Borderlands 2

Welcome back to the PC Gamer Q&A. Every week, we ask our panel of PC Gamer writers a question about PC gaming. This week: which game were you the best at? We all have those games we become obsessed with, until we reach some level of mastery. We'd love to read your suggestions in the comments, too.

James Davenport: Super Hexagon

I never get too attached to one game for very long. I think the most time I've spent playing any one game is Borderlands 2 with something like 300 hours clocked, and I don't even like it that much. But when I do love a game, it's a swift, dedicated, blinding attachment, usually the product of horrible depression or anxiety. So it's weird that I would play Super Hexagon during one of the most difficult months of my life, but I did, and it helped me calm down. Within a week I beat the hardest difficulty and managed to stretch nearly a minute beyond the 'win' time, though I can't remember my times exactly. When you see that game for the first time, it's almost not easy to parse what's going on. Between the rotating screen, flashing colors, and intense chiptune soundtrack, maneuvering that tiny triangle for even a few seconds was impossible at first. But then it wasn't impossible, just difficult. Then it wasn't difficult, it was second nature. It's a silly example, but I try to remember that when I don't feel capable. Super Hexagon is more potent than any quote from a dead philosopher. 

Wes Fenlon: Tower Wars

Years ago, a friend and I spent a good week mastering the wonderful tower defense game PixelJunk Monsters on PS3, which had a rare co-op mode that let you run around the map together building and buffing towers. So when we happened upon another cute tower defense game on Steam with online co-op, we decided to give it a shot. And for a couple weeks we were utterly addicted to Tower Wars.

It's classic Tower Defense, really: you build mazes out of towers, upgrade them as you get more cash, and defeat hordes of enemies as they wind their way towards your base. But in online multiplayer, you had to manage building your own defenses and send waves of units crashing down on your opponents. We played the 2v2 mode and quickly developed a pretty effective strategy. Cheap towers to sketch out just enough of our maze to handle early waves, and then rush the right combination of fast units to send our opponents into a panic. We figured out some good unit combinations and managed to win against most of our opponents. It was a winning spree of only a few days, but man it felt good.

Only a few thousand people owned Tower Wars when it first came out, and I don't remember how many people were on the 2v2 leaderboard, but I do remember we got down below 100. Maybe 80? Maybe 40? We were definitely some of the best players in the world. Never mind that it was a very small pool. Wherever we peaked, we definitely started playing against opponents who could outlast our rush strategy and slowly wear us down with clearly superior maze building. Those matches would drag on for so long that Tower Wars' framerate would slow to a crawl as we delayed the inevitable. We knew we'd topped out. But for those couple of weeks, we were unstoppable. 

Chris Livingston: Half-Life 2: Deathmatch

I'm sad to say it's Half-Life 2: Deathmatch. Damn, I was good at that. Something about flinging around toilets and file cabinets with a gravity gun was second nature to me and it's pretty much the only multiplayer game where I'd routinely wind up with the most kills. And there's no better kill than a toilet kill, except possibly using the gravity gun to catch someone's pulse rifle orb and fling it back at them. I was good at that too.

Unfortunately, HL2 Deathmatch was about as popular as an antlion at a beach party and quickly fell by the wayside. Maybe everyone got tired of being killed by flying toilets. Or maybe it just wasn't a good multiplayer game. I guess I'll just wait for Half-Life 3: Deathmatch. Should be out soon, right?

Tim Clark: Hearthstone (obviously)

This feels like a very deliberate attempt to trap me into answering Hearthstone again, which I will now step smoothly into. The one time I put the effort into grinding to legend rank remains the single hardest thing I've done in a game (even though I played Zoo for quite a bit of the way), and so seeing that card back reward pop when I made it is also one of my happiest moments. For the rest of the month I tooled around playing comedy decks with the pressure off, and one Sunday afternoon managed to find myself at about rank 400-and-something (blaze it) on the EU server with Yogg & Load Hunter. For about an hour or so, I was technically, sort of, the 400th-ish best player in Europe. Contract offers from pro teams should be directed to the usual address. 

Austin Wood: Hearthstone

Most of my best games aren't on PC, so I was having a hard time choosing—until Tim answered Hearthstone. Which reminded me that, for a glorious hour, I was legend rank four (which, correct me if I'm wrong, is better and handsomer than 400-and-something) on the North American server. It was during Midrange Paladin's Goblins vs. Gnomes heyday. I built a list with two Equality, two Solemn Vigil, one Defender of Argus and only one Quartermaster, and climbed the ladder with a 67 percent win rate. It's still the only time I've actually recorded Hearthstone matches. That deck absolutely feasted on the Zoolocks and Handlocks in that meta. I hit legend at rank 13, and climbed to rank four before being beaten back by a wave of Rogues. Which was when I, too, started playing meme decks.  

Jody Macgregor: Thief Gold

After finishing Thief on normal difficulty I went back and did it all again on expert, 100% loot. I was unemployed and living with my parents, which is the only reason I had time for it. Replaying it more recently I'm pretty average, and have forgotten where half the secrets are. But on the other hand I don't sleep on a mattress on the floor of my parents' spare room these days so it's hard to feel sad about my atrophied stealth skills. 

