Portal 2
features of the year

You needn’t see out the last few days of 2012 wallowing in a figgy pudding-induced sugar-crash: perk yourself up with this collection of the great features we’ve put up on the site this year. We’ve got informative how-to guides, insightful retrospectives, polemics, play-throughs, ‘making of’ stories and much more. Bookmark it now while you're still compos mentis and you’re sure to find something in here to jolt you back to life or, at the very least, help to annul the post-Crimbo indigestion.

Minecraft Renders

PCG UK’s handsome and hirsute editor Graham Smith teaches you how to pull out equally handsome (but not especially hirsute) renders from Minecraft, while marvelling at the astonishing feats of architecture to be found on the PCG UK server.

10 best Portal 2 co-op maps

Phil Savage grabs a buddy and puts the community’s best Portal 2 maps to the test, or possibly vice versa. Convection funnels, laser death and no small amount of inter-player bickering ensues.

Skyrim: Week of Madness

The name does not lie: Rich Cobbett’s Skyrim diary, in which he installs 100 randomly selected mods is an experiment in genuine derangement. Not entirely safe for work, unless your workplace encourages inarticulately rendered BDSM.

Making of Minecraft

I wrote this! And I got in trouble for quoting Notch’s swearwords. Sorry, everyone who bought the magazine for their kids. Still, once you get past the F-word opener, it settles into a heartwarming tale of indie devs done good, a triumph born from equal parts serendipity and smarts.

Old friends: an ode to Defense of the Ancients

Cara Ellison recalls the original DotA. “Some people think that gaming is a solitary hobby. But for me, DotA was a way to connect with my real life friends through an experience that didn’t include a darkened room serving overpriced alcohol we couldn’t afford.”

The indies guide to game-making

Tom Francis hunts down the world’s premier indie devs, unfurls his needle-thin proboscis, plunges it into their brains and slurps out every last drop of advice from them. Then he squirts it all back out here. Drink deep, budding indies, for the advice is good!

Hearthfire: the beginner’s guide to homesteading and mass murder

All Chris Livingstone wanted was a home to call his own. Things don’t go to plan. “The air fills with the screams of the dying and the streets run crimson with the blood of the dead.” Oops!

12 year war: rise of wargaming

World of Tanks is now one of the biggest games on the planet, and its curators at Wargaming.net are, shall we say, rather comfortable. How did they find themselves with such phenomenal wealth? Tom Senior finds out.

Crapshoot 2012

It would be unfair to pick just one of Rich Cobbett’s terrific retrospectives (which we run every Saturday dontchaknow), so here’s his top three picks for this year: Hard Time, Les Miserables and Shadow President.

Flash of greatness

Rich McCormick stares enviously at the bright lights of the pro-gaming scene, and charts the ascendancy of Lee Young Ho, known to the Star Craft scene as Flash. Wipe your chin, McCormick!

Sim-plicity 2012

Chris Livingston has retired from videogame heroism. Instead, every Sunday, he embarks on a career of more modest proportions: driving buses, cutting wood and occasionally igniting entire airports in a deadly maelstrom of flame.

Day z photo diary

Evan Lahti charts an epic journey through Chernarus in this excellent two-parter: “He was a survivor with one life to live. His backpack: filled with beans. His world: filled with zombies. These are his tales, and the tales of his inconsistently-brave friends. And the tales of the woman played by a man who loved him.” Part two is here.

The best Skyrim mods

Whether you’re looking for new looks, new loot, homesteads or fulsome quests, Tom Hatfield’s compilation of the finest mods should see you good.

The Elder Strolls

Chris Livingston once again proves that the most valiant path is often the most humble: “My name is Nordrick. I’m not a hero, I’m an NPC, and I’m here not to play Skyrim, but to live in it.”

Inside the final hours of Star Wars: Galaxies

When Star Wars: Galaxies shut down its servers, it was as if millions of headline writers trotted out the same Obi Wan quote and were suddenly silenced. Our very own Imperial agent Chris Thursten was there to watch the mighty MMO’s light wink out.

An Illusionist in Skyrim

Tom Francis is a coward. Not in real life, of course, where he is bold and manly and frequently wrestles giant salamanders with his bare hands. But when he wants to get away from it all, he settles into Skyrim: “This is the diary of me attempting to play Skyrim using only Illusion magic: I’m not allowed any weapons, armour, or magical items, and I can’t attack anyone directly.”

The E3 2012 press conference PC gamers deserve

Graham Smith imagines an alternative E3 - the one we deserve. “The first parties were more concerned with propping up their platforms with lifestyle buzzwords than making great games. Even the big publishers, EA and Ubisoft, seemed lost in the tall grass, offering almost nothing other than the expected sequels. I can’t help but think we could do it better.”
DOOM 3 Resurrection of Evil

Running a website called Dead End Thrills (about pictures of grafix), I spend a lot of time playing with visual mods. When PCG asked me to list my favourites from 2012, I agreed thinking I could do it in the style of the prize round from Bullseye. "You'll be up all night 'cause it don't look like shite." "Act well-heeled with this depth-of-field." But that wouldn't work overseas, they said, and stopped being funny after two examples.

Here's a straightforward top ten, then, in no particular order.
Battlefield 3 screenshot by Jim Snook (jim2point0)

No sooner had Nvidia's Timothy Lottes introduced FXAA (a 'fast approximate' antialiasing solution effective, unusually, upon deferred rendering and shader aliasing) than 'some dude' (their username - bet it's a lady) weaponised it into a DLL injector for most DirectX games. Copy it into the same folder as the game's binary and it hooks the calls to DirectX, softening the edges most AA methods can't reach.

Then things got interesting. Tonemapping, digital vibrance, luma sharpening and other neat effects got thrown into the mix, giving us the power to customise the look of most modern games. It's also one of the most reliable, no-nonsense screen capture tools: just hit your assigned hotkey and a lossless image plops into the game's folder.

