Now that we’ve covered the highlights of 2023, here’s the “Everything Else” category. Again, I should state that there’s selection bias at play here: none of these games are lowlights. All of them were good enough that I put in the time required to finish them, and in several cases that was quite a considerable amount of time. These aren’t bad games. Some of them would even get a grudging recommendation from me, if you like what they’re doing. But I don’t think I’ll particularly remember them a year from now, which is the whole reason I’m taking the time to write them up in this post in the first place.
Once again, in no particular order:
Titan Quest Anniversary Edition
I was struck by a weird compulsion to play an ARPG at the start of the year, and since Diablo 4 wasn’t out for another five months I looked through my Steam backlog and found an unlikely candidate: the 17 year-old Titan Quest. I’d never been able to stick with it beyond the opening region of Greece, mostly because the one time I did and made it to the second region of Egypt only to discover that it was exactly the same except all of the enemies were Scarabs instead of Harpies, I promptly quit. This time I stuck with it, but while it’s not a completely lost cause — slaughtering your way through ancient world mythology is a pretty good concept for an ARPG (hell, it works for God of War) and the visuals haven’t aged all that badly for something from the mid-00s — that initial assessment wasn’t wrong, as all four of the original game’s zones were incredibly samey. It’s not exactly helped by the skill system, either, which looks flexible and interesting at first in its potential for mixing and matching, but because of the way skills work in Diablo 2-style ARPGs (you’re never, ever going to want to put just one point into something unless it’s on the way to unlocking something else) you’re extremely disincentivised to experiment by spreading points around, especially when respeccing is so expensive. Also I took all of the minion skills and wound up with a poxy four minions, and I hate ARPGs that do that. Titan Quest is surprisingly playable in 2023 thanks to the Anniversary Edition, but no more than that; it’s probably more fun in co-op, but then most things are. Still, it was good to tick it off my to-do list after 17 years.
I really did want to like Returnal. I got on very well with Housemarque’s last game, 2017’s Nex Machina, and by the time the PC version of Returnal rolled out at the start of 2023 it had already been out for a couple of years as one of the earliest PS5 exclusives, where it had done very well for itself. Given that Housemarque were dangerously close to closure prior to Returnal I’m quite happy that they’ve seen enough success with it to ensure some future games from them.
Perhaps not if they’re all like Returnal, though. It’s an adaption of the arcade arena shoot ‘em ups Housemarque were previously known for, except this time the perspective has been changed to third-person, there’s some roguelite elements that have been spliced in because roguelites were all the rage in 2021, and a completely incoherent story that’s trying to channel a Remedy game, but which simply illustrates that Remedy are actually doing a couple of things right because Returnal’s story falls totally flat. The roguelite stuff is pretty standard – you walk into a room, the doors lock, enemies spawn, you kill them, you loot chests containing new weapons that will hopefully define your run, and then you move on to the next room to do it again. The only reason you know it’s a Housemarque game is because the enemies all attack by shooting laser beams or clusters of gigantic slow-moving ball projectiles that you have to dodge between — the exact same stuff that made up their prior shooters, except this time you’re looking at it from ground level.
This is not, on the face of it, a recipe for disaster. I think the roguelite elements of Returnal are profoundly misguided but the basic shooter game could work if it had been handled just a little differently. Unfortunately you need mobility to dodge all of those swarms of angry red projectiles properly, and Returnal doesn’t give you a grappling hook until halfway through the game. This means that the most reliable way to survive is not to dodge, but to hide behind big chunks of rock; yes, unfortunately my first few hours with Returnal did feel distressingly like a sub-par cover shooter. Once I got the grappling hook things perked up considerably, but then Returnal ran into its second big problem: it’s a roguelite, and it seemed to expect that I was going to replay it more than I actually did, except what actually happened was that I died in the first or second areas five times, then I made it all the way to the fifth area (out of six), and then I finished the game. That’s just seven runs with a wildly uneven distribution of content; oh, in order to get the true ending I’d have to do it all again several times, but the story’s not good enough for me to care about that and as far as I can tell I wouldn’t experience meaningfully different levels while doing so. The world design is pretty generic despite some of the bosses being pretty striking, and certainly not worth replaying for its own sake.
And that’s the big irony of Returnal. It’s Housemarque’s shift to roguelites. Roguelites are supposed to be replayable. And yet I got considerably more replay value out of Nex Machina — a classic shoot ‘em up with none of this roguelite shit in it, where the only real pull is going for a high score — than I did Returnal. So even though it appears to have been much more commercially viable than their previous boutique shooters, I can’t help but feel that Returnal is a bit of a misstep for them.