Andy Chalk: Doom

I was an untouchable OG Doom machine. Ultimate, Master Levels, Lost Episodes, WAD CDs, you name it, I slapped 'em all around like they were a pistol zombie standing in the middle of a room full of barrels. Opportunities for multiplayer were far rarer than they are now—you could go one-on-one over a phone line, or put yourself through the hellish wringer of setting up an IPX network for some four-way fun—but I was a monster there, too. And strictly with the keyboard—it never occurred to me to play with the mouse at first, and mouseketeers couldn't keep up anyway so I never saw a point in changing. (This attitude would come back to bite me in the ass when I attempted to take on Quake.)

At one point I exchanged a few messages with American McGee on the Software Creations BBS in an attempt to shit-talk John Romero into taking me on. McGee politely but firmly told me to stop bugging him. 

Samuel Roberts: Batman: Arkham City

I'll never be Batman, but in Arkham City's challenge rooms I got pretty damned close—while still being able to maintain my diet of cheeses and red wine. The amount of tools you get deep into the second Batman game, like the ice bomb and the remote electrical charge, give you numerous ways to creatively deal with Gotham's thugs and send your score soaring. It's terrific to just practice that until you can perfect each room without breaking your combo or taking a hit. I never quite mastered Arkham Knight in the same way. 

But what about you, reader? Let us know below.

Thief: Deadly Shadows - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Rick Lane)

thiefheader

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day, perhaps for all time.>

I always feel a bit sad when I think about Deadly Shadows. Ion Storm Austin’s spin on Looking Glass’ landmark stealth series is an embodiment of frustrated ambitions. The developers had basically planned for Deadly Shadows to be an open-world stealth game, a sort of medieval Grand Theft Carriage. But the prioritising of the original Xbox combined with lofty technological ambitions meant that, like a man trying to fit an elephant into a fridge, Ion Storm had to mercilessly cut down the scope of its project. Even then, they could only include the important bits, like the trunk and a couple of the feet. (more…)

Deus Ex: Game of the Year Edition

Deus Ex is currently biding its time as Eidos Montreal work on other projects—likely the Avengers project with Crystal Dynamics. It's reassuring to know that it the series could come back in some form, but will it be a continuation of Jensen's story, or a look at the post-humanist future from a different perspective? Either way, based on past form, there will it will have amazing ceilings, and people talking about the Illuminati in gravelly voices. If we're especially unlucky, it might even have a Greasel in it.

Here are some things we do want to see from the next Deus Ex game.

More hubs

Travel is an underrated aspect of the Deus Ex fantasy. The conspiracies you expose are so vast you have to fly all over the world to unpick them. In the original Deus Ex you go from Liberty Island to Hong Kong, to Paris. In Human Revolution, in spite of the hubs cut from the game, you still end up visiting Detroit, Shanghai and Singapore. Even though Prague is the most detailed hub Eidos Montreal has produced, Mankind Divided still felt limited for being confined there for most of the game. 

It’s a tough ask given the amount of work it takes to produce open areas with the density of interaction that we expect from Deus Ex. Hubs are central to the Deus Ex experience because they blend social and stealth spaces, and they give you the chance to absorb the world at your own pace. I want to really wallow in the dystopia. I don’t even need a mission prompt to infiltrate an apartment block, read emails and nick gang stashes. Like many, I robbed Prague’s amazing bank before the plot went there. Multiple hubs that feel different and exciting should be an essential part of a new Deus Ex. 

Fewer vents

This might make me a bad Deus Ex fan, but I am sick of vents. When I think about being a cool augmented future spy the idea of crawling around on my hands and knees in a boring grey tube doesn’t feature. There are always going to be some vents, I accept that. They are an essential path for stealthy players looking to slip behind guards. It’s a problem when ‘find a vent’ is a viable solution to every problem. I like vents that give me the chance to get an advantageous position on guards, but often they let you skip entire chunks of a level. 

The vent problem is part of a wider issue with Deus Ex sandboxes. The approaches you can take are tightly defined for you. You’re the hacker specialist, or you’re the vent player, or your’re the one who shoots/arm-chisels your way through problems. These approaches are baked into each environment. If you come across a checkpoint, there will be a vent off to the right, a computer console to be hacked somewhere to the left behind a couple of guards. It’s hard to break out of these prescribed routes and be creative. Compare Deus Ex to Dishonored 2, for example, where interactions between guard AI and your special powers can be more inventive and there is skill in finding new ways to exploit the sandbox.

A more coherent conspiracy

What were the stakes in Mankind Divided? I still have no idea, really. The game went hard on the ‘mechanical apartheid’ angle but the plot obsessed over a virus called Orchid and power struggles between various groups trying to get an act passed, or not passed, or something. This is hardly a new problem for Deus Ex, and game plots can take a real hit when content is cut and rearranged during the development process. Nonetheless I’d like more clarity from a new Deus Ex, and more personality. Mankind Divided sorely missed big characters like Sarif and even Pritchard in central roles.

A new hero? 

