good but hasn't quite hooked me as much as a GOTY candidate should. Journey is probably the most magical experience I have ever had with a game, but it being 90 minutes long holds back its GOTY potential. Civilization 5: Gods & Kings is an excellent expansion to a phenomenal game, and has consumed almost as much of my gaming this year as CKII has, but one cannot in good conscience endorse an expansion pack as one's GOTY.

But fuck all those games because Crusader Kings II.

There are plenty of games from 2012 that I will almost certainly play at one point, but have not gotten around to: this list includes Sleeping Dogs, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, Mass Effect 3, Forza Horizon, Far Cry 3, and maybe Assassin's Creed III, if I ever get around to playing Brotherhood and maybe Revelations. I'm pretty comfortable with the fact that I'll probably never played Diablo III, and Halo is not a series I am into at all, and I never played either of the games that preceded Max Payne 3.

So in hindsight I didn't actually play that many games in 2012, or at least games that were released in 2012. Why? Because I was playing Crusader Kings II.

Because Crusader Kings 2, as a video game, is nearly perfect.

CKII is a remarkable refinement of the grand strategy game that Paradox has been making for years, and it's one of the best designed games of this entire generation. It was my first experience with the Paradox grand strategy games, and the excellent quick look earlier this year led by Dave Snider, combined with my love of strategy games and my interest in history, was what led me to pick it up - it's just one of many reasons for me to be thankful for the existence of the Snide One.

CKII is a game that is purely mechanical, but creates drama and narrative purely through said mechanics, which it achieves by focusing the game on characters, not countries. EUIII felt pretty sterile and tame, the same problem with the Civilization games. The Total War games do an admirable job of making the experience more personal and character driven, but CKII absolutely nailed it. CKII is a great generator of anecdotes, and many people that I know, regardless of their level of interest in games or history, were regaled with the adventures of my digital Medieval dynastic avatar.

Probably my best story is when I started a game as the Duke of Austria, and I controlled one little holding in the Holy Roman Empire. Through political marriages and effective manoeuvring I earned enough prestige for one of my rulers to be named Holy Roman Emperor. My dynasty's claim on the HRE lasted for only 15 years, but during that reign I was able to create for my dynasty the hereditary titles of King of Germany and King of Italy, and I was able to use the claim I had earned to conquer the Kingdom of Hungary and include it within the vassal lands of the HRE. Thus, when my dynasty imploded and I lost the Imperial crown, my heirs still inherited the titles of three major kingdoms. Successful crusades then led the Pope to grant to my dynasty the kingdoms of Sicily, Frisia, and France, thereby making my dynasty the holders of six major European kingdoms. With Spain in the hands of the Muslims, the only Catholic ruled kingdoms in Europe that did not bow to me were the Scandinavian countries, England, and Poland. At that point, I still wasn't Holy Roman Emperor, but I was so powerful that if I wanted to revolt, gaining independence would be a trivial matter; I did successfully revolt against the Emperor to lower the crown authority in the realm. Invading Mongols and threats from the Levant led me to the decision that it was probably better if our lands remained united, but we ruled from our original holding in Austria, controlling six kingdoms, safe in the knowledge that the HRE existed because we allowed it.

Crusader Kings II is a very deep and intensively crafted game, and the detail in presenting a historically accurate world for you to start in is pretty damn cool, especially since the game does a great job of drawing you into the atmosphere of the Middle Ages. I'm an atheist but I'm tolerant of other people's religions; CKII turns me into the most zealous champion of my faith - be it Christianity or, thanks to DLC, Islam - hell-bent on crushing all those who pray to false gods.

Another great aspect of the game is that it starts in a very historically accurate base, and just devolves into complete anachronistic chaos where the Pope is a Muslim, Ireland is ruled by the French, and Jerusalem is controlled by a Russian. It kinda undoes all of the game's historical accuracy, but it's also beautiful to behold, especially since it can go in so many different ways - in one game, Spain and France can be ruled mostly by Muslims and the Byzantine Empire is having a rough time of things, and in another the French can rule Spain and into North Africa while the Byzantines rule the entire Middle East. But they bring some great historical accuracy into the game by forcefully including events like the Mongol Horde arriving in the mid-1200s, which will happen regardless of how the rest of the world looks; if the Russian duchies are united and the Persian and Byzantine Empires are strong, then the Horde will have a tougher go of it, but if Russia is disunited and the Muslims are wrought by civil war, then wave goodbye to pretty much all of Eastern Europe, as well as the Persian Empire.

It's such a knife-edge experience: despite how annoying it can be, one of the most engaging parts of the whole game is building up a huge kingdom with your super badass ruler with high stats and great traits...only to see it all crumble into rebellion and invasion when his incompetent, arbitrary, gluttonous, harelipped son takes the throne. This is a historical reality that CKII captures perfectly; in the 17th century, Oliver Cromwell destroyed an entire monarchy and made sweeping changes to the culture and politics of Great Britain, one of the world's major powers, and in just one generation, all his work was undone. His son, Richard, could not match the energy or ruthlessness of his father, and there was no effective base for him to retain the power that his father had earned, so the monarchy was restored. Oliver Cromwell died in 1658, and Charles II was crowned in 1660. Two years, that's all it took for Cromwell's power to crumble. And that's exactly what can happen to you in CKII if you are careless - although the reality is that almost all players, including myself, simply say "fuck this shit" and reload. Same when your character just randomly dies in battle. I'm not sure if the game would be better if it actually forced you to live with the consequence of all these random events, because that would be pretty ballsy but quite infuriating - it would make Dark Souls look like a cakewalk.

Yes, the game requires a certain investment of time in order to figure out and become comfortable with its mechanics, but I think this part of it is probably overstated. Yes, my passion for this game is probably strongly effected by my interest in history - playing CKII has led me to many, many Wikipedia articles, and through personal reading inspired by the game I have learnt more history than I did from pretty much any history teacher I ever had. Yes, it's a niche genre, but the Total War games experience a certain amount of wider acclaim; it helps that those games actually contain real-time battles, whereas combat in CKII is click to send army to fight other army and then watch as meters drain.

I understand that all of these caveats are why almost nobody is championing Crusader Kings II as the game of the year, not against the frontrunners like The Walking Dead, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Dishonored, and, according to the recent reviews, Far Cry 3. But it's very important for us all to realise that the game of the year as a concept is entirely subjective and extremely limited. We often defer to the enthusiast gaming press as they play more games than pretty much any of us can manage, with the time restraints of work, social life, and other interests - I could have played more games in 2012, but that would have meant I'd have read far fewer books, and my having read more than 10 books in 2012 is a great personal achievement, since I probably read 10 books between the years 2006 and 2009 combined. Still, even games journalists can't possibly play every significant game that comes out in a calendar year; such an expectation is ridiculous.

