Professional Farmer: American Dream

Happy Halloween! Okay, it's not Halloween, but I was planning on playing Professional Farmer: American Dream for Halloween because so many (2) of the Steam store screenshots depict pumpkins and I had no other ideas for Halloween-themed stories. Thing is, I got wrapped up in Assassin's Creed Origins right around Halloween, so I never got around to playing Professional Farmer until this morning. Since Twitter starts celebrating Halloween 31 days early, I figure it's okay if I celebrate it 17 days late. Boo, and so forth.

I start with a tutorial on how to farm. It seems to mostly be about driving a tractor over a plot of land dragging a piece of equipment behind me, then driving a tractor over the same plot of land dragging a different piece of equipment behind me. After a few lessons I begin a new game, determined to grow a lovely Halloween pumpkin patch.

I purchase a small field, plow it, grub it (grubbing is sort of like plowing), and coat it in slurry (liquefied animal poop). Then it comes time to plant my pumpkin seeds.

As the titular professional farmer, I've got a whole row of towering silos filled with various seeds. I pull up to the pumpkin seed silo and try to back my seeder under it, which turns out to be rather a large professional mistake. Not only am I approaching the silo from the wrong direction (I should be on the other side, it seems), but my seeder becomes wedged under the seed silo. I can't seem to get it free.

As I spend a few minutes trying to wiggle my tractor loose, I begin singing "Pumpkin-stuck" in my head to the tune of AC/DC's "Thunderstruck." I don't know why I did this, but I do know you will now do this too. Join me.

I was caught, in the middle of a silo of see-eeds(Pumpkins!)I looked round, and I knew there was no getting free(Pumpkins!)My mind raced, and I thought this'll take a while(Pumpkins!)And I knew, there was no help, no damn help file(Pumpkins!)

Sound of stuck wheels,Is doin' me harmPumpkins in my dreams,But none on my farm

You've been (you've been)Pumkinstuck!Aaah yaaa aaah yaaa ahhh, etc.

I climb out of my tractor, still singing (I will continue to sing for the next four hours), and walk in dejection back to my farm house. All is not lost, however: I've got $200,000 and a regular truck I can drive into town. I will simply buy myself a new tractor and seeder.

Where am I going again? Oh, yes. "Town."

I spend just over $22,000 to buy 234 ducks

Chris, a very good farmer

Following the signs to a town named, apparently, "Town," I arrive at Farmer's Heaven (I didn't die, it's just the name of the store) where I purchase the new equipment. I also swing by the local cattle dealer, thinking maybe I'll buy myself some livestock. I see that in addition to cows and pigs, he is also selling ducks. Ducks are cute. To cheer myself up, I spend just over $22,000 to buy 234 ducks.

On my way back to the farm, eager to plant some pumpkins and see a huge crowd of ducks greeting me, I go a little Grand Theft Auto with my driving, and try to slip between a car and a guard rail on the wrong side of the road. I get, shall we say...

Pumpkinstuck! Ahhh yaaa ahhhh yaaa ahhh

Sigh! I'll buy a new truck later, I guess. I abandon my vehicle there and begin walking back, though checking the map I discover I can fast travel. Maybe I won't need a new truck after all.

Upon teleporting back home, I'm a little disappointed to discover that the game won't render all 234 of my new ducks. I generates only a handful of them at my pond. Still, they're nice to look at, and as you can see, my weird dog agrees.

I hook up the new seeder to the new tractor, drive to the proper side of the silo, fill it with pumpkin seeds (Ahhh yaaa aaaah yaaaa aaaah) and get back to farming. Once I've got my seeds planted, I wait, hoping to see the 'Growth' meter, which is at 0%, tick up to 1%. It doesn't. I sit there for a while, just waiting, but nothing happens. Finally, I fast-forward the calendar a single day. Now the Growth meter is at 1%. Okay, cool, this game is really going to simulate pumpkins growing.

I jump ahead 4 weeks. We're at 33%. I keep scooting the calendar forward, but as I get closer to 100% I start trimming my time-jumps down from weeks to days. For some reason I'm strangely tense, like if I don't land exactly on the right day where my pumpkins are 100% grown, if I accidentally wind up with 101%, the pumpkins will instantly rot or explode or something. At last, though, my pumpkins are ready to harvest.

No. No! No no no. There are approximately zero pumpkins going into my harvester thing, and several pumpkins are being completely crushed under the wheels. It's heartbreaking, after all the work I've done plowing and grubbing and slurry-slopping and shopping and duck-owning and fast-forwarding the calendar to see my beautiful, beloved pumpkins being smooshed instead of collected.

Maybe I have the wrong type of harvester? I drive off the plot and fast-travel back to Farmer's Heaven (in Town), where I find something called the Moty Rollmax Pumpkin Plough for sale for $25,000. I was planning on using that cash to buy a few hundred more ducks, but that'll have to wait. I buy the plough and teleport back home again.

The new pumpkin plough is sitting in my driveway, but I can't seem to hook it up to my tractor from the front so I maneuver behind it. That doesn't work, either, so I move to pull around in front again. That's when, once again—

PUMPKINSTUCK!Ahhhh yaaa ahhhh yaaaa ahhhPUMPKINSTUCK!Ahhhh yaaa ahhhh yaaaa ahhhYOU'VE. BEEN. PUMP. KIN. STUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!

Dammit. I climb out and walk angrily (still singing) over to my duck pond to soothe myself by gazing at a few of my 234 ducks, but naturally they're all dead because during the months of waiting for my pumpkins to grow, I never gave my ducks food or water.

