Review: The Bunker (Spoiler Free)

A brand new FMV game in 2016! And it's good!

A brand new FMV game in 2016! And it’s good!

Developed By Splendy Games/Wales Interactive. Published by Green Man Gaming.
Available on PC, PS4 and Xbox One.
Review code provided by Green Man Gaming.
Buy a cheap Steam key from Green Man Gaming and help support my content.

The Bunker is a brand new full motion video adventure game, released in 2016. If you haven’t clicked away after reading that, hear me out. As someone who grew up with these gems of the burgeoning “multimedia era” and who still has a place in my heart for them, I’ll be the first to admit that in almost all cases, they were neither good films, nor good games. Many have tried to resurrect this fascinating sub-genre recently and most didn’t do any better than their 90s counterparts. The Bunker maintains some of the genre’s past faults but makes up for it with a well shot, well acted and very well told post apocalyptic vignette that I think you’ll like if you’re into that kind of fiction.

Your character is John, a man who was born in the UK nuclear bunker in which the entirety of the aptly titled adventure takes place. You entered the world the moment the atomic bombs fell in a fictitious 1986 conflict. The game takes place 30 years later, when the population of the bunker has gone from 59 to just you and your Mother, who is breathing her dying breaths as things start off. The reasons for this aren’t made clear until near the end, where some major and incredibly dark twists happen. Some people may see them coming but when I played this on stream, both myself and most of my chat were stunned. While John is the focus of the game, there are many flashbacks with various characters from the backstory that help flesh out what happened and why. Things start off feeling mundane and boring on purpose but really go places by the end.

Much like titles such as Gone Home or Dear Esther, the story is what you’re really here for in The Bunker. There’s very little interactivity, just some clicking around scenes to examine objects or trigger an automated manipulation of them and the occasional simple quick time event that can determine how some scenes play out. There’s no real failure state, except for a couple of parts that just take you back to the beginning of a scene, which you unfortunately can never skip, even if you’ve seen them already. My opinions on so-called “walking simulators” are well known and I hold this genre to high standards because your story has to be incredible to make up for a lack of game play. The tale told in The Bunker is one that’s disturbing and dark but also surprising and it showcases the tortured life of a character who is trying to live in a world that would drive most people mad. It’s more of an interactive movie than a game but it tells something original and compelling, unlike the other two games mentioned. There are some bits that might make you jump but this definitely isn’t a horror game, more of a thriller.

The acting is well done and conveys the weight of circumstances well. It’s an oppressive place with people working under extraordinary circumstances and it feels that way. Some of the cast are apparently known actors in the UK., though I wasn’t familiar with them. The writing isn’t long-winded and gets to the point and doesn’t use more words than necessary. FMV games are often tricky for actors because they have to film things like idle positions and transitions between scenes. These often appear stiff and unnatural. Your character in The Bunker has some major anxieties and is nervous in general and his constant fidgeting helps make these transitions much smoother. They also flow together well and rarely do you see the cuts between two obviously different clips of footage.

Outside of the flashbacks, you’re completely alone in this place and they nailed the atmosphere. The game was filmed in an actual British nuclear bunker and it’s an austere, dark, oppressive environment that adds to the sense of loneliness and unease. The sets are full of period appropriate props, including old tape decks and British appropriate computers like Commodore and Amstrad, several of which you’ll end up interacting with. Everything is very well shot and framed and you can tell there were professional filmmakers involved. Unfortunately, they don’t do a great job of making the modern elements jive with the old ones. It’s very obvious when you’re using the computers that they’re just projecting modern text elements onto an image of an old school monitor. It’s not too jarring but a few added scanlines would have made a huge difference. This is accompanied by a great sound track–which you can purchase if you wish–that combines some good 80s synth with deep, foreboding tones that inspire dread. There’s elements of the excellent scores from the two recent Deus Ex games in here and they fit nicely.

The Bunker is a short experience as games go at only two hours and unless you want to achievement hunt, there’s no incentive to play it a second time. Some might find its $20 price tag a bit steep and I can’t blame you if you do. Personally, if I spent $20 on this, I would have felt quite satisfied as it’s a good story told in a way that we don’t see too often in this day and age. However, if your gaming budget is limited and you need something you can put a lot of time into, this may be worth just watching me play it instead of playing yourself. Though largely an interactive movie, I still think there is a lot of value in being the one in control and for that reason, I still highly recommend The Bunker. It’s an FMV game done right and with a fiction I find morbidly fascinating and it’s stuck with me since I finished it. I’d play more FMV games like this and I hope this can finally be the dawn of a modern day reemergence of this genre.

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Review: Inside


WARNING: This later parts of review will spoil the endings of both Inside and Limbo. It’s impossible for me to provide my full critique otherwise.

After debuting with the hit Limbo in 2010, many were eagerly awaiting the next title from Danish indie studio Playdead.  They spent the next several years porting it to practically everything with a screen and left everyone wondering what they were going to do next. Their second game, Inside, finally came out recently, with very little buzz for something so highly anticipated. It instantly became an indie critical darling, with many critics claiming it to be far better than Limbo and an easy contender for game of the year. I played and finished Inside in one afternoon and while I did enjoy it, I can’t disagree more with these other critics.

The common elements between Inside and Limbo are plentiful and obvious but Playdead have also made some nice iterative improvements. There is no UI and you use only two buttons and the analog stick. The mechanics are so simple, the games don’t even have a tutorial, nor do they need one. They’re able to use this minimal control style to create some deep and intricate environmental puzzles and while most of the ones you’ll encounter in Inside aren’t very difficult, it’s also impressive what they were able to construct with only two buttons. It’s not a bad formula but it’s not at all out of line to say that the majority of Inside just plays like more Limbo and after 6 years of development, I’d hoped we’d see more than that.

Where Playdead has really upped its game is in the art department. Limbo had a very flat, black & white, almost newspaper comic art style that was striking and beautiful but like its mechanics, very minimalist. Inside is in colour but still uses a limited palette to great effect, using generally subtle variances in tone to highlight important things. If something stands out, you know they intended it to be that way. They also used a means of presenting depth that I can’t really explain without visuals but everything really pops out, almost like it’s being presented in stereoscopic 3D, even though it isn’t. Check Giant Bomb’s image gallery on the game for some great examples. It’s a beautiful, yet oppressive aesthetic that weighs you down with intent.

There is music in Inside and it conveys the mood very well but you won’t hear it very often. Most of the game’s atmosphere is contained within its soundscape and it’s used to great effect. It’s not often where I can say a game is frequently at its best with the absence of music but that’s certainly the case here. Inside is largely a game of solitude and the humming ambience and deep echos you hear when manipulating the puzzles convey that very well. There’s no doubt that Playdead are masters at using as few auditory elements as possible to create a mood.

Here’s where the spoilers come in. Like Limbo, Inside is getting most of its praise for its storytelling. There isn’t a word of dialogue in either game and everything is communicated through the environment and the sounds and movements of your characters and those around him. That’s a great way to tell a story when it’s done well but I don’t see how anyone can think Inside did it better.

Like Limbo, you play a young boy who is on the run. You start off having no idea why and are supposed to find out as you wind your way through the world. Whereas in Limbo, you were being pursued by otherworldly creatures, Inside takes place in something more closely resembling the real world. You’re running from actual people and you discover that some evil corporation or possibly government is enslaving people to essentially become remotely controlled automatons for what I imagine are the wealthy class. You first learn this by being put in a position to control some of these drones to solve a puzzle, then later have to impersonate them in what looks like a human quality assurance line. This was the part that stuck with me the most because it’s truly shocking when you first see it and makes you question just what kind of dystopia you’re trying to get through and why everyone’s so keen on tracking you down.

The problem is, nothing is ever explained to you. You don’t know who you are, why you’re running from these people, why you eventually end up running towards them or why you’re really doing anything at all. Early in the game, you come across a farm where there are dozens of dead pigs everywhere. The one pig you find alive attacks you relentlessly, until you trap it in a corner and pull off its tail, at which point it becomes completely docile. None of this is explained at all.

This is horrible to look at but what does any of it mean?

Later on, you come across what seems like a young girl with long, flowing hair who lives and breathes underwater. Whereas water meant instant death in Limbo, Inside has several sections focused around swimming. This girl pursues you relentlessly in these sections and kills you instantly when she gets her hands on you, except for one point later on where you can’t avoid this and she suddenly bestows you with the ability to breathe underwater. Why? Again, this is never explained.

This is the underwater girl. Who is she? Why is she here? Why does she want to kill you right up until she helps you instead? No idea.

Eventually, you infiltrate the oppressor’s massive and daunting facility. What you end up finding at the end of it is a grotesque ball of humanity in a tank. It looks like a massive concoction of random body parts. You have no idea what it’s purpose is, if it’s fully formed or some kind of experiment in progress or even if it’s sentient, you just know from the crowd of workers around the tank that it’s something important and that it’s where your character aims to go.

You work your way to the tank and dive in with this…thing. Your character then proceeds to merge with it for again, no obvious reason and it’s here where the game takes a massive twist, turning from slow and methodical puzzle platformer to a semi-horror action game. You now have control over the abomination and proceed to quickly break out of your enclosure and raise Hell. Being more or less round and covered in various human limbs on the outside, you’re able to roll yourself around and crush anything in your path but still have the means to use elevators and navigate obstacles. The controls at this point become mushy, slow and unresponsive, very much in keeping with the lumbering, clumsy ball you’re now controlling. You instantly get a dopamine rush at this point that lasts for several chapters, as you barrel your way through this horrible prison, destroying everything in your path and sending the workers scattering in panic. It feels like revenge and like the oppressed going Godzilla on the oppressors. It was a blast.

You will eventually roll your way into an office where a terrified figure in a tie cowers against a window. It’s never stated but it’s obvious that this is the person in charge. There’s no time pressure here, you can sit and stare him down as long as you want, making him live the fear your character did in getting to him. Then you charge, burst through the wall, fall several stories and turn him to red mist as he breaks your fall. As soon as I hit the ground, I instinctively put my first up and exclaimed “Fuck yeah!”

But it’s not over yet. There are several chapters left in which you have to try to make your way out of this place now that you’ve seemingly accomplished your goal. There’s no clear path out or what you’ll do when you get there but you’re going to try anyway. Several more puzzles stand in your way, including a surprising one where one of the remaining staff who is desperate for you to leave, actually provides a measure of assistance. By the end, you find your way to freedom, away from your prison and the awful people who did this to you. Then…you proceed to roll down a hill and die on the beach.

That’s it, hunh?

In the end, your journey is ultimately one of futility. You killed one of the people in charge, who you just know will be promptly replaced. You’ve made no substantive improvement to the world. The evil entity still exists, people are still being enslaved and the elite class who run things still do. Nothing about the other characters you met is explained. Things are more or less the same as when you started, except now you’re dead. So what exactly was the point?

In Limbo, the surreal, creepy state of the world and the fact that you largely accomplished nothing in the end made sense because well, you’re in Limbo. It’s right there in the title. It’s not supposed to end, it’s a place where you live in perpetual failure, unable to accomplish the one thing you want more than any other, which in that game, is reuniting with your sister. It was dark, oppressive and ultimately futile but it all made contextual sense and that context is what made you think.

