Thoughts: Age Of Empires 2 Definitive Edition

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First, an apology to Hidden Path. Back in 2013 I slated the first remaster of AoE 2, Age Of Empires 2 HD, as being little more than a widescreen upgrade for the game. Granted it did have Steamworks integration for multiplayer, but on launch the game was plagued with bugs and desyncs and so at the time I didn’t see the long-term value of an AoE 2 with a modern multiplayer backend. Hidden Path kept at it, however, fixing those bugs and shoring up the game and providing a base for another studio, Forgotten Empires, to release their own campaigns and civilization packs. A couple of years back I discovered that Age Of Empires 2 now has a thriving esports community with some of the highest viewer counts on Twitch during major tournaments; I have enjoyed watching many of those matches myself, and that’s something that probably wouldn’t have happened without the efforts of Hidden Path and Forgotten Empires1. However, while Age Of Empires 2 has certainly aged more gracefully than several of its contemporaries, there was no getting around the fact that the HD Edition was just that – it upped the resolution while doing nothing to update the underlying look of game, and that’s been a bit of a problem as the modern obsession with 4K displays and 144Hz refresh rates intensifies. Given that Microsoft is going through one of its more consumer-friendly phases at the moment, and given that there’s a proven audience for Age Of Empires out there, it’s not that surprising that they’ve taken a stab at a full remaster with Age Of Empires 2: Definitive Edition.

What is a little surprising, though, is just how outstandingly good this remaster is.

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  1. I will be honest and say that I’m having difficulty figuring out who exactly is responsible for what. Hidden Path did the base HD Edition and Forgotten Empires were involved in the new expansion campaigns, but there’s also a third studio credited on all of the releases, Skybox Labs, who are part of Microsoft Game Studios and who appear to do support work for a lot of Microsoft games. If I had to guess I’d say Skybox took over responsibility for maintaining the HD Edition from Hidden Path at some point while Forgotten Empires developed the new content.
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Thoughts: Blood Bowl 2

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In this age of Steam shovelware and low-effort mobile ports it’s difficult to remember a time when we weren’t awash in terrible adaptations of various Games Workshop properties. These days you can’t throw a rock without hitting a digital version of one of their Specialist Games from the ‘90s – Space Hulk, Mordheim, Adeptus Titanicus, Man O’ War, Battlefleet Gothic and so on — and with the notable exception of Battlefleet Gothic all of them have ranged in quality from “sub-par” to “indescribably awful”. Years before the floodgates opened, however, there was Cyanide’s 2009 adaptation of the classic American-Football-but-with-Orcs punch ‘em up Blood Bowl, which was a game that got a headstart on everyone else through a surprising application of copyright infringement1. Unlike the many games that followed it Blood Bowl didn’t piss about trying to figure out how to convert the board game into something more appropriate for a videogame, and instead just ported the board game rules across on a 1:1 basis. This proved to be an unusually successful approach, for two very good reasons that I’m surprised the later GW adaptations (including some of Cyanide’s own) didn’t pick up on. One is that while it was far from perfect Cyanide had managed to balance automating away most of the cruft that slows down a physical game of Blood Bowl while still preserving the board game feeling with stuff like highly visible digital dice rolls. The other is that people liked the old Specialist Games for a reason, and Blood Bowl is the best of the lot. You don’t need to go tinkering with the gameplay to make it work. It already does.

As long as you have somebody else to play it with, anyway.

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  1. Cyanide had released Chaos League a few years earlier, which was an extremely poorly-disguised ripoff of Blood Bowl. Games Workshop noticed, sued, and part of the eventual settlement was that Cyanide would be allowed to make an officially licensed Blood Bowl game. I still don’t understand how they managed to swing that.
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Thoughts: Dishonored – Death Of The Outsider

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Dishonored: Death Of The Outsider is an expandalone for Dishonored 2 that came out towards the end of 2017. Given that Dishonored 2 and its sci-fi stablemate Prey are two of my favourite games of the last few years it’s possibly a little surprising that it’s taken me two years to get around to playing it; however they also came out within six months of each other and Death Of The Outsider looked like more of the same, so I decided to let it breathe for a few months and come back to it when I was ready. As it is now 2020 I appear to have gotten a little bit distracted between now and then, but that’s actually done Death Of The Outsider a considerable favour: it is, arguably, just more Dishonored, and if I’d played it so soon after Prey and Dishonored 2 I’d likely be much more critical of it. However, since both games underperformed it’s highly unlikely we’ll see more of either from Arkane in the near future. Death Of The Outsider is the last Dishonored thing we’ll be getting for some time, and if you view it through that lens it being more of the same is no bad thing at all.

