Top 5 Games of the Year

As we all know, this has been an incredible year for playing videogames. Despite not being an industry professional, I have tried to play as many of them as I can. The games on my list are the cream of a very strong crop.

To that end I feel the need to mention a couple of close runners up. The Dishonored 2 DLC, Death of the Outsider gets a very important shout out; the game distils what made the series great into arguably the best product of the bunch. Secondly, Heat Signature was an indie game that got a relatively quiet release but is an incredibly fun roguelike in a roughly similar vein to FTL. Honestly, Heat Signature was the closest to making the top five and if I’d had a little more time to play it it could have been up there.

Finally there was the much maligned Middle Earth: Shadow of War. I seriously thought this game was amazing. I am a big fan of the (admittedly crowded) open-world genre, and SoW does this very well with the glorious cherry on top being the nemesis system, constantly bringing new and interesting enemies into your world. No game this year gave me the “where did those six hours just go” feeling like SoW as I was clearing out strongholds, assassinating orcs and just having a jolly old time. It would have no doubt made the top 5 if it were not for the atrocious final act, which effectively has you play the same tiresome mission 20 times. You read that correctly: 20 times. In each repetition the enemies become more difficult in a shamelessly ham-fisted attempt to encourage players to buy loot boxes. If the game had just stopped before this final act it would have been great but I found it to be so offensive that my opinion of the game as a whole was irreparably damaged.

With all that out of way, lets get down to the business of the stuff that did make the list:

5. Assassin’s Creed Origins

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I debated long and hard with myself about whether AC:O would be up here, but after completing my 20th hour in the game I decided it was on.

The reasons not to include AC:O are numerous: it’s just another AC game; traversing the world can be tedious; the main storyline is lacking. Nevertheless, Ubisoft have changed enough about the game to really make a lot of it work. The complete overhaul of the combat system is more engaging than the former Arkham-style and the upgrade tree, while a little sterile, is satisfying and empowering. The game really shines when clearing out one of the “bandit camps” or “military bases”, in which you employ all the tools at your disposal to clear out an enemy outpost.

AC:O has done enough to scratch my Ubisoft-open-world itch in fresh ways this year to make it onto the top 5 list.

4. Stardew Valley

While not technically released this year (came out last year on PC), I had been waiting a long time for SV to be released on Switch, and I was not disappointed.

The game is ported to Switch well, and is perfectly suited to mobile play. Bringing back nostalgia of playing Harvest Moon on GBA, SV provides a deeper experience than any Harvest Moon game that I’ve ever played. It has farming, dungeon crawling, crafting, fishing and a relationship sim all wrapped up in a charming visual and audio package. The scale of the achievement is underlined by the fact the game was made by just one person!

I haven’t spent as much time as I would have liked with SV, but I am in no doubt it has earned a place on this list.

3. Super Mario Odyssey

As the follow-up to Mario Galaxy 2, Odyssey had a lot to live up to. Not only did it succeed, but added to the series in new and amazing ways.

Every moment playing Odyssey is a joy, the movement control is flawless and the level-design is top-notch. The frequent acquisition of moons gives you a constant feeling of progress. Super Mario Odyssey is a fantastic game and I would argue the best platformer of all time.

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SM:O would probably have made its way further up this list if it had held me a bit longer than it did (I fell off at about 400 moons, feeling I had gotten everything I could from the game) but nevertheless is a ride that I am delighted to have taken.

 

 

2. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Having played every mainline Zelda game but never really getting gripped, I have always felt like something of an outsider when it came to the series. This all changed with BotW, which drew me inescapably in within moments of entering its vibrant open world; BotW uses everything in its power to create one of the finest pieces of game design I have ever seen.

The game teaches its sometimes complex mechanics without ever resorting to a tutorial. A careful drip-feed of knowledge from NPCs combined with playful encouragement of experimentation teaches players how to live and survive in the world. Sight-lines have been carefully considered so when you finally reach that distant glowing shrine, two more, plus a mysterious lake, are visible. Unique combinations of unrelated in-game mechanics frequently yield useful results.

Aside from the wonderful design, the game looks beautiful and really sold me on the Switch when I first bought it. The characters are charming and the world dense with wonder and excitement.

