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!

Gaming

  • 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.

Technology

  • 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.

Disappointments
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

Flat, bland, safe and yes, sexist.

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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Review: SOMA

More Walking Simulator than Survival Horror but in a way I can get behind.

It’s very hard to talk in-depth about SOMA without spoilers but I’ve made it my goal to do that in this review. If you want to see the game for yourself in all its spoilery glory, I did a full Let’s Play of it for Extra Life 2015 over on YouTube.

My dislike of anything horror is well documented but it always makes for some interesting fundraising stretch goals for my yearly Extra Life campaigns. I like these because they not only help me raise more money, they force me to step outside my comfort zone which I think we all as gamers should do once in a while. In 2012, such a goal forced me to play through Frictional Games‘ last nightmare factory, Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It was terrifying without a doubt but I actually found the whole package lacking compared to many. SOMA, their latest effort for the PC and PS4, shifts from a Lovecraft-ian nightmare to a sci-fi one, with a high-minded story that asks many philosophical and moral questions about the nature of human consciousness, identity and what happens when those get thrown into unexpected states of flux. This story is what makes up for the fact that there isn’t much actual game to be found.

Frictional’s horror formula is well worn. The core concepts are that you can’t fight enemies, you can only run and hide from them, staring at them for too long inhibits your character’s abilities and you can interact with many objects in the environment, though only a few are critical. They’ve stuck to this method for every game they’ve made and while it’s admirable for how unconventional it is compared to mainstream titles, it’s also getting old. It made more sense in Amnesia: The Dark Descent than it does in SOMA, where it really feels like they shoehorned these mechanics in because they already had tech for them and didn’t know how to mix things up. It’s not that they don’t work, it’s just that it feels very familiar and some more variety would have been nice. Suffice is to say, if you’ve played Frictional titles before, you’ll know how everything works going in.

Even with these mechanics, there isn’t a lot in the way of what is traditionally considered game play in SOMA. Really, it fits more closely in with what has been become known as the narrative exploration genre, often referred to by its detractors as “walking simulators.” Experiencing the world and the story is the first and foremost priority of this genre and while there may be mechanics, they’re often few and limited. The two biggest draws for me in games are mechanics and immersive worlds so this type of game can definitely appeal to me but very few do. I’ve slammed on walking simulators before and had many passionate arguments about them. I’m not one of those people who will say they aren’t games, I believe they are. However, I have very high standards for them because to me, making one is saying they you believe your story and writing to be so incredible that they don’t need good mechanics to back them up. Most of the big name exploration games have simply not been able to live up to this in my opinion and I think many of the critical darlings were so not because of the games themselves but because of who was making them and the subjects they often ham-fistedly tackled.

SOMA is one of the few narrative exploration games I’ve played where there story and delivery of it backed up the fact that you don’t actually do very much besides move from place to place, avoid the occasional enemy and solve the occasional basic puzzle. I hated Gone Home because it’s story was cliché, solitary, linear, hurried and so predictable, you know the core of it very quickly after you started playing. Even if you’re thorough, Gone Home can be beaten in less than 2 hours. SOMA takes at least 8, not because it’s padded–though it is a bit in places–but because it takes its time.

You’re thrown many twists and curve balls that will keep you guessing and surprised right up until past the credits but there are also long periods where it lets the pressure off and encourages you to take in the environment or to get some discussion based exposition with other characters. They give you a lot to think about and it’s clear the designers wanted you to have the time to think while you played, not just after you’ve stopped. There are several points where you’re presented with a choice to make and while these unfortunately have no impact on how things turn out in the end, they also feel like they weren’t put there for that purpose but to actually make you question your own moral compass before and after you made them. They exist not to service game play but just to make you think. For me, few games can pull this off the way SOMA did. There were several times I thought I know what the story was about and where it was going and every time, I was completely wrong. It’s an achievement that SOMA was able to continually pull this off for over 8 hours, even if at the end, there are a couple of sub plots that begin and end quickly and aren’t fully explained.

Perhaps the most surprising thing to me is that SOMA wasn’t all that scary. It had me jump several times but not to the degree even Amnesia did and certainly not like Outlast did last year. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few jump scares and it deals in very disturbing imagery and subject matter throughout but it’s not nearly as terrifying as I expected from a Frictional title. I’m glad for this because it allowed me to further enjoy the narrative but had I not played this for charity, I likely would have avoided it because it was marketed as a horror game and that would have been a shame.