Christian Jensen's SweetFX is the next evolution. Using SMAA for antialiasing, its features include S-Curve contrast adjustment and a filmic Cineon DPX treatment. Popular presets for these injectors include the Mass Effect 3 'Illumination' mod and James Snook's work with Borderlands 2 and Dishonored. When it comes to cheap, powerful tweaks to colour, image quality and luminosity, PC gamers have never had it so good.

Smarteck's Mass Effect 3 textures
Additional screen.

Back in February, the official Mass Effect Twitter account confirmed that “when the full game releases, hi-res textures will be built into the game!” And so we learned that when BioWare uses an exclamation mark, it's because it can't quite believe what it's saying - because it isn't true. Altogether now: 'Crikey, these textures are taking a while to update. Oh, they have updated and the costumes still look like Ceefax.'

Some months later Smarteck, a member of BioWare's long-suffering community forum, has led an effort to retexture not just Mass Effect 3 but all of its DLC as well. Inspired by the sterling efforts of 'Jean-Luc' with his ME2 textures, he's made the game's costumes and environments palatable, if not strictly 'hi-res'. Some detail texturing here and artistic licence there can't always cover the initial upscaling that's gone on.

The other quirk is that you need ancient memory patcher Texmod to actually inject the stuff into the game. It adds something in the region of ten minutes to the initial load time and can cause issues of varying severity if you try and inject too much. All of that said, it has the not-insignificant effect of making the game compatible with your eyes.

Durante's 'DSFix' for Dark Souls
Screenshot by Midhras

I'm going to paraphrase a bit here. From Software: "We can't do it." NeoGAF poster Durante: "I bet I can do it in half an hour." 23 minutes later: "Look at that! Sometimes I surprise even myself." An awkward silence now follows into eternity, save for all the whooping and cheering of users who'd just about written off the PC port of the magnificent Dark Souls.

Unlocking the game's internal frame buffer with his 'DSFix', Durante revealed assets that were clearly fit for more than pitiful sub-720p rendering. Then, among other things, he added ambient occlusion, uncapped the framerate and improved the game's texture filtering. And there was much rejoicing - and nagging for further features.

It's hard to recall a PC version that's been rescued from the brink of utter rejection quite like Dark Souls, and certainly not rescued by players themselves. The wrong lighting model going into Resident Evil 4, the performance tailspin of DX11 Arkham City: such things are usually patched with some urgency by the developers. Souls fans had barely lit the torches, much less found the pitchforks and a way to still type, by the time the game was fixed.

ENB Series for Skyrim and Fallout 3
Outspoken graphics programmer Boris Vorontsov might just be one of the most important people in PC gaming right now. No joke. His ENB wrappers and injectors have brought to many games the kind of generational leap in quality people expect from modern graphics cards, but seldom receive beyond those tech demos where fairies in Nvidia-branded loincloths ride turtles into battle with Decopunk death balloons. Those exist, right?

But where do you begin? Vorontsov has banned the hosting of his core dlls anywhere but on his own website; then you have the community-made presets. That's where effects like indirect lighting, subsurface scattering and complex ambient occlusion are wrangled into something complementing (or wildly departing, depending upon taste) the game's original look.

The last year has seen several masters of this bizarre artform emerge. In one niche you've got Midhras and his deep and luscious 'Midhrastic' presets for Skyrim and Fallout 3. In another, Trillville (aka Anthemios) and his muted but cinematic 'TV ENB', again for both games. And there's the fantastical (but surprisingly GPU-light) Seasons Of Skyrim by Bronze316. There's loads, basically, so get looking.

Sikkmod/Wulfen's Textures for Doom 3
Additional screens: 1, 2 and 3.

Not strictly from this year but here by virtue of significant recent updates. If Rage left you questioning the genius/foresight/influence/marbles of one John Carmack, let the properly modded Doom 3 splash all over your grumpy face like a hyper-demonic poo pump (or whatever those things are).

To put it really crudely, user Sikkpin brings the effects while Wulfen (and to a lesser extent another modder called Monoxead) brings the textures. There's a lot more to it, though. Sikkmod adds a beautifully implemented list of options to the game's menu, letting you toggle but also heavily customise things like ambient occlusion, colour grading, bloom and HDR. The icing on the cake, though, is the experimental parallax occlusion mapping (POM).

Given supporting ultra-quality textures like Wulfen's, POM adds a relatively primitive relief effect to the game's grungy surfaces. It's also an effect, though, that makes you want to reach out and touch all the stuff you really don't want to have on your fingers. The caveat - and it's a big one - is that it's far more demanding and less reliable than tessellation in a DX11 game. When the effect breaks, it breaks bad. Still worth it? Absolutely.

REX: Real Environment Xtreme
Alternative screens: 1 and 2

Of course you're aware that the flight sim community takes things rather seriously. Where modding is concerned, they build planes like they're actually building planes. The manual for one of these suckers is bigger than the manual for my car; in fact, the 2005 Honda Jazz feels less realistic all round. Meanwhile, when these modders are building the weather, they do it better than God. His clouds have been rubbish for years.

You'll get the lot if you invest the considerable time and money required by Flight Simulator X and its biggest mod, Real Environment Xtreme. The latest version is called REX Essential and is soon to be improved by REX Essential Overdrive. Assuming your mind can handle something so essentially overriding, what that gives you is almost 10gb of clouds, runways, dawns, dusks, reefs, waves... an awful lot of photorealistic stuff.

The way the mod works is to build a weather profile for the particular flight you add to your planner. It takes a while to import the necessary textures and runs a background app to keep track of them, but it's well worth the rigmarole. Add it to things like TileProxy and a high-fidelity terrain mesh and you have a game that makes Microsoft Flight look like... well, Microsoft Flight.

Skywind/Morrowind Overhaul
Screenshot from Morrowind Overhaul site.

The heart says Skywind but the head says Morrowind Overhaul, the one you can actually play. The magpie in me likes Skywind’s shiny stuff, but the historian bristles at the idea of just transplanting Morrowind into the framework and tech of a really quite different game. Not that it stopped the Dragonborn DLC, but that's not quite the same thing.