BotW is certainly not without flaws – the non-existent end game and lack-lustre DLC offerings to mention a couple – but no game has transported me back to the feeling of gaming as a child like BotW.

1. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds

A quick and horrifying calculation revealed to me today that I have spent 12% of my waking hours playing PUBG since I purchased it in April. This just about sums up the impact it has had on my life.

The issues and problems with PUBG are well-documented, from lag to bugs to performance, but despite this the light of its wonderful core concepts shine through. While far from the first to tackle the battle royale genre, PUBG – by either luck or design – brought together all the necessary factors into the prefect storm of a game.

Long periods of quiet looting punctuated by moments of abject horror and glorious victory form the addictive loop of this game, with the drip feed of dopamine just enough to keep you coming back.

I wrote at length about PUBG back in May, and my feelings for it have only intensified since then. I have never seen anything quite like it.

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Battlefront 2: Thoughts

So far I have played 30 hours of Battlefront 2, significantly more than I spent with the 2015 entry and have had some time to reflect on the criticism the game has faced. Largely the consensus has been “the progression is broken” and “microtransactions are bad”, so here I’d like to go into a bit more detail about what is wrong (and right) in BF2. And there is a lot that is wrong.

The removal of microtransactions has actually done very little to change the game’s problems. It is still very disheartening (often to the point of hitting Alt-F4) to be defeated by a player with Star Cards that are many levels above yours. Sure, maybe one day you can be as strong as that player, but that might be tens of hours away – and probably never. The design choice to surface the Star Cards your killer has equipped is an interesting one, and I suppose at least I can tell myself I was beaten because the other player was objectively better but it still leaves me with a bitter taste.

This knowledge would not be so tormenting if achieving the same Star Cards as another player felt achievable, which it absolutely does not. The random nature of the loot boxes combined with the minuscule quantities of credits and crafting parts that get doled out mean the yields are at best small and at worst irrelevant. This could have been somewhat mitigated by adding the ability to breakdown unwanted Star Cards into credits or crafting parts, but instead the player is left with a majority of Star Cards for classes and heroes that are never used.

The only glimmer of control players have is to use crafting parts to craft or level up cards of their choosing. This is nice as it allows focused improvement of the stuff you actually use, but the aforementioned scarcity of crafting parts means that satisfaction here is severely limited, minimising the feeling of useful progression virtually to zero. It also means the best thing you can get from a loot box – crafting parts – is the most boring.

(It’s also worth adding here a general frustration with class-based, first person shooters: if you spec into a particular class – e.g. assault – but a particular situation, like holding a point, would be better suited to the officer class, if you pick the officer you will be left using an underpowered soldier. This discourages optimally playing to the objective – more on this later)

Further to this, there is very little point in an average player spending the relatively huge amount of credits needed to make the cool hero characters like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader available. In order to actually play them in a round, you have to gain a certain number of battlepoints (distributed based on performance). Very often you will not accrue enough points to play as them, and even if you do there is a high chance another, better player is using that hero which makes it again unavailable. This is despite the fact that you often don’t see these heroes trying to play the objective. Perhaps they are just hiding in a corner enjoying the fact they finally got to play as their hero of choice and don’t want to risk dying… Anyway, my credits would have been better spent (again, relatively) on loot boxes to at least give me a chance to upgrade my basic classes. I didn’t know this when I first started playing and the game does nothing to even tell you that you are making the choice of “Heroes v.s. Class Progression”.

In addition to progression issues, there are some real problems with the structure and set-up of the rounds themselves. I mainly play Galactic Assault, the large 40 person game mode, which is the game’s flagship.

To kick us off, the desire to get a hero (mentioned above) often encourages players to lose certain objectives to avoid winning, lengthen a match and give them enough time to get enough points to play the hero they spent so many credits on. This is quite stupid, but I can’t suggest a way around this because it is baked so fundamentally into the game. Similarly, credits are administered at the end of a match based on the length of the match and not on whether you win. So again you are encouraged to drag the match out and lose rather than winning. What were they thinking?

