Time for the Scientific Gamer Totally Made Up Awards Ceremony 2013! If this were a real awards ceremony it’d be an entirely self-serving affair where a captive games journalism machine showers pointless awards on whichever publisher had the largest marketing budget to pay for them this year, but happily I’m entirely free of corporate sponsorship (seriously, I’m disappointed in you guys) and so I can do whatever the hell I like. As a result these awards may be a little unusual and totally biased in favour of my opinion, and if you don’t like them you can go start your own blog. Or argue in the comments. Either’s good.
Best Expansion Pack: Brave New World.
That I like the concept of the expansion pack is a matter of public record, and 2013 saw a brief resurgence of the format with the release of Heart of the Swarm, Brave New World and Enemy Within. That being said this is possibly an odd choice considering that I didn’t actually like Brave New World all that much, but I can’t deny that it was very well-designed and added much that was worthwhile to Civilization V. Anyway, the other two fell some way short of what I hoped they would accomplish, with Enemy Within being just kind of good and Heart of the Swarm actually being… not bad, as such, but so boring that it made the previously-dull background extra Matt Horner seem like an interesting and well-written character. With that in mind Brave New World wins by default, but I’m not going to fault the other two for trying.
Best Soundtrack: Sang-Froid.
I let Sunday Soundtracks slide since getting the job, but this doesn’t mean I’m not paying attention to the audio side of things and this year had a lot of games with outstanding soundtracks. Payday 2 backed up the excellent acoustics of its gun battles with a thumping techno soundtrack, while Desktop Dungeons supplied a surprisingly meaty aural accompaniment to its fiendish puzzling. For my money, though, nothing quite approached the thematic period music that came with Sang-Froid: Tales of Werewolves. This was somewhat unexpected considering the dirt-cheap production values of the rest of the game, but I can’t deny that it’s absolutely bloody brilliant: unusual, catchy, and appropriately boisterous for slaying creatures of the night. I’d like more games to do slightly off-kilter soundtracks like this one, please.
Best Implementation Of Aircraft In An RTS: AirLand Battle.
Aeroplanes are something that the RTS genre has traditionally had a bit of trouble with: how do you balance a unit that can go anywhere and attack anything? Most RTSes dodge the problem by ignoring air units completely, and when they’re included their implementation has varied from sensible (Red Alert) to baffling (Dawn of War: Soulstorm), but I haven’t seen a game that’s nailed air warfare anywhere near as well as the jet fighters in AirLand Battle. They move well, look good and sound stunning, especially if you zoom down to ground level where an incoming airstrike is like being hit by the fist of God. Given that this is historically something that’s been very difficult to get right – and continues to be; something that caused me actual physical pain earlier this year was the flight animation of the aircraft in this Shipbreakers trailer – I thought it was worth mentioning, especially since AirLand Battle itself is rather excellent despite being the niche-iest of niche games.
Best Kickstarter Game That I Backed That Was Actually Released: Shadowrun Returns.
Otherwise known as the only Kickstarter game I backed in 2012 that was actually released this year. (Broken Sword 5 doesn’t count because they’ve split it into two parts.) Fair play to Harebrained Studios: they made their pitch, brought in far more money than they thought they would, issued a revised release date, and then proceeded to miss this release date by only a couple of months. They at least know how to do the process of game development right, and the resulting game – while not without some significant flaws – was for the most part a very respectable RPG that scratched a certain cyberpunk itch, and should be the poster child for Kickstarter success stories. Unfortunately it’s the exception to the rule, with several of the other projects appearing to languish in development hell after achieving their short-term goal of a Steam Early Access release. Maybe I’ll have a bit more to include in this category next year, but I’m not holding my breath.
Best Swamp Level: Metro Last Light.
Swamp levels are one of my pet hates in videogames. I’ve never understood them: these are virtual worlds and developers can build practically any sort of level they can imagine, and yet they persist in making me endure dreary, dank, and depressing swamp levels, which invariably bear all the hallmarks of being filler content that the player has to slog through before they can get to the good stuff. They are visually uninteresting and mechanically dull — or at least they were, until Last Light surprised me by actually doing some fairly imaginative things with the setting, obscuring the player’s view and surrounding them with murky, treacherous water and the unsettling sound of something out there stalking them. It’s all the more damning for the rest, I suppose, since Last Light proved it is possible to have a good swamp level. It’s just that the vast majority of games just can’t be bothered, and I still stand by my opinion that if your game has a swamp level in it then you automatically lose any respect I might have had for it because it proves you just ran out of ideas.
Best Attempt By Blizzard To Take All Of My Money, Again: Hearthstone.
Ah, but we should talk more about this one in the new year when it will (hopefully) be in open beta and everyone can try it. Suffice to say that I’ve already spent money on it despite being not all that sure that I actually like it – and I’m usually quite resistant to the siren call of the microtransaction. As a method for extracting cash from people with a big pair of pliers Blizzard have hit upon another surefire winner here. As a game, though, I’m not quite so sure.