Our minds should be open to the possibility that the "real" game of the year is a game that you missed, one that flew under the radar, one that didn't quite catch your attention, one that was even more indie than the games that are being championed as indie darlings in this year's GOTY consideration. Mass Effect 1 is a game I didn't play until early 2009, and only when I beat it did I realise that it could stand up with The Orange Box and Forza 2 and Eternal Sonata as one of the GOTY runners-up for 2007 - nothing beats BioShock that year. Mount&Blade: Warband would be very high on my 2010 GOTY list if I hadn't played it in 2011; same goes for Total War: Shogun 2 being one of the best games of 2011, but me not having played it until earlier this year.

So let's all remember when we champion our games of the year, it comes with a large asterisk. It's the best game that we played that year, and there is no rule that states that once a game is crowned, it holds that title forever; since 2007, all of my games of the year have been games I played in their year of release, but my mind is very open to the possibility of this happening in the future. There are so many games that we game enthusiasts get exposed to but never play, for various reasons, and somewhere in the world somebody is championing that game as the game of the year. There are people in this world who if I asked their game of the year, they'll respond with the name of a game I've never even heard of. Of this I am sure.

You might have not played Crusader Kings II in 2012, and if you did, there's a good chance that you could be turned away by the awful tutorials and the learning curve, and even if you overcame those you still might not like the game's mechanics. Crusader Kings II is almost certainly not your game of the year: as far as I'm concerned, that is your fault, not the game's fault. If you haven't played Crusader Kings II, you cannot call yourself a gamer, and if you played it but didn't care for it, then you need to have a good long look at who you are as a human being.

So what I'm saying is that you guys are assholes. You hereby have my permission to go fuck yourselves.

*drops the mic and walks away*


Wait, What the Hell Did I Actually Play in 2011?!

It's that time of year where gamers, be they journalist or average fan, makes lists of the best games of the year, or at least their favourite games of the year. This is something I am often part of; I have made top ten GOTY lists for the past several years, and have enjoyed doing so.

This year, though, I ran into a problem.

I started drawing up my list, and some games were added without a seconds thought. I am 100% confident in saying that Skyrim is the best game of 2011, with Portal 2 in second. I also really enjoyed LA Noire this year, and while Dead Space 2 and Forza 4 both failed to match the level of their predecessors, they were both excellent games well worthy of merit.

And here's where things get difficult. I wanted to add Total War: Shogun 2 to my list, because I think it's a fantastic game, but in honesty I have only spent about 12 hours with the game, which considering the depth, complexity and slow pace of the Total War games is hardly any time at all. Heading into 2011, I was pretty certain that Dragon Age II was going to end up somewhere near the top of the list. It's crazy to me, when I think back on how much I played and loved Origins, that I would end 2011 without finishing DAII, but it's the truth. I played 15 hours, and I guess I just got bored or distracted by something else, and I never managed to get back to it.

There's a fair few indie games I played in 2011, but none of them really seem worthy of such lofty status on a 2011 GOTY list. I like Dungeons of Dredmor an awful lot, but I'm not invested enough in it to give it such high praise. Terraria is another game I played and enjoyed, but again, I don't think it should belong on a top ten games of 2011 list. Magic: The Gathering - DotP2012 was one of my favourite downloadable titles of 2011, and I played a fair bit of it...but even then I can't justify putting it on a top ten list.

And that's it. Those are all the 2011 games that I distinctly remember playing and enjoying. I'm not even sure there's even ten games there.

So what the hell was I playing in 2011?

Well, 2011 was a defining year for me as a gamer, as it heralded my shifting my gaming attention to the PC, which is now my main platform for playing games. I still really like my 360 and my PS3, but a huge amount of my game time is now done on the PC, and whenever a multiplatform title comes out, I'll buy it on PC whenever possible. I have been a "gaming enthusiast" since around 2007, and this if the first full year of me owning a PC capable of playing modern games, so I had a lot of catching up to do.

So instead of creating a traditional top ten best games of 2011 list, I'm going to create a list of the top ten games I played the most in 2011, regardless of the year they were released. The games will NOT be ranked in terms of my preference - they will simply be ranked in the amount of time I spent playing them.

1a) Sid Meier's Civilisation V - 300+ hours

Civilisation 5 was my first proper experience with the Civilisation franchise - I spent a ton of time playing Civilisation Revolution, both on 360 and on the DS, and loved that game to bits. So when Civ 5 came out shortly after I got my new PC I was really excited to see what the game had in store for me. I was blown away. It's a fantastically addictive, hugely engaging strategy game that had me hooked for most of the start of 2011. My Steam time for the game is 456 hours, and I would say that at least 300 of those hours came during 2011. Civilisation 5 ranks as one of my all-time favourite PC games, and I have many happy memories of spending whole nights listening to music and playing Civ 5. This game is awesome, and I cannot say enough about it.

1b) Mount&Blade: Warband - 300+ hours

Mount&Blade: Warband is a game that feels like it was designed specifically for me. A strategic medieval fantasy simulation open-world RPG seems like the kind of game I would see in a fever dream. The fact that it actually exists, and it has some of the best combat of any game of its ilk, is remarkable. Warband is held back by its horrible aesthetics and its bad UI, and for many people this would be too much to deal with. I sympathise with that opinion, but I can't help but think that people who didn't play Warband are missing out. This is another game that I played for hours on end, often while listening to music or a podcast, and it is every bit as addictive and absorbing as Civ 5. It is, in my opinion, probably the most underrated game of this generation.

2) The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - 186 hours (and counting)

This is an obvious one. Coming into 2011, the game I held up as my favourite game ever was The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Oblivion was, in many ways, the game that turned me from a fairly casual gamer into a full-blown enthusiast. So when Skyrim was released, you can imagine my excitement. Never before have I stayed up the night of a game's release on Steam and waited for the game to activate so I can dive straight into it. This is the only game that I was truly, desperately, excited to play in 2011. I haven't finished it, but it hasn't disappointed, and the past six weeks of my life has just flown by, mostly because I have been so absorbed in this hugely expansive, utterly immersive, beautiful looking and remarkably deep game.

3) Team Fortress 2 - 150+ hours

I never thought I would put a competitive multiplayer shooter this high on a list such as this. But Team Fortress 2 is no ordinary multiplayer shooter. Its team oriented nature, outstanding gameplay and respectful community (at least on the servers I played, mostly) made it the first MP game that I have loved. I spent many a good evening on the PC Gamer UK server, and I really appreciated the game's combination of precision gameplay, sheer chaos and slower pace that allowed me to play the game for hours on end without feeling overwhelmed. I guess I should have expected Valve to be the ones to make a competitive game I could actually get behind, but regardless TF2 now holds a pretty special place in my heart for showing me that I can enjoy games with other people.