I'm torn on this one. I like Jensen, I really do, and normally I don’t care about gruff beardy dudes and their various dead/captured loved ones. Jensen has a good beard, though. And good jackets. And he uses his retractable carbon fibre radiuses to brutalise his enemies, which is novel. And yes, his “I didn’t ask for this” dilemma became a meme, but it was an interesting hook for the first game.

Mankind Divided did Jensen no favours. He was buffeted along by the plot with little personal involvement and after both this game and The Missing Link, it’s increasingly hard to rejustify rebooting his powers yet again. Plus, while I’m still not tired of his armblades, it feels like we’ve seen every possible permutation of that idea in Mankind Divided. You can heat them up, shoot them, and blow them up with the right upgrades. It's time for some new augmentations.

A new character would probably have to be a another commando/spy sort so you have an excuse to go on sneaking missions, and must have a cool coat—that part is mandatory.

Quality DLC

Deus Ex and genre stablemate Dishonored both have reputations for delivering good, chunky, post-launch singleplayer stories in the form of DLC packs. The Missing Link was an excellent addition to Human Revolution, and Andy enjoyed breaking out of prison in A Criminal Past.

When the marketing first started talking about the "Deus Ex Universe", this is the sort of thing I was hoping for: self-contained stories that slot in around the main plot. In fact I would play the heck out of a Hitman style episodic Deus Ex that moved between hubs and facilities, developing a story bit by bit.

TRIANGLES

The new Deus Ex games imagine a world built on the humble triangle. Buildings, clothing, weapons, even lamps are made up of polygonal arrangements of tiny triangles everywhere, and this should continue. If we end up struggling to design a new protagonist for the Deus Ex series a mobile, heavily augmented triangle will suffice. 

Deus Ex: Game of the Year Edition - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Matt Cox)

deus ex

The CEO of Square Enix, Yosuke Matsuda, has spoken out about the future of Deus Ex. At the start of this year, Eurogamer reported that we shouldn’t expect a new Deus Ex game anytime soon – and they’re right, though we should get one eventually. It simply isn’t Deus Ex’s turn yet, with the studio first focusing on other projects such as the next Tomb Raider and an Avengers game.

Matsuda explained all this in an interview with GamesIndustry.biz, where he also talked about Final Fantasy’s anime spin off, the studio’s approach to the Eastern and Western markets, as well as augmented and virtual reality.

(more…)

Deus Ex: Game of the Year Edition

Earlier this year, Jody considered the uncertain future of games like Deus Ex and Dishonored in the wake of poor sales. Within, Eidos Montreal said it was "not quite ready" to answer questions on why the former had underperformed, nor would it commit to the possibility of new Deus Ex games down the line. 

In conversation with gamesindustry.biz, Square Enix CEO Yosuke Matsuda has all but confirmed Deus Ex will live on—despite other projects taking priority at present. Square Enix has published the series since 2011's Human Revolution.

"We have never said anything about discontinuing that title but for some reason that's the rumour out on the market," Matsuda tells GI.biz. "What I can say is Eidos Montreal has always developed Deus Ex, and the issue is we do not have limitless resources. We have several big titles that we work with and that's partly a factor in what our line-up looks like."

Matsuda adds: "Of course, it would be ideal if we could work on all of them all of the time, but the fact of the matter is some titles have to wait their turn. The reason there isn't a Deus Ex right now is just a product of our development line-up because there are other titles we are working on."

Matsuda recently spoke in praise of Hitman developer IO Interactive, saying that while Square Enix could no longer invest in the series, he was sure "it wouldn't be Hitman unless made by IO". Somewhat similarly, Matsuda describes Deus Ex as a "very important franchise" before stating he and his colleagues are "already internally discussing and exploring what we want do with the next instalment of it."

Gamesindustry.biz's interview with Matsuda is worth reading in full—find it in this direction.

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

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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…)

PC Gamer

Welcome back to the PCG Q&A. Every week, we ask our panel of PC Gamer writers a question about PC gaming. This week: what's your favourite game world or setting? We also welcome your answers in the comments. 

Shaun Prescott: Sevastapol Station in Alien: Isolation

At the risk of sounding masochistic, Sevastopol Station in Alien: Isolation is the space that springs immediately to mind. The most appealing part of that game (in stark contrast with the least appealing part: the alien) was the coldness of its environment, and how eerily it channeled the moods of both the films and others, like 2001: A Space Odyssey. It also appealed to my love of hard science fiction: the clinical, whitewashed futurism of imagined space outposts, the inherent weirdness of a life spent in the stars. Several games have attempted this in the past and at least one since, but none have prompted me to stand in a control room for minutes at a time, silently marveling at the colour palette and wondering what it's meant to mean. Equally, few have made me feel as lonely and isolated like this game has. I think this game may have scarred me.

I felt a similar sensation among the stars in Elite Dangerous. And I’d hoped to feel something similar in Prey, but that game felt too contemporary, with its imagined former citizens arranging Dungeon and Dragons sessions and chatting lightheartedly in emails. Sevastopol Station feels like it belongs to a wrong, parallel future, one that we imagined in the ‘80s, and you can see Creative Assembly channeling that in the VHS grain of their menu screens. I’ll occasionally boot this game up just to relish that mood, only to shut it down in a hurry once something wants to kill me. 