Most Broken Game: Rome 2.
I really wish things hadn’t turned out like this, but as it stands this is the award with the fiercest competition. Three high-profile games came out this year that, on release, turned out to be so completely and utterly broken and buggy that they were all but unplayable.
SimCity suffered server overload after the baffling decision to make it online-only; it was only several months later that things had calmed down enough for basic game features like Cheetah speed to be turned back on. Meanwhile players had to contend with awful agent pathfinding that always took the shortest possible route to a destination, resulting in absurdities like 21 buses jammed in gridlock as they all tried to pick up a single sim from the same bus stop. However, even if SimCity had been released in perfect working condition I’m not convinced that it would have been any good as a game; the bugs and server issues merely compounded the core problem of it being terrible. This is why SimCity, broken as it is, misses out on this particular award.
Over a month post-release and Battlefield 4 still isn’t working properly. The stress of releasing for five different platforms simultaneously seems to be getting to DICE, as they recently proclaimed that they’d stopped all other work to focus on Battlefield’s constant connection errors and crashes. If this is what they’ve actually done then it’ll probably make things worse, as there’s a point in game development where you hit Too Many Cooks and you can’t fix software issues like this by throwing more people at them. I think that at this point, however, it really doesn’t matter; the damage has been done and – anecdotally – very few people I know are even playing it any more. It’s just not worth the hassle. Perhaps next time EA and DICE have the gall to charge a yearly subscription for a Premium service they’ll actually make sure that service works out of the box. I’ll believe that when somebody lowers a thermometer into the underworld and tells me that hell has in fact frozen over, though.
Despite the stiff competition, however, no game I played this year was quite as disappointingly broken as Rome 2. There were two particularly infuriating things about it. First, a large proportion of the bugs and design issues to be found in the game were mistakes that had been repeated from previous Total War games, with the imbecilic battlefield AI in particular being rather reminiscent of my experience with Empire. Game development is usually an iterative process, but you can’t iterate when you apparently have the institutional memory span of a goldfish. Second, though – and far more annoying– is that underneath all the AI bugs and UI issues and incomplete features, somewhere underneath all of that is a good game. Rome 2 is hardly bereft of good ideas. There was a lot of stuff in it that I quite liked in principle, such as the tech trees and the new province system. It had potential, far more so than either SimCity or Battlefield 4; those games were bad (or mediocre) games that happened to be broken, whereas Rome 2 could have been an excellent Total War title had it been executed properly. That it was not was almost entirely down to the rushed release date and subsequent crippling bugs and design issues; with another six months of development it probably would have been a solid entry in the series, but as it is it is merely frustratingly awful and if we’re judging this in terms of nixed potential then Rome 2 easily takes the prize.
Most Perfect Game: Spelunky.
I want to emphasise something here: “Perfect” doesn’t necessarily mean “Best”. Whether you like Spelunky or not is going to be very much down to personal preference; however, several months of attempting to complete the Daily Challenge has led me to appreciate just how well-made Spelunky is. It is a game that knows what it wants to be, accepts its limitations, and excels at literally every single thing it attempts within those narrow boundaries. The art is gorgeous, the mechanics are so polished they’re practically mirror-like and even the music grew on me after the hundredth dungeon crawling session. I usually don’t like to sing the praises of indie games that already get plenty of attention from mainstream gaming sites, but sod it: Spelunky is superb and it deserves every accolade that gets thrown its way.
Best Game That Was So Utterly Horrifying I Still Haven’t Finished It: Papers Please.
I can’t even write about that damn game. I’m pleased it exists, and I’m pleased that I played it, but oh my god is it an uncomfortable experience.
Best Worst Game Of 2013: SimCity.
You know, I’m actually kind of glad I played SimCity, since without it there would be nothing I’ve played this year that really merited this award. Last year there were plenty of games that made me so angry I couldn’t even talk about them in polite company without turning the air blue, from the ineptly-made Carrier Command to the disgustingly not-a-game Swords and Sworcery, but this year… well, maybe old age is mellowing me a bit. So it’s a good thing I played SimCity; it’s utter badness kept the rage smouldering for a good couple of months and even now thinking about it makes my palms itch. Almost every aspect of its design and execution was a car crash from start to finish, from the computing limitations of the agent AI that meant it couldn’t simulate a city larger than a postage stamp to the AI itself being so incredibly stupid that the most efficient city layout was a single incredibly long road. The resulting simulation was utterly unlike a real city, or even a simplified approximation of one, and so SimCity rather failed at both of the core features implied in its title. I’m actually a little amazed that Maxis have the gall to be releasing an expansion pack for it next year, since I still think the core idea of the GlassBox engine is so fundamentally flawed that anything else built on top of it is going to collapse in utter ruin. But then I guess if you’re Maxis and/or EA that’s the last thing you’re going to admit. I suppose it’ll just have to wait for the inevitable hand-wringing in a post-mortem article a couple of years down the line. Right now, though, SimCity is bad, will always be bad and is all the more bad for being a rather undistinguished coda to what had been one of the PC-est of PC gaming series.