I've got a field of pumpkins I can't harvest and the restless ghosts of several hundred angry ducks haunting my farm. Feels like Halloween to me.

Ahhhh yaaa. Ahhh yaaa. Ahhh.

PC Gamer

If you've played The Binding of Isaac, Super Meat Boy, or Crypt of the Necrodancer, odds are you're a fan of Danny Baranowsky, the composer behind the music that helped make them great, not to mention several other videogame soundtracks. Baranowsky is dropping a new batch of tracks next month, but this time it's an album, not a score. 

In case you were confused by the trailer: "dannyBsides" is a collection of 12 previously unheard tracks from Baranowsky. You won't find them in any game (though some of them bear a striking resemblance), and until recently they weren't publicly available. That is, until Twitch musician The8BitDrummer streamed a blind accompaniment to the entire album as a promo—no small feat, and quite the jam.  

Baranowsky has been inadvertently working on this album for nearly 10 years."[The song] 'Hooked Into the Machine' is from my first-ever gig, a game for the Sidekick phone, in Midi, and later an audio version for Android," he says. "'Plummet' and 'End of the Road' are from a free flash game called Fathom I did with Adam Atomic around the same time. It's technically been released before, but not individually, and not mastered like this."

Although he's best known for scoring The Binding of Isaac, Super Meat Boy, and Crypt of the Necrodancer, Baranowsky says the album doesn't echo any particular game or theme. 

"'SunnyBsmile,' 'Takeoff,' 'Circuit Lounge' and 'Skybridge' are all from a more recent game that I had to pull out from due to health concerns," he says. "I was really sad that they wouldn't see the light of day, so it was nice to finally have a good reason to release them. And they were made within the last couple years, so it helped assuage my neurosis of releasing super old stuff. The old stuff is still good, but production-wise i get real embarrassed about anything more than a couple years old."

The question, then, is why release an album now? 

"Honestly, the primary goal was to offload some of these tracks off my conscience," Baranowsky says. "You get used to having people hear everything you do, and it feels weird to have hours of stuff just sitting there, unheard. It's also nice to have an album that is just music, and not associated with a game. I'm ultra keen on making original albums for their own sake, and this was a great step in that direction. My manager, Patrick, has been instrumental in pushing me in that direction. Would love to tour someday soon, see what the audience for game music is like in the real world!"

The album costs $10 and is due out Monday, December 1. You can find more details and the full tracklist on Ghost Ramp's online store.

Family Jewels

Family Jewels is a game about punting people in the pud. Good, clean fun. Who hasn't wanted to take out their aggressive impulses on innocent passersby who are minding their own business? (Besides people who are calm and well-adjusted, I suppose.) 

Those urges were my undoing. They led me to discover The Man's limited patience, Grim Consequence's role in society, and how poorly prepared I am to live life outside the lines.

It's best if I start from the beginning. Despite its promise to set me free in "Walnut Grove", Family Jewels trapped me at work. A sterile open office of cubicles, with all the doors locked and nobody else to keep me company. A box to trap the will and the mind and the soul. That this is a videogame only made things worse: I had no way of interacting with anything other than to destroy, kicking and smashing the blank-screened computers that surrounded me.

As in life, pushing against the boundaries came with consequences. A man in a suit—The Man—came to admonish me. The consequences of my actions, given human form, he was sent to punish me for my transgressions. 

The only thing that could possibly be worse than being talked down to by your boss is being talked down to by your boss in quotes from Office Space. I reacted with pure animal instinct, doing the one thing I could think to do, using the one weapon Family Jewels armed me with: I nailed him right in the junk. As the quote-spamming simulacrum reeled on the floor, I fled Grim Consequence for the first time. 

Once you've slipped the boundaries of your life, there's the tendency to push it as far as you can. At the grocery store, I could run and leap through the aisles—there was no one here to stop me. At first, this was to no apparent end. I kicked the ATM. It had no effect. When other shoppers appeared, I kicked them too, sending them to the tiles in agony. 

I like to think it was because they were in my way, but was it really just because they were there? I smashed and maimed, with no purpose or goal. This seemed like freedom, but I could not foresee what Grim Consequence had in store for me.

I even kicked the melons, but it wasn't until I knocked over a soda display that Grim Consequence once again reared its ugly head. The Man doesn't care for decorum or for his fellow man, but he does care about defending the bottom line.  

Despite my valiant effort to resist, this time the boot was put to me. But in that moment, I saw it. The borders, the boundaries drawn around me. There was a space outside the confines of the game, a space where I could escape to. I didn't know what I'd find there, but I knew what I wouldn't: it was a place Grim Consequence could not follow. This was defeat, but it was defeat that gave me a brief glimpse of transcendence. 

I plotted my escape. The bowling alley seemed a potential haven, and even offered the illusion of freedom. Illusion it was, however. A band, composed of world leaders, played endlessly, trapped—and shielded—by impenetrable glass walls. 

I tried bowling, with little success, but it inspired a new plan. To escape, I had to cheat. If the boundaries drawn around us are made of rules, then to break the rules is to destroy the walls. I knew what I now had to do: I would cheat at bowling.

Why did I think this would work? All it did was once again attract the attention of Grim Consequence. I hadn't broken out at all. The Man was prepared for this eventuality, as he is for any eventuality. I couldn't make a plan to escape the plans and schemes that bound me into my place in this life. 

With no other option, I faced the The Man. This time, however, we destroyed each other. In so doing, I broke the game—and broke free.

