Half-Life - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (RPS)

best-pc-games-ever

There are more wonderful games being released on PC each month than ever before. In such a time of plenty, it’s important that you spend your time as wisely as possible. Thankfully, we’re here to help. What follows are our picks for the best PC games ever made. (more…)

Sid Meier's Civilization® V - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Alice O'Connor)

Jon Shafer, the lead designer of Firaxis’s Civilization V and his own strategy game At the Gates, is gone from strategy specialists Paradox only six months after joining. Paradox say neither that he ditched the company nor that they fired him, rather that they have all “decided to part ways due to creative differences.” How enigmatic! We didn’t even know what he was working on. (more…)

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Will there be an XCOM 3? I have no idea. All I know is: the first two games, and their expansions, were brilliant, and the XCOM formula is just too good to fade. Whether you preferred the sedate, sandbox pace of Enemy Unknown, or the tough guerrilla fightback scenario of the second game, the differences in the two show how flexible the XCOM format can be. There's surely another great game or five in the series, right? Here are a few things we'd like to see in a sequel.

A new setting

We have saved Earth a few times now. Paradoxically we have both saved Earth from being invaded and then liberated it post-invasion. We have broken the alien threat in city streets, sewers and green fields. Could you face doing that all over again, even with a different alien threat? It is time for a change.

The original X-COM games went to the ocean for variety. A modern take on Terror From the Deep could be interesting, but I need something bigger to really get excited. Could XCOM take the fight to the alien threat on their home ground? Would XCOM work on a solar system scale? It's a dangerous move. The transition from defender to unstoppable aggressor is an important part of XCOM's fantasy, and you risk losing the personal touch that you get managing a small group of elite soldiers. Maybe a move to a smaller city-scale game in the mould of X-COM: Apocalypse would work.

In this regard the series is a victim of its own success. XCOM: Enemy Unknown and XCOM 2 are so replayable XCOM 3 would need to be bold to tear me away.

Even more squad customisation

Firaxis' XCOM has loads of squad customisation, and War of the Chosen added bonds and a surprisingly great poster-making tool to better capture the successes and cruel deaths of our favourite soldiers. XCOM does plenty to let me turn my soldiers into heroes with backstories and relationships, but I cannot get enough of this sort of thing. The squad bonds system in War of the Chosen is a great example of the sort of feature allows the game to tell more complex stories. An outstanding array of hairstyle options is also a must, of course. 

Clearer campaign mechanics

Chances are you've loaded an earlier save in XCOM to undo a horrible turn, or take another shot at a mission because you got wiped by an enemy you'd never met before. 

In the first few playthroughs of a campaign trial and error is an essential part of XCOM. The game wants to tell a story, with surprised and twists, which means holding back information you need to make sensible decisions. I don't mind being surprised by enemy reveals that kill a bunch of soldiers. I enjoy the horror of first contact, and the pleasure of learning how to deal with them—besides, you're supposed to lose soldiers in XCOM. However I wish that the games were clearer about campaign-level mechanics, where ambiguity can waste a lot of time. 

Take the Avatar project. The game very strongly implies that XCOM is screwed if it maxes out, but I found myself wondering what would really happen, and I was unsure about how fast it would grow and how easily I could bring it back down. Likewise the necessity of satellites in Enemy Unknown came as a surprise to a lot of players. These uncertainties can lead to five-hour rollbacks on an opening campaign, or an outright restart.

A changing story

The worst thing about restarting an XCOM campaign is the static story. You can skip cutscenes and breeze through all of the exposition, but you are locked into a series of story missions linked by periods of compulsory research. I like XCOM's characters, world and art style, but I wish that there was a way for campaigns to branch or change to keep the surprises coming after several campaigns.

I think XCOM benefits a lot from the inclusion of a story, beyond the entertainment value of the Chosen's delightfully cheesy intro scenes. Story creates impetus, and on the strategy layer level XCOM is a game about racing the campaign's beats. I'd love an XCOM 3 campaign that allows those beats to change to keep me in a state of terror and despair for longer.