Secondly, some of the objectives are so banal they actively discourage players from attempting them. Several involve “hacking” a terminal by holding G. For two minutes. You can’t shoot to defend yourself, or do anything, while taking the objective. Who the heck wants to do that?!

Finally, there are some serious quality-of-life issues that further limit my enjoyment. Text chat is disabled after a round, preventing any kind of post-mortem, congratulation or anything else. Presumably this is to try to stop people from getting toxic, but they can do that plenty within the chat while the round is going on. There are also spots of downtime where you can’t look at the leaderboard, which again is just silly.

More frustratingly, on the waiting screen after you have picked a class or hero, YOU CANNOT LOOK AT YOUR ABILITIES despite often just staring at this screen of 10 seconds doing nothing. This is one of the craziest to me, because it forces you to wait until you are in the round, when you could be helping or getting shot at, to look at the screen that tells you what your hero can actually do. Again, this discourages experimentation and continues the general theme of BF2 forcing you down very narrow play-style choices.

Well, I’m glad I got all that off my chest. Despite everything I have said above, I keep going back to Battlefront 2 in a way that is confusing even to me. The urge to play it will not go away. Maybe it is because the game looks fantastic. It sounds fantastic. I am unashamedly a Star Wars fan and interacting with this universe, even with all the problems, garners a sense of childlike glee. The gameplay itself can also be quite engaging, and does deliver a sense of satisfaction when you start to feel the force and contribute to the success of your team.

The game has imminent DLC and there have already been two patches, so there is hope that some of my complaints will be addressed. So far it is enough to keep me going. My time with Battlefront 2 is not over yet. The saga continues.

Park Run Progress!

I have not written about my training progress for a while but it has been quietly proceeding in the background. My social life has gotten in the way for the last few weeks but this last Saturday I managed to squeeze in a Park Run at Temple Newsam. One of my targets for this quarter was to get a Park Run PB there so I really had my sights set on it.

On the morning I was feeling ok but the rain was coming down hard. I could feel the grip on the tarmac was going while I warmed up so conditions were not ideal. My previous PB was 21:10 so I knew what I had to beat. I was fortunate for the presence of a 21 min pacer who I could use to my advantage.

Started off in the middle of the pack, struggling to get around other runners. By the time we had descended the first steep hill I had let loose a bit and managed to make my way to the top 10 group, and I was actually ahead of the 21 min pacer.

Towards the end of the first lap, going up the big hill, I was really starting to feel it. I am usually strong on hills and try to take advantage of that, but today I really felt like I was plodding and was overtaken – crucially by the 21 minute pacer.

Disheartened but not yet ready to surrender, I gritted my teeth and fought to stay with him. Every time he seemed to get away from me I found the force to regain the lost ground. Coming to the end of the second lap I was frequently checking my watch and I could tell it was going to be close. The 21 min pacer was about 10 seconds in front of me, which put me exactly at my previous best time.

Passing through the rhododendrons the 21 min pacer, still ahead of me, shouted back that he was ahead of time and if we pushed we could beat 21. This was exactly what I needed to hear and I put in all the power I could for the last hundred meters. Collapsing over the finish line in the rain, I stopped my watch but was nervous to check it. When I finally looked down I saw 20:55, beating my PB by 15 seconds!

Training Update – Week beginning 31st July

I woke up very early on Monday so just set out on my long run at 5am – did around 7 miles. It was nice being out so early when it was quiet. Put in another decent run on Tuesday (5 miles) and a shorter one on Wednesday and Thursday (around 3 miles).

On Friday I did 10 x 1 minute intervals over a 4 miles route and worked pretty hard. Did not Park Run on Saturday due to hangover, but did put in a hill session in the afternoon. Did about 5 miles over a route containing around 5 or 6 significant hills. Put in a lot of effort on the hills to try and make the training session count.

Had Sunday off as a rest day.

The Joy of Travel (in Videogames)

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There is something comforting about being “in transit”. I like being on buses and trains and planes and just being conveyed from one place to another. You can sit back, relax and watch the world go by. “I like the peace/ In the backseat”, as Arcade Fire put it.

