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Rarely does a week go by when some publisher or retailer isn't giving away a game for free. Spending nothing in exchange for something is great, and this is an especially nice offer: the Humble Store is giving away X-COM: UFO Defense, or for those outside of North America, UFO: Enemy Unknown.
It's the first instalment in the XCOM series, of course, and be forewarned that as far as I can remember it was the first game to make me incredibly angry. The offer is valid for another day and a half, so you'd best go and grab it now before you forget.
It s one thing to pull a still from a movie that accurately represents how the final cut will look and feel, but videogames are another matter. Trailers and screenshots are put out well before the game is complete, which means they re inevitably going to need visual band-aids here and there, and communicating everything the game is trying to achieve systems, story, style in a single frame is difficult. Enter the bullshot.To make their games look as good as can be, some publishers pose characters and snap screenshots with a free camera, sometimes even downsampling from high resolutions to reduce aliasing, or using Photoshop to make them pop just a little more. While these marketing screens convey key information and look nice, . We ve gathered a few of the worst offenders in recent years in part because they re funny, but also because it s a practice that should be called out. We d much rather see what a game actually looks like to play, especially when these screenshots appear on a store page. Leave it to us to take the unrealistic screenshots after release, because .
Even our favorite games aren t excused from bullshot shame. The Witcher 3 is a damn good-looking game, but to get shots resembling this quality we which we doubt many players can do at a playable framerate using a mod to enable a free camera and console commands. Also, who the hell is that horse because it sure isn t Roach. Impostor resolution, impostor horse get out of my computer.
This screen wouldn t be a huge offender if not for the clearly posed gang of pirates. Each has their own stance. I like pointing guy on the far left. What s he trying to do? Buddy, you re at the rear of the pirate pack and all your dudes already know where the assassin you somehow just spotted is. But maybe he s just a stickler for photo balance, a guy who can t help but obey the rule of threes. That s some good AI.
Racing games tend to be the biggest bullshot culprits. Take Split Second for instance. It s a great looking game most racing games nowadays are but this shot looks like someone just discovered Instagram filters. I love a good filter, but this one turns up the warm colors and vignettes with reckless abandon. Look both ways before you cross the street because it s blurred to hell.
Gearbox tends to eliminate aliasing by taking the shots at a super high resolution, but to really make their images pop, contrast is turned way up. It makes the comic book stylings much more apparent, especially because detailed textures are used throughout the entire image, no matter how far objects are in the distance. With everything in such clear focus, it makes the image look flat.
I m not sure what kind of holy light exists just offscreen in every other bullshot, but it s not working well to bring out this central locust s best features. It makes even less sense when you notice that the blinding light is coming from the hole in the ground at the bottom right. Besides the awkward blur and focus muddying half the picture, I can t figure out what s going through that locust s head. Is Marcus holding it up with a light grip on the shoulder? Impressive. Is that shock or rage or is that just how their jaws always are? These are the questions Gears of War 4 needs to answer.
This one s a toughie. This shot from No Man s Sky isn t touched up, but it uses assets that aren t representative of what the final game produces. In my experience, the creatures look like remixes of a handful of variables and characteristics after 10 or so hours in, and vegetation can t grow that tall . It s not entirely surprising that in the UK, even if players are still enjoying it for what it is.
The biggest giveaway here (not that you need one) is what I ve dubbed the Holy Mammoth. Before the rise of modern religion, there was the One True Mammoth, from which all bloom lighting emitted. It seems to have blessed the screen with an abundance of golden light, impossibly smooth edges, and perfectly posed figures.
It s rare to find a racing game screenshot that wasn t taken at some forbidden, transcendent resolution, so I have to hand it to The Crew with this one. That said, this shot is posed beyond reprieve. Four cars, perfectly aligned to frame up nicely and balance out the shot with a lovely airplane cherry up top.
I won t be too harsh with Crysis since it s still the go-to for good-looking PC games in some respects, but the soldier getting lasered is impossible to ignore. It looks like he s waving hello to the tentacled aliens above, though I suppose his pose is meant to imply he s flying backwards due to the force of the white hot laser blasting a hole in his chest. Either way, Crysis isn t capable of such a believable ragdoll animation, but I suppose a twitching bundle of human appendages doesn t look so good in still life.
I think future soldiers will be smarter than this. I figured future war would entail guns that can fire from far away and not meeting in the middle of a short corridor for shootouts. Instead, we have two soldiers firing into a stoic mechanical man and another presumably about to kick their head in. My favorite detail? That explosion in the background lost in the shallow focus. While the Black Ops 3 might look this good, it s rarely this nonsensically positioned.
Here we have another checklist shot trying to show off as many systems and features as possible while still looking pretty. We ve got destructible walls, a shielded player, a shotgun firing, a grenade, some barbed wire in the bottom right, and some pretty detailed textures. Problem is, the final game doesn't look nearly as nice, and while the destruction is fairly granular, it s not to the level of detail expressed in this screen. Look at all those tiny individual perforations. If only.
