You aren’t the only one that noticed Ubisoft is in a rut

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Ubisoft is changing things up. The big joke among gamers that have played a lot of Ubisoft games lately is that they all tend to bleed together. They share mechanics, assets, and seem to come from similar open world molds. Assassin’s Creed Origins’ eagle vision works a lot like the spotter drone in Ghost Recon Wildlands, which acts like the eagle in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, which in turn seems a lot like the drone in Ghost Recon Breakpoint. You get the idea. Up until lately, no one seemed to care that Ubisoft’s design strategy embraced a certain amount of homogeneity.

With lower than anticipated sales in 2019, it’s become apparent that people may have grown tired of the formula. According to Video Game Chronicles, Ubisoft is restructuring its editorial team to allow more diverse design ideas to come through. In October, Ubisoft’s CEO Yves Guillemot told investors that they would be making changes based on the negative reception to Breakpoint and The Division 2, and this leadership restructuring seems to be part of that follow-through. It’s hoped that by spreading out responsibilities and giving vice presidents more say, the franchise teams can grow unique identities with differentiating gameplay. My money says we’ll still see a bird spotter in the next Assassin’s Creed.

7th best game of 2019: Phoenix Point

, | Game reviews

You can play X-com for the first time exactly once.  And what a precious time that once. All the mystery and uncertainty, the danger, the discovery, the horror of what those weird little aliens were doing to our cows.  Our innocent cows! What else were they up to? What would you reveal when you finished researching this thing that you found? What startling discoveries would you make on the UFOpedia?  What new powers and weapons would your soldiers carry down the ramp of the Sky Ranger? What horrific things would happen out in the field? What was out there, in the darkness, just outside the range of your flare?  And what is that? You’ve never seen one of those before!

Even after Firaxis picked up the mantle and applied lessons learned from a decade or so of game design, it was a reboot of some of the same mysteries, the same settings, the same aliens, the same weapons.  It was familiar territory, which is partly the point of a reboot. UFOs invading Earth is old-school comfort food, familiar and delicious. Even XCOM 2’s slightly forced concept of a rebel uprising against conquering aliens was mostly familiar.  New words for the same concepts.

Then there’s Phoenix Point.

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It’s a new year, so it must be time for another Skyrim

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Zenimax Online Studios and Bethesda have announced The Dark Heart of Skyrim, a year-long live update for The Elder Scrolls Online. Over four chapters, players will battle in the icy western lands of the Nords and the underground kingdom of Blackreach. There’s a vampire lord running wild, and bad Viking accents abound.

The Dark Heart of Skyrim will also add a new Antiquities system to give players more baubles to collect. You’ll finally be able to say “This belongs in a museum!” in an Elder Scrolls game.

Windows and Mac players will be able to start their Greymoor adventure on May 18th. Console players can join in the fun on June 2nd. Google Stadia players won’t have to miss out. Greymoor is coming to Stadia later, so all six of you can play too.

Maybe it’s time to return to Slay the Spire?

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Mega Crit Games has updated Slay the Spire with substantial additions. The 2.0 Update isn’t just a mere balance pass. A new character, The Watcher has arrived to climb the tower. She’s been testing on the beta branch of the Steam version of the game since September, but she’s finally available for everyone to try – assuming you unlock her by successfully beating the game at least once and also unlocking The Defect. Good luck with that.

The update also adds a Potion Lab, which is great news since there’s a bucket of new potions that come with it. Fancy a drink during your ascension?

Slay the Spire came in second during our official members’ poll for their 2019 Games of the Year.

8th best game of 2019: Rebel Galaxy Outlaw

, | Game reviews

In modern aerial combat, aircraft fight against blips on screens.  Maybe — just maybe — they might fight against a speck far off in the sky.  Conflict and technology has advanced in such a way that combatants stand farther and farther apart.  From the bow to the gun to artillery to aircraft to ballistic missiles to remotely piloted drones. In future combat in the vacuum of space, combatants will stand even farther apart.