Better base building

The rooms look cool and I like being able to see XCOM members working away in the hive, but hollowing out the Avenger never really felt like I was building a base. The long excavation and build times made it feel as though the base was denying me cool stuff rather than unlocking it for me, and the layout never seemed to matter hugely, even with adjacency bonuses. The base functions felt as though they were spread out over too many rooms. Whatever shape an XCOM 3 base might take, I'd room placement to involve more interesting decisions with less waiting around.

Continued mod support

Another 'more of this please' entry. The Steam workshop has been great for XCOM 2 and The Long War campaign—a must play, comprehensive redesign of XCOM 2—adds dozens of hours of value to the game. There are loads of new enemies and weapons out there, but my favourite mods are the ones that make small UI tweaks to meet my preferences. Here's a selection of our favourite mods for War of the Chosen.

Malleable classes

Firaxis' XCOM tends to give you a choice of two upgrades when you level up. The left and right skill columns represent different builds of that class, which ultimately encourages you to come down one way or the other to hit the best synergies. 

War of the Chosen introduced training that let you unlock a few extra abilities in each class. The introduction of just these few extra options made the classes feel deeper and more flexible. I appreciate XCOM's determination to keep levelling simple, and to carefully define class roles to keep them distinct and interesting, but a degree of class cross-pollination could encourage more build-tinkering and squad experimentation. We'd want to see some new classes too, of course.

Factions, rivalries

War of the Chosen introduced several organisations that existed beyond the remit of XCOM. The resistance factions had their own tactics and fashion sense, and you had to work to earn their trust and get their cool toys. 

It worked great, and there are many ways to expand upon factions more broadly in a sequel. It's easy to imagine mercenary factions that could join the aliens or the humans, for a price. Firaxis experimented with EXALT in Enemy Within, so there's precedent for these shady, ambiguous factions.

I can't ignore how effective the Chosen were in War of the Chosen either. In fact, we reckon they are some of the best gaming villains out there. Having powerful villains that taunt you face-to-face creates great rivalries, and if a new XCOM didn't have a take on this, I think I would seriously miss it. Whether the game generates alien bounty hunters to hunt you down, or adopts a Shadow of Mordor style nemesis generator (a wronged Sectoid ties a bandana around its forehead comes back with a vengeance), I want strong antagonists whose defeat I can truly savour.

A new threat

XCOM's aliens are too familiar to be the sole focus of another game. The second game smartly revamped Sectoids and turned the skinny poisonous men in black into giant orange Cobras. Ultimately, though, Sectoids are going to mind control stuff and Muton's gonna Muton. For a third game I want to face enemies that feel alien again. I want the thrill of watching a unit's intro animation play in a battle and thinking 'what on planet Earth can that thing do?'

The return of shadowy "Hello, Commanderrr" guy

Other than the G-Man, is there a more ambiguous and intriguing figure in PC gaming than the mysterious silhouette guy who phones up to judge you once a month? I don't even know why he's in charge in XCOM 2, but I'll always pick up the big man's calls to hear him say "well done, commanderrrr", or "you suck, commanderrr". If there is to be an XCOM 3, he must reprise his role, and nobody tell him where the light switch is.

X-COM: UFO Defense

All images courtesy Julian Gollop.

Welcome to my first column for PC Gamer. What’s it all about, you may ask? You can look forward to my musings on games, the games industry, and also follow progress on my new XCOM-style game, Phoenix Point, which is underway at Snapshot Games in sunny Bulgaria.Phoenix Point was first announced at the PC Gamer Weekender event in March last year, where I argued that XCOM is now an established genre, thanks to the tremendous success of the Firaxis games. Ever since I signed over the X-COM rights to MicroProse back in 1997 I have been trying to build a new X-COM-style game, but I never quite succeeded, despite releasing several turn-based games over the last 15 years. The XCOM genre is something special and distinct, and diverging too far from its fundamental design pillars results in something less than satisfactory.

At the Game Developer s Conference in 1996 sessions on pathfinding for RTS games were packed with hundreds of developers with standing room only. The Dune II seed had become a forest.

