Okay, so it’s been a minute since my last gaming-related post. I had a bunch of games I wanted to write reviews for, but real life kept pushing them back, and as the list of planned reviews got longer I thought it might be neat to just do them all together in a big, end-of-year list. It’ll be a good opportunity for me practice being more succinct with my writing, so let’s frickin’ do this:
- God of War – 2018
Hands-down one of the greatest games I’ve ever played. I thought I was no longer capable of playing a game all day long, but I never got tired of God of War. I was hooked from the moment The Stranger shows up at your rustic homestead and you start uprooting trees and breaking apart mountains in order to kill him. The combat is nothing short of exhilarating. While I loved the mechanics of it, I didn’t much care for the levelling system in which you have to agonizingly choose a few attack moves out of dozens available to you. I hate any game where you have to keep going back in and out of menu and inventory systems.
I thought I was going to hate having the camera so close to Kratos but I ended up really liking it; I loved how the game seamlessly transitioned in and out of cutscenes. There are no cuts at all- the whole game is one long camera take, and it made everything feel so much more intense. This fluid approach really tied the gameplay and the story together into a single, organic experience. And the story is so beautifully-written. At the heart of the narrative is the relationship between Kratos and his son Atreus, the former being distant and the latter being curious.
The enemies were all visually-interesting but once I was two-thirds through the game I found myself wanting more variety. I wanted unique mini-bosses and less waves of draugr. I was disappointed when the dreaded Bridge Keeper of Helheim turned out to be just another troll but with a slightly different color palette and an extra set of tusks. And on that note, the game could have done with more finishing animations. The first time you crush a troll with a bluestone monolith it’s lush, but toward the end of the game it gets old.
But the boss fights you do get are the highlights of the whole experience. No expense seems to have been spared in making them breathtaking. Taking down gods makes you feel badass, especially as the characters in the world of God of War seem to have same myths as we do about each of them. The twist however, is that these stories are all a lie, and the Norse Gods are in fact evil and depraved. Though they are feared, they are also pitied and hated. Odin is portrayed as greedy, paranoid, mentally-unstable, and terrified of losing power. Thor- far from being the clean-cut, muscular Disney hero with the personality of an untuned TV set- is instead revealed to be a vain, overweight, violent psychotic that gets drunk and molests people. So you’re motivated to bring all these bastards down and make the world a better place. I can’t wait for the next game to continue doing so, and to find out what the significance of that mysterious eagle was in Helheim…
- Doom – 2016
I tried this and couldn’t really get into it at first. After playing the first few levels I put the game down and didn’t touch it for half a year. I figured it was because I needed more context for what was going on- the kind of motivation you get from a good story with dialogue, cutscenes, and characters. I didn’t like being dumped in an arena and told to keep shooting until nothing was left. But I decided to give it another go one day and I’m so glad I did.
I think the reason I came to like it on my second try was that soon after the point where I’d put it down six months before, the weapons and the enemies got more interesting. I didn’t much care for the Imps and the starting pistol. But once I was in a complex environment that could be traversed vertically, with hidden portals, powerups, and jump-pads, switching between the plasma rifle and super shotgun in midair as I narrowly evaded rampaging Hell Knights, death metal blasting my hair back from the TV speakers as I chainsawed a Mancubus’ belly open and punched a Possessed Engineer’s face and watching it explode, my palms leaking sweat all over the dualshock- I was hooked. It was an almost sexual thrill. The essence of Doom is a power trip- and in that sense it’s not unlike God of War.
The combat in Doom is by far the best I have ever experienced in an FPS. What sets it apart from other shooters like Halo or Call of Duty is its pacing. The gameplay mechanics are designed to make you feel badass. There’s no cover, no reloading, and no regenerating shields. You’re encouraged to be as aggressive as possible- the only way to get yourself more health or ammo in fights is to kill enemies. But as frenetic and fast-paced as the combat is, it’s also a very tactical experience. Each enemy has a specific role, and you have to think on your feet and make split-second decisions about what to do. For instance, the Pinkies will charge at you, the Hell knights will chase you, the Revenants will fire rockets from above, the Mancubi will lay down covering fire with powerful flamethrower jets, the explosive Lost Souls will kamikaze into you, the Imps will launch fireballs at you while scuttling up walls, the Spectres will go invisible to catch you off-guard, and the Summoners will conjure up endless hordes of lesser demons while flying around the map at lightning speeds. You have to manage all of these various threats at once, and it’s very satisfying when you beat them. The demons of Hell are both more visually-interesting and behaviorally-complex than the standard human enemies you get in your average modern warfare FPS.