Of course, a good story heavy game needs a fantastic environment to tell it in and SOMA delivers here as well. Things are dark, cold and depressing but in that metallic sci-fi way that I find more interesting than endless stone corridors like in Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Not having to rely on historical designs allowed Frictional to be more creative with their uses of colour and materials. The world of SOMA is a depressing one to be sure–especially as you start to learn what’s happening outside of it–but it also has a vibrancy and variety that made it much more interesting for me. It’s not a nice place to be but it’s a very interesting place to be. This is complemented by generally very good voice acting. I would say the main protagonist is the weakest of the lot but not by much.

I played SOMA on the PC and from a technical end, it’s pretty good but has some issues. Frictional Games uses their own engine and it’s not super well optimised. While it looks very nice for an indie title, it doesn’t look AAA, yet ran like it was, often having a hard time maintaining 60 frames per second on my PC which is miles above the recommended specs. In their latest engine, they did manage to remove Amnesia’s many loading screens but SOMA stutters badly when caching in a new level. I also had to restart the game because after a while, the frame rate plummeted and didn’t recover. To be fair, I did play the entire thing in one session so that issue probably won’t affect many. Still, I have AAA games on my system that look better and run better. I have not tried the PS4 version but it targets 30 frames per second and apparently has a lot of trouble holding at that as well. For games like this, high performance isn’t explicitly necessary but it would be nice.

I made SOMA my Extra Life 2015 stretch goal expecting it to be another terrifying horror game in a sci-fi setting. What I got was only occasionally terrifying but also the kind of deep, thoughtful, high-minded story you don’t see in almost any mainstream games and which many indie games try and usually fail to realise. SOMA made me really sit back and think in a way only a handful of games ever have and I continued to for days after I finished it. The experience will stick with me for a long time and for much as I love this medium, I can’t say that about many titles.

If you’re looking for deep, dark storytelling and immersion, don’t get hung up on SOMA’s horror pretensions and give it a try. I was pleasantly surprised and you might be too. I can certainly say that I won’t be immediately writing off future Frictional Games titles just because they’re marketed as horror. That’s something I never thought I’d say.

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Review: Transformers: Devastation

It’s a Bayonetta re-skin with giant robots and J-Metal. And that’s AWESOME!

These days, there are two types of games released by Activision. There’s the big tent pole titles, your Call of Dutys, your Skylanders, your Destinys and at one time, your Guitar Heroes. These are the largely annualised big sellers that despite being hits already, get huge marketing pushes and are mainstays in popular culture.

Then well, there’s everything else. Activision actually puts out a fair number of games a year but you probably wouldn’t know it if you don’t follow the industry. Anything that isn’t from the first category usually gets crapped onto the market with little to no fanfare, often left to wither. A lot of these games are hot garbage like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5 and many others are just scheduled releases to fill an obligation to keep a license the company is squandering but still doesn’t want to lose. Thing is, some of these games are actually really good in their own right and could become big deals if Activision gave a damn about them.

Transformers: Devastation without a doubt, is one of those games. It’s criminal that it’s not gotten much buzz and I think anyone considering what are the best games of the year and fails to play this, does so at their own peril.

The last two Transformers games, developed by Activision-owned High Moon Studios, were actually pretty good but very different from this one. High Moon seems to be focused on helping Bungie make Destiny into something resembling good so this time, development was helmed by PlatinumGames, makers of Bayonetta, Vanquish, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and other revered action awesomeness. Suffice it to say, the studio’s pedigree in the genre is well known and well earned. Their signature style is all over this, making this a short but oh so sweet experience that keeps true to the ideas of the 80s toys and cartoons that old-school fans will dig, while also making it a lightning-paced spectacle fighter that feels super modern and fluid.

In many ways, Transformers: Devastation feels like a robot re-skinning of Bayonetta, their beloved but very niche pair of original spectacle fighters. It’s the same engine, same fighting system and same arena-based encounter design. Thing is, this is a fantastic system and they found a way to not only make it work with robots but it actually takes advantage of the abilities unique to the Transformers characters. Switching to vehicle forms is necessary to complete some sections and there are attacks based around them. There are tons of combos to learn and even very different moves all flow seamlessly from one to another, making for some incredible setpiece encounters. If you’re really good, you can complete an entire battle against multiple enemies without ever breaking a combo and it’s so satisfying when you do. It’s not especially difficult on the default setting–I think I died twice–but harder ones are available.