MicroProse/Hasbro learned the hard way when they attempted to attach the X-COM name to games that weren’t really X-COMish enough, such as X-COM Interceptor (a space sim) X-COM Enforcer (an FPS) and the cancelled X-COM Alliance (a team-based FPS). Publishers, it seems, were no longer confident in the old school strategy/tactics style of X-COM. In the heyday of grand turn-based strategy games we had Civilization (1991), Master of Orion (1993), Master of Magic (1994) and the first X-COM (1994). All of them were highly successful games, and they were all published by MicroProse.

X-COM: Alliance, a cancelled team-based FPS.

Then something dramatic happened—the RTS genre became the dominant game genre on PC, thanks largely to Warcraft (1994) and Command & Conquer (1995). Although Dune II established the genre on PC, it took a while for the seed to grow. By 1996 it seemed like every developer was working on some kind of RTS game. 

At the Game Developer’s Conference in 1996 sessions on pathfinding for RTS games were packed with hundreds of developers with standing room only. The Dune II seed had become a forest. It’s fair to say that this turn of events did influence me to give X-COM Apocalypse a real time tactical mode (but with an option for turn-based battles). However, in no way could the game be called an RTS, as it was defined by Dune II.In 1999 I began development on a new XCOM-style game called The Dreamland Chronicles: Freedom Ridge for our new publisher, Virgin Interactive. I believed at that time that the PC market was going to be increasingly difficult to make a profit from, so the game was intended for the Playstation 2 as well as the PC.  

One planned feature for The Dreamland Chronicles: Freedom Ridge was destructible terrain.

It’s true that PC gaming was having a bit of a crisis, due partly to rampant piracy, spiralling development costs and generally poor quality, buggy releases. There was also a general lack of design innovation. The flood of RTS clones had ended, but there was nothing new and exciting to replace it. Although Dreamland was destined for the PS2, it was still fundamentally an X-COM-style game, with turn-based battles and a real-time geoscape. It did, however, involve a number of adaptations to the console game format. The soldiers were controlled by directly moving them in third person with the controller. An ‘action point’ bar diminished as the character moved. The shooting used a first-person view, allowing the player to freely aim via a controller stick, if desired. It was eerily reminiscent of a PS3 game released in 2008 called Valkyria Chronicles (since released on PC). Sadly, Dreamland was cancelled after Virgin Interactive was sold to Interplay, and then Interplay to Titus Interactive in short succession. After my studio, Mythos Games, was liquidated, the code base for Dreamland would be given to Altar Interactive who went on to produce UFO: Aftermath, although not much remained of our original story and game mechanics. 

Shooting in Dreamland Chronicles used a first-person view.

In 2005 Take-Two purchased the rights to sci-fi strategy franchise X-COM from Atari (formerly Infogrames) after Atari had lost interest in the X-COM franchise following the cancellation of X-COM: Alliance in 2002. Reorganised under the 2K umbrella, the former Bioshock 2 studios, 2K Marin and 2K Australia, began development on a new XCOM game. When it was finally announced to the public in April 2010 it was presented as a “Mystery-filled first-person shooter from the creators of BioShock 2.” The E3 trailer portrayed a 1950s setting with amorphous ink blob aliens and shapeshifters. A camera was used to collect evidence that then had to be ‘researched’. It looked like it could be an interesting game, but it just wasn’t X-COM, and unsurprisingly the reaction from X-COM fans wasn’t very favourable. Christoph Harmann, president at 2K Games, explained that “the problem was that turn-based strategy games were no longer the hottest thing on planet Earth. But this is not just a commercial thing—strategy games are just not contemporary."

Phoenix Point, Julian Gollop's current project.

 I felt dismayed by these comments, and it spurred me to put a team together with the idea of raising funds on Kickstarter to make my own spiritual remake. At that time there was also another X-COM-like game in development by a small indie collective called Xenonauts, but I felt there was room for both of us.  

However, when Firaxis announced that they were going to release their own X-COM game everything I planned for seemed superfluous. If anyone could do X-COM properly, then it would be Sid Meier’s studio. But here we are five years after the success of the Firaxis remake and Phoenix Point is a thing. We raised $760k in March through fig.co, and my own take on an XCOM style game is well under way. There is such a thing as 'the XCOM genre', and I am really excited for the future. I am not alone any more.