Company of Heroes 3
It’s a real shame that there are so few RTS specialist developers left over from the boom of the 90s and early 00s. It’s even more a shame that one of the last holdouts from that era, Relic Software, has produced such unfailingly mid output over the last decade. Company of Heroes 3 did look for a bit like it was going to buck that trend, blending classic CoH skirmish gameplay with a grand strategy layer where you maneuver the Allied armies during the invasion of Italy. It’s at least refreshing not to do Normandy for the five millionth time, and while the series has never been particularly concerned with historical accuracy there’s a loose restriction to 1943-era tech allowing some less iconic units to take centre stage; this is a battlefield where Matildas and Stuarts are main battle tanks and the Sherman is an end-of-tech tree heavy tank that outguns 90% of the German roster. The RTS gameplay is as solid as ever, helped along by the ever-characterful voice lines from the troops under your command — I’d even go so far as to say this is Relic’s best game since Chaos Rising, although that’s not really saying much given how CoH 2, Dawn of War 3 and Age of Empires 4 all turned out. Unfortunately Company of Heroes 3 came in far too hot with multiplayer that was missing too many key features, a skirmish AI that was much too stupid to be an effective opponent, and a campaign layer that was packed absolutely full of bugs; I think it’s got a lot of potential, but it was a commercial flop and Relic suffered swingeing job cuts shortly afterwards that mean it’s not going to get the level of support it needs to be polished into something that’s unambiguously good. And that’s the biggest shame of all: Relic have finally done something right, but they weren’t given the time or resources to do it right enough1.
Undead Horde 2: Necropolis
Looking back at it there’s a common theme running through a lot of the games I played in 2023: I clearly had an itch to play a Diablo 2 Necromancer again and so I duly rolled up minion classes in Titan Quest Anniversary, Everspace 2, and Diablo 4. However, since modern ARPG designers are cowards they’ll never let me completely replicate my skeleton armies because of the misguided belief that pushing one of four buttons to make monsters explode is a more engaging experience than watching my minions do it for me. It’s unsurprising, then, that the game that came closest to replicating that experience wasn’t any of the big-name ARPGs, but was instead this indie game whose entire premise was, well, that you are a Diablo 2 Necromancer. In fact since Undead Horde is a full-on strategy game rather than an ARPG it can go rather further with the concept, allowing you to summon sixty or seventy skeletons at once to steamroll the enemy while you support them with spells and buffs. The story is non-existent and the visuals don’t have much character to them, so the exact amount of mileage you get out of it is going to entirely depend on how much you get out of watching an army of blocky skeletons (or zombies, or ghouls, or undead chickens — there’s many monster types available) mash itself into enemy settlements, but I thought it was a perfectly serviceable take on the concept that provided a decent enough distraction for a few hours.
The Last Spell
On the face of it, a really good turn-based tactical strategy game: control a party of up to six heroes to fight off hordes of zombies and flesh monsters at night, while rebuilding your town defences and fine-tuning your heroes’ stats and itemisation during the day. There’s a lot of really interesting decisions to be made around character builds and tradeoffs between plopping down More Ballistas Now or blacksmiths and armourers that will take a while to pay off but which will sustain you into the endgame; there’s good enemy variety in the regular enemy waves that keep you on your toes; the pixel art presentation is really nice (it looks better to play than it does in screenshots); and the soundtrack is an unusual fusion of techno-rock that fits perfectly into what the game is trying to do. Unfortunately despite all of this good work The Last Spell has an absolutely massive flaw: it’s opted for a sort-of roguelike structure where you’re supposed to fail a few times so that you can learn the levels, experiment with hero builds, and build up the meta-progression to make winning easier, except a single run of one of The Last Spell’s levels can take up to fourteen hours. For just one level. I can fit multiple games of Civilization into that! I’ve lost patience with even normal roguelikes that ask me to invest a few hours into a run because I only have so much time remaining on this earth and if you’re going to test my build against a selection of final bosses that are rock-hard (and also not all that well tuned) you’d better be asking me to throw away less than an hour of my time. The only reason I made it as far into The Last Spell as I did is because I never actually lost until the final level, at which point I quit and never looked back because I couldn’t face doing that again.