I played this scene just over a week ago , but not like this. The scene glows an icy blue and the blacks are super deep. Someone turned up the contrast. Also, who s kicking up all that damn dust? It doesn t look natural, like it s being used to balance out the color and weight of the shot.
There s so much going on in this shot it feels like one of those hidden object pages from Highlights magazine. Let s see, we ve got a three-wheeled buggy thing, a dude with an easily readable expression shooting out the vehicle s side, we can see two bullets in the act of ricocheting off the soldier, a truck in the far right, a building on fire above, some gorgeous snowy mountains in the background, a remote detonator in the player character s hand and it s all in perfect focus. No jagged edges, some nice airbrush effects on the wheels to imply motion. This is an ascendant bullshot. This is art.
As you might ve spied last month, the 34th edition of the Golden Joystick Awards is open to the public for the first time in the ceremony s 33 year history. As always, winners are voted for by the public, and doing so this year will net you a Golden Bundle from Green Man Gaming for just 1/$1/1 .
That ll get you three games including Spec Ops: The Line, the remake of Sid Meier s Pirates! and a Mystery Game . Exciting. Furthermore, you ll even be able to claim your quid back in Green Man Gaming credit by playing Spec Ops: The Line.
So how do you get all that? Simple: vote on your favourite games of 2015/2016 across the 21 public voted categories be heading this-a-way. Step by step instructions on how to claim your games will be communicated to voters by Green Man Gaming in October.
The 34th Golden Joystick Awards take place November 18 at the Indig02 at London s O2 Arena. Tickets cost 10 each on sale here and are sold on a first come first serve basis.
Did you wear the Colovian Fur Helm? If you played Morrowind you probably did. The Colovian Fur Helm is a piece of armor you can easily get at the start of the game it literally falls out of the sky for you, being worn by a wizard whose spell doesn't work as intended and you'll probably keep it for a while. At the start of Morrowind decent helmets are hard to come by, especially if you're cheap. The downside is that the Colovian Fur Helm looks like a big hairy nipple. No matter how badass the rest of your armor is, topping it off with a hat that makes you look like one of the Coneheads will ruin your ensemble.
I thought about that hat recently when I was watching Hearthstone designer Ben Brode , which players have called a bad card. Actually they've called it worse things than that, but let's stick with bad. Some players actually like winning with bad cards, Brode explained, before going on to discuss its potential for use in a non-competitive fun deck . Long past the point where it was a liability, I wore that silly Colovian Fur Helm because I'd started thinking it was funny defeating ghosts and monsters while wearing a conical nipplehat. It was bad, but that's what made it perfect for me.
Plenty of games have items in them that prove unpopular with players. Maybe they're equipment in an RPG, cards in a digital card game, guns in a first-person shooter, or power-ups in an arcade game. They could be ugly. Their stats could be terrible. Most players may shun them, but they still serve a purpose.
James Lopez, producer on the Borderlands series, provides me with the excellent names of several guns from Borderlands 2 that players considered bad: Flakker, Bane, Fibber, and Crit. They all had their moments to shine, however, as there was an ebb and flow to the popularity of guns in the games some were popular right off the bat but some were 'undiscovered' for a while until the community found things that made them special , he says.
The Flakker for instance is a shotgun that shoots multiple explosive projectiles. They detonate at medium range, making it almost worthless against distant or nearby enemies. Plus, it fires very slowly. While the Flakker seems underwhelming for a weapon of 'legendary' rarity, it does have its uses. The sniper character Zer0 can combine it effectively with his Rising Sh0t ability, which lets him earn bonus damage for a short duration after every successful attack. The amount of bonus damage increases every time you hurt an enemy, so a single good shot with the Flakker can max out that bonus, after which you switch to a better gun to make use of it.
The Bane on the other hand is a submachine gun that drops your movement to a crawl and constantly shouts at you. When you shoot it screeches like Jim Carrey in Dumb & Dumber making , and it announces every reload by bellowing Reloading! Even taking it out it will make it announce Swapping weapons! Dropping the in-game volume to zero won't prevent it from ruining your eardrums, either. And yet there are people on YouTube using The Bane to defeat Borderlands 2's endgame raid boss .
Borderlands is an unusual case in that most of its guns aren't unique like the Flakker and Bane, but procedurally generated. They combine effects in randomized ways so you might end up with a sniper rifle that reloads almost instantly or a pistol that shoots burning bullets. It creates variety and depth, Lopez explains, as well as the possibility of the user getting a one of a kind gun that nobody else will have. You might pick up two Maliwan fire SMGs of the same level but they re not going to be the same. And it might turn out that one is more your play style than the other, and the one you don t like might be perfect for someone else in your party.
