As the new guy in Windhelm, I'm doing my best to fit in with the local NPCs. I walk around the city, wearing regular clothing instead of armor. I hang around in the tavern, eating and drinking. I sleep in a rented bed every night. I make small-talk, or at least listen to the small-talk of others. Overall, I feel like I'm blending in well: if a real adventurer arrived in Windhelm, I'm confident he or she would be convinced I was just another local living a routine life. Nordrick the Bland, they'd call me.
And yet, a very un-NPC-like emotion has reared its ugly head inside Nordrick's even uglier head. I may walk, sleep, eat, and drink like an NPC, but when it comes to my professional life, I'm definitely falling short. While spending time with the locals, and seeing what they do for a living, I've come to an unexpected conclusion: I'm insanely jealous.
For example, there's an NPC in Windhelm who runs a museum out of his house. For two gold pieces, I get a quick tour of his collection of mundane junk, which includes some bones, an empty book, and a spoon. It's a boring collection of cruft, but he invents wild stories that make his assortment of crap seem interesting. Why can't that be my job? I collect plenty of junk, so why can't I put it on shelves, make up ridiculous stories about it, and charge people to look at it? Nordrick the Curator, they'd call me.
I also meet a fiction writer who lives at the inn. A writer! Now, that's a job I'm jealous of. I'd love to write a book, perhaps about a hero named Nordrick The Bold who single-highhandedly slays the dreaded Frost Troll of Dawnstar. Or I could pen a tome about Nordrick the Fair, who recovers stolen magic weapons and returns them to their rightful owners. I could sell them to stores in Skyrim and collect the royalties.
(I actually read one of the writer's books, which is pretty awful. He uses phrases like "I leave you now, good reader, with this gentle reminder..." Blech! I hate when authors address their audience. You know what I mean, gentle blog viewer?)
Even the beggars seem to have good jobs. I meet one who asks me for a gold coin and offers to train me in the art of pick-pocketing, which seems a bit dubious. If she's so good at picking pockets, why is she begging for gold? On the other hand, I did give her a piece of gold, and as I walk away I realize that she's so skilled that she tricked me into picking my own pocket for her. Now, that's talent.
I think all of this occupation envy I'm feeling is due to the fact that my chosen profession, smithing, isn't really working out so well. Sure, there's a nice smithing area I can use in Windhelm that has all the tools I need: forge and anvil, ore smelter, tanning rack, grindstone, and workbench, all within a few feet of each other. With the right materials I can fashion armor, weapons, and even jewelry. The problem is, it's not making me any money. In fact, it's losing me a ton of cash. Ideally, I'd be able to buy raw materials, fashion them into things, and sell them back for a profit. As it stands, however, the materials I buy cost more than the finished product, so I'm operating at a steep loss.
The only way to buy for less and sell for more is to boost my Speech skill, and the only way to boost my Speech skill is buy doing a lot of buying and selling, and since my Speech skill is currently pretty low, that means I'm losing gobs of money there, too. So, Nordrick the Silver-Tongued Blacksmith, at the moment, is a complete bust.
Luckily, there are several other ways to make money. Alchemy is one, and I've got plenty of ingredients after my long trip to Windhelm. I mix up all the potions I can, selling them to the local alchemist for a nice profit. I also spend a day visiting several nearby farms and gathering crops for the farmers, who had the time and energy to plant, cultivate, and grow the crops, but are suddenly are too lazy to spend thirty seconds picking them. I chop firewood as well, for people who have gone out and cut down trees, dragged them back to their farms, and cut them into small pieces, but lacked the follow-through for the final step: splitting the small pieces in half.
In fact, I do such a good job, the local farmers get together to hold a special election and vote me in as the new Jarl of Windhelm! And here this blog ends, as Nordrick The Helpful rules wisely over Windhelm for the rest of his days.
Okay, I actually just had a quick sit on the throne while no one was watching. An NPC can dream, can't he?