There is some mild platforming and loot hunting in between encounters but anything that isn’t the core fighting kind of feels like padding. Some of the levels are open and you can choose to go off the beaten path to find extra stuff if you want but everything feels pretty lifeless and is mostly just some kind of corridors. Much of the game takes place on Earth in a city that’s under attack but you never see a single human anywhere. It’s kind of weird. There are also optional challenge missions peppered through the campaign which can get you even more stuff and some of these can be tricky but they can also be safely skipped.

The campaign can be played with five different Transformers and you can switch between them at various points. Each have their own moves, weapon proficiencies and vehicle transformations. The difficulty curve encourages doing at least one run of the campaign with a single character but changing on the fly could definitely serve to amp up the challenge for those who want that.

In Bayonetta, there was a store you could jump to at various points in the levels where you could buy additional moves, weapons and other goodies. Transformers: Devastation has something like this but with its own cool spin. Rather than purchase weapons, you pick them up from defeated enemies and by completing challenges. There are melee and ranged options, all with varying traits and capabilities. Not all weapons can be equipped by all Transformers but you’ll pick up plenty for everyone. Most of what you’ll pick up ranges from uninteresting to OK on its own. What’s cool is that you can fuse any weapon into any other, levelling up the primary one and absorbing unique traits from the other. This is a necessity and you’ll be doing it a lot for each of your Transformers but if you are smart about it, you can end up with some incredible kit that can dish out huge damage. It’s really satisfying to see the results.

You can also invest credits you’ve earned into researching T.E.C.H., equippable stat upgrades you create through a little minigame. They are optional and truthfully, take some challenge out but again, it’s great to see the kind of badass you can become with them.

There’s a surprising amount of depth to both of these systems and they feel like they had some real thought and effort put into them, rather than being just something that was tacked on so they could say it has crafting. There are a lot of different weapons and they all work, animate and play differently.

There are achievements/trophies tied to fully beating the campaign with each character as a way to encourage multiple playthroughs. I played through the whole thing with Optimus Prime but since a run of the campaign only takes about 5 hours on the default difficulty, I may do another one later. There’s also a challenge mode which you unlock levels for as you play the campaign. It’s not a huge amount of content for a full-priced title but hardcore fans of this genre rarely stop playing after just one go of the story. If you want to take advantage of what’s there, you can get a lot of hours out of it.

I wasn’t a big Transformers kid so I don’t have a lot of reference from the story but as I understand it, it’s heavily inspired by the original 80s cartoon and comics and features many of the original voice actors, including the iconic Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime, chewing scenery like few can. There isn’t an ounce of Michael Bay’s awful universe anywhere near this game. The plot is goofy and thin but with strong moral undertones as early Transformers often was. I thought it was well presented and did honour the source material but you’ll have forgotten it shortly after playing and it wasn’t what I was there for anyway. PlatinumGames certainly understood what they were working with and did a fair job with keeping the core ideas intact, while still making a game with their brand of delicious insanity. Fighting giant robots in battles so fast, you can barely keep track of them while Japanese metal blasts in the background is something perhaps only this team could do this well. Bayonetta wasn’t a game for kids, both because of its challenge and its subject matter but you could definitely give Transformers: Devastation to a young player and they’d have a good time with it.

The game is available for both current and past Xbox and PlayStation platforms, as well as the PC which is where I played. The PC port is pretty solid and never dipped below 60 frames per second for me, though I did experience a fair amount of screen tearing, even with V-Sync enabled and it crashed on me a couple of times. Others have also reported that it doesn’t support commonly used high resolutions like 1440p. I know the Xbox One and PS4 versions run at 60 as well, though I haven’t seen if the previous generation ones do. Platinum’s engine is all about smooth performance and their past efforts on the old machines ran at 60 so I imagine they’re fine.

I bought Transformers: Devastation on sale and expected to have a good time but not as good a one as I had. I can’t believe PlatinumGames was able to crank out another Bayonetta-like game, barely a year after releasing the stellar Bayonetta 2 but they totally did. I don’t think it quite lives up to that game but it’s not too far off and they took a genre that I never would have seen working with Transformers and slid right into it, making a stellar robot fighting game like it was nothing. Even if you don’t like Transformers, this is still not to be missed if you like spectacle fighters. It’s a shame this license is still tied to Activision, whose indifference to anything that isn’t the same annualised pap is wasting the potential of great games like these. Not many people are talking about this game but you should definitely play it. It went from indifferent in my mind to quite possibly making my top 10 list this year and given the year we’ve had, that’s very high praise.

