With the overwhelming success of Minecraft and the large number of games in Steam's Early Access, there's an increasing number of interesting games that don't fit neatly into reviews and previews. They're tough to preview, because everyone can buy and play them; they're also tough to review, since they're constantly changing. Consider this new column, Alpha Test, a guide to sorting through this. We'll take a snapshot profile of specific Early Access or public beta games, examine what they're planning on doing next, and round up news about specific games.
Spacebase DF-9 is the perfect inaugural game for this column. It's got a marvelous premise a more accessible, science-fiction Dwarf Fortress where you build a space station and then laugh as the crew all dies via some bizarre accident and the Double Fine pedigree to go along with it. But it's also in alpha, and is very clearly under development. The bad news is that if you buy Spacebase DF-9 right now, it lacks the depth to be a truly great strategy game the good news is that what exists is a strong foundation for future additions.
Zoning a brand new base.
You start a game of Spacebase DF-9 with a handful of crew members with which to build a new space station. First they build an airlock and oxygen recyclers, and from there, a base filled with dormitories, gardens, refineries, and bars. Over time, new ships will show up with new crew members, or new bases/ships attached to your own, or enemies trying to take over. Or all three of those. It's a simple, strong strategic loop: new crew members appear, you assign them jobs to build infrastructure to support themselves, which gives room for new crew members, and repeat as necessary.
What makes Spacebase DF-9 and other similar games stand out is that you exercise only indirect control over your crew members. You give them, jobs, yes, and you choose the things you'd like to have accomplished, but you can't move them directly. So if you want a new room to be built, but your builders are all sleeping, eating, or socializing, you just have to wait. In that space between that the crew is supposed to do and what they're actually doing, stories happen: a technician fails to repair a oxygen recycler, which leads to a fire. The fire burns breaches the hull, with sucks the oxygen out of the entire station. Builders are busy sleeping, don't fix the breach, and everyone dies. Hooray!
Spacebase DF-9 is great at developing these crisis situations, and the precarious nature of a tiny, self-sustaining space station works well thematically with this style of game. At a technical level, I was impressed by just how stable and complete the supposed alpha of the game was it was ridiculously easy to sink an hour or two into a new space station every time I opened the game. My complaints were mostly with quirks. For example, the crew AI also has strange priorities: I built a bar at a tiny new station outside my main station, which attracted a pair of bartenders who slowly starved to death. They never made their way back to the main station for food--this lemming-like lack of survival instinct is common, for example, even when the base loses oxygen, the crew never tries to use space suits indoors.
There are some interface quirks as well. Construction of new objects is frustrating it takes four clicks/hotkeys to add a single door, which quickly gets repetitious. I also had more than one occasion where parts of my base behaved as though there were a hull breach, with oxygen levels plummeting quickly and crew being pulled in certain directions, but I couldn't find an actual opening. But other than that, the various different parts of the game all functioned together and gave enough information to be playable and interesting, which is the most important thing a strategy game needs to do.
The core problem when playing Spacebase DF-9 is that there aren't multiple layers to the strategy. As of right now, that game loop of add-crew/expand station/add crew is essentially all there is to the game. In other words, the game gets larger, but not more complex. For example, newly arriving ships are essentially the same whether you have a crew of three or thirty a larger station would have a much tougher time of dealing with ten new arrivals, or a pirate raiding party of half a dozen. Or perhaps having multiple crew members with expertise in certain jobs could open new building opportunities.
Happily, one of the other reasons that Spacebase DF-9 is a great inaugural choice for this column is that its website is quite transparent about its future plans. The most recent patch added food and gardens, but and near-term stuff includes further areas of complexity, like crew members having possessions which will require storage space. The long-term plans include ideas that I find particularly exciting: references to Crusader Kings II in terms of administrator ambitions and crew member relationships show a direction that could turn Spacebase DF-9 into a classic if everything goes well.