When you do find a unique gun in a Borderlands game, something with a name like Good Touch or Teapot, you know it's special. That inspires players to figure out why a seemingly bad gun exists instead of chucking it aside like the disposable randomized weapons Borderlands games are full of. As Lopez puts it, Giving them names creates a theme about the gun, a connection to how you got it, and can also inspire the community to learn more about it through forums, videos, wikis, etc.
At the other end of the spectrum from Borderlands and its millions of guns is Assault Android Cactus, a twin-stick shooter in which each of its playable android characters only has two weapons. Some are regular fare like a flamethrower or a beam laser, but the android named Aubergine wields something different: an indestructible drone called Helo that causes damage in a circle and controls like a fishing rod. Hold down fire and the drone moves further away from her; release and it's reeled back in.
Aubergine is the most divisive character in the game, says developer Tim Dawson, some people dig her, but a lot of players couldn't get their head around controlling her Helo drone while moving. She was meant to be an out-there character and push the envelope in terms of twin-stick shooter mechanics, but because she takes so much more work to get good at, plenty of people never did.
The drone has advantages, like being able to cause damage to enemies while you hide behind a wall, but it's tricky to get used to compared to more straightforward tools like the shotgun or the drill. Not many players bother getting to grips with Aubergine and her drone.
Even so, I'm glad she's in the game, Dawson says, she came about from realising our weapon designs were stagnating mid-development and sitting down to brainstorm something off the map. She's not only a good character for players who stick with her, but her existence in the game challenged us to make later weapons like the Railgun and Giga Drill more distinctive.
Assault Android Cactus also has power-ups that appear regularly throughout each level. Each power-up initially appears as a red Firepower boost (adding hovering guns to your arsenal), but if it's not picked up immediately will transform into a yellow Accelerate boost (adding movement speed as well as slurping pick-ups toward you), and finally a blue Shutdown (sending enemies to sleep). The fact that players can choose which of the three power-ups to collect by timing it right inspired a vigorous debate on the game's forum over which was best.
Accelerate came off worst of the three by a fair margin. Despite boosting speed, decreasing damage taken and pulling battery and weapon orbs in, some players began actively avoiding Accelerate, says Dawson, seeing it as a wasted opportunity to grab one of the other two power-ups, both of which had more overt offensive potential.
In the choose-your-own-adventure card game Hand of Fate, each of the player's items is represented by a card that becomes that piece of equipment and appears on your avatar when combat begins. They fall down on you like rain, if rain was made of helmets and axes. Though Hand of Fate is a very different game, just like Assault Android Cactus and its Accelerate power-up, players prefer equipment that has overt offensive potential .
According to its creative director Morgan Jaffit, Something we notice a lot is that people generally prefer items with direct effects, rather than those that act on another system. A good example there is Skullcap of Prophecy, which reduces your cooldowns if you kill an enemy with a weapon ability. There's a lot going on there for a player to think about how often do they kill enemies, how often do they get to use weapon abilities, how does reducing cooldowns help them, etc.
The Skullcap of Prophecy can be part of a powerful combo when used with weapon abilities capable of finishing enemies off, reducing the cooldown on the ability that triggered the Skullcap in the first place in a repeatable loop. Most players don't bother with it, however, preferring to use gear that increases damage directly or doesn't require a decent weapon to synergize with.
Likewise, gear that has negatives as well as positives generally gets picked less than items that are a straight benefit, says Jaffit. Forbidden Armor give you bonus damage resistance, but stops you being able to heal. People tended to just wear slower, less effective armour instead of dealing with the downside.
And that's up to you. Choosing not to use items that handicap you whether they provide some balancing advantage or exist simply to let you challenge yourself or fit a specific theme you're roleplaying is a choice that's yours to make. But even if you do make that choice, the bad items you avoid still serve a purpose. As Jaffit says, you always need contrast. No single item is 'good' in the abstract, you need other items to compare them to.
If every card in Hand of Fate or Hearthstone was perfectly balanced for use with every playstyle, there would be no thrill to finding ones that suit you. If the power-ups in Assault Android Cactus were the same you'd never race dramatically across the level to grab the one you like, and if every gun in Borderlands was useful at every range and in every situation you'd never switch between them and find the perfect moment to bombard some bad guys with a shotgun that shoots exploding swords.
Even beyond stats, items with no value can be imbued with purpose by passionate fans. In Dark Souls, one of the starting gifts, a pendant, does absolutely nothing. Why would anyone pick it over a key that unlocks doors throughout the game? Fans of Dark Souls labyrinthine lore speculated on how the pendant might fit into the mythos until director Hidetaki Miyazaki revealed that . But by then it had served its purpose, making Dark Souls just a little bit more mysterious.
That Colovian Fur Helm served a purpose too. When I finally sold it in favor of wearing something made of enchanted green glass, I felt like a proper hero for the first time, not that joker straight off the boat with the pointy head.
I would have missed the Colovian Fur Helm, but fortunately the shopkeeper I sold it to was so impressed he put it on immediately and continued wearing it for the rest of the game. Everybody's bad item is valuable to someone.