All Inside does is leave you with a ton of unanswered questions and also having accomplished nothing. In so many key aspects, this game is just a reskin of Limbo, except it’s storytelling is far worse, leaving many previously established things hanging in the air and being an ultimately futile journey with no reason as to why that is. The ending is a cop out, leaving you to try to draw your own conclusions as to what just happened and why. I personally think that’s a crap way to tell a story. Your job as a storyteller isn’t to neatly wrap everything up in a bow but you can’t ask me to spend 4 hours of my life playing through your story, only to just arbitrarily end it out of nowhere with far more questions than answers and go “You figure it out.” without giving any of the tools to do so. That’s the kind of pretentiousness I expect from games like Dear Esther and Gone Home.
Limbo’s storytelling was good because it drip fed you the context of your actions and the world you were in and it’s conclusion made contextual sense. Inside gives you tons of disturbing elements in the world but provides no context for most of them so you have no idea why any of it’s important or if it even is. Then you spend several chapters in an adrenaline fuelled feeling of triumph, only to have it all ripped from your hands and to be told that you just spent 4 hours ultimately accomplishing nothing and seemingly, for no reason.

There’s already tons of discussion and debate online as to what Inside’s true meaning is, what it’s trying to explain and the statement Playdead was making with it. I think those kind of discussions are cool and I’m glad people are having them but I don’t play story driven games to have to crowdsource what might be its message. That’s supposed to be the job of the writers and in this case, they completely failed at that for me. I enjoyed Limbo very much but also just one time. With Inside, I feel like I waited 6 years for something that looks incredible, plays well, has a more interesting world but in the end, did nothing with it and makes you feel like you wasted your time. The story feels unfinished and yet is clearly pleased with itself. I won’t say I didn’t enjoy playing Inside but everything about its story feels like a huge regression from Limbo and its mechanics alone aren’t enough to make up from that.

I’d hoped for much better from Playdead with their second outing and I am very surprised that I seem to be so much the minority on that.

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Review: Mirror's Edge Catalyst

The original Mirror’s Edge was an impressive AAA anomaly for its time. A single player game set in an oppressive, yet beautiful future, focused on running and parkour and all from a studio that was almost entirely known for competitive online shooters. It was flawed but still impressive and there was nothing like it at the time or since until recently. It’s still one of my most memorable games of the last decade. Unfortunately, like every AAA game that takes a creative risk, few showed up to buy it and it was a sales failure.
EA surprised everyone a couple of E3s ago by saying that DICE was being given another crack at Mirror’s Edge. They were rebooting the story–even though there was only one of them–and going open world with it. I instantly wanted to play it but grew concerned when they released it right around E3 this year and with very little marketing. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst clearly has the kernel of a grand vision but if feels unrealised and more concerningly, unfinished.

Faith, the rebellious yet tortured protagonist is back again with a new traumatic backstory that gives a glimpse into the origins of the corporate “beautiful dystopia” she’s in as well as her reasons for being a Runner, a group of couriers who operate off the grid and outside the law but which the corporate overlords tolerate. There’s some pretty blunt “evil 1%” political messaging in this, not that I disagree with it. You start the game fresh from a stint in prison and not more than 30 seconds out the door, you’re right back with your crew. The rest of the story has a few twists and turns but like everything else in the game, feels half-baked and rushed, ending in a cookie-cutter cliffhanger where you’ve ultimately achieved pretty much nothing. It’s clear the team wanted to setup a sequel in the hopes EA would let them make it but if that doesn’t happen–and it probably won’t–most of what happens in Catalyst is pointless. There aren’t many characters, none of them are particularly likable and the interactions with them are so few and blandly written, you never get to know anyone well enough to care about them. Even Faith herself comes off as bratty, bullheaded and self-centered, taking stupid risks, regardless of how they may harm those around her. I never grew to like her.

The original Mirror’s Edge was a linear experience but a solid, tightly designed one. Catalyst makes things an open world which on paper, seems like the perfect evolution for this type of game. Unfortunately, it’s a largely lifeless world with nothing to do in it. To stay off the grid, the Runners operate on the rooftops. You never get to street level so you don’t see much actually happening in the city. You get around by running, jumping, sliding and scaling your way over and between buildings. When you bring up the map, you see a huge metropolis that gives you the impression there’s tons to see and do. Then as you progress, you realise that only about half of that map ever becomes available to you the game is way smaller than you thought.

You get the standard open world compliment of main missions, side story missions and icon barf of optional activities. The problem is, almost all of these are basically the same thing, either delivering something or running a course, always with an arbitrary time limit that usually makes no contextual sense. There’s no variety and the time limits are often so strict that one slight mistake in a 2+ minute run means doing it all over again, as these are the only times in the game that you aren’t generously checkpointed. Some of the delivery missions come from in-world characters who essentially give you their life story over the radio as you make the run. This is intended to make you empathise with the oppressed of the world but all it does is distract you and provides no value to the fiction. Most of the time, I just wanted them to shut up and let me run. There are a ton of different collectables in the world which yield tiny bonuses but are obviously just there as padding for obsessive open world players. I know that in a game focused almost exclusively around running, there’s only so much you can do but surely DICE could have come up with more than this. It renders the whole point of making this an open world game moot.

By default, your augmented reality system known as The Beat, provides you a virtual in-world line to show you the way to your next objective and it’ll also highlight objects you should scale as part of that route. It’s not always the fastest route, just the least difficult one and for some of the tougher side missions, following it actually means you won’t succeed. The problem is because you’re in an open world, disabling it makes it really easy to lose your bearings and get turned around. It’s definitely possible to complete the game without it but you’ll be making things way harder on yourself. Still, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of when you get a good flow up and have been running and parkouring for a long stretch without a gap, though some of this comes down to how easily this flow can be interrupted.

When you’re not running, you will occasionally have to fight. In the first Mirror’s Edge, it was possible to take guns from enemy soldiers and use them against them but there was also an achievement for beating the game without killing anyone, which I got. In Catalyst’s world, all the guns are coded to the soldiers so Faith has to beat everyone in close quarters melee combat. She still has no conscience about murder though as she has some brutal finishing moves and I regularly kicked guys off buildings. You never see blood but you’ll hear lots of things crack and snap. Like most elements of Catalyst, the combat also feels clumsy and unrefined. You have a few different moves but never get new ones and there’s no combo system. Combat usually comes down to just spamming different moves until everyone’s down. Parkouring well and mixing up your moves rewards you with Focus, a meter that allows you to automatically dodge bullets but instantly drains away when you stop moving. Again, a cool idea but one that doesn’t make a lot of sense when you think about it. If you stir up enough trouble, VTOL aircraft will be summoned that can drop additional soldiers and also shoot at you. When this happens, you have to outrun its scanners and hide for a bit until it gives up, which rewards bonus experience depending on how many soldiers you took out and how long the chase lasts.

The dead giveaway that Mirror’s Edge Catalyst was rushed is the progression system. By earning experience, you can upgrade Faith’s parkour and combat abilities, as well as some pieces of equipment to help you get around. The thing is, you start with a third of these upgrades already unlocked. I’m not kidding. I did the story and narrative side missions and maybe 15% of the optional missions and this was all it took to earn every upgrade. Other than going for 100% completion, there’s no reason to do the optional content after this. I don’t know of any other way to interpret this other than a whole whack of stuff was cut from the game to make a deadline. There’s no explanation given for it and frankly, it feels like DICE went out of their way to showcase it. I know in the world of corporate AAA development, there’s probably too many layers of management involved for this to be a not-so-subtle statement from the team on the kinds of pressures they were under but it sure feels like it. Regardless of the development realities, this was a full priced release and to not only have so little content but to not even hide it is frankly pretty insulting to those who shelled out money for it. They basically told me that I spent $60US on what is in many ways, an Early Access title and that’s not cool.

The original Mirror’s Edge had some gorgeous production values and at least those are still here in Catalyst. The game runs great on PC and while the frame rate hitches on consoles, it does target 60 which is a rare pleasure. The city basically looks like a giant Apple store with lots of white and bright, unblended colours as well as digital billboards everywhere. It does a good job of feeling like a dystopia where the people in charge don’t want you to know that. There’s lots of talk about “The Graylands”, a bleak and unforgiving place where the lowest classes of people are relegated but you never see it and it’s left to your imagination. DICE are experts at audio design and they do a great job here too, with sounds that are believable and subtle audio cues that aid in the flow of your parkour. Swedish ambient musician Solar Fields did the score for the previous game and his work there made me into a big fan of his. He returns again for Catalyst and his tracks once again fit the world well, though I feel his work last time was more memorable.

Both Mirror’s Edge games feel like passion projects from a studio that’s desperate to make things other than Battlefield. I didn’t think we’d see another after the first one flopped but the passion of its small fanbase and DICE’s huge success otherwise managed to convince EA to give them another shot. Indeed, when you look at the core team credits for Catalyst, it’s quite small compared to what we normally see for AAA releases these days. However, either they weren’t given enough time or the team wasn’t able to capitalise on the time they had and we got a full price release that’s pretty and has its core mechanic down but is short on story and full to the brim with boring padding. I didn’t want the first Mirror’s Edge to end but half way through Catalyst, I was wanting it to be over. If this was the best EA was willing to let DICE give us for a sequel, they should have just not bothered. At best, I’d only recommend this at 50% off and only if you either like parkour games or really wanted more time in the Mirror’s Edge world. Even then, you’re probably better off just playing the first game again. I doubt we’ll ever see another one of these but if we do, I hope we get a complete game next time.

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So That Was E3 2016 (with Ramble Video)


Another year of the video game industry’s biggest blast of info, spectacle and hype has come and gone and it’s time for my yearly chat about it. Despite being little more than a fancy marketing event, I’ve always really enjoyed watching and reading about E3. As someone who is keenly aware of when I’m being advertised to and takes that as such, I just love this chance to get a huge block of knowledge about the next year’s big batch of games that are coming and consuming all the analysis of it that I can. If you love games and especially, big AAA games, E3 is basically second Christmas.

Last year, a group of us talked over all the press conferences and got to give our impressions of the games we saw as we went. Sadly, real life prevented that from happening this year. This post is mostly going to focus on talking about the show as a whole and some broader concepts about it. If you want to hear me yak about what specific games interested me, I do so at length in the Geek Bravado Ramble video.

E3 2016 was still pretty great but there’s no doubt an air of change and uncertainty permeated this year’s show. Several major publishers have scaled back their presences or pulled out entirely, choosing instead to focus on communicating directly to their customers online, something that’s easier and cheaper than ever before. The show floor was much more sparsely populated and quiet, to the point where Giant Bomb was actually able to record a short podcast in the middle of it, something that would have been impossible even last year.

For the last several years, we’ve heard the lazier members of the games press naval gaze about E3’s relevance. In the past, it was more them wondering if consoles and big games in general were doomed in the face of the mobile games bubble, something I waved off as the nonsense it was later proven to be. This year though, I think there’s validity to the claims but for different reasons. E3 is incredibly expensive for a company to attend and whether you’re an Electronic Arts or a Devolver Digital, there are myriad other ways to talk directly to the people you’re selling to for far less money and on your own schedule and your own terms. I’ve no doubt that the flashy, dual-city press event that EA put on probably cost them far less than a press conference plus booth presence at the show proper would have and Devolver’s street party that wasn’t even officially part of the show definitely cost them less and arguably, got more attention. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more publishers follow their lead in the future.

E3’s never been so much about the games press as getting the attention of the mainstream press but in the era of YouTube and Twitch “influencers”, even they aren’t really that important in the grand scheme of things. I don’t know how the ESA can alter E3 to combat this change. Maybe they can’t and going forward, we’ll see a much smaller show or perhaps, it’ll just disappear after a while. I definitely would miss the concentrated week of crazy gaming news but at the same time, games are getting even more expensive to make and the audience isn’t growing fast enough to keep up so these companies have to save where they can.

