PC Gamer

Back in 2017, Gearbox's Randy Pitchford got on stage during an Unreal Engine 4 presentation to show what, hypothetically, a new game that happened to look a lot like Borderlands would look like running on that shiny new engine. A game like, say, Borderlands 3, which hasn't been announced but almost surely exists. It's been five years now since Gearbox made Borderlands 2, and three years since the Pre-Sequel mostly followed the same playbook, with more Handsome Jack and more playable Claptrap. That's long enough for us to reflect on what we want from Borderlands 3, and we're ready for another round of sarcastic looting and shooting.

Here's where we want to see Gearbox take Borderlands next.

Actually, less Claptrap period, please. Borderlands' little robot mascot was always a bit grating, intentionally so, but over the course of three games became a bit of an Urkel: that obnoxious minor character who somehow gets so popular they show up more and more and before you know it Reginald VelJohnson can't even find a moment's peace in his own house. Claptrap is like that, but for our ears while we're playing Borderlands.

Less is more. Borderlands 3 could do with some fresh characters, so let Claptrap run a shop somewhere we can talk to him once every 10 hours or so.

Okay, this is a big ask, cause just about nobody does guns like Bungie does guns. But Borderlands has always been a shooter where the feeling of pulling the trigger and killing an enemy was fine, but not amazing. The fun comes from the wild variety of weapons and their outlandish effects, like an SMG that fires 43 lightning bullets a second, or a grenade launcher that fires grenades that explode into yet more grenades and blanket an entire area. The effects of the weapons were fun, and so were combining them with abilities that upped your crit damage or sent you into a melee-killing god rage.

But how much better would Borderlands' procedurally generated arsenal of wacky guns be if the feedback and punch of each gun was as satisfying as it is in Bungie's Destiny 2? Or in 2016's Doom? Or Tripwire's Killing Floor 2? Those are lofty goals to aspire to, especially with procedurally generated weapons, but Gearbox has a big opportunity to buff up the fundamentals of its trigger-pulling, bullet-firing animations and physics. Make each weapon archetype feel incredibly good to shoot, and then figure out how the random modifiers would tweak those sensations. Make Borderlands 3 a shooter we'd want to play even without all the lootin'.

The best payoff in loot-dumping RPGs is to find loot that actually matters. In Borderlands 2, it was possible to make some ridiculous builds (remember when literally every shotgun pellet was counted in damage multipliers?) that took down endgame bosses in seconds. We’re not asking for a buggy, easily exploitable stat system—we just want loot stacks that actually get better the more you play. Don’t scale the challenge and suck out the expressive traits of classes and weapons like Destiny 2.

Channel those wack-ass late-late game witch doctor Diablo 2 builds where molten frogs and jars of spiders cloud the screen, pulling loot from corpses like water from a loaded sponge. Hell, how about a gun that shoots loot?

Borderlands’ sturdiest leg was its co-op play. Without a buddy or two to lean on, the massive empty worlds felt far more massive and empty, and the more challenging combat encounters felt too onenote without other players to synergize with. But even with friends, the only time close cooperation was required was during the endgame boss encounters and those synergies played out similarly every single time—you just had to play your damn class. With full-blown raids, the rest of Borderlands’ mechanics could get put to the test in areas designed for a specific amount of players.

Imagine big dungeons that match (or surpass) the sophistication of Destiny 2’s first-person platforming ballets and phantom-realm symbol memorization, but with Borderlands much more diverse classes, skill trees, and weapon types. I can’t wait to hate my friends all over again. 

Look, Pandora's great. It shows that the Sanford And Son aesthetic works well in almost any environment—be it deserts crawling with skags or decrepit hamlets ripped out of Dungeons & Dragons. But after three games, piles of DLC, and Tales From the Borderlands, it's time to move on. A new Borderlands would do well to set its unique brand of shoot-and-loot on another planet entirely, or for that matter, on multiple planets. It's a big galaxy out there, and letting us explore it would not only give us a welcome change of scenery, but also let Gearbox experiment with different physics and elemental loot.

Planet hopping could be an especially cool twist, making your ship home base along the lines of a 3D Starbound. However Gearbox chooses to handle a new setting, it should feel free to detach itself from the history it's built up on Pandora. We're ready for entirely new adventures.