Jody Macgregor: the City in the Thief trilogy

I like that the setting of the original Thief games was only ever called "the City". I like that there's no exposition at the start so you discover things like the fact it has electricity by stumbling across humming streetlamps and power generators. I like that you almost always see it at night ('Break From Cragscleft Prison' takes place during the day, but you're outside the bounds of the City during that level). I like the Tudor houses and the washing lines strung between them and the sounds of people having fun that seep out tavern windows like the flickering light. I like that the City changes, that it moves into the Metal Age and becomes more high-tech without ending up with lame steampunk affectations like goggles on top hats. I like that there's an entire district walled off to keep the living dead in and a haunted madhouse that doubled as an orphanage and yet people still live near those places because what are you going to do, move to the country? Of course not. The City is great. I'd live there.

Philippa Warr: Proteus

The island changes every time, but the feel of the world is constantly wonderful. I boot that game up sometimes to take a kind of desk-holiday from whatever is stressing me out. I can chase after rabbits or watch for owls. There are rain showers which pass overhead and blossom floating from trees. There are the grave stones and the little cabin and the ruins. Small crab-creatures pepper the shore line. There are mushrooms in the welcoming fug of autumn and a crystalline chill in the winter. I know the elements of the world by heart, but I'll always be taken by surprise by some new configuration or by something I've forgotten popping into view. Proteus, for me, is a mixture of comfort and delight—a little digital sanctuary sprinkled with blue chickens. 

Jarred Walton: Wasteland

Every since I was old enough to read, I've had this strange fascination with nuclear weapons. So when Wasteland came out on my Commodore-64 in 1988, you can imagine how pleased I was. And the game didn't disappoint. Guns, robots, radioactive mutants, religious crazies, and more made it one of the formative experiences of my youth. The later Fallout games were a great spiritual successor, followed by an official sequel with Wasteland 2 several years ago. Not surprisingly, I backed that, as well as the more recent Fig campaign for Wasteland 3.

What is it that draws me to the wastes? I blame my love of the outdoors—there's nothing better than a campout in the mountains, roasting food over a fire and hanging out with friends. The wilderness survival instinct in me enjoys exploring the radioactive ruins of our modern world, and without any of the nasty bug bites, blisters, or death that I might have to deal with in the real world. If there's ever a real apocalypse—and I somehow manage to survive—you can expect to find me roaming the countryside, wearing a badge and trying to bring back some semblance of law and order. I've had a few decades of virtual practice now, so I'm ready.

Andy Chalk: Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl

I remember the first time I decided to stay out late in Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl. I'd gained some familiarity with the Zone, and what I thought was a halfway-decent gun, so as the sky started to darken I didn't make my usual beeline back to camp. To my horror, I discovered that unlike most games, where nighttime simply means a different color palette in the sky, Stalker's evenings were dark. Really dark. Long story short, I made for a fire I saw in the distance, got jumped by a two-headed Carthaginian war elephant that breathed fire (although in hindsight, I'm pretty sure it was just a pseudodog), screamed like it was my first time on a roller coaster, and through it all, somehow, did not die. It was nothing but stupid luck and three half-drunk bozos around a campfire that kept me alive that night.

But it was also the moment that I first came to appreciate something else that was different about Stalker. The Zone doesn't care. It's not there to fuel and funnel your superhero fantasies about saving the world; it just is. If you forget that, it'll happily kick your ass and not even tell you why. There's something about that uncaring, unscaling indifference to the very fact of your existence that I adore. Sure, you'll eventually end up a tough guy, with big guns and great armor. But there are lots of other tough guys roaming around out there too, and they'll stick it to you without blinking if you give them half a chance. How do you not love that?

Austin Wood: Fallout 4

I get why everyone is kind of down on Fallout 4. The main story is a wash and it's a far weaker role-playing platform than Fallout: New Vegas and Fallout 3, but it also nails Fallout's uniquely flavored apocalypse. It's overflowing with what are, to me, the two definitive Fallout characteristics: found shelters and '80s sci-fi. 

From Diamond City's settlers to the Brotherhood of Steel's zeppelin to that pirate ship full of robots, the people of the Wasteland are more like hermit crabs than refugees. They hole up in whatever they happen upon and gradually build it up, so you wind up with these unorthodox, flavorful settlements and structures that feel handcrafted and genuinely lived-in. They might be surrounded by sprawling, generic shacks, but there's always something unique at their core that dictates how they sprawl. Which dovetails with my second point: Fallout 4 isn't just any future, it's the future envisioned by '80s scientists and filmmakers, all lasers and robot assistants and nukes beyond the dreams of avarice. It's this absurd, distinctive mix of the Jetsons, the Matrix and Mad Max, but it works because of the flexibility of the nuclear MacGuffin and because humanity is the through-line. 