Now I have a new life, outside the lines. I am free to transform myself into any person I want to be, unburdened by The Man's ubiquitous presence and the looming threat of Grim Consequence. I was giddy with this freedom. I now have the power to hammer anyone I wanted, anywhere I wanted—so long as it was between the legs. 

To test this new existence, to see if the boundaries were still drawn around me, I set myself to an impossible, ridiculous task: to made sure a certain game show host was only going to be grabbing his own crotch for a good long while. 

No one stops me or punishes me.

Can The Man not see what I have done, or is he now powerless to deploy Grim Consequence to deter me? There's no way to know the difference. Nothing I had yet faced prepared me for this existence, above and beyond and outside the lines once encircling me. 

Overwhelmed by this transcendent state, I make my escape, past the ends of the earth. There's nobody, nothing that can stop me now. I don't yet know what exists outside of the lines. I will soon find out.

Family Jewels is currently available as an alpha on creator Michael McCartney's itch.io site, and officially releases on Steam on November 20

Asura: Vengeance Expansion

When you consider that the very first videogame company in India was only established in 1997 (Dhruva Interactive, which would eventually work on games in the Forza and Need For Speed series), it's surprising the country has anything resembling a games industry. To be just kicking things off in 1997 puts India around 25 years behind countries like the US and the UK.

This only serves to make the country's small but growing industry—and particularly its vibrant indie scene—more impressive. I've gone to the Nasscom Game Developer Conference, India's biggest games industry event, for the past three years, and it feels like the developers there are making up for lost time.

Each year the quality of the games I play increases more dramatically than you'd think possible. And one of this year's major developments seemed to be that, after a few years of nearly every Indian developer making games for mobile, interesting projects are now cropping up on PC.

A notable example of one that's actually launched is Asura, a hack-n-slasher set in a world inspired by Indian mythology, developed by the studio Ogre Head, which won the Nasscom Game of the Year award. 

The vast majority of India's most intriguing PC games are still in development. After going hands-on with a number of them at Nasscom Game Developer Conference 2017, here are the Indian-developed PC games you should be excited about.

Mukti

Mukti is "a mystery exploration game" according to its creators, collaborating Mumbai-based indie developers Wandermind Labs and underDOGS Studio. What this means is that its puzzles aren't obscure enough to be a full-fledged point-and-click adventure game, but provide more to mull over than the average walking simulator.

It's part of what seems to be a growing trend of indie games from India that are actually set in the country, which is cool to see. It begins with player character Arya returning to India to visit her grandfather Vikram Roy, a famed expeditionist and historian, at the Mumbai museum he owns.

When she arrives, her grandfather is notably absent and there's a breaking news story that he and his crew are guilty of murdering an entire tribe on an excavation in West Bengal, making off with the artifacts they were protecting.

There's something evocative about museums after hours, and Mukti captures that as Arya searches the sprawling building—from shadowy back rooms to imposing exhibits, each focusing on a different aspect of Indian history—for answers.

The game's developers are unashamedly inspired by Gone Home, and early impressions suggest that Mukti could capture something of that eerie, unsettling experience of uncovering long-hidden secrets through exploration. Mukti won this year's Upcoming Game award.

Raji: An Ancient Epic 

Considering that Raji: An Ancient Epic has been in development by a team of just eight people over a period of 10 months, it has absolutely no right to look or play as brilliantly as it does. By far the best-looking and most polished game at the conference, it's an action game that channels God of War but with a distinctly Indian flavor.

The premise is that Raji, a young girl, is imbued with elemental powers and chosen by the gods to defend humanity from an onslaught of demonic creatures. Everything, from the environments to the demons themselves, are inspired by Ancient India, and painstakingly hand-painted.

Raji doesn't reinvent the wheel—the standard enemy encounter goes something like: roll to dodge incoming attacks, attack with combos when the opportunity arises, hit button prompt to activate finishing move when sufficiently weakened—but Raji's combat has weight and impact that indies often struggle to capture. Plus, you can throw spears around, which is surely one of the most satisfying ways to take out an enemy in a game.

Having already taken on a massive challenge in creating an action game with a small team and limited resources, the developers are aiming to create a single-player experience that clocks in at around four hours long. That sounds like the sweet spot for this kind of game, and my early experiences with it have more than convinced me that the developers could cram an exciting and varied campaign into this time—though right now that hope rests on there being a positive outcome to its Kickstarter campaign

Alter Army 

Alter Army is a game that's garnered some attention simply by virtue of the fact that its development duo are 15 and 16 years old respectively. The unerring focus of the pair, who presented the game to me with the same excitement and vigour in both 2016 and 2017, is genuinely inspiring.

But what we shouldn't lose sight of is that the game itself has plenty to recommend it. A 2D beat-em-up starring four playable characters (through I only got the chance to play as one), Alter Army deliberately puts you in manic situations, hems you in with enemies of varying strengths and attack styles, then gives you the fluidity of control to emerge unscathed.

Alter Army's coolest feature is its risk-versus-reward Aggression System, which rewards gung-ho attacks with faster healing, more damage, and faster movement at the increased risk of getting scythed down.

It's also hard as nails. When I played it on the expo floor I was told that I was the only person all day to get past the first level. On one hand I could well believe that, as the level was certainly no walkover, but on the other it's extremely rare for me to be the best gamer in any given room. It's possible that I was condescended to by a 15-year-old is what I'm saying.

Possessions

After repeatedly dying in Alter Army, Possessions was just the tonic. A gentle puzzle game with a relaxing—albeit, in this early version, ever so slightly repetitive—soundtrack, each level presents a diorama-esque view of a room in which at least one element is out of place.