What surprised me the most about this year’s E3 was not so much what was there as what wasn’t. Two major paradigm shifts in the games industry are on the horizon, incrementally upgraded consoles and VR. These are two things that were unheard of just a few years ago but in recent months, have had sustained hype behind them. Yet, at the game industry’s biggest show, both were only shown in a rather tepid fashion. Sony didn’t talk about the next PS4 at all and beyond a teaser video, Microsoft said next to nothing about Project Scorpio, instead focusing on the smaller but no more powerful Xbox One S that’s coming later this year. We also got no word from Nintendo on their next system.

As for VR, it was certainly there but I was shocked to how little a degree. Sony is shipping PlayStation VR this year but only devoted a few minutes of their press conference to it, largely showing off another batch of gimmicky tech demos or “experiences” it will launch with and few full games. A couple of publishers have either VR add-ons for existing games coming or some experiments of their own but that was it. I get that Sony is probably going to dedicate their PlayStation Experience fan show to really pushing PlayStation VR but its muted showing at E3 was a real surprise.

The hype over VR went from everyone constantly saying “This game would be so awesome in VR!” to them now saying it has potential but there’s little to play on it and none of it’s worth the price of admission. Even with Sony’s offering being half the price of it’s closest competitor on PC, you’ve got to have compelling software for people to buy into these things. Without an install base, no one’s going to make big games for them and without good games, no one’s going to buy them. Sony and Oculus have been helping to fund new VR projects but many of them are nowhere to be seen and it’s more and more feeling to me that these companies should have held back their hardware launches until more stuff is on them. I could afford a VR headset right now if I wanted to but I’m instead choosing to put that money towards a GTX 1080 GPU, something that can benefit every game and which seems like a much better use of funds. VR has a short window to capitalise on the hype before it fades and it doesn’t feel like they’re doing that.

What made me very happy to see was that at least some of the AAA industry is actually back to taking some creative risks. Much as I like big games, there’s no denying that most publishers have been relying on the safest of bets the last while, especially as they waited with bated breath to see if consumers actually bought new consoles. It turns out they are and in greater numbers than last generation so the money taps have opened again and creativity is being allowed to shine, at least in some places. We saw a number of new, big budget IPs showcased this year and some complete creative overhauls of others. God of War is now a third-person combination of The Last of Us and Dark Souls based around Norse mythology. Resident Evil 7 looks more like Silent Hill style horror and has full VR support. The new Call of Duty is mostly in space. The new Battlefield is set in World War I. The next Legend of Zelda is a fully open-world game with crafting and free traversal. While the big games industry will never be as experimental as the indie space, it’s clear they feel more comfortable taking risks now, even going so far as to flip traditional cash cow franchises on their ear. That’s an exciting thing indeed.

Almost every E3 has some kind of industry gimmick theme that you can see throughout it. It’s uncanny how many of these big companies that are supposed to be competing tend to ride the same trends as the same time. In past years, it’s been things mobile integration into console games that no one asked for. Other years, it’s been turning everything into a big open world, even games that didn’t need it. This year however, it seemed like the overall theme was just an industry more comfortable in its position and that’s realised big AAA games do indeed have a long-term future and that yes, the audience won’t turn their backs on them for trying something different. There’s still a lot of safe bets being made but fewer than before and the risks they’re taking look like they could end up with some pretty awesome things. This new tone was both exciting but also a relief for me to see. It’s arguably never been a harder time to make money developing video games, yet the industry also seems to be more comfortable and less stressed than it was before. I think that’s ultimately a great thing for everyone.

Unfortunately, it also wouldn’t be an E3 without the outrage baiting gaming press doing everything they can to attack the industry they cover and the audience they serve in the most hubristic, tactless, insulting way possible. To the shock and sadness of everyone, the horrible terrorist attacks in Florida occurred the Sunday before E3, mere hours before EA’s press event was due to kick things off. Most of the press events paid tribute to the tragedy with either moments of silence and/or wearing multi-coloured ribbons in solidarity. Hard as it is to have to sell entertainment products mere hours after such horrific events, letting the world stop because of the actions of madmen only validates their actions further. As they say, the show must go on.

Nonetheless, we got a pile of articles and tweets from all the usual suspects, some saying that E3 should either have been delayed or cancelled but most saying that E3 and the industry should have been ashamed because so many of the products being shown “glorify guns and violence.” Let me be clear here: I hate guns and I detest those who fetishise them. I don’t believe guns are valuable or necessary in a civilised society and I think America’s near lone obsession with them is as terrifying as it is despicable. That said, video games aren’t real and watching many of the same members of the gaming press who tore apart Jack Thompson’s insane “games cause violence” rhetoric not even 10 years ago, spewing the same nonsense almost verbatim was disgusting.

I don’t know how one can think any good is being served by piggybacking on a massive tragedy to argue that video games cause violence, arguments by the way that have been thoroughly, repeatedly, scientifically and indeed, legally debunked time and time again. Of course, the hack writers who published this garbage don’t actually believe it, they just found another horrific event they can use to cynically drive clicks to their dying web sites while also pretending to have the moral high ground in doing so. It’s disgusting, abhorrent, unethical behaviour and anyone who did that should be ashamed of themselves. Have the business models of these sites become so broken that this is the only way they can hope to survive as YouTube and Twitch continue to eat their lunch? And if so, what does it say about the character and ethical standards of those who put their names on this stuff?

If you hate your audience and the video game industry that much, why are you people even here? If the only things you can say when getting paid by a video game site to cover the largest, most anticipated video games event of the year, is how your audience are bad people because they like games with guns in them, then get out now. Go start another social justice blog to preach your outrage or go start a new games site where you can write about the pretentious walking simulators and Twine games everyone should play instead. Of course, none of these writers will do that because they know there’s not enough of an audience for that stuff to make a living. You’re not here to serve yourselves and your warped social agendas, you’re here to serve your audiences. If you can’t do that, step aside for someone who can.

I said a long time ago that as much as the games press deserves the reckoning it’s currently going through, that I don’t want the PewDiePies and the Game Grumps of the world to become the new face of games journalism. I still don’t but at this point, I’d take them 10 times over before I would take much of the games press we have now. Say what you will about the most popular YouTubers and I can say plenty but at least those people actually love games and gamers. They know who they serve and it’s the players, not people who can only derive satisfaction from life when they’re being offended at someone other than themselves. The current games press is crumbling and I’m now more convinced than ever that they wholly deserve it.

So there we have it, my top-down, big picture analysis of this year’s E3. There’s no doubt that it was a weird year but it was also a good one and whether you’re into big games, small games or both, there’s a metric ton coming that should interest gamers of all types. Personally, I don’t know where I’m going to find the time to play all the amazing stuff I see coming but hey, that’s a damn good problem to have if you ask me. Every year is a good year to be a hardcore gamer but 2016 and 2017 are shaping up to be some of the best in a good while. I don’t know what the future holds for E3 and one thing is clear, no one else does either. I do hope it gets to stick around in some form as I do like what it offers and what I can take from it. Maybe like the games press that covers it though, it’s time in the sun is fading. I’m very curious how they change it up next year.


Posted in Business, Coverage, Culture, Predictions, Video Games | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

34 Hours for CHEO (with Ramble Video)

I stayed up for 34 hours this weekend. It’s longer than I’ve ever stayed up and I’m still recovering. And it was among the best 34 hours of my life.

When I first got the e-mail from Extra Life in 2014 inviting me to the kick-off meeting for a new Ottawa Guild, I really had no idea what to expect. I knew what guilds were and what some of them had done but little beyond that. I certainly never expected to get invited to be on the leadership team and I never in my wildest dreams expected that two years later, I’d be doing an entire, second Extra Life marathon, on the set of the CHEO Telethon, one of Ottawa’s biggest and most cherished charitable events. Not only did that happen but the $72,154 that we helped raise for this fantastic event helped push the telethon to a new record total of $8,013,771 raised and without it, they wouldn’t have cracked the $8,000,000 mark.
This still feels surreal to me.

Doing something with the telethon was always an idea our guild had in our minds but we never actively pursued it. It was our awesome liaison at the CHEO Foundation, Olenka, who came to us with this idea several months ago. We jumped at the prospect but it only really started to coalesce into a real thing a couple of months back. We had no idea how it would go or what the experience would be like but we knew it was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. To say everything went better than we could have hoped is I think, an understatement.

A lot of children’s hospitals don’t really support or endorse Extra Life because they still ignorantly see gaming as a dumb kids hobby that makes people fat and wastes time. Not CHEO. They have supported our guild efforts 110% and have seen the incredible things gamers can do when they band together for a good cause. Many charities are struggling to figure out how to get newer generations of people engaged with their causes. The CHEO Telethon is a huge deal in this town but at the same time, many young people don’t watch TV any more. I’m 37 and I haven’t had cable in six years. To get new people in, you’ve got to embrace new and different ideas that appeal to them and CHEO has had the foresight to see why things like Extra Life do exactly that.

The idea was simple: They invited us to do a second 24 hour Extra Life marathon from the set of the Telethon at the EY Centre and they’d make it a big part of the show so that they could help drive awareness of both the event and what they’re doing to bring young people in.

Our guild showed up in spades. We were allowed to bring up to 25 people and got a full complement. Men and women ranging from teenagers up to old fogies like me. Not only that but this event was even harder compared to the normal Extra Life because it ran from 7pm to 7pm as opposed to the normal game day’s 8am to 8am. This meant that many of us had to go through most of a regular day before even starting the marathon and several from the guild were at the EY Centre setting up well hours before things got going. This was an even bigger challenge but we were up for it.

We had a bunch of PCs, several of which had people streaming, a bunch of consoles and then, the Ottawa board gaming community showed up. They brought a mind blowing 60 board games to the event and I was told that was just their “travelling set.” We had all aspects of gaming represented, except for tabletop RPGs and I have a feeling people might be down for that in the future. Our area was this insane jungle of tables, screens and cables and looked like something out of a cyberpunk novel. You walked into that space and within seconds, you unquestionably knew it was made up of hardcore gamers.
The CHEO Telethon is one of the most well organised events I’ve ever seen. I’ve done things at shows this size before and I’m always prepared for everything to be a fight and for having to nag people to get stuff done. Our experience here was the polar opposite of that. We were given a massive space with a bunch of brand new couches donated by The Brick and were promised 30 megabit synchronous fibre Internet to be used for multiplayer gaming and streams, which was not only delivered but was rock solid. They gave us our own coffee, water machine and fridge and we had tons of food delivered throughout the event and free access to the common food area as well. No details were overlooked, nothing was ever a fight and though this was the first time anything like this was ever done, you’d have never known.

The thing that sticks out to me the most though is what they did for us overnight. The CHEO Telethon goes off-air and loops previously recorded footage from 11pm to 9am because few watch or donate overnight as most are asleep. When this happens, the entire set goes dark and as it turns out, almost everyone goes home for a few hours of shut eye. Aside from a couple of people handling overnight logistics, they left us completely alone and to our own devices for 10 hours. The hall was dark but we were allowed to go anywhere we wanted, completely unsupervised. We could have wreaked havoc if we wanted and there was basically no one there to stop us. Of course, we didn’t do that but it was a really striking show of trust. These people didn’t know at all, many of them had never met us before, yet they trusted us implicitly and treated us like we were part of the same group that’s been doing this for years. That’s really something that gives me pause.
A few of us needed to take cat naps on occasion but the vast majority went through the entire 24 hours without a hitch. I don’t have a total for how much we raised during the event but I know it was significant, especially considering the main Extra Life day is months away. My good friend Devon Payette, the 13 year old CHEO Champion from last year was at the event and despite having major chronic illnesses, said he would stay up the whole 24 hours with us and he not only did it but he did so with an energy and gusto most of the rest of us had long since lost by the time things were done. I gave him my old gaming PC when I got a new job recently and he not only spent most of the 24 hours on it, he streamed a bunch too and raised more money than any of us! That kid is a force of nature and an inspiration to everyone. People like him and what CHEO has done for him are why we play.