Since Borderlands, similar shooter/RPGs like Destiny and Warframe have placed a huge emphasis on character customization, because they know RPG players love to look fashionable. Borderlands 2 had some light customization options, but didn't go nearly far enough. Borderlands is best enjoyed in its cooperative mode, and extensive customization would allow players to distinguish themselves from their party.

We'd like to see more options besides swappable heads and color variations for outfits—instead, let's have entirely different costumes for each character. Just imagine, for instance, how much better Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep would have been if you were allowed to put on a robe and a wizard hat.

You know the drill: You encounter an enemy in either Borderlands, and then they go nuts, either rushing you with makeshift axes or pelting you with bullets while they saunter from right to left. In time, the only thing that makes non-boss fights different from one another is how many bullets to takes before the baddies fall over. That's not going to cut it for the next game.

Enemies need to be more responsive and less bullet spongy, and more varied in their behavior. We're not asking for tactical geniuses, here, but the occasional flanking maneuver wouldn't hurt. Make playspaces arenas that enemies will intelligently navigate, rather than rushing at us like maniacs over and over again. Just because the enemies are psychos doesn't mean they have to be idiots.

The Borderlands games are definitely built for co-op, and they're a blast that way, but that ends up meaning some sections are almost trivial with a full group, and maddeningly tough solo, depending on your class. Better scaling for number of players could help smooth things over. Going further, we'd love to see more nuanced difficulty in Borderlands for New Game+, which is a crucial part of the Borderlands experience. Most of the time, that New Game+ difficulty just means enemies have much larger health pools. Give them new attacks, bring out surprise new enemy types, shake things up. 

Smoothing out the difficulty curve for various player numbers is important, but so is keeping that difficulty interesting for the entire run.

Customizing premade characters would be cool, but we wouldn't mind seeing Borderlands lean into its RPG side even more and let us completely design our own characters from scratch. Let's be honest—we're not playing Borderlands for the story, even though Borderlands 2 did have some fun twists and turns. But the point is, we don't need to play predefined characters. Let us create our own and fully customize their looks and playstyles.

A broader, more open-ended skill tree for a range of character classes would be a huge task to balance, but would make us more attached to our characters and make Borderlands even more replayable than it already is.

What's the most heartbreaking moment in Borderlands? You'd think it's the death of a major character, but it's not. It's tossing aside your legendary Fashionable Volcano with a 44.5 percent chance to ignite because you had to make room in your 27-slot backpack for some new specimen of badassery. Borderlands 2 remedied that problem a bit when it released a patch for new slots (among other things) back in April of 2013, but even then it seemed like a sin to toss aside legendaries that couldn't fit.

While we're at it: Gearbox, give us a place to display some of that cool loot that we may have outgrown but we're still proud of. It works for Skyrim, and there's no reason why it can't work on Pandora.

Borderlands 2

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

James Davenport: Super Hexagon

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

Wes Fenlon: Tower Wars

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

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

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

Chris Livingston: Half-Life 2: Deathmatch

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

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

Tim Clark: Hearthstone (obviously)

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

Austin Wood: Hearthstone

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

Jody Macgregor: Thief Gold

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

Andy Chalk: Doom

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

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

Samuel Roberts: Batman: Arkham City

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

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

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Image courtesy of Reddit user wagman2013.

Never has there been a more controversial topic in the history of strategy gaming than the use and abuse of RNG, otherwise known as Random Number Generators. I know this from experience, since my last game, Chaos Reborn, reveled and delighted in the liberal use of RNGs (it wasn’t called 'Chaos' for nothing). 

It was based on a ZX Spectrum game I made in 1985 called Chaos and published by Games Workshop (a company not shy of randomness itself—usually in the form of buckets of dice rolled in their army games). In Chaos Reborn you play a wizard, and the casting of spells and combat were subject to binary outcome randomness. The combat is especially brutal, with a success killing a target outright and a failure doing nothing at all. Even a lowly giant rat had a 10% chance to kill a dragon. 

