The PC gaming year that was 2011 – Part 1

Spooky2011 now officially over it seems a good time to review the year that was, and what a year it was for PC games!  The world seemed to fall apart around us month by month, but thankfully those hard working developers large and small kept producing a vast amount of high quality video games to keep us all distracted from impending Armageddon.  There has already been a few opinions on whether 2011 was a vintage year for gaming.  Perhaps the quantity of titles masked the quality of them.  Perhaps the need, in this big-budget money driven industry, to make games that are known to be popular over games that are original and new has been to the detriment to the art form, and the fact that the vast majority of big games this year were sequels and the remainder were new stabs at tired genres would probably back that up.  Whatever the case though, I don’t think anyone can disagree that there were a lot of great games released in 2011.  I can’t remember a year in which I had so much fun.  So to round it up there’s a couple of things that happened this year that I think are worth noting over the course of a few blog posts.  First of all, 2011, the year that was….

2011: The year of Indie abundance

With the big developers sticking to what they know best (more on this later) it was again down to the independent developers to provide something new and exciting for the jaded gamer in 2011.  Although Minecraft only officially came out this year I think it’s fair to call it 2010’s game, and along with Amnesia: The Dark Descent, it stole the show from the AAA developers last year with the 2 being my favourite games of last year.  This year I don’t think any Indie game was quite that good, but so many came close and this can only continue to inspire a future of small, cheap, original and superb games from creative and unrestricted indie developers.

So in a very particular order of ‘quite pleased by’ through to ‘most pleased by’ 2011 produced (deep breath):

Spacechem You only had to wait until 1st January to get your first gaming fix of 2011 with this delightfully brain-twisting puzzler.  It’s hard, confusing and feels a little bit like doing science homework but if you want originality in a neatly presented package with just the right amount of narrative to give you reason to carry on then that box was ticked on day one.

Limbo Visually stunning, great use of sound, shame about the puzzles and the fact the first 10 minutes are the best part of the ……OH CHRIST!  A SPIDER LEG!

Victory Pose!Chtulu Saves the WorldFrom my limited knowledge of what ‘the kids’ are listening to nowadays I understand 2011 was all about the early nineties sound, and so it seems that gaming in 2011 had a big early nineties thing going on too.  Acronym of the year must go to SNES, and Chtulu Saves the World probably played the greatest homage to the best console ever (you can quote me on that, future historians).  Chtulu plays like a SNES RPG, like Final Fantasy IV era FF games, but gives away its year of birth through the reams of hilariously knowing writing that takes the piss out of its own genre’s foibles as well as every other genre and media form.  From the story, to the characters, enemies, weapons (there are SO MANY characters, enemies and weapons) and even the options menu this game is silly, you’ll know in the first 2 minutes whether you’re going to enjoy its brand of humour.  If you do, play it on easy, blast through the annoying combat and you can enjoy one of the funniest games of the year.  Plus at £1.99 full price on Steam and clocking in at 10s of hours of play it’s also the year’s best bargain (ignoring ‘free-to-play’ things).

SmashingAtom Zombie Smasher Insanely fun, apocalyptic, explode everything-em-up that once again proves there is no end to the different genres zombies work in.  AZS is basically a Real-Time Strategy game with a turn based ‘preparation’ layer between levels, making it sound a tiny bit like a Total War game, but believe me it is something completely different that I’m not even going to try and explain.  Look, just try the demo, it’s great.  It’s one of the few games I actually enjoy losing, there’s just something right about the game ending with your valiant efforts being all for nothing as the zombie infection spreads across your entire city.  Which is just as well because I have only ever beaten it on the patronising ‘Casual’ mode.  AZS also wins the award for soundtrack of the year, in my humble opinion.

Terraria It’s not a 2D Minecraft, but it does involve mining and crafting.  Where it differs is the complexity of things you can find and create and the structure that increasingly difficult monsters and bosses bring to the procedural proceedings.

Like a cute AlienCapsized Indie developers love a side-scrolling platform/shoot em-up and 2011 was no different, but Capsized really is as good as the genre gets.  It is beautifully drawn, has a wealth of slowly discovered weaponry, the best use of a gravity gun outside of Half-life 2 and every level is different and interesting.  You really need to play this one to the end so you don’t miss out on the low-gravity floating-island hopping of the last couple of levels.  Then play the gravity-gun only ‘armless levels’.  Just perfect.

Frozen Synapse I’ve talked about this before.  I’m still enjoying it when I occasionally hop on for a game.

Gemini Rue I’ve done this before too.  It’s ace.