Funneling my earned wages into my smithing and vendor-grinding, it's not long before I'm basically broke again, so there's not much else to do but head back into the wild to do some hunting and mining. I blow the dust off my armor, strap it on, and head south. I come upon a small mining town called Kynesgrove, where I chip some minerals out of the caverns. They also have some spare bedrolls outside, so I spend a rent-free night and continue roaming the following day.
The morning passes as some wolves attack me and I attack some goats, both serving to fill my pelt quota. While wandering alongside a river in the afternoon, I spot what looks like a small wooden shack. As I approach, I spy a tiny flicker of motion through the broken boards on the side of the shack. Someone's inside. I drop into a crouch. Is it a bandit, wanting to kill me for gold? A necromancer, wanting to experiment on my corpse?
Unfortunately, it's neither. The flicker of motion in the shack suddenly becomes a flash. It's not a person. It's something big, it's something fast, and it's coming right at me. Sabercat. Sabercat! Oh flip, it's a mother-flippin' Sabercat!
A sabercat. I would honestly prefer to fight a dragon than a sabercat. Dragons are deadly, sure, but they lazily circle, then land, then take off and circle some more. Sabercats are all business. They're lightning quick and deadly: I've run into them with the other characters I play in Skyrim, characters with skill points in something other than Speech and Smithing, and the outcome has almost always been a quick death and a largely unscathed sabercat. Now I'm facing one with Nordrick, who can't even buy an apple from a friendly merchant without losing a few hit points.
I'm both crouching and creeping, the slowest possible combination of movement apart from sitting in a chair, and I frantically hammer at my keyboard, trying to get upright and running. I manage to get upright and walking, then crouching and scooting. Great. Trying to quickly draw my sword and shield results in me first readying my healing spell, and then my bow, neither of which are going to slow down this rampaging prehistoric cat. My Battle Cry power! Of course! That will save me, or it would, if I hadn't used it already earlier today to scare off some attacking wolves.
This is the end. This is the end of Nordrick. I won't be known as Nordrick the Blacksmith or Nordrick the Woodcutter, but as Nordrick the Cat Toy. Then I remember the river. The river! If not for the river, this blog would end, right now, with a brief description what it's like to pass through the sabercat's digestive system.
With the beast lunging and slashing and my vision filled with its fur and my blood, I somehow remember how to stand upright and run. I splash into the river and begin swimming, managing to reach the opposite bank. I turn and am mortified to see the cat paddling after me. As soon as it reaches my side of the river, I run back into the water and swim to the other side. The cat begins crossing after me, and I cross back. Okay. Good. If I can just keep this river between us for the rest of our lives, I'll be fine.
About three river-crossings later, the cat seems to come up with a fresh idea: to run up the side of a mountain and get stuck behind a rock. Hey, I didn't say it was a good idea. But if the Gods of Poor Pathfinding love anyone, it's Nordrick, and I find that by standing near the shack I can loose arrows into the cat from a safe distance. It just stands there angrily and takes the abuse until it dies, destined to become the next pair of boots I craft.
With that unpleasantness done, I heal up and check out the shack the cat was prowling around in. It's pretty gross in here: the cat was munching on the previous tenant when I arrived, and there's a bloody skull and ribcage and gore splashed all over the floor. There's a bed, though, unowned, which means I can sleep here, which kind of, sort of, means I can live here. Which kind of, sort of, means I have a home! Kind of sort of!
A home with giant holes in the walls and ceiling, and no door, but there's a wardrobe, a table with some books on it, and even a fireplace and a tanning rack. This might not be so bad. I can't pick up the skull and ribcage, but with some strategic walking I mange to kick the disgusting bones out the doorway and into the river, where they float away. As far as all the blood on the floor, I lay out some goat pelts over it as sort of a makeshift throw rug. So now instead of it looking like someone died in here, it just looks like a couple goats exploded. It's a conversation starter!
Not bad. I've got a lovely, gore-splatted home with no door and some dead fish hanging from the roof. It's definitely no Proudspire Manor. Hell, it's not even Oblivion's Imperial City shack. Still, finally, I have my own place. Nordrick the Homeowner. That's what they'll call me.