Maybe it's a shirt floating in mid-air rather than being hung on the rail, a framed photo on a random patch of wall rather than its rightful place among an arrangement of others. By dragging the mouse to shift the perspective, players can find the angle that restores order.

This little mechanic would be satisfying enough, but there's added intrigue in the fact that certain choices you make (occasionally, more than one item can fit into a single space) end up having consequences in the composition of future scenes, contributing to a kind of wordless narrative. How that manifests itself will be fascinating to see when Possessions is out next year.

The Bonfire: Forsaken Lands 

Boil them down and nearly all videogames are about systems that at first offer the player a very narrow selection of interactions, and continually broaden that offering as they progress. The text-based game A Dark Room exposed this, its first (and only) option being to light a fire before a number of other options begin to appear in increments.

The Bonfire: Forsaken Lands takes A Dark Room as its principal inspiration, but brings a minimalist art style rather than relying purely on text. Set in a snowy encampment, with a five-minute day/night cycle neatly suggesting the passage of time, the aim is to spend the days gearing up in preparation for the nightly attacks from various beasts.

Like A Dark Room and other games in its mold, things start off incredibly simple. But before you know it, you're assigning workers to various roles, crafting and equipping them with task-appropriate tools, and even sending them off to discover new lands.

Death of a Detective

Considering how early in development Death of a Detective is, I shouldn't even be mentioning it here. After all, it requires a great deal of faith to label something "exciting" just from some artwork and a teaser, before anything playable has emerged.

However, the concept alone makes it worthy of a mention. It's a point-and-click adventure game with shades of Phoenix Wright, featuring a story told in the classic noir tradition and set in 1940s British India.

Little else is known about the game right now other than that it definitely won't be launching in 2017, so this one really could go either way. But for now, I'm going to stick my neck out and say that this Indian noir looks cool as hell.

HITMAN™

Sergei Larin, better known in underworld circles as The Forger, was the first-ever Hitman Elusive Target. And as developer Io Interactive promised last month, he's back for a ten-day sojourn through Paris—which means you have another opportunity to put two in his head. 

The reactivated Elusive Targets will work exactly as they did the first time around, and with all the same suit unlocks, for new players and old pros who missed them the first time around. There's only one exception: If you've already undertaken an Elusive Target contract, successfully or not, you won't be able to do it again. "Your record for that contract will stand and cannot be altered," Io Interactive said

Io said future Elusive Target reactivations will be announced via the Hitman mobile companion for Android and iOS devices. A schedule wasn't announced, but you can get a rundown of who they were and when they originally appeared on the Hitman Wiki

The Forger will be in Paris for ten days, so you've got until November 27 to get the job done. Bear in mind that the contract cannot be restarted "once any targets have been eliminated or any objectives have been completed." Fortunately, this particular job only has one objective: Kill him, any way you can. 

PC Gamer

It's been more than 11 years since the release of mythologic action-RPG Titan Quest and its single expansion, Immortal Throne. It was a "gloriously entertaining action-RPG," as we described it in our 2013 post-THQ roundup, but that didn't keep developer Iron Lore Entertainment from going under less than two years later. The property ultimately went to THQ Nordic, which re-released the game and expansion last year as the Titan Quest Anniversary Edition. And today, despite all that time gone by, it unveiled a surprise: A new expansion called Ragnarok that's available for purchase right now. 

"Since the day we acquired the franchise in 2013, we've been toying around with ideas on what's best for Titan Quest. We were quickly motivated to do another expansion as we realized Titan Quest is still actively played," executive producer Reinhard Pollice said. "Unfortunately, it took quite a bit until we assembled a good setup for the project and meanwhile we made ourselves familiar with the inner workings of Titan Quest through the Anniversary Edition which was a huge overhaul of the original game. The end result is Ragnarok!" 

As the title suggests, Titan Quest: Ragnarok will take the game into the realm of Norse mythology. It will feature a brand new playable act with "dozens" of quests, new bosses and enemies, a new Runemaster mastery, and an increased level cap of 85. Character customization options have been expanded, new shaders, effects, and ragdoll physics have been added, and the control options, interface, and modding tools have all been improved as well.

"We set out to create an expansion that is closely modeled after the size of Immortal Throne, both regarding playtime and geography, including items and monsters," design director Henrik Törnqvist explained. "However, looking at the finished expansions side by side in the Level Editor, the physical size of Ragnarok definitely grew to be a bit larger than Immortal Throne over the span of development." 

And while the timing might seem suspect, there's no connection between this new expansion and the Thor flick that's now making the rounds: Pollice said everyone involved simply found the title "striking ... way before we realized there was a Thor movie of the same name and also in the same time frame as our game." 

The new expansion requires the Titan Quest Anniversary Edition on Steam—the original boxed edition isn't supported—and is available for 25 percent off its regular $20/£18/€20 price.   

Football Manager 2018

I've been playing Football Manager for a long time. And while I love tinkering with each annual instalment's newest features, I really don't like leaving behind a save file that boasts hundreds of hours in the process. 

The question is: is carrying over saves year-on-year at least possible? 

"Both technologically and legally, the answer to that is no," Sports Interactive's Miles Jacobson tells me. "When we do our licensing deals, they are for a specific season and there comes a point where you have to stop selling the game as well. We only have the license for that club data, for example, for that particular season."

Jacobson continues, suggesting that even if there was a "magical" technological way to implement old saves into new games, the fact that data changes year-on-year makes it impossible. 

He adds: "You have more features, you're adding more data or tweaking the way it works. Those databases can't transfer back because the game will be going: sorry, what's this number? What does this mean? Again, even if we found a technical way to do it, from a legal perspective it's: nope."