Often referred to as Diablo in a spaceship, I think Everspace 2 has inherited a few too many design ideas from Ubisoft open-world games. To me, it has two major selling points: first is that the one thing it unarguably does bring across from Diablo is that each different ship corresponds to a specific RPG character class and one of them is the Necromancer, and I had great fun siccing hordes of drones on my enemies before blowing them out of the sky with a flak cannon while they were distracted. Second is that it looks a lot like Freelancer, and its implementation of the ship controls is a logical, modernised continuation of what Freelancer pioneered with its mouse-and-keyboard setup (except with gamepad options if you really want, although I didn’t because it felt weirdly unplayable that way). You could take the basic setup of Everspace 2 and make a very good Freelancer sequel with it. Sadly this is Everspace 2, not Freelancer 2, and so instead we get a generic, static universe filled with a collection of sixty-second random events and the ubiquitous question mark symbols infesting the map. There were some side mission chains that had had more effort put into them than I expected given that obvious design objective, but the worst thing that I can say about Everspace 2 is that it’s otherwise totally unremarkable once you understand what it really is. You’ll probably have a good time if you pick it up knowing that you’re in for a space version of Far Cry or Assassin’s Creed (and to be completely fair to Everspace 2 it’s doing it better than Ubisoft themselves managed these days as it’s a far better implementation of the concept than bloody Valhalla), but if you go into it expecting Freelancer 2 — or even Diablo in space — you’re going to end up sorely disappointed.
A successful remake of the original Dead Space, in that I actually finished it this time; it modernises and improves without compromising on the spirit of the original game. For better or worse it’s still Dead Space, with everything that implies: in the “better” column we have the exploration of the environment, the great zero-G sections and the absolutely hysterical dismemberment system (exactly why sawing off a foot kills the necromorphs when repeatedly blowing off their head does nothing is, alas, never explained); while the “worse” one has boss fights that feel like they’ve been ripped directly from the 2007 original with no modernisation, an also 2007-appropriate number of cutscenes where characters talk to Isaac from behind unbreakable glass windows, and having the same encounter copy-pasted throughout the game where you pick up a key item and the lights go out and it spawns two necromorphs in front of you and one behind you. The gameplay improvements are mostly subtle enough that they go largely unnoticed except for the whole thing feeling much better to play this time around, with the one exception being an increasingly-annoying tic of modern AAA gaming: Isaac talks now, and it’s pretty much just so that he can look at a door that’s shutting way too fast for him to get through and say “hmmm, maybe I should use stasis on that door…” I’m all for making games more accessible, but I’m not sure what the point is in putting a puzzle into a game when you’re outright telling the player what they should do to solve it. Still, this Dead Space remake is solid and competent, which are not the worst adjectives I’ve ever used to describe a Dead Space game, so it did something right.
Resident Evil 4
Given that I hated the original Resident Evil 4 it’s a pleasant surprise to me that I liked the Resident Evil 4 remake as much as I did. I’ve had twenty years to accept that the later Resident Evils are silly action shooters where you blast zombies rather than tense resource management games where you try to avoid them, and Resident Evil 4 has had a lot more time and resources put into it than the similarly action-oriented Resident Evil 3 remake. Combat encounters are much better-designed, gunfeel and enemy damage feedback are far more satisfying, and the bossfights.. are there, I guess (there’s not really any chance of making a bossfight in a third-person shooter that I’ll actually enjoy). Crucially there is still a bit of resource management to think about in Resi 4 in the form of your ongoing search for money to upgrade your weapons so that you can dispatch zombies more efficiently; you might have enough bullets, but you’ll never have enough pesos to buy everything you want. This propped the game up admirably during its slower sections, and I also have immense respect for the developers for putting a rocket launcher in the game, telling me it will one-shot any enemy that it’s used on, and sticking to that promise when I chose to use it on the final boss. It’s still a long way off of the brilliance of the first two Resident Evil games — it’s a theme park ride instead of a haunted house, which I will never see as anything other than a sad downgrade for the series that did so much to establish the survival horror genre — but for the first time ever I can see that Resident Evil 4 is pretty enjoyable in its own way.
Like a Dragon: Ishin!