4) The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - 83 hours

Just before Skyrim came out, I decided to replay my favourite game ever. It had been a couple of years since I'd had a good run with Oblivion, and I was starting to think that maybe Oblivion was starting to show signs of age. 83 hours later, those doubts were removed. I was still able to have a fantastic time playing this game, and it reminded me of why I fell in love with it in the first place. It may not be as gorgeous to look at as it once was, but it's still a fantastic open-world RPG with tons to see and do, and it's just as immersive as it ever was. I am currently debating internally whether Skyrim deserves to overtake Oblivion as my favourite game of all-time, but despite the improvements Bethesda made in Skyrim, Oblivion's achievements cannot and should not be forgotten.

5) Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes - 60+ hours

This 2009 DS game was introduced to me via Giant Bomb, when Jeff and Ryan did a quick look of the XBLA port. I was very interested in what I saw, and found the DS game for cheap through eBay. That game is incredible. I played through the campaign twice and played several more hours of custom battles against the AI. I just love the combat in that game, the way that it's more of a puzzle game than a traditional strategy game, but also has RPG mechanics and a world to explore. The story is inessential, but overall this is a fantastic value and well worth the 60+ hours I spent playing it. No game occupied more time in my DSi in 2011 that Clash of Heroes, and deservedly so.

6) The Settlers 7: Paths to a Kingdom - 49 hours

2010's The Settlers 7 introduced me to the joy of German strategy games. This is a wonderfully deep and engaging game with a nice colourful art style that I found easy to play for hours at a time. It's got a nice combination of being a strategy game that is slow-paced and able to be played by strategy turtles like myself, but also rewards quick decisive decision making over simple APM mechanical speed. A delightful strategy game.

7) The Witcher - 38 hours

The Witcher 2 will be appearing on many people's top ten GOTY lists in 2011, but as someone who had never played The Witcher before but has a strong affinity for RPGs, I decided to experience the original game before jumping into the sequel. This meant that I unfortunately ran out of time to play The Witcher 2 before Skyrim came out, but it did mean I got to experience one of the best RPGs I've played in quite some time. While not as streamlined and as high-profile as its successor, The Witcher is still a highly playable and enjoyable game, with some of the best story telling I've ever seen in games.

8) Plants vs. Zombies - 35+ hours

As someone with a massive soft spot in my heart for PopCap Games, I was delighted to be able to experience the joys of Plants vs. Zombies for the first time in 2011. And in my opinion, it's their best game yet, as well as one of the most accessible and enjoyable tower defence games available. It also helps that this game is dripping with humour and personality, but honestly this game's mechanics are severely underrated.

9a) Forza Motorsport 4 - 30+ hours

As I mentioned before, Forza 4 fails to match the impact of 2009's outstanding Forza 3. It's still a beautiful looking, fantastic handling driving game with hours of playability, but it's a little too similar to the previous iterations of the franchise, and doesn't quite do enough to stand out from the pack. It's still 2011's best driving game, and by a mile, and I definitely enjoyed my 30+ hours with the game.

9b) FIFA 11 - 30+ hours

Although the name of the game may be FIFA 11, it's actually the game for the 2010-11 season, meaning the rosters are a year out of date. When I bought FIFA 11 it didn't really click with me, and I only played a few hours of it, but instead of picking up FIFA 12 I decided to give the game another shot. Second time round, I did get into it, and although I don't rate it as highly as the seminal FIFA 09, I still had a ton of fun playing the beautiful game in FIFA 11, and it's the best sports game I played in 2011.

10) Majesty 2 - 27 hours

The ideas behind Majesty 2 are fantastic, and it's a pretty unique strategy game with a really nice twist on the tropes of RPGs. It's a game that gets brutally difficult, and as such I have yet to finish the campaign, but it's still a very enjoyable game.

11) LA Noire - 26 hours

Enough has been said about LA Noire in the past few months - both positive and negative - but I rate LA Noire as one of the most entertaining and memorable experiences of 2011. I loved the world Team Bondi created, and few games had more ambiance and better atmosphere than LA Noire. They nailed the 1940s noir aesthetics so damn well here, and it also helps that they have an interesting story with some memorable characters and an adventure game style structure that is uncommon in mainstream blockbuster games.

12) Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 - 25 hours

I'm not a Magic: The Gathering veteran by any means, and I have never actually played the card game, but that didn't stop me enjoying the original Duels of the Planeswalkers game in 2009. The sequel is even better, with more game modes and cards than before, and playing the game has made me contemplate actually finding some like-minded people and playing the game for real.

13) Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale - 23 hours

This extremely unique indie title from Japan has a fantastic twist on the JRPG tropes that we have seen time and time again, and it's charming as all hell, with genuinely funny moments and memorable characters. Something of a guilty pleasure, Recettear is a wonderful game that I was happy to experience.

14) Might & Magic: Heroes VI Demo - 19 hours

Yeah, that's right, I spent 19 hours with a demo in 2011. I am waiting for M&M:H6 to get a price cut on Steam, and when it does I will be all over it. The demo of 6 was my first experience of the Heroes series of Might & Magic games, and I was instantly hooked by the combination of strategic turn-based combat and RPG systems. Could well be one of my most played games of 2012.

15) Dragon Age II - 15 hours

It's sad that DAII ended up as far down this list as it did, especially considering the 300+ hours I spent playing Dragon Age: Origins. But there it is.

Before I go, here's another quick list, this time of the games that could very well have made my top ten list of 2011, had I actually found the time to play them:

The 2011 List of Games I Bought But Have Yet To Play:

1) The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

2) Deus Ex: Human Revolution

3) Bastion

4) Frozen Synapse

5) Orcs Must Die!

6) Alice: Madness Returns

7) Outland

8) Rock of Ages

9) Dungeon Defenders

10) Magicka


A Beginner's Guide to TF2

As I am sure you are aware, Team Fortress 2, one of the most beloved online shooters available on the PC, went free-to-play this week. If you are one of many people considering jumping in to this awesome game, then great! It is an incredible experience that I'm sure you will love. However, TF2 does things a little...differently from most team based FPSs. Team Fortress is a game of some depth and complexity, but it's also a game that people have played thousands of hours playing and have learnt inside out. But hey, even those guys had to start somewhere, right?

Now allow me to describe my own experience with TF2. A year ago I, like you, had never even touched the game. I bought the Orange Box in 2007, played the shit out of Portal and Half-Life 2, but TF2 just didn't grab me. Then I started to learn more about the game, about how it was a deep game, about how unfriendly and intimidating it could be for new players, and my interest in playing the game went even lower. Besides, by then I had developed a pretty strong anti-multiplayer mindset, so I became at peace with the knowledge that TF2 was a game I was probably never going to play.

Then, eight months ago, I bought my new PC and thought "fuck it, people love this game, I need to see what all the fuss is about".

And I fell in love.