We had a number of visitors during the show, including the CEOs of both CHEO and the CHEO Foundation, a bunch of local media personalities and other community leaders. Most of them didn’t know or understand Extra Life before but they were all blown away by what they saw and how driven and committed everyone was to it. It was clear that within minutes, we’d reached them and showed them how awesome this is and why we all take it so seriously. Right after the show, a prominent local radio personality hit us up on Facebook and basically said “I didn’t know anything about this before but it’s awesome. If you ever need help promoting or an MC for special events, let me know.” Even if we didn’t raise a dime, these things alone made this worth it.

I talk about my own experiences and how my stream went in the video but I had a great time. My brain barely worked by the end but I played for the whole 24 hours as well and made a big dent into my backlog. I didn’t get as many viewers and donations as I wanted but a bunch of regulars from my YouTube channel showed up and they made it a great time as they always do. My good friend Andrew “KeyMastar” Scrader hung out for most of the stream because he’s insane, as did my buddy Reetin, whose podcast I regularly guest on. I also met a fellow Extra Life CHEO player from North Bay named Orcryst, who is a prominent Twitch streamer. He was a super nice guy and gave me a whole pile of advice on how to grow my streaming presence and maybe also combine it in a unique way with my YouTube efforts. I’m planning to make some big changes based on his advice. That’s something I never saw coming.

We were all barely functional by the end but when they revealed that the telethon had raised a record of over $8,000,000, we all got a massive boost of adrenaline, something that made it a lot easier to pack up our stuff and get home. There was no trouble, no drama and everyone left with a smile on their face, knowing we had done good. There are few greater feelings to have.

In terms of people to thank, there are so many:

  • Olenka from CHEO is an incredibly warm and caring lady and one of the most organised people I’ve ever met. Doing this was her idea and without her, I don’t know if it ever would have happened.
  • My colleagues on the committee, Richard and Frankie are amazing, inspiring people and it’s an honour to work with them.
  • Conor from the guild has always been an amazing help and is willing to bend over backwards for us.
  • Kristy and Vicky are newcomers to the guild who offered to take up the challenge of managing social media for us, something the rest of us aren’t great at and didn’t want to do anyway. To say they’ve done an incredible job is a massive understatement and they were the sole reason our social media got so much attention in the week leading up to and during the event.
  • Devon and his parents for being so supportive of the guild and allowing Devon to play with us. He sat right in the middle of the whole group and was an incredible inspiration. Kids like him are why we do this and everyone was stronger with him there.
  • Laura from Freeman who was an incredible help getting us our Internet connection and making it possible for us to play online and streaming.
  • The entire telethon staff for putting so much trust in us and treating us like we were part of the family.

Most of all though, I want to thank everyone who showed up to play. I’d not met a lot of you before and yet we all came together and ran ourselves ragged to raise money for this great cause. You all should be incredibly proud of yourselves. We’re sadly in a time where the media–including the games press that’s supposed to advocate for us–are trying to paint gamers as hateful, selfish and exclusionary, largely to drive easy traffic and ad revenue to their dying web sites. This past weekend, a large, diverse group of us took this hobby we love and in unison, did something completely selfless with it. We showed that when united, gamers can do incredible, virtuous things. The next time the “enthusiast press” says you’re a bad person because you don’t share their politics, think of this and remember what gamers are really about. You all did immense good and you had fun doing it. What can be better in this world?

My girlfriend and I are only children from small families and we decided very early in our relationship that we probably don’t want to have kids. I’ve never really the bond with children that many people, even non-parents, do and it’s sometimes made me sad and frustrated how as my friends have families, that I’m “losing them” to that. Extra Life has given me a special connection to kids and helping them that I never thought I’d have and probably never would have had without this charity in my life. It’s something you can’t really quantify the value of until you experience it. I don’t think I’ll ever be a “kid person” and I still don’t think I want to have any of my own but I get the drive people have for kids more than I had and that enlightenment is something I am so grateful to have had happen.

I say without hyperbole that this past weekend was one of the most rewarding, gratifying experiences I’ve ever had and it’s because of Extra Life and the amazing people in this guild that I got to do it. I’ll remember that forever and it was an honour and a privilege to share this experience with you. You’re all rockstars and I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of this and to be doing it with all of you.

Let’s do it all again! November work for you?

Posted in Culture, Live Stream, Video Games | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Why I'm Basically Done With Crowdfunding

Anyone who is reading this likely doesn’t need me to explain the epic rise of crowd funding that has happened in the last 5 years or so. An idea most people would have once laughed at, it’s now become not only a popular way for small and sometimes big projects to help get the funding they need, but also a very profitable industry for the handful of popular platforms that facilitate it. Beyond the most popular pioneer that is Kickstarter, we also now have spins on the pre-funding idea, including things like Steam Early Access, which allows you to buy into products that are within some stage of production and also Patreon, a site that allows you to fund individual creators on an ongoing basis, instead of individual projects. There has never been more ways for fans to contribute to projects they love that might not get made any other way and indeed, many think this is a golden age for independent artistic projects.

Yet, despite diving deep into this kind of funding model at its outset, I’ve decided that with the occasional exception, I’m basically done funding stuff this way. I’ll explain why but the crux of it boils down to one word: accountability.

Kickstarter doesn’t allow me to directly link to the page that shows the projects I’ve backed so here’s a PDF of it at time of writing. As you can see, I’ve put a lot of money into a lot of stuff, mostly video games but other things too. The checkmarks denote what projects have delivered and as you can see, the majority have. You might think I’ve got a pretty good track record backing successful projects and are wondering what my problem is. Well, it’s multi-part.

First, most of the projects that have not yet delivered and indeed, even most of the ones that have are extremely late. I’m not certain but I think there’s a good chance that literally nothing I’ve ever backed on Kickstarter has come out when the creators stated it would. Most projects that did ship were well over a year past due. A few undelivered ones in that list like Nekro, SpaceVenture and M.O.R.E. are over two years late, approaching three.
Second, many projects that did ship fell well short of my expectations and many others as well. Broken Age, Strike Suit Zero, Planetary Annihilation, Mercenary Kings, Video Games: The Movie, Carmageddon: Reincarnation, Starlight: Inception, Republique, TAKEDOWN: Red Sabre and the Idle Thumbs podcast all either didn’t live up to their stated promises or were just very disappointing. They’re all projects that had the funding and supposedly, the talent to do well and they all failed at it.

Last but not least, there’s the projects that have just plain died and run off with the money. I’m lucky in that compared to some, I’ve only backed a couple of these duds. Kate Mull’s Tingly Sensation ASMR documentary largely went dark a long time ago. There’s also been rumours that the lead developer of Nekro has shut down his studio before finishing the project and the Early Access version is no longer available on Steam. I didn’t lose much money on these but there have been some much larger profile flops, not to mention huge messes like the development of Broken Age or how Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women has still not delivered all its backer rewards, despite her still being buddy buddy with Kickstarter brass.

When it comes to Steam Early Access, one doesn’t have to look far to find the litany of disasters that have happened there, ranging from projects that either get abandoned (something even press favourite Double Fine is guilty of) to others that have spent years in the program with no end in sight to out and out scams. Like Kickstarter, there have been plenty of successes here too and I own a number of them but the problems are widespread and largely unaddressed.

In the case of Patreon, there are many great creators making great stuff on there but like many other platforms such as YouTube and Twitch, it’s biased heavily in favour of people who are already popular, as opposed to those who are new but also doing good work. It’s also been a hub for professional victims who produce nothing but faux and fake outrage and who essentially crowdfund their lives from the naive and gullible. This latter reason is why I’ve never had a Patreon account. There are people I would like to contribute to but not through a company that supports, fosters and profits off of professional victims while banning other valid projects like 8chan, which these people dislike. Their standards are unequal and unfairly applied to say the least.

Now, the first thing these services and their defenders will say is that any money you put into them is not an investment, that it’s buyer beware, don’t donate any money you aren’t prepared to lose etc etc. They’re totally right and I understood the risks when I backed every Kickstarter and bought every Early Access game. This isn’t sour grapes over money I lost on non-existent or disappointing projects, even though it is a lot of money. The reason I’ve largely decided to walk away from this model is that companies like Kickstarter, Valve and Patreon are using these excuses to profit without any responsibility and I think they’re all successful enough for that to no longer be a valid excuse.

Kickstarter and Patreon have made a big deal about how they’re modern tech startups that were able to get big with a minimum of external investment and debt. They’re lean and managed to get and stay profitable very fast. Indeed, to the business community, these are shining success stories. As for Valve, well c’mon, it’s Valve, they’ve been rolling in dough for years.

My issue is that they have rather ingeniously structured their business models around being financially successful off projects that both succeed and fail, regardless of the outcome to customers. Kickstarter, Patreon and Steam don’t produce anything, they’re merely middlemen who provide the tools to get funding from consumers to creators and in Valve’s case, to distribute as well. The former 2 take 5% of all pledges and donations, with Valve taking 30% of all sales made on Steam. The problem is that they get this up front and they have no incentive to provide anything beyond that.

If a Kickstarter project funds and the creators either under deliver or don’t deliver at all, Kickstarter’s stated policy is to wash their hands of the matter and leave it to backers to try to seek restitution. Their FAQ is laden with answers that dodge responsibility while also stating outright that they do keep their fees regardless. In the case of Steam, there are refunds but only for a limited time, far too limited for a project which may take a long time before running into trouble. Even when they directly help facilitate a project that fails or ends up being a scam, these companies simply trot out the “Caveat Emptor” excuse when customers lose their money, yet they themselves never do. Whether you get what the creator promised you or not, the companies always get to keep their piece. In the case of Patreon, at least it’s easy to stop contributing to someone but again, there’s no accountability for money they already received from you and didn’t use as promised.

It’s this fundamental lack of accountability on the part of these companies that has made me decide that crowdfunding in its current form is heavily biased against consumers and backers. These are all very profitable businesses who facilitate far more successful projects than failed ones. There is no reason they cannot have insurance or escrow funds that can help consumers get back at least part of their contributions in the event of a project either failing or especially, if it turns out to be a scam. At the very least, they should not be allowed to keep the proceeds from failed projects and if they can’t return them to backers, they should either be donated to charity or put towards some other cause that is not lining the pockets of shareholders. I cannot think of another legitimate business where it’s considered acceptable to profit off of failure. Projects can fail for myriad reasons, some perfectly valid, others not at all. Regardless of who was primarily at fault for the failure, if you profited in some way off the project, you should have some amount of culpability.

I’m not saying I’ve sworn off all crowdfunding forever. If there is a project I truly believe in and that comes from a creator with a proven track record, I may still back it if it’s necessary to make it happen. However, when I look at many of the projects I’ve backed, the truth is that most of them would have hit their target with or without me. I could have let others take the risk and if the end result was good quality, just bought it on release. Of course, if everyone thought that way, then this whole model would fall apart and nothing would get crowdfunded. The crowdfunding bubble certainly hasn’t burst yet but compared to its heyday, it’s certainly not the guaranteed path to funding it was once seeming to be. Too many people soured the milk for everyone else.

In theory, the object of any business is to serve consumers first and by doing so, that’s how they make profit. The crowdfunding industry has devilishly found a way to get their profit, regardless of whether or not they serve the best interest of consumers. That’s a terrible, unfair, devious way to run a business and it’s not one I want to participate in. Buyer Beware isn’t good enough any more. This industry is making piles of money for simply being in the middle and if they’re going to, they need to take their share of the responsibility when creators mess up. Maybe they’ll have to vet projects more closely. Maybe they’ll have to reduce the number of projects they let run at a given time. Or maybe, they’ll just have to factor in losses from the occasional failed project as a cost of doing business. Truth be told, I don’t think those losses would be enough to offset their successes but if so, I think that speaks more to the long-term soundness of their business model.