What’s an arcade space game to do?  The best it can. Even then, you’re usually fighting specks far off in space.  If you squint, you just might be able to make out a shape. Is that supposed to be a spaceship?  Yes, it’s supposed to be a spaceship. Then when you get closer, spaceships are so fast and a monitor only affords so much screen real estate, that you’ll miss it if you blink. When things get really up close and personal, you can try to follow a reticle some distance in front of whatever you’re trying to shoot.  Blips, specks, and reticles.

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Your opponent in AI War 2 just got a whole lot more intimidating

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Christopher Park of Arcen Games thinks the Grand New AI update is big enough to be considered the equal of a whole new sequel release. I don’t know if that’s overselling it, but at 29 pages, the patch notes certainly back his case. Heck, the blog summary is longer than many other games’ overhaul patch notes.

“The AI is… well, scarier.  They have more strength in more places, more variance in how they place things, and so on.”

Is the game harder now? Yes and no. There are a ton of interface improvements to reduce player friction, and the pace has been adjusted to give the player a chance out of the gate, but the titular AI is more unpredictable and can use so-called “fire teams” that can act independently from the greater strategic plan. It’s a trade-off that creates the illusion of an AI that is invested in thwarting you, while not overwhelming the player. When it trounces you, just remember that it’s not personal.

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order almost had no Jedi

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Respawn Entertainment’s Stig Asmussen spoke to Ted Price of the The AIAS Game Maker’s Notebook podcast and related how Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order came to be. One of the more interesting bits is how the folks at Lucasfilm weren’t keen on sharing Jedi. During EA and Respawn’s initial pitch, Lucasfilm kept wanting to steer them away from the Force, and to concentrate on the more mundane parts of the universe. Hey, couldn’t this game work with a bounty hunter and blasters? Did the main character have to be a Jedi?

Thankfully, Asmussen’s team won the day and we’ve got the Dark Souls-alike with lightsabers we all know. No one wants to play some faceless bounty hunter, right?

9th best game of 2019: Transport Fever 2

, | Game reviews

To some people logistics is a chore.  A necessary part of getting to the fun stuff.  The vegetables. To others — me, for instance — logistics is a foundation for the fun stuff. Without logistics in a game, you’re sort of cheating.  How did those bullets get into that gun? How did that fuel get into that spaceship? How did that party get its rations for the trip to Evil Wizard Castle?  What’s in that caravan you have to escort? How did this tavern get its mead? To be perfectly honest, I’d rather move something from point A to point B than shoot a bad guy, slay a monster, or even build a fort.

One of my favorite things in Master of Orion wasn’t any black hole generator or Darlok espionage mission or huge ultra rich gaia planet.  It was getting food from farm planets to the colonies that needed it to grow. This is as good a place as any for a quick shout-out to Star Ruler 2, one of the most lovingly logistics-intensive science fiction strategy games you will ever play.  I’m making that chef’s kiss gesture as I type this.

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10th best game of 2019: Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3

, | Features

Boy, do I feel silly about this.  A Marvel boondoggle taking up a slot on my 2019 top ten list?  I don’t even really like superheroes. They’ve been foisted on to me. They’re shrapnel in a cultural explosion whose blast radius I can’t escape.  I’m at the nexus of three different infection vectors: movies, boardgames, and videogames. I suppose I haven’t put up much of a fight. Come to think of it, I’ve been a pretty willing participant.  I might grouse about Spider-Man Goes to Europe and Marvel Endgame Self-Congratulatory Three-Hour Fan Service Session. But last night, I watched Captain Marvel for a second time. I’ll hold forth to anyone who will listen about Fantasy Flight’s abusive business model, but I just ordered the Captain America deck for Marvel Champions.  Instead of talking about Uncut Gems or Little Women, I had a lengthy conversation with a friend’s mom about how Logan was an Important Movie. Of course a Marvel boondoggle would find its way onto my 2019 top ten list.  