Team Fortress 2 is an intricately designed, great looking, charming and ultimately highly playable game, by far my best multiplayer experience as a gamer. So I am here to tell you that you can jump into this game. But you need to know what you're getting yourself into.

So here is my newbies guide to TF2, from someone who was a newbie just eight months ago and is now a competent player with 200 hours of experience.


Try Playing Against A.I.

I know this is unusual advice, but if you're worried about jumping into the deep end in TF2, do what I did and do some offline practice. It's a very different experience, but it's a great way for you to try out different stuff in a zero pressure environment, you can learn what different situations require, you'll start to learn some of the game's maps and you'll get a glimpse into what it takes to get good at TF2. Once you start wiping the floor with the bots, you'll still have a way to go before you'll be ready to kick ass against human players, but it's still a great start.


Choose Your Server Wisely

It might not be a good idea as a new player to jump into random servers, as you might get hounded by experienced players, which can sour your experience. The best thing to do is find a handful of servers that are friendly. How do you find friendly servers? Well, doing a little research would be a good start. Also, if you have any friends who play or have played the game they can let you know which servers are recommended for new players. Some servers are more tightly moderated than others, and some uphold certain standards of decency and respect; a little swearing isn't frowned at, but anyone being actively abusive, especially to new players, will be reported. Also, it's best to stick to servers that do not exceed the game's recommended maximum numbers of players, which is 24. The game is not balanced for more than 12 players a side, by Valve's own admission, and you might not be getting the best experience by jumping onto a large server.

Another thing to remember is that many online gaming communities have their own TF2 servers, including NeoGAF, PC Gamer and of course Giant Bomb. These servers tend to be friendly, in my experience.


Remember You Are Not Alone

Since the game has gone free-to-play there are thousands of people out there considering playing TF2 for the first time. It's worth remembering that not everybody you will encounter has clocked in hundreds of hours of gameplay. They might be a noob just like you. You're all working this stuff out together, so maybe make some new friends and learn the game together. You can usually tell who is an experienced player because they will have the most outlandish attire and the strangest weapons, earned from hours of game time (or by the almighty dollar).


Get To Know The Classes

The classes define TF2. Each is capable in certain situations and vulnerable in others. As an inexperienced player, you might sometimes feel like you don't know what you're supposed to be doing with a certain class. This will come with time, but there are ways that you can help yourself out if you're experiencing trouble. There are plenty of guides and FAQs that will teach you the basics of using a class and what to do when a certain situation arises.

Also for the consideration of new players, here is a breakdown of the classes by difficulty:

Easier classes:

- Pyro. A class that's easy to learn but hard to master, the Pyro is the game's short range class, meaning you just get up in people's faces and set them on fire. Pro tip; sneak up on people if you can.

- Medic. You might get people yelling at you when they die, but aside from that the Medic is very noob friendly. Just stick like glue to a more experienced player and get heal happy. Also, it's a great class to play when learning the maps as you basically just need to follow everybody. Pro tip; the combination of Medic and Heavy is one of the most common in the entire game, and for good reason, so chum up with one of the big guys and watch the kill assists roll in.

- Heavy. Worried about dying? Then why not pick the class with the most health? The Heavy is the most survivable class in most combat situations and his minigun packs one mighty punch. The Heavy is a big simple character, and plays just like it. Pro tip; as a Heavy you are by far the slowest class in the game, especially when spinning your minigun, so be careful of Spies and Snipers who can pick you off before you've even seen them.

Intermediate classes:

- Demoman. Another easy to learn hard to master class. Basically just chuck grenades in the general direction of people you want dead. Pro tip: A good Demoman knows that his sticky bombs are great for setting up choke points and defending valuable areas of the map, such as the payload during Payload maps or capture points during Capture Point or King of the Hill matches.

- Engineer. My personal favourite class in the game, as it doesn't demand you be directly in the line of fire. Just set up a sentry gun in a useful spot, whack it with your wrench to upgrade it and sit back and watch the fireworks. Pro tip; the toughest part about being a noob playing Engineer is that you don't know the maps that well and thus don't know the best places to set up your sentry. Watch where more experienced players set up their defences, and remember that you can help out a friendly engineer by using your metal to upgrade their sentries.

- Soldier. A good all-around offensive class, the Soldier uses his lethal rocket launcher to tear shit up. Experienced Soldiers can also rocket-jump to normally unreachable places on the map, allowing for even more carnage. Pro tip; remember that the rocket launcher is only good against enemies at a certain distance. When an enemy is in your face, switch to your shotgun to pick them off, or your melee weapon if they're really in your grill.

Experienced classes:

- Scout. These are trickly little buggers they are. The Scout has the lowest amount of health of any of the classes, meaning that the best way to stay alive is to not get hit. The Scout is TF2's "twitch" class and should only be played by those who can handle the speed at which he moves. Pro tip; just keep moving. Also remember that your scattergun packs a punch when up close but is ineffective at longer range, so switch to your pistol when at a distance.

- Sniper. This class requires patience, awareness and a very quick finger. A good Sniper can pick off an entire team from a safe distance. Again, map awareness is crucial for playing Sniper, as you need to know the safest places to camp. Pro tip; aim for the head for critical damage.

- Spy. The trickiest of all TF2 classes, a good Spy can kill an enemy without ever being detected. They can hide as a friendly team member and just when they least except it, they stick a knife in your back. However, if you are exposed, it can be all over very quickly, as the Spy is not very survivable at all. Pro tip; it's not a good idea to play Spy as a rookie, but if you have your heart set on it, then remember to decloak in a discrete location so as not to give yourself away as a Spy. Also, running into a player will reveal you as a Spy to the entire team, which can lead to very bad things.

Another important thing to consider when looking at classes is that there are certain class match-ups that you can use in your favour. If one particular player is killing you over and over again, it might be best to consider switching to a class that is a good match-up against them. Here is a short breakdown against some of the key match-up advantages you can give yourself in TF2.

- Heavies are vulnerable to Spies and Snipers because they move so slowly. A Spy moves much quicker than a Heavy so just run behind, wait to catch up and stick the knife in them. As for Snipers, just wait for the Heavy to wind up his minigun, which makes him move very slowly, and you'll have a great chance to get a decisive head shot which can kill the player instantly.

- A good Spy can be a massive problem for a team, but there is a way to counter them. A Spy will be revealed if he is set on fire and can be ignited even if he is cloaked or disguised as a friendly class, so choose Pyro and try torching anyone whom you suspect of being a Spy.

- An Engineer with a fully upgraded Sentry in a well chosen spot can tear up a team over and over again, but they are vulnerable to Demomen, especially their sticky bombs. Find a safe distance and shoot as many stickies in the face of the Engineer as possible. Another alternative is to sneak up on the Engineer as a Spy and stab him in the back; his Sentry will kill you unless you're very quick with your Sapper, but your team mates can destoy the Sentry before the Engineer respawns.

