Friday, February 10, 2017

7 days with... Hitman: Season 1

Hitman: Season 1 – Steelbook Edition
Developer: IO Interactive - Publisher: Square Enix - Release: Jan 31st, 2017

Wrapped in STEEL!

In the years since the last entry in their flagship series, 2012’s much maligned (though underappreciated IMHO) Hitman: Absolution, the developers at IO Interactive have more or less kicked the series off from scratch with 2016’s episodic release, aptly dubbed ‘Hitman’. As a long time fan of the series, I felt I’d be better served by waiting for the eventual retail release, and my patience was rewarded with ‘Hitman: Season 1’.

The Arrival...

‘Hitman’ kicks off with the arrival of Agent 47 at an unknown location in a remote mountain fortress, like something out of Cold War James Bond. He’s introduced to his handler, Diana, and from there, the missions commence. The first two locales are brilliantly executed training scenarios, complete with faux backdrops, sparsely constructed plywood set dressing, and a dense crowd of knowing participants who often break character. They set the tone pretty well, and do a brilliant job of providing you a pair of water wings before throwing you into the deep end. The pittance of locations that follow; Paris, Sapienza, Marrakesh, Bangkok, Colorado, and Hokkaido don’t seem like much on paper, but each is a huge, diverse sandbox with an unrivalled attention to detail, and a nigh infinite number of potential scenarios for hitting your assigned marks. The central story mode is suitably cryptic, and each level assigns two targets, and essentially dumps you at a selected starting location, leaving the rest up to you. What’s insane, is the sheer depth of extra-curricular activities the game tosses in for each setting. You’ve got additional scenarios as rich as the story missions, you have time sensitive ‘illusive targets’ that give you a window of days (in real world time) and only a single attempt to take them out. The contracts mode is held over from Absolution as well, albeit with significant upgrades, and allows for community created missions on any map, and right now, there are HUNDREDS to chose from. You’re rated on performance, and you unlock challenges and opportunities by tackling missions in new ways, and some of these are downright bastards to find and complete. Bottom line: There’s a metric ton of replay here for those who enjoy a creative and patient approach.

So much to do... So many to kill...

The Good:
The diverse sandbox is bolstered by AI and gameplay systems that create a logical and believable world for the player to roam. Scenarios are driven almost entirely by how you interpret the game’s varied systems, play the AI, and push back against the boundaries the developers establish. The first location alone, Paris, tasks you with eliminating a fashion world power couple as one of them organizes a world class runway display on the main floor, while the other meets with global elites upstairs and tries to sell off a list of undercover operatives at a covert auction. Of the wealth of options available to you, you might end up attending said auction (and even winning the bid!), or you could end up on the catwalk as a ponce artiste showing off the spring collection. A quick thumb through of the challenges before you start a level can help out if you’re stuck, or at the very least give you some idea of the depth of options available.

One example of an "illusive target".

Character AI is generally reactive and excellent. Nothing ever feels scripted or pre-planned. Guard routes are logical and varied, and you never feel like you’re taking advantage of pre-determined routines. There’s still a bit of waiting involved, rather than taking advantage of scripted AI by standing around, you legitimately feel like you’re waiting for prime opportunities. You can’t, under any circumstances, get away with being overly aggressive. Subduing within line of sight is impossible, and direct approaches almost always result in detection and your own destruction. Every character on the map hears, sees, and reacts in a realistic fashion to your actions, without ever feeling like they’re cheating. This can really make grabbing new disguises and accessing new areas a tricky prospect, as you often have to play a subtle game of divide and conquer, luring a lonely waiter or bodyguard to an isolated location long enough to subdue him and stash his unconscious (or dead) form someplace subtle. This can be doubly tricky when you’ve got what feels like hundreds of people surrounding you.

The crowded streets of Marrakesh.

The scenarios are bolstered by some top drawer writing; ‘Hitman’ feels like a cold war spy thriller at its heart, and the story mode cutscenes and mission briefs are wonderfully presented, without any of the unsubtle off-color humor that made the old entries in the series straddle the line between grim and goofy. This is straight faced, lean, and effective stuff for those of us who grew up in the age of the Euro spy-thriller. New wave techno beats underscore the action, the villains are suitably enigmatic, and the game never gets mired in Agent 47’s origins. There are no gaudy sci-fi white labs or clones here, and no angst; just a driven, cold, calculating figure that allows you to project your own inner assassin bad-ass.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the beautiful locales. IO is subtle with the design, trading glossy next-gen sheen for stark realism, and even when crowds are at their most dense, like the packed Marrakesh streets, the framerate remains smooth and stable. There’s HDR support in there for those with compatible displays as well.


The Bad:
There’s really not a lot to talk about here, though it must be said, Hitman’s gunplay is pretty weak. This isn’t a game that’s designed for you to shoot your way out of bad situations, or build up a hundreds o corpses body count as you progress, but it’d have been nice to be able to effectively pull a gun and shoot someone in rapid fashion if it meant the difference between a restart or finishing a level. Aiming is slow and twitchy, which doesn’t mesh well with the cover mechanics and the over the shoulder aim. The game really feels like it could function as a capable third person shooter, and there are aim assist and sensitivity options, but nothing ever really makes the shooting mechanics work at an even serviceable level. Granted, Hitman really isn’t that kind of shooter, but the option to draw down on some bad guys in competent fashion really seems like it would fit the all encompassing sandbox. It’s a critique to be sure, maybe a little bit of a nitpick, but everything else works so damn well that I couldn’t help but draw attention to it.


The Ugly:
The Glacier engine is not cutting edge tech, and that doesn’t always work to the betterment of ‘Hitman’. It does a phenomenal job of filling a screen with hundreds moving, thinking people, and at times it can look pretty stellar in subtle fashion, but overall, Hitman’s more realistic bent and the relative age of the engine does give things a kind of bland flavor. Character animations and transitions sometimes look a little stiff as well. It’s not even remotely a dealbreaker, and this really isn't the sort of game you buy for presentation value. Don’t use it as a show off piece and expect people to be amazed.

IO Interactive have taken almost 20 years of Hitman, and stripped it out to its very core. What they then put back together is an elegant, no fluff, no fat package that is really the essence of of everything that’s been good or great about the series since its inception. As a sandbox, it’s as immersive and complex as it needs to be, and it does a fantastic job of separating the core experience from the torrent of extras. The story is lean, but effective, and the overall package, complete with awesome steelbook and sleeve belies its origins as an episodic release and really presents a phenomenal release. This one is highly recommended to fans of the stealth genre, and it’s a must own for fans of the series. I can’t wait to seen where they take us in season 2!