Look out for our extensive interview with Miles Jacobson on Monday, where we chat about the past, present and future of FM, and how the esteemed management sim informs modern day real life football.

PLAYERUNKNOWN'S BATTLEGROUNDS

This feature was originally published in PC Gamer magazine in mid-October. As such, the stats here are out of date, but we've kept them here for context and ease-of-reading in the article—PUBG's peak concurrent users now exceed 2.5 million per day. It's fair to assume the desert map has come a long way since our hands-on below, too. If you enjoy this feature, you can currently subscribe to our magazine for less in our holiday sale. 

Every single second in Asia, a new solo match of PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds begins. At peak times, that number rises to ten new games per second. With a concurrent player count that has recently swollen to over 1.5 million, an unanticipated problem has arisen for the unanticipated smash hit. PUBG's cloud server service simply doesn't have enough servers to accommodate the Early Access battle royale shooter's massive and still-growing playerbase. 

I'm given this information during a visit to the offices of Bluehole, PUBG's developer, in South Korea. Over the two days I've been here, I've twice tried to interview platform team lead Seungwoo Shin, who is in charge of PUBG's servers. Whenever we've attempted to talk, he's been simply (and understandably) too busy. We finally get to speak for about 15 minutes on my second day, and throughout the interview I feel mildly guilty for cornering him in a conference room: while soft-spoken and incredibly polite, Shin has the restless body language of a man who knows that he is desperately needed elsewhere.

Shin tells me through interpreter Sammie Kang (PUBG's marketing and events manager) that he only came into the office once every few days as a consultant when he began working on PUBG. As Bluehole's last-person-standing shooter quickly grew to become one of the most-played games in the world, Shin's somewhat casual job became, shall we say, a bit more demanding.

"So, now our team has to come into the office every weekend and manually monitor all the servers," Shin says. "It would be done automatically, usually, but we have to monitor server capacity very closely and make sure the servers are available for certain regions if there's a great increase in certain areas."

Shin also tells me briefly about his history in the tech industry. He attended KAIST, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (basically, Korea's equivalent to MIT). Early in his career, he founded an IT company, then took a long break. He returned to work to become an engineer for Bluehole Ginno Games' MMORPG Devilian, then he took an even longer break, for two years, which he spent living in Australia.

"How long of a break will you need after Battlegrounds?" I ask.

Shin doesn't wait for Kang to translate, and he answers in English, laughing softly, "Forever."

First man standing

Shin isn't the only one at Bluehole who attended KAIST. Chang Han Kim, CEO of the newly formed PUBG Corp, also attended, acquiring a PhD in computer science (Kim is also the one who invited Shin to work on both Devilian and PUBG). Kim, more commonly called CH, has been in the gaming industry for over 16 years. "I'm not someone who started this because I was in love with games," he says, with Kang interpreting. "I'm more like a startup entrepreneur, that's how I started my career, I was a founder of different companies in the past." Those 16 years, as he describes them, were not successful. "I kept failing," he says. "And I was desperate and miserable after failing for 16 years and I was, like, maybe I should stop making games. I really should give up."

While CH was preparing to launch MMO Devilian in North America with publisher Trion, he discovered Steam and Twitch. At the time, he says, everyone in Korea was focused on mobile games. But CH saw how many users were on Steam's platform, and examined its Early Access programs, as well as other crowdfunding tools like Kickstarter. He decided to try again. "I don't mind failing again, so what about we try something new?"

"No one was making a serious PC game here, and no one in America knew about us. We were just a small Asian company that's based in Korea, and I thought if we had this can-do attitude and not be afraid of failing, we will learn something valuable."

The puzzle pieces began to come together: the popularity of Steam and Twitch, and the rise of survival games in Early Access following DayZ. Plus, Brendan Greene, creator of battle royale mods for Arma 2 and Arma 3, had finished working on H1Z1: King of the Kill and returned to Ireland.

"I looked deeper into it and came to realise [H1Z1] wasn't really [Brendan's] project," CH says. "He helped bring King of the Kill to H1Z1, but he was a consultant for [about] a month or so. They had this base game which is a zombie survival, and King of the Kill was just a mode on top of it, so it wasn't [Brendan's] kind of battle royale. And he still wanted to do something more that could help him create the battle royale he wanted, and I wanted to create a true standalone battle royale that [was] made from scratch, and was solely focused on creating that battle royale experience from start to end." 

The rest is—and continues to make—gaming history, as PUBG keeps shattering records and racking up milestones seemingly every few weeks. With over 13.5 million copies sold (20 million in the time since publication—ed), and PUBG climbing the Steam charts to overtake every other game's player counts (including Dota 2's). Greene sums up Battlegrounds' rise: "It's been a crazy year.

"When I first had my interview here with the management," Greene says, "my job interview, essentially, they said to me, 'How many copies do you expect to sell?' and I kind of just said, 'Oh, a million, month one.' And that was my own confidence in the game mode. I thought it would do well. But I didn't expect the success we've seen. I don't think anyone in here expected it. And it's been a hell of a ride."

"We never had numbers as our goal, and success wasn't our goal at all when we first started," CH says. "I told the team, if we achieve the goals, the numbers will follow us, the success will follow afterwards, and our goal was to make the best battle royale—our vision when we first started this.

"Our goal was to deliver PC 1.0, fully release it by the end of this year and deliver it to our customers. That was our goal. And I keep telling it to our team, and I think that's what keeps them motivated and that's why they don't really care about numbers and they can still be hard at work trying to meet that goal."