I’ve established a bit of a love-hate relationship with the Yakuza series. I loved Yakuza 0 and still think it’s one of the best games of the last console generation. I was broadly ambivalent about Yakuza 2, as this introduced me to the reality that nearly all of these games are basically the same, just with increasingly stupid storylines. The Western rebrand into Like a Dragon (which would otherwise have been called Yakuza 7) briefly sparked my interest again, as it showed that the series could function adequately in a different genre and without its central protagonist, Kiryu Kazama. And then I played Like a Dragon: Ishin!, which is not the worst game I played in 2023, but which instead lays a very strong claim to being the most boring one. It’s a standalone story that takes place in late 19th century Kyoto, and this is a huge downgrade from the bright lights and arcade sounds of the modern-day Kamorocho district. All of the characters are 19th century versions of characters from the mainline series, except there’s five or six games’ worth of characters stuffed into Ishin and nobody gets anywhere near enough screentime — and to make matters worse they re-use some of the boss music from 0, so when you fight the Awano analogue and With Vengeance kicks in it has absolutely none of the emotional buildup Awano got in 0 and feels completely unearned. As usual there’s about ten thousand minigames to distract you, but Ishin takes it further by making one of them — the stupid repetitive roguelike dungeon one — key to levelling up and progressing your character. (Who is a version of Kiryu that has way less of the signature wry humour to him — also this one most definitely does kill people.) The game in general has much less of a sense of humour than the previous Yakuza games, instead preferring to lean into the tortuous political wrangling of the main storyline — and that’s the thing Yakuza has never done well, even in 0. Usually the series has a great sense of how to build a storyline and its characters to an emotional crescendo, but I could not give the tiniest iota of a shit about the actual details of the plot, so when Ishin decides to put that front and centre over and above its character work it’s no wonder I ended up bored out of my mind..
“Reactionary” is a fun word. When I think of reactions, I think of chemical reactions, and so when I first came across “reactionary” I thought it carried a sense of dynamism and liveliness, the kind of thing you’d get if you dropped a bar of magnesium into a beaker of water and stepped back to watch the fireworks. It was several years before I learned that what “reactionary” actually means, when used in a social or political context, is someone or something that desperately wants to push back against progress and return to the status quo ante of how things were when they were younger and had more hair — basically this classic Abe Simpson moment, but with zero self-awareness.
Still, while “reactionary” might be an unnecessarily confusing term it’s a very useful one for describing Diablo 4, which is in some ways one of the most reactionary games I’ve ever played. You might remember Diablo 3 copping a hell of a lot of criticism after its initial gameplay reveal for daring to include actual colours in a franchise that was previously known for endless spelunking through gothic, moody dungeons. Diablo 3 might have sold 37 million copies, but it’s clear that that criticism is still very much on Blizzard’s mind 11 years later because it’s the only thing that explains Diablo 4’s visuals, which are a murky, desaturated mess. There is nothing about its world, or its visual design, that is remotely appealing; I don’t get excited about exploring a pitch-black dungeon where a collection of the most generic monsters on the planet lurch out of the darkness to be slaughtered, and then teleporting back to a small collection of washed-out mud huts to sell the loot — and yet this is inexplicably the core loop of Diablo 4. I perhaps would have enjoyed it more if, I don’t know, I could actually see what was going on. I also perhaps would have enjoyed it more if the skill system didn’t feel utterly parsimonious — it is possible to make very OP builds if you understand it, but the up-front offering is that each skill point invested gets you a 3% increase in damage, or something similar. The big innovation of a permanently online, shared world where you see other players running around adds almost nothing to the experience aside from occasionally catching a glimpse of BonerLord666 hurrying to their next dungeon, and the only bright spot was that the combat felt more kinetic than I was expecting given how regressive the rest of the core ARPG experience was. It’s not like Diablo 3 launched in a perfect state either, but at least there I didn’t fundamentally disagree with the core game and visual design; there’s too many decisions made that are fundamentally, well, reactionary, driven by a yearning for the good old days of Diablo 2, and which are now baked into Diablo 4’s structure in a way that’s going to be very difficult (if not impossible) to undo. I wasn’t expecting anything special from Diablo 4 and it’s not exactly a bad game, but it is still a very disappointing one.
To The Core
To The Core is a bit of an oddity. It’s a clicker game that is not a clicker; an idle game where you can’t be idle; driven by the same core concept of Number Go Up but which demands some active thought on the part of the player. You’re put in control of a drill and dropped onto a planet, and your objective is to drill out as much of the crust, mantle and — eventually — the core in order to gather materials to fuel your metagame upgrades. Smashing your drill into the planet surface at high speed depletes your health, so you need those upgrades to drill through tougher materials while taking less damage, and those tougher materials are used to buy more upgrades, which let you drill through even tougher materials etc. etc. There’s a fun power curve where you start the game barely able to drill through a few metres of crust before exploding, and you end it by making an entire planet disappear in just a few seconds; I don’t think the metagame upgrades are particularly well set up, but the drilling is undeniably satisfying and kept me going for the 7-odd hours it took to get me to the end. Unfortunately To The Core is seriously let down by performance issues as the planets get bigger and the number of particle effects and exploding blocks increases at a geometric rate, and the final level tested my patience more than any other game this year as I had to control a slideshow where I was precariously balancing my drill above the surface of a black hole for upwards of fifteen minutes. I think that with a bit more polish in both the metagame design and the performance To The Core would be an unambiguous recommend for people who like clickers, or idle games, or autoshooters; in its current state it’s more difficult to do so, but I can’t deny I got a good few hours of fun out of it.