But for right now? Spacebase DF-9 is a game that's oddly both ready to play and nowhere near complete. I'll certainly be keeping track of it with every major update.
Alpha/beta news bits:
Project Zomboid, a zombie-set Roguelike with strong crafting was recently added to Steam. Survive long enough to build a fort and plant crops? I'm intrigued. Tactical RPG Blackguards just received a major update adding the second chapter of the planned five for its final release. Let us know what games you'd like to have included in the roundup and potentially profiled. Godus, Nuclear Throne, Kerbal Space Program, Grim Dawn, and maybe even Dwarf Fortress are on the list. Next week: Blizzard's Warcraft-themed card game Hearthstone, currently in barely-closed beta.
Damn near every retailer is holding some sort of mega sale at the moment, but if there's one thing better than cheap games, it's free games, and this week saw a bumper crop of fun, weird titles released for precisely no-monies. Read on for the best piece of theatre I've ever played, a stunning sci-fi glitchfest, theft of the highest order, Driver from Drive's favourite browser game (probably), and a game where oh God what have you done. Enjoy!
The Entertainment by Cardboard Computer Download it here.
Nobody makes games like Cardboard Computer, a team inspired by classic playwrights as much as classic adventure games, and who have now made one of the most enjoyable plays I think I've ever been to, inside a theatre or out. Following on from Limits and Demonstrations an interactive art exhibition with ties to Kentucky Route Zero is The Entertainment, a more refined and guided piece of storytelling that puts the player in a hugely interesting, albeit physically restricted role. It was a particularly electric moment when I realised the full extent of the setup CC's talent for creating (and obscuring) scenes with light and shadow comes to the forefront here.
Galah Galah by Jake Clover Download it here.
With Galah Galah, developer Jake Clover wanted to try and make a game that is like a video of unfinished games , and I'd say he's succeeded in this collection of glitchy and alien video game scenes. It's a little like McPixel, in that you're constantly being transported (either through your own actions or upon your grisly death) into new and unfamiliar situations, with no clue what you're supposed to do, press or be. It's wonderful, weird, oddly handsome stuff, although the very first room may throw people off a bit (it did me).
Moirai by Chris Johnson, Brad Barrett, John Oestmann Download it here.
A first-person adventure that sends you on a quest to find a boy lost in a nearby mine. Right from the start there's a strange tone hanging over the assorted conversations, which finally pays off in a moment of genius right at the end. At a certain point you'll encounter a character in the tunnels who turns this brief, clever story on its head. I won't say any more, but I will say this: be sure to have an email address handy.
Vlambeer Clone Tycoon by Rik Nieuwdorp & Martijn Frazer Play it online here.
The goal in this turn-based management game is not to clone Vlambeer outright (as many real scumbag developers have basically done), but to copy their games in such a way that you evade the ire of their legal team. It's surprisingly involved work being a massive thief jerk: you have to mine Vlambeer's newsletters for ideas to plunder, while navigating the mucky waters of copyright theft and trying to keep up with/stay ahead of the developers themselves, who are busting out original games left right and centre. It's great to see some good come from Vlambeer's demoralising ordeal - you know, apart from Ridiculous Fishing, Nuclear Throne and the like.
Night Rider Turbo by Sos Sosowski Play it online here.
McPixel creator Sos Sosowski is back with the lightly Enviro-Bear 2000-ish Night Rider Turbo, which sees you operating an awesome car that gradually falls apart in your hands. To get the most out of this joyously silly game, make sure you pull, press, prod and poke everything in sight. I particularly like the soundtrack, which perfectly complements the thrill of hurtling down a motorway into oncoming traffic while driving a car held together by sticky tape. (Via IndieGames)
Zombie-based zombie-'em-up (featuring zombies) State of Decay has released its first expansion, Breakdown, which unshackles the survival aspects from the story, letting you endlessly plunder the game's world as you see fit. Bleed one instance dry and you'll find yourself in the next, and then the next, with the difficulty upped to make it harder each time. As it was only released yesterday, Breakdown is not taking part in the Steam Autumn Sale, although its main game is - State of Decay is currently half-price for the next day or so.