Part of that vision for PUBG's exit from Early Access is the arrival of a new desert map, the second planned arena for Battlegrounds. The map is a work in progress, with some textures, features and even entire locations missing: a large city has been removed from the build I'm touring until it's better optimised, and the zone marked for a military base is currently barren. What is available, however, feels like a natural fit for PUBG's looting and shooting. Far from the barren sandscape I'm half-expecting as I become (I'm told) the first person outside Bluehole to set virtual foot inside it, I instead find a sprawling battle arena dotted with desert trees, cacti and a surprising number of buildings. It's immediately noticeable how much more variation there is to the terrain than in Erangel, PUBG's current map. There are hills, rises and ditches in the landscape, which create lots of opportunities for cover from sniper fire or, alternatively, convenient places to stage an ambush. I'm told by art director Tae-Seok Jang, who I chat with over Skype—it's a little odd that I have flown from California to South Korea and wound up talking via video with Bluehole's new office in Madison, Wisconsin—that the varied terrain will make a difference not just for those running around in PUBG, but also those driving.

Despite the desert environment, boats will be in play.

"It should feel different and difficult when you're driving your vehicles on different parts of the world," Jang tells me, with Kang interpreting. "So, we really want to create a unique experience on our new map, so when you're actually driving off-road it feels like it's realistic and different, so we want to really pursue that.

"On top of that, when you use a clean paved road you'd be able to move faster, but you should be exposed more to your enemies, so we really want to take that into account. And when you're in bumpy environments, you should be able to find cover pretty easily, but you're taking a shortcut to get somewhere, so it should be difficult to drive."

It does feel, in my limited time on the new map, like there is a real difference: going off-road feels like a bumpier experience, with less solid control over the vehicles than while driving on terrain in the original map.

"But it really depends on which vehicle you have, so you should be able to make a choice, which vehicle you prefer for your strategy. Like, some vehicles will be more optimised for clean roads, some will be more optimised for off-road driving."

I'm not playing a match on the desert map (which at this point has not even been named), I'm just exploring, and with developer tools enabled I can also enable flying (complete with my character extending a single arm in front of him, like Superman) to quickly speed to distant locations—especially useful since, even with the map not yet complete, there is still the blue circle of death closing around me.

DayG

With Mexico serving as a source of inspiration for the map, it makes sense that I eventually find a colourful wrestling arena, sure to draw a number of fistfights and melee engagements when players get their hands on it. I also come across a prison, though the land it's situated on may be removed in favour of water: the river, currently snaking around the edges of the desert, may be replaced with ocean to the eastern and southern sides of the map, reminiscent of Chernarus from Bohemia's Arma and DayZ. Either way, despite the desert environment, boats will be in play.

My favourite spots to stop flying and begin running again are three ancient meteor impact craters with small towns inside them, abandoned shops and homes built right on the sunken crater floor. One such town, with more echoes of DayZ, sports the still-burning wreck of a crashed plane. Even with no opponents on the map with me, I can anticipate the tension of looting the buildings in these craters, eyes constantly scanning the high ridge that circles the town for the movement of opportunistic snipers. Even better, I imagine, will be when the blue circle happens to close on one of the crater towns at the end of a match, giving the advantage not to the players peering down from the ridge but to those already hunkered somewhere inside one of the buildings.

"When I first started making battle royale back in Arma 2," Greene says, "I had four maps that sort of randomly rotated, and you never really knew which map you were playing on. The idea was that the more maps you have, the more you're testing the player because they can't remember every detail about the map." I point out that players of CS:GO, for example, are often happier sticking with one map, like de_dust2, playing it for years on end until they've memorised the layout, the geometry, every route and feature and quirk, until they can play it essentially on autopilot.

"That's why I created battle royale in the first place," says Greene. "Because what I thought was like, with CS:GO, you know every pixel on the map. And for me, battle royale was set up to test a player in the moment. And it wasn't reliant on their knowledge of every pixel on the map. You have to be the better player.

"Yes, players like to be kept in a comfort zone. 'I love this map because I know it backwards.' And the whole idea behind the battle royale game mode is to take them out of their comfort zone, and kind of make them think, and make a game hard, basically, for them, which I think we've shown [with PUBG] that players like hard games."

Desert storm

I ask both Greene and Jang about possibilities for the future of the desert map. While PUBG has had foggy weather added recently, sandstorms would feel much more appropriate here. The dusty setting dotted with cacti also gives the map a real cowboy feel. Might we see six-shooters instead of AK-47s? Instead of travelling the map in cars, how about on horses?

"So our [action and gunplay lead] Pawel [Smolewski] really wants to do that," Jang says in regard to horses. "And there are a lot of Western movies that are based on desert areas, so we would love to see places where you think, 'Oh, you could make a western movie in this area,' so the sky's the limit. We'd love to see that and that is something players would love to see. So, who knows?" There's a laugh. "Pawel wants to do it."

And, while the Erangel map features matches set during different times of the day, PUBG players may get to see something a bit more extreme in the desert: nighttime.

"Another thing we're testing is when it's dark, it's not really dark-dark, it's not like in the middle of the night or midnight, but it's dark enough so it feels a bit different, so we're going to test it. We don't know if we're going to roll it out, but we're seeing how things are with lighting."

With the new map and vaulting in PUBG's near future, Bluehole is also looking further down the line for features like mod support (which won't arrive until "next year, at this stage", according to Greene), and of course the formation of the new Bluehole subsidiary to manage "development and global business opportunities" for Battlegrounds. I ask about the new company, though I'm not told much about what it might mean for the future of Battlegrounds. In fact, during my visit, it sounds like they haven't settled on a name yet—all CH will say is that ‘PUBG' will probably be in the title (the day after I leave South Korea, it's announced as PUBG Corp).