Many players loved it, and to them the extreme use of RNG is what made the game different and unique. The tension of each battle was enhanced by the rapid turnarounds, plans thwarted, and opportunities grasped. However, the game is certainly not without a high skill factor, since the best players frequently topped our monthly leagues. The fact that games were short, and very many games could be played in a month, either asynchronously or in live matches, meant that any element of luck would even out. 

The turn-based wizard combat of Chaos Reborn.

Unfortunately, a significant group of players loathed the RNG aspect of Chaos Reborn with a vengeance, and they wrote about it copiously. Our Steam reviews were suffering, mainly from this single issue. We did our best to warn potential players that the game used a lot of RNG and required a lot of risk mitigation, but to no avail. So eventually I decided to make a reduced RNG mode for the game which did not use any randomness in the spell casting or the combat. It created quite a different experience which played quite well. 

The negative Steam reviews faded away, but it is debatable whether it made a more interesting game. Long-term Chaos Reborn players still preferred the more random ‘Chaos’ mode. On reflection I think there was probably a better way to manage the randomness in the game, and other games have dealt with the RNG problem in different ways. 

Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown also suffered from an anti-RNG backlash, due to its explicit hit percentage mechanics. "That’s XCOM, baby," was the answer creative director Jake Solomon is reputed to have given. But in XCOM 2 the RNG is subtly manipulated to make it feel less random, at least at lower difficulty levels. 

I'm definitely not going to miss this shot, because I missed the last one.

I now understand that human beings are not very good at evaluating probabilities. In particular when an RNG generates repeated sequences a human will cry foul. For a human, randomness usually means ‘evenly distributed without any detectable pattern or repetition’. This is basically how random numbers are manipulated in many games to meet player’s expectations. One poor result immediately results in a bias towards a better result.

I love dice particularly special dice with strange symbols on them.

Now some of you might want to point out that computer random number generators are actually only pseudo-random. They generate a repeatable sequence of numbers with an even distribution, but they are very, very long sequences. In practice a human would not be able to tell the difference between a decent computer generated pseudo-random number and a more genuinely random number. This doesn’t reduce the suspicion of computer RNGs though, which is another problem that game developers have to deal with.

The unique dice of Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire. Bucket not pictured.

Those of you have been board gaming or roleplaying since the '70s or '80s, like me, would be completely used to randomness in games. I love dice—particularly special dice with strange symbols on them. My current obsession is the awesome new Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire board game from my erstwhile Chaos publisher, Games Workshop. There doesn’t seem to be a real equivalent of these lovely, tactile dice for videogame players. 

Players without any board game or pen-and-paper roleplaying game experience tend to be a lot more hostile to the explicit use of RNG in video games. They do respond well, however, to the more subtle psychological manipulations of randomness which developers and publishers employ these days. 

As for myself, I prefer the honest and open use of random numbers where the mechanics are not hidden and fate is not predestined, but I may be in a dwindling minority.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

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

A new setting

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

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

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

Even more squad customisation

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

Clearer campaign mechanics

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

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

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

A changing story

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

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

Better base building

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

Continued mod support

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

Malleable classes

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

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

Factions, rivalries

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

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

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

A new threat

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

The return of shadowy "Hello, Commanderrr" guy

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

X-COM: UFO Defense

All images courtesy Julian Gollop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shooting in Dreamland Chronicles used a first-person view.

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

Phoenix Point, Julian Gollop's current project.

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

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

Borderlands 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spec Ops: The Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers, Videogamer

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

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Half-Life 2

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

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

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

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

The PC Gamer Readers' Top 100

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Borderlands 2

Damage dealing is the most selfish of gaming roles. It's not about mending the wounds of your buddies or taunting off the bullies attempting to harm them in the first place; it's about the ecstasy of climbing to the peaks of damage meters and watching ever-larger numbers splash the screen. If gaming in general is a power fantasy, a strong DPS build is the wet dream.

And sometimes they gets out of hand. Some builds are so powerful that developers pull the plug, worried that they're damaging the game itself. This is a celebration of those builds that have achieved or come near those marks: the most famous, powerful, interesting builds that disrupt a game's conventions as violently as the power chords of an Amon Amarth riff at a Chopin recital.

We know we've barely scratched the list of great builds here—almost every game has one! If there's one you think we should have included, tell us about it! 