Until next time, here are some more pretty screens...

Monday, January 30, 2017

The 'Annoyed Gamer' could use our help!

A quick post to share a link, and some hopeful wishes to the one and only 'Annoyed Gamer', Marcus Beer...
Marcus and Shawna's Give forward page

The following comes from the Give Forward page:

Marcus Beer has been a colleague, friend, and influence for so many of us in the video game industry for more than two decades. Equal parts intelligent, insightful, funny, and caring, Marcus could pull out his "Annoyed Gamer" persona to share a scathing commentary on an issue as easily as he could reach out to help a friend or colleague who needed help.

On January 28th, Marcus suffered a heart attack and was placed in a medically induced coma. At the same time, he and his wife, Shawna, continue to foster a baby; something they began doing last year. With Marcus in the hospital and unable to work or help, and Shawna caring for the baby, they could really use some help with funds for medical bills to help them get through this difficult time. We're asking for folks to consider donating money to help with medical and baby expenses as well as meals. Whatever you can do to help would be greatly appreciated by all of us that know and love Marcus and Shawna.

Honestly, more than anything, I hope for a speedy recovery for Marcus. No, I haven't met him, but He's been a kindred spirit, and described, even by my fellow Blast Processing guys, as my evil twin.

Here's to you Mr. Beer! 

THE RUNDOWN! Last week to now!

Monday January 30th
Week ending January 28th

What’s that you say? You’re looking for a rundown of all the news that’s fit to read from the week gone by, collected into one accessible bite sized info dump. Well my friend, have you come to the right place! Well, have you? That was a question.

We've got a 'Hit' on our hands!

- January 31st sees the launch of the first season of the Square-Enix/IO Interactive Hitman reboot/season/whatever... The first episode was great, and I expect more great based on the word of mouth. I chose to be patient and grab the whole thing at once rather than go the piecemeal route. Anyone else looking forward to returning to the world of the master assassin, Agent 47?

This video was a hoot by the by...

So much for the revolution

- In the, "I didn't ask for this..." category of news, comes word that Square Enix has put the big kibosh on Eidos Montreal's Deus Ex franchise after disappointing sales of the late-summer sequel, 'Deus Ex: Mankind Divided'. Eidos Montreal goes on to work on an undisclosed Marvel property... sigh. It's not the end of the franchise, but you can see it from here.

Avengers re-assemble!

- Did anyone really ask for an Avengers game developed by Crystal Dynamics, and published by Square Enix under a new, multi-game deal with Marvel? I sure as shit didn't. Nor do I really care. Thanks for nothing. I'm sure someone out there is happy about this, but I'll just sit here pining over what could have been; another stellar Tomb Raider, a Legacy of Kain re-boot, anything but yet another horrible comic-book tie in game. Based on the wasted effort/cash grab that is the Avengers no less...

Slow news otherwise, I'm gonna sod off... Square Enix has put me in a foul mood...

Where there's smoke, there's Iron Man using arc reactor rays to purge all creativity and artistic endeavour from Crystal Dynamics and Eidos Montreal.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Rundown – Last week to now.

Monday January 23rd
Week ending January 21st edition.

What’s that you say? You’re looking for a rundown of all the news that’s fit to read from the week gone by, collected into one accessible bite sized info dump. Well my friend, have you come to the right place! Well, have you? That was a question.

New 'Evil' this week.
- So there’s a new Resident Evil out this week! Resident Evil VII: Biohazard hits stores on January 24th. The demos were terrifying, but I’m amazed at how much has been kept under wraps. Capcom has dropped only sparse hints and tidbits. Yes, the game does tie into the classic ‘Umbrella mythology’ somehow, and it does have spoooooky VR support. That said, The hype train seems to be a little slow leaving the station this time around. Come on guys! This is Resident Evil! 7! Number 7! Get hype!
Also out this week, the highly regarded Yakuza 0, a prequel to Sega’s long-running Japanese open-world crime saga. It’s Shenmue with more Geisha girls and less sailors. Also less lucky hit. Shenume with less cultural awkwardness... note; I said LESS, not NONE.
There’s also a remastered Kingdom Hearts something or other. Trying to figure that series out gives me a headache.

So many people answered the call... 
- Turns out that the number one selling title in 2016 was... drumroll... Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare! Once again, Activision’s Military juggernaut rules the roost. 7 years and counting. The big surprises here were Battlefield 1 coming in at #2, right on COD’s heels, (ED – surprise? Really?) and Final Fantasy XV actually coming in at #2 in December, and finishing on the top ten for the year. The year’s top ten looked a little like this:

1. Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
2. Battlefield 1 (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
3. The Division (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
4. NBA 2K17 (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One)
5. Madden NFL 17 (PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One)
6. Grand Theft Auto 5 (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One)
7. Overwatch (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
8. Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One)
9. FIFA 17 (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One)
10. Final Fantasy 15 (PS4, Xbox One)

Yes, that’s TWO Call of Duty Titles and a 4 year old game...

Not so sure I'm ready to 'Switch'
- Of course there’s a little more Switch stuff coming down the pipe: In the ‘disappointing’ category, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will run native 900p on the console, 720p in portable mode. So we’re still looking at ‘sub-HD’ resolutions... sigh. There will also be no backwards compatibility, no Netflix, no streaming etc, which may dissuade some, but the focus is on the games, where it should be. Nintendo promises about 70 titles by the end of the year, though I don’t believe for a second that we’re getting Xenoblade 2 this year...

- Hey look; Focus Interactive has announced something new; an RPG based on the White Wolf pen n paper game, Werewolf: The Apocalypse. That’s pretty cool! It’s being developed by Cyanide Studios, the french guys who gave us the much-maligned (but I thought was pretty cool) Game of Thrones dragon age clone from a few years back, and the Styx series (that just will. Not. Die). 

- Anyone still playing The Division? Good! You guys are getting an 8v8 pvp game mode included with some new DLC, The Last Stand will be launching soon, in time with the game’s 1.6 update.

That’s all I’ve got this week. Stay tuned. And remember, where there’s smoke, there’s a group of damn elite level Cleaners, toasting bodies as they go, barring the way between you and Times Square.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The RUNDOWN! Last week up to now!

Monday January 16th, 2017 (Week ending January 14th edition.)

What’s that you say? You’re looking for a rundown of all the news that’s fit to read from the week gone by, collected into one accessible bite sized info dump. Well my friend, have you come to the right place! Well, have you? That was a question.

