Games

The Very Best Games of 2016: My Top 3

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Last year was really quite amazing for games, and while I have neither the cash nor the time to play them all (for that you’d probably need a good job and Bernard’s watch), I played my fair share of killer titles. Most of the cool kids do a top ten or a top five, but I’ve decided to spend some quality time here with my top three, as well as mentioning a few runners-up. See? I’m cool in my own way.

RUNNERS UP

// Dark Souls III: It’s my least favourite of all the Souls entries, but its bosses, level design and sense of progression once again put other games to shame. Read a little thing I wrote about it here// Inside: the developers of the celebrated 2010 platformer Limbo return with something every bit as twisted. Many have debated its themes of mind control and manipulation, but it’s the gameplay that truly shines. In spending six years working on an experience that lasts three hours, Playdead created a nigh perfect video game with innovative mechanics that are a pleasure to control. It’s deliciously, darkly atmospheric, and the finale is magnificent. // The Last Guardian: This puzzle-adventure followup to the 2005 masterpiece Shadow of the Colossus was certainly worth the wait. Though bogged down by an unwieldy camera, the relationship between the young protagonist and huge bird-dog-cat-thing Trico is beautiful and believable. It’s quite possibly the best use of an AI companion in games. // Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End: Nathan Drake’s concluding adventure is big-budget cinematic gaming at its absolute finest. The story and voice acting are spectacular, it looks phenomenal, and its set pieces are so jaw-dropping I almost couldn’t believe I was playing them. The series’ previous forays into the supernatural are abandoned in favour of a compelling historical mystery surrounding the Caribbean pirates, and it’s all the better for it. Did I mention it’s about pirates? // 

And now, on with the show… (more…)

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Almost…

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‘Almost’ is an interesting word. When I was at school, dressed in paper-thin sports kit and forced to run the circumference of the playing field at the behest of sadistic P.E. teachers, the mental reassurance of ‘almost there’ was just powerful enough to keep an unfit nerd from keeling over. On the other hand, all the guys who ‘almost’ reached the summit of Everest before dying a frigid death – well, that just sucks.

Getting close to success before failing miserably is one of the worst things a human being can experience, along with anything Minions-related and dragging your scrotum across broken glass. It’s a feeling that crops up all too often in video games, as players accidentally and idiotically leap into a hole right before the end of a level, or get wasted by a troublesome boss with only a sliver of its health bar left.

The latter example is perhaps the most frustrating, scream-inducing, controller-throwing occurrence that can happen in a game, and no series knows that better than Dark Souls. Yesterday, I spent around two and a half hours dragging my balls over the broken glass that is Dark Souls III’s Dancer boss, and I’m glad no one else was in the house because I must have sounded like James Bond in Casino Royale’s torture scene.

As the twirly-swording bastard repeatedly and metaphorically hit me in the groinal area with a knotted rope, I managed to ‘almost’ defeat it numerous times. With only a few stabs needed to bring it down, I could smell victory like a dog can smell anuses, but the proximity of success only made the prospect of failure more worrying. Trembling, with beating heart in overdrive, I desperately rolled and rolled and rolled to avoid the boss’ flailing arms, praying to the deified Hidetaka Miyazaki that I might survive just long enough to land that final blow… But Miyazaki is a cruel spirit, and with the fear of imminent death lingering in my broken mind, I got sliced apart like a melon and had to start all over again.

Though I grunted like a tennis player and swore under my breath, the controller creaking in my vice-like grasp, I didn’t give up. Part of me wanted to rage quit, turn off the console and ride away into the sunset, but I didn’t. I sat there on my sofa a resolute warrior, like Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, and powered through the hours as the Dancer taunted me with its deadly ballet.

Like everything else in this marvellous series, I had to appreciate its exquisite design, but in those moments I hated the Dancer with a burning passion. Death was too good a fate for that prick. I didn’t, however, hate the game. The Souls series, including Lovecraftian spin-off Bloodborne, are infamous for their high level of difficulty, but (and I apologise, because literally every Souls fan yammers on about this) it is never unfair.