Skyrim: Sneak Archer with Slow Time (2011)

Subtlety isn't really the first thing that comes to mind upon a first glance at Skyrim—after all, it's largely a game about some rando shouting dragons to death. But for years nothing struck fear into the hearts of giant flying reptiles and creepy Reachmen quite like Skyrim's Sneaky Archer build. It's still quite beastly, but YouTuber ESO describes it in its most broken form.

The build's cornerstone was the Slow Time shout, which you could extend by 20 percent with an Amulet of Talos and up to 40 percent by visiting a Shrine of Talos. Slap some Fortify Alteration enchantments on your ring and swig a Fortify Alteration potion, and you could push that over a minute. That's longer than the shout's cooldown. Pick up the Quiet Casting perk in the Illusion line, and you could wipe out a whole band of Stormcloaks before they even knew you were there.

Combine that with plenty of points in the Sneak line, Fortify Archery enchantments on every bit of gear, and paralysis or fear enchantments on your weapons, and you might be tempted to ask the fur-clad denizens to worship you in place of Talos. Unfortunately, Bethesda killed the fun with last year's Special Edition. Slow Time now slows down time for you as well. But even without it a Sneak Archer remains a force to be reckoned with.

The Witcher 3: Alchemy and Combat build

Most crazy damage builds feel as though they're breaking with the lore of their parent games, but The Witcher 3's combination alchemy and combat builds tap into the very essence of what it's mean to work in Geralt's profession. You're a badass swordsman thanks to 36 points in Combat, and 38 points in the Alchemy line see you chugging potions and decoctions along with making sure you're using the right oil for the right monster.

YouTuber Ditronus detailed the best incarnation of this monster setup, which focuses on stacking everything that gives you both critical hit chance and critical hit damage. Ditronus claims he can get hits that strike for 120,000 damage for the build at Level 80 and on New Game+. 

The tools? Pick up the steel Belhaven Blade for its crit potential and the Excalibur-like Aerondight silver sword for its damage multiplier. Use some other crit-focused gear along with two key pieces of the Blood and Wine expansion's alchemy-focused Manticore set and use consumables such as the Ekhidna Decoction. Toss in a few key mutagens and frequently use the "Whirl" sword technique, and Geralt becomes the spinning avatar of Death herself. It's bewitching.

World of Warcraft: Paladin Reckoning Bomb (2005) 

World of Warcraft has seen some crazy damage builds over the course of its 13-year history, but none has reached the legendary status of the Paladin class' "Reckoning bomb" of WoW's first "vanilla" years. It wasn't officially a damage setup, but rather an exploit of the Reckoning talent from the tank line that some Retribution (damage) Paladins would pick up. Originally, Reckoning gave you a charge for a free attack whenever you were the victim of a critical hit, and in 2005, you could stack this to infinity and unleash them all at once for your next attack. Build enough stacks, and you could one-shot other players in PvP.So how imba was this? In May 2005 a Paladin named Karmerr from the guild PiaS (Poop in a Shoe, if you must know) got his rogue friend Sindri to attack him for three whole hours while he was sitting down, guaranteeing critical hits, until the stacks reached a staggering 1,816. Their mission? The Alliance server first kill of Lord Kazzak, one of WoW's first 40-man raid bosses. Knowing their plan was controversial, PiaS asked a Blizzard Game Master for permission, and the GM claimed it couldn't be done. But Karmerr popped his invincibility bubble and, boom, killed Kazzak in a single shot. Alone. The devastation was so intense that it locked up Karmerr's PC for 10 seconds and the system was so unprepared by the 1,816 attacks it could only register the blow in second-long ticks until Kazzak died. PiaS posted a video, and within 24 hours Blizzard nerfed Reckoning from a 100 percent chance to a mere 10 percent chance and limited the stacks to five.

Diablo 2: Hammerdin 

Overpowered Paladins are something of a Blizzard tradition. One of the most infamous overpowered DPS builds of all time is the so-called "Hammerdin" from Diablo 2. The Blessed Hammer skill was the heart of the build, which shot out a spinning floating hammer that smacked any monsters foolish enough to get near. 