Microsoft scales back development on Dragon Action/RPG

- First things first, Microsoft has announced the death of Scalebound, their Xbone exclusive action/adventure/dragon punching (ED – not THAT kind of dragon punch) RPG – thing. In development for a few years at Japan’s Platinum games under the eye of director Hideki (Okami, Bayonetta) Kamiya. Rumors abound, but it pretty much all boils down to Microsoft just not getting how external development really works, and not being able to speak Japanese. Apparently. The old favorite “communication issues” excuse did pop up. Microsoft’s head of Xbox, the esteemed Mr. Phil Spencer did say Xbox One gamers have 17 titles to look forward to, and someone namedroped Crackdown 3 (SNORE). Anyway, watch this (awesome) trailer and join the ranks of the many disheartened and disappointed Xbox One owners who will be getting one less game that features a man out of time in a fantasy world, wireless Beats by Dre, and a pet dragon. But hey... Crackdown 3! yay?

Don't get your heart set on these titles appearing anytime soon

- In the “I’ve been waiting... waiting so long...” category, ‘Kingdom Hearts III’ and ‘Final Fantasy VII: It won’t be called that’ aka: ‘Final Fantasy VII: crystal supremus morgus whateveris’ director Tetsuya Nomura has claimed that both games are still quite a ways off. No firm release dates in site. There are still entire worlds untouched in KHIII, and Final Fantasy VII is going to be presented in some kind of episodic fashion. Nomura is clearly far too busy designing zippers, belts, keyrings, and buckles to focus on two hotly and highly anticipated AAA titles that fans have been raging about for a decade or so. So yeah, keep waiting. Maybe 2018...

Nintendo flicks the Switch

- The big news this week is, of course, Nintendo’s Switch ‘Treehouse’ event. Several bits of software announced:
- Super Mario Odyssey – Sees Mario travelling all over our world, the mushroom kingdom, and other worlds in search of himself. It’s an existential journey that begs the question; “Am I truly alive? Or is my entire life just being determined by some higher po... HOLY CRAP MY HAT HAS EYES!”
- ARMS: Colorful cartoon boxers with elongated spring arms and a simple, casual friendly, motion control scheme. It looks like you’re really boxing! Way cool (ED – is this sarcasm? Of course it is... why did I ask)! Introduces all new classic Nintendo characters like... Ribbon Girl?
- 1-2 Switch – OK, ugh. I may have just regurgitated my White Russian... Move on to the next one.
- Skyrim – Because hey, why not! It didn’t really look all that... pretty? But hey! Portable Skyrim! The dream is real!
- Xenoblade 2 – This is a JRPG. Which is good. The character designs however, look a little steampunky and goofy in comparison to the other two fantastic Monolithsoft games. Which is not as good, but I remain optimistic.
- Splatoon 2 – Because some of you liked the first one I guess... The Japanese infatuation with tentacles continues to confound me. Also; Splat2oon – missed opportunity Nintendo... (ED – No, I did not just register for you.)
- Ultra Street Figher II: The Final Challengers – OK Capcom... hahaha, funny joke... You’re... you’re what? You’re serious? Wait? What? I don’t understand... It’s not like you released a super hot FIFTH entry in the series less than a year ago, is it? If anyone needs me I’ll be in my room...

OK, it sounds like I’m coming down hard on the Switch, I admit, and that’s because I’ve had it with Nintendo’s zionist isolation. There’s this thing called a games industry, it’s been going on around you since 1985. You seem to have stopped paying attention sometime around 2003. Gimmicks, low rent hardware at premium prices, but it doesn’t matter because in spite of your technology division blowing through a year worth of Escobar stock in a fortnight, they still really seem to think that these are good ideas! And the hardcore will drink from your swollen teat because you, once upon a time, and very occasionally now, really knew how to make fantastic games. Someone needs to pull you aside for a chat. There can be only one post-Steve Jobs Apple, floundering in the dark like a blonde in a pitch black basement with Jason Vorhees behind her, fumbling for a lightswitch, and that’s Apple! What’s even worse; we’re riding the disorder and anarchy of the NES Classic launch, and you’d think that Nintendo might look at that raging torrent and they’d think to themselves, “Man, People really want these experiences again!” Even worse, you’d think they might look at Sony and Microsoft, and how successful they’ve been with their gamer equivalent of stripped out track cars, and they might think, “Man, Gamers really like this new focus on hardcore gaming.”

Anyhoo, here are all the Switch details you need:
- It launches March 3rd, 2017.
- Retail price is 399.99 CAN/299.99 USD
- 3rd party support is in, with titles from Ubisoft, Bethesda, EA, Activision, Sega, etc. Etc. Pretty well all the big boys. For a year or so... 
- Online will be a paid service, likely to be launched in the fall of 2017. Not having you’re online experience up and running at launch certainly instills confidence.
- The Nvidia Tegra hardware is woefully underpowered when stacked up next to Microsoft or Sony consoles, and it seems Nintendo still has no clue what 1080p means.
- Games come on little DS looking carts and in adorable widdle packaging.
- Motion controls and Wii-waggle are once again a thing.
- It looks about 87% stupid and ridiculous, and 13% awesome.

And lastly:

- The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will be a DAY ONE LAUNCH TITLE! HOT DAMN! (ED – I assume that wasn’t sarcasm? It’s hard to tell sometimes.)

It is also coming for the Wii-U on the same day, so, ya know, you could always hold onto the best damn console they made since the SNES.

See ya next time! And remember, where there’s smoke, there’s a PS4 that’s been running a copy of The Witcher III: Wild Hunt for a consecutive 617 days.

Friday, January 13, 2017

20 Random games I loved in 2016!

What Ho! What is this!? Yes, It's a new year, I've been in hibernation a while, and due to many life altering events, those of you who care (all three of you) or with long memories, might recall that I skipped last year's list. I must apologize, suffice it to say, I had the best of intentions, and The Witcher III: Wild Hunt is probably the single greatest game I have ever played. I'd have simply picked it 20 times over again this year, 20 separate thumbnails of that minimalist box art and Geralt's scraggly monster slaying beard. Sadly, my editor insists that a “best of 2016” list MUST include games that were released in 2016, and that no, Blood and Wine is an expansion, not a full game. If I want to get paid, I must capitulate (ED – paid??? HAH!).