- Some of the best TF2 players I have ever seen have been skilled Demomen, because they can spam the battlefield with sticky mines and blow you to pieces. One good counter to a skilled Demoman is the Scout. A Demoman's weaponry is best used at longer range, so a Scout can get in his face and pick him off without too much trouble. You have to be quick, though, and remember that the Demoman does have a melee weapon to counter.

- A good Scout can annoy the hell out of you because they can kill you without you ever hitting them. When dealing with a skilled Scout, you want a weapon that is just as fast as they are. Enter the Heavy. His minigun unleashes many rounds per second, and because you have so much health you can take a good few shots from the Scout's scattergun before you go down. Alternatively, use a Pyro to set the Scout ablaze if he comes anywhere near you, or switch to Engineer and set up a sentry which can take the little bastard down.


Practice, Perserverance, Patience

Nobody becomes good at anything immediately. If you come across a skilled player, chances are he's spent hundreds if not thousands of hours learning the maps, perfecting his strategies and learning the classes. Experienced players know what to do in difficult situations because they've seen them before, sometimes hundreds of times. So remember that although you may start off getting killed many, many times, you will get better with a little patience. You can still have fun when you're just starting out, but if you want to get good but you don't want to commit a decent amount of time to learning the classes, the maps and the systems, then maybe TF2 isn't for you.

So there you go, a relatively extensive and comprehensive guide to starting out in TF2. Happy Fortressing, and remember, watch our for Spies!


Quickfire! A Brief Review of Three Months of Games

It's been a long time since I've blogged about games in earnest, so I decided to compile the last three or so months of gaming into one big rapid fire list that is easily digestable if you will. So since it's pointless attempting to write a succinct blog and then ruining it with an overly verbose introduction, why don't we get right to it?
Sid Meier's Civilisation V:
Man, where did the time go? It's been well documented what Civ does to the average person and turns out I was no exception. Steam says I've sunk 155 hours into that game in the past three months - and I'm not done with it. It's just spectacularly good. My only previous Civ experience was the stripped down console and handheld game Civ Rev, which I actually loved the hell out of, but this is just on a completely different level. The sheer depth and richness of strategy is mindblowing, and it's the best way to make an entire evening disappear that doesn't involve taking innordinate amounts of narcotics. I love Civ 5. I really do.
Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale:
One of the joys of a service like Steam is the potential for discovering some delightful oddities, games that you wouldn't really give two thoughts to or a similar number of shits about. But lo and behold, when the holiday Steam sales rolled around they started selling indie games in copious quantities for very small amounts of money, which led to be buying this budget Japanese PC game. Considering I probably paid about £0.50 for this game and have played it for 12 hours according to Steam, that strikes me as pretty good value. It's got plenty of charm, a fair deal of self awareness and Japanese zaniness, and the core concept is so unique and refreshing that that alone make the game stick out to me. Really the part where you're just running a shop and selling shit to random dudes was the best part of the game for me, although that was partly due to the combat, which is really rather monotonous and unengaging. Still, recommended.
Mount & Blade:
Mount & Blade is pretty much the opposite to Recettear in many respects. One is made in Japan, the other in Turkey, and whereas Recettear gets by on personality and charm but is held back by the tedious combat, Mount & Blade actually has some of the best RPG combat in recent memory but is almost completely charmless and devoid of any narrative drive whatsoever. I mean yeah there are characters and sometimes they say things, but it's neither well written nor significant in any true way. Despite its bare bones approach and truly ghetto visuals, there is an awful lot to like about Mount & Blade. Combat really is a lot of fun, and the open-endedness of it doesn't mean you don't feel invested in the endeavours of your dude (or in my case dudette) and her accomplices. Mount & Blade is a very unique experience, that much is sure, but also probably the best Medieval simulation game in the world. My new idea for a dream RPG is Mount & Blade's combat, Oblivion's open world and rich fiction and Dragon Age's extremely strong core narrative and characters.
The Settlers 7: Paths to a Kingdom:
Man, talk about a game flying under the radar. I know that 2010 was the year of Starcraft for RTS games, but that doesn't mean all others deserve to be overlooked. Not that The Settlers 7 is your traditional RTS. Really it's more of a sim style city management game, except that the open ended and somewhat endless nature of sim games is replaced by the actual competitive nature of an RTS, against AI or another player. Maybe this boils down to personal tastes overlapping, but I love sim games and I love RTS games, and that means that this game is just right for me. It's definitely worth mentioning that the campaign is really well thought out; it which unfurls and explains the game's concepts in a very digestable and engaging way without feeling drawn out. I also like the cartoony visuals. But really, this game is just a triumph of rich complex game mechanics, and a brilliant example of the many joys of German board games. It's like Settlers of Catan brought to life, and even more so than the XBLA version of Catan (believe me and believe Alex Navarro, XBLA Catan is badass).
Oh, and the game has intrusive Ubisoft DRM, which kinda sucks. I had one occasion where my connection dropped during a storm. I didn't lose any progress, but I was invested in what I was doing and having to stop was a real bummer. Not a deal breaker, but a frustration.
Team Fortress 2
It's TF2. It's multiplayer. You shoot dudes. It's brilliant.
Dead Space 2 and Assassin's Creed Brotherhood:
So the more eagle eyed reader may notice that every game I mentioned above is a PC game. Well, that's because I've become a PC gamer, apparently. It was a very subtle and quick metamorphosis, but it was also fairly absolute. The down side is that I have a ton of great console games that I haven't gotten around to playing - or in some cases even opening. My copy of Fallout: New Vegas remains unplayed, as does my copy of FIFA 11, and I still mean at some point to crack open Batman: Arkham Asylum and Just Cause 2. The games I'm most keen to play however are Dead Space 2 and Assassin's Creed Brotherhood, but in both cases I had only really session which each and then have found it really difficult to get back into. I had an absolute blast playing through the first hour of Dead Space 2, but just haven't gotten around to seriously picking it back up again. Why? Because I'm too busy jumping between Mount & Blade, Civ 5 and TF2.
Also, since I bought my PC, my Playstation 3 has basically become a Blu Ray played that comes with a couple of downloadable games. At some point I mean to really try and get through Demon's Souls, and I still haven't cracked open Valkyria Chronicles or Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time or Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. It's kinda sad really.
Alright enough of this, time to get back to Mount & Blade.


Ten Great Winter Albums - 1 to 5

Why is it I always turn to blogging when at my most bored and/or intellectually restless? Strange. Anyway.
I have been meaning to catch up on my blog, more specifically continuing to update my adventures of a new PC owner series. But I'm taking time out today to talk about something that means even more to me than video games - that subject is music. In particular, today I wanted to talk about a handful of albums that, for me, really define the winter season we are currently experiencing. We have had heavy snow here in London the past week, and as always it has filled me with a poetic melancholy that has made me especially enraptured by deep haunting emotional music. I want to talk about a few prime examples of this style of music making.
1) Gregor Samsa - Rest

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You have never heard of Gregor Samsa. That is your fault, not theirs. Although their catalogue only extends to two EPs and two full length records, they already established themselves as masters of the art of creating simply beautiful melancholic music, almost shattering in their emotional resonance. It helps when you're named after the most famous creation of one of the most torturously brilliant writers of his or any generation. Their first full-length record, 55:12, was more rooted in the soft-loud dynamic so prevalent in post-rock, but Rest was something of a deviation in that it focuses so heavily on creating moody atmospheric ethereal soundscapes that remind one of rolling fields of white, candlelit nights and of beautiful isolation. The opener, "The Adolescent", is simply one of the most moving pieces of music you will ever hear, and the album as a whole is a complete delight.
"I'll be here when things die down, and the winter is gone."
  2) Bjork - Homogenic
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Bjork is a strange figure in many minds, a bizarre porcelain doll dancing on the edges of popular culture. She is revered in musical circles for her incredibly imaginative songwriting, her powerful vocals and her flair for the artistic, the playful and the fantastic. Nowhere are her strengths and talents more apparent than the simply dazzling Homogenic. Probably the most winter oriented of her albums, her third release was a departure from her earlier work, rooted as it was in glitzy European electro pop. We all knew that there was a true artist, something special, in Bjork's early music, but it is fully realised here. There are still big beats, but the haunting weighty feel of the music is all encompassing. Just about every track is special, each one an encapsulation of a beautiful mind. "Joga", "All Neon Like" and "All is Full of Love" tower the highest, and the unforgettable "Unravel" is haunting beyond belief. It's also according to Radiohead frontman and musical genius Thom Yorke his favourite song ever. He might be right. And are you going to argue with Thom Yorke? Huh? Thought not.
" I weave for you the marvellous web , glow in the dark threads , all neon like"
3) Mono - Hymn to the Immortal Wind
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Hymn to the Immortal Wind is the most recent album from the towering Japanese post rock band Mono, and it's also probably their best. They held nothing back here. Not wanting to delve too deeply into stereotypes and preconceptions, but the Japanese, in particular in their art, have an innate and immediate understanding of the beauty of simplicity, the effectiveness of atmospherics, and the appreciation of the soul's melancholy. Need proof? Look no further. The band gave themselves even more space and time to ruminate; an ironic statement really, because like much of this type of music, they seem to supercede, even evaporate, time and space until nothing but the music exists. The aptly named "Ashes in the Snow" begins the precedings, but the true genius of the album is found in the next three tracks. "Burial at Sea", "Silent Flight, Sleeping Dawn" and "Pure as Snow (Trails of the Winter Storm)" are all beautiful pieces in and of themselves, but together they take on an even more glorious magnitude. Deeply affecting and ever so moving, this is an album that truly must be experienced, even lived in.
4) Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven
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The discussion of atmospheric melodic post-rock begins, and in some circles ends, with the Montreal trailblazers of modern orchestral rock. They are synonymous with this genre, and their magnum opus, the 87-minute colossus Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, is an album almost beyond compare. The four songs are full of secrets, all magical, strange and majestic, built around their incredible sense for the harmony of melody and rhythm. If we were willing to openly engage in unifying all music genres into one internal bracket, and if there were any justice in the work, we would be discussing GY!BE in the same breath as we would the likes of Mozart, Schubert and Rachmaninoff, so great is their talent and their impact on a generation of audiophiles. This is an album you have to give yourself up to, let it affect every part, let every sound resonate within. Few pieces of music deserve such attention and affection. This is one of them.
" And I still remember in my mind how things used to be, and, uh, I feel very bad...and we used to sleep on the beach here, sleep overnight. They don't do it anymore, though. Things changed, see? They don't sleep anymore on the beach."
5) Sigur Ros - ( )
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It's probably not their best album, but through all the music of these Icelandic titans of modern music, none of their work is as auteur, as aggressively artistic and anti-mainstream as ( ). The mere title alone is the stuff of music marketing men's nightmares. Sigur Ros don't care. They only care about creating their beautiful style of deeply moving music, crafted passionately from local folk music, classical and modern works. This record examines both sides of Sigur Ros' style in microcosm, and in clear detail. The first four tracks are light, wistful, almost playful, but still effortlessly magical and extremely engaging. The latter half is darkness, weighty, deeply atmospheric and undeniably melancholic. The lighter half of the album is highlighted by the piano-based instrumental track "Untitled #3 (Samskeyti)", while the latter half if highlighted by the simply massive, all encompassing epic that is "Untitled #8 (Popplagio (literally "The Pop Song" - the ultimate irony))", which is probably the best song the band have ever penned. Sometimes the sheer monolithic weight of their genius collapses upon them, but for it's flaws, it's still a marvellous experience.
I am exhausted by this task I have endeavoured, and so the latter half of this list shall wait for another day. Goodnight.