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So That Was Extra Life 2015 (with Video)

MY SINGLE SESSION PLAYTHROUGH OF SOMA WILL HAPPEN ON SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 21, STARTING AT 10AM EST ON TWITCH! IT WILL ALSO BE PUT ONTO YOUTUBE LATER. BE THERE FOR THE HILARITY AND PLEASE DONATE IF YOU HAVEN’T YET!

Extra Life has become a big part of my life and something I very much look forward to every year. I started doing it in 2011 when most people didn’t know when it was and it’s now a staple of my calendar and an event that’s clearly hit mainstream consciousness. Being a huge introvert, I’ve never been good at fundraising publicly and not only does this great event allow me to turn my favourite past time into something that does immense good for sick kids, most of the fundraising is done online.  This year was my most challenging yet and I really wasn’t sure what to expect but the results were better than I could have ever hoped for and there are so many to thank and happy memories to relay.

In addition to doing the event itself, I also took on the responsibility of volunteer Secretary for the newly formed official Ottawa Extra Life Guild. The guild definitely had some first year challenges that I hope we can overcome next year but we made a big impact and got a lot more people involved which is fantastic. Our representative from CHEO brought by this year’s CHEO Champion, Devon Payette, to our last guild meeting. We geeked out about retro games for 20 minutes within 30 seconds of me meeting him. He’s a really special young man who loves video games and has used them to help him through the Hellish treatment he’s had to endure. People like him are why we do this and I’m so glad he got to meet us all and tell us his story.

I set a goal of $1,000 this year which is still lofty but a step down from previous years. This is partially because I’m currently unemployed and don’t have a pile of co-workers to nag and also because since Extra Life operates in US dollars and the Canadian dollar has tanked in the last year, it’s much more expensive for local people to donate than it was in years past. I truly had no idea if $1,000 was even a possibility and figured if I hit it at all, it would be only just. Well, at time of writing, my total currently stands at $1,565 US dollars which after conversion to Canadian dollars–which is what will happen before my local hospital gets the money–is just shy of a record! In addition to that, my partner in crime for this year, Dr. P0ul3t has crossed the $400 mark, a huge milestone for his first year and the Ottawa Guild Superstars team which was for members of our local guild who didn’t have other teams has raised $2,830 US dollars, absolutely destroying the $2,000 set goal! Even more amazing still, Extra Life as a whole has currently raised $6,775,102 US dollars, smashing all previous yearly records and they’ve also crossed the $20,000,000 barrier for total funds raised since launching in 2008. There is no way to spin any of these numbers but as epic successes and epic wins for the Children’s Miracle Network. Fundraising remains open until the end of 2015 so if you haven’t yet donated but want to, there’s still time! Click any of the links above to donate where you wish. Everything helps!

Obviously, I want to express my eternal gratitude to everyone who donated to my campaign and to Dr. P0ul3t’s this year. Your support is why we all do Extra Life. To see so many people step up in what I thought was going to be my toughest year ever still chokes me up a bit to think about. You are all amazing and doing incredible good for one of the world’s finest children’s hospitals.

There are a few people I want to thank in particular, some of which were people I never expected to contribute in the ways they did. My Mom Lynn, a personal hero to me already, donated $200, despite being retired and on a limited income and she also nagged a bunch of her friends to step up as well. Several of my freelance clients also stepped up with larger donations than usual because they knew I needed the extra help this year. Ivan’s European Deli, Jim Dickinson Auto Tech and The Cake Shop also graciously hosted coin jars for me again this year. They unfortunately didn’t bring in much money but that’s largely because I put the jars out way too late this year. That’s on me and I won’t make that mistake in the future. Someone who has previously hosted a jar for me is Big D’s Dog House, an incredible local food truck, run by super good dude Dennis Collette. He closed for the season this year before we could do that but said he still wanted to support the cause and said if I came by, he’d give me a cheque. I was expecting maybe $25 or $50 but he ended up donating $150, which blew me away, especially since he’s not open right now. Dennis loves to help out local charities and I can’t thank him enough, nor can I wait to partake in his truck’s awesome delights next year! In addition, Glen Gower who runs Stittsville Central, was gracious enough to allow me to write a small article to help promote Extra Life to our local community. That was really cool of him and I really appreciate the opportunity.