The same rules as always apply; for those of you who are new, or for those of you who are old and need to be brought up to speed, I have two rules:

  1. These are presented in no particular order, numerical, alphabetical, preferential, none. Chaos abounds!
  2. I don't give a hoot, a fig, a shit (if you will) about Metacritic scores, IGN video reviews, Gamerankings, Eurogamer, Zero Punctiation or Jimminycrickitquisition or whatever title the hot young nubile Youtube warrior of the moment is being paid to shill. These are games that I dug. To hell with reasons; if I wanna talk about em, I will dammit! (ED-unless they came out in 2015! In which case, shut it and move on!)
  3. OK, third rule, just to prove a point: Chaos abounds! Shut up editor! You're not my real dad!

Here we go, 2016, 20 games, dig in!

- Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare
In the past, we would often gripe about the long-term sustainability of the Call of Duty hype train, and it's horribly ironic that said train would suddenly and violently be derailed in such spectacular fashion RIGHT when the guys at Infinity Ward drop the single greatest campaign since the franchise really took off in 2007. In part, Infinite Warfare succeeds because it places the campaign front and centre for the first time in close to a decade, and beyond that, it steps well outside the comfort zone of “sand, blood, and mud” to give us a truly epic tale of interstellar conflict, dogfights in space, and the most wonderfully written and realized characters in the series' lengthy history. These fantastic characters are thrown into one gut wrenching scenario after another, and these jaw-slapping set pieces do not disappoint. In a year that was stacked with exceptional shooters, a veritable Renaissance of single-player FPS campaigns, this one was my favourite! I'm as shocked as anyone!

- Titanfall 2
The original Titanfall, while much hyped, and very cool looking, fell a little short of being the 'world class' title many expected from the guys who'd cooked up Call of Duty. The multi-player experience was exceptional, but it really felt more like a blueprint for future titles rather than a fully featured game. Titanfall 2 is that blueprint brought to fruition. The game's design is exceptional, the single player campaign is sheer excellence. Vertical and horizontal jet-pack fuelled wall-running mayhem combines with some fantastic weaponry, giant mech suits, extremely cool boss fights, and the most inspired level design i've seen in a first person shooter. The multiplayer also gets a considerable boost with more classes of stompy robots, more weapons, and a more robust progression system. Objectively, Titanfall 2 is possibly the best shooter of the year, even if it fell a little short narratively for me in comparison to a few 
others. Either way, it's a must own for fans of the genre.

- Uncharted 4: A Thief's End
I really, sort of selfishly wanted Uncharted 4 to fail. Neil Druckmann, now a darling following the overwhelming success of The Last of Us, deposed series creator and shepherd Amy Hennig, and brought Troy Baker along for the ride to star as Nathan’s hitherto unknown and unspoken of brother. Creator leaves company and a character tacked on to distract from the awesomeness of Nathan Drake? A recipe for disaster in he making? In the end, we got what can only be described as Naughty Dog’s singular masterpiece. Uncharted 4 blows the conventions of action/adventure game design wide open. It flows smoothly, without the typically telegraphed action vs. Narrative vs. Platforming dichotomy that plagued the previous entries in the series (and indeed, The Last of Us as well). From open to close, Uncharted 4 takes us on an amazing ride that weaves through the hallmarks of the series without ever getting wistful or nostalgic, and without ever compromising on character or narrative for the sake of shoehorning in ten minutes of video game shooty shooty. Beyond that, it avoids the “interactive movie” pitfalls as well, leaving you, the player in the driver’s seat. It’s linear, but it feels open. The characters are majestically well presented, the story beats are near flawless, and good lord, that ending! To top it all off, it’s one of, if not the best looking thing I’ve ever seen. Period. This is one of those games that exemplifies why many of us play games in the first place. If I had to pick just one for 2016, this would be it. Well done Mr. Druckmann, I’m sorry I doubted you.

- Dark Souls III
That Dark Souls continues to soldier on, and only grows in popularity as it does, continues to astound me. If you had told me in 2009 that a series built upon complex systems, unforgiving learning curves, punishing bosses, and slow and steady progression would become a bonafide fan-favorite, well, I’d have scoffed. It has, and will likely continue to be in whatever iteration it eventually reappears in. For now, this is the end, and what a glorious end it is! The developers at From Software continue to work their brutal dark wizardry, building on what makes the series great, as the slow and steady decline of the world of Dark Souls continues unabated. Dark Souls III is the darkest trip yet, the dying, sombre tone of the first two games has been replaced by that of a dead place, covered in smoke and ash. The pockets of humanity and hope are fewer and farther between than ever, and the combat feels as wonderful as ever, with a few bits cribbed from last year’s wonderful Bloodborne thrown in for good measure. The world design never quite reaches the ‘folding in on itself’ brilliance of the original, but as a final chapter, it’s a beautiful and fitting send off for what has been one of my favorite series’ of all time.

- Mafia III
For those who played the (in my opinion) pretty excellent Mafia II during the last generation, you pretty well know what to expect here. Mafia III’s focus is on the narrative, and it does an absolutely spectacular job of telling the tale of Lincoln Clay and his vengeance fuelled rampage through late ‘60s New Bordeaux. Few open world crime epics make the effort to be as poignant and well presented as Mafia has, and III is the most ambitious effort yet. The occasional stutter or glitch is easily overshadowed by the fantastic art design and presentation, and while the game isn’t quite the open sandbox cartoon you’d expect in a post GTA V world, it does give you some opportunity to explore and play a little. Above all else though, You play Mafia III for Lincoln’s story, a mature (in the truest sense) tale of rise, fall, and rage set against a starkly real backdrop. The controls felt great, I loved the characters, I loved the music, overall I loved my time here.

- Battlefield 1
Well, if nothing else, Battlefield 1 definitely wins the ‘That was unexpected’ award for 2016. In the age of future warsoldiers, 1 does the unthinkable and dumps us into the turn of the century shenanigans of World War 1. Beyond that; Battlefield 1 takes the road of reverence typically reserved for Medal of Honor and presents the Great War in sombre beats rather than with Michael Bay flourish. The excellent single player element adds to the significant 1 player riches we’ve gotten this year, and the multiplayer is Battlefield at its best. Battlefield 1 is probably the most memorable entry in the series as yet, gorgeous, tight, and surprising in all the right ways.