In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. This week, Sam enjoys the madness of Spec Ops: The Line.
Uncharted is voice-and-mo-cap actor Nolan North s most famous work, casting him as Whedonesque, likeable treasure hunter Nathan Drake. One common criticism of that PlayStation hero is that he s presented as a positive, empathetic protagonist who experiences no trauma from his actions, despite gunning down hundreds of baddies. That s now a very tired point, but it s also why his casting as Captain Walker in 2012 s Spec Ops: The Line was such a smart call.
Walker starts that game as an action hero too, sent into sandstorm-ravaged Dubai to find out what s happened to former brother-in-arms John Konrad and his battalion, the Damned 33rd. That s all the mission is supposed to be: reconnaissance. But under your control and against orders, Walker engages with the conflict playing what he thinks is the role of the hero, despite never being fully aware of the facts. It s soon apparent that the 33rd s methods aren t sound, and that at the very least they re torturing CIA agents and firing on other soldiers. Stopping them is not your job, but Walker and his gung-ho pals decide it is, for the greater good. No wonder this game seems to have generated more think pieces than copies sold.
It was the noisy release of the PlayStation s Uncharted 4 that got me thinking about Spec Ops again. Nolan North was a subversive casting choice who better to portray a protagonist who kills as many people as a typical videogame hero, but exists in a context where those actions finally have consequences? This meta commentary was not deliberate: North worked on the game for four years, right from the pre-production stage, which may explain why Walker s increasingly weathered rage and gradual disassociation with reality is so convincingly played. What accidental good fortune, that the actor behind one of gaming s most well-known icons plays someone who tries to be a hero, but comprehensively fails.
Spec Ops is essentially an adaptation of Heart of Darkness, as the name John Konrad suggests. Heavier inspiration comes from Apocalypse Now, itself an adaptation of the same work. In all versions of this story, the protagonist is sent to track down a colleague who has gone off the reservation. That journey takes them through a strange land, where the circumstances and environment become stranger the closer the hero gets to their target, a process represented perfectly by the river in both the book and Apocalypse Now. The quarry in each story is found to be playing god over their new domain, succumbed to a form of madness created by the circumstances of their surroundings.
I think Spec Ops is as valid and interesting an adaptation of this story as Apocalypse Now. It lacks the river as a metaphor for the journey, but it s cleverly molded around the tropes of third-person shooters, leaving just enough control to make you feel complicit. It plays on your desire to press the trigger at any opportunity, and even breaks the fourth wall during a turret section to comment on repetition in these games. But more so than Apocalypse Now where Willard s journey to Kurtz morphs him from the army s reluctant assassin into a man who no longer associates himself with the army at all Spec Ops is Walker s journey into becoming Kurtz.
Do you feel like a hero yet? Konrad asks in the game s finale, after hours of wearying, increasingly violent firefights against the 33rd and everyone else in Dubai. You spend the game thinking you re chasing the warlord of Dubai down, but you re turning into him. With every reckless action, with every disobeyed order, with every instance you pull the trigger even when the game doesn t make you do it you re accelerating that transformation. The ending underlines that notion in a pointed, metaphorical way, explaining the horrific reality of what Walker has brought upon Dubai, and finally detaching him from the selfdelusional sense of heroism that s powered him through to this final moment. The ending offers choices that result in four possible outcomes, but it s hard to believe there s anything left of Walker, no matter which path you pick. I chose an ending where he simply walks away from the chaos, as close to a good ending as this bleak finale allows.
Spec Ops left me emotionally exhausted. I think the first thing I played after finishing it was Sonic 2, just to cleanse my palate a bit, since it s a little lighter on the dehumanising effects of war. The carnage deliberately goes on for slightly too long in Spec Ops. It beats you down, tires you out, in an effort to make your own state of mind align with Walker s. No other game has tried anything like it, and as a result it s one of the only cover shooters I d recommend without question.
Last September, I went to the Firaxis offices when they were in the fairly late stages of polishing XCOM 2. I met Jake Solomon there and showed him what XCOM: Enemy Unknown modding looked like. He wondered aloud if I had closets full of chains and leather.
John Lumpkin, otherwise known as JohnnyLump, is the co-creator of XCOM: Enemy Unknown s ultra-difficult Long War a mod that adds a slew of surplus stats, extra weapons, more campaign missions, more challenges, more squad members and, inevitably, more death to the original game. To those those uninitiated, Jake Solomon Enemy Unknown s creative director once described Firaxis official top-selling reimagining of Julian Gollop s 1994 turn-based classic as a 20-hour tutorial for Long War, which gives a sense of how comprehensive Lumpkin and partner Rachel Norman s hobbyist modification is.