If you've already played the base game, you'll be pleased to hear that Breakdown also turns "Shark Hoodie Guy into a playable Hero" (no idea), and provides a level "just for" people who thought that cars made the original mode a bit too easy. Read the lowdown here on the State of Decay site, including the exciting news that Undead Labs have "already started on DLC2". While you wait for that, why not check out this player-made George Romero mod?
Does anyone remember the before times, when we used to pay full price for games? I don't, and it was only a couple of days ago, before the Steam sale, the various Humble sales, and Black Friday reared their salesy heads. The latest digital shop putting its digital bargain bin out for display is GOG.com (nee Good Old Games), which has slashed 70% off 65 games including Alone in the Dark 1-3, Rollercoaster Tycoon, Master of Magic, Tex Murphy, Realms of the Haunting and many more. It's a good selection of stuff, even though a lot of GOG's big-hitters appear to be sitting this one out. Still: cheap games.
I won't give you the full list of games, because I'm a jerk and I don't want to type them all out. But here a few more names: The Chronicles of Riddick, Creatures, Guilty Gear, Simon the Sorcerer, Robinsons's Requieum and er, Superfrog. If the Steam sale and the Humble sale and eating and paying rent hasn't already bled your wallet dry this November, you should consider giving this big list o' cheap games a butcher's. You have around 2-and-a-half days left to make your mind up so, y'know, there's no real rush.
What makes a great secret agent? If you're thinking of boring things like 'training', 'gadgets' and 'intelligence'... well, you're probably right. Capcom's forgotten interactive movie spy spoof has some other ideas though, and one night, we found out how one idiot with a head full of trivia can put James Bond to shame. Or make him cover his eyes with shame, anyway. One of the two.
Oh, and did I mention James Bond is actually in it? George Lazenby, anyway.
(Cropped stream below. Disc 3 footage borrowed from here due to the impossible difficulty. Definitely check out his captioned run through the entire game from Part 1.)
You see folks, this is why April Fools' Day is dangerous. Or awesome. Delete depending on your affinity for zombies. Back in the dark ages of seven and a bit months ago, Paradox Interactive released a teaser for a fictional Crusader Kings Z, a game that hypothetically merged zombie invasions with medieval European strategy. Months later, and that joke is now a real thing that you can play in Crusader Kings 2. Thanks mods!
For those who've played Sunset Invasion, Paradox's own alternate history add-on, Crusader Kings Z follows a similar pattern. At some point past the year 1000 AD, an event will trigger that unleashes a zombie horde in Ethiopia. From there they build in strength and numbers, spreading from Africa to Europe. It's your job to build a big enough army to stop them, all while stopping your dick half-brother from poisoning you. Just because there are zombies, that's no reason for regal intrigue to cease.
It's a small but enjoyable mod, with an understandably significant impact on campaigns. You can download Crusader Kings Z from here, although you'll need a Paradox forum account to access the page.
Even before we knew anything official about the next-gen consoles, we knew they would be based on PCs. We knew that their games would be developed on PCs. Why, then, was The Division only announced for next-gen consoles? The NYC-based online shooter is not only being made on PCs, for machines bearing an uncanny resemblance to PCs, but it s being made by Ubisoft Massive, a studio whose entire back catalogue has been released on PC.
We d always been talking about it, executive producer Fredrik Rundqvist told me at Massive s Malmo offices. We have lots of PC fans on the team. But this whole game was conceived and developed before we knew anything about next-gen consoles. Only in the last few months could we really see all the details of where consoles were going. Could we translate the experience onto PC, and give players a just as good or better experience? What would we need to adapt to make a meaningful PC version? That hasn t really been clear to us until the last couple of months. But we d always been talking about it, dreaming about it. It s not an easy decision to make.