This one was a bit of a disappointment, as I played it just before Christmas after hearing good word of mouth and seeing it appear on several GOTY lists. Imagine my surprise, then, upon discovering that Dredge is simply… fine. It’s at least a bit more focused compared to the other fishing game making regular appearances on GOTY lists this year, but it’s also much more joyless and mechanical about the act of exploring the ocean and finding new and interesting places to fish — perhaps understandable, seeing as it’s buttressing its fishing minigame with a Lovecraftian horror plot that means it can’t make the waters too welcoming, but underwhelming nevertheless. You do a circuit of the cliff island, then the lagoon island, then the swamp island, then the volcano island, completing a fishing quest in each one to progress the paper-thin story, and then the game ends. Indeed, if not for the requirement to grind fish to upgrade your boat to catch more advanced types of fish I think Dredge would be about two hours long. This core loop is compelling enough and there’s enough detail packed into the environments to give exploring a bit of a pull, and the presentation is adequately charming; the spookier elements strike me as profoundly misjudged, though, especially since nothing bad can actually happen to you just so long as you aren’t stupid enough to be out on the open ocean after midnight, and so despite its admirable focus in comparison to Dave the Diver it’s Dredge that ends up feeling like the shallower game.
(the) Gnorp Apologue
I was quite taken with Gnorp at first. It’s yet another idle game, with exponentially increasing numbers and the concept of prestiging baked into the game’s core — where you reset all of your hard-won progress in exchange for permanent metagame upgrades that make the next run easier — but Gnorp at least appeared to introduce two interesting innovations to the formula. First is that it deigns to surround the otherwise shallow Number Go Up gameplay with some actually pretty great set dressing; you’re in control of a settlement of little circular creatures called Gnorps who are obsessed with smashing a rock, and every single upgrade that you buy produces some tangible rock-smashing effect in that settlement. Housing appears and spawns more Gnorps, who can then be gainfully employed in a number of professions to pound the rock to bits. Bombers jet up above it and piledrive it from above; Gunners wander into the Gun Shop and are handed rifles — or a gatling gun — to blast it to smithereens; all while Runners scurry back and forth to hurl the chunks into your stash so that you can use them to buy more upgrades. Every upgrade having a dedicated piece of pixel art with accompanying detailed animations as the Gnorps hurl themselves at the rock makes for a much more charming presentation than most idle games. In terms of gameplay it initially seemed like Gnorp had innovated there too, as the prestige points you can spend open the door to some interesting synergies between different Gnorp professions and the potential for different builds to optimise your rock smashing. Unfortunately this ended up being a bit of a false promise, as while there’s different synergies available I think there’s only one that’s capable of finishing the game (it’s the one that involves spamming rockets), and Gnorp’s failure to offer multiple viable builds makes it once-through-and-done — I still prefer that over idle games that spiral into infinity hours, but it’s a bit of a missed opportunity in terms of replayability.
The Talos Principle 2
The generous way of looking at Talos Principle 2 is that it didn’t annoy me quite as much as it could have. That’s actually saying quite a lot considering that I loudly swore at my monitor when I saw the announcement trailer for it; the first Talos Principle is a great puzzle game with surprisingly on-point delivery of its philosophical storyline, and one of the most powerfully satisfying endings in videogames. And that’s why the very concept of Talos Principle 2 pissed me off, because the first game stood alone very nicely and there was absolutely nothing a sequel could do, story-wise, that could possibly be better than the open-ended sense of possibility left by its predecessor. Unfortunately those fears did ultimately turn out to be well-founded, as both the story and the storytelling in Talos Principle 2 are much more in the vein of a Generic Videogame Plot — a not-particularly-coherent excuse for the puzzles, where your silent protagonist is constantly suffering the indignity of having people call them on the telephone so that they can desperately attempt to explain why what you’re doing is important, and which ultimately ends up being so much sci-fi codswallop2.