- The Last Guardian
In a few especially nerdy circles, the name Fumito Ueda is that of a creative visionary, responsible for two cult classics often spoken of with reverence and wistful nostalgia. The Last Guardian was to be the culmination of everything Ueda had achieved in the PS2 era with Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, and was hotly anticipated when it was originally announced for the PS3, nine years ago. Quite frankly, it’s amazing that the game has survived, and all the more miraculous that it came out so beautifully given its troubled production. For those, like me, who loved the first two, The Last Guardian really does combine the great elements of both previous titles, and it shines with the same brilliant artistry and character as well. The game also gives us a wonderful relationship between our nameless young protagonist, and Trico, the giant pet bird-dragon-cat thing that follows you around, and quickly becomes the most charming and endearing AI-driven critter I’ve ever seen. Much like Ueda’s other titles, this isn’t some AAA-offering with mainstream appeal, and that really makes it all the more wonderful that Sony would stick with it, but for fans of Ico, or Shadow of the Colossus, you will not be disappointed. Be prepared for a soulful, sometimes perplexing and puzzle ridden experience, and bring kleenex.

- Tom Clancy's The Division
Ubisoft's online tactical shooter places players in a post-outbreak/pre-Will Smith New York City where city streets have fallen into chaos, and only those immune to a lab-crafted terror virus are able to survive. You are agents of The Division, a covert group of operatives designed to re-ignite the fires of American civilization in the event of total collapse, on the other side of your gunsights are the tribal remnants of NYC turned Road Warrior-esque kill squads. The Division combine's Destiny's persistent online shooter design with Ghost Recon's excellent cover based tactical shooting, and throws a hefty dose of RPG into the mix. The elements don't always blend flawlessly, I immediately had to turn off the garish damage counters for example, but overall the game looks good, plays well, and has a healthy mix of loot gathering and narrative push. It really fires when you get a few like-minded buddies together, as there's a lot of co-op fun to be had. What I love most is in how the game creatively handles things like PvP areas (the Dark Zone mechanic is brilliant!) and raids. On top of that, the post launch support has been excellent, the updates have served the game rather well without breaking anything fundamental, and the add-ons (one a dungon crawl through NYC subways, the other a survival game) have been fan-freaking-tastic. It's a divisive game to be sure (ED- groan), but plant me firmly in the “love it” camp.

- Doom
Calling Doom a throwback would be doing it an incredible disservice. What it does, is directly evolve the original concept of Doom, running like hell and shooting everything that moves, while ignoring any sophistication or further advancements in the genre that may hinder those goals. What Id has accomplished here is staggering; they've managed to make a game that's both lean and mean, while maintaining a surprisingly deep and versatile weapon customization system that feels incredible in action. It plays unlike anything else in the shooter market, it looks stunning in action, and it's got a ridiculously complex multiplayer element that includes a map-making utility. It doesn't have Infinite Warfare's amazing plot and Hollywood sheen, and it's certanly lacking Titanfall 2's progressive approach to level design and creativity. The multiplayer isn't the all out warfare of Battlefield 1, or the action figure slugfest of Overwatch, but it's pound for pound, probably the most 'fun' shooter of 2016. There's never been a game that bears the Id logo that I've disliked, but I have to say, this is probably their best, and that's really saying something.

- The Technomancer
Look, we all know that Focus Home Interactive is never winning a game of the year award, we also know that I'll play pretty much anything developed by Spiders (the developers behind Mars: War Logs, Of Orcs and Men, and Bound By Flame). The Technomancer is a sort of sequel/side story set in the world of last generation's 'Mars: War Logs', which none of you but me played anyway, so... why? Well, it's a sci-fi RPG, in and of itself a rare enough breed, cut from the Euro/America Bioware mold moreso than the JRPG school. Memorable companions, deep inventory and crafting, cool as hell Mars via Cyberpunk stylings, a decent bordering on very good combat system backed up by an extensive character progression system, and an entertaining sci-fi story with a pretty cool twist. Look, it isn't for everyone, it can be unwieldy at times, but if you, like me, enjoy some ambitious sci-fi storytelling in RPG form, it's worth your attention.

- ReCore
ReCore was another victim of hype run wild in 2016. Ex-Capcom legend Keiji Inafune's startup, Comcept handled the art side, while ex-Bungie/Halo mastermind Joe Staten did the storytelling, and Armature studios, formally Retro, the guys who made Metroid Prime, handled the heavy technical lifting. With that pedigree, many fans expected a killer-app, one that would push the Xbox One to the next level. Few expected a more back-to-basics approach for the action platformer, and in that moment, few would appreciate ReCore for what it was, a delightfully simple romp with some rock-solid mechanics and more than enough charm to go around. For me, it hearkens back to the Psone and PS2 era-platformers that weren't quite the AAA hardware sellers, but built loyal followings, the now vacant 'B-titles' that often brought fresh ideas and interesting concepts to the table without concern for hype or mass appeal. If I had to pick a flaw at gunpoint, I'd say it overstays its welcome a shade, but that hardly breaks the deal.

- Watch_Dogs 2
Initially, I was a little worried about Watch_Dogs 2; I was concerned that a in a knee-jerk reaction to the first game's frosty reception, Ubisoft pulled a 180, flipped the table, and went in a more 'EXTREME' direction; what with teen hacker protagonists and cheesy meme humor, etc etc. Thankfully, in spite of the early marketing, Watch_Dogs 2 is actually delightfully subversive, packed with solid, thoughtful characters, and provides an entirely fresh sandbox to romp in with it's San Fran hipster meets Silicon Valley environs. The mission designs are pretty fantastic, littered with references to real world “big web' stories (an early mission pokes a stick at the whole Martin Shekreli thing in brilliant fashion) and the way your in game phone uses 'apps' in gameplay is both hilariously meta and wonderfully executed. The original's fresh take on multi-player returns in expanded form, and there's a solid sized map littered with things to do. Many may have overlooked this one, but if you're a fan of open world shenanigans, it's well worth a look.

- I Am Setsuna
You're all bastards. I just thought I'd say. Square Enix put together a team composed of veterans, like a crack team of tier one special forces, dedicated to recapturing the old school feel of some of our most beloved and cherished games. They announced 'I Am Setsuna', with some world class talent and design echoing the classic-ist (ED – not a word) of the classics, Chrono Trigger. They filled this sucker to the brim, beautiful art, wonderful design, great characters, a heart-breaking story, gorgeous music, and you know what happened then? None of you bought it. Bastards! If they break up this group, and that's the end of the old school RPGs, I may kill you all.

- Salt and Sanctuary
Ska studio's ambitious free-roaming 2D side-scroller takes the concept of Souls-like (tm and copyright, Blast Processing inc.) far further than I ever dreamed anyone would. This is Castlevania: Symphony of the Night crossed with Dark Souls, with a few unique twists to the formula, and some incredible artwork to back it up. It has all of the hallmarks of the Souls series, the unforgiving brutality and death upon death, gear and abilities that can be adapted to suit many play styles, corpse runs to retrieve your lost 'salt' (the currency of Salt and Sanctuary), and the awesome sense of discovery as you slowly unravel the twisting and turning pathways of the world. That Ska managed to pull all of this off on a 2D plane is really something miraculous. If you fancy an old school romp, and you don't fear a challenge, this is definitely the best 'retro-ready' title I've played all year.

- Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
The official sequel to the rather superlative 'Deus Ex: Human Revolution' sees the return of Adam Jensen, now an augmented soldier in an Interpol task force. It gets a little muddy after that, as Jensen treks from Dubai to Prague to the Swiss Alps in his quest to discover the people behind a terror attack, and to continue his pursuit of the shadowy Illuminati. Conspiracy and morality plays abound, and Mankind Divided will have you second guessing every choice that you make as you proceed to the labyrinthine narrative. It's not enough that the game carries on the fantastic design of its prequel, but it really amps up the social commentary and cyberpunk tropes this time around. It also amps the combat. Deus Ex remains one of the most unique RPG experiences around, and for fans of the series, this worthy sequel will certainly not disappoint.

- Shadow of the Beast
How many of you remember the Amiga cult hit, Shadow of the Beast? No, I'll wait. How about the half wretched Genesis version? Thought not. After giving this re-make/tribute/museum a shot, you'll know all you need to know. THIS is how you bring back a classic franchise. Shadow of the Beast is ultimately a side scrolling beat 'em up, a very old school, combo driven design that thrusts you into the role of a genetically messed with monster, suddenly free of bondage and out to rip the larynx out of your former masters. Combat is fast, reflexive, and fun as hell, and the game's design is beautiful, with some really diverse environments. What's even cooler, is the inclusion of so much extra digital swag; Old box art, interviews, the ability to swap out the soundtrack for the classic version, and even the classic game itself, emulated in all its Commodore glory. As a tribute to what was barely a footnote in North America (but arguably a classic in Europe), Shadow of the Beast is a phenomenal effort.

- Exile's End
Back in the 16-bit era, I was a huge fan of these meticulous 2D adventure titles that made their name on trial and error exploration, with very tumultuous beginnings that slowly yielded as you learned the ins and outs of the mechanics. Games like 'Out of this World', 'Flashback', or 'Blackthorne' were a great way to burn through a weekend if you had the patience to persevere. Enter Exile's End, the closest I've seen to capturing that essence in a LONG time. You're Jameson, a grizzled veteran mercenary tasked with retrieving the Son of a corporate CEO lost on a mining colony. When you're ship is dusted in orbit, and your escape pod crash lands, it's up to you to survive as you navigate an alien world that's one part Super Metroid and one part Flashback. It's tough, and unforgiving at first, but as you discover some gear, the game slowly gives up its secrets, and really becomes something special.

- The King of Fighters XIV
There's no way of getting around this, Street Fighter V was a dump. The Street Fighter III to Street Fighter IV's Street Figher II... That sounded better in my head. Anyway, disappointing, half cooked, barely finished, anemic, with a wretched roster that highlights the quirky weird side of the series that I've always despised. Enough about that, because King of Fighters XIV isn't ANY of those things. What it is, is a series that plays on over 20 years of characters and small tuning to present what is considerably the ultimate package for any fan. Beautiful graphics are melded to fast, incredibly tight gameplay and beautifully elegant mechanics with someone on the roster to suit all play styles. There's no easier way to put it; this is undoubtedly one of the best fighters I've played, ever! If you're at all a devotee of the 2D fighting realm, you owe it to yourself to break this sucker out, rally around a few like minded individuals, and prepare to have an absolute blast.

- No Man's Sky
Poor Hello Games, their much hyped ticket to the big time wound up falling flat this past year, but I just can’t hate on a game that did exactly what I expected. Somewhere along the way, people lost the fact that No Man’s Sky is actually a pretty damned awesome space sandbox. Exploration and resource gathering, naming planets, trading up starships, encountering strange flora and fauna, and marvelling at the variety of planets you can discover and name, these things are all awesome. The fact that I actually had a few kids obsessed with discovering new worlds and harvesting materials to refuel hyperdrives for a good chunk of the summer, well that speaks for itself. I for one applaud the work of Sean Murray and company! I’m also glad they’re still adding features to keep things rolling. Don’t believe the hate, No Man’s Sky’s biggest crime was that it wasn’t the AAA be all-end all that the industry had set it up to be. Were Hello Games a little too ambitious? Yeah, no doubt. Did they craft a fun as hell space survival/sandbox? Yup! They sure did!

- Let it Die
OK, so Grasshopper Manufacture and maverick Japanese game developer Suda 51(who brought us lunacy like No More Heroes and Killer is Dead) announced a Souls-like, cool! It's free to play! Cooler still! You wake up on a subway car wearing a pair of skivvies and a gas mask, and the door opens, and you kill things. You pick up weapons that range from assault rifles to power saws, patchwork post-apocalyptic armor that pretty much starts disintegrating as soon as you equip it, and when you die, your corpse becomes a bad guy. There's also Death, the grim reaper death, in whirly hypno glasses, riding a skateboard. You travel back and forth from a video arcade stocked with weirdos to talk to, and no, I have no freaking idea what the hell is going on. You're trying to get to the top of a tower that looks like it's made out of old TV sets, it plays vaguely like Dark Souls on methamphetamine, and it's definitely fun. It's free! Go play it.

There you have it! feel free to yell, complain, argue, whatever. Feel free to comment, like, share, discuss, tell me you're favorite games of 2016!

Also, If you feel I should retread 2015 and chime in on what I loved there ,by all means let me know, and I'll see what I can do.

See ya next week! 

Friday, January 02, 2015

20 Games I really dug in 2014

OK - so here's the real deal. As usual, I tossed all preconceived notions to the wind, didn't rank according to score or preference, just slapped together this list of 20 games I had a great time with in 2014...

20 Games I Played and Loved in 2014
(... in no particular order)

Dark Souls II – Dense, diverse, and relentless. Even with the razor sharp teeth of Demon's and Dark filed down to be merely “very very pointy”, Dark Souls II remains a beautifully executed game that focuses on slow and steady exploration, character building, and learning through experience. No other series is really quite like it, and while it's not for everyone, Dark Souls II's subtle changes under the hood make it just that little bit more accessible. Whether it stands up artistically to its prequels will likely be debated for years, but it's an amazing piece of work irregardless, and one of the best games of the 7th generation. If you've held off until now – there's a version hitting PS4 and XboxOne in the very near future...