Lumpkin tells me that he in fact doesn t keep a cupboard-full of S&M accessories at home not that there s anything wrong with that but that Solomon s tongue-in-cheek reference points to how inaccessible Enemy Unknown is to would-be modders. First you re required to essentially hack into the game s files to make it read INI files, Lumpkin says. Then you need to review the game s code, translate it into hexadecimal, before making changes to functions and classes so as to ensure your alterations don t crash the game. Lumpkin pauses, as if suddenly aware of how confusing this might sound to those unfamiliar with programming jargon.
It s strange, he says. I had 12 hours of computer science in college, my training was primarily as a journalist, but it gets to the point where you know the scene in The Matrix where Neo is looking at the code falling? You get to that point where you can start reading the code and you can see the Unreal script that it makes. It s a weird place for your head to get to but it can get there.
Getting there saw Lumpkin sinking two to three hours a day into his pet project as a distraction from studying at grad school media studies with a side of political science and international relations back in 2012. He d often have to force himself to pursue his dissertation, and admits partner Norman, when away from her job working in the US defence industry, almost certainly spent more time on the coding side of things as the project s engineer.
Although inspired by UFO: Enemy Unknown (XCOM: UFO Defense in the US) at 43 and 42 respectively, both Lumpkin and Norman are self-proclaimed veterans of the old days the idea for Long War was born from the simple fact that Lumpkin had finished the 2012 remake, wanted more, but couldn t find anything user-made in the game s small but growing community. He took matters into his own hands and, with the help of Norman, began to push the envelope on what was possible.
It kind of grew organically but as we figured out how to do something like how to add new weapons or how to have aliens upgrade themselves, we d add these new capabilities and release a new version, says Lumpkin. The Enemy Unknown campaign was 35 or 40 missions and I had a great time playing it and then it was over. I wanted more of the feel of warfare in terms of these great victories but also reversals that you have to address.
If you think of American sports we have NFL football here, where it s a 16-game season and every game is a big deal that have huge effects on your season. I wanted to switch that to make it a bit more like baseball, which has 160-odd games in a season and is much more about performance over the long term and statistics. I always thought of what we did to XCOM a little like that Enemy Unknown was the football season and we made it more like the baseball season with ups and downs and variety of challenges.
Before long, the ever-burgeoning Enemy Unknown community began to take notice of Long War. A healthy body of brave players had started playing, offering feedback and in essence became Lumpkin and Norman s QA team. Beta versions received tens of thousands of Nexus downloads courtesy of its barrel-load of new stuff, and it was discussed favourably by the games press. One of my real pleasures from all of this was going on Reddit or the Nexus feedback and watching people debate strategy in a real productive way, adds Lumpkin. There was nothing toxic about it, these were people having these really interesting discussions and it was so fun to read.
About mid-way through development, Jake Solomon started tweeting about his enjoyment of Long War. Julian Gollop praised the unofficial expansion during presentations. Eventually, first contact was made with Firaxis by way of its community manager Kevin Schultz. One of the things players wanted was soldiers not to sound like they re from Iowa, says Lumpkin, before explaining Jonathan Emmett, the mod s sound editor, had just figured out how to implement new voice packs.
They had enlisted volunteer voice actors from the UK, Australia, and the US, and had turned character Peter Van Doorn who appears briefly in Enemy Unknown with a great gung-ho delivery of his lines into a soldier that could be added to the game. Schultz reached out and said: hey, we ve got some leftover lines from that voice actor, do you want them? We said, you bet, and were able to make a custom voice pack for this particular character.
By early 2015, the Long War team had grown to a small core group of four, as well as four senior contributors, and, behind the scenes, Firaxis had begun work on XCOM 2 a direct follow-up to 2012 s Enemy Unknown that would make modding a priority by boasting day one mods and Steam Workshop support from launch. It was looking for help in this area, therefore publisher 2K reached out to Lumpkin, put him and his team under NDA and asked that they take the helm of three day one mods.
While working towards Long War 1.0, Lumpkin had also begun flirting with the idea of creating his own game Terra Invicta: another alien invasion-inspired game on a strategic level, that he planned to crowdfund down the line. He was, however, delighted to receive official recognition. What s more, this was immediate paying work. It was a chance to see all the procedures and processes involved in how a game is made, and to learn about proper QA and all of the different roles. In short: this was the Long War team s education.
In August 2015, Long War Studios was formed, it brought on an artist adding art to Enemy Unknown was very difficult, Lumpkin recalls and set about crafting the agreed XCOM 2 day one mods, while working on Long War s final release in the background. The latter launched its version 1.0 last December, while Long War s first batch of XCOM 2 mods went live on launch day; with a second and third lot releasing in April and July too.
We had this big list of ideas and had a bit of a back and forth with them, explains Lumpkin when I ask if Long War s creative freedom was sacrificed in this new, non-hobbyist setup. We asked what they wanted and they suggested the kind of things they were after for these day one mods. We threw some specifics at them and they thought it sounded great. If there was any freedom sacrificed on the creative side it was more to do with things like deadlines than it was us being told what to do.