Every week, Richard Cobbett rolls the dice to bring you an obscure slice of gaming history, from lost gems to weapons grade atrocities. And at the risk of annoying any idiots who think the end of the world is coming in 2012, here's a slightly more grounded fictional apocalypse to sink your teeth into.
Before The Elder Scrolls hit the big leagues, Bethesda was best known as the company that made Terminator games - though not necessarily the best known Terminator games. The awful platform games, with the infuriating mechanic of having to shoot human enemies in the legs to maintain the second movie's no-killing rule? Other guys. The for-the-time-impressive light-gun game? Nope.
Instead, with the exception of the deservedly beloved FPS Future Shock, one of the first to combine on-foot action and vehicles, certainly in a way that actually made it fun to jump behind the wheel, none of them were particularly remembered. Admittedly, in the case of the action RPG style Terminator 2029 and Wolfenstein-level teched FPS Terminator: Rampage, that's probably for the best.
But their first attempt? It's the only Terminator game that lets you risk destroying humanity by buying Kyle Reese a pack of condoms while protecting Sarah Connor. How did that get forgotten?
The Terminator isn't a great game. It's buggy as hell, incredibly short, and however it ran on systems at the time, it stumbles like a dead dog under the mighty DOSBox. That doesn't mean it's not a game worth respecting. With nothing but 1990s 3D technology, it presented an open world action game set in modern-day Los Angeles, while even the mighty John Carmack was busily working on engines like this.
It's also a surprisingly advanced playground, with cars to drive, a map based on the actual city (or so it says here, though I wouldn't use it to try and get around the place in real life), interior locations like a shooting range and assorted stores to stock up on gear from, and even some RPG elements. In contrast, the most noteworthy thing about its similar looking rival Resolution 101, released around the same time and also offering urban combat in a sprawling city, is that that it makes you fight Daleks with boobs.
Rather than offering a campaign, missions and all the stuff you'd expect in the average shooter, The Terminator is a glorified duel. Whether you choose to be resistance hero Kyle or the implacable Terminator, both are simply dropped stark naked (though have presumably at least found some trousers by the time the game starts) in the middle of Los Angeles on a mission to kill or be killed. Kyle teams up with Sarah, who can be ordered around and be an equipment mule as the two are hunted around the city, while the Terminator is a ****ing Terminator. Needless to say, he's by far the easiest choice.
Most of the game is spent preparing for that fight, and exploring a version of Los Angeles so large, its map has Fast Travel. Most importantly, you need equipment, which you can get in a couple of ways - buying it or stealing it. Robbing a bank is guaranteed to get the cops on your back, indicated by the wonderfully coy phrasing "Come out of the bank please. The police are here and would like to have a word with you..." but is a good way to get set up if you have a getaway car to hand. Other destinations include the Gun Store, Hospital, Shooting Range and most bizarrely, the Drug Store.
Normally, this wouldn't be that weird. And indeed, most of what it sells isn't. Stores in the game sell things like Running Shoes that speed you up, and the Compass that works like the Compass app on your phone and maybe even a compass. The Drug Store is your go-to place for handy items like a Crowbar to help you break into tougher buildings. So far, sounds like standard RPG economics. Right?
Except that unlike most games, stores in The Terminator don't just sell questing items...
(And yes, that's where you'll find the condoms. No, sadly, they don't do anything.)
Tooled up, whether to take on the police or your rival, you quickly realise that the combat is both pretty janky and pretty awful, but very far from actually pretty. The most satisfying part about killing enemies is a little death cam in the bottom corner that shows them folding over, though the re-use of the same animations mean that methodically gunning down everyone in LA soon loses most of its appeal - even when you finally bump into Kyle Reese and obliterate his hilariously awful pudding-bowl haircut.
In an unusual twist, the easiest way to see the ending is to pick the other character and let them die. One side's lose sequence is the other's victory party - though thanks to the power of bad lightning effects, neither end up looking anything like as badass as the artists obviously intended.