Destiny – Bungie's “shared world” shooter may have divided many critics, but I for one found it to be a wholly original, beautifully executed experiment that combines stunning technical feats woth Bungie's awesome penchant for world building and gob-smacking design. It's not an MMO, nor strictly a shooter, but a unique hybrid of both genres that manages to stand on its own. Above all else, it feels empowering, and allows you the player to take the role of an interstellar bad ass with friends or without. I don't say it often, but this is very nearly the perfect game, and undoubtedly would be the Blast Processing collective's unanimous choice for game of the year, 2014.

Watch_Dogs – Ubisoft made waves a few years back when it demoed a very early version of Watch_Dogs at E3 and stunned a totally unsuspecting crowd. It went on to become a poster child for Next gen gaming, There's no way in hell the game could withstand the level of hype that followed. What Ubisoft delivered however was a refreshing spin on the GTA formula that featured a hacker vigilante rather than a hardened thug. Sure the gameplay was “open world 101”, but the city of Chicago was beautifully realized, and the storyline really set the game apart from its peers. I actually prefer it to GTA V's narrative-lite sandbox, and I make no apologies for that.

Lords of the Fallen – One of the teams at Polish Developer CI Games has clearly played the 'Souls' series, and with a talented bunch of veteran artists (including guys who worked on the superlative “The Witcher” series) they've not only managed to give us gaming's first “Souls-like”, but they've made it one hell of a great game to boot. Harkyn's quest to destroy the titular lords isn't one of the most detailed or narratively brilliant romps, but the fantastic combat mechanics, flexible customization, abundance of cool gear and weapons, and truly stunning artwork make this one a must play for fans of a good action adventure title. It's decidedly more accessible, while still maintaining that unforgiving difficulty the Souls games are known for. There's already a sequel in the works, and I hope that in a decade's time, the “souls-like” genre is a thing, especially if the games are all up to this quality.

Dragon Age: Inquisition – Bioware's return to medieval fantasy can only be described as a resounding triumph in pretty much every respect. Stunning visuals, great characters, gob-smackingly expansive worlds to explore, and a great plot that unfolds with a deliberate pace. Inquisition is everything you remember from the golden age of Pc RPGs like Baldur's Gate and Fallout, but presented with true next gen panache. Plan for at least 75-100 hours to be devoured, and don't make your first sitting any less than 3 hours. This one isn't a game for power players who just want to tick off objectives on the way to the next cutscene, this is a world that you need to get enveloped in. Hats off to Bioware on this one, they've really outdone themselves in a colossal way.

Shovel Knight – Yacht Club's successful kickstarter rubbed me in pretty much every wrong way initially. The idea of a knight with a shovel instead of a sword, the retro throwback nature of the game, which is getting a tad overdone, and the side-scrolling “Duck Tales” looking gameplay. The end result however is anything but lackluster. The gameplay is a hodgepodge of everything awesome in the 8-bit/16-bit era, and in truth it feels like one of the first retro throwbacks to embrace modern design ideas rather than go “slavish reproduction” with warts and all. It's a big game that combines elements of classic Capcom, Castlevania, and even Mario with precise controls and off the wall humor. It's charming as hell, fun as hell, and feels just right. All hail the Troupple king!

Alien: Isolation – Pure abject terror. That's what the guys at The Creative Assembly have managed here. Tension, fear, death. On top of that, they've also created the most memorably terrifying setting this side of Bioshock's Rapture, a beautifully atmospheric space station that echoes the tone and tropes of Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi classic that serves as its prequel. You play as Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen, as she journeys to Sevastapol Station in search of the black box from the mining ship Nostromo. Rather than gaining insight into the whereabouts of her missing Mother, Amanda comes face to face with the same terrifying force, and it is indeed terrifying. Elements of the aforementioned Bioshock, and even Metroid work their way into what is undoubtedly one of the most beautifully realized game-from-movie titles ever conceived. Sure, as a group we might have chosen Destiny, but Alien: Isolation is a very strong contender for Game of the Year in my own book...

Assassin's Creed: Rogue – The yearly battery of Assassin's Creed titles took a bizarre turn in 2014 when Ubisoft decided to drop Rogue exclusively to last-gen consoles (for now) while Unity carried the 'next gen' flag. To those who loved last years 'Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag', Rogue is just what you're looking for. Naval combat, ship building, exploring the staggeringly gorgeous (especially for antique hardware) North Atlantic, and an extremely cool protagonist in Assassin – turned – Templar, Shay Cormac. You get some familiar faces, and even a fair amount of backstory on characters from the series' past in the “modern day” chunks of the story. Overall it's a great and worthy entry in the series, and ties up the “Americas” section of Assassin's Creed in fine fashion.

Wolfenstein: The New Order – Newcomer, Machinegames, headed by several guys from Starbreeze studios (they gave us The Chronicles of Riddick, The Darkness, and Syndicate) have re-booted Wolfenstein as an alternate history shooter wherein Nazi Germany has marched on North America. A lengthy single player centric game with some great visuals, great weapons, and above all, a thoughtful and very well told plot, succeeds in such spectacular fashion as to make 'The New Order' one of those games from 2014 that no one should really miss. This is the third time Wolfenstein has been kicked off from scratch, and it's probably the best the venerable series has ever been. Don't miss out!

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare – What? A Call of Duty title Steve? Really? Yup. Based solely on a single player campaign that is one part techno thriller, one part James Cameron action spectacle, and with a diversity in the campaign that hasn't been seen in Call of Duty... well... ever, I have to applaud this one. Sledgehammer wisely ignores the woeful sci-fi steps taken in Black Ops II and reboots “Future-COD” with their own vision of PMCs, powered exosuits, and high tech weaponry that more closely resembles the phenomenal Killzone series than anything that's come from Call of Duty in the past. There's also a fantastic villain played by Kevin Spacey, and enough diversity in the bad guys to keep things interesting throughout (except maybe for the final mission). It's the best game in the series since the original Modern Warfare in 2007.

Driveclub – Evolution studios took a lot of fire over Driveclub when it launched (in what I'd consider to be unfinished form), but once the bugs were ironed out and the first big content patch hit, Driveclub, in its finished form, is really quite a thing. For car fans, it's about the purest “driving” experience you can get on a next gen console, there's no open world shenanigans here, just hardcore racing that straddles the line between sim and arcade rather well. It is also one of the most beautiful looking games ever, and undoubtedly the most staggering driving game ever conceived from a visual standpoint. The 'tour mode' is also addictive as hell as you struggle to earn just one more star, and shave seconds off of lap times. Top that off with a robust online suite based around social interaction between driving clubs and challenges, and you've got a fantastic straight up racer.