While they seem like it at times, no boss is impossible, with each one presenting you with a series of attack patterns that can be learned and reacted to accordingly. When you first encounter your adversary, you’ll get wiped within seconds like a pooper in a hurry, but as your mincing becomes as prolonged and repetitious as a John Cage composition, you’ll start to pick up on clues that will help you read the boss’ behaviour.

With time, these get wired into your brain, and you’ll start surviving longer. The boss will still deal out an obscene amount of damage, and have more HP than the HP Sauce factory, but you as a player will improve. There’s a lot riding on your skills of course, as a single cock-up or break in concentration will turn you into dungeon pizza, but knowing that gives a sense of personal, meaningful progression that few other games can boast.

Every time you almost win, and it feels like that little chip of boss HP is judging you as you fade into a loading screen, the crushing disappointment is always accompanied by a powerful determination. You may have just been kicked down for the umpteenth time, but that ‘almost’ victory reassures you that you are ‘almost there’. Just roll a little earlier; be a bit more defensive. Use the environment to your advantage. Play better.

Even when it feels like you’re freezing and suffocating to death atop a mountain, remember to listen to the sweaty, shorts-wearing kid inside your head.

You got this.

And thus endeth the Word of Tom.

Here’s my triumphant fight with the Dancer in full. Get rekt.

A Colossal Pain in the Neck

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When I sold my PlayStation 2, I sold a piece of my heart with it. Being neck deep in the Xbox 360 phenomenon at the time, and playing such great games as Lost Odyssey and Bioshock (the latter of which I never actually finished after a friend ‘kindly’ spoiled the twist for me), I didn’t think I would miss it. How wrong I was, for with the console also disappeared some of the first games I ever genuinely loved.

I can remember well the first time I was properly excited for a game. It must have been around 2002, when ten-year-old Tom was discovering the magic of gaming through his swanky new PS2. It was my first console, having only previously owned a trusty GameBoy Colour, and the effect it had on me could be likened to the Spanish discovering America. No, not the brutal pillaging of the native population, but the window into a whole new world of opportunities. That, and a demo disc featuring some game called Airblade, which I definitely gave more time than it probably deserved.

Anyway, demo discs were, as Super Hans says of crack cocaine, really moreish, and I soon started building up my collection of official PS2 mags. I would put hours upon hours into these little game snippets every month, playing demos for games like War of the Monsters religiously until I could fork out the pocket money to buy the actual game. Aside from the demos though, it was all about screenshots. In the ages before YouTube and video reviews, these little squares were portals into the games of tomorrow, teasing us to the point where we just had to see them in motion.

One day, I opened an issue and saw the coolest thing my little eyes had ever seen – Devil May Cry 2. I’d never played the first installment, but I became totally consumed with these images and counted down the days until the game’s release. When I finally played it, it was everything I ever hoped it could be and more, and it completely changed the way I felt about video games. After I rinsed it, I bought the original Devil May Cry and my first proper gaming obsession was born. Along with Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, it’s probably one of the main reasons I’m such a disgustingly massive nerd.

Post-DMC, images of another, more unusual game began to captivate me, and its eventual demo sold me on my next fixation. This was a title that changed my views on gaming in another, very different way, and is still one of my favourite games of all time. It was, of course, Team Ico’s majestic Shadow of the Colossus. (more…)

Four Guys One Sofa: My Top 5 Local Multiplayer Games

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It seems weird these days that most games would rather your friends be countless miles away than right on the sofa next to you. The glory days of the split-screen seem to be behind us, moved over in favour of push-to-talk chat and ping. I still don’t even know what the fuck ‘ping’ is, just that I often have a problem with it.

While pwning noobs can be a lot of fun, and online multiplayer is a cool way to socialise with friends you don’t often see, nothing beats having some mates over for some good old couch co-op or competition. Whether you’re working as a team or dicking each other over, games are inherently more enjoyable if you’ve got chums to share them with, and if they’re in the room with you it means you can punch them, too.