It’s hard to think of a criticism for Doom, especially as Doom Eternal seems to have already answered all my wishes for things I wanted more of from the first game- such as more bosses and more interesting and varied environments.
- Man of Medan – The Dark Pictures Anthology – 2019
I’m not sure why I keep buying these interactive drama games, but I guess it’s because I’m intrigued by the concept. I like games with a narrative focus, and in interactive dramas the story is the entire focus. The gameplay, if you can call it that, consists of QTE’s and walking around. This means that for an interactive drama to work, the story has to hit out of the park. Otherwise, what’s the point? And just because the game is focused solely on its narrative, that isn’t an assurance the said narrative will be any good. There are plenty of games that tell interesting stories that have no cutscenes, or games that prefer environmental storytelling. And then you have game designers like David Cage and Hideo Kojima that focus heavily on narrative despite their reputations for being truly abysmal storytellers.
I was attracted to Man of Medan because I figured an anthology of small, standalone games would allow for a tighter focus and perhaps some interesting storytelling. I thought Until Dawn was a decent enough game and I hoped that this would improve on that formula. I also like the idea of there being a large cast of characters, each of whom could die in an instant. However the game ultimately shits the bed kinda hard by having a weak plot and a mind-numbingly awful set of characters. About two-thirds of the way through I started actively trying to get them killed. I deliberately missed a QTE for one character because he kept making creepy comments toward the captain lady, and while it was momentarily satisfying to see him fall off a ladder and crack his head open on the cold metal floor below, I had the feeling that I wasn’t playing the game properly. Ultimately I’d rather the game relied more on choices to shape the narrative than reflexes.
My opinion after playing this game is much the same as it was prior- I’m still interested in the format of interactive dramas, particularly those in the horror genre, but I’ve yet to see an execution that I really admire. I think part of the problem is the influence Until Dawn and Man of Medan take from those shitty teen slasher movies from the 1980s. If they could create an original and compelling mystery and not rely on tropes from what must surely be the Dark Age of cinema, then I think these games could be something special.
- Red Dead Online – 2018
Multiplayer isn’t usually my jam, but I liked RDR2 so much that I gave this a go with my old roommate from the USA. Creating your own gunslinger was fun, and once we got through the tutorial we decided to do some free-roaming together. The world looks and feels exactly like it does in single player, and we didn’t encounter any lag. For the first hour I’d say my roommate and I had fun. As we were riding through Tall Trees we got ambushed by a gang of outlaws (NPCs, not human players) and after a lengthy gunfight we managed to kill them all. It felt less annoying than random encounters in the game, probably because we felt like our characters were us and this was an organic part of our adventure. It was also more tense than the experience would be in single player, because our weapons were shit and dying felt like it had greater consequences.
We didn’t encounter much griefing, but we did get attacked and murdered by a couple players near a quest area. I think we might have had them if I’d thrown that stick of dynamite in time (my answer to everything tbh). What actually made us lose interest in the game, aside from our conflicting schedules and my general indifference to the grind of online multiplayer, was the nature of the quests themselves. They just felt a little underwhelming, especially in comparison to the base game. I saw a trailer hyping up a Legendary Bounty, but when I tried it, it turned out to be as simple as climbing a mountain and killing a guy with one shot to the back of the head as he brewed cowboy coffee over a campfire. I guess I expected more of a story, or a more complex gameplay challenge.
- Apocalypsis: Harry at the End of the World – 2018
This might be the only game I’ve ever bought purely because of the art style. It only cost a few quid so I figured why not. Apocalypsis is a 2D point-and-click adventure game with some interesting puzzles. The art style is inspired by 15th century Germanic engravings and it’s hauntingly beautiful to look at. The overall tone of this game is exceedingly bleak. You play as a guy that goes on a surreal voyage to resurrect his missus after she was executed for practicing witchcraft. There’s everything from black magic, Satanic iconography, war crimes, human sacrifice, horrific monsters, and apocalyptic storms on your way. You’re not traveling through enchanted forests, lush vistas, or anything like that. Right from the get-go you are making your way through desolate lands where nothing grows, abandoned villages ravaged by famine, and dilapidated cities whose few survivors are still carrying on a war that has long since has lost any meaning.
