5th best game of 2019: Age of Wonders: Planetfall

, | Game reviews

It’s been 25 years since I was captivated by Simtex’s Master of Orion and Master of Magic games.  Since then, no one has understood Simtex’s appeal to my imagination as well as Triumph Studios with their Age of Wonders series.  After wallowing luxuriantly in rich (if somewhat generic) fantasy, hammering away at their design like a dwarven smith banging on a mithril battle axe, they’ve pivoted to science fiction.  With Planetfall, they’ve given me everything I want in a 4X, but this time with robots, lasers, alien bugs, hovertanks, extradimensional threats from beyond the galaxy, all that jazz.

But this isn’t science fiction among the stars.  It’s planet-bound, and to Triumph’s credit, that’s clear in the name.  This is hoverboots-on-the-ground sci-fi in the tradition of Brian Reynolds’ Alpha Centauri, itself a vividly reimagined science fiction version of Sid Meier’s Civilization.  You won’t be mastering Orion because Orion is a star. You will instead be mastering Ringworld, Hyperion, Hoth, Pandora.  

And Triumph makes it look easy, because they understand how simple it is to make a great 4X.  Just put interesting units with interesting abilities in battles against interesting enemies for the interesting development of an interesting place.  That’s all there is to it. I mean, duh. Right?

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RollerCoaster Tycoon Story is a perfect vision of Hell

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I daresay no one could write better copy for Atari’s latest attempt at raising RollerCoaster Tycoon back from the dead.

The legendary Eagleland theme park has fallen into despair and disarray, guests have gone, and no cries of laughter or glee can be heard from within its gates.

Remember when RollerCoaster Tycoon was about building rides and managing a park? Now, it’s a free-to-play mobile match-three.

It will be game over before you stay in an Atari hotel

, | News

What happened to you, Atari? You used to be awesome. Now, you’re a joke. And not even a good one. You don’t make games anymore. You just careen from one weird branding project to another, desperate to cash in on your 1980’s notoriety. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that you’re trying to fleece a bunch of venture capitalists and real estate investors in a foolish hotel development scheme.

Atari Hotels level up hotel entertainment with fully immersive experiences for every age and gaming ability, including the latest in Virtual and Augmented Reality. Select hotels will also feature state-of-the-art venues and studios to accommodate esports events.

The Atari Hotel? Yeesh. Hopefully, the rooms are better kept than the average arcade.

The New York Times knows about your gaming hoard

, | News

Did you know that some people collect videogames? It’s true! There are even people that speculate and take part in a market of buying and selling old games. They may not even – get this – play the games they buy! This stunning revelation brought to you by The Gray Lady in an expose of the phenomenon.

Some longtime collectors are pleased, saying video games are an art form that deserves to be recognized. However, other members of this tight-knit community say the higher prices are exaggerated, even if their own collections are now worth far more, and some have raised ethical concerns.

The journalists at The New York Times point to a Wata Games’ Black Box Guide published last year, as well as the recent stories of high-value sales of rare titles as the fuel for the latest trading fervor. Unfortunately, your Steam collection is probably not worth much to these investors.

Do you love Europa Universalis IV enough to pay a subscription?

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Paradox feels your pain. The din of gamers wanting to get into their grand strategy games, but unable to get over the hump of hundreds of dollars worth of DLC, (I’m looking at you, Crusader Kings 2) has been heard. It can be daunting to try a Paradox game that’s been around for a few years. Which packs are “essential” and which are mere cosmetic foofery? Rejoice, you cash-strapped folks! Paradox is testing a subscription model.

“A subscription model has been suggested to us on many occasions, so we thought we’d run a test to see how popular such a service would be.”

The latest update for Europe Universalis IV includes hooks for the subscription test. According to the team, the cost hasn’t been nailed down, and only a limited group of people will be included in the test. Not surprisingly, the developers tried to keep details of the update a secret, but the persistent gamers figured it out.

6th best game of 2019: Field of Glory: Empires

, | Game reviews

As soon as you boot up Field of Glory: Empires, you can tell what you’re getting.  Just look at that patchwork map with those little armies standing around. Look at all those numbers and tooltips and region labels.  Looking at the adoringly historical spreadsheet propping it all up. This is a clone of a Paradox game.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Almost all strategy games are based on either the Sid Meier’s Civilization model or the Paradox spreadsheet model.  Consider Aggressors: Ancient Rome, which covers the same part of the world during the same time period as Empires (the ancient Mediterranean is a popular playground second only to World War II).  Aggressors hews so closely to the Civilization formula that it can feel a bit like Civilization, but with an arbitrary cutoff date before you get to the fun stuff with caravels, gunpowder, and railroads.  It raises the question, “Why aren’t you just playing a Civilization?” The answer, of course, is that you want more historical specificity, and that’s what Aggressors has to offer in its Civilization-shaped package. But will that answer work for Field of Glory: Empires when Paradox already has games with the same historical specificity?

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

, | News

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

, | News

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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