While the first two movies still stand up reasonably well, time definitely hasn't been kind to The Terminator. Playing it though, it's hard not to glance at most modern games' lists of objectives that boil down to 'walk onto this map pointer and maybe hit something while you're there' and wish they could be something more than the sum of their objectives. Where are the espionage games that give you a stack of resources and a mission to complete however you like? Where are the GTA games where important NPCs exist outside of cut-scenes, to be assassinated or not, and can be trailed and observed for your own benefit instead of just shot in the face on command? Where are the strategy games following the example of something like Jagged Alliance 2, which lets you be the one calling all the shots, but in a world with enough detail and narrative to let you troll the villain with a bouquet of flowers? Sigh.
But I digress. If you only go back in time to play one Terminator game, obviously, it has to be Future Shock. The Terminator proper though deserves far more credit than it's ever received though, at least for what it tried to do - even if that did involve biting off a bit more than the technology at its disposal could chew. It's a rare example of a game license that tried to capture the spirit of the original, and bring us something new. Good or not, if this had been the pattern others had followed, and they'd tried this hard, just maybe... maybe... licenses wouldn't have been condemned to be an industry joke.
Bit of a shame it was followed by this, really.
Never mind though, eh? Happy New Year! See you in 2012 for more oddness from the archives - the good, the bad, and the just plain weird. Until then, why not check out any you may have missed, while feeling sorry for my hard drive and some of the forgotten horrors it's currently holding for you.
The Elder Scrolls games have been brilliant for long time: huge open worlds that let you go wherever you fancy, get wrapped up in hundreds of different stories, and make a life for yourself. But until Skyrim, they weren’t particularly good at one of the most exciting things about other RPGs: levelling up.
You levelled up, of course, but you didn’t get to spend any terribly valuable points on any terribly exciting skills. In Skyrim, you do. It’s the perfect compromise between a traditional RPG and the organic practice-based system of previous Elder Scrolls games. You still get incrementally better at whatever you do, but each level gets you a perk point, and the perks on offer are absurdly tempting.
So your character adapts both to how you end up playing, and the grand ideas you have for them. I started out as an archer, but all the sneaking around made me stealthy enough to pull off backstabs. That was more satisfying than I realised, so I shifted towards it and improved it dramatically with perks.
The organic progression influenced my conscious progression, and resulted in a character build I hadn't set out to create but which suited my play style perfectly. I became an assassin who can hide in plain sight, vanish mid-combat, and kill almost anything in a single strike. I'd tailored my own custom stealth god, through 84 hours of practice and 41 perk choices.
Now I’m working on a tank: an unstoppable orc clad in hand-crafted brass, with a shield the size of a small country and an axe I’ve sharpened beyond anything money can buy. I already have a perk that lets me bash people away with my shield, and next, I want the one that lets me knock everyone flying when I sprint at them. Then I'm making an illusionist.
It's a sense of excitement I never had with Oblivion. When I started again in that game, it was usually because I’d messed up my character. I start again in Skyrim because there are so many possible characters to try, lives to lead, possibilities to explore that it would be rude to the developers not to seek them out. That, to me, is the definition of a great RPG.
Read our Skyrim review for more.
Highly recommended: The Witcher 2, Dawn of War 2: Retribution.
With New Year celebrations just around the corner, it's understandable that you might not have time to trawl through our weekly Best Free PC Games archive, analysing every write-up to construct your own top ten list. So, since we understand the importance of ranking free games in order of perceived quality, we've done it for you. Here are PC Gamer's ten favourite freebies of 2011!
10. Don't Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain't Your Story
Christine Love. Download it from Christine's website.
With its anime style and graphic novel format, Christine Love's Don't Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain't Your Story might not seem like the most enticing prospect to a lot of players. Push past the presentation, though, and you'll find an intricate and notably human story of what it is to be responsible for the lives of a group of teenagers.
You play as a teacher who gets a little too involved in his students' issues. And while the game is only minimally interactive, it does present you with some genuinely affecting moral choices, the likes of which even the biggest videogame developers struggle to get right year after year.