They wanted to show off these modding tools, and we were conscious of that therefore came up with things that showed off different kinds of things you could do within the time frame that we had. There s an approval process, of course and a bit of further back and forth.
To this day, there are still but a few hundred mods available for XCOM: Enemy Unknown, not to mention no Steam Workshop support. XCOM 2 s Steam Workshop, however, boasts 1,994 at the time of writing testament to how more accessible this game is to prospective modders of all levels. Long War Studios still plans to pursue Terra Invicta down the line, something which seems a certainty now off the back of the Long War mod s reception, and what the team has learned from its work on XCOM 2.
I therefore ask Lumpkin if we can expect a Long War 2 mod for XCOM 2 at any point in the future.
We certainly know how we d do it, he says before pausing. And that s probably the most I can say right now.
GOG's Take On 2K sale sees 11 of the publisher's classics debut on the distribution platform. Running until April 5, the sale bundles games from the X-COM, Freedom Force and Railroad Tycoon series—and Sid Meier's Pirates—into groups as follows:
X-COM Classic Bundle: 5.45/$7.45 (-75%, 50% off individually)
Freedom Force Pack: 2.78/$3.98 (-66%, 50% off individually)
Sid Meier's Pirates!: 3.49/$4.99 (-50%)
"Ruthless strategic warfare? Check. Weirdo superheroes? You bet. Hilarious dancing sequences? Naturally," reads a post on GOG.com. "And once again, the satisfaction of checking off a couple dozen thousand of your wishlist votes for some seriously good old games. So join us on the choo-choo train through battlefields riddled with alien corpses and swashbuckling superheroes—because we're taking on 2K!"
If that tickles your fancy, you've got until 2pm BST/6am PDT/9 AM EDT to grab the discounts before the Take On 2K sale expires.
Earlier in March, PC Gamer hosted the PC Gamer Weekender; a weekend of PC games from... PC Gamer. Look, the title was pretty self-explanatory.
During the event a number of gaming luminaries were around to host talks and generally delight us all with their insight — like, for example, a few folks from the Star Citizen team.
Also present was creator of X-Com, Chaos and all-round strategy mastermind, Julian Gollop, who took to the stage to chat about the past, present and future of X-Com/XCOM. It is, as they say, very interesting.
Remember when buying a game didn't feel like a guarantee of seeing the ending? There are still hard games out there, Dark Souls flying the flag most recently, but increasingly, the challenge has dripped out or at least softened, often leading to sadly wasted opportunities. What would Skyrim be like, for instance, if its ice and snow wasn't simply cosmetic, but actually punished you for going mountain climbing in your underpants?
With a quick mod—Frostfall in this case—you're forced to dress up warm before facing the elements, and things become much more interesting. That's just one example, and over the next couple of pages you'll find plenty more. These aren't mods that just do something cheap like double your enemy's hit-points, they're full rebalances and total conversions. Face their challenge, and they'll reward you with both a whole new experience and the satisfaction of going above and beyond the call of duty.
Game: Kerbal Space Program
Link: Kerbal forums
Kerbal Space Program is not an easy game to begin with, and the addition of any extra manageable parameters adds only more complexity to the brilliant flying sim. The realism overhaul wasn t intended to create a punishing experience, it merely brings a few things in the game in-line with the real world. Solar panels are lighter, for example, but produce far less power. Cockpits and components that weigh the same as their real world counterparts, and engine propellants are more accurately simulated. The fact that all these changes make the game seem new and incredibly hard? Well, that s rocket science for you. It s also a great baseline for other mods, like the punishing Deadly Reentry mod.
Game: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Frostfall stands out among survival mods for complementing the open-world game underneath and not just demanding you stare at a temperature gauge and eat a deer every few minutes. Skyrim s blizzards will kill you. Nighttime will kill you. The water will kill you faster than you can say, Rose, make room on the bloody raft! Big deal, right? All survival games do that. Frostfall alters how you understand the world, forcing you to find crossing points, plan your excursions and select gear based on more than its stab resistance. Simple quests become scenes from The Revenant. In the unlikely event Frostfall doesn t make a human-sized ice lolly out of you, you ll feel like a true Nord.
Game: The Witcher 3
Zombie outbreaks are easy to handle if you catch them early, as you ll find out if you install Infection Mode for The Witcher 3. The mod summons a Devourer, who you can kill immediately if you choose. If the Devourer attacks a villager, they become a Devourer too. Anyone they attack will join the Devourer legion, even children. The results are quickly horrifying. Go for a walk for a short while and return to the region for an enormous fight, or let one loose in Novigrad and watch the nightmare spread.