I don’t want to see crowdfunding go away. For all the drama and mishaps that have come from it, we’ve also gotten a ton of great, creative content that we likely would never have seen otherwise. I’m grateful to have all of that and want to see more of it get made. This is a fantastic way to fund something that involves your fans and which couldn’t have been done before. However, it requires accountability from all parties involved. Without it, the democratized nature of the idea gets tainted and soured. Until this industry accepts that its part of the process goes beyond just providing a web site, processing payments and distributing bits, I’m stepping out and I don’t think I’m alone in that sentiment. Don’t let this get ruined so early on, there’s too much good that can come from it.

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Introducing My New Interview Video Series: Behind the Games

Check out the first episode with Matt Roszak from Kupo Games!

When I started doing YouTube, one of my long-term dream goals was to do interviews with game developers. I not only love video games as a hobby but I love hearing about the craft, struggles and yes, even the business realities behind them. I think it’s valuable as an enthusiast of this medium to not only experience the games but also to learn about what goes into making them and the people that do so. Few things are more fascinating to me then hearing a creative person talk about their creativity.

It’s been a long time coming but I’m super stoked to announce Behind the Games, my new YouTube series devoted to doing exactly that!

My goal with this series is to make things informal and more like a friendly chat, flowing between topics as we go. Everything’s unscripted, aside from maybe a few notes of basic things to ask and there’s no set time limit. There are plenty of interview shows on YouTube but I always find more formal interviews to be a bit stuff and rigid. I think just allowing the creators to talk about whatever interests them with no pressure will bring out the most interesting stories and really let us get to know the person, not just their business. I’ve been trying to get this series started for a while but when you’re an unknown YouTuber and don’t have an episode to show off your format, people are understandably leery to be the guinea pig. Thankfully, I found an awesome developer who was gracious enough to take a chance on me.

My first episode is with Matt Roszak from Kupo Games, sole creator of the Epic Battle Fantasy and Bullet Heaven series, among other titles. I had not heard of Kupo Games before getting a review code for Bullet Heaven 2 last year, a game I think very highly of. I then discovered that Matt has an impressive body of work, starting largely in the Flash space and has carved out a very interesting niche for himself at a young age. It was the first on-camera interview for both of us and while that maybe shows through a bit, I think we had a great conversation about a whole bunch of stuff and I learned a lot about him and his history in game development. Matt was a fantastic first guest and I can’t thank him enough for agreeing to start this series with me. You can see footage of some of his games in the video but seriously, they’re all free to play anyway so if you think you’d have any interest, you should check them out.

I have a bunch of other developers I’d love the chance to chat with and I’m hoping having this first episode out in the world will make that easier. Like all my series, this isn’t going to be on a set schedule and new episodes will come out when I’m able to get new guests. I’d like to talk to almost anyone and everyone who makes games, whether from a small team or a big one but I’ve got a few ideas for who I’d like to approach next and it’s mostly indie developers.

Please feel free to drop a comment on the video with any feedback you have. As long as it’s constructive, I’m happy to hear it. This being the first one of these I’ve done, I’ve already noted things I can improve and they’ll only get better with time. My first YouTube videos make me cringe compared to my newer ones but that shows me that with a good effort, things always get better.

Most importantly, if you like this stuff, please help spread word by posting it on Reddit, forums, social media, anywhere you think it would interest people. Nothing makes it easier to get more guests than high views.

I’m super excited to launch this series. It’s been a dream of mine for the nearly three years(?!) I’ve been doing YouTube and with your help, it can become a regular staple of the channel. Give it a watch and let me know what you think! Thank you again to Matt from Kupo Games, it was a pleasure talking to you and I hope I can again soon.

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My Bold Predictions for 2016

Here we are, another new year and another set of bold predictions! I’ve been doing this for a while now and it’s always a fun little test and time capsule. In previous years, I’d do a post before the new predictions where I would go over the previous year’s, see how right or wrong I was and do a little scoring thing. I’ve decided to do away with that as it takes a while to write and it’s easy enough to just look at last year’s predictions and if you are a regular reader, you probably know the answer to most of them already. I actually did pretty good last year. Some of my predictions were only came half true and a few I was dead wrong on but I did well with a number as well. Not that many of them were positive though so I kind of wish I was more wrong.

As usual, almost all of these are focused around gaming or tech, mostly because I don’t like to guess at politics or world events because, as the last couple of years have shown, there’s a lot of things no one saw coming. I had fewer predictions last year than the year before and actually have even fewer this year. Though to be fair, a couple of those were easy ones or repeats from previous years I kept in to be snarky and I’ve tried to eliminate those. I’d love to hear what your own predictions for the year are! Leave them in the comments and let’s see whose right!


  • Virtual reality will not be a hit. The Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR units are all due to ship this year. I have a bigger post coming at some point on this subject but while the hype among enthusiasts is undeniable and strong, VR is not going to even scratch the mainstream for some time. It’s too hard to demo, expensive, cumbersome and right now, you need a beast of a PC to use it at all. These are all things that can be overcome with time and I think all the manufacturers know this. However, in 2016, only wealthy nerds will be in on it.
  • Star Citizen will experience significant turmoil. It’s now raised over 9 figures of financing and aside from some horribly running demo sections, isn’t even close to a state kind of sort of resembling maybe being ready to ship. Admittedly, all anyone knows about the state of this project is rumours but those include a massive cash burn rate, frustrated staff and several high profile team departures. Chris Roberts hasn’t been in the games business for a long time and frankly, looks like Tim Schafer if given the most insane of budgets. I think the big backers of this are in for a rough ride.
  • A new AAA IP will come out this year that will be a surprise hit. New AAA IPs are rare enough these days but several are coming with more rumoured now that the public has shown with new console sales that yes, they do want this stuff. A couple are already known about for this year and while it usually takes a couple of sequels for them to get big, I think one of these will greatly defy expectations with its first iteration.
  • The Division will release when Assassin’s Creed normally would. That series will take a year off. Assassin’s Creed: Unity was a disaster and while I thought Syndicate had major issues, most reviewers thought it was great. By all accounts though, it’s sold very poor by series standards. The Division is the long-delayed “next big thing” for Ubisoft and I think they’re going to position that as their Fall tent pole this year and will finally give Assassin’s Creed a year to breathe and maybe figure out how to write a coherent story.
  • Watch_Dogs 2 will be announced this year with a release date of early 2017. I didn’t think Watch_Dogs was as bad as many did but it sold very well and a sequel is inevitable. Ubisoft’s been silent about it but I think this is the year they trot it out. Far Cry: Primal is their big Q1 release and I think Watch_Dogs 2 will be that for next year.
  • The newly re-independent People Can Fly will announce their first title is a new Bulletstorm game but it will be a smaller, digital only release. People Can Fly bought themselves back from Epic Games last year and they haven’t said anything since. They own the Bulletstorm IP and it’s rumoured to be their first title. The first game undersold expectations so if they do make another one, I doubt it would be a AAA retail release. Whatever they do with Bulletstorm, I’ll play it.
  • Another well known Japanese publisher will announce they are leaving the video game business. Konami didn’t so much leave the industry as set the bridge on fire as they left. The console and traditional handheld business in Japan isn’t healthy and a lot of big publishers there are trying to figure out what to do as a niche western audience alone can’t sustain them. Capcom can’t decide if they just want to be in the remasters business and several big developers have been swallowed up by mobile companies. I think a publisher whose name hardcore gamers would recognise will leave the “big games” space.
  • Psychonauts 2 will experience its first major setback and there will be more layoffs at Double Fine. Tim Schafer is a lousy business man and Double Fine is a company that has repeatedly demonstrated a lack of respect for their crowdfunding supporters, yet they went back to the well again with Psychonauts 2. Nearly every project they’ve been involved in since 2010 has had major mishaps, yet it looks like a legion of fools are lining up to support Psychonauts 2. Even though it isn’t due to ship for quite a while, the first signs of a major mishap with this project will happen this year and it will come with another reduction at Double Fine.
  • Steam Machines will quietly be shelved but SteamOS will continue. Steam Machines have been a colossal flop and SteamOS is a mess. No one wants to pay a pile of money for an underpowered PC, running an OS that can only play a fraction of the Steam catalogue and which runs most games like garbage compared to Windows. Valve’s invested too much time, money and PR into SteamOS to shelve it and it’ll continue to improve but the branded Steam Machines initiative will be killed off or lose so much vendor support as to be even more irrelevant.
  • Valve will announce a second Steam Controller model that’s closer but not exactly like a traditional controller. It will release along side the current model. Aside from a few fans, the Steam Controller is a bust and most people think it’s notably worse than traditional controllers. Again, Valve’s put too much into it to abandon it but I think they will release a new model more closely resembling what gamers recognise to try to hedge their bets.
  • No Man’s Sky will be delayed to 2017 but launch with PlayStation VR support. This is a project whose ambition is massive but it’s also being made by a tiny team and I just don’t think they’ll make it out this year. Sony has been behind this game in a big way and I’ve no doubt they’d love it to work with PlayStation VR. That will be the carrot Hallo Games puts on the stick of the delay.
  • Nintendo will announce the NX but it won’t ship this year. It will also be another unique gimmick system that inspires doubt. The Wii U is still a flop but I really don’t think Nintendo will ship a new system the same year they announce it. They also can’t just make another system like the Xbox and PS4 as that’s a market they already lost with the GameCube. They have to make something totally out of left field if they want to stay in hardware. As all of these systems do, it will inspire doubt as to its viability.
  • At least one well known indie developer or small team studio will close. The term Indieocalypse has been thrown around in the last year. The indie games space is incredibly overcrowded, far more than AAA and only getting more so since platforms like Steam are useless at helping people determine what is and isn’t crap. It’s just not possible for all these games to succeed, not even all the good ones. This is the year it starts claiming some high profile victims.
  • The mobile games market will continue to consolidate around a handful of successful, scummy titles and the rest will flounder. This largely happened in 2015 but it will get even worse this year. Anything that isn’t a microtransaction factory like Game of War, Candy Crush, Clash of Clans or one of the billion clones of these games gets buried and quality mobile games with fair business models are few and far between. Mobile games are designed around people who don’t really care about games and this will get worse.
  • EA or Ubisoft will acquire a well known mobile developer. Activision bought King last year, partly as a tax evasion strategy but also because they want some of that sweet microtransaction money. Many of the previously well known mobile developers like Rovio are now starting to struggle as they largely missed the boat on this trend. EA’s well entrenched in mobile already but I’m sure would love to get bigger and Ubisoft I’m sure would love one of these big players in their stable.
  • Harmonix will either be acquired or undergo a significant reduction. I feel bad for this company. They rode a huge high during the music game era, then got kicked out by their parent company for a song. They’ve done a bunch of smaller experimental games that didn’t seem to garner much interest and by all accounts, Rock Band 4 has been pretty much a flop and they’ve lost several well known staff members. I don’t know how much longer they can keep this up and their vulture capital backers must be getting frustrated. I suspect they’ll be sold off to another company (my guess is Ubisoft as they could compliment Rocksmith) or significantly downsize to try to stay in the game.
  • The outrage based press will double down on this strategy and it will continue to fail them. This has already been happening. Not knowing any other way to get clicks, they are continuing to get crazier, more arrogant and more hateful of their audience. The thing is, it’s not working. Their traffic continues to decline and they continue to amp up the clickbait to try and counter it. It’s not going to work and those sites that keep this up will keep sinking. And they deserve to.
  • GamerGate as a movement will continue to wane in numbers but will continue to be the stand-in for politically correct outrage. GamerGate still exists but it’s completely lost any focus as a consumer revolt and most of what’s left is the lunatic fringe that is as eager to be offended at every perceived slight as the other side is. However, it’s also become a universal term for any outrage based outlet that’s looking to make a point at how evil anyone is who doesn’t think in lockstep with them. We’re going to see the movement become less relevant but definitely not the term.
  • At least one prominent “games journalist” will become a full-time YouTuber. I think this is inevitable truth be told, it’s already happened. The major games site don’t pay decently, many of the journalists already see the writing on the wall and many have managed to get huge follower numbers on their personal YouTube channels because they’re able to use their press privilege to create an audience with no effort or without having to put out actual quality content. My guess is that Patrick Klepek will be the one to do this first but it could be any number of them.
  • An “old guard” Giant Bomb personality will leave the site. My guess is Alex Navarro or Jeff Gerstmann. I’m still about as big a fan of Giant Bomb as they come–the people, I think the community is awful–but I’ll say it, the site has been a fraction of its former self since we lost Ryan Davis. Alex Navarro doesn’t seem to actually do much there any more. He sits in on the Beastcast and a couple of videos a week but barely writes anything any more. It feels like he’s just lost his passion for this in the last couple of years. He’s also friends with all the big outrage writers and it really feels like he’d be more at home at a place like Polygon or The Verge, possibly writing about something other than games. As for Jeff, he used to be one of the most energetic, flamboyant personalities at the site and has become it’s biggest drag. He seems to hate about 85% of all games that come out now and after listening to their Game of the Year podcasts, I can think of less than 5 he actually enjoyed. When the things he most gets excited about are clicker games and WWE Supercard, something is up. Since Ryan passed, he seems to just be going through the motions and seems to actively dislike what he does. I don’t know what he’d do if he left but I don’t see how he stays around when he’s this cynical. He’s also getting married soon and maybe then, he’ll choose to just do something else with his new family.


