Category Archives: gaming

Replay: XCOM 2 – Long War 2

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I’ve not dabbled with mods for many years. That might sound a little strange considering the high volume of PC games that I get through, but it’s partly because of the high volume of PC games that I get through: I usually play games with an eye to reviewing them, you can’t review them fairly if they’re plastered in mods, and over the last few years I’ve had little time to revisit games I’ve already played to see how they change. With the slightly more relaxed (or less obsessive, anyway) attitude I’m taking this year, though, I have the opportunity to do ridiculous, time-expensive things like reinstalling XCOM 2 along with the recently-released Long War mod for it to see what all the fuss is about.

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The Hentzau Review Of Books

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(About video games.)

For a medium that’s been around for a good 35 years at this point there are surprisingly few books that do a good job of exploring the various facets of videogame history. I’ve always found this a little bit odd; modern videogaming has found itself inextricably linked with the rise of the internet and so you’re far more likely to find retrospectives on games and developers somewhere online, but the catch here is that anything published on the internet is going to be 1) superficial by its very nature (and I don’t mean that as a slight at all, it’s just that the amount of effort you’re going to put into researching even a long blog post or news article is always going to pale in comparison to what you’d do for a full-on book1), and 2) distressingly hard to find unless it’s got really good search engine optimisation. No, I much prefer the old-fashioned approach of sitting down with a book that’ll do an in-depth exploration of one specific area, even if the authors can’t seem to resist giving them cliche titles like Game Over or Insert Coin; the act of reading a book has a permanence that scrolling down a webpage lacks and which leads to my assimilating the information far more readily, and as I like reading history books in general I’ve ended up reading rather more books about the history of video games than a normal person should. As I’ve hit something of a slow period when it comes to writing about games, I thought I’d change things up slightly by writing about writing about games instead. Here are a few books that I liked (or didn’t), and why.

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  1. Okay, so I have a very low opinion of Games Journalism these days, but I should balance up the constant dunking by mentioning the exception to this rule: Eurogamer occasionally put up some really good retrospectives that are easily ten thousand words plus. The one on Tomb Raider was fantastic.
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Thoughts: Shenzhen I/O

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Well, it finally happened. After carving out a niche in the market by making puzzle games that were secretly about programming, it was inevitable that Zachtronics would eventually cross a line and make a puzzle game that was actually about programming.

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Thoughts: Shadow Tactics – Blades Of The Shogun

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Back in 1998 a small Spanish developer called Pyro Studios released the first Commandos game. Commandos was a strategy game with a difference: instead of jumping on the Command & Conquer RTS bandwagon that was trundling along at full speed at around about this time, Commandos was instead a World War 2-set Mission Impossible-style series of infiltration missions where you took command of a small squad of 4-6 Allied operatives as they blew up various bits of critical German infrastructure and assassinated key personnel. It was a game notable for the massive strength asymmetry between your squad and the opposing forces — each level was infested with dozens and dozens of guards and your commandos were unfortunately rather realistically squishy, quickly succumbing to just a couple of rifle bullets — which in turn engendered an extreme focus on stealth and on using the unique toolkits available to each individual commando to unpick the enemy patrol paths so that you could reach your objective.

Commandos was successful enough that it spawned its own real-time tactics sub-genre. As well as two sequels (Commandos 2 arguably perfected the formula, while Commandos 3 was a bit of a cash-in from a studio that was running out of ideas and talent), it inspired two Desperados games, Robin Hood: Legend of Sherwood and even Star Trek: Away Team. But then a funny thing happened: after the initial rush of imitators, this particular strain of stealthy strategy game died an abrupt and premature death. Save for Desperados 2 in 2006, nobody has made a Commandos-style game in almost fifteen years.

That is, until Shadow Tactics was released last month. And oh my goodness, it is Commandos to the core.

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End Of Year Retrospective 2016

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Congratulations! If you are reading this, then you have (just about) survived 2016, which was a monumentally shitty year in almost every respect except for videogames. I remarked at the end of last year that I thought 2015 contained some games of exceptional quality, and yet 2016 makes it look like it wasn’t even trying; I’ve played so many good games this year that it’s actually difficult to think of any actual bad ones, and while that’s partially a result of the industry saturating the market with new titles (to the point where I suspect we may be headed for a mini-crash sometime in the near future as there’s only so much money to go around and the sheer volume of commercial failures could become unsustainable) it’s also a pleasing indicator that many previously-moribund development houses have rediscovered the internal spark that made their games fun in the first place. And there’s no better way to examine this phenomenon than through the usual medium of the Scientific Gamer Completely Made-Up Awards Ceremony 2016!

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Thoughts: House Of The Dying Sun

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I’ve been following the development of House Of The Dying Sun for a couple of years. Even back then, when it was still called Enemy Starfighter, it had already been in development for quite some time, and the reason for this is that it’s mostly the work of a single ex-Bungie developer. Up until, oh, just over a year ago, House Of The Dying Sun was a pseudo-roguelike arcade space fighter sim where you’d fly around a procedurally generated solar system with your AI-controlled fleet smashing things up and then warping out before powerful reinforcements arrived to smash you up; you’d farm renown through the things-smashing and use this to buy bigger and better ships, and then when you were ready you’d storm the enemy homeworld. However, this iteration of House Of The Dying Sun is a very different game to the House Of The Dying Sun that’s actually been released, which is a very short collection of bitesize scripted missions where you and your space fighter swoop into star systems to assassinate various targets of interest.

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Thoughts: Tyranny

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I feel like Tyranny suffers from a slight marketing problem. Let’s take a quick look at the blurb on the Steam store:

In Tyranny, the grand war between good and evil is over – and the forces of evil, led by Kyros the Overlord, have won. The Overlord’s merciless armies dominate the face of the world, and its denizens must find their new roles within the war-torn realm… even as discord begins to rumble among the ranks of Kyros’ most powerful Archons.

Sounds interesting, right? Tyranny is actively sold as an RPG where you are — or at least, are working for — the bad guy. Having played all the way through Tyranny now, though, I’d say that maybe one third of that summary is accurate; discord is indeed rumbling among the ranks of Kyros’ Archons, to the point where the first act feels more like you’re wrangling a bunch of preschoolers squabbling over who gets to play with the pony next than it does dealing with the immensely powerful leaders of Kyros’ armies. As far as the rest of it goes I have some bad news for Kyros, as the dictionary definition of “dominate” is “to have a commanding position over”, and since Kyros’ forces are afraid to venture outside of their camps in nearly all of the territories that you visit during the course of the game I would say that he’s1 dominating the world in the same way that the USA dominated Vietnam back in the ‘70s. It’s that first sentence I really take issue with, though. There is plenty of scope for an RPG in which you’re on the side of evil for once — genuine evil, not the mwa-ha-ha-ing stereotypes found in Bioware titles. Psychopath playthrough of Alpha Protocol aside, I’ve not seen the genre come up with anything significantly new here since I told Zaalbar to kill Mission back in Knights Of The Old Republic and I was looking forward to an exploration of what being evil would mean and how it would change things both for your character and for the wider game world.

Unfortunately, Tyranny is not that game.

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  1. Or she; one of the nice things about Tyranny is that very little is actually known about Kyros and nobody knows what gender they are, or even if they’re a single person or a group of people.
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