Book of Demons

Book of Demons has attracted lots of praise for its mix of deck building and hack-and-slashing during two years in Early Access. A whopping 93% of its 2,400 user reviews are positive—and this week developer Thing Trunk released the full 1.0 version, complete with a new set of magic cards to play with.

It takes place in a pop-up book called the Paperverse, a world which is inspired by the first Diablo game. You battle more than 70 different types of monsters in procedurally-generated dungeons, and all your weapons, spells and skills are represented by cards. 

You're still clicking on baddies to attack but your deck, and how you adapt it to different situations, determines how successful you'll be. Movement is restricted to specific lanes so that you can concentrate on playing your cards right, and you can upgrade cards as you progress. 

The thing that interests me most is Flexiscope, a system that Thing Trunk says will "let you decide the length of quests". Basically, when you start a new game you can adjust a slider to tell Book of Demons how long you want individual play sessions to last, and it'll adjust its world and enemies accordingly. It'll learn as you play, too, fine-tuning itself for your next session. It's a cool idea, and players seem to love the way it's implemented. 

On average, it takes 10 hours to finish the campaign with one class, but there are plenty of extra quests to delve into and character stats to max out, as well as a roguelike mode that adds permadeath and restricts healing. 

The update that brings it out of Early Access adds 16 cards, all of which are detailed in this Steam post, and a full post-launch roadmap is coming soon.

It's $20/£16 on Steam and GOG or slightly more expensive on the Humble Store. You can try a free demo by clicking here.

Verdun

WW1 shooter Verdun has added a 64-player mode, a new map, new weapons, and a new squad of soldiers to control in its latest free update.

The new squad are the Tirailleurs Sénégalese, troops recruited to fight for France from French West Africa. They carry Mle 1907 rifles, OF1 and petard grenades, and machetes.

The new mode is the same as the existing Frontlines, which tasks you with capturing enemy trenches and controlling your own, but with more players. To facilitate larger-scale battles, Developers M2H and Blackmill Games have tweaked the maps, adjusted call-in cooldowns, and reduced the number of grenades. Bots will fill any vacant spaces in the 64-player teams.

The new map is the wooded St. Mihiel Salient, located in France near the German border. It was the site of the first major American offensive of the war, and the only offensive made solely by American infantry. In-game, American and German troops will battle in a mix of forest, trenches and sandbagged positions, and you'll also see the Croix-des-Carmes wooden cross in the centre of the map, which swapped hands many times during the war. 

The free update also adds an oft-requested map voting system at the end of each match, as well as a spawn map for each game mode that lets you better choose where to deploy. The full list of changes can be found here.

Assassin's Creed® Odyssey

Update: The link below for Project Stream sign-ups wasn't working for some people, even if they're in the US. That should be fixed now, but if that happens again for you, I suggest Googling the project separately and finding a link that way.

Also note that signing up for Project Stream doesn't guarantee you'll get to test it—Google will review your application first (although the promise of freebies suggests they're looking to get as many testers as possible).

Original story:

Google's game streaming project is now open for testing, and anyone that signs up and plays an hour of Assassin's Creed Odyssey on it gets to keep a Uplay copy of the game for free.

You can only sign up to the project in the US, and you have to be 18 or older. Project Stream, currently in its "technical test" stage, will stream the game to your laptop or desktop via Chrome, which you'll need to install first, and you'll also need to have a linked Uplay account to get your free copy. A fair list of requirements, then—but getting Ubisoft's excellent action RPG for free will surely be worth it.

All your game saves and in-game items from the Project Stream version will transfer over to your free copy. You have until January 15 to sign up for testing.

Anyone that test Project Stream, no matter for how long, will also receive 1,000 Helix credits, equivalent to $10 on the Uplay store, Ubisoft said in a blog post.

Tropico 6

The problem with a series about building on an island is that, sooner or later, you're going to run out of island. Previous Tropico games could, at times, feel pretty limiting. Not only were you surrounded on all sides by clear blue ocean, but even within your verdant, tropical paradise, mountains and cliffs would often restrict your ability to expand.

Not so in Tropico 6. In many ways this sequel will be familiar to Tropico fans, despite it having a new developer—Might & Magic's Limbic Entertainment—at the helm. But for all that's the same, a few new features should help alleviate any claustrophobia. "We figured for El Presidente, one island wasn't enough," says lead level designer Mark Mussler, "so