  • Smartphone sales will drop across the board and Apple’s financials will take a hit from it. Many analysts have already predicted this and while I think most analysts are full of it, you can already see this trend starting with other manufacturers. Smartphones have long surpassed the point of innovation where people want to upgrade them every year. Given that Apple is a smartphone company first and everything else a distant second, this is going to sting them.
  • BlackBerry will finally announce that they’re leaving the smartphone business. By all accounts, their new Android based devices are kind of neat but I think they’re also ridiculous. BlackBerry was supposed to be transitioning to a software and services company and the aforementioned downturn in smartphones will push them over. Seriously guys, you lost phones, just let it go.
  • PC sales will finally normalise. The PC market experienced some large declines, then a bit of an upswing and has been contracting again. The reasons for this are the same reasons smartphone sales are slowing, it just happened sooner. That’s the reason it’s going to normalise first.
  • Sharp will be bought out. This company has been hemorrhaging for years as their TV business bleeds the rest of it dry. By all accounts, they can’t survive much longer at the rate they’re going. They have too many technologies and customers to go under though so I think a bigger Japanese, or possibly even Korean or Chinese company will save them in some form.
  • Smart watch sales will continue to decline. Smart watches were invented to distract from the fact that smartphone sales are dropping and the manufacturers have run out of ideas. Aside from the initial fanboy bump for the Apple Watch, these things seem to have all landed with a thud. People don’t want to pay hundreds of dollars for a device that poorly emulates some of the functions the $700 device they have 6 inches away already does.
  • Sony will announce an exit or spinoff from one of their major traditional businesses. Sony is mildly profitable again, thanks largely to the PS4 and a weak yen but they’re still a company in bad shape. It’s similar to Sharp’s situation, except Sony was more diversified and able to weather it better. Personally, I think they’re either finally going to drop TVs or maybe one of their media businesses such as records or movies. Something big has to go though.
  • Reddit will be sold or have a major investment and will continue sweeping policy changes. The disaster that was Ellen Pao’s tenure at the company was orchestrated in my opinion. Reddit has never made money and I think has given up on doing that independently. They clearly see a path to investment or sale in making it a more mainstream friendly place, even though that’s never how it’s been before. Personally, I think they’re in for another Digg-style revolt but that’ll come later.
  • Rumours of a sale of Twitter will emerge but it won’t happen this year. They will also introduce some kind of paid feature and no one will care. Speaking of companies that have never made money. Their stock price is tanking and they’re losing users because of their complete unwillingness to evolve their platform and deal with the major problems it’s causing. Their last step in countering this before going on the block will be to add something they can charge people for. However, no one’s asking for that and I doubt many will want to pay for some add-on when the core of the service is still so awful.
  • YouTube Red will expand to more countries but few will care. I’m not sure how well YouTube Red is doing. A few prominent YouTubers have said their incomes have gone up (which makes sense since like everything else, it’s designed to benefit what’s already popular) but YouTube has also not been boasting about its success which these days, is usually a sign of underperformance. It’s only in the US right now so obviously, they’ll want to reach a bigger audience but I still think it’s a poor value for the user. Paying to remove ads, which people can and already do for free isn’t going to be a hit.

Finally, I have one prediction left that didn’t fit into either of these categories:

  • People will start to tire of the Marvel universe. Disney is pushing way too hard on this stuff. There are about a billion different TV shows and movies and more coming and yeah, I’ll say it, they’re decent but all middling quality for the masses. I already know people who were deeply invested in this stuff who think it’s going too far and as someone who owns several Marvel films on Blu-ray, I’m not all that excited about what’s coming. You can only overexpose something like this for so long before people start to fatigue on it and I think while everything Marvel related will still do super well this year, we’re going to see people’s interest start to wane.

And there we have it for 2016! As always, I hope the negative predictions don’t come to fruition but truthfully, most of these are negative in some way so I’d be happy to be mostly wrong. I hope everyone has a great year full of happiness and prosperity and there will be plenty more content from me in 2016.

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My Top 10 Video Games of 2015 (Plus Honourable Mentions and Disappointments)

2015 is almost at its end and that means it’s once again time for me to do my yearly mental stress test and come up with what I thought were the 10 best games of the year. This was a tough one for me. 2015 has been a year with some huge ups and pretty big downs for me and for gaming as a whole. I had a great contract job that was supposed to transition into another great one and then didn’t, leaving me still looking for work even now and slowly going stir crazy. My content efforts continue to chug along but are still struggling with growth and it’s hard to keep motivated sometimes. GamerGate is still going strong and the gaming press is as arrogant and absurd as ever. At least it feels like the perpetually outraged are starting to lose steam in the public consciousness. Ultimately, I feel creative freedom will win out over fear of hurting the feelings of those who largely don’t play games to begin with but we definitely aren’t there yet.

One thing is for sure though, there was no shortage of amazing games this year. If you consider yourself a hardcore gamer and can’t find at least 10 amazing titles from 2015, you just aren’t looking hard enough. Oddly enough, I found much of what released in the last quarter where most of the heavy hitters drop to be lacking. I had high hopes for some of those games and was let down by several. The year as a whole was incredible but some of my most anticipated games didn’t make the cut.

You may also notice a surprising omission from the list this year: Undertale. I bring it up because I know it’s on a lot of other lists this year. I played through it once and while I thought it was well made and unique, I just didn’t find it all that special. Even outside of its insufferable Tumblr fandom, people talk about how incredible and moving it is and while I found it poignant in places, it just didn’t impact me that much and the first third felt like a chore. I know it can take multiple playthroughs to have the full experience but I found the game play pretty dull and not something I want to repeat. It’s not a bad game and certainly not going to go on my Disappointments list but it’s not top 10 material for me either. It’s a game I think you should play if you’re even remotely curious about it because I’m clearly in the minority with my opinion on it.

OK, let’s do this! As usual, we’ll start with Disappointments in no particular order, followed by games I didn’t get to but that I think could have been contenders, followed by Honourable Mentions in no particular order, then the main top 10 from last to first. Each title will have a little blurb about how I reached that decision and will have links to any written reviews or videos I did if you want more in-depth information. Of course, this list is only my opinion. If yours differs, I’d love to hear why.

The Order: 1886 – One of the best looking video games ever made and that’s basically all it has going for it. It feels like a modern attempt at one of those interactive movies from the dawn of the CD-ROM era. It’s as much cutscenes as game play and despite being set in a cool alternative universe, just plays like another super short modern military game. Combined with the arrogant responses the developers have given its criticisms and this is one I’m very glad I rented.

Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate – I’m a big Assassin’s Creed fan and have played basically the entire series. This game has been getting heaps of praise because of it’s female lead but it’s one of the most disappointing entries in recent years for me. The writing and character portrayals are lazy, flat and sexist. The city is small and uninteresting compared to previous entries. The amount of repetitive missions is huge even by Assassin’s Creed standards. Worst of all, they’ve all but abandoned the hooks to the modern day story, which I thought was a great idea that Ubisoft’s supposedly dedicated storytelling studio has completely floundered. This franchise badly needs a year off to regroup. Apparently Syndicate didn’t sell very well so maybe that will finally happen.

Broken Age – I have a blog post coming later on how I’m basically done with crowdfunding and this is one of the big reasons why. This project completely destroyed its funding goal, then ended up years late and having to be split into two parts because Tim Schafer is one of the most inept, yet lucky CEOs in gaming. The first half was interesting and had a great ending but was disappointing and felt like it was stuck in old design methodologies modern adventure games long surpassed. The second half was bad. Recycled environments, terrible puzzles, lousy writing, phoned in voice acting from expensive celebrities and a terrible conclusion. It was a rushed mess, despite being so incredibly late and overbudget. When Daedelic Entertainment regularly puts out far better adventure games for far smaller budgets, Double Fine has no excuses. Tim Schafer is a terrible business man and Double Fine cannot be trusted. If you’re contributing to their new Psychonauts 2 campaign, you’re a fool.

Basically All Mobile Games – I have one mobile game in my Honourable Mentions and honestly, it’s one of the only 2015 mobile releases I cared about at all. Games that aren’t exploitative microtransactions farms with the depth of a spoon just can’t succeed any more. It’s a crime to see the potential of this platform being squandered with garbage like Candy Crush and Game of War. I hope this bubble bursts at some point but it’s definitely not going to any time soon.

Didn’t Get To
These are games that I either didn’t get the time to play at all or haven’t played enough to form a proper opinion yet but through my gut, feel could have warranted an Honourable Mention or even made the main list.

Pillars of Eternity – I backed this game and just like Wasteland 2, I still haven’t touched it yet, simply because it’s so long and requires such a commitment. I hope to play it soon but it didn’t happen this year.

Axiom Verge – I just got this on PC but won’t have time to play it in 2015. It looks like an awesome Metroid-style game with a great art style and soundtrack. It’s amazing that literally everything with this game was done by one guy. Thomas Happ has some mad talent.

Satellite Reign – Another game I backed and didn’t get to. This is supposed to be a modernised version of the revered Syndicate strategy series, one which I love to death and had people from those games involved. It had a bit of a rocky launch but it’s supposed to be in good shape now. I’m hoping to start this early in 2016 but it wasn’t possible this year.

Fallout 4 – I just started playing this and am only a couple of hours in. As usual, Bethesda makes incredible worlds but it looks dated, it’s buggy, Bethesda has learned nothing about making a competent UI and the writing seems weak. Their attempts to turn it into more of a shooter isn’t something I necessarily dig either. I’m sure I’ll enjoy it but there’s no way I’ll finish it this year.

Honourable Mentions
These are games I really enjoyed but which just couldn’t fit in my list, which I purposefully keep to 10 entries to make it a challenge. These are in no particular order but they’re all great games you should play.