Brave New World is the only game you’ve listed I’ve played. I feel like a bad person.
You are bad, and you should feel bad.
I’ve not played any of them. I feel fine.
I dunno, I finally got into Dark Souls and the swamp level (AND the sewer level!) feels like a meaningful experience. The fact that you are in a dark, poisonous swamp dramatically affects how you approach the game and informs the layout of the “town” you find yourself in.
Maybe that’s the key? When a swamp is just a palette, it’s bad. When its swampiness is actually key to how you play, it’s good.
Basically, yes. To pick a random example, World of Warcraft had very bad swamp areas because you did the same shit you did in the rest of the game, except in a swamp. This is how most games do swamp levels.
(I’ve bounced off of Dark Souls a couple of times. I can see that it’s a good game, I can just never summon up the mental fortitude required to get more than a few hours into it.)
I’ve owned Dark Souls since 2011, even bought the guide (which is a godsend), but only made real progress last month thanks to a rum and coke.
Basically, alcohol makes it easier for me to focus on a single thing (which can be good or bad, depending on what topic you set before me) and relaxed enough to shrug off the deaths. As I got further and further, burning through my buzz, I got more and more excited. By the time I reached the Bell Gargoyles it was like I was plugged into a light socket and I finally understood it. I’d still change a few things, but if you have a method like I did, it’s worth going back to.
And my example for bad swamp levels is Sly 2: Band of Thieves. The first Sly had a swamp zone, but that game was very short and the swamp theme tied into the mechanics (you were sliding on vines and running from snakes and whatnot). In Sly 2, the game is much, much longer and the palette is dull and dark for the middle stretch. World 1? Paris at night. World 2? Indian palace at dusk. World 3? Indian jungle/swamp in the day, but it’s overcast and raining. Worlds 4 & 5? Dingy, black-and-brown Eastern Europe. Bleh. Made worlds 6-8 much better, though.
Daikatana is probably the most infamous example: the very first level of the game is a swamp level, and it’s immediately followed up by a sewer level. Not that I’ve ever played it, of course; it’s just that Daikatana’s swamp level is so legendary in its badness it’s transcended its parent game to become the poster child for bad swamp levels. And it’s surprising how many subsequent games keep making the mistake, even when the rest of game is actually quite good. Halo? Bad swamp level. The Witcher games? Bad swamp levels. That stupid mushroom part of Morrowind? Bad swamp level. Left 4 Dead 2? Despite its best attempts, bad swamp level. Even Black Flag had a bad swamp level. I expect this trend to continue throughout my adult life and long after I die since it’s the one true constant in videogames.
I’ll give you the first Witcher (which I didn’t really like very much), but where was the bad swamp in the Witcher 2? The whole Flotsam area was one of the most gorgeous outdoor levels I can think of and not particularly difficult to navigate. I’m also not sure it’s a swamp, exactly, more of a forest.
Now I’m trying to think of a good swamp level. Lego Lord of the Rings had a decent Dead Marshes level. The first Sly game wasn’t bad (although the mini-games in that level were pretty bad). Dark Souls is kind of hard to say since that game is so fucking hard that you can’t really “enjoy” any of the areas. Skyrim’s swamp wasn’t bad, but it was a pretty small area that was distinguished mostly by the presence of Chaurus, making it unusually dangerous early on.
OH! STALKER: Call of Pripyat! The very first level is a swamp and it’s great! The tall grass makes it unnerving to traverse during the day and absolutely terrifying at night.
I grew up in Florida, spent a lot of time slogging through the Everglades, the Okefenokee, and then later in swampy areas of Central America and Brazil. I know from swamps. I think the reason swamp levels tend to be bad is that game designers have just never been in a swamp. They don’t realize the potential.
A swamp is a 3-dimensional environment, for one thing. In most swamps you can’t see much below the water surface, and the terrain underfoot isn’t necessarily level. You can be walking forward in water below you knees, and the next second you step in a hole and you’re up to your neck… or worse. Games just represent swamps as flat environments.
They also miss the tactile element, and the cryptozoology of swamp critters. Is that thing you just stubbed your foot on underwater a tree root, or a big snake? Is that branch you had to brush aside just a branch, or is there another snake coiled on it? Is that a big log over there, or the back of an alligator? What is that thing that just dropped on the back of your neck!
Real swamps are fascinating places, and most games just miss the potential for both the beauty and the terror. I’ll give the first Witcher game credit for the monsters that suddenly pop out of the water, but that’s about it. The second Witcher game had a nice-looking environment outside Flotsam, but there was still some wasted potential there. Garalt should have fallen through a few holes in the ground.
Oops, I think I meant “cryptic camouflage” there, not cryptozoology. Gotta get things right on a science-related blog.
This is almost exactly what the Last Light swamp level did. Sure, they couldn’t get the tactile thing right, but they played around with the uncertainty of the environment very well, from the deceptively shallow-looking water to the things constantly moving around that might have been harmless critters, but then again might be something infinitely more dangerous. It convinced me there was a lot of potential in swamp environments that just goes completely unexplored because (I imagine) it’s actually quite hard to make the most of it.
Comment of the month – thank you for the description. I don’t have your depth of experience, but I was lucky enough to visit the Okefenokee once on a school trip. My dad grew up in Florida and he and I had a lot of fun in and around the bayou together at Grandma’s.
X: Rebirth was my Most Broken Game of the year, with Rome 2 a close second.
Rome 2 might better in six months or a year after patching and modding, so there is still hope. Rebith was dead on arrival. There just isn’t enough of a decent design at the core to work with. I’ll be amazed if anyone is still trying to resuscitate that corpse in a year or two.
I dodged a bullet with Rebirth. I was *this* close to buying it — and then I remembered that I still had Albion Prelude sitting unplayed in the Steam account after trying and failing to get into it twice, and that Rebirth would likely suffer the same fate. Turns out it likely wouldn’t even have gotten that far. From what I’ve heard it is astoundingly bad.
I’d like to thank you for playing Sim City and Rome 2 so I didn’t have to.
And yeah, properly modelled air attacks from the ground are terrifying. ArmA is particularly good at this; there have been a number of firefights I was in where the enemy just disappeared into a billowing ball of flame or a hail of chaingun fire. Having aircraft that just hover over your units and go pew pew at stuff that comes close doesn’t really do them justice. Will be really interesting to see how the ground/sea stuff works in War Thunder, too, whether they manage to do multi-forces battles that don’t seem like bullshit when your tank gets bombed from out of nowhere.
I don’t see how they can make the combined arms warfare work in War Thunder — not without dramatically compromising what makes the air combat so fun. The developer is responsible for the Wings of Prey games, the game is built on the Wings of Prey engine — so for air combat first and foremost — and I suspect that as soon as they move away from that the wheels are going to come off the wagon slightly simply because it’s moving into unexplored territory. Not that they shouldn’t *try*, of course, but it’s a shame when the air combat is so good.
I mean, in theory a combined forces game could work – see ArmA. And something where you’re playing sailors and airmen at Midway, say, could work really well. But you’re right that it requires a lot of components working well individually as well as together, which is a big step up from taking something that you’re already good at and making it an arena shooter.
I’m surprised CK2 Old Gods aren’t there in the best expansions, though they’re much smaller than BNW I think.
And it takes some bravery to call Shadowrun good after it being so… limited. Polished, working, but limited.
It’s not there because I haven’t played it. And I thought Shadowrun was good! Yes, it was limited, but it was a budget game in every sense of the word. Perhaps Wasteland will prove me wrong, but I think it’s quite hard to do something that *isn’t* limited in some way on Kickstarter funding.
FTL is limited but doesn’t feel as such. With Shadowrun it’s obvious how it could be so much more and how flawed is even small thing we’ve got in the end. Though maybe by now there’re some cool fan modules that have open world or even good story. Maybe it’ll become new Neverwinter Nights.
I have to agree about Shadowrun. I just bought it and have been playing 2 or 3 hours and I just keep waiting for the game to start and the linear tutorial to end. It seems though, that this is just what the game is. I’m going to keep at it for now, but I don’t have high hopes.
Also, this year was great for good small games emerging from the shadows. Spelunky, Desktop Dungeons, ToME, Eador all appeared and all are great.
What was wrong with the world of warcraft swamp areas? They had crocodiles in them, what more do you want? Blood? Do you want blood?
I want the hours of my life spent in the Swamp of Sorrows and Dustwallow Marsh back.
Thanks for capturing how I feel about Papers, Please. I’m one of these annoying people who tends to want a game to relax to after a hard day, and Papers really isn’t that, so I haven’t finished it. And yet, it’s so great that I’m buying cheap copies for friends who are less into games and won’t have heard of it.
I would never have said a game about stamping documents could be so stressful, but there it is. Usually I’m quite cynical about videogaming’s attempts to explore serious subjects, but Papers Please absolutely nailed its subject matter even if the game side of it wasn’t quite all that.
I actually rather enjoyed juggling the paperwork because I’m a miserable bureaucrat and it was refreshing to have all the different factors laid out (rather than having to sort of guess like I have to at work)
Not that I’m bitter.