9. The Wager
Surprised Man. Download it from the official website.
An exploration game whose stretches of planet are generated on the fly each time you start, The Wager is a much smarter game than its often primitive presentation would let on. You take to the seas in search of new lands, whose resources you might exploit, or whose co-ordinates you might sell to others eager to spread their feathers into new climes.
It's smart because of the requirement to make decisions about how you'll deal with the game's obstacles, and because of how neatly the often bizarre writing slots into its place in the game. It also received a substantial update recently, making the already compulsive title even more of a delight.
Joost van Dongen. Download it from the official website.
Proun's developer recently revealed that the game's 'pay what you like' sales pitch didn't do as well as he'd hoped. When people treated it as a freebie, though, the response was overwhelmingly positive. It's a gloriously presented indie title that sees you rolling a ball around a frantic racetrack, avoiding obstacles as you go.
Its crowning achievement is the speed at which you travel, and the sense of kinetic energy the game manages to convey. Performing well on the slowest speed setting, 'fast', allows you to unlock unimaginable paces for later races. Let's hope the £23,000 van Dongen did make is enough to convince him to make another game this good.
LittleLoud. Play it on the official website.
Channel 4 gets educational games. Commissioning talented and renowned developers with proven track records, they manage to take concepts that our young could find tedious, and transform them into experiences that even proper grown-ups can get something out of. Sweatshop is one of those games, a title designed to teach of the ills of the horrible forced labour that goes on around the globe.
You play as an aspiring factory manager, hiring, firing and tweaking your factory's workforce. What initially starts as a genuinely amusing title quickly grows dark as your workers begin to tire, you start hiring children for cheaper labour, and you quickly realise you've become the horrific being you promised yourself, at the start, that you wouldn't be.
6. At A Distance
Terry Cavanagh. Download it from the dev's blog.
This is the renowned indie developer's take on co-operative play. Two people sit at separate computers, preferably side-by-side but certainly on a network. Each player is lost in some kind of colourful maze. But it is by exploring the world that the other person inhabits, and seeing what effects your actions are having on your friend's game, that you'll solve the overarching puzzle of At A Distance.
It's clever and inventive, and a shame that the requirement of network play might put some people off one of the more interesting two-player games in recent times.
NPlay. Play it on NPlay's website.
BeGone has become quite the thing in 2011. Initially launched as a competent and impressive multiplayer shooter, this browser-based gem quickly grew to become something that could rival a lot of full games. There are now several maps, all nicely balanced, and the presentation has been spruced up considerably.
It's a bit like Counter-Strike, basically - and that's hugely impressive, considering this runs in a nice little window right in the middle of a web page. It's a game that requires some decent skill, which it rewards handsomely. And it keeps getting better and better.
4. Stealth Bastard
Curve Studios. Download it from the official website.
A tactical action-platformer, as if Metal Gear Solid were reimagined in true retro-modern style, Stealth Bastard sees you sneaking past robot guards and security systems that aim to take you out in a millisecond. It's fortunate that you can put your sneaky know-how to use across a variety of beautifully imagined levels.
And if those aren't enough, you can even create your own in an initially confusing but eventually fairly sensible level-editing suite that comes free with the already-free game. It's baffling when a developer releases so much of such quality for no coins at all, but it's probably best not to complain too much, or they might stop.
Damp Gnatt. Play it on the dev's website.
One of the most joyously creative games of the year regardless of price, Wonderputt is a crazy golf experience like no other. The game plays out on just a single screen, but it's a landscape that changes radically across the 15-or-so minutes it'll take you to see it all.
That might not sound long, but every second of Wonderputt is remarkable: from the changing landscapes, to the immaculate ball physics, to the splendid music that plays throughout. It's an absolute labour of love, a game that seems to have had layer upon layer of attention gifted unto it throughout the course of its development. 18 holes have never been so delightful.
DigiPen. Download it from the official website.
Nous is creepy. This seemingly sentient AI says it's a psychoanalysis system, but it appears to mean you harm. Or does it? It also enjoys confusing you at every turn as it judges your performance across a series of neon-lit and action-packed levels.
The game's ability to craft such an atmosphere from so little is an extraordinary feat, and it's coupled by engaging game mechanics that see you striking a fine balance between killing your foes and turning them into health by herding them through special converters. It's fantastic fun, gorgeously presented, and both captivating and unsettling as the story plays out.
1. Team Fortress 2
Valve Software. Grab it via Steam.
Well, of course. What else could it be? It's the best multiplayer shooter ever released on the PC, and you can play it for no pennies. We are, quite truly, being spoiled.
We've written about Team Fortress 2 a lot, you may have noticed. Some might say we've praised it to death. Others will be quick to point out its original 2007 release date. But this is the year when TF2 became a free game, and as such it would be barmy not to position it right at the top of the list.
Its quality lies in every aspect of the game. Beautifully and distinctively presented, it's also fantastically balanced, each class playing its own unique role across a variety of maps that, in their immaculate attention to detail and playability, could only have been created by Valve. It's also a game that's filled with personality, as evidenced by the vast amount of fiction that's cropped up around this wonderful shooter.
You get so much for no money at all. It might as well be the full game. In fact, it's not quite, but to upgrade all you need to do is buy a single item from the store. The cheapest item is 29p. That's all you need to pay to unlock a premium account - but if even that seems a bit too much, you'll lose barely anything by playing at the most basic level.
Craig re-reviewed the game this year, upping its original 93% score to a PC Gamer UK 'highest score ever' of 96% as a result of the carefully planned additions and refinements that have trickled in over the years, in what must be one of the most comprehensive post-release support campaigns a developer has ever committed to. We don't give out scores that big lightly - but not only is Team Fortress 2 the best free game in the world, it's also now one of the best in the world regardless of cost.
Found a better free game in 2011? You should totally let us know about it in the comments!
Deus Ex: a game so good it gave us actual neuroses about its sequels. Invisible War, a shonky but interesting and sometimes hilarious shooter, became reviled as a crime against gaming for declaring itself to be Deus Ex 2. And when Human Revolution started looking seriously, seriously good, none of us could quite believe it.
But it happened. This third game has the wealth of alternate routes and versatile tools that made Deus Ex great, and expands it with huge city hubs, packed with more sidequests and background story than the original ever had. It reworks the system for augmenting yourself to give you trickier choices between more powerful abilities. And all of those abilities are more slickly designed and satisfying to use. It’s not better in every way, by any means, but nothing else comes this close.
It’s an action game, which our neuroses tell us is automatically bad, but most of the concessions to blockbuster accessibility are genuinely, and surprisingly positive. Melee was almost comically unconvincing in Deus Ex 1: now it’s jaw-droppingly brutal and consistently satisfying. A cover system seemed like a frightening departure, but it ended up making for a much more developed and complex stealth option.
Mainly, though, it’s just so good to have it back. It’s Deus Ex! But shinier! And we haven’t played it through 26 times yet! And DLC is coming out for it! And everyone’s sharing stories about the incredible things that happened to them, and all the ways the quests can play out, and all the people they punched in the face, and what aug builds they want next. Deus Ex 4 is bound to be shit, though.
Read our Deus Ex: Human Revolution review for more.
Halo creators Bungie have given the official nod to Aleph One, fan-made updates and remakes of the originally Mac-only Marathon series. The project reached version 1.0 in early December, with all three games now available for free. It’s an impressive update, too: all three games include HD texture packs, network play, and work on modern operating systems.
They’re exploration-based FPS games that look a little like Doom but play rather differently. From the beginning, Bungie were more interested in narrative than combat, and it shows: weapons and enemies are fairly standard fare, but its doomed starships and alien worlds still retain a bit of their old atmosphere. There’s more writing than you’d expect, too, with world building-handled by AI-controlled computer terminals that feed out in-character plot and location info.
Marathon 2 even has voice-acted, short-lived teammates that fight alongside you for brief periods before biting the dust or teleporting away. The games feel like a glimpse into a parallel evolution of the FPS, one that - for better or worse - did a better job of anticipating the explosions-and-exposition future of the genre than anything id were making at the time.
As a package, it’s something of a museum piece: but a well-curated one that’s worth getting to know. The games themselves are polished, fun, and even creepy from time to time - just be willing to re-learn how to run around with the map open pressing use on everything. A note of warning: some of Marathon 2’s menu noises sound exactly like an incoming Steam message. Don’t be fooled! Your friends aren’t really talking to you. Happy New Year.
Star Wars: The Old Republic has been a huge undertaking for developers, Bioware. It's taken massive investment and untold man hours to bring it to light. It's also Bioware's first MMO, which makes it a risky move into an unfamiliar genre. We asked Star Wars: The Old Republic game director, James Ohlen why Bioware decided to move online. He revealed that the decision was made by Bioiware's founders, Dr. Ray Muzyka and Dr. Greg Zeschuk, who thought the MMO genre could be the future of the RPG.
"Back in 2004/2005 it was something we knew we needed to get into," he said. "It seemed to be one of the possible future paths for role-playing games in general. One thing Ray and Greg are always doing is looking at ways to make sure Bioware is not going to be left behind. So they're looking at all the futures going and then try to make sure we kind of diversify, and that was one of the areas we wanted to diversify in."
Besides, Ohlen points out that Bioware aren't entirely unfamiliar with multiplayer. "We're now known for single player RPGs. But Baldur's Gate was multiplayer back in the day, so was Neverwinter Nights. In fact Neverwinter Nights, a lot of people used that toolset and engine to create little mini massively multiplayer games. So we do have experience with multiplayer. We just hadn't built a huge online game before."
Since then, Mass Effect, Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2 have all done very well, and The Witcher 2 and Skyrim have all proved that the single player RPG is far from dead. The success of Star Wars: The Old Republic doesn't seem to have affected Bioware's love of single player RPGs, either. Mass Effect 3 is due out in march, and Dragon Age 3 is currently in development. If you've just started The Old Republic, you can join our guilds. Our European guilds, The Mint Imperials and The Revel Alliance are on the Nightmare Lands server. In the US, the Coconut Monkeys are on The Crucible Pits.
Do you remember the tail end of 2010? We all wore rags and lived in dirt-floored shacks, dinosaurs ruled the Earth, and ‘free to play’ was still a dirty set of words. 2011 saw those words climb into the word shower and wash themselves clean, courtesy of League of Legends.
Developers Riot Games released player figures for their five-on-five Defence of the Ancients interpretation in November 2011. The numbers were, frankly, dazzling. League of Legends now has more active players than World of Warcraft – yes, World of Warcraft – sporting a population of 11 million. More impressively, over four million people play LoL every day, and 1.5 million of those are on at the same time. To put that in context, all of Steam has 2.5 million concurrent users.
But capturing the short term attention spans of children, idiots, and child idiots was easy enough for the terrible free to play titles of the past. Craftily, League of Legends snared their monstrous userbase by bucking that trend, and by being crisp, clear, and blessed with thousands of ways to play. No wonder it’s done so well – it stands out like a golden pin in a shed full of pigswill.
I play as Caitlyn. I stand in the bushes, peppering creeps with shots from my comically oversized sniper rifle. My basic attack is a single shot. My ultimate attack, gained after fifteen minutes of play and souped up over the next half an hour, is a bullet wider than Caitlyn’s waistline that travels a quarter of the length of the map and slams a third out of its target’s health bar. I kill people from a distance, and never let myself near other players.
Tim plays as Leona. She’s a holy paladin, kitted out in gleaming golden armour and armed with a repertoire of incredibly earnest sayings. Leona’s pure tank – she steams into combat, drawing attention and aggression from everyone, leaving other players free to escape or level their weapons on their stunned foes.
Owen plays as Teemo. He runs around behind the AI creep scuffles, watching and waiting for his moment to drop traps. Teemo’s stealthy: he hides in plain sight, supporting his team and sneaking shots against any weakened foes. Well, he’s as stealthy as he can be, at any rate, considering he’s dressed as a fluffy white rabbit, and the traps he lays are easter eggs.
I always play DPS characters. Tim’s tanked for years. Owen… Owen really likes dressing up as fluffy animals. That League of Legends lets us all play different games inside one title is impressive. That it let us play them even when it had one game mode and one map is amazing. That it’s a free to play game with a level of polish, community, and developer support unseen outside of studios like Valve is utterly unheard of.
Highly recommended: Team Fortress 2, World of Tanks.
It’s hard to get into the meat of why Egress: The Test of STS-417 is special without spoiling it, but at its core this is an adventure game that not only sets a puzzle in front of you but cares how you solve it. If you’re tired of games that ignore your failures and treat the time you spend flailing for a clickable hotspot as storyless limbo, then you should absolutely put aside time for it.
Egress is a short sci-fi point and click adventure by one-man Australian studio Krams Design. After a deep-space repair mission goes wrong, you’re stranded on an alien world and must locate your missing crew members and attempt to find out what abducted you and why. This involves solving puzzles that range from spatial reasoning to branching dialogues and traditional use-item-on-the-thing procedure. Some are far more successful than others: one early puzzle in particular is pretty hard unless you figure out that the game wants you to perceive a 2D backdrop from another perspective. As the game keeps track of your blunders, this can feel a bit unfair.
For the most part, though, Egress is a big success. In a large part this is due to the simple hand-drawn art and elegant animation that sells the subdued, lonely other world that you find yourself on. It’s also effectively creepy, at points: far more so than you might expect. Tonally, it’s somewhere between LucasArts adventure The Dig and Eric Chahi’s Another World. If those names mean something to you, give Egress a shot - download it here.
Launch bugs and connection problems can’t dent Battlefield 3’s sense of ambition. Call of Duty might have bagged the ‘modern warfare’ label, but Battlefield 3 shows us what a modern online shooter can really be. Developers DICE have tapped into the potential of modern PCs to create online battles on a massive scale, and with technology that makes its competitors look years out of date.
A 64 player scrap on one of Battlefield 3’s largest maps creates a tapestry of war stories. Your experiences as a lone footsoldier form just one strand in that overall picture. You can spend half an hour in a tense sniper battle for control of an important ridge, while another player can spend that time in an AA vehicle hunting choppers in the skies above.
Battlefield 3 is at its best when these stories intersect. Fighting for control of a hilltop in the middle of the sprawling Caspian Border map, I found myself lying in a bush, taking fire from an attack chopper. There was a sudden hefty CRUNCH, and the flaming corpse of the helicopter crashed to the ground, only six feet from my head. A friendly jet blasted overhead, barrel rolled to celebrate the kill and then flew off to become part of someone else’s story half a click down the road.
Battlefield 3 only fails when it tries to force these moments. The single player campaign’s linear progression of scripted street battles disappoint somewhat, but online, the moments of drama the designers try so hard to shoehorn into the story mode happen organically, and they happen all the time. It’s co-op on a massive scale. Quite reassuringly, the smart XP bonuses dish out the same rewards for supportive play and teamwork as they do for aggressive actions like shooting lots of men and blowing up objectives.
The squad system works beautifully, it is more important than ever on the biggest maps. Squadmates provide mobile spawn points that all but eliminate spawn camping. Squad experience bonuses encourage teams to stick together and fight as units, providing useful focus on maps that could all too easily become overwhelming.
They also give friends a way to stick together. It’ll be hard to forget the fantastic round I spent with Graham, Owen and Rich riding around Tehran Highway in an armoured personnel carrier we dubbed the “battle bus.” We skidded up to each control point in turn, diving out, tearing apart defenders, capping the objective and then vanishing into the night. You can never single-handedly win a game of Battlefield 3 for your team, but there’s just enough room to be a hero. In those moments, those rare, joyful, exhilarating moments, Battlefield 3 is better than anything else online.