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Thoughts: Doom Eternal

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Everyone who has played the first Call of Duty: Modern Warfare remembers the AC-130 gunship level. This level plucks you from the thick of the action and temporarily sticks you in front of a TV screen inside a very large aeroplane that’s orbiting a kilometre above the same engagement; said aeroplane also happens to have a gigantic howitzer mounted on the side of it, and so for the duration of this level it’s your job to fire phone box-sized shells at groups of baddies who look like ants from your lofty perch, who don’t even know you’re there and who wouldn’t even have the option of fighting back if they did. When I first played this level I thought it was making a point about the impersonal, dehumanising nature of modern warfare, and that there was something deeply unsettling about the power of life and death being in the hands of people who can (and do) treat it just like a videogame. The AC-130 level is one of the reasons I came away with a pretty high opinion of Modern Warfare and its apparent anti-war message. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered the real reason the AC-130 level was in the game: the developers just thought being able to commit indiscriminate slaughter from 1,000 metres altitude was really cool1.

The reason I’m going with this somewhat tortured introduction to a review of Doom Eternal is because I think Modern Warfare proves something very important: that art is always going to be subjective to a greater or lesser degree, and so it is very possible to make an excellent videogame entirely by accident. Somewhat to my dismay it turns out that this is a very relevant lesson to apply to Doom Eternal; id’s 2016 reboot of Doom was and is excellent, but based on the experience I just had with Doom Eternal I’m starting to think that might have been entirely down to dumb luck.

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  1. I have gone looking for the interview where this was revealed, but it seems to have been lost to the vagaries of time — I can find comments that are pretty close but they’re from the president of Infinity Ward rather than any of the actual dev team. As I lack hard evidence I’ll at least caveat: development studios are not hive minds and what gets said in publicity junkets to hype up the game does not necessarily represent what was going on in the studio at the time it was being made. However, stacked up against that generous interpretation is the jingoistic onanism that comprises the entirety of Modern Warfare 2, which really doesn’t make me inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.
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Thoughts: Resident Evil 3

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Okay, look. I liked Resident Evil 3 as much as anyone did at the time. It’s a game that’s almost totally missing the creepy character and atmosphere of the earlier Resident Evil titles, and whose truncated development process ensured that it had a tremendous overreliance on both generic outdoor environments and recycled locations from Resident Evil 2, but the idea of the Nemesis was a good one back in 1999 and after two games of painstakingly conserving bullets and shotgun shells it was fun to unload on zombies with the assault rifle the game hands you from the start1. Despite that, and despite loving last year’s remake of Resident Evil 2, I found myself quickly becoming skeptical over the announcement that they were going to release a similar treatment of 3 just over a year later. That’s nowhere near enough time to develop a modern videogame even if it was in preproduction before the Resident Evil 2 remake released, and so my expectations for the Resident Evil 3 remake were correspondingly low.

Given that, it’s actually a little surprising that Resident Evil 3 still managed to comprehensively disappoint me.

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  1. If you’re not playing on Hard mode. I think my tastes at the time were significantly less refined and I just wanted to shoot zombies, so I didn’t pick Hard mode.
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Thoughts: Observation

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Observation is a game that sets itself up like 2001: A Space Odyssey, but which instead turns out to be more like The Cloverfield Paradox.

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Thoughts: Starcom Nexus

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The elevator pitch for Starcom Nexus is that it’s a modern, somewhat lighter version of Star Control. You’re an officer in an incredibly thinly-veiled analogue for the Federation from Star Trek, and you have control of a single ship that is, to begin with, just an engine, a bridge section and a plasma turret bolted together. This is not much with which to face the scenario the game tosses you into roughly thirty seconds after you boot it up: a magical rift in space appears (some might even call it… a Nexus) and tosses both your ship and a nearby friendly space station into a totally uncharted region of the universe, full of weird new phenomena and unknown alien races to make friends with/blow up for resources. You use those resources at the friendly space station to bolt new modules onto your ship, growing it from a rinky-dink shuttle into a titanic space behemoth that lays waste to everything around it, while solving the central mystery of where you are, how you got there, and how you can possibly get back.

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