Wait til his mum finds outBinding of Isaac Another game that drips with early nineties inspiration, the Binding of Isaac plays like a bastard child of the Legend of Zelda and Smash TV that was locked in the basement for the length of its childhood with nothing to do but relive its rogue-like nightmares over and over again day after day.  Providing you’re ok with the setting this is an incredibly addictive time-sink that I’m still enjoying even after finishing it once (and trying and failing to complete it about 50 times) there’s just so many items to unlock and achievements to achieve.  That setting, though?  Well, the Binding of Isaac is a cartoon game with biblical overtones whose main protagonist, Isaac, is a naked child who shoots tears and pee at his horrifying enemies who are all flys, worms or contorted caricatures of himself.  His goal is to find and kill his own mother (in self-defence), and the power ups include a dead cat, his mum’s high heels and sanitary towels, and bomb diarrhoea.  It’s, err, not for everyone, but that just makes me like it even more.

The kid done goodBastion – Last and (just) best in my little Indie round-up of 2011 is this beautiful action-RPG that’s light on the RPG, heavy on the action and absolutely dripping with artwork, atmosphere and superb narrative (and I mean literally, the narration is superb).  Considering the story sees you trying to salvage a home and search for survivors in a post-apocalyptic world torn apart by genocide, war and weapons of mass destruction the game built around this dark heart just looks so nice and sweet!  The graphics and artwork are lovely.  The combat is fluid and fun, with unlocked weapons providing different tactics rather than just more firepower (except for the last couple).  And the way the story unfolds through the narrator’s Big Lebowski style southern-US drawl is charming, original and, come the final moments, genuinely neck-tingling.

One of the most exciting things about Bastion?  It built so much hype pre-launch that the game was snapped up by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment for publication (who’ve published Batman: Arkham Asylum, Lord of the Rings Online and FEAR 3 among others), proving that Indie games are getting a lot of attention from big investors nowadays, and whilst Minecraft and others have proven you don’t necessarily need the backing of big publishers to make big games, it has got to be a positive sign that the most creative source for games are getting proper backing and attention.  Are publishers tiring of backing massive-budget games in the same old genres where one failure can bankrupt a publisher and endanger an entire network of developers?  I don’t know about that, but the gap between ‘AAA’ games and ‘indie’ games is definitely getting narrower which can only be a good thing for the future of games.

Next up in the 2011 round-up – Perma-death and Detective work

Frozen Synapse Review

En-titledGreen ran through the doorway, ducked on to one knee, swung his machinegun sights right, then left, aimed forward again before rising to sprint to the next door ahead.  BANG!  A sniper shot through a window to his right felled him.  Try Again.

Green ran through the doorway, ducked on to one knee, swung his machinegun sights right, then left, aimed forward again and edged to the doorway ahead in a crouched position.  He leaned round the doorway to…KER-BLAM!  A shotgun blast threw him back into the room.  Try again.

Green ran through the doorway, ducked on to one knee, swung his machinegun sights right, then left, aimed forward again and waited, crouched with his sights trained on the door.  Brrapt!  He shot the shotgun wielding enemy as they passed the doorway.  Green edged to the doorway, leaned round the corner and dashed for his goal.  No deaths.  No nasty gunshots.  Perfect. 

Tactical shooteryFrozen Synapse is a tactical, turn based combat game in a style that will be fairly familiar to anyone who’s played X-COM or Laser Squad Nemesis.  The game plays out in singleplayer and multiplayer missions in which you direct a small squad by giving out intricate instructions to each member in a planning phase, that then plays out in a 5 second burst of action, before returning to the planning phase to plot out the next 5 seconds, and repeat until the match is complete.  Matches can take 15-20 minutes of plotting and planning, but when replayed in realtime last for all of 30 seconds.

What stands Frozen Synapse apart from it’s 1990s forebears is the ease with which instructions are issued (with a right click menu, or knowledge of a few hotkeys, offering everything you need) and a ‘play’ button that gives you the ability to view how events in the next 5 second chunk should pan out based on your current plan.

So, for instance, I can give my machinegunner instructions as per the beginning of this article and click play to see what will happen.  Ah, he gets sniped!  Let’s try something different then, what if he ducks?  That works, but then he meets that shotgunner.  What if he waits for him to round the corner first?…etc

The ability to plot actions for your enemies is what’s essential to the planning phases.  You can assume a sniper will stay still aiming in the window, but in actuality he may turn and move to a better position instead.  That shotgunner may run round the corner, but he may stay where he was and wait for you instead.  Which eventuality do you plan for?  There’s enough possibilities in the seemingly simple instructions available to mean you never actually know what will happen when you finally click ‘commit’.  Every planning phase centres around the ever present commit button, beckoning you to find out what is actually going to happen to your men.  Clicking it is one of the tensest moments in recent gaming as a short loading bar fills to reveal the outcome….

Green ran through the doorway, ducked on to one knee, swung his machinegun sights right, then left, aimed forward again and waited.  No one rounds the corner.  No shots from the window, and then out of the corner of his eye Green spots a rocket propelled grenade fizzing across the courtyard straight for his position.  Shit!  The rocket flies towards him and….it freezes in mid air, 2 feet from his face.  PLANNING PHASE

Presentation is key for an indie game such as this, requiring style over polygons to win you over, and mode7 have obviously taken great inspiration from some of the master indie developers.  Frozen Synapse is so reminiscent of Uplink that you’d be forgiven for assuming it was a new Introversion title.  In fact their upcoming game Subversion bears even more resemblance.  This is no bad thing though, and the crisp, functional style adds to the ease with which you command your troops.