The puzzles were pretty good, and each area seemed to have an original and creative challenge. I figured out in my playthrough though that as much as I want to be the kinda guy that plays puzzle games, I might not be cut out for them. I haven’t really got an aptitude for problem-solving and logical conundrums, and generally speaking I am just extremely impatient. There were several puzzles where I just looked up the solutions online, which made me think: What’s the point in playing a puzzle game if you’re just going to use a cheat sheet? This is why I never finished Little Nightmares. I was similarly attracted to the aesthetic but just didn’t have the patience for the problem-solving. When I get home from work, I’m much more inclined to play something like Doom and just shoot demons I guess. But I’m still glad I played this. It’s a neat little indie title that reminded me of Éva Magyarósi somewhat, and I think I completed mostly just to see what the next area would look like.
- The Outer Worlds – 2019
This was the one game this year I knew I would almost definitely buy upon release (assuming, of course, the reviews weren’t dogshit). I was hotly anticipating for a long while the likes of Days Gone, Metro Exodus, Wolfenstein: Youngblood, Greedfall, The Sinking City, and The Surge 2 but in each case felt put off at the last minute. It was as though the more I knew about them, the less interested I became. And then there were the games I thought would release this year but didn’t- namely, Doom Eternal, Ghost of Tsushima, The Last of Us 2, System Shock, and Cyberpunk 2077. And so a year that I thought I would be doing a lot of gaming in, and have a slew of new titles to blog about, proved to be quite the opposite.
I was attracted to The Outer Worlds mostly because KOTOR 2 and Fallout: New Vegas are among my favorite games of all time. Obsidian are basically what Bethesda tried to market themselves as before they got found out last year. They are genuinely committed to single player, story-driven games with rich RPG mechanics, replay value, and player choice. The Outer Worlds is simply a game– there’s no season pass, no special editions, no microtransactions, and it’s not monetized beyond the price you see on the shelf. It’s more of a Fallout game than anything Bethesda have put out.
That said, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would. I appreciate that it doesn’t try to fuck you about with any of the aforementioned corporate shenanigans, but I realized that I was more in love with the idea of the game than the game itself. I’ve always wanted a true open world, single player game in a space opera setting. And while The Outer Worlds basically is Fallout: New Vegas with a different aesthetic, I didn’t like it anywhere near as much. This taught me something about my relationship with games. I always used to think there was such a thing as my “type” of game, and that I’d be sure to like anything in that mold that is well put together. And The Outer Worlds is a good game. Hell, from a technical perspective it’s way better than New Vegas, which was famously riddled with bugs. The Outer Worlds is well-executed and pretty much succeeds at everything it tries to do. So I was surprised when I discovered I wasn’t having fun. Perhaps what determines my appreciation for a game is actually a lot less tangible and a lot more inexact than I thought. On the surface, The Outer Worlds ticked all my boxes, but it just seemed to be missing something; an X-factor, a certain je ne sais quoi.
I think that something was probably the story and world-building. I just didn’t care about the events going on around me and the world didn’t have that feeling of being lived-in. The game tried to be a swashbuckling space adventure while also being a bleak, corporate dystopia, and in my opinion it just didn’t fit. I’d rather it was all one way or the other. Within pissing distance of any settled area are bandits, and it seems like the only reason they are there is because this is a video game, and video games need mobs of bandits. They reminded me annoyingly of goddam Borderlands, which is really not what I want from a rich, story-driven RPG. And then you have the extremely bland-looking alien monsters that just cluster in mobs at the side of the road for no better reason than we need something to shoot at. They would feel like actual wildlife if they spawned randomly in certain areas and had AI more complex than pacing back and forth across the same 10 yards. I wish the monsters were more like the hostile wildlife of RDR2, but instead they reminded me of a fucking MMO. These might seem like little things, but it’s the little things that make or break a sense of immersion.
I found most of the quests boring, and the factions uninteresting. I think part of that is because all the factions are different companies, which sounds like a neat idea in theory, but companies are so boring compared to the colorful post-apocalyptic gangs of the New Vegas wasteland. I ended up just shooting up an entire faction to get out of doing quests for them. While being able to murder any NPC in the game is an interesting idea (and it is impressive how the story continues no matter who you kill), I still felt like I wasn’t playing the game properly. But even though this game wasn’t a hit with me, I am genuinely glad this game exists and I want it to do well.