X-COM: UFO Defense - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Jamie Wallace)

terror from the deep

Over at GOG, the reduced-price trips down memory lane continue, only this week there’s a whole lot more X-Com. Specifically, this week’s GOG sale range focuses on a lot of 2K’s older franchises, particularly from the strategy genre. The entire original run of X-Com games can be found here for less than 2 / $2 each, which is nigh-impossible to not recommend. Then there is the 2004 version of Sid Meier’s Pirates, a game I’ve poured more hours into than I really want to think about, and much more.

(more…)

Borderlands 2

The Humble Bundle's latest collection of games goes big on Borderlands, packing Gearbox Software's original role-playing shooter, its immediate sequel and its low-gravity follow-up, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. 

It's all part of the slightly awkwardly-named Humble Endless RPG Lands Bundle. The 'Endless' bit is because it also throws in Endless Legend, the excellent sci-fi 4X game.

The pay-what-you-want part of the bundle includes the Original Borderlands (which is probably just about still worth playing) plus all its DLC, as well as action-RPG The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing and Wurm Online, the fantasy MMORPG.

Splash out more than $4.96 and you'll get all that plus Endless Legend, Borderlands 2 and some of its DLC (some major story add-ons are missing) and Guild of Dungeoneering, a card-battling dungeon crawler that Andy wrote about back in 2015.

More than $10 will also nab you Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, which Evan called a "well-executed but thoroughly unambitious extension of Borderlands 2".

Overall, the package is a good one for those who haven't played the Borderlands games. $5 is near enough a historic low for Borderlands 2 alone, which is the star of the show. You can read Tom's original review here.

The bundle is available for the next two weeks: grab it here.

Spec Ops: The Line

Yager's Spec Ops: The Line was as brutal as it was brazen, but was ultimately a commercial failure. This fact alone is enough to rule out a sequel, however its lead writer has spelled out some other reasons the 2012 shooter won't be revisited.   

In response to one Twitter user's query about why Spec Ops: The Line won't get a sequel, Walt Williams responded rather explicitly: "Because it was a brutal, painful development and everyone who worked on it would eat broken glass before making another. Also it didn't sell."

Yager has made clear its thoughts on returning to Spec Ops: The Line in the past, but never with such conviction as Williams, whose recent book about the games industry, Significant Zero, explores the development of Spec-Ops and other games in raw detail.   

Which is a shame, because Spec Ops: The Line is a good game for reasons I don't want to spoil. Instead, here's an excerpt from Samuel's Why I Love column last year: 

Spec Ops is essentially an adaptation of Heart of Darkness, as the name John Konrad suggests. Heavier inspiration comes from Apocalypse Now, itself an adaptation of the same work. In all versions of this story, the protagonist is sent to track down a colleague who has gone off the reservation. 

That journey takes them through a strange land, where the circumstances and environment become stranger the closer the hero gets to their target, a process represented perfectly by the river in both the book and Apocalypse Now. The quarry in each story is found to be playing god over their new domain, succumbed to a form of madness created by the circumstances of their surroundings.  

Cheers, Videogamer

Update: For the sake of clarity, Williams underscores the above is him being hyperbolic, and that more about the development of big budget games can be gleaned from his book Significant Zero.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Despite founding the series in 1994, X-Com mastermind Julian Gollop has admitted his current project Phoenix Point wouldn't exist if it weren't for Firaxis' 2012 Enemy Unknown reboot . 

In 1994, Julian Gollop, alongside his Mythos Games team, redefined the turn-based strategy genre with the creation of UFO: Enemy Unknown—otherwise known as X-COM UFO Defense. A direct sequel—X-COM: Terror from the Deep—followed, before the series changed scope and jumped genres with Gollop and his team no longer on board. 

Two cancelled games in the early '00s effectively buried the series, before it was revived and rebooted by Firaxis in 2012. XCOM has since went from strength to strength, with Gollop's original creation becoming its own sub-genre. 