The music, too, is excellent, and could be swapped for Deus Ex’s without anyone noticing.  In case you aren’t sure what that means, it means its very good!

The story's told through this mission hubThe singleplayer shares a similar cyber-punk edge, too, telling the story of sci-fi mega-corporations using the matrix-esque ‘shape’ to do virtual battles for territory across a future metropolis.  The 55 mission story is told through conversations and news stories told every few missions, which is often enough to break up the combat nicely without getting too in the way of the addictive need for more strategising.  The story doesn’t take itself too seriously and contains a few memorable characters, especially an AI with an amusing lack of concern for the wellbeing of your squad members, and some absolutely ridiculous names for people and places.  Case in point: your character is called Tactics, because “that’s what you’re good at”.

For a game that seems built for one-on-one tactical battles best played against other humans, the singleplayer makes a really good effort at striking off on its own, forcing you to take different tactical approaches to the usually careful, defence-led multiplayer skirmishes.  The missions comprise a healthy mix of objectives, from wiping out much larger teams than your own, frantic escort missions and mad dashes for strategic bonuses (like reinforcements, or just a big explosion).  My favourites being when you have to take out a huge team of snipers, say, using only 2 shotgun wielding grunts.

Ultimately, though, the singleplayer is going to be a warm-up to the main event: the skirmish and multiplayer battles.  Frozen Synapse is so crisp in its presentation, simple in its execution and satisfying in it’s 5 second outcomes that it is incredibly absorbing and difficult to drag yourself away from.  The seeming ease and simplicity of delivering your instructions, testing out a few scenarios and then clicking commit means games share that ‘just one more click’ addictiveness of the Civilizations and Football Managers of this world.  The tense pace of each game and satisfying impact of the firefights that break out share more in common with the Counterstrikes and Call of Dutys, than any fellow strategy games.

After clicking commit you notice yourself pull closer to the screen.  Each loss unleashes a muttered curse.  Each kill, a fist punch into the air.  And then 10 minutes later, win or lose, you’ll find yourself breathing a sigh of released tension, before clicking ‘find a game’ again.  Just one more before bedtime, you’ll say.  Just 1…maybe 2, more.

For a game so tense, and so fraught with hidden danger, you never find yourself frustrated when inevitable loss and failure arrive.  5 seconds is a long time when you’ve made the wrong move.  It’s plenty of time for a sniper to get off a shot.  Time for a rocket to launch and impact by your feet.  Plenty of time for a nimble shotgunner to run through two rooms, pop up by that window and blow the head off your prized machinegunner.  But every time that happens and you lose a squad member you never have anyone to blame or curse but yourself.  The tools are there in the planning phase to see what would happen if that sniper aimed that way, or that shotgunner ran through those rooms ignoring all hostiles, so you never feel cheated or fooled when it unfolds against your expectations.

It can’t all be perfect though, can it?  Well, no game is without its faults.  The main issue that will only start to show as you play a number of games, is the game is intrinsically designed to benefit a defensive strategy.  A still machinegunner will always shoot a moving machinegunner before the moving one returns fire.  A machinegunner behind cover will always beat a machinegunner out of cover.  And so the best players, and you may find yourself doing this, will always plump to have as many of their squad as possible standing or crouching motionless behind cover.  This can lead to some incredibly boring games, this following one being a classic example:

There’s more satisfaction to be had from playing more offensively, but there’s no satisfaction to be found losing game after game because you keep wandering into a corridor of fire.  The singleplayer, too, is initially a great antidote to this by forcing you to play more offensively to achieve objectives within a given number of turns, but as the game progresses more and more defensive tactics are required to win.  Equally a number of multiplayer modes are on offer to promote different styles of play, but if anything these mostly promote even more defensive play from the likes of ‘secure’ and ‘hostage rescue’.  Some may enjoy this but I just think it’s a shame the game rewards boring tactics the most when I find the greatest moments are when you’re hunting down a target, gambling on when to lower your gun and run across a room, or when to carefully aim and tip-toe.

This is just a small creeping concern though, one that hasn’t stopped me remaining thoroughly addicted to a game I’ve clocked up more hours on in the few weeks I’ve had it than any other game this year (aside from EVE online, but that’s more a lifestyle choice than a game).  Spending an evening in tactical duels, using the turn-based nature of the game to chain a few games at a time, is likely to be a regular feature throughout the rest of this year.  Even if they do become less frequent as the novelty wears thinner this is going to be one of those games, like Desktop Dungeons, that’s there waiting for me when I have a quiet half hour.  A 20 minute gap before bed that needs filling.  Just one quick game, I’ll think.  Just one quick game, and then another.  And then…just one more.  That’s all…

9/10

P.S.  I just had to post this, my greatest Frozen Synapse victory.  Note at the end of turn 1 I have 1 squadmember left, compared to the computer’s 4: