I knew the moment the tide had turned. It was 15 hours into my first XCOM: Enemy Unknown campaign, and I’d just outfitted my squad’s psychic soldier with psi armour. I’d only discovered Major Tom’s latent mindbending abilities a few missions before, but he’d already proved himself a devastating anti-alien defence in the field. Kitted out in this gear, he was near unstoppable.
Earlier in the game, I’d hung back. I’d waited it out, luring aliens into laser crossfire, overlapping vision cones and overwatch orders, patiently, eventually clearing out XCOM’s alien infestations. Now, I could sprint psychic Tom out into the open, call out those unknown enemies in droves, and melt their puny brains. I revelled in it. I started talking at the screen. “You think you can run, you horrible bug? I’ll make you eat your friends. I’ll make you stand in the open, rip your disgusting body open with hot plasma. I’ll make you die. I’ll make all of you die.” Then I’d start cackling.
I’d invented a fiction. My soldiers were my action figures, I’d made them run and hide and shoot and watch their friends die, and I imbued them with the heroism and pathos of those events. Graham Smith had been impetuous and aggressive. He died when he strayed too close to a burning – later exploding – car. Owen Hill, once carefree and cheerful, was calcified by his death. He became a dead-eye sniper, silent and stoic, and able to lance a Muton through the eyes with a snapshot from half a map away.
Marsh Davies was relentlessly helpful. My team medic never missed a mission, and reinvigorated everyone else when their resolve slipped or their blood drained out. He never once panicked. Richard Cobbett was insane: a close-range monster, he’d hurtle into combat, heavy alloy cannon acting as far-future shotgun and drawing enemies out for easy shooting. He somehow survived the entire campaign.
Until the turning point, I imagined my women and men daunted by the task of saving humanity. After, with the psychic in their midst, I imagined them standing in XCOM’s home base, grinning. They had it in the bag. They were too powerful, too well-equipped, knew too much about their enemy. Enemy known, now.
I’d led them all the way, but I didn’t feel like it was my victory. It was theirs as much as mine. These action figures were alive. XCOM: Enemy Unknown seduces players with attachment, making you know and care for your soldiers. When they die, a tiny part of me dies. Sometimes they live. I love it when they live. Without that attachment, XCOM is merely a mechanically superb turn-based strategy game that I’d suggest everyone plays. With it, XCOM elevates itself even further, forging player memories that’ll live as long as you play and care about games.
At the end of each year we hand out awards to honor the experiences that live in our best memories of the preceding months—the games that moved us with their ambition, quality, and pioneering spirit. None of the decisions are ever easy, and there's no secret formula: we pit opinion against opinion with straightforward, old-fashioned arguing until one winner is left standing in the GOTY battle cage. Look below for the first landmark of that exciting week-long debate: a list of our eligible winners in 11 categories, including Game of the Year.
Beyond recognizing what games we loved most this year, though, it’s crucial to call attention to a truth that connects them all: PC gaming is exploding. Our hobby is many-tentacled and unbridled—practically every niche, genre, and business model mutated in a meaningful way this year. Two shooters built on new, PC-only technology released (PlanetSide 2 and Natural Selection 2). Dota 2 grew into its adolescence. League of Legends’ Season 2 Championship drew an audience of 8.2 million—the most ever for an eSports event. Modders resurrected content that was thought to be lost. So many remakes and spiritual successors to old school PC games got crowdfunded that we're sure we’d miss some if we tried to list them all.
That said, the following list marks the peaks of this mountainous year, and you'll find out which games won in the next issue of PC Gamer, and here on the web soon.
Dota 2 Dishonored Mass Effect 3 PlanetSide 2 The Walking Dead Tribes: Ascend XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Crusader Kings II FTL: Faster Than Light Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Guild Wars 2 PlanetSide 2 Rift: Storm Legion World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria
Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition Diablo III Mass Effect 3 Torchlight II
Borderlands 2 Dishonored Far Cry 3 Max Payne 3 Spec Ops: The Line
Spaceborn mega-RTS Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion has just released its 1.1 patch. The update adds a massive amount of changes, including over forty new maps. No that was not a typo, I really meant forty, four-zero. Given the average length of a Sins game, I estimate the time it would take you to learn all these new maps as slightly longer than than the lifespan of the universe.
Many of the new maps are balanced for competitive play, meaning that resources and starting locations are mirrored, making sure no-one has an unfair advantage. Perhaps Sins is attempting to become the world's slowest e-sport? I can imagine it as the test match cricket of the internet world, where tournaments take two weeks to complete and the audience spends most of their time having a nice picnic.
There's also big changes to the role of corvettes, who had previously found themselves as a ship without a role. Now they're immune to many of the nasty effects that the enormous Titan class ships can deploy, turning them into the game's designated giant killers. Now instead of responding to a Titan with one of your own, you'll be able to send a fleet of plucky corvettes to pop a torpedo down its exhaust pipe, making guarding your biggest vessels far more important.
You can find the full patch notes on the Sins of a Solar Empire forums. If you don't yet own the game, you can find out why you should in our Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion review.
Yes, in this week's Silly Legal Challenge (though one that looks like it was actually filed a couple of months ago, and is only now being noticed), Rebellion is trying to get control of the word... well... Rebellion - no doubt helped by the fact that it has never, ever been used before.
The claim, laid out in this Google Doc, is that Stardock/Sins developers Ironclad are using the name without authorisation and in a way likely to confuse consumers - as evidenced by the shocking way they simply refer to their expansion pack as Rebellion instead of, presumably, Sins Of A Solar Empire: Rebellion: A Tribute To Bobby Bearing - and one YouTube description that accidentally said "The developers over at Rebellion" without making a single spelling mistake.
Reading through the document, this seems a very silly case. Rebellion is an incredibly generic word, and the realistic odds of anyone mistaking a UK games developer for a strategy game expansion pack seem... to be charitable... rather low. It smacks of back-covering trademark protection rather than anything else, and will hopefully be sorted out quietly in some polite, mutually beneficial deal - maybe Ironclad adding a note to its game saying "Not affiliated with Rebellion Developments" and Rebellion Developments in turn promising to never again make a game as bad as Rogue Warrior.
Of course, there's always the Notch method of resolving a legal dispute...