Samuel Roberts: Liberty City in GTA 4

Clearly, GTA 5's Los Santos is the king of open world environments. I'm just saying this so you don't think I'm being a contrarian, because technically it's a way more impressive open world than the ageing Liberty City. And yet, the heart says GTA 4's open world is more evocative. Its golden skies and densely packed streets feel eerily close to real life, but it feels a little bit magical, too—like someone's half-remembered living in New York a decade ago, and captured the life of the place, if not exactly what it was like. It's still my favourite Rockstar environment. Well, while Red Dead Redemption isn't on PC, anyway.

But what about your choices? Let us know below.

Deus Ex: Game of the Year Edition

Every week, we ask our panel of PC Gamer writers a question about PC gaming. This week: which classic PC game is on your pile of shame? Oh, boy. We also welcome your answers in the comments. 

Andy Kelly: System Shock 2

I know this is an important game. I know it inspired some of my favourite developers. I know some consider it superior to BioShock. But still it remains unplayed in my Steam library. It doesn't help that the twist is so frequently, wildly spoiled, like the videogame equivalent of The Sixth Sense. I'd love to have experienced it without knowing a thing about it, and I think that's the main reason I haven't given it a go yet: knowing I'll be getting an inferior experience. Ultimately I think I'd rather just read about this in 'best of' lists than actually dive into it myself. 

Jarred Walton: KOTOR

I'm not sure why or how, but I never got into KOTOR. It's weird, because I liked many of BioWare's other games, and PC Gamer gave it a 91 back in the day. Whatever the cause (episodes 1-3 of the movies?), I skipped it at launch and didn't do the sequel either. Looking to rectify things, I acquired the Steam version of the game in 2009, probably as part of some game bundle. Eight years later, Steam tells me I still haven't even played the game. The graphics now look a bit dated, but that's not necessarily a stumbling block. But as proof of how old KOTOR is, you can even play the entire game on an Android device. Fun fact: I also 'own' KOTOR via Amazon Underground, which I installed on an Nvidia Shield Tablet at one point...and still never played. What is wrong with me!? Maybe one of these days I'll get around to visiting the original, but SteamLeft tells me it would take a mere 150 days of constant gaming to tackle all of my game library. Yeah, I'll get right on that...

Wes Fenlon: System Shock 2

I adore Bioshock, Deus Ex and the idea of the immersive sim, but for some reason I've never committed myself to truly playing through System Shock 2, possibly the best there ever was. I've only dabbled, getting a taste for the game and fiddling with it to run well on a modern PC. I don't even know why. Perhaps simply because it's intimidating. There are so many games I can play half-heartedly, devoting only some of my full attention. Those are often the games I turn to when I come home tired after a long day.But that wouldn't fly with System Shock 2. It demands and deserves commitment. I need to fully explore its systems and space station hallways, commit to mastering some RPG mechanics that are likely a bit clunky 18 years later, and read every scrap of worldbuilding I come across. I know I'll love it... someday. When the mood strikes, and I have the time to give SHODAN the attention she needs.

Samuel Roberts: World of Warcraft

I'm not an MMO guy, and I don't think I ever will be. My many hours of GTA Online are probably as close as I'll ever get, and there's only so much time to spare. Warcraft fell between the gaps of my parents owning a PC that could run it, and that meant that by the time I could afford my own PC in 2009, I was already years behind. Since then, I've resigned myself to the fact that singleplayer games are mostly my passion, despite owning WoW and even having bought game time to try it out.

I'm sure it's very good, but that type of fantasy setting doesn't particularly appeal to me. I'm more likely to try Guild Wars 2 instead. Sorry.

Chris Livingston: Deus Ex

Wow, I hate even admitting that especially since it's such an influential game and definitely the kind of game I would love. I just completely missed it when it came out and I never got around to it. When I finally did try it a few years ago, I was just like, ew. Ugly. I guess I'm a bit of a graphics snob, and have a really hard time playing older games unless I've got some nostalgia for them (the original Half-Life, for example, I can jump right in and feel fine).

Same thing happened with Morrowind. I tried it for the first time a couple years ago and, nope. I just couldn't bear the looks. I am a shallow, shallow person.

Tom Senior: Planescape Torment

I tried, I really did. Whenever I try to get back into this classic cRPG I find myself getting bored halfway through the gloomy opening dungeon. I like the humour and the mysterious premise, but something about those stone grey environments made the idea of sinking another 50 hours into the game seem arduous. From everything I've read about it I know that I'll probably love it if I give it more of a chance. Maybe I will migrate to a desert island with a laptop and maroon myself for a month so I can finally wade into next year's Top 100 discussions having played it. 

Hitman: Blood Money

Games are very good at satisfying fantasy violence and elaborate, gory executions are commonplace. These animations are partly there to shock and illicit that wincing "oof" when you watch your character dismember some unfortunate guard, but they are also there to make your moments of victory in a combat encounter stand out from the rest of the melee. A satisfying, decisive takedown is a release valve that gives you a moment to regroup before the fight resumes.

They are also useful for establishing character. Fight choreography can be used to say a lot about your avatar's mindset. Jackie in the Darkness 2 is sadistic, and worryingly inventive with his demon arms, as though he has spent far too much time thinking about how to use them. In Shadow of Mordor, Talion is quick and decisive with his deathblows—the technique of a warrior used to fighting many enemies at once. Agent 47 is efficient and wastes no energy on flair, as you would expect from a seasoned professional.