That decision was made much easier by an online petition which collected over 140,000 signatures, proving once and for all to famously contentious publisher Ubisoft that a PC version would be worth the effort. That s been incredible, Rundqvist said. We were extremely encouraged by all the fan feedback. If it s really 100,000-plus people signing that petition... it s really powerful stuff.
Tom Clancy s The Division, then, is finally headed to PC, and that might just be its most natural home. This tactical, open-world, online RPG with- guns is being put together by a studio who made their name in the RTS genre with such games as World in Conflict and Ground Control. Prior to its E3 unveiling, the game was codenamed Rogue, a nod to World of Warcraft. Massive have spent the last three years steadily hiring people with MMO experience: heading the list is game director Ryan Barnard, who has spent almost his entire career working in the genre, with credits on games such as EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot and Warhammer Online.
Barnard isn t making an MMO, however, even though our conversation is peppered with vocabulary plucked from that genre s lexicon. Yes, The Division will have crafting and trading, PvP and PvE, skills and levelling, but it s clear that Massive s guiding principle isn t taking what works and trying to copy it, so much as looking at what doesn t and seeking to fix it. Take the skill system: Barnard is a fan of the MMO class trinity, but recognises it doesn t suit an online game that has been designed both for lone wolves and for squads of up to four. What if you partner up with three other Tanks?
Massive s solution is to make skills switchable on the fly. The word we use internally is playstyles we don t really talk about classes, Barnard explains. What it comes down to is a role: we want you to feel like you serve a purpose in the group. There are definite skill and talent directions that fit together, but none of them are locked in trees. You will be limited to how many you can purchase, and how many you can have loaded at a time, but you can swap them out at any time out of combat to change your role. By not forcing you to pick a class at the start, you get to figure out how you like to play, and you don t have to re-roll.
This line of thinking runs through the development of The Division, though Barnard and team are being purposefully cagey about the finer details of a game the release of which is still a year away. He thinks PvP might be the game s silver bullet ; he won t go into specifics about crafting but says a special concern for me personally. I always think it s crap. It s either so complex that one percent of the player base does it, or so easy or meaningless that there s no point in doing it anyway. WoW hit something of a middle ground and I think it can very easily be improved upon.
Let s focus, then, on what we do know. The Division is set in New York City three weeks after a viral outbreak has brought about the collapse of civilised society. That three-week timeline is crucial, as it means the collapse is still ongoing, and reversible, as head of communications Martin Hultberg explains. Clancy units traditionally stop the threat from happening, he says. We thought, well, why don t we take it a little bit further and enter a mid-crisis situation where something did happen, and nobody managed to stop it? Our world is still very much alive: there are people, there are things happening, there are lights on in the city. I wouldn t say the city was dying, but it s very sick. There s still hope.
It s a setup that requires a different approach to world design. New York is in chaos, sure, but not in ruins; it has to be at once familiar and unrecognisable. It will also change over time depending on your actions, or lack of them. You might restore order in one part of the city, but an ignored area will deteriorate. That, Hultberg admits, has a knock-on effect on storytelling: how do you handle narrative when regions will be in different states when players reach them?
We re not going at it with a linear approach, he says. The game is about exploration, investigation in a more traditional sense, adventuring. You have to allow players to go wherever and do whatever in any order they want, so that also requires a different type of storytelling. We want everybody to be able to experience different things, and have their own The Division story.
Barnard is no less enigmatic, speaking of an emergent storytelling layer that is told not through quests, but rather plot threads, which won t be delivered by NPCs but discovered by players. It s about being able to have a major story arc that allows you to pick and choose where you go in New York, which tells different parts of the story but which has threads which are always leading you in a direction. Because it s an investigation.
These are discussions I m used to having with developers about singleplayer games, and for a second it s easy to forget that The Division is also a multiplayer game. The game s matchmaking system will, I m told, assemble squads not solely based on level and ping times, but on preferences: if you play PvP a lot, you ll be matched with three other players who do that too.
There s a remarkable attention to detail here, from the obsessive use of playtesting metrics to refine map design and cover placement, to the insistence that before any member of the studio can work on a weapon they have to fire its real-world equivalent. Their work is the subject of meticulous iteration to ensure weapon balance is just right.
Iteration is an incredibly important part of any game development process, but traditionally it has always been a time-consuming one too. New features need designing, coding, adding to the next alpha build, and then testing; if any changes are required you have to go back to the start of the process.
Not any more. Snowdrop, Massive s new game engine, is enormously powerful, ticking all the next-gen graphical feature boxes particles, smoke, cloth physics, volumetric this and HDR that but it s hugely flexible, too. It s a live engine: the game has been playable since very early on in development, and any new features or fixes can be tested instantly. A couple of clicks, a cascade of command line windows, and you re in the game. It s greatly reducing development time, and therefore team sizes, too. Less than 300 people are working on The Division at the moment. While that will no doubt increase this is a Ubisoft game, after all, and that vast global network of studios will surely help as release draws near it s a very small team for such a big project, especially one that seeks to reinvent in so many areas. Resident Evil 6, you ll remember, was made by 600 people, and that didn t exactly help.
Yet Barnard s biggest personal goal isn t redefining online RPGs, or open-world storytelling, or PvP shooters. The problem he most wants to fix extends far beyond the bounds of a single game, and it goes a long way to explaining why he s staying tightlipped on a lot of The Division s finer details for now.
I m tired of games having a hook about them, he says, where you know how to play them and create everything before the game even comes out. I think it s better to give people a premise of the game and then have them discover what it s actually about when they play. I think that ll create community. I think that s gone in online games, it s dead; there s no interaction from players. I personally will want to say as little as possible before the game comes out so people will just play, and have a good time, and discover it.
That s a noble goal one that he ll do well to get past Ubisoft s marketing teams, but a noble one nonetheless. It s a goal that, together with a smart engine that greatly reduces the cost of game development, suggests that the next few years of games won t just be prettier, shinier and bigger. Nor will they simply iron out the mechanical kinks of the games that came before them. They might just have a positive effect on both the people who make games and those who play them, too.
The grand galactic story engine Eve Online sailed proudly into its second decade, a fine achievement for a unique MMO that still fosters the finest high intrigue on the internet. CCP have celebrated the landmark - and the arrival of the Rubicon update - with the release of the Eve Online Collector's Edition, a great big box full of smaller boxes, each full of Eve Online goodies. There's a Minmitar Rifter combat frigate model that doubles as a USB hub why not, a 192 page book detailing the history of Eve, a recording of the live orchestral performance of Eve's soundtrack. a "mystery code" that grants owners "special benefits" in "future CCP products" like the Oculus Rift dogfighting game, Valkyrie, and a copy of the Danger Game, the board game made by CCP's founders, featuring the cross-dressing mayor of Reykjavík, Jon Gnarr, on its cover.
Would you like one? We've got three to give away to UK readers who give the best answer to the question below.
Rubicon marks the start of a new saga in Eve Online, one that'll let players build their own warpgates to open up new areas of space. The question is simple, then: You've take the first trip through a shiny new gate. What do you find on the other side? The three best/funniest answers under 50 words long will win a collector's edition. This one's for UK residents only. Send your answers to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject header "Eve Online competition".
Here's CCP's description of what's included in the box.
“Into the Second Decade” A fully-illustrated history book celebrating the EVE Universe from creation to the integration of DUST 514. This 192 page Hard-back book, 285mm x 230mm, is filled with high quality imagery. “Minmatar Rifter” combat frigate. This finely crafted and detailed model (178mm x 178mm x 51mm) is also a 4-port USB hub bringing one of the most popular ships in EVE history to life for your desktop. (Includes stand and usb cable.) Please note that the Rifter Hub supplied in the Eve 10th Anniversary collectors box is designed to be plugged directly into a PC / Mac / Laptop / Netbook only. Plugging it into an externally powered USB-Hub or any other connecting device may cause the built-in fuse protection to break the circuit. EVE Symphony Soundtrack CD, recorded live during the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra performance at Fanfest 2013. Packaged with 3 collectable ‘code’ cards in a special edition digipak. A CCP “Mystery Code” that will grant owners special benefits related to future CCP products and events including 1 x PLEX – available at launch New and exclusive “Phanca” Cybernetic Arm – coming November 19 Exclusive “Templar MkII Prototype Fighter” for EVE: Valkyrie – coming 2014 More Mystery Code content will be announced soon! “Danger Game”, the board game created by the founders of CCP to help fund the development of the original EVE Online release, now translated to English for all to enjoy. With fully updated artwork it is packaged in a commemorative Collector's Edition tin.
The winners will be judged and announced on Monday December 2. Good luck!
UPDATE: WINNERS HAVE BEEN SELECTED
The answers from email and the comments below have been assessed, and we have three winners! Morgan suggests we'll find "all the odd socks that have ever been lost floating in the void, plus a space station with the sign 'Elvis Presley's Bar & Grill'", solving two galactic mysteries in one swoop. Lee fears rediscovering "my mate's cold corpse - not a game in which to go AFK!", raising the delightful, if disturbing, notion that occasionally Eve players fall through cracks in the universe and become trapped between realities. Faintly plausible, but not as plausible as John's sugestion that the Goonswarm will already be in there, "making phallic objects to remind new explorers of what will be done to them in due course!", a suggestion that gets plus points for likelihood. A thousand capsuleer-hours and billions of Isk, all to be buggered by a Goon in new-space.
Thanks for entering, everyone. We'll have plenty more competitions on the site throughout December, so keep an eye out for more!
A scenario: somebody builds the biggest prison imaginable, fills it full of the most hardened criminals, then, through careful management, has it turning a regular profit. Are they proud of their achievement? No. All they really wanted was to run a jail full of clowns. By default, Prison Architect doesn't contain clowns, which I think we can all agree is a shame. Luckily for our fictional warden, this latest update for the prison management sim codifies mod support, making it easier for them - or other clown hating players - to reskin the game's prisoners.
Or do something else. Modding isn't just about clowns.
Those with alpha log-in details will find a full list of currently available mods here. Right now, people are doing clever things with federal funding, and with changing all prisoners into Darwinians.
As of this update, the game should be much faster. A long campaign of optimisation has meant that, according to the graph posted on the update page, performance on large maps has more than tripled.
In addition to those major updates, staff have been tweaked so that they now become tired. A new staff room designation lets you build areas for them to recharge.
In case you hadn't noticed, this site is called PC Gamer. As you might expect from that title, we're pretty keen on PC games and the PCs that play them. So when an employee of Nvidia says something to the effect of "the PC platform is far superior to any console when it comes to gaming," part of me thinks, "well yes, obviously it is." Of course, part of me also thinks, "well yes, you would say that, because your competitor is making graphics chips for both next-gen consoles."
"We are proposing small form-factor PCs to be a viable alternative to the next-gen consoles. Enthusiast players want the ultimate games system and that is the PC," Matt Wright, Nvidia consumer sales manager, told MCV.
"The PC platform is far superior to any console when it comes to gaming, plus you get all the extra functionality that a computer brings."
"Steam now has more users than Xbox Live," he finished. "There is a whole new generation who grew up playing on PC with titles like Minecraft or World of Tanks. There’s a huge community who love playing their games on PC."
Nvidia clearly have an interest in bigging up the PC as a gaming platform, especially now they've launched a range of small form factor PCs, and that means there's a clear bias. Even so, that doesn't stop what Wright says from being largely true. Again, this site is called PC Gamer, so yes, that might also be a bias. But it's still true.
You know, except for when it isn't. But for those moments, we have this gif.