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Look at Dell’s portable PC that totally does not copy another console

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Ever since the Atari Lynx, engineers have been cramming videogames into handheld hardware. Your phone is one. The Nintendo Switch is another. But what if you want to play “core” PC games in the palm of your hands? Sure, there are a dozen weird options, including the discontinued NVIDIA Shield Portable, but what if you want an option that’s a little more “supported” than something you buy off an AliExpress vendor?

Dell has a portable gaming PC in the works. The Concept UFO is an Alienware device with an 8-inch screen that will play everyone’s “favorite AAA PC titles” at 1900 x 1200 resolution. It even has detachable controllers, so you can play hunched over a screen or waggling two teeny slabs. It’s a concept (it’s right there in the name) so who knows if this is anything more than a CES2020 marketing stunt, but Dell and Alienware have been saying they’re ready to “take back” PC gaming through innovation. Shoehorning Nintendo controllers onto a PC is one way to do it.

The next big addition for Fallout 76 is free parking

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The Watoga Underground is one of the new areas coming to Fallout 76. As part of the free Wastelanders update planned for the game, the city of Watoga features a giant underground parking garage. According to Bethesda, the automated garage is where the citizens of the city stored their vehicles to keep the streets free of curbside clutter. Watoga was something of a pedestrian paradise before the war, it seems.

“Watoga, The City of the Future, envisions a bustling, walkable metropolis where the streets are clear of illegally parked automobiles, traffic and hit-and-run accidents.”

This being Fallout, I can imagine all sorts of ways that Utopian vision went hilariously wrong. Like plastic bags that ship to customers instead of canvas ones, nothing is ever that easy.

Here is the Portal prequel you will never get to play

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Let’s kick off the new year with a hearty dose of disappointment. F-Stop, the secret Portal prequel game from Valve, is getting a multi-part video series via LunchHouse Software. F-Stop, or Aperture Camera, was a Valve internal project that generated a lot of buzz right after the original Orange Box was released, but never made it out of the studio. What happened and why is a mystery, but sharp-eyed fans noticed similarities in Superliminal, the puzzler from Pillow Castle that is ironically not on Steam at this time.

The team at LunchHouse has permission from Valve and is using the game’s source code to produce the documentary series, so this won’t get hit with a legal battle. Maybe we’ll see things from a new perspective.

Game thought lost for 25 years randomly streamed on Twitch

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Rick Brewster is probably best known for creating Paint.NET, the popular free alternative to Microsoft Paint, but in 1994 he was a 12-year-old kid taking his first steps into coding. Like many budding programmers of the era, Brewster learned his trade by dabbling in videogame creation via instructions in a book. One such creation was The Golden Flute IV: The Flute of Immortality. Thinking it good enough for a relative to enjoy, young master Brewster put his DOS adventure game on a disc and mailed it off to a cousin, never to be seen again.

Imagine Rick Brewster’s surprise when Macaw, a retro streamer, fired up The Golden Flute IV just before Christmas. Here was Brewster’s long-lost game, a game he only ever sent to one person, being played live on Twitch! All its primitive preteen glorious CGA graphics and simple audio back from the past like a “lost, drunken cat” finding its way home.

How did this happen? According to Brewster’s Twitter thread, his cousin cannot remember the details, but he was likely trying to do his cuz a solid and submitted the game to to a BBS where it was later collected by a publisher in the 1994 Cream of the Crop 5 compilation disc. From there, it wound up on FidoNet, and into the Internet Archive, where you can play it too.

Christmas Carol Movies, Stave VII: A Christmas Carol (2009)

, | Movie reviews

There were at least three major animated versions of Christmas Carol made during the sixties and seventies, from the Mister Magoo adaptation to the half-hour production that won an Emmy for animation. Those versions were all made for television, though, and generally have that cheap, TV veneer about them; you can even tell where the breaks are for commercials. But in 2009, movie blockbuster impresario Robert Zemeckis brought a new, state-of-the-art 3D animated version of Scrooge and company to the big screen. With a $200 million budget, Zemeckis would have a truly special opportunity to make a Christmas Carol adaptation completely unfettered by production budget constraints.

After the jump, an opportunity lost

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