Perhaps the most incredible donation though is that from my Internet service provider. Yeah, you read that right. Like many tech savvy Canadians, I refuse to use the big telecartels when I can at all avoid it. I use a small ISP from London, Ontario called Start Communications. Their services are reasonably priced, fast, reliable and their customer service is among the best I’ve ever seen and trust me, I have high standards. I tweeted at a number of placed to ask for retweets to help raise awareness of my campaign. Start has about 3,300 followers so I said I was a loyal customer using their service to stream Extra Life and would they mind helping me spread word. Sure enough, they retweeted me which was awesome. An hour later, I got an e-mail from Extra Life saying that their CEO Peter Rocca donated $500 to my campaign, completely unprompted and out of the blue. I just stared at the screen in disbelief for about 5 minutes. These people don’t know me beyond my entry in their client database. I was just some customer and not even playing for their local children’s hospital. All I wanted was a retweet and they gave me that, plus almost a third of my total funds raised! This right here? This is why you should support small businesses! I cannot thank Mr. Rocca and Start Communications enough. I was already an evangelist for their incredible service and recommended it whenever I can and that’s been solidified now. Seriously, if you live in Canada and hate what you pay for Internet service, look these guys up and mention me if you sign up. Companies like this deserve more business.

Dr. P0ul3t and I would also very much like to thank our significant others, my girlfriend Sarah and his wife Emma for providing support throughout the day. Sarah walked the dog for me on game day, brought us lunch, coffee, beer and more and ensured we could focus on the marathon. She stayed at her parent’s in the evening so we wouldn’t keep her up but then, Emma brought us dinner and more coffee and even offered to do so again in the middle of the night. These two ladies are very special and without their support, game day would have been a lot harder. You are both wonderful and Sarah, thank you, I love you so much.

As for the day itself, it was a blast. This is the first year I did Extra Life with someone else for the entire run and Dr. P0ul3t and I really enjoyed it. He was here with me for the whole 24 hours and honestly, I think he faired better in terms of not crashing out towards the end than I did. Having another person to talk to and share energy with made things so much more fun and I really enjoyed it. I hope we can do it again next year, I’d love to. We had a private TeamSpeak server setup and our good friend Andrew (aka KeyMastar)–who I originally met through my Extra Life 2012 Twitch chat–hung out for almost the whole 24 hours, which he did the year prior as well. He’d been battling strep throat for most of the week so he couldn’t stick around for the whole marathon which I mean, yeah! I still think he’s nuts for doing it to begin with but it’s so awesome of him to do so.

We also met someone named TeddyMonstar when we were playing Killing Floor 2 who found the stream, joined our game and eventually, hopped into TeamSpeak with us and proceeded to play games with us for several more hours. He was a US military man who has been combat deployed overseas and was currently on a Texas base, running out his service time because he lost a large piece of his leg in combat. Not unlike Devon, gaming is his main way of passing the time. He was a really cool guy and great to play games with. We’re now Steam friends and I hope we get a chance to play again in the future. Almost no one watches me when I live stream but in doing Extra Life, this is now the second cool person I just randomly met while playing and I think it’s so cool this event has made that possible.

If you want to hear stories about the day itself, I highly recommend watching the Geek Bravado Ramble at the top of the post. There are too many stories to relay here but needless to say, it was a great day full of great times. In particular, our 4ish hours with Spintires was some of the most fun and laughter I’ve had in years. I’m going to see if I can cut together a highlight video of that experience because it was just to funny not to. Needless to say, we all had a ton of fun and played a bunch of great games for a great cause.

I love doing Extra Life every year but until now, nothing had topped my 2012 year when I played Dark Souls for 24 hours. That experience and all the people from Twitch that helped was something special that year. I dare say though that this year as a whole has topped it, just because of how much my fundraising expectations were surpassed, how much fun we had focusing on co-op and the great experiences we had with the people we met doing it. This year has been rough for me in many ways and this was an incredible bright spot that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. So many people made it possible and I can’t thank them all enough. Extra Life not only does incredible good for sick kids in need, it does good for me too.

There have been a lot of attacks made on gamers and gaming culture this year, many of which came from self-appointed critics who make thousands of dollars a month to do little more than whine on Twitter and Tumblr. I don’t know how much they raised for sick kids this year but gamers raised a ton, through diverse acts of selflessness, compassion and sacrifice for a cause greater than us. We took our hobby and turned it into something that did immense good for those in need. Who do you think did more of value for the world in 2015? To me, the answer is obvious. Maybe some of these critics and the press outlets that blindly support them should look to Extra Life the next time they decide to declare that gamers are dead.

This is a great event and I can’t wait to do it again. Thank you to everyone who has supported me and CHEO in so many ways. You are all great people and your generosity means more to me than I can ever express. We’ll see you next year, count on it!

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