With split-screen multipayer seeming rarer and rarer in the big releases, it’s great to see it returning to form as the focus of many new games, especially independent titles. What’s more awesome, is that even more games are beginning to be intrinsically geared towards having up to four players. If you’re lucky enough to have three friends and multiple controllers in the same room (I know it’s hard, both are expensive), it means a far more involved and exciting game session, with a lot less pad-passing and a lot more ‘friendly’ punching.

As Christmas and New Year’s shenanigans are fast approaching and, for a short time, people will pretend each other don’t smell, I’ve decided to compile a list of my top 5 games to play in four-player local multiplayer. Every one of these has a hefty mileage at mi casa, and are the bread and butter of my game nights. If you’re looking for something new to play with the lads/gals, look no further. And don’t punch too hard. (more…)

The Beast From 2003: A Retrospective Review of War of the Monsters (PS4)

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One of my biggest regrets in life will always be trading in my PS2 along with its accompanying collection of games. Don’t get me wrong, the copies of Devil May Cry 4 and Pokemon Pearl I got out of the trade tided me over for a while, but the loss of the previous three DMC games, the original Monster HunterShadow of the Colossus and a whole host of other games soon hit me like a frying pan to the face.

The game I was saddest to see go was War of the Monsters, developed by Incognito Entertainment and released on the console in 2003. Inspired both by Japanese ‘kaiju’ monster movies (think Godzilla) and 1950s American sci-fi (think Earth vs the Flying Saucers), WotM is a 3D arena-based brawler in which up to four giant creatures battle to the death, leveling buildings and causing chaos as they go. I have very fond memories of it, being one of the first games I experienced in split-screen multiplayer and becoming a game night staple right up until we were parted.

And so it was with a little internal squeal that I heard a small number of PlayStation 2 classics had been released on the PS4, and that one of them was War of the Monsters. I dutifully handed Mr Sony my eight British pounds and, at long last, we were reunited.

I booted it up and jumped straight into ‘2-player’ (Old English for ‘multiplayer’) to face off against a friend I played the game with ten years ago. The nostalgia levels were 8,999 (not quite 9,000), but does the Beast from 2003 stand the test of time, or does it shatter our lovely rose-tinted glasses with its giant monster foot? (more…)

Live the Life: The Best Pirate Game Never Made

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If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that pirates are awesome. My fascination with the Golden Age of Piracy (1650 until around 1726) really began when I was at university and decided to write an independent study on the wreck of Blackbeard’s ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge. I found the subject of piracy so interesting that I chose to write my final year dissertation on the pirate port of Port Royal, Jamaica.

Golden Age pirates were without a doubt criminals, and many were bloodthirsty murderers, but there is something about their lives of freedom on the Seven Seas that people have found captivating ever since Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. This book is also responsible, however, for popularising a whole host of pirate cliches that still dominate our perceptions of these figures today. Buried treasure sure is an alluring concept, though in reality it was a rare practice, and as cool as plank-walking might seem, the single recorded incidence of it wasn’t carried out by pirates. Talk Like A Pirate Day may be a fun diversion on 19th September, but of course real pirates didn’t actually talk like pirates at all.

I’m sorry if it disappoints you to learn that pirates weren’t as yar-har-fiddle-di-dee as you might have previously thought, but the reality of piracy is far more enthralling than a couple of swashbuckling types with stripy shirts, eye patches, peg legs and hook hands.

Did you know, for example, that Blackbeard never killed a single person before the battle that ended his life? He instead created a terrifying persona, growing a huge, monstrous black beard, lighting fuses in his hair and spreading stories about how he was the Devil incarnate. He was known to take some of the men down to the hold, close all the hatches and set fire to gunpowder, filling the space with thick smoke for a game of last man standing. He would always be the last man, sat calmly in the corner, breathing in the smoke like a beast from hell:

‘Let us make a hell of our own, and try how long we can bear it.’