Greene doesn't have a lot to say about the subsidiary, either. "That's all bizdev," he tells me, though a moment later he grows more excited. "Like, I've heard that we're the PUBG company. And that's awesome. It's like, you know, my fucking name's in a company, like, what the fuck?"

Path of Exile

Last summer, Path of Exile launched the Fall of Oriath, a massive expansion that completely restructured the leveling experience by introducing six new acts to play through. It was, for people like me struggling to get into Path of Exile, a complete game-changer. Path of Exile's next expansion, lead designer Chris Wilson tells me, won't be as big—at least not in terms of size—but it does shake up the other side of the coin for Path of Exile: the endgame.

"With the Fall of Oriath we focused squarely on the storyline, providing only minor improvements to the endgame," Chris Wilson tells me. "Now we're going all in on the endgame."

'X' marks the spot 

For those unaware of how Path of Exile's endgame works, it largely centers around the Atlas of Worlds, a massive network of randomly generated maps that become harder the deeper you progress through them. During normal play, monsters can drop a map that can then be taken to a special device and used to conjure a portal you or your friends can travel through. These maps, like items, have random properties that dictate the kinds of monsters you'll encounter, limit or buff your abilities, and a lot more.

It's a system that, at its most basic, is similar to Diablo 3's Rifts—you're running randomly generated maps at progressively higher difficulties in search of powerful loot. Where it gets interesting is that more difficult maps can drop while you're clearing out a map level, leading to greater challenges and, yes, the chance to drop even more difficult maps. Eventually, players can work their way through the Atlas to the final four maps, each protected by a powerful Guardian. Killing one of them lets you then take on The Shaper, the Cthulhu-looking big bad of Path of Exile's universe. Well, until December 8, when War for the Atlas launches.

War for the Atlas revamps this entire system by introducing 32 new maps, a new layout, and a new threat to the Atlas: The Elder. Though they share a similarly vague name, The Elder and The Shaper are at war and its up to you to decide which one wins. Wilson isn't willing to divulge much information on the why of it all, as that's a mystery that the community will have to work together to solve.

This is the new Atlas.

But as you begin exploring the Atlas of Worlds, you'll see map locations that have become tainted by either The Shaper or The Elder. These taints manifest physically in the level, adding greater challenges to contend with. For example, The Elder's minions are tentacled beasts that suck the very color out of the game, weakening your character if they're caught in this monotone aura. Shaper-tainted maps, on the other hand, might have glowing orbs that detonate, ripping the fabric of space-time and dealing fatal damage to characters that get too close to the rip.

Each time you complete a map, the Elder or Shaper taint spreads like mould to new maps, and it's up to you to try and control it. By completing maps with an Elder or Shaper taint you'll cleanse it, allowing the other to move in and take it over. Players can choose to either destroy the Shaper, the Elder, or try and stop both from spreading and taking over the entire Atlas of Worlds.

There's a variety of reasons players will want one or the other to win, Wilson says, and a lot of strategy too. As the taint spreads, players will want to encourage it to grow in the direction of harder maps by cleansing it on easier maps, increasing the challenge but also the rewards. If the Elder's taint spreads far enough, he'll manifest in certain maps, killing its boss and stealing its powers to create a guardian similar to the four you'd fight trying to kill the Shaper.

Of course, there's a lucrative material reward for going to war against these gods. When clearing either type of map, it's possible to find Shaper or Elder gear, which has a special starry or tentacled background. On its own, this gear might not be any different than the normal loot you'd find, but Shaper and Elder gear can have special extremely rare properties randomly pop up while crafting it. One special mod for boots that Wilson showed me let you walk across fiery surfaces without taking damage—a definite bonus for certain areas in Path of Exile. "These will certainly be the best items in Path of Exile once they've had them for awhile," Wilson says. "But it will take a lot of resources to achieve that."

Getting these items will be a challenge, because each time you complete a zone looking for them to drop, you're also effectively shrinking that god's taint. There's no way to eliminate it entirely, but Wilson says players will want to "responsibly farm" zones to keep each taint a healthy—but not too big—size.

Skills to pay the bills 

War for the Atlas also introduces four new skill gems and six new support gems that players can mess around with. Of the four new skills, all of them are themed around corpse manipulation. How morbid. Unearth, for example, fires a projectile that causes a body to rise out of the earth. Wilson then paired this with another new skill, Cremation, which turns corpses into exploding geysers of fire. Obviously the two work together extremely well.

Another skill is Volatile Dead, which consumes a corpse and creates an exploding orb that chases down enemies. Wilson paired this with a Cyclone melee character and gave Volatile Debt a support gem that made it cast automatically after killing an enemy. This essentially turned his character into a spinning-axe madman that launches a steady stream of orange orbs that track down monsters and explode.

Some new support gems are also welcome additions. I love Spell Cascade, which causes any area-of-effect spell to cast three times beside the area where you cast it. It's kind of hard to explain, but the idea is that if you cast something like Frost Wall, Spell Cascade will create another wall in front and behind, a massive chunk of ice you can use to wall off enemies.

Into the Abyss 

As is typical with expansions, War for the Atlas also introduces a new challenge league for players to start new characters in. This one is called the Abyss and works similar to last year's community favorite, Breach. In the Abyss league, you'll have a random chance to happen upon cracks in the earth teeming with nasty enemies. By following these cracks as they spread and killing the monsters that crawl out, you'll eventually find a gaping hole with hordes of baddies to kill. Slay them fast enough, and new cracks will form leading you to a new hole. Each Abyss hole that you clear consecutively will make the next one more challenging and reduce the time limit you have to kill everything.