The Adventures of a New PC Owner Part 3

The Adventures of a New PC Owner
Part Three - On Fortresses, Teamwork, and Playing Against A.I.
I have held a very firm anti-multiplayer stance for a good long time. Growing up I was never accustomed to playing with or against others, focusing instead on single player experiences. When I arrived at the modern generation, where multiplayer seems to be more relevant than ever before, this trend continued, with me wanting mostly to simply disregard multiplayer and stick rigidly to single player. The zenith of this mindset was my enjoyment of games ostensibly designed for multiplayer or co-op - notable examples being Borderlands, Left 4 Dead and Splinter Cell: Conviction - completely on my own. Not only on my own, but happily so. I don't really care for other people complicating things, and the only example of human obnxiousness I can tolerate is my own. I have tested the waters of multiplayer in recent years, including a failed attempt to immerse myself in the competitive atmosphere of Street Fighter IV, as well as a short amount of admittedly enjoyable time with XBLA's Monday Night Combat. But as copies of franchises such as Call of Duty, Halo and StarCraft practically walked off shelves on the strength of their riveting multiplayer, I sat back, fingers in ears, trying to forget that such games even exist.
That said, through all of my anti-MP history, there was always a handful of games that I had identified as the games I would play should I ever attempt to become a more regular multiplayer person.
Fighting games was my first port of call, as along with the aforementioned SFIV I also played a handful of matches of Soulcalibur IV, Virtua Fighter 5 and Tekken 6, all games I hold in higher regard than the more popular Street Fighter, but again could not actually dedicate myself enough to reach a competent skill level. I played a ton of Soulcalibur IV, but I found that playing against others involved everything I knew about the game being broken down and rebuilt to accomodate the so called human factor; everything I thought I knew was wrong, and this infuriated me.
Another genre I was receptive to the idea of engaging in competitively was strategy games. I may have poo pooed SCII earlier in this post, but the truth is that is a game I defintely hold a good deal of respect for. Watching Brad and Norm playing that game on TNT was a hypnotic experience, one that seemed completely incomprehensable but simultaenously fascinating. Other possibilities included experiences such as Supreme Commander II and Warhammer 40K Dawn of War II, games I knew little about, but recognised their pedigree.
And now I come to without doubt the most popular and synonymous multiplayer genre - first person shooters. We all know the history. Doom was the trailblazer, Quake took it into overdrive, Unreal Tournament and Counter Strike cut their own paths, Halo brought it to consoles and Call of Duty brought it to the masses on an unprecedented scale. Multiplayer FPS games attract exactly the sort of person I like to put as much distance between them and myself as possible. It is a generalisation, yes, but one cannot think of an average CoD or Halo player without thinking of a racist immature cheater in his basement playing round the clock and using the word fuck like the right to do so is about to be snatched from his chubby sugar coated fingers.
But through the darkness, there were two beacons that called me in to the safety of their shores, two shooters that whispered promises of teamwork, organisation and playing with a modicum of intelligence. The first of those would be the Battlefield series, which always struck me as a more complex and involved experience than your average military shooter. As of yet I have not followed through on my interest in Battlefield; I have had a rented copy of Bad Company 2 for Xbox 360 in my house for over a month and haven't touched it.
And then there's Team Fortress 2.
My connection to one of the most PC-synonymous and seminal online shooters is layered. For starters, I've owned Team Fortress 2 for like three years. I bought the Orange Box for PC ages ago, and had a ton of fun replaying Half-Life 2 and then playing through the episodes, not to mention the simply brilliant Portal. However, I knew what TF2 was conceptually,a nd I knew it wasn't for me. Or at least, I suspected. Second, as you might have gathered, me and Valve have a good history. For many years Half-Life 2 was rated as my second favourite game of all-time, just behind The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and held the #2 spot until it was pipped by Dragon Age: Origins last year. I have a huge respect and love for Valve, I love the games they make and their approach (well, except their complete disregard for the concept of deadlines...), and of course, I love Steam. Thirdly, in a world full of generic bland grey FPS games with strive for "realism" and "grit", Team Fortress 2 struck me as a game that actually had a personality. The class characters are just that - characters, and endearing characters at that - and the colourful art style really stuck with me.
So as I pointed my ship into new uncharted waters of PC ownership, I had the thought in the back of my head to give TF2 a fair chance and see if I could actually get invested in that game enough to play it competitively. I had it there on my Steam list, and like a beautiful siren it called to me. The exact thought that crossed my mind is "what do I have to lose?". And so I made the jump.
And it might be the start of a beautiful friendship.
Of course being someone who never plays online shooters I can sit here with the utmost authority and rattle off all the reasons why TF2 is so sublime, but really what it comes down to is whether or not it's fun. And as it turns out, is is. It really is. My initial hesitation was based not only on my track record with online shooters, but also from the talk I heard from people like our beloved Jeff Gertsmann, about how the player base was so brutally dedicated and intensely skilled in their respective classes that it was very difficult for a new player to penetrate the ether. Turns out that's a bunch of bullshit. I was amazed at how easy it was for me to get a basic grasp of strategy, teamwork and good ol' fashioned shooting, and even early on I could feel myself being pulled in.
However, my induction to Team Fortress 2 came about in a slightly unusual way.
TF2 has very limited functionality for a pure single player experience with bots. Of course you have all the classes present but the choice of maps is limited to just four - the seminal Dustbowl attack/defend map and three king of the hill maps, namely Nucleus, Viaduct and Sawmill. And naturally when it came to designing the game, the developers weren't particuarly fussed about making intelligent AI, so there were plenty of cases of teammates getting stuck or lost or stupid shit like that - most irritating of all being their incessant desire to fling themselves into the giant rotating blades on the Sawmill map, their computerised brains completely oblivious to the notion that this might be a bad idea - but it was still functional. To boil down the so-called Offline Practice portion of the game, it is just that - a functional way to play a simulation of the TF2 experience.
While the Offline Practice might be limited, it way a brilliant way for me to learn the classes. I started off as I'm sure many others do - I picked the Heavy and tried to just rip shit up. But the more I played the more I realised that I had the most success and in a weird way most enjoyed the more passive classes, specifically the Medic and the Engineer. The latter became almost my default class, the instantaneous option. It a somewhat baffling notion, that you can play a first person shooter and not do any actual shooting, but that made it perfect for me. Whenever I experimented with classes such as Scout, Sniper or Soldier, classes that actually require some precision and finesse to the aiming, I struggled big time. I'm not twitch enough to play those classes. But there in lies what makes TF2 so successful; there's something for everybody.
Not only that, but it truly is a game based on teamwork. I quickly learned that, since my actual human brain made me a massive asset to my team, how sharp I was in keeping up with whose health was running low and where the Heavy was while playing Medic had a profound effect on whether we won or loss, as did the positioning of my sentry and teleporters while playing Engineer. I felt like I was actually a part of something greater, and it's an oddly satisfying feeling, especially considering the mindless computer algorithms that where my brothers in arms.
From there I continued to explore the game's mindblowing depth. There was plenty of stuff that I didn't figure out straightaway, mainly secondary skills and not so obvious abilities, such as using the compression blast to remove fire effect from teammates while playing as a Pyro. The game does have plenty of hints to try and help you out, but really it's only in the testing where it really strikes home whether something is useful or not, and whether it's worth prioritising something when the shit hits the fan. Anyway, realising that certain classes weren't for me, I made a concerted effort to invest in actual combat classes rather than just the passive ones, and I found I had the most success as the Demoman - where I mostly focused on taking out enemy sentries - and continuing with the Heavy. I had a lot of fun playing as both, and while the Heavy might not be my favourite class, the loveable oaf might be my favourite character.
In counting up the hours I probably invested maybe 20 hours in offline practice, often while enjoying my music or my podcasts. It might sound like madness, but when I began this endeavour it was as a curiosity with the expectation that the game would chew me up and spit me out. However, I now feel like I could actually be a competent team contributor while playing with and against actual human beings. While I might not be too familiar with the practical uses of rocket jumping, and dealing with spies is a massive headache that Offline Practice does not prepare the player for, I feel like I know enough to not only play but to have fun. I like the concept of an actual team experience which, as the name implies, is so fundamental to the experience.
I have already played a handful of online matches, but since this post is long enough I'll talk more about my continuing adventures with Team Fortress 2 in my next blog entry. So to summarise, Team Fortress 2 is in my mind the ultimate benchmark for online shooters, a one-of-a-kind blend of incredibly fun and engaging gameplay, charming personality and compelling depth and strategy.