We started discussing memorable melee attack and takedowns that work particularly well in the context of the game world in which they feature. Violence in games rarely analysed. It is discussed in terms of 'is this bad?' rather than 'how did they make this so satisfying?' Here is a collection of games that do it well. Warning: if you don't want to see lots of pretend polygonal NPCs get beaten up, shot, and stabbed (a lot) look away now.

Kicking guards in Dark Messiah of Might & Magic

Dark Messiah of Might & Magic delighted in the Source engine's ragdoll physics systems, and integrated them into its combat system with the excellent kick move. Booted foes fly through the air, taking out destructible terrain and getting stuck on spikes. Might & Magic's levels find many contrived ways for you to finish fights using this signature melee attack. Those spiky panels are everywhere.

Hammer takedowns in Hitman: Blood Money

Hitman is, of course, all about killing people in horrible ways, but there is something especially mean about the hammer attack in Hitman: Blood Money. Perhaps its the directness of the attack, combined with the use of such an ordinary everyday tool, that makes it so effective. Agent 47's animations all express a psychopathic nonchalance that well befits a contract killer.

Video via Ubermants.

Transhuman takedowns in Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Jensen's melee attacks demand so much energy that you might not see all of his takedown animations. They are remarkably elaborate and inventive. The developers had to create a fighting style for a guy who can shoot blades out of his wrists and elbows—a futuristic martial art. Some of the moves are comedic—the double headbutt is great—but the one where Jensen unhinges his hand and spins it to throw his enemy is so crazy and alien it sells Jensen as the terrifying futuristic commando he's supposed to be.

Video via HomiesOfMars.

Teamwork takedowns in Batman: Arkham Knight

There is an outstanding level in Arkham Knight when Batman teams up with Robin to infiltrate a hideout. You can switch between characters, order each other about and join forces to beat up the Joker's goons. The Arkham games use Batman's brutish takedown animations to sell his powerful, direct method of fighting. The co-op takedowns take this to another level, contrasting Batman and Robin's styles in moments of superheroic teamwork. The Arkham games use slow motion to create snapshot moments that look like living comic book panels.

Video via Shad Karim.

Everything Ezio does in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

Every weapon type in Brotherhood has its own set of complex multi-foe takedowns that Ezio executes with dazzling, horrifying efficiency. The Assassin's Creed games always feature spectacular choreography but Brotherhood's takedowns are particularly elegant, often using aggressor's momentum and weapons against other enemies. Ezio is skilled, but he is only human, so Brotherhood's combat relies on technical martial prowess rather than absurd feats of strength (see Deus Ex: Human Revolution and the Batman Arkham games for that). There is obviously a lot of martial arts expertise on the development team, and the resulting takedowns really sell the idea of the assassin as a master of all weapons. 

Video via YouNicIce.

Knife assassinations in Dishonored 2

Violence is a form of catharsis in a revenge fantasy, and Dishonored 2's gory knife finishers are a grisly vector for Corvo and Emily's fury. Dishonored's art style produces guards with of an almost caricature appearance. Their features are exaggerated and they are unusually expressive. This, combined with the close first-person perspective, makes these executions uncomfortably intimate. They are pretty graphic, but the violence of Dishonored 2's executions add extra weight to the lethal/nonlethal decisions at the heart of the game. 

Video via SwiftyLovesYou.

Decapitation in Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor

Being and Orc in Shadow of Mordor has to be one of the worst jobs going in PC gaming. Talion is absolutely merciless. Shadow of Mordor's take on the Arkham knight combat system benefits from the addition of a very sharp sword and a dismemberment system. The flash of a blade, backed up by some excellent slashy sword noises, sells the execution. There are no Legolas-style flourishes here, only the straightforward aggression of a trained soldier looking for the fastest killing blow possible.

Video via YouNicIce.

Deus Ex: Game of the Year Edition

Warren Spector is stuck in Prey. The director of Deus Ex, who has worked on many games since labeled "immersive sims"—in fact, he coined the term in a post-mortem of Deus Ex—has been playing the modern games inspired by classics like Thief and System Shock. But he hasn't finished Prey yet. Or, as he puts it: "The crew quarters are kicking my butt."

He's enjoying it though, just as he enjoyed the other recent immersive sim from Arkane Studios, Dishonored 2. "I thought they were both excellent examples of what I think of when I say 'immersive sim,'" Spector says. "They removed barriers to belief that I was in another world and they let me approach problems as problems, rather than as puzzles. I'm really glad Arkane exists and that they're so committed to the genre. Without them I'd have fewer games to play!"

Spector's not the only one who'd mourn their loss. Arkane is still around, but there's this uneasy feeling in the air that there's now some reason to worry. Not about Arkane, necessarily, but the immersive sim in general, this genre held up as the shining example of PC gaming at its most smartest and most complex. None of the last three big-budget immersive sims—Prey, Dishonored 2, and Eidos Montreal’s Deus Ex: Mankind Divided—have broken a million sales on Steam.

It's always been a niche genre, defined by player freedom, environmental storytelling, and a lot of reading diary entries. How long can they be propped up by the fact that some designers really like making them?