"I think it's fantastic," Gollops tells PC Gamer. "When you think that for so long I was trying to make this kind of game and no publisher was even interested, what it proves that there's now an audience for this style of game. It may not be absolutely massive, but it's a pretty solid, dedicated audience. 

"People have been asking me to remake X-Com, or Laser Squad, or anything forever. They've always asked me to do it. It's just getting commercial interest from a publisher to actually do it has been very difficult."

Gollop suggests MOBAs have in many ways overshadowed RTS games in recent years, but he admires how Firaxis has "managed to resurrect" X-Com, in turn finding critical and commercial success. Despite being responsible for the foundations of the X-Com as we know it today, Gollop reckons its current guise champions a new genre—one that his latest venture Phoenix Point is happily part of.  

"It just goes to show that maybe I was right to pursue this kind of game," Gollop continues. "But what the new XCOM game has allowed me to do is make Phoenix Point, because without it, I doubt I even would've attempted it. God knows what I'd be doing. I think it's fair to say it's now a new genre of game. It's now established, and there are people who are actively looking for this style of game, and there will be more like them, which is really cool. It's brilliant. From my point of view, it's great.

"When you think about it, all the X-Com games, going back to the ones I worked on, the strategic layer is the thing that's changed the most. So the original was set on a globe, Terror From The Deep sort of copied that, but X-Com Apocalypse was radically different. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is reminiscent of the original but is actually quite different, because it's a much more scripted sequence of stuff. It's more like a min/maxing management sim. With XCOM 2, they changed it quite radically again. So this seems to be the area of the X-Com genre-style game that's changing the most."

Gollops continues, suggesting Phoenix Point—said to be a spiritual successor of the '94 X-Com—will do something different again, while retaining "this core tactical turn-based gameplay which is more familiar across all the X-Com games."

Look out for our full interview with Julian Gollop—wherein he discusses Phoenix Point, X-Com and more—later today.  

Portal 2 - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Hazel Monforton)

dishonoreddeath

When we meet the creators of fictional worlds, we often want to kill them. Whether its Bioshock’s Andrew Ryan and his deadly Rapture, GlaDOS and the sadistic test chambers of Portal, or Kirin Jindosh and the Clockwork Mansion. The urge to destroy these builders is partly down to the nature of their constructions – deathtraps and mazes that make the architect a cruel overseer – but there is perhaps more to it than that. With spoilers for the above, Hazel Monforton investigates the role (and the death) of the author in a medium that invites the audience into the action.>

(more…)

Half-Life 2

Every year PC Gamer's editors and contributors vote on a list of the 100 best PC games to play right now, and every year our Top 100 list is contentious. A game is always too low, and another too high, and another unbelievably missing. Such is the inevitable fate of any List Of Things In A Certain Order.

But this year, we decided it would be fun to transform the heated comment threads under our list into a list of their own—the Readers' Top 100. Last week, I asked you to pick your top two games from our Top 100 list, and suggest two games to add. I then compiled the votes (1,445 of them), weighing the write-ins more highly than the picks from our list, given that it's much more likely that 50 people would chose the same game from a list of 100 than all write in the same game.

My totally unscientific method does cause a few problems, namely: how much more do you weigh the write-in votes? A multiplier of three produced the most interesting list in this case, though next year I may ditch that tactic all together and take write-ins only. The danger is that a write-in-only list might be more easily swayed by organized campaigns (though that certainly happened anyway), and for this first attempt, I wanted to include a baseline to build off of just in case the suggestions were too scattered, or too homogeneous.

It worked out pretty well despite the uneven, improvised methodology—but do think of it as a fun exercise and not a perfect representation of PC gamers' tastes. Caveats out of the way, check out the list below. (Games that aren't on our Top 100 list are in bold.)