Game: Dying Light
Day is night and night is day for Dying Light s breed of zombies. In sunlight they plod around in small circles, not really paying attention. By night they suddenly become a lot more frisky. The circadian difficulty loop is a key part of the game, giving you the chance to scavenge during daylight hours and hold up at night in your favourite safehouse. I Am Legion disrupts all that. Zombies are more lively by day, and there are more of them, while a reduction in bandit numbers means choked access to vital resources like bullets and weapons. More than this, the mod transforms the tone of the game. Suddenly it feels like a true fight for survival.
Game: Alien: Isolation
The motion tracker is your best friend aboard the Sevastopol. Guns immediately draw the attention of the bullet-proof monster, so until you get a flamethrower, there s very little standing between you and brutal slaughter. The motion tracker is a little green beacon of light in a world of shadows and fangs, which only makes it crueller when this mod snatches that away from you. With a broken tracker you're forced to rely on your senses—headphones are recommended—if you want to make it to the next room alive. If you eventually get the hang of that, consider installing Unpredictable Alien at the same time, which tweaks the frequency at which the Alien chooses to roam in different areas.
Game: Stalker: Call of Pripyat
All those weapons scattered around? Gone. Anomalies? Now more dangerous. Magic mini-map? Forget it. Valuable quest rewards? Good luck. Things you do get: thirsty, and factions who send goons after you if you anger them. On the plus side Pripyat is much more active, with a complete sound overhaul, and new NPCs to meet—who all have to play by the rules too, with no more infinite ammo. If you can survive here, you've got a good chance when the actual apocalypse comes.
Fallout: New Vegas
Link: Nexus Mods
Nevada is a good example of making things more difficult without being openly psychotic. Levelling is slower, players and NPCs get less health, and obvious features are now in, such as armour only being a factor in headshots if the target actually has head protection. It's also possible to toggle some extra-hardcore options, such as food no longer healing and taking care of hunger/thirst/ sleep on the move. There's a sack of new content, and an Extra Options mod is also available, offering even more control.
Despite what modern 'old-school' shooters would have you think, Doom was a relatively sedate experience—fast running speed, yes, but lots of skulking in the dark and going slow. Not any more! Brutal Doom cranks everything up to 11, then yawns and goes right for 25.6. We're talking extra shrapnel, execution attacks, tougher and faster monsters, metal music, and blood, blood, blood as far as your exploding eyes can see. It's compatible with just about any level you can throw at it, turning even E1M1 into charnel house devastation. The enemies don't get it all their own way, as Doomguy now starts with an assault rifle rather than simply a pistol, and a whole arsenal of new guns has been added to the Doom collection—including the BFG's big brother.
Game: The Witcher 2
This streamlines the combat and makes the action closer to how Geralt's adventure might have played out in the books. He's more responsive, can automatically parry incoming attacks, begins with his Witcher skills unlocked, and no longer has to spend most fights rolling around like a circus acrobat. But he's in a tougher world, with monsters now figuring out counterattacks much faster, enemies balanced based on equipment rather than levels, and experience only gained from quests, not combat. Be warned this is a 1.5GB file, not the megabyte Hotfix that's claimed.
Elder Scrolls games get ever more streamlined, and further from the classic RPG experience. Requiem drags Skyrim back, kicking and screaming. The world is no longer levelled for your convenience. Bandits deliver one-hit kills from the start. The undead mock arrows, quietly pointing out their lack of internal organs with a quick bonk to your head. Gods hold back their favour from those who displease them. Most importantly, stamina is now practically a curse. Heavy armour and no training can drain it even if you're standing still, and running out in battle is Very Bad News. Combine this with Frostfall, and Skyrim finally becomes the cold, unforgiving place it claims to be.
Total War: Shogun 2
Not only is this one of the most comprehensive mods any Total War game has ever seen, its modular nature makes it easy to pick and choose the changes that work best for the experience you want. Together, the campaign AI is reworked, as are the skills and experience systems, diplomacy and technology trees. There are over 100 new units. Campaigns are also longer, providing more time to play with all this, with easier access to the good stuff early on in the name of variety. There's even a sound module that adds oomph to rifles. Add everything, or only the bits you want. It's as much of a tactical decision as anything else on the road to conquering Japan.
Game: Crusader Kings II
Real history doesn't have enough bite for you? Recast the whole thing with Starks, Lannisters, Freys and the rest and it will. This doesn't simply swap a few names around, but works with the engine to recreate specific scenarios in the war for the Iron Throne. Individual characters' traits are pushed into the foreground, especially when duels break out. Wildlings care little about who your daddy was. It's best to know a fair amount about the world before jumping in, and the scenarios themselves contain spoilers, but you're absolutely not restricted to just following the story laid down in the books.
Game: Grand Theft Auto IV
Guess what this one does. A bowling league for Roman? Cars that drive themselves? A character who appears to tell Niko You have $30,000 in your pocket, you don't need to goon for assholes after Act 2? No, of course not. These guns put a little reality back into the cartoon that is GTA. The missions weren't written with that in mind, obviously, but there's nothing stopping you from giving it a shot. Worst case: murdering random civilians on the street is much quicker, easier and more satisfying. At least until the cops show up to spoil the fun. Range, accuracy, damage, ammo and fire rate are all covered, though be warned that you shouldn't expect perfect accuracy from your upgraded hardware. This is GTA after all. Realism is not baked into its combat engine.