The screenshots of Skywind are marvellous, of course, in that specific way that most ENB-assisted shots are. Beautiful art and beautiful technology on occasionally decent terms. Can the authors pull it off without inflicting a violent mood swing on the game? We're a long way from finding out: they just made the difficult decision to take several steps back in order to bypass some serious obstacles, and now there's just a skeletal worldspace to explore.

Morrowind Overhaul has had a lot longer to gather its greatest hits collection of mods for the original game. Crucially, it suffers none of the legal issues surrounding asset-porting that affect Skywind and its Oblivion-based predecessor, Morroblivion, so isn't such a kludge of community-only content. And hey, even if you don't like it, the divine beauty of its installer will still come to you in dreams.

GLSL shaders for Minecraft
When no one can even agree on Notch's motives for the game's look - I want to call it 'Voxel Art' but its polygons won't let me - you can imagine the confusion over how Minecraft should be modded. Maybe that's the beauty of it. At the very least you get the comedy of people striving to make it 'photorealistic', as if waiting for the mod that shrinks each block to 1 cubic pixel so they can make a perfect replica of Crysis.

Better, I think, to flatter the blocks without pretending they're something they're not. I'd love to see realtime radiosity in Minecraft but suspect my computer wouldn't. (You should have heard the noise while rendering these 4K screenshots.) What we do have, though, is the ongoing work on daxnitro's abandoned GLSL Shader mod. Some of it's awful, like the lens flare and depth of field effects, but you can turn those off in the shader files and still enjoy sumptuous light and shadowing.

What I was looking for was a realtime version of the renders described here. It warms me to know I'm still looking at a game. I have to warn you, though, that finding the right shaders for the right version of the mod, for the right version of Minecraft, was an utter chore. Each small update of Minecraft requires a new version of the mod, and each new version of the mod tends to break something, whether it's the lovely new water shader or Nvidia compatibility. It might not even work at all.

You need to learn this stuff for yourself, really, as there's a lot of trial and error. Start by reading the thread for Sonic Ether’s Unbelievable Shaders (SEUS). Then look at Sonic Ether’s updates page on Facebook and figure out why he chose such an abhorrent solution as Facebook for an updates page (hint: you can’t). If, like me at 2AM, you’ve followed all of these instructions and have more questions than answers, you could always try chocapic13’s preset here which I turned to in desperation, and which actually worked.

Crysis 2 MaLDoHD Mod

Screenshot from MaLDoHD site

Real soldiers don't look at the enemy, they look at the floor. They stand by their fallen comrades, lower their guns and think, "That is a dirty puddle, all right, but is it a wow puddle?" Then they get shot. Bleeding out, they look up at the sky and think, "No, those clouds aren't doing it for me at all. This is simply unacceptable."

Thanks to the jargon-tastic MaLDoHD mod, the shoegazing soldier doesn't have to die disillusioned any more. Fears that Crysis 2 would become any less MAXIMUM with age can be safely laid to rest.

He's suffered for his mod, this Maldo. His computer "burst" in October, reveals his blog, and some believed he was dead. So you'll just have to settle for the "1894 textures and 1297 materials" in the existing beta version of MaLDoHD; those, and all the effects such as SSDO, object tessellation and penumbra shadowing. Sucks, huh.

The RAR file is 1.5gb and expands to over 2gb. The configuration process remains, as even MAXIMUM GAMER Craig Pearson had to admit, "a bit of a faff". His install guide still applies, though, so check it out.

Deus Ex New Vision
Screenshot from Deus Ex New Vision ModDB page.

Any visual mod for Deus Ex has its work cut out. My lasting memory of the original graphics is how freshly waxed the floors looked, not how the characters resembled ice sculptures on a balmy day. Accept the rather mathematical art as a style choice, though, or a trade-off for the game’s complexities, and you’ve ticked the first box for installing New Vision.

As well as enabling DX10, New Vision gives most of the game’s textures a fourfold increase in size and quality, bringing them into line with a modern game. It does it by exploiting the seldom-used S3TC standard of the original Unreal Engine.

Installing it is simple, especially if you have the Steam version which includes the required patches. The single installer asks if you want to install a modified launcher (you do if you want FOV options and enhanced resolution options) on top of the new textures, then you just run the game as usual.

Sucked helplessly into Ion Storm's universe for what’s probably the tenth time, you might just realise that old geometry and HD textures aren’t always a bad combination. New Vision is the work of top-tier artists with an obvious respect for the source material, and these are genuine 1024x1024 textures rather than horrid upsamples. Rather than drag the game kicking and screaming into 2012, though, they invite you back to 2000 with augmented eyes.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Skyrim Diary 15 - 0

This is the diary of me attempting to play Skyrim using only Illusion magic: I'm not allowed any weapons, armour, or magical items, and I can't attack anyone directly. The first entry is here, or you can see all entries to date here.

The whole concept for my character is that I never directly attack any living thing, so it's rather awkward that I now find myself getting all the credit for slaying a dragon. I didn't. I didn't even help. I was going to lead some angry giants over to beat it up for me, but the guards killed the dragon before I got there, so I just ended up setting some angry giants on the real heroes and then stealing all the glory.

So as the Jarl of Whiterun is singing my praises, naming me his Thane, giving me a personal servant, and entrusting me with his own battleaxe, I'm wishing he'd shut up. I need him to read the letter my general ordered me to deliver.

At last, he does. "Take my axe to Ulfric Stormcloak in Windhelm," he replies. "He'll know my meaning."

Jarl, I think I speak for my superiors in the Imperial Legion when I suggest you start researching communication. Posting someone an axe is a really inefficient way to talk.

I mutter most of the long, uneventful ride to Windhelm, halfway across Skyrim. When I arrive, I slip off Sarah the Implausible Horse and barge into Ulfric's great hall, expressing my feelings about their culture by trampling all over the banquet table on my way to his throne.

"You are quite brave to carry such a message," Ulfric says. Do you mean bored? I'm quite bored to carry such a message. Tired, maybe? It's pretty heavy. Capacious? It's not really clear where I was stowing it.

"Return his axe, and tell him to expect visitors. There will be a great deal of excitement in Whiterun soon."

Oh you are kidding me. This whole conversation is not only going to consist entirely of me taking axes back and forth, it's going to be the same axe? Your conversation is literally just:

"Same thing."

Didn't you kill a guy with a shout once? Talk with shouts! Kill with axes! You people need to take a long hard look at either your traditions or your dictionary.

No, it's fine, I'm going.

A predictable response

Another long trek. Another ride to the city gates. Another walk to another throne room. Another rebellious stomp across another dining table, goblets and grilled salmon flying everywhere.

The Jarl: "I knew this would be his response." Oh, cool. Kind of a massive stupid insane waste of my goddamn time then, wasn't it?

A messenger runs in to inform us that the Stormcloaks are at the gate. Huh. Must have somehow missed their whole army being right behind me all the way from Windhelm.

"This is it," shouts the Jarl, "to the battlements!"

We all rush out, but a guard stops me.

"Wait, I know you!" Oh god, not this again. "You're a wanted woman!"

My bounty is 2 gold - I still don't know what for, but I don't have time to go to be arrested right now. I explain to him that the Jarl has just made me Thane, and ask if whatever those two words mean translates to me being somehow above the law?

It does! Excellent.

As we head on, another guard chimes in: "Looking to do some hunting? Avoid Brittleshin Pass." OK. We're... we're off to the war now.

The battle for Whiterun

It's early evening, and smoke - possibly fog of war - is thick in the streets. Fiery projectiles come raining in over the battlements and slam into the ground. And, as with every other time I leave Whiterun, I take the wrong route to the gate and end up in a cow pen.

When we finally get out of the front gates, I hop on Sarah the Implausible Horse and gallop out towards the oncoming troops. Arrows whiz by, Imperials and Whiterun guards charge out behind us, and for a moment it looks like I know what the hell I'm doing.

When I actually reach the enemy, of course, I can't really do anything, so I bank round and canter back behind the guys who are going to actually fight.

I park Sarah somewhere safe-ish and dismount to start flinging spells. At first I try to Fury the enemies, to make them attack each other. I encounter a few problems with this, not least of which is that Fury doesn't really do that. Furied enemies just attack the nearest thing, which is typically me by the time I hit them with it.

The other problem is that Whiterun guards look similar to the enemy Stormcloaks in the evening gloom, so often the person I've just tricked into attacking me is one of our own troops. I'm used to not being the most useful person in a given fight, but this is about as actively unhelpful as I've been since the incident with the giants.

All around me, everyone's doing their job: Legate Rikke is shouting at the troops, the troops are twirling and impaling enemies in gruesome kill moves, and the enemies are dying excellently. I, on the other hand, am nearly dead and low on health potions, so I decide to stick to Couraging our troops. At least if I hit the wrong people with that spell, it's basically useless anyway.

The General

The tide starts to turn against us: an objective popup informs me we've lost the drawbridge and should protect the battlements, then immediately adds that we've also lost the battlements. And oddly, my companion Belrand is nowhere to be seen. He must have lagged behind on our way out of the city, and now the gates are locked until the attack is over.

I'm beating a strategic retreat when I bump into a half-naked woman wearing most of a bear. I instinctively cast Calm on her, then realise she's the Stormcloak commander. Deeply chillaxed, she puts her bow away and wanders through the carnage. Two Imperial Legion soldiers run up to her and slaughter her in cold blood. Hurray, I helped!

I start Calming more of the enemies - I've had enough Illusion practise now that the mana cost is trivial, and at this stage in the battle I'm able to pacify almost the entire Stormcloak force before I run dry. It's a bizarre scene, an invasion force suddenly ambling around the battlefield, acting like they never wanted our stupid city anyway.

Our last few soldiers are less relaxed. They keep hacking at the idle Stormcloaks, and killing all but three by the time the spells wear off. I check my inventory to drink another health potion, and when I flick back to the game, a massive skeletal monster plunges down out of the sky in front of me.

Close to the bone

After a moment of total bafflement, I realise it's a dragon. The reason I didn't recognise it is that it's crashed skull-first into the ground, its massive pelvic bone wiggling weirdly in the air. It's not a skeletal dragon, it's a dragon skeleton. In fact, it's almost certainly the skeleton of the dragon the guards killed for me out at the guard tower. What the hell it's doing here, and why it plummeted out of the sky, I will never know.

Backing slowly away, I see there are only two Stormcloaks left now, so I Fury one of them into killing the other. When the spell wears off, he looks round at me, the Imperial soldiers behind me, and the massive dragon skeleton on the ground between us, and he runs off into the night. Whiterun is ours.

I head back to the city gates, stopping briefly to check my journal and make sure that's where I'm meant to be going. When I put it away, a titanic mess of bone crashes down on my head. Jesus goddamn Christ! Get it off me!

The gibbering dragon skeleton wobbles awkwardly between me and the city gate, then slumps down to the ground. It's the same one, it just jumps on top of me every time I bring up my inventory. Is this glitch meant to remind me how bad I should feel for setting angry giants on the guards who killed this dragon for me? The symbolism is a bit heavy handed, even for a videogame. I feel bad! You don't need to literally hit me over the head with it!

Mercifully, the dragon corpse symbolism attacks stop once I get back into Whiterun. Belrand's there waiting for me, being the useless one for once, and so is the Jarl. He prattles on again about how amazing I am, gives me yet another axe, and says as a sign of his appreciation, I'd be welcome to buy a house in Whiterun. Er, buy a house? My reward for saving the city is the ability to acquire a house in exchange for the cost of a house? I didn't realise I was ever actually banned from engaging in basic commerce.

Slightly offended, I find Sarah the Implausible Horse and ride on through the night, Belrand jogging behind. We should reach Solitude by dawn.

Dead drop

We reach Labyrinthine by dawn. Labyrinthine is a snow-covered ruin I usually try to avoid on my way to Solitude because of all th- oh God Frost Trolls! I steer Sarah the Implausible Horse around one and onto a bridge, which immediately turns out to be a precipice.

I look down. It's quite far. I look back. The troll's quite close. There's no way around him, and there isn't room for me to get off to cast Illusion spells. Belrand is nowhere to be seen. We ride off the edge.

Sarah the Implausible Horse and I both collapse when we hit the ground. I get back up. I stand there for a while, looking at my limp horse, hoping she'll move. She doesn't.

Belrand finally catches up, runs over to the body, stops, and looks up at me wordlessly.

Eventually the Frost Troll scampers down some stone steps towards us, and bizarrely, he stops too. The Troll looks at Belrand. Belrand looks at me. I look at Sarah. It feels weirdly like a moment of silence for this stupid, senseless loss.

Once I feel we've paid our respects, I walk off. Belrand follows. The Troll follows. Suddenly, they seem to remember they're enemies, and start to fight. I Calm the Troll and carry sadly on to Solitude by foot.

The Pale

Back in town, I stop by the local trader to sell some dragon bones, which are probably not haunted or anything, and spend the money on new spells: Fear, Rally, and Frenzy (see For my next tricks).I'll be honest: that's about your lot for Illusion, until you get Invisibility at level 75. I've levelled up a lot in my travels, but I'm still a long way off that. I'm not even sure I'd have enough mana to cast it, since I'm not allowed to wear enchanted gear.

At HQ, General Tullius announces that I'd be "wasted as a regular soldier." If you mean useless, I agree! He sends me out to help Legate Rikke in the Pale, which I deduce is some kind of region.

Before I leave Solitude, I wonder if I should buy a new horse. No, it's too soon. For me to afford it.

I find Rikke up in the mountains, at a remote Imperial camp in the middle of a blizzard. Soldiers huddle around a campfire, and the wounded groan in the medical tent. Also in the medical tent, oddly, is a table with two strong health potions on it. Are we just leaving these guys to die three feet from some health potions? Are they aware that health potions magically fix everything?

Oh well. I'll take them if you're not using them. And this money I found in the drawer. The 'pick up' icon wasn't red, so morally it's fine.

The way we're going to take The Pale, Legate Rikke informs me, is by creating fake orders to trick the enemy into doing what we want. My orders are to steal some orders so we can fake some orders. Honestly, I could save them the trouble: these people seem to communicate entirely in axes. Let's just take them an axe and say it's from Ulfric Stormcloak, they'll all kill each other.

I am instructed to leave this freezing, windswept camp and go directly to a pub, where I should hang out until a Stormcloak messenger comes by. Yessir.


I'm trudging through the mountain blizzard, still sadly horseless, when I see people fighting up ahead. I run over to see whether some or all of them need to be Calmed down. It turns out to be Imperial Legion soldiers fighting a group of dark elves in dark clothes, and the dark elves win before I can intervene. They turn to me. I hit them with Frenzy, but nothing happens. A note at the top of the screen explains that "Vampire resisted Frenzy".

Vampires! My Illusions won't work on them because they're undead, and they can even do the one Illusion I can't: invisibility. Right now, though, they're giving me a thorough demonstration of their Lightning and Life Drain spells, and I have to drink my entire stock of health potions to stay alive. The two I stole from the dying soldiers actually save my life.

Finally I manage to scramble up onto an icy ridge the vampires can't climb, and I'm safe. Then something occurs to me. I edge back down towards them, and let the nearest one stab and Drain me as much as I can risk, until the message pops up:

You have contracted Sanguinare Vampiris.


The next entry is in the current issue of PC Gamer in the UK (which you can buy online here) and will go online on January the 17th.

We used to put the diary online in shorter, weekly posts, but a lot of readers felt they were too short. Which is the best complaint, but in some cases I agreed. They were written as 2,000 word entries for the magazine and then split afterwards, so not every 500 word chunk had the right structure to work in isolation. We've switched to putting the full magazine version up all at once, which means changing to a monthly schedule to stay in sync. Let us know in the comments whether you prefer it this way - we plan to do more diaries after this one finishes.
Steam Time Analysis

Lambent Stew's free, web-based Steam Time Analysis tool laid bare my backlog of shame by breaking down time spent (or not spent) on each of my library's games like some sort of cold, ruthless PowerPoint presentation. The breadth of information provided is quite impressive. Over email, Stew told us the new build includes a few new features that further visualize users' habits.

You're now be able to compare your profile with those on your friends list for games owned, how many were played, and total hours played. (Our own Executive Editor Evan Lahti only played around 16 percent of his over 1300-game stable, the lazy bum.)

Similar to another homebrewed utility, a new worth calculator also provides combined figures for minimum, maximum, and current game prices in your library. Locating your own profile should be easier with improved search: just type in your Steam profile ID, and the tool should easily zero in on your data.

Check out the tool for yourself on Lambent Stew's website. How do you rank against your friends? What's your most-played game?
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Skyrim thumb

I've been playing Baldur's Gate again recently, and it's reignited my appreciation for RPGs that can properly kick your ass. There's nothing quite like the quickload abusing challenge of trying to take down a lone polar bear without it wiping out half your party, deranged Beserker and all.

That desire for brutal, unforgiving encounters seems to be at the heart of Requiem: The Oldschool Roleplaying Overhaul, which tweaks nearly every aspect of Skyrim to make it that much more punishing.

The changelog is huge. Races have been reworked to offer more varied inherent traits, sneaking has been nerfed to stop it being a crutch for people (i.e. me) to survive pretty much every encounter, all the spells have been adjusted and shopkeepers have been given an upgrade to stinginess. Naturally fast travel has been disabled, which is going to make the seven thousand steps a right bugger to ascend.

The biggest change though is to the combat. Enemy difficulty is determined by type, with even spiders now requiring more tactical thought than blindly slashing away. Encounters are also designed to be quicker. Humanoids with light armour can be dispatched quickly (even if that means you), but heavy armour comes at a huge cost to stamina unless you're investing perks to negate their weight.

It all sounds rather tiring, to be honest. But no doubt there'll be some out there more than happy to transform the game into an unyielding struggle for survival.

You can download Requiem from Skyrim Nexus. Unfortunately it's not up on the Steam Workshop, so installation will require some effort. Nowhere near as much as actually playing the thing, admittedly.
Team Fortress 2
Screenshots of the year - Project Cars

Project Cars by Darkdeus

Project Cars may secretly be the best looking game of the year. It's only playable for Project Cars team members at the moment, but there's no shortage of gorgeous screenshots for the rest of us to gawp at. Efforts like this one from Darkdeus demonstrate how much closer racing games come to photorealism than other genres. Humans are safely hidden behind reflective windscreens, which makes it easier for racing games to navigate the uncanny valley and deliver sublime shots like this.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim by Chewiemuse

Bethesda's decision to support modders with Steam Workshop support and the Creation Kit have paid dividends in the year since launch. Texture packs, shader tweaks and new character models and armour have turned a good looking game into something a bit special. Chewiemuse shows us how with this shot of a warrior disposing of his foe with the archery equivalent of a triple tap. Boost your own copy of The Elder Scrolls V with the help of our Skyrim mods guide.

Arma 2 by Blackhawk

The Arma 2 engine is certainly powerful, but it's not exactly pretty. It's rare for screenshots to capture the satisfaction of a well executed military manoeuvre, but Blackhawk does it with this shot of a team of soldiers securing a drop zone. Arma is as much about organisation and teamwork as good shooting, and the bleak colour palette is quickly forgotten in the tension and sudden drama of Arma's combat situations. Captured at just the right angle, Arma skirmishes look almost real, as ITV discovered when they accidentally used Arma 2 footage as part of a documentary last year.

Max Payne 3 by Glottis8

Yes, GTA 4 was a shoddy port, but Rockstar have done a much better job with recent releases like LA Noire and Max Payne 3. Glottis8's image of Max surfing an explosive shockwave shows off the improved textures and sharp lines of the PC version in dynamic fashion. It could only be improve if Max was perpendicular to the explosion. And his fingers were wrapped around a pair of handcannons. And he was wearing a trenchcoat. And it was snowing. In New York.

Okay, the third game got away from some of the elements that made Max Payne unique, but that's hardly Glottis' fault. Let's just sit back and enjoy imagining how good that explosion probably sounds.

The Mario Brothers in Garry's Mod
by DOAmaster

What's this, the MARIO BROTHERS on PC GAMER? Thanks to the magic of Garry's mod and DOAmaster's screenshotting abilities, the impossible has come to pass. As pleasing as I find those blazing colours, I still haven't figured out exactly what's going on here. If I don't attach a narrative to this thing I'll never make it to the next page and we'll be trapped here in Nintendo world forever. Let's say that Mario and Luigi are holding a belt (small plank of wood?) and this squad of chipmunks (gophers?) is attempting to limbo (???) under it. Plausible? Good enough! Next.

Sword and Sworcery
by Glottis8

The pristine and ageless pixel art of Swords and Sworcery is excellent subject matter for trigger happy screen-grabbers. S&S was released on iOS systems originally, but the artwork shifts up to larger screens rather nicely. That's lucky, because it's designed as a cohesive audiovisual tapestry, and it would be a shame for poorly upscaled graphics to spoil Jim Guthrie's marvellous soundtrack, Ballad of the Space Babies, which you can hear here. Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery is available on Steam.

Project Cars again
by Leviathan

Yep, it's more Project Cars, but look at the stupendous detail on show here. The foil folds of the headlights reflect the horizon of the approaching terrain. Every nut and bolt is present and correct. Look, you can even see the tiny silver mouse periscope popping out of the bonnet in front of the windscreen wipers. Impressive. This slot was a toss up between the picture above and this shot of a car carving up a shiny tarmac track. Not bad, eh?

Team Fortress 2
by Rossrox

Remember when Team Fortress 2 turned into a sparkling, cheerful extension of the Pyro's demented psyche earlier this year? I was happy to be reminded by Rossrox' glittery and violent portrayal of the conflict. I especially enjoy the fact that TF2 has chosen this moment to remind players to be respectful to one another, as a soldier lies burning to death on a floor, and another readies a rocket launcher against a charging Pyro. It's important to remain polite in the face of impending doom. Jolly good show.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
by Zloth

There was always going to be more Skyrim in this roundup. There's something about that world's frozen peaks that make folks want to take pictures. Screenshots can fail to do justice to the sense of discovery and wonder that Skyrim's most impressive vistas tend to evoke. This grab from Zloth does the job quite nicely, though. Unfortunately it means that any human who looks upon it must endure a sudden urge to jump back into the world and go adventuring again, sinking yet more hours into Bethesda's fantasy juggernaut. The only cure is to look away, so follow me as we go travel onto the next page and absorb the final selection in our round-up of the best screenshots from the PC Gamer community 2012.

Battlefield 3
by RPhilMan1

It's Battlefield! I was a little surprised that there weren't more shots of Armored Kill maps like Alborz Mountain, but this sandy overview of a sprawling industrial warzone will do quite nicely. Look upon it and imagine the different skirmishes that players are having down there. Engineers will be trying to out-ferret each other in the maze of storage crates on the left. The plume of black smoke hints at the presence of a flaming tank corpse behind the tankers in the centre. A small collection of squads will be having their own private war for the squared off mountainous base on the left. It's a good overview that lays bare the variety and complexity of Battlefield 3's maps and drops in a chopper for good measure.

And that's your lot for this year. You can see plenty more on the screenshot thread in our forums. Browse at your leisure, and feel free to drop in a few of your own favourite gaming snaps while you're there. You never know, you might secure a slot in next year's round-up.
Half-Life 2

The Biggest Winners Helped This Year's VGAs Tell a Different TaleIf the Video Game Awards are actually an awards show, and not just a keynote for promoting upcoming games, then the big news from last night was The Walking Dead: The Game. Eminently quotable analyst Michael Pachter said before the show that if this title, a downloadable self-published game, took home Game of the Year, he'd eat his hat. To his credit, Pachter later tweeted out a request for one, presumably to consume.

But the surprises don't just stop there. The Walking Dead won Game of the Year coming out of the Best Adapted Game category. Except for 2003, the first year of the VGAs, when things were very different from today, only two adapted games have even been nominated for GOTY: Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City, and neither won. This is a different time in games development, with publishers looking for games whose characters and stories they fully own.

Some might look to a licensed or adapted work and consider that the game derives its significance, or at least the attention given to it, because it draws on some other franchise in popular entertainment. So it's strange that a licensed, adapted work reminds us that story, and characters, and choices, and the memorable experiences they create, matters most.

Here's another surprise nugget: The Walking Dead: The Game earned its makers five Video Game Awards. The next big winner? Journey, with three (including a nomination for Game of the Year.) Borderlands 2 also took home three awards, the best haul for a traditional boxed console game.

So if you're thinking this might have been a different Video Game Awards, in its 10th year, you're probably right. Had the show given more attention to that purpose—only a handful of these awards were actually presented in the broadcast—we might be pondering it as a landmark year. The VGAs are often accused of being an industry popularity contest, but maybe this year they acquired recognizable critical heft. We'll have to see what happens next year, and the year after.

So here are the 25 winners of the 2012 Video Game Awards, plus the Game of the Decade. Two fan-voted awards gave Character of the Year to Claptrap from Borderlands 2, and Most Anticipated Game to Grand Theft Auto V.

The Biggest Winners Helped This Year's VGAs Tell a Different Tale

Game of the Year

The Walking Dead: The Game

Telltale Games

Also nominated: Assassin's Creed III, Dishonored, Journey, Mass Effect 3
The Biggest Winners Helped This Year's VGAs Tell a Different Tale

Studio of the Year

Telltale Games

Also nominated: 343 Industries, Arkane Studios, Gearbox Software

The Biggest Winners Helped This Year's VGAs Tell a Different Tale

Best Xbox 360 Game

Halo 4

Microsoft Studios/343 Industries

Also nominated: Assassin's Creed III, Borderlands 2, Dishonored
The Biggest Winners Helped This Year's VGAs Tell a Different Tale

Best PS3 Game


Sony Computer Entertainment/thatgamecompany

Also nominated: Assassin's Creed III, Borderlands 2, Dishonored
The Biggest Winners Helped This Year's VGAs Tell a Different Tale

Best Wii/Wii U Game

New Super Mario Bros. U


Also nominated: The Last Story, Xenoblade Chronicles, ZombiU
The Biggest Winners Helped This Year's VGAs Tell a Different Tale

Best PC Game

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

2K Games/Firaxis Games

Also nominated: Diablo III, Guild Wars 2, Torchlight II
The Biggest Winners Helped This Year's VGAs Tell a Different Tale

Best Shooter

Borderlands 2

2K Games/Gearbox Software

Also nominated: Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Halo 4, Max Payne 3
The Biggest Winners Helped This Year's VGAs Tell a Different Tale

Best Action-Adventure Game


Bethesda Softworks/Arkane Studios

Also nominated: Assassin's Creed III, Darksiders II, Sleeping Dogs
The Biggest Winners Helped This Year's VGAs Tell a Different Tale

Best Role-Playing Game

Mass Effect 3

Electronic Arts/BioWare

Also nominated: Diablo III, Torchlight II, Xenoblade Chronicles
The Biggest Winners Helped This Year's VGAs Tell a Different Tale

Best Multiplayer Game

Borderlands 2

2K Games/Gearbox Software

Also nominated: Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Guild Wars 2, Halo 4
The Biggest Winners Helped This Year's VGAs Tell a Different Tale

Best Individual Sports Game


Electronic Arts/EA Canada

Also nominated: Hot Shots Golf World Invitational, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13, WWE '13
The Biggest Winners Helped This Year's VGAs Tell a Different Tale

Best Team Sports Game

NBA 2K13

2K Sports/Visual Concepts

Also nominated: FIFA 13, Madden NFL 13, NHL 13
The Biggest Winners Helped This Year's VGAs Tell a Different Tale

Best Driving Game

Need For Speed: Most Wanted

Electronic Arts/Criterion Games

Also nominated: Dirt: Showdown, F1 2012, Forza Horizon
The Biggest Winners Helped This Year's VGAs Tell a Different Tale

Best Song in a Game

"Cities" (Beck) for Sound Shapes

Also nominated: "Castle of Glass" (Linkin Park for Medal of Honor: Warfighter); "I Was Born for This" (Austin Wintory for Journey); "Tears" (Health for Max Payne 3)

The Biggest Winners Helped This Year's VGAs Tell a Different Tale

Best Original Score


Sony Computer Entertainment/thatgamecompany

Also nominated: Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Halo 4, Max Payne 3.

The Biggest Winners Helped This Year's VGAs Tell a Different Tale

Best Graphics

Halo 4

Microsoft Studios/343 Industries

Also nominated: Assassin's Creed III, Dishonored, Journey
The Biggest Winners Helped This Year's VGAs Tell a Different Tale

Best Independent Game



Also nominated: Dust: An Elysian Tail, Fez, Mark of the Ninja
The Biggest Winners Helped This Year's VGAs Tell a Different Tale

Best Fighting Game

Persona 4 Arena

Atlus/Arc System Works/Atlus

Also nominated: Dead or Alive 5, Street Fighter X Tekken, Tekken Tag Tournament 2
The Biggest Winners Helped This Year's VGAs Tell a Different Tale

Best Handheld/Mobile Game

Sound Shapes

Sony Computer Entertainment/Queasy Games

Also nominated: Gravity Rush, LittleBigPlanet (PS Vita), New Super Mario Bros 2
The Biggest Winners Helped This Year's VGAs Tell a Different Tale

Best Performance by a Human Female

Melissa Hutchison for The Walking Dead: The Game

Also nominated: Emma Stone for Sleeping Dogs; Jen Taylor for Halo 4; Jennifer Hale for Mass Effect 3
The Biggest Winners Helped This Year's VGAs Tell a Different Tale

Best Performance by a Human Male

Dameon Clark for Borderlands 2

Also nominated: Dave Fennoy for The Walking Dead: The Game; James McCaffrey for Max Payne 3; Nolan North for Spec Ops: The Line
The Biggest Winners Helped This Year's VGAs Tell a Different Tale

Best Adapted Video Game

The Walking Dead: The Game

Telltale Games

Also nominated: Disney Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two, LEGO Batman 2: DC Super Heroes, Transformers: Fall of Cybertron
The Biggest Winners Helped This Year's VGAs Tell a Different Tale

Best Downloadable Content

Dawnguard for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Bethesda Softworks/Bethesda Game Studios

Also nominated: Leviathan for Mass Effect 3; Mechromancer Pack for Borderlands 2; Perpetual Testing Initiative for Portal 2
The Biggest Winners Helped This Year's VGAs Tell a Different Tale

Best Downloadable Game

The Walking Dead: The Game

Telltale Games

Also nominated: Fez, Journey, Sound Shapes
The Biggest Winners Helped This Year's VGAs Tell a Different Tale

Best Social Game

You Don't Know Jack

Jellyvision Games

Also nominated: Draw Something, Marvel: Avengers Alliance, SimCity Social
The Biggest Winners Helped This Year's VGAs Tell a Different Tale

Game of the Decade

Half Life 2

Valve Corporation

Also nominated: Batman: Arkham City, BioShock, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Mass Effect 2, Portal, Red Dead Redemption, Shadow of the Colossus, Wii Sports, World of Warcraft


Clear your schedule and make room on your hard drive: there are over 9000 mods up for consideration as ModDB's 2012 Mod of the Year award nominees, and only a little over five days to nominate them. A big green button on each mod's page makes it hard to miss the opportunity to give your favorites a bump.

There isn't much time, so we'll get straight to it after this obligatory acknowledgement that we said "over 9000" on the internet: tee hee, references. Moving on, DayZ and Black Mesa are tough to ignore, and The Sith Lords Restored Content Mod was a valiant community effort. Those might be the most talked about and praised mods this year, and we expect they'll secure nominations, but there are so many more that deserve recognition. Which are you voting for?

If you need a refresher, you might want to browse our recent mod coverage to see if you've missed any driving elephants or My Little Pony conversions.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Dragonborn Is The First Skyrim DLC That Actually Feels Like An Expansion

When Skyrim first came out, Bethesda had lofty promises for the game's downloadable content. Skyrim's DLC will feel like expansion packs, the developers assured us.

Reality has told a different story. Skyrim's first DLC, Dawnguard, was a disappointing add-on filled with boring, samey quests. The second DLC, Hearthfire, was basically Barbie's Playhouse with dragons.

Third time's a charm. I've spent a few hours with Skyrim's latest piece of DLC, Dragonborn, and what I've played so far certainly feels like an expansion pack. It could also turn out to be Skyrim's best DLC yet.

Skyrim's newest DLC—out today for Xbox 360, and early next year for PC and PS3 (yes, PS3!)—takes you to the island of Solstheim, which you may remember from one of Morrowind's expansion packs, Bloodmoon. Solstheim is full of problems, quests, cities, dungeons, and all sorts of other things to explore and fight your way through. It's also rather unusual.

See, the first thing you'll notice, once you take a boat to Raven's Rock and start poking your way through Solstheim, is that it actually feels like a new experience. There's a new map. There are strange new areas and enemies—a city of nature-worshiping Skaal is protected by a powerful wind barrier; an underground tomb's dark elf corpses turn into hideous (and deadly) Ash Spawn; little goblins called Rieklings infest watchtowers and castles all across the land. It's all very bizarre and interesting.

Entering Solstheim, for me, was sort of like starting up Skyrim from the beginning, with no knowledge of what was in store. Even though I haven't even seen everything that the original game's massive world has to offer, there's still something really exciting about dropping into a new map that's full of potential. In other words, it feels like an expansion pack.

The second thing you'll notice about Dragonborn, if you're like me and recently spent a ton of time with Dishonored, is that you will miss the Blink spell a great deal. That shit should be in everything.

But I digress. Perhaps the most common complaint about Skyrim, generally considered an excellent game, is that its world was not as magical, not as creative, not as unique as the world of Morrowind before it. Solstheim has some solutions to that problem. Yes, you'll still be battling through some dark dungeons filled with the same old traps and levers—hope you like fighting Draugr!—but there's more to see and explore. There are giant mushroom homes furnished with magical air elevators, sickening demon squid Lurkers that shoot blasts of shadowy ink at your face, strange gems that command you to bring them to nearby mountains. You know, the usual.

The main quest is fascinating, too. I won't spoil the details, but it revolves around a dude named Miraak—who may or may not be the first ever Dragonborn—and the spell he's cast upon the people of Solstheim to subconsciously turn them into his slaves. Your goal is to stop him.

"But wait," you might be saying. "It wouldn't be Skyrim without countless bugs and glitches everywhere you turn. Does Dragonborn have any of those?"

Of course! When you first load up your copy of Skyrim with Dragonborn installed, you'll be accosted by a group of cult members who want to kill you. This happened to me in Windhelm. Except they weren't very good at showing that they wanted to kill me: once our dialogue had ended, they walked around in a circle for a few seconds before finally going hostile and pulling out their fireballs.

And of course there are the goblins floating in mid-air in the middle of fights, the janky animation during one particular moment when you're switched to a third-person point of view, and all of the other little bugs that make Skyrim Skyrim.

But still, so far I'm very pleased with this piece of DLC. It might have taken a year for Skyrim to get its first real expansion pack, but this seems to be the one we've all been waiting for.

I'll have more on Dragonborn here on Kotaku as I continue to play the game today. Expect a full review soon.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
The Elder Scrolls V Skyrim Dragonborn 7

I don't think anyone is surprised that Skyrim's next DLC, Dragonborn, will be releasing on 360 considerably ahead of PC. Which is to say, tomorrow. At least we've been given a general ballpark this time: the quote is "early next year" for the PC release, which could mean as soon as January or as late as maybe March. Assuming a 30-day exclusivity contract with Xbox and a similar delay to what we saw with previous DLC, we're probably looking at the first or second week of January.

In the meantime, you can check out the official trailer for Dragonborn and listen to this Elder Scrolls loremaster dissecting every scrap of it to hypothesize what it's probably going to be about.

The official announcement can be found on Bethesda's blog.

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