Hammerdins had been around in various incarnations for months, but the build came into its own in 2003 with the introduction of synergies. With Blessed Aim, Paladins could increase their attack rating; and with Vigor, they could boost their speed, stamina, and recovery. Damage, too, got a boost with Concentration Aura. But nothing made the build so broken as the Enigma Runeword, which sent the Paladin immediately teleporting into huddles of nearby enemies and clobbering them for up to 20,000 points of damage each. Watching it in action looks a little like watching a bugged game.

The catch? Almost everything needed to complete the build was outrageously expensive. But as the obscene number of Hammerdins dominating Diablo 2 came to show, that was never much of a deterrent.

Borderlands 2: Salvador

Forget specific builds for a second: Borderlands 2's Salvador is kind of broken by default. His class ability—"Gunzerking"—lets him fire off two weapons and reap their benefits at once, all while taking less damage and constantly regenerating ammo. Nor does this kind of destructive divinity come with any real challenge. If you've got the right weapons equipped, all you really need to do is sit still and fire away. Dragon's Dogma had the right of it: divinity can get kind of boring.

The right weapons push this already preposterous setup to absurdity. Pick up the Grog Nozzle pistol from the Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon's Keep DLC, which heals Salvador for 65 percent of all the damage he deals out. In the other hand, equip a double-penetrating Unkempt Harold pistol, which hits enemies as though seven bullets had hit them twice. Then pick up the Yippie Ki Yay talent that extends Gunzerking's duration for 3 seconds for each kill and "Get Some," which reduces Gunzerking's cooldown after each kill, and you'll always be firing, always be healing, all the time.

Elder Scrolls Online: Magicka Dragonknight Vampire (2014)

Ever wanted to be a raid boss in an MMORPG? You could in 2014, not long after the launch of Elder Scrolls Online, if you were a magicka-focused Dragonknight who'd become a vampire. You were both DPS and tank, able to take on dozens of players in PvP at once and kill most of them as well.

The root of the problem was the vampire tree's morphed "ultimate" ability, Devouring Swarm, which sent a swarm of bats down on everyone else in melee range while also healing you for everyone hit. But every class who became a vampire had access to that.

Dragonknights, though, could also use their Dark Talons skill to root all those players in melee range while roasting them with fire damage at the same time. A huge magicka pool made it even deadlier. Then a passive ability called Battle Roar factored in, allowing the Dragonknight to replenish health, magicka, and stamina based on the cost of casting Devouring Swarm. And it gets crazier. If you were wearing the Akaviri Dragonguard Set, you enjoyed a 15 percent deduction in ultimate ability costs, essentially allowing you to spam Devouring Swarm.

This was already hellish with regular Dragonknights, but players who earned the "Emperor" title in PvP might as well have been Daedric lords. Being the current emperor granted buffs like 200 percent ultimate and resource generation, leading to situations like the one in the video above. 

The easy way to stop this nonsense was always just to stay out of range (although the DK's charge ability from the Sword and Shield line complicated that). Within a month, though, ZeniMax Online nerfed it to hell.

Diablo 3: Inarius Necromancer 

How do you bring interest in your four-year-old dungeon crawler back from the dead? With a Necromancer class, obviously! At least that's what Blizzard Entertainment was apparently thinking when it introduced the class to Diablo 3 in June 2017.

That makes the Necromancer the "youngest" entry on this list, but it's no less deserving of the honor. The damage Necromancers have been dishing out this summer is so crazy that the "best" broken builds change every few weeks. Not long ago the top dog was the Bones of Rathma build, which basically let the Necromancer kick back while an army of skeletons and undead mages did all the hard work. 

Nowadays it's the Grace of Inarius build (which YouTuber Rhykker calls the "Bonestorm" build), which centers on the set's six-piece "Bone Armor" bonus that smacks enemies who get too close with 750 percent weapon damage and boosts the damage they take from the Necro by 2,750 percent. Then the Necro goes around whacking everything with his Cursed Scythe skill with the help of another bonus that reduces his damage taken. Choose the right complementary skills and weapons, you'll soon be tromping through Level 107 Greater Rifts as easily as a katana slicing through yarn. Getting the set pieces will take a bit of grinding, of course, but it's worth it for the payoff. Until, you know, Blizzard nerfs it.

...

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