Wilson says there's a lot more to unpack about the Abyss and how it works, but he's leaving that for the community to figure out. Still, the rapid pace of chasing cracks and clearing holes sounds like a fun challenge. Since most of the expansion is focused purely on the endgame, the Abyss league is the only major change that new players will feel directly.

War for the Atlas certainly isn't as big of an expansion as Fall of Oriath was, but its massive upheaval of the endgame is promising. As with all expansions, this one will be completely free. If you've never tried Path of Exile before, now is a great time to jump in. I finally pushed through the veil of complexity that surrounds it, and it's quickly become one of my favorite games this year.

Call of Duty®

World War II has been the backdrop for hundreds of PC games in the time since the Allies declared victory, but not all of them get it right. Stereotypes or absurd action setpieces leave historians shaking their heads, and at this point we've seen the same famous battled played out so many times. What would it look like to cobble together a game made from the best depictions of those moments, spread across years and genres?

These are our favorite representations of key World War II moments and battles. Like the games of our most historically accurate PC games, not all of them would pass muster at an academic conference. But they're all commendable for capturing some element of the conflict in a way that shows a reverent, compelling attention to detail.

Best D-Day landing - Medal of Honor: Allied Assault 

While Allied Assault’s graphics don’t hold up flawlessly today, it felt grippingly real in 2002. The developers tried to make us feel like we were in Saving Private Ryan, and they knocked it out of the park. I can still hear the final instructions before being dumped into the surf echo in my mind: “Head for cover and get to the shingle! I’ll see you on the beach!”

I was genuinely tense as the ramp to my transport lowered, putting me directly in the line of German machine gun fire. My heart raced as I watched my fellow soldiers drop like flies all around me. Finally reaching safety was pure euphoria. Many games have tried to recreate that feeling since, and none have truly succeeded in such a gut-wrenching fashion.

Best Battle of the Bulge - Call of Duty 1

It’s easy to forget Call of Duty began as a single-player focused World War II shooter that rose to prominence in an era when it was compared favorably by critics and fans to Medal of Honor and Battlefield. The most memorable mission from the original game (and perhaps in the whole series) was the capstone of the American campaign, “Festung Recogne”. It flips the pacing of Normandy on its head. Rather than a sense of dread at the carnage you know is to come, it lulls you into a false calm before the first wave of Germany’s most infamous counter-attack of the war takes you off-guard.

Infinity Ward did an excellent job of making the assault feel unexpected, and the fight to stabilize the situation frantic and challenging. 

Best depiction of junior officers - Company of Heroes 2: Ardennes Assault 

Sticking to the Battle of the Bulge, I couldn’t complete this list without mentioning CoH2’s fantastic Ardennes Assault expansion. In addition to introducing very interesting dynamic campaign elements, it gave each of its distinct companies a beating heart—voiced officers who each represented an archetype of the types of people who got caught up in the war. The reactive end mission dialogue made me feel each victory and defeat ever more keenly. I’ll never forget Johnny Vastano lamenting the pointless loss of life after a mission where I’d played fast and loose with my boys to get the job done.

Best air combat - IL-2 Sturmovik series

There’s a reason IL-2 is still a darling in the flight sim community all these years later. The meticulous modeling, both visually and mechanically, of the storied Soviet aircraft was enough to set it apart on its own. But it also dialed up the immersion by introducing mechanics like blackout and redout when experiencing extreme g-forces. While most flight sims are content to give you the most immersive experience of a robot flying a plane, not many go out of their way to remind you that you’re playing a flesh-and-blood human being.

Add to this some well-designed missions and wonderfully tense dogfights, and it’s hard to recommend any other game about flying a plane over war-torn Europe more highly.

Best strategic layer - Hearts of Iron IV 

Not many World War II games get into how and why the Allies actually won. Unfortunately for the romantic depictions we’re used to, it wasn’t primarily because of the heroic sacrifices of a few gifted servicemen. It actually had a lot more to do with availability of resources and industrial capacity. These concepts underpin Hearts of Iron IV and challenge you to think about aspects of modern total warfare that most normally wouldn’t give a second thought to. Rather than making it across a beach, your objectives often involve securing key oil fields and developing your industrial heartland.

Best depiction of ground combat in the Pacific - Red Orchestra 2: Rising Storm 

The Red Orchestra series represents perhaps the best infantry-focused multiplayer shooters centered on the conflict, and Rising Storm in particular shines a light on the oft-overlooked Pacific theater. Like Allied Assault, it does a fantastic job of depicting the pressure of coming under attack from all sides. Battles play out amidst the chaos of mortar fire and shouted warnings. It's all the more impressive that Rising Storm accomplishes this using other players rather than scripted NPCs. The confusion and paranoia of jungle combat is tuned perfectly to create hectic, low-visibility firefights and allow for cunning ambushes.

Best high-level tactical experience - Steel Division: Normandy ‘44

Existing at a scale just above Company of Heroes but below Hearts of Iron, Steel Division excels at giving you a detailed and plausible sense of commanding combined arms resources to win large battles. Scouting and intelligence are emphasized, gaining air superiority can be decisive, and every weapon on every tank or infantryman models realistic range, accuracy, and penetration. It exists in a great sweet spot in terms of scope and scale to give you the total World War II experience (minus naval combat) in a single match.

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