Game: XCOM: Enemy Unknown
You're looking at eight soldier classes, many more missions, invaders as focused on upgrades as your own science team, and a much longer path to victory. Research is slow, not least to make early weapon upgrades more useful, while the aliens are constantly getting more powerful. Their ships are better, their terror missions are more regular, and more of them show up for battle. In exchange, you get to field more Interceptors, the council is easier to appease, and the ETs don't cheat as much.
Game: Far Cry 3
Ziggy makes Rook Island a more natural place, removing mission requirements for skills, cutting some of the easier ways to earn XP, increasing spawn rates to make the island busier, and throwing away the magic mini-map in favour of a compass. The second island is also unlocked from the start. Smaller changes include randomised ammo from dropped weapons, being able to climb hills that you should realistically be able to, and wingsuit abilities made available earlier to get more out of them.
Minecraft has a Survival mode, but it's not desperately challenging. Terrafirmacraft takes it seriously, with hunger and thirst that must be dealt with at all times, and key elements added such as the need to construct support beams while mining to prevent cave-ins, and a seasonal cycle that determines whether or not trees will produce fruit. Many more features are to be added, but there's enough here already to make survival about much more than throwing together a Creeper-proof fort.
Game: Torchlight II
Link: Synergies Mod
This adds a new act to the game, over a hundred monsters, new rare bosses, a new class—the Necromancer—more and tougher monsters and the gear to take them on. There are also endgame raids to add challenge once the world is saved yet again, and more on the way—including two new classes (Paladin and Warlock). It's the top-ranked Torchlight II mod on Steam Workshop, and easily the most popular. Be aware that it's still in development, and has a few rough edges.
Game: Civilization V
Link: Steam Workshop
While Brave New World has officially given Civ V a big shake up, for many players Nights remains its most popular add-on. It's a comprehensive upgrade, adding new buildings, wonders, technologies and units, with a heavy focus on policies and making the AI better. The single biggest change is how it calculates happiness, citizens adding cheer simply by existing, but the slow march of war and other miseries detracting from the good times. Annexed a city? Don't expect too many ticker-tape parades. Yet keeping happiness up is crucial, as it's also the core of a strong military. This rebalancing completely changes how you play, while the other additions offer plenty of scope for new tactics and even more carefully designed civilisations.
Link: TTLG Forums
This makes Dishonored's enemies more attentive, faster and able to hear a pin drop from the other side of the map. When you get into a fight, it quickly becomes an all-out street war. The biggest change is to Dishonored's second most abusable ability: the Lean (Blink of course being #1). Corvo can no longer sit behind scenery, lean out into an enemy's face and be politely ignored. He's now much more likely to be spotted—especially in ghost runs, where his advantages are now limited to the Outsider's gifts rather than the Overseers' continued lack of a local Specsavers.
Game: Deus Ex
New augmentations! Altered AI! Randomised inventories! Also a few time-savers: instead of separate keys and multitools for instance, a special keyring has both, while upgrades are used automatically if necessary. Difficulty also changes the balance considerably, from the standard game to 'Realistic' mode where you only get nine inventory slots, to 'Unrealistic', which makes JC Denton the cyborg killing machine he's meant to be, but at the cost of facing opponents who warrant it. In this mode he gets double-jumping powers, and automatically gobbles health items when he gets badly wounded. Good luck though, I still got nowhere.
The latest Humble Bundle is a veritable cornucopia of Firaxis fun, with XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Sid Meier's Pirates!, the Ace Patrol Bundle, and Sid Meier's Civilization III Complete all packed together for whatever price you want to pay. But wait—there's more!
If you beat the average purchase price, which at the moment is a little under 7 bucks, you'll also pick up Sid Meier's Civilization IV: The Complete Edition, Sid Meier's Civilization V, Sid Meier's Starships, the XCOM Elite Soldier Pack, the XCOM Slingshot Pack, the XCOM: Enemy Within expansion, a ten percent discount off a Humble Monthly subscription, and more games that will be revealed later—next Tuesday, I'd wager.
Still not enough? We're not done yet! For $15 or more, you can pile on Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth, the Civ: BE (I'm tired of typing "Sid Meier") Exoplanets Map Pack, and a coupon for 33 percent off the Civ: BE Rising Tide DLC.
Infomercial-esque hyperbole aside, that's a really good deal at any level, and especially at the beat the average price. And as always, your money can be aimed in any portion you like at 2K Games, the Humble Bundlers, and charity, in this case Action Against Hunger, a humanitarian organization that works to save the lives of malnourished children while providing communities with access to safe water and sustainable solutions to hunger.
The Humble Firaxis Bundle is live now and runs until February 2.