Mercenary Kings – Tribute games was yet another face in the Kickstarter crowd this year, and much like Yacht Club Games and their awesome 'Shovel Knight', Tribute has managed to pull off 'retro ready' in style with Mercenary Kings. It's Contra or Metal Slug in all the arcadey glory crossed with an insanely deep crafting system and hints of Borderlands. Retro style mixed with modern design. There's also a fantastic approach to tone that echoes '80s action films and G.I. Joe. I had a TON of fun with Mercenary Kings, and it's well worth checking out.

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor – There are certain narrative elements one might expect to see when you encounter something with Middle Earth emblazened upon the cover, and while Shadow of Mordor does initially set things up very well, there was a distinct lack of narrative pull for me as I played through. That said, the combat feels phenomenal, the concept of a Ranger of Gondor possessed by a powerful elven wraith from Middle Earth's distant age is a very cool one, and the technical merits are nothing shy of astounding. Chief amongst the boons is the games 'Nemesis' system, which sees grunts become more powerful chiefs and even boss-like figures as they survive encounters with your Ranger. It's a brilliantly executed bit of programming, and what works well for the game easily overpowers what nitpicks I have with the narrative (being a huge Tolkien nerd). As far as Orc-slaying sandboxes go, this is the one to have.

Bound By Flame – I'm going to say this outright – Bound By Flame is NOT a great game. It's a good, solidly executed fantasy RPG that faintly echoes both Mass Effect and Dragon Age in its design, and it pleasantly surprised me with a stable of interesting characters and solid gameplay. It's also a decidedly ambitious title from a small studio on a minuscule budget, and the fact that it turned out so well in that regard deserves some praise in my mind. If you're desperate for an action RPG fix, you could do much worse. The big let down is that the whole affair feels so brief, and the narrative hits a brick wall two thirds of the way through, with an abrupt final act that feels more like a prologue to the real tale than a full game. It;s here because, yeah, I really enjoyed it. And If you dig vaguely narrative action RPGs with a Euro flair and some heavily customizable gear, you might as well.

The Elder Scrolls Online – Another big title that came and went without much fanfare, The Elder Scrolls Online does more right than it does wrong. Great character customization that echoes the Elder Scrolls “proper”, combined with emphasis on exploring a VAST world. On the upside, it feels just different enough from your average MMO, with plenty of solo content for those of us who prefer a single player game, the downside, it really lacks that “lived in sandbox” feel of past Elder Scrolls games, and instead borrows a little too much of its structure from games like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2 to really feel truely unique. That doesn't stop it from being a polished, well presented, and ultimately worthwhile game though.

Assassin's Creed: Unity – What? I know what you're saying? Isn't this a mess? Well... No... not really. Overshadowed by the technical hiccups and the resolution issues, What the general public, and indeed Games journalists failed to discover, was that Assassin's Creed: Unity is actually one heck of a solid game. The plot, set during the French Revolution, unfolds in deliberate fashion, and sets up the protagonist, Arno Dorian, as one of the more memorable characters in the series. From the amazing prologue, to Arno's time in the Bastille, and onward to his induction into the order of Assassins, Unity feels at once fresh and familiar, and in spite of the well publicized issues, the game looks stunning, both standing still and in motion, and the whole game really does a phenomenal job of adding just the right level of “flair” to Assassin's Creed's mechanics. There's more weight to the combat, more precision to the free-running, more life on the streets. In spite of its shortcomings, all brought on by just not enough time in the oven, Unity is a high watermark for the series, and a must play for fans.

Infamous: Second Son – The worst thing about Infamous: Second Son is that it came so early in 2014. It will undoubtedly be forgotten rather quickly. Sucker Punch has once again shown their skill at weaving together open world environments and some kick ass platforming, which in and of itself is a great thing, but where Second Son really succeeds is in the “good or evil” narrative choices, and in the weaving of the overall tale. Delsin is a great protagonist, and the supporting cast is equally memorable. Beyond that, the facial animations and technical prowess made it the first game on PS4 to really sock me in the jaw from a visual standpoint. I'll also say I dug the decision to get away from the more “over the top” comic art style of the first two games to settle into a more realistic style, it made it that much more relatable for me. It does get a little too mired in formula at times, a problem the first two games had as well, but when it's firing on all cylinders, which is more often than not, man is it ever awesome.

Wasteland 2 – I make no secret of my love affair of all things Fallout, but I'd never played the spiritual predecessor, Wasteland. When Inexile entertainment announced that they'd regained the rights, and started in on Wasteland 2, I expected something in much the same style. I was mistaken. Sure, Wasteland 2's gameplay is post apocalyptic, and the old school PC-RPG feel is completely intact, but underneath lies the heart of a very different beast. The story is decidedly more bleak, with a much darker, less satirical sense of humor, and the world is a ripe, wide open apple waiting to be picked. Gone are the '50s nuke-powerd tropes, replaced with a Mad Max meets Wild West sensibility. It was a very pleasant surprise, and if you're a fan of the sort of old school gameplay that hearkens back to the golden age of the PC RPG (right around 1998), you owe it to yourself to play this one.

Far Cry 4 – If you've played Far Cry 3, you know what to expect here. No, Far Cry 4's narrative isn't as thoughtful as 3's was, and our hero protagonist isn't quite so memorable, but my god, that Tibet/Eastern influenced setting is just a joy to traipse around. There's also Pagan Minh, who is a fantastic antagonist (be sure to check out the secret ending!), and that wonderful Far Cry feel to the action that is at times both frantic run and gun and strategic cover shooter. Expect to spend a lot of time exploring, and playing around with an unparalleled level of toys. Every compound you attack, every objective you meet, is a shining example of emergent gameplay at its finest. No other series manages to cast of the shackles quite so well, and while the narrative may not be up to past entries in the series, the sandbox is more expansive than ever.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War – Yet another Ubisoft entry on the list. There's not a lot I can say about this one. It's hand drawn, side scrolling, almost entirely based around simple puzzle solving, and yet manages to be heartwarming, heartbreaking, and utterly captivating as it weaves it's tale of several characters caught up in the events of the First World War. It bears more resemblance to classic titles like Another World (or Out of This World) or Flashback, but moves at a much faster and more accessible pace, And while it never outright stumps, there were occasions where I had to stop and really examine my surroundings to deal with the clever puzzles. There's also just the right mix of action stages and boss battles. Just a wonderfully executed, and creative game.

There ya have it. Any thoughts? Anything I missed? Feel free to let me know!