– Blackbeard

As mothers tucked their children into their beds, they would say ‘beware Blackbeard, for he will take your soul’, telling them horrific stories of the man called Edward Teach in order to scare them into being good boys and girls. Even Blackbeard’s own crew swore he had supernatural attributes, reportedly seeing strange shadows and ghostly apparitions on the ship.

As you probably assumed, Teach was not a demon, but simply a very clever man. He knew the power of reputation, spreading the Blackbeard myth to instill a crippling fear into anyone who might come across him. If you saw a ship approaching yours flying the Jolly Roger of Satan himself, a dark man standing on the deck with smoke billowing out of his flaming head, you would give him what he wanted. Blackbeard never killed anyone because he didn’t need to.

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Blackbeard’s flag

With pirates being as awesome as they are, they’re a natural fit for video games. That said, I feel that to this date the ultimate pirate game still doesn’t exist. The wildly successful Sid Meier’s Pirates! came close for many (regrettably I am still yet to play it), though most modern gamers will be familiar with pirating through the lauded Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.

AC IV puts players into the fancy boots of pirate Edward Kenway, who in series tradition joins the ever-present Assassin Order to war with the equally ever-present Templars. The game gives you command over a ship, The Jackdaw, and a shanty-loving crew and allows you to sail the Caribbean, battling and plundering other vessels on the high seas. It was barrels of rum – uh, I mean – fun, but it was still emphatically an Assassin’s Creed game rather than a straight pirate game, requiring you to progress through Edward’s linear story rather than experiencing the true freedom of piracy.

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Edward Kenway in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

It is with this in mind that I have come up with the features that I would have in my dream pirate game. If this were to be made, it would be the pirate game to end all pirate games, the holy grail of virtual sea doggery. Without sacrificing fun and exciting gameplay, it would be an accurate representation of piratical life and allow muggins in his mum’s basement to experience the immersive thrills of being a savvy, scurvy-ridden lad with a cutlass and a rag-tag band of drunk, toothless cutthroats at his side. This is the past. This is the future. This is the past colliding with the future. This is the… puture. Ahem. Full sail ahead. (more…)

Video: 2015 in Gaming

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Back in September I applied for a writing job with legendary video games website VideoGamer.com. To my excitement, I managed to make it all the way through the application process to the interview stage.

And so it was one chilly October morning that I traveled to the Big Smoke on a rather pricey train journey to meet and be interviewed by the VG team. Though there was some stiff competition and I ultimately didn’t get the position, I was given some useful feedback that has definitely encouraged me even more to pursue a career in this stuff!

The application required me to complete two game-related tasks: one game guide (which you can read here) and one free task in which I was asked to talk about five games I have played this year in any way I see fit. After much non-nit-related head-scratching, I decided to carry this out in video form, so I grabbed a couple of friends and a plastic axe and ventured outside to pretend to be a television presenter and be stared at by many a Newport chav.

Considering that busyness and workery left me only one day for script-writing and one for filming, and that the editing process made my elderly laptop attempt seppuku, the finished video actually turned out pretty well, and I didn’t get stabbed by a Newport hoodie.

I’d like to say a massive thank you to Rhys Jones, who calmly put up with me fudging my lines for hours, and Ben Morris, who, as well as having an idea involving goats, pulled off a trick in Rocket League that I will never be able to match in my entire life. Both of them gave up their time at very short notice to help me out, so for that I’m incredibly grateful. I’d also of course like to thank Tom Orry and VideoGamer for giving me such a fantastic opportunity, and for being generally awesome people.

Without further ado, here’s the video. Enjoy!

Music used:

Tom Durbin – ‘Wadi’ & ‘Tiye’ from KV55 EP

BEAMSTAR – ‘Dreams of a Distant Coast’ & ‘Hollywood Air’ from Coastal Dreams

And thus endeth the Word of Tom.