Robot Roller Derby Disco Dodgeball – This came out of nowhere and it’s sadly had a very small player base but damn if it isn’t good fun. It’s literally dodge ball with wheeled robots while electronic music blasts and the lighting syncs to it. Dead simple and great fun. This is another game made entirely by one guy, who has been incredible about supporting it and adding tons of content and features, despite its small population. Great to play in short sessions or long ones, this is a game that deserves your support.

Rare Replay – 30 games, spanning 30 years for $30, when it’s not on sale. The amount of value in Rare Replay is staggering. Even if you only play the Xbox 360 era games, it’s still a steal at twice the price. I can also say as someone who reviews a lot of retro game packages, that this is one of the most lovingly crafted ones I’ve ever seen. Unless you really hate the kind of games Rare makes, this is one of 2015’s biggest values in gaming. I still play it regularly.

Bullet Heaven 2 – I received a review code for this and didn’t expect much from it but it blew my away. Originally a one-man Flash game on Kongregate, I’m not big on its art style but it has one of the deepest and most flexible scoring systems I’ve ever seen and can be replayed in a ton of different ways, all of which can be counted towards its online leaderboards. If you like shmups at all, you have to pick this up. It’s easily my biggest surprise this year.

Sublevel Zero – Descent was a great take on the shooter genre back in the day and since that series died, no one’s really done much with the idea. Sigtrap Games took it and made it into a rogue-lite and it works so well. The loot system isn’t as deep as I’d like but it still offers a lot of different ways to play and you’ll need them because this game will challenge you. I’m picky about rogue-like games but this one kept me coming back and it’s great to see the six degrees of freedom shooter archetype being put to such great use.

Tales from the Borderlands – I rolled my eyes when I heard Telltale was making a series in this universe. The Borderlands games are good co-op fun but but have some of the worst, laziest writing in video games, steeped in Family Guy style stereotypes and Internet memes. Telltale took the base, combined it with some of the best voice actors in the business and turned it into an exciting and funny heist story. Their engine is still a mess but it was one of the best Telltale series I’ve played and I say that as a big fan of The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us. This won’t sell you on the Telltale formula if you aren’t a fan but it actually made a good Borderlands story and that’s quite a feat. Anthony Burch should play this and learn how to write worth a damn.

Lara Croft GO – Hitman GO was an exquisitely crafted mobile game but got incredibly hard and I burned out on it. Square Enix Montreal took the framework of that and applied it to the Tomb Raider universe in a brilliant way. It’s still hard but not as much and it feels like there are more ways to approach a situation than in Hitman GO. There are only a tiny handful of mobile games that can get away with charging up front for a premium experience and this is one of them. It’s suited to a short session mobile experience but is also deep, very well presented and free of microtransaction scuminess. If you have an iOS or Android device, I can’t recommend it enough.

Warhammer: End Times: Vermintide – Essentially Left for Dead but with a heavy melee focus and based in the Warhammer fantasy universe. It’s gory, visceral, balls hard and an absolute blast with 3 friends. The classes vary much more than in Left 4 Dead and the loot system can be mean but gives you reasons to keep playing and advance each class. It had a rocky launch but has come a long way and has already had a bunch of free content released for it. This won’t sell you on the Left 4 Dead style of game but if you like that, I think it’s the best of its class.

Super Mario Maker – The quality of the craft behind this can’t be understated. It has a level of polish and intuitiveness that few but Nintendo can pull off. Designing levels is not an easy thing to do, yet they made it so anyone can pick it up and make something cool and those with real talent can create amazing things. Nintendo has also been supporting it very well, releasing a bunch of new content and features based on fan feedback. This didn’t make the list because there’s still too many junk levels in the online rotation and it’s still not as easy to separate the wheat from the chaff as it should be. I also don’t have the patience to sit down and make any good levels and if you aren’t willing to create, I don’t know how much real value is in this for most people.

SOMAI played through this in one sitting for Extra Life and I kind of wish it wasn’t billed as a horror game because I likely wouldn’t have played it otherwise. That would have been a shame because while SOMA is more walking simulator than horror game, the story it tells is deep, intellectual and moving and the environment which you experience it in is very well made and deeply unnerving. I’ve never seen a game story like SOMA’s and it’s one I still think about regularly to this day. It didn’t make the list because it isn’t much of a game and the mechanics that are there are very similar to Frictional’s past efforts and don’t really fit that well.

Until Dawn – I had no interest in this at all because it was billed as another horror game but when I saw it compared to Cabin In the Woods and Quantic Dream games–which I like, despite the pages of issues they have–I had to give it a try. It’s not super scary but it’s definitely tense and plays its subject matter perfectly. It runs like ass but looks good and plays simply enough that anyone could pick it up. If you don’t like cheesy horror, you won’t like this but if you do, it’s a real good time. I do wish the story changed more with multiple playthroughs though.

My Top 10 Games of 2015
Here’s the big 10! Keeping this year’s list to 10 entries was tough enough but figuring out the order was brutal compared to other years. I’ll probably be internally debating my choices long after I click the publish button. I think these are all games everyone should play but if you’re not fortunate enough to be able to afford them all as I was, this is the order I’d say you should try to pick them up in. I wager a couple of entries on here might surprise people, as will the positions of others.

10. Transformers: Devastation – Crapped out by Activision with no fanfare, I didn’t expect to care about this until I heard PlatinumGames was making it. If you like or think you’d like Bayonetta and want to play that with big ass robots, here you go! The levels are a little thin but the combat is sublime, the weapon loot and research system is surprisingly deep and though short, there are multiple Transformers to redo the campaign with, all of which play different. After the incredible Bayonetta 2, I didn’t think we’d see anything like it for a while if ever. PlatinumGames delivered another experience like that out of nowhere.

9. Downwell – Another game I never heard of until it was out. Originally a mobile title, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t play it on PC. Apparently the Japanese developer who made this only learned how to use the tools he made it in like a year ago and it’s clear he has some real talent. The only way I can describe it is as a vertically falling shooter, rogue-lite…thing. It’s very hard and I haven’t beaten it yet but you can do a run in only a couple of minutes and it keeps making you want to do just one more. I’ve kept going back to this for 15-20 minutes at a time and even when I’m terrible at it, I always have a huge smile on my face. It just oozes raw fun.

8. Splatoon – If there are two things you don’t think of when you think Nintendo, it’s shooters and online play. Splatoon is both of these but done in Nintendo’s singular way and polished to the mirror shine they are known for. It’s a game about covering the world in ink and also shooting your opponents and though it’s a competitive online game, it has no voice chat and doesn’t need it. Rounds are fast, the concepts are simple, the game types are few and it’s just so much damn fun. Nintendo has been pumping out tons of free content they could have easily charged for and it still has a good player population. It’s one of those games where even when you lose, you still had a great time. There’s nothing like Splatoon. Who would have thought Nintendo would be the ones to innovate in online shooters?

7. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain – Given the nearly 80 hours I’ve put into this, you might be surprised it’s not higher on the list. This game is a masterpiece of mechanical and technical design. It has systems on top of systems on top of more systems, all working together incredibly well and is miles deep. It also runs at 1080p/60 on consoles with reasonable load times, things considered miracles in this generation. Unfortunately, it’s also a lousy Metal Gear Solid game. There’s not much story, it’s not well conveyed, Keifer Sutherland is a terrible Solid Snake and the last third of the game was clearly decapitated to meet a deadline. It’s basically just a bunch of missions you’ve already done with the difficulty turned up to an absurd level. I felt burned when I finally finished it. Combined with the server problems and the scumbags at Konami adding a pile of microtransactions well after release and it went from battling for second place to here. It’s a great game but a lousy conclusion to the insane Metal Gear saga I love.

6. Life Is Strange – Somehow, Dontnod Entertainment made a far better Telltale game that Telltale ever has and managed to make whiny teenage drama interesting and compelling. Your choices had major story impact, often not in the same episode and several ended with my jaw hanging open and desperately waiting for the next one to come, which unfortunately didn’t with consistency. This was originally fighting for a top 3 spot as well but the last episode drove it way down the list. I won’t spoil anything but if you’re familiar with why many gamers hated the original Mass Effect 3 ending, you might know what I mean. It’s still an incredible series and one I think Telltale should take many lessons from but it ultimately left me disappointed in a way that hurt its contention for a top spot.

5. Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number – I loved the first Hotline Miami and many thought this wasn’t as good but they are wrong. It’s much longer than the first game but never lets off the gas with the over the top gory action, the insane story and layering on new characters and mechanics. They somehow also managed to top the stellar soundtrack with the first one. I’ve had both on my phone since finishing this and still listen to them regularly. It’s a tough, graphic, disturbing action game and if that’s not your thing, you won’t like Hotline Miami 2. If you do, this is top of its class and not to be missed. I loved every minute with it.

4. Rocket League – It’s Soccer with rocket cars. I hate Soccer so I thought I wouldn’t like this but it was free on PlayStation Plus so I figured why not? Over 40 hours later, I still love playing online with the massive player base and have bought all the cosmetic DLC. The reason Rocket League works is its simplicity. It’s just Soccer with rocket cars. There are no weapons, the cars differ in looks only and the matchmaking usually makes sure you won’t get stomped on. It’s easy to pick up but if you’re good enough to master it, you can pull off some incredible feats that reward practice and persistence. If they tried to complicate this formula further, I really don’t think it would be the success it has been. Rocket League is just fantastic fun that’s simple to learn and succeed at but which rewards those who want to go further. It’s been a huge success and deservedly so.

3. Dying Light – This looked like yet another zombie game, just with an open world this time. I didn’t really care about it until it launched as 2015’s first big release but the normally very hit and miss Techland landed something special here. Unlike most open worlds, you only traverse by running and parkouring your way around and most of the combat is in your face melee. There are no vehicles and not a lot of gun play. It’s not realistic though, with you being able to craft some crazy weapons and pull off acrobatics that would shatter the limbs of real people. Whereas a day/night cycle in most games is little more than pretty set dressing, here it comes with fundamental game play changes that make the night a much riskier time to be out and about but also much more rewarding if you can survive it. It’s a ton of fun either solo or with the drop-in/drop-out co-op which scales the difficulty up appropriately and if you want to turn player invasions on, things get even crazier. Techland games can be good or awful but they’re almost never great and Dying Light absolutely is. I can’t wait until they launch the big expansion early in 2016.

2. Bloodborne – I respected but wanted nothing to do with the Souls games for a long time, then ended up finding the fun in co-opping them with friends, even if that’s not really how they were meant to be played. Bloodborne had all that, plus some major game play changes that made it the Souls game I’ve always longed for. Things move much faster and defence is focused around quick dodging and counter attacks, not blocking and slowly shunting out of the way. Everything feels more responsive, fluid and more like an action RPG as opposed to an almost third-person strategy game. I still co-opped all of Bloodborne but I had so much fun doing it and discovering the world and all the unique, horrible enemies for the first time with someone else. My friend and I put well over 80 hours into it and now we’re putting in even more doing the DLC and we haven’t even finished the Chalice Dungeons yet. Rumour is that not only will Dark Souls III be based on this engine but a lot of the game play innovations will come over as well. If so, I can’t wait for it.

1. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – I started The Witcher series from scratch last year. I played the very dated The Witcher and still enjoyed it, then I moved into The Witcher 2: Assassin’s of Kings and enjoyed it a lot more. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt makes these great games look third class in comparison. It’s far from faultless and yes, it did suffer a major visual downgrade but it’s still one of the most gorgeous and expansive RPGs and indeed, open world games of any kind I’ve ever played. New things to see and experiences to have, hide around almost every corner. I played over 85 hours, not including the first major DLC release and still have huge sections of the map I haven’t touched yet. Choices you made in the first game can affect things in this one and there’s no shortage of world altering decisions here as well. Every character is deep, well developed and relatable. Every quest is meticulously crafted and written, even the random side ones you come across by chance. The number of individual craftable items you can discover and make is mind boggling. There is an almost entirely optional collectible strategy card game in it that you can sink hours and hours into. You can’t make your own character but because of that, Geralt is one of the most fleshed out RPG characters ever and has a miles deep backstory and fiction that you couldn’t get if he was someone you created from scratch. It’s an unapologetically dark and desperate world and while your quest is important and indeed world changing, nothing is saved when you finish. You start in a lousy world and it’s still lousy when you leave it. Oh yeah, despite it’s downgrade, it’s also still one of the best looking games ever, especially on PC. This is not only my favourite game of the year and has been uncontested since I first played it, it’s one of the best games I’ve ever played and probably will play for many years to come. CD Projekt Red is one of the most talented developers in the industry today and it’s incredible how far they’ve come in less than 10 years. I can’t wait for the next DLC and I am frothing to get my hands on Cyberpunk 2077. Unless you absolutely hate RPGs, you have to play this game.

Well, there we are. 4,500 words later and you have what I think is a pretty varied list of great games. There are some things in my lists that probably vary a lot from the mainstream consciousness this year but hey, that’s what Geek Bravado is all about. I’d love to hear what you all think of my choices and what you think your own best games were. Who knows, maybe we can help each other discover some missed gems? Let me know what you think in the comments and let’s chat about what we loved!

I hope everyone had a great Christmas and has a fantastic 2016. I have some worries about the upcoming year but I’m also optimistic, something I haven’t been for a long time. It looks like it’s going to be another great year for games and with any luck, I’ll be struggling over what are next year’s best titles as well. I certainly hope so. Thank you all for reading and watching my stuff next year and here’s to great gaming in 2016!

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Review: Assassin's Creed: Syndicate

I’ve been a huge fan of the Assassin’s Creed series since the beginning. I’ve played every game except the PSP game and the side-scrolling spin-off, Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China, which I do plan to. I’ve seen it go from flawed but promising beginnings to the annualised blockbuster it is now. It’s had plenty of peaks and valleys but I also think it’s brought with it more large scale innovations and experimentation than we’ve seen in almost any AAA franchise. I have a whole other blog post I’m going to write about that but today, we’re here to talk about 2015’s entry, Syndicate, the first main series game not led by Ubisoft Montreal but instead Ubisoft Quebec City, a studio with little AAA history. Given the disaster that was Assassin’s Creed: Unity from last year, I was encouraged by the many positive reviews this one was getting and jumped in at launch. After finishing it over a week, I have to wonder what many of those reviewers were smoking. This is far from the worst Assassin’s Creed game but it’s also far from the best and while Unity may have been a technical disaster, I think it was a better game than this.

Assassin’s Creed began by straddling two different storylines, the reliving of your ancestor’s memories through the Animus, which makes up the bulk of your experience, and the modern day setting where you are doing that to serve the continuing war between the Templars and Assassins. It’s become clear in recent years that Ubisoft really has no idea what to do with the modern stuff and starting with Black Flag, it was minimised to the point of irrelevance. In Syndicate, it’s basically a few non-interactive cutscenes that provide only a tiny smidge of intrigue for series veterans and will make absolutely no sense to newcomers. They’re almost entirely pointless and might as well not even be there at all. I understand that this is a hook the core narrative of the series is shackled to but if this is the best they can do, they might as well do away with it entirely. For a company that prides itself on having an entire studio dedicated to editorial and scriptwriting, it’s amazing how much they’ve botched this aspect of the series.

Syndicate takes place in late 1800s Victorian London, a city ripping itself apart through classism, gang warfare and exploitation of the poor, all being led by psychotic Templar mastermind who intends to make the metropolis the base from which he will rule the world. This time, you relive two memories simultaneously, kind of. You play as twins Jacob and Evie Frye, two expert criminals and followers of the Assassins who do things both for their own benefit but often in service of the greater good as well. They come to London looking for yet another Piece of Eden because that’s apparently the only motivational plot device they can come up with and when they see how oppressed the city is, decide to create the own street gang with greater principals to retake London for the people. Sure, why not?

These characters portrayals are one of my first big problems with Syndicate. Evie is smart, strategic, thoughtful, devoted to her cause and careful to not get too close to anyone because she’s so fiercely independent. Jacob is charismatic but also brash, impulsive, bull-headed and frequently, the actions you’re forced to take as him through the story end up undermining things and causing more problems than they solve. It’s a lazy, unoriginal and yes, sexist method of portraying genders that might as well be ripped out of almost any sitcom or commercial from the last 15 years. The outrage brigade lost its mind when Unity didn’t have female models in its co-op mode but it’s apparently fine to portray men as bumbling, selfish idiots who would only make things worse if the women weren’t there to save them from themselves. Sexism can and does go both ways and the double standards are on full display here.

Horrid writing aside, having two protagonists is used in some clever ways. Except for certain required missions, you can switch between Jacob and Evie at will and while they share tools and can use all the same weapons, each has their own skill tree and you can choose to spec them differently if you want. Upgrade points are earned for both characters simultaneously so by the end of the game, they will both be fairly close to skill parity but it’s not possible to earn all of the highest end skills for both players so you’ll have to make some choices. It’s also wise to select and upgrade different weapons for each sibling and they have different styles and abilities and it’s good to have more options.

The story missions are mostly standard Assassin’s Creed fare, for better or worse, but the main assassination missions are some of the best in the series yet. The venues for the assassinations are large with multiple points of ingress and you can just run in stabbing if you want or you can take one or more alternative approaches to do things more stealthily. You’re presented with all these options right from the beginning so there’s no real exploration or organic discovery which I think is a shame but doing the side objectives does still require more skill and can be rewarding for that alone. I won’t spoil anything but suffice it to say, the ending is predictable and basically just goes “Thanks for playing again. Wait for the next one where we’ll figure out something else maybe.”

If you’re anything like me though, the story isn’t really what you’re here for. I love big, expansive worlds with lots to see and do and this series has always excelled at that. The sense of scale you got from syncing your first viewpoints in Assassin’s Creed I was incredible and gave you a feeling that there’s so much you’d experience. Victorian London isn’t the least interesting place in this series (that still goes to Assassin’s Creed III by a country mile) but it’s far from my favourite. It’s presumably modelled with some accuracy as they try to do with the cities in these games but there are few tall structures to climb and aside from some key locations, everything feels very samey and just lacking in minute details. These worlds aren’t like Bethesda RPGs or the Witcher series where the worlds are populated with real NPCs living their lives but somehow, the city in Syndicate feels much more like just fancy set dressing then the others did. It also didn’t feel as big as the locations in some of the other games but that could just be me.

Your side objective is to liberate the city from the main gang in control of it and to supplant it with your own. A lot of this is optional but if you want the meat of the game, you should do it. You take over sections of the city by doing quick missions that will kick your rivals out once completed. There’s only about a half dozen types of these and they get old and boring well before you’ll be done with them. After a seemingly random number of completions in a given district, you’ll be warped to an encounter where you’ll be taunted by the local gang leader who then promptly flees but if you can catch and kill them before they escape, you’ll weaken the gang for that district. This part is jarring and never made sense to me. It feels like it was supposed to be tied to something else that ended up getting cut before the game shipped. Once a district has been emptied out, you’ll have a big gang battle and this will be easier if you managed to kill the leader beforehand. Once you’ve won that, the district is yours, which really just means a bunch of gang members now have green jackets instead of red and won’t attack you on sight. Of course, you also earn experience and money from the side missions but there isn’t much more to it than that.

The combat is probably the best the series has ever had, though that’s not saying much. It’s much faster and fluid now, taking clear and heavy inspiration from the recent Batman games. Not a bad system to ape but Assassin’s Creed has never had super responsive controls and they still aren’t up to par with Batman. Far too often, dodges and counters I knew I timed correctly didn’t register and the rhythm just isn’t quite right sometimes. Also, half the gang members are women which is completely historically inaccurate. I don’t personally care but for a series that’s supposedly about reliving history, shoehorning this in to stem the wrath of the perpetually offended induced particularly strong eyerolls from me.

There are also a number of “wink and nod” side missions involving real life historical figures. You can earn more money, experience and upgrades for these but there’s nothing special or unique about them other than the characters themselves. When this was Leonardo Da Vinci in Assassin’s Creed II, it was neat because he was a well developed character with a fleshed out history that really meant something in Ezio’s own tale. In Syndicate, they’ve crammed in so many of them that they feel like filler more than anything. The whole idea of “Hey, remember these people? Well guess what, your ancestor knew them too!” was neat and funny the first time but it’s getting pretty tired now.
Tons of collectibles are strewn throughout town as is custom in this series but in much more sensible quantities. Unity was overwhelming with the numbers of things to collect and it’s nice to see that toned down in Syndicate. However, these collectibles also are largely meaningless and none of them provide rewards great enough to justify the effort needed to get them all. Unless this is the only game you’ll have to play for a while or you really love collecting stuff, there’s no reason to pay much attention to them.

Traversal is where Syndicate really breaks the Assassin’s Creed mold. You can climb structures with impressive and somehow faultless parkour skills as always but you also are given early access to a grapple device that lets you very quickly scale the side of buildings and also make your own ziplines between them. There’s no better way to get to a roof fast but for getting between buildings, I found this to be kind of cumbersome. If there’s any kind of upward angle to the ziplines, Jacob or Evie will try to propel themselves along them with small spurts of momentum that don’t feel much faster than just jumping down and running across. Aiming your zipline anchor is also frustrating and there are a number of structures you just can’t latch to for no particular reason. You’ll get used to how they expect you to get around but it frequently feels like the controls are fighting you and not doing what you ask. There are also horses and buggies which you can freely use and will have to a lot during missions and these are almost comically unrealistic. I’m pretty sure you can’t U-turn a horse and buggy in place or repeatedly ram into one you’re chasing without the horse freaking out.

Unity was a shameful technical disaster and it seems Ubisoft finally got their act together with Syndicate. Unity’s massive crowds have been thinned out a bit but things run much better now. The PC version ran fantastic on my machine, better than Unity did even after months of patching and while it crashed once in a while, it was largely solid. I haven’t played the console versions but aside from the long load times that seem to be standard now, it runs well there too, albeit locked to 30 frames per second.

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is still a huge and interesting world that will likely take you 20-30 hours to beat and much more if you choose to 100% it. There’s no shortage of content here but I still think it’s far from the best entry in the series, which to me is a tie between Brotherhood and Black Flag, for different reasons. There’s little variety in stuff to do, the writing and character designs are abysmal, the traversal innovations feel half-baked and there’s no co-op or multiplayer. Worst of all, there’s barely any thread left tying all of this to the modern day narrative that’s supposed to be the reason you’re reliving all this stuff to begin with.

I’ve given Assassin’s Creed lots of props over the years for finding small and interesting ways to innovate in a series that was probably never supposed to be annualised but was forced to be by corporate realities. Syndicate feels like now more than ever, this is a series that’s really stuck not knowing where it’s going, only that it has to keep going there. There were a lot of legitimate reasons for Unity to review as poorly as it did and many of those are repeated here. But of course, it has a female protagonist and after last year’s manufactured outrage, the gender politics victory the gaming press thinks they won is enough reason to score it highly. After all, to many of them, whether a game is good is secondary to how politically correct it is these days.

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate isn’t one to be avoided if you like the series as I do but it’s probably worth waiting for a sale.

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