Arkane's Prey is the latest in the System Shock lineage.

Don't call it a comeback

In the 1990s and early 2000s immersive sims seemed like the future, an obvious extension of what 3D spaces and believable physics and improving AI could do when working together. But they rarely sold well. When Ion Storm’s third Thief and second Deus Ex game flopped, the studio closed. Looking Glass Studios, responsible for System Shock, Ultima Underworld, and the first two Thief games, was already gone. The immersive sim went into hibernation for years.

Despite the love and praise for games like Deus Ex, they're not easy to sell to players. Jean-François Dugas, executive director of the Deus Ex franchise at its current owners Eidos Montreal, says it can be tough even convincing people to make games that let players deviate from the critical path.

"You need to realize and accept that you will build a ton of material that a good part of your audience will miss," he says. "Since you are building possibilities through game mechanics and narrative scenarios, you know that you might not be able to bring all the pieces to the quality level you would like. You have to rely on the effect of the sum of the parts to transcend it all. The GTA series is a great example of that. When you look at all the pieces individually, they’re not the best in class but what they offer their audience when combined is unparalleled. After that, there is a big effort required to convince your team and upper management that spending money on things that many players will not see is a good idea," he says with a laugh. 

Deus Ex's Hong Kong, richly detailed and packed with things to discover.

Spector disagrees with the notion that immersive sims are harder to convince publishers on. "Honestly, I haven't really noticed any particular challenge. It's not like you go into a pitch throwing around geeky genre identifiers. The reality is that immersive sims are action games, first and foremost and most people get that. It's just that the player gets to decide what sort of action he or she engages in and when to do so. Selling action games isn't that tough. Well, at least it's no tougher than selling any other game idea—they're all tough to sell!" 

There is a big effort required to convince your team and upper management that spending money on things that many players will not see is a good idea.

Jean-Fran ois Dugas

After Looking Glass and Ion Storm's closure the influence of immersive sims was still felt, as people who'd worked on those games brought similar ideas to Oblivion, Fallout 3, and BioShock. The immersive sim philosophy survived in STALKER, Pathologic, and the early projects of Arkane Studios, Arx Fatalis and Dark Messiah of Might & Magic.

And then in 2011 Eidos Montreal's prequel Deus Ex: Human Revolution came along, a true immersive sim and one with the Deus Ex name stamped across it. It sold 2.18 million copies in just over a month. The year after that Arkane teamed with Bethesda to bring out Dishonored, a game in the lineage of Thief which enjoyed "the biggest launch for new IP" of the year. Sequels to both followed, as well as Prey, Arkane's spiritual successor to System Shock. The immersive sim was back.

And yet in 2016, Mankind Divided's launch sales were significantly lower than Human Revolution's. In response the series has seemingly been put on hold, though a publicist told me Eidos Montreal are "not quite ready" to answer questions on why it appears to have failed, or whether there will ever be another full-size Deus Ex.

Jensen tried so hard, and got so far. But in the end...

There are plenty of potential reasons why Deus Ex: Mankind Divided sold disappointingly. It launched a long five years after its predecessor. Its microtransactions and pre-order model were unpopular, and though reviews were positive, most noted that it felt shorter and had an even less satisfying ending than Human Revolution. And yet, though they lacked those specific problems, neither of Arkane's immersive sims was a smash hit either. Perhaps Dishonored 2's launch issues on PC hurt sales, though the history of video games is full of rocky launches that sold like gangbusters. As I write this, Car Mechanic Simulator 2018 is still in Steam's top 25 in spite of its bugginess.

Even in their heyday all it took was two commercial failures, Deus Ex: Invisible War and Thief: Deadly Shadows, for immersive sims to go out of fashion for years. Are we about to see that happen again?

If the future isn't bright, why is Adam Jensen wearing shades? 

Human Revolution and Dishonored both seemed to find an audience beyond traditional immersive sim fans, beyond the people who know to try 0451 in every combination lock just in case. Their success encouraged Eidos Montreal and Arkane to go ahead with big-budget follow-ups, but of course games cost a lot to make, both in terms of time and money, need to justify that with strong sales.

Spector says, "it's clear that there hasn't been a huge immersive sim hit on par with some of the other video games out there. I mean, we're still waiting for the game that sells a gazillion copies! I think part of the reason for that is that immersive sims require—or at least encourage—people to think before they act. They tend not to be games where you just move forward like a shark and inevitably succeed. In the best immersive sims, you have to assess the situation you're in, make a plan and then execute that plan, dealing with any consequences that follow. That's asking a lot of players who basically have to do that every moment of their waking lives—in the real world, I mean."

Dishonored 2 applies the immersive sim's freeform gameplay to combat like nothing before it.

It wasn't just immersive sims that didn't sell as well as expected in 2016, however. Titanfall 2, Street Fighter V, and Watch Dogs 2 also struggled for their own reasons—while big, acclaimed games like Overwatch and Battlefield 1 dominated. Dugas says that "your product needs to be more than 'GOOD' today to be successful—whether you are making a movie or a game. People have options and last time I checked there are only 24 hours in a day. If you are not good enough, your audience has gone somewhere else. Bottom line: I believe that if we make outstanding games, no matter what type of genre it is in, people will be there, whether it’s an immersive sim or not."