The PC Gamer Readers' Top 100

  1. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
  2. Half-Life 2 
  3. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim 
  4. Dark Souls 
  5. Borderlands 2 
  6. Fallout: New Vegas 
  7. Mass Effect 2  
  8. Doom (2016) 
  9. BioShock 
  10. Doom 2 
  11. Fallout 2 
  12. Deus Ex 
  13. Portal 2 
  14. Life is Strange 
  15. Starcraft 
  16. Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn 
  17. Grand Theft Auto 5 
  18. League of Legends 
  19. Diablo 2 
  20. XCOM 2 
  21. Fallout 4 
  22. Dragon Age: Origins 
  23. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind 
  24. PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds 
  25. Bioshock Infinite 
  26. Overwatch 
  27. Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 
  28. World of Warcraft 
  29. Rimworld 
  30. Path of Exile 
  31. Planescape: Torment
  32. Fallout 
  33. Dishonored 2 
  34. Crysis 
  35. Stellaris 
  36. Crusader Kings 2 
  37. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain 
  38. Dishonored 
  39. Half-Life 
  40. Warcraft 3 
  41. Quake 
  42. Factorio 
  43. Prey 
  44. SOMA 
  45. Fallout 3
  46. TIE Fighter 
  47. Elite Dangerous 
  48. Rocket League 
  49. Civilization 5 
  50. Heroes of Might and Magic 3 
  51. Starcraft 2 
  52. Nier: Automata 
  53. Stalker: Call of Pripyat 
  54. Wolfenstein: The New Order 
  55. Minecraft 
  56. System Shock 2 
  57. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion 
  58. Psychonauts 
  59. Divinity: Original Sin Enhanced Edition 
  60. Knights of the Old Republic 
  61. Age of Empires 2 
  62. Thief 2 
  63. Endless Legend 
  64. Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines 
  65. Titanfall 2 
  66. Warframe 
  67. The Secret of Monkey Island  
  68. Kerbal Space Program 
  69. Europa Universalis IV 
  70. Hotline Miami  
  71. Payday 2 
  72. Battlefield 1 
  73. Dota 2 
  74. Total War: Warhammer 
  75. Mass Effect 3 
  76. Batman Arkham City 
  77. Rainbow Six Siege 
  78. FTL 
  79. Stardew Valley 
  80. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive 
  81. The Talos Principle 
  82. Tyranny 
  83. Civilization 6 
  84. Undertale 
  85. Knights of the Old Republic 2 
  86. Team Fortress 2 
  87. The Witness 
  88. Thief Gold 
  89. Arma 3 
  90. Dying Light 
  91. Alien: Isolation 
  92. Hyper Light Drifter 
  93. Planet Coaster 
  94. Jagged Alliance 2 
  95. Call of Duty 2 
  96. Transistor
  97. Mass Effect 
  98. Freespace 2 
  99. 7 Days to Die 
  100. Ultima Online

For reference, the top 10 games on our list this year were: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Dark Souls, Dishonored 2, XCOM 2, Portal 2, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Mass Effect 2, Alien: Isolation, Doom (2016), and Spelunky. If you want a condensed sense of how our tastes differ from those surveyed, here are a few observations:

We like Spelunky a lot more than everyone else. It was in our top 10, but didn't even make it into the Readers' Top 100.

While Half-Life 2 has lost some stock in our minds, it hasn't in everyone's. It was 11th on our list, but 2nd on the Readers' list.

Everyone agrees that The Witcher 3 is great. It was first on both of our lists.

Skyrim is still chugging along. It was 26th on our list, but came in third in reader voting.

Borderlands 2 wasn't on our list, but came in 5th. Did Borderlands fans came out en masse, or are we just weird for not putting it on our list?

14th place is pretty impressive for Life is Strange. Rimworld ranked pretty high, too. Either these games are more popular than we realized, or the survey happened to be circulated among their biggest fans. Probably a mix of both.

League of Legends fans showed up to challenge our preference for Dota 2. It came in at 18, while Dota 2 was knocked down to 73. Justice?

If you'd like to compare the lists directly, I've put them side by side in a spreadsheet. Thank you to all 1,445 people who responded to the survey! Feel free to suggest new ways to compile this list in the comments, and I'll take them into consideration next year. My skill with Excel spreadsheet formulas is at least double what it was last week, a cursed power that will only have grown by next year.

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