Now, in Talos Principle 2’s favour I did initially enjoy the puzzles; I think Talos Principle’s mix of line-of-sight, positioning and sequencing puzzles are the best that any of these first-person puzzle games have come up with, and the sequel does at least continue that trend. I had a great time during the first half of the game just buzzsawing through puzzle after puzzle, with none of them taking more than 5 minutes and most of them taking less than 60 seconds. It was in the second half of the game that I started to get slightly uneasy, though, as the puzzle complexity just didn’t ratchet up at all despite the new gimmick to be found in each area that’s supposed to mix things up a bit and keep you on your intellectual toes. Usually when you walk into a puzzle room there will be an obvious solution that’s apparent after a few seconds of looking at the layout, and the surprising (and underwhelming) thing about Talos Principle 2 is that the obvious solution is almost always the actual solution, and it just takes a bit of fine-tuning to get the sequencing right. The satisfying thing about a puzzle game for me is when I can eventually make connections that aren’t immediately obvious, when I’m being pushed to actually think about something for a bit, and then when I figure it out I feel very smart. Talos Principle 2 doesn’t do this for me at all, preferring to try and stun the player with quantity of puzzles (it’s nearly twice as long as the first game) where I think it would have done far better to focus on quality. It’s still a cut above most first-person puzzlers and comfortably in the upper 50% of games I played this year, but when you’re following up a stone cold classic like The Talos Principle — a game that really did not need a sequel — I don’t think it’s enough to be simply “okay”.
Dave the Diver
I bought Dave the Diver pretty much sight unseen because it turns out I’m just as susceptible to advertising as anyone; I saw a very attractive full-page banner on the Steam store homepage promising endless blue oceans filled with charming pixel art fish and slammed the Buy button pretty much as fast as I could. And to its considerable credit Dave the Diver’s core loop does live up to that promise; the idea is that you catch fish via the surprisingly visceral methods of harpooning them, shooting them, stabbing them, or blowing them up with a grenade launcher, and you load up your inventory with as much fish as your portly diver avatar can physically carry. Once you return to the surface you use the fish to make dishes for a Diner Dash-style sushi restaurant minigame, and while I don’t think this part of the game is particularly well-executed it’s done competently enough to provide the other half of the loop; you catch basic fish to sell in the restaurant for money, which you use to upgrade your diving equipment so that you can dive deeper and catch more advanced fish to sell in the restaurant for more money.
Ill-advised QTEs aside, Dave the Diver’s fishing segment is truly exceptional, a rare example of something being delivered almost exactly as advertised, and I can see why it’s made a lot of people’s GOTY lists. It would have made mine if the game were just the fishing and the sushi restaurant bits, but sadly Dave the Diver turned out to be one of the most unfocused games I’ve played this year, instead choosing to tie the player up in a whole host of throwaway minigames that aren’t anything to do with the fishing. There’s stealth segments that pay homage to Metal Gear Solid, a Guitar Hero-esque rhythm game, a farming minigame, a seahorse racing minigame, a shoot ‘em up segment, and probably half a dozen others that I’ve forgotten because they’re so disposable — but all of them substantially diminish the experience because the entire time I was stuck in one of these minigames I was just wanting to get back to the fishing, and I ended up resenting Dave the Diver for repeatedly wasting my time. The problem isn’t so much that these distractions are necessary because Dave the Diver doesn’t have confidence in itself, but rather that it has far too much confidence in itself to add these minigames where most other dev teams would drop them for lack of resources — this certainly doesn’t strike me as a dev team where anyone was shouting the magic word “NO!” whenever one of these things came up — and so the game ends up feeling bloated, overindulgent, and overall a bit of a mess.
Freelancer is a fascinating glimpse into what might have been for the space sim genre. It’s very fondly thought of by those who played it at the time of its release, who it turns out are the only people who have played it legally since it’s not available on any digital distribution platform. (I do have a Freelancer disc somewhere but I no longer have a disc drive to put it in – fortunately the ISO is readily available with a simple Google search and the game works almost flawlessly on Windows 10.) Twenty years is more than enough time for nostalgia to work its heady magic, though, and the reality of Freelancer in 2023 is more than a little bit… mixed.
Freelancer is best thought as two games in one. One is the multiplayer version played on a persistent server, where you have a sandbox environment to explore, trade and fight your way up from Space Bum to Space Ace. Apparently it’s very good, and it’s where a lot of that nostalgic reminiscing comes from. Unfortunately for me, I’ve never played it; I’ve been stuck with the single-player story campaign, where you can see a few scattered parts of the multiplayer sandbox gameplay — like pirate stations not being marked on the map, but still being able to figure out where they are based on where pirate attacks take place — but you have much less freedom to explore. You’re railroaded from one region of the galaxy to another as the plot demands, with jump gates being locked until you’ve progressed the story far enough, and each region offers just three ship models: light fighter, heavy fighter, and cargo freighter. Freelancer is supposed to be a freeform space game like Elite where you take jobs to upgrade your ship and equipment so that you can take on more valuable jobs, but here you just grind freelance missions until you get the next variant of the model of ship that you’re flying, and then you do the plot missions, and then you move on to the next galactic region to do it all again. There’s some fun voice casting and the universe being split into regions based on national and cultural stereotypes is taken to such batshit extremes here it’s actually brilliant (the very idea of the UK having a galactic space empire is utterly bonkers), but Freelancer had serious problems during its development and the story becomes increasingly threadbare the further you get with it. No, it’s got some interesting ideas but I don’t think I could recommend Freelancer for its straitjacketed single player campaign.
The interesting part of Freelancer, though, is the control scheme. Up until Freelancer space sims had all been controlled via first-person view from the spacecraft cockpit, with one hand on the keyboard and the other clutching a joystick. Oh, you could try to play them with a mouse, and in fact that’s how I played TIE Fighter back in the day, but tight turns would require you to pick up and drop your mouse multiple times as you repeatedly swept it across your mouse mat to try and get a bead on your target. This was hardly ideal, especially considering that every single computer on the planet came with a mouse but a joystick was something you had to specifically had to buy. Freelancer is the first — and as it turns out, only — space sim from that period to try to address that problem by marketing itself to mouse-users first and foremost. The game is controlled via third-person perspective, and moving the mouse rotates the camera around your spacecraft. Holding the left mouse button down, though, locks your view forward; moving the mouse in this state makes a big arrow appear on the HUD in the direction that you moved it, and your ship will start to turn. The further the arrow is from the centre of the HUD, the faster your turn rate, and once you have it at the edge of the screen you’re turning as fast as possible and you don’t need to move the mouse any more.
Coming to it in 2023, I was struck by how natural this control scheme felt. It’s easy and intuitive and feels a hell of a lot like the modern gamepad controls used in arcade space shooters today — except Freelancer was doing it in 2003, with a mouse. Digital Anvil might have had problems with development but they were thinking years ahead of everyone else and Freelancer should have been a genre-defining game, one of those rare titles that does something so groundbreaking that everyone else scrambles to copy it. Unfortunately Freelancer was released a year or two after the death of the space sim genre as a whole, and so there was little left to define, and certainly no scope to follow up with a more polished sequel; thus Freelancer is doomed to “historical curio” status instead of the revolutionary space sim it could have been
Stronghold: Definitive Edition
No, really. It’s an attempt to give Stronghold the same kind of makeover that Age of Empires 2 got with its Definitive Edition a few years ago: it’s the same game, but with redone music, re-recorded voices and unit and building animations that have all been updated to 4K resolution and 60 frames per second. Which is all fine and welcome — Stronghold has always been presentationally very strong, and these updates enhance the best part of the game — but the problem is that the Definitive Edition does precisely sod all about Stronghold’s dodgy balancing and (surprisingly) several persistent bugs around common interactions like unit selection. So every defensive map is still winnable by walling off the enemy spawn points with towers full of archers and/or crossbowmen, and it’s only the offensive maps that pose a challenge as you try and figure out how to use your limited troops to crack the enemy castle. Even here it’s not a particularly satisfying challenge, as I spent far more time trying to work around the terrible and/or buggy unit pathfinding and targeting than I did strategising. The Definitive Edition is a fun blast from the past, to start with, but the more time I spent with it the more I remembered why I’d never bothered to finish Stronghold’s single player campaign when I first played it back in 2004.
Age of Wonders 4
I’ve been pondering it on and off for the last 8 months, and I think I’ve finally figured out why Age of Wonders 4 didn’t really land with me. What I’ve historically liked about the Age of Wonders series has been the more RPG-esque aspects of the gameplay — role-playing as an evil wizard blighting the world with death magic and sending forth skeleton hordes to exterminate the living, that kind of thing. I liked playing up to a race’s theme. I don’t think they’re particularly good 4X games from an empire-building point of view, it’s the blend of 4X with recruitable heroes and magic spells (and maybe some might scattered around in there for good measure) that makes the series special.
And this is a problem for Age of Wonders 4, because its big innovation is that it no longer has discrete races; instead you customise whatever race and trait combination you want at the start of the game (so you can have angelic orcs or demon halfings or whatever) and while you select a sphere of magic during race creation you’re not limited to it during the game; in fact you can (and I did) research every single spell book available if you have the time and the inclination. In theory this means that if I want my skeleton hordes I just make some undead humans and stick to Death magic, but the tradeoff for every race being potentially able to do everything is that the choices that you do make feel much less meaningful. Most of the games I played — especially the ones which went into the lategame — felt pretty similar, as I first filled out the spellbook for the sphere of magic I’d selected to start with and then branched out into the ones I’d already tried in other games. It’s weirdly bland and amorphous and feels less amenable to that role-playing I liked so much, and the weak 4X gameplay on its own just isn’t enough to keep my attention. I did have one good game which had a bit of a story to it, on a map where all factions are stuck in a permanent hellwar and I had to stall enemies on one flank with hordes of summoned copper golems while desperately trying to mop up on the other before everything collapsed, but after I’d played four games I felt like there wasn’t all that much left to see and dropped Age of Wonders 4 entirely. Which, for a game that supposedly offers infinite variety, is a bit of a failure.
Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader
An adaptation of the tabletop Rogue Trader RPG ruleset handled by Owlcat. Owlcat made Wrath of the Righteous, which is one of the best RPGs to come out in recent years in spite of all of the bugs, and so I was looking forward to their take on Rogue Trader. But I couldn’t get over a niggling worry I had, especially once the release date was announced: Wrath came out in September 2021, and Rogue Trader came out in December 2023. That’s just over two years to develop a full fat RPG, and Owlcat are not a large studio, and they already have a problem with biting off more than they can chew in terms of scope. (Which is why their games ship with so many bugs.)
Sadly my fears were well-founded: Rogue Trader is a 70-hour RPG, that should be a 40-hour RPG, and which feels like a 40-hour RPG that’s been stretched into 70 hours. Owlcat do their best, with their customary branching paths for the narrative — less ambitious than what you could do in Wrath, but that game had paths that let you literally rewrite reality so that’s unsurprising — and a decent stab at trying to take the Rogue Trader rules and turn them into a half-decent tactical strategy segment. Party combat is kinetic and visceral, while the ship-to-ship void combat minigame is the least insufferable minigame they’ve come up with so far — not particularly deep, but it feels right and I was never displeased to see a void combat encounter pop up. Most importantly, Rogue Trader is only the second 40K game that’s halfway sold me on 40K as a universe; it makes a valiant attempt to grasp the ridiculous scale of the setting in the same way as Battlefleet Gothic 2 did a few years back, instead of using it as window dressing for smashing increasingly colourless armies into one another.
That attempt at scale repeatedly runs up against the reality of Rogue Trader, though, which is that this was a game made on a limited budget and a limited timescale and so in order to have a hundred locations in the game they’ve all been made roughly the size of a shoebox. You visit the governor’s palace on one of your capital worlds and there’s a grand total of two people to talk to, and nothing else to do once you’ve looted the half-dozen containers scattered about the place. If there’s a door that you can open there won’t be a door-opening animation; the screen will cut to black for a second, and then when it comes back the door will be magically open. Most locations don’t even go that far; there’ll just be a rocky pit containing one combat encounter and that’s it. Even when the game does throw a larger environment at you as part of the plot, all it can fill that environment with is enemies and traps (I really hope you like clicking on red squares to disarm traps, because you’re going to be doing it a lot in Rogue Trader). In terms of exploration, Rogue Trader is one of the least interactive RPGs I’ve ever played; in fact it reminded me an awful lot of Tyranny, which was another RPG made on a shoestring budget and which showed it to an almost painful degree.
Couple that with the customary bugs and lack of polish — in particular the UI is an absolute car crash at every turn, which is surprising considering Owlcat had done a pretty good job with their UI and tooltips for their Pathfinder games — and it means Rogue Trader has a much harder job winning my respect. In Kingmaker and Wrath I was excited to explore, to progress quest chains and see what new parts of the map had to offer me, whereas in Rogue Trader I know what the next planet will have on it: a knife-fight inside a cupboard. If you like 40K and you’re curious then I’d say it’s worth a look in a year once they’ve fixed the worst of the bugs, but if you don’t have a particular attachment to the setting then I think you can do better things with your time.
- Unsure how much of this can be attributed to Sega, but given recent troubles at The Creative Assembly I’m starting to get a bad feeling about the non-Yakuza parts of that company. ↩
- At one point Talos Principle 2 uses the “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” quote with an entirely straight face, which to me is just another way of saying “a wizard did it”. Which is absolutely fine (and actually preferable) if we’re using that as an excuse to explore some particularly thought-provoking concepts, but Talos Principle 2 really, really doesn’t. ↩