I think the main reason is that you’re not really expected to be doing anything else when you’re travelling. I’ve never had to commute long distances, Leeds-to-London-style, so I’ve never been obliged to do work on a train. For me it has generally been for leisure and therefore I can spend the travel-time as I please; a welcome retreat in a world of constant stimulation and distraction.

My first recollection of having a similar feeling in a game was in my excitement for the release of Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles. I liked the idea of me and my chums hunkering down in our caravan and journeying from one adventure to the next – even though I was aware that that would actually make a pretty boring game and the fun itself revolved around the bits in between the travelling. I liked the concept nevertheless.

This was brought to mind in the time I’ve spent this week with Supergiant’s new game, Pyre, which offers the familiar opportunity to lead a mismatched bunch of companions on a caravan-based foray. Pyre actually offers a bit more time inside the caravan than FF:CC, albeit only while the caravan is stationary (I don’t quite get the same cosy feeling if the vehicleisn’t moving).  Still, the game captures the excitement of a travelling adventure quite admirably.

Some of this feeling is even captured in open-world games such as The Elder Scrolls Series, where one experiences the quiet anticipation of setting a distant waypoint and journeying through the wilderness to reach it.

Ultimately I suppose travel is a fundamental part of being human, harking back to our ancient nomadic routes. This is underlined by other art forms, which frequently employ the “travel tale” as part of their narrative to inspire a feeling of wonder in the audience (The Lord of The Rings, On the Road, Heart of Darkness). I’m happy to see Pyre using this technique in its unique graphic-novel-esque setting and hope to see more games packing me up in a wagon and sending me off to war.

Training update – week beginning 24th July

The week started off well with a long run on Monday and fast run on Tuesday. Unfortunately I began to feel ill on Wednesday so had Wednesday and Thursday off. I felt bad about this as I also started eating more as well, to try to recover from the illness.

By Friday I was feeling better and went for a 3 miler. I arranged do the Woodhouse Moor Park Run on Saturday morning with my bud Ste who lives nearby. It was great fun and much easier than the Temple Newsam Park run. Easily beat my PB, but the route was a lot quicker (very flat). I was right on the shoulder of another runner for the last km and planned on overtaking on the final straight, but unfortunately he had a lot more left in his legs than me and left me for dead. I was a little bitter but glad he pulled me round for that final half km.

This morning I went running straight out of bed. Had no particular time in mind but ran about 5 miles in around 5 minutes, fairly pleasant but a couple of tough hills. Ready to get back in the saddle next week!

Roundhay Rampage – 6 miles – 19th July – Race Report

Yesterday evening the weather was quite good for racing, warm but not too warm with a bit of drizzle in the air. I arrived in plenty of time and had a good warm-up. Felt fine before the race, and had in mind the lessons I’d learned a month ago at Tempsey Torture. I needed to not push too hard at the start so I had something left in the tank to push at the end.

The race began with a steep decent followed by a similar climb back up the other side of the arena. I was getting overtaken at this point but had in mind to run my own race. AS planned I was not competitive on the hills, letting those who wanted overtake and hoping I would catch them again alter when they tired. 10 mins into the race I had fallen into a small pack as we left the lakes behind and headed into the woodland in the north of the park.

I was following the leader of the pack for a long way but his pace began to drop off and I knew I needed to overtake. This was facilitated by another member of the pack moving to overtake and I followed. We left the group as a pair and moved further into the woods.

The new runner I was chasing kept up a good pace that I felt I could hold. Unfortunately as the terrain underfoot got worse I lost him in the forest (and never saw him for the rest of the race!). For the next five minutes I didn’t see another runner but felt strong and tried to put in some work as I moved through the uneven woodland.

I caught the next guy ahead of me as we were leaving the woods. A navigational error on his part enabled me to overtake and he never came back. This brought us to southernmost point of the course at the south end of the lake. One of the marshals kindly pointed out that I had a 30% gradient back up to the lake – although I stayed strong and did not walk.

Overtook a couple more on the final straight back to the finish, and managed not to walk on the final hill up to the end. I was a bit disappointed as I thought the course was longer than it was and still had some energy left at the finish.

Crossed the line 49:23 with 47th place. This is fine but I feel I could have gone harder. I took my own advice too much and held too much back. This is a lesson to be learned for the final race in the series.