The Adventures of a New PC Owner - The Joys and Terrors of Steam

Lord, what have I gotten myself into?

I've heard the stories. I'm an avid listener of the Bombcast and many times I've heard the crew (especially Vinny) talking about the ridiculous amount of stuff they buy on Steam, especially when the sales roll around. I was determined I wasn't going to fall into the same trap. No, I said, I will only buy games I know I want and will actually play. So how did that work out? Well I now own Frontlines: Fuel of War, a game I knew practically nothing about before buying it. I may never actually play this game, but considering it was on sale and cost me a whopping £1.49, I can't really say I got screwed.
But it's the slipperiest of slopes.
That said, Steam is amazing. It's easy to look at it very cynically as it's basically a DRM hub for your games. Of course many people are still banging the drum of needing to own physical copies of stuff. My cousin, a noted pirate, has voiced his disdain for Steam's anti-piracy system and control of your gaming life. But you know what, I don't feel inclined to own physical copies of things, and I am in no way a pirate, so Steam is absolutely perfect for someone like me. And that's before we get into the excellent cloud support, the very streamlined patching and downloads and the good community functionality.
Steam is already a pretty delicious cake, but the sales are such immaculate icing.
Seriously, how can you not be suckered in by them? I mean sure it would be concerning if you were buying "bad" games, but show me a man who would pass up paying £5 for Supreme Commander 2 and I will show you a fool. Oh, don't like RTS games, huh? Then how about Metro 2033 for less than £10, or two of the three STALKER games for less than £20? I mean for Darwin's sake, I paid £1.49 for the GOTY edition of Plants vs. Zombies (aside - who the hell voted PVZ as GotY? I'm not even it would be downloadable GotY. It's still fun mind, but really, c'mon). I mean I'm sure there must be some business logic to charging so little for some truly great content, but it still boggles the mind that the publishers of Frontlines: Fuel or War, who spent many thousands helping finance development and market this game would then be content to sell it for the price of a cup of coffee.
However, there is a problem with Steam. Well when I say there's a problem with Steam, that's not really accurate. When it comes to this matter, it really is a question of "it's not you, it's me".
I've been having problems managing my gaming related expenditure recently. 2010 has not been a good year for this, considering this year saw me purchase my Playstation 3 in July, then come October I dish out yet more cash for a PC. Since I got my PS3 I have spent a fair amount of time with it; I've played quite a few downloadable titles, many of which I got free/discounted with my Playstation Plus membership. But in terms of actual full-on disc based games I've played to conclusion in my four months of PS3 ownership? Two. Yes, two. inFamous and Red Dead Redemption. Only one of those is PS3-exclusive. Now I'm not saying I regret getting a PS3, because the truth is I haven't tapped into the true functionality of it; I've yet to get invested in the Blu Ray technology, and for UK PS3 owners LoveFilm, ostensibly a UK equivalent of Netflix, is coming in a few months or so.
But I have at least five sealed PS3 games I haven't gotten round to playing since July. That may not sound like a lot, but it's just the tip of the iceberg.
A stroll over to my lists will reveal I already have a fairly substantial backlog of games, almost entirely Xbox 360 games. I was solely a 360 owner for nearly three years, and have a ton of completed games for it, but my insatiable appetite for buying cheap 360 games on Amazon is what began my perilous journey into my backlog. Two years Condemned 2 has sat unplayed on my shelf. Red Faction Guerrilla is still in the wrapping, as are WET, Mirrors Edge and Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood. There are several games that I began, lost interest in and have had a terrible time getting back into - most notable among these are Resident Evil 5, Bayonetta and Far Cry 2. So why did I buy them and not play them? Well I bought them because most of them were seriously cheap - Mirror's Edge was £5 - and I haven't played them because by the time they got close to the top of my list, something new had come along. You might say that well some of those games are mediocre, or at least not outstanding. Well explain why my copy of Batman: Arkham Asylum remains unplayed whereas I did play through Tom Clancy's HAWX?
The PS3 made the backlog problem worse. Steam has the potential to turn it into a crisis.
What the hell as I supposed to do? Should I actually made a pact with myself to sit down every weekend and play through one of my backlog games? Because I'm really not sure I have that amount of self control, not when I have only just cracked open Fable III, and I've still got two Alan Wake chapters to finish. Maybe I should just sell the backlog console games and cut my losses. eBay has been a good friend to me in terms of getting rid of unwanted games, but so many of them are legitimately good games that I feel like I'll be missing out by saying goodbye to them. Perhaps I could rent them down the line if I need to, but considering the amount of games in my LoveFilm queue (yes, LoveFilm do games as well, and extremely well. Deal with it) I doubt I'll be able to see that through either.
Not to mention that I am actually supposed to have a life outside of video games. Right?
My biggest concern regarding Steam's place in my backlog nightmare is that the option to simply pass the game on to someone else doesn't exist. I'm stuck with Frontlines: Fuel of War. I paid £1.49 for this bed and I'm going to lie in it. That's why Steam scares me so much. Yes, the ridiculously cheap games are incredibly inticing, but unlike buying cheap console games there is no safety net. I'm bungee jumping without a bungee.
There is another problem here, too. The biggest reason why I don't get invested in so many games I have purchased is really quite simple. There is only one passion in my life that supercedes my love of video games, and that is my love for music. I listen to about 5-8 albums a day, and more often than not I'll be playing a game while wearing my headphones and listening to my tunes. The problem therefore is whether I can actually play through a story based game without sound. So many of my backlog is story based games, and as a rule I don't like to play any game without sound unless I've seen it before. But because my love of music comes first, I get stuck in this pattern of just playing games without the sound. This has led me to putting 50 hours into Borderlands, a game I've already beaten, when I got scads and scads of unplayed games. This appetite is also satiated by simple downloadable games - my recent addiction to tower defence games such as Fieldrunners and PixelJunk Monsters can be explains by my music-game multitasking - and by handheld games, especially my current obsession Sid Meier's Civilization Revolution.
What I need then is more time to play the games that need my undivided attention, and more games that can appease my desire to play them while doing something else. In the past week, this need has led me to play Plants vs. Zombies, RISK Factions, lots more Civ Rev for DS, and plenty of a game that I will discuss in greater detail in my next blog entry. There are games in my backlog that could be played with headphones - Supreme Commander 2 comes to mind - but I have to make that intial investment to play it and get a feel for it before I'm comfortable playing without soundI am most wary of the upcoming Steam sales for Thanksgiving and Christmas, but will have to just be aware of my expenditure and how new purchases will affect my backlog, because if I buy too many more games, I may literally never get around to playing Amnesia: The Dark Descent, or Warhammer 40K Dawn of War II.
"If you stare into the abyss long enough, the abyss stares back at you." - Friedrich Nietzsche
Next time on The Adventures of a New PC Owner - On Fortresses, Teamwork. and Playing Against AI.

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