It's clear that there hasn't been a huge immersive sim hit on par with some of the other video games out there. I mean, we're still waiting for the game that sells a gazillion copies!

Warren Spector

Jordan Thomas, who worked on Thief: Deadly Shadows and all three BioShocks before going indie with The Magic Circle, puts it this way. "Are immersive sims suffering specifically in the market or is everybody? I lean more towards the latter. I think the games space is experiencing a new boom and the simpler your concept is to communicate the more likely you are to find your demographic quickly because they're seeing hundreds and hundreds of concepts at a time. I think that immersive sims traditionally have struggled a little bit with helping people to understand what they're about because they're about many things. They're about a feeling, a cross-section of ideas, whereas a game that is like, 'No—this is just to quote Garth Marenghi—Balls-to-the-wall horror,' it's easier for people to wrap their heads around from a marketing perspective."

Making games like these is expensive, too. "Looking at something like Prey," Thomas continues, "everything is just sparkling. The sheer amount of salesmanship that can go into all of the different reactions that the player can concoct with their chemistry set—literally, in that game, but you know what I mean. The idea of objects being combined to some clever result, every single inch of it shines."

Prey's artfully constructed space station.

As an indie developer, that level of detail and scope is simply out of reach. "I do think that most indie games that would self-accept the label immersive sim have to compromise because the games that typically are associated with this subgenre were kitchen-sink games."

Perhaps immersive sims are just a particularly tough sell in a crowded market. The next ones on the horizon—a Dishonored 2 expandalone, a spiritual sequel to Ultima Underworld, and both a new System Shock and a remake of the original—might face the same problem. They all have something else in common, though. They're all tied directly to existing immersive sims, whether directly or spiritually. None of them are brand new ideas.

It's said that though few people saw the Velvet Underground live, everyone who did seems to have formed a band of their own. The original Deus Ex sold 500,000 copies, a decent amount at the time, and it can seem like practically everyone who bought a copy became a game designer (or at least a games journalist) after studying from its design bible. Its influence is unavoidable, as is System Shock's. That's not to say their influence makes for bad games. Prey is the best thing I've played this year, even though it's essentially System Shock 2 with zero-gravity bits. But there's perhaps a limit to the number of spiritual sequels to the same games we really need. If poor sales motivate future immersive sims to move further from their roots, to try out new settings and inspirations, that might be a silver lining to their current troubles.

Hope comes in the shapes of games that incorporate some of the core elements of immersive sims without being kitchen sinks. Thomas gives the example of Near Death, a survival game set on an Antarctic research base.

"Near Death is made by folks who worked on assorted BioShocks and Deus Exes," he says, "but it is not oriented towards combat whatsoever. It is set in a world with no magic, just you versus an environment which, arguably, is one of the callsigns you might associate with immersive sims." It's another game that presents problems rather than puzzles, in "a fully realized environment that has rules that you must learn in order to eke out an existence. It is that concept writ large. You are trying not to freeze to death and you are using your wits to combine systemic objects in the environment based on some amount of real-world common sense."

More and more games like Near Death are picking elements of the immersive sim to focus on.

It may not seem like it when you're punching a tree to collect wood for the hundredth time, but according to Thomas there's a direct connection. 

I honestly feel like a lot of the people who are building these ultra-successful early access survival games are influenced by immersive sim design. That notion of systems alchemy is at the core of that.

Jordan Thomas

"I honestly feel like a lot of the people who are building these ultra-successful early access survival games are influenced by immersive sim design. That notion of systems alchemy is at the core of that. When the trend caught on it felt fresh, right? It felt liberated from some of the rhetoric associated with immersive sims and very seldom about story at all. It's if you took the parts of the genre that we used to say we loved, which were that all of the rules of the game could be atomized and combined into new molecules—that's what we told ourselves as developers of these things. 'This is a real place, man! With a sort of mathematics that you can learn to speak and you're gonna express your mastery through doing that!' But survival games are that crystallized and they let go of a lot of the high-minded philosophy and let atavism rule."

Survival games aren't the only place the influence of immersive sims is felt. New open-world RPGs and sandbox games are all obliged to emphasize player choice. Horror games like Alien: Isolation and Resident Evil 7 borrow directly from the immersive sim playbook right down to the environmental storytelling through graffiti, and stealth games like Hitman with creative paths to murder can evoke the same feeling. Indie games like Consortium, The Magic Circle, and even Spider: Rite of the Shrouded Moon each take aspects of the immersive sim each and expand on them, and so do walking simulators. Both Gone Home and Tacoma take the bit of Thief where you rummage through someone's belongings and read their diary, building up an idea of who they are, and make that the entire game. Tacoma is even set on an abandoned space station, possibly the most immersive sim location imaginable.

If immersive sims become too commercially risky for the current climate, and if they go into hibernation for another decade, they won't really be gone. Thanks to the spread of their concepts throughout games they can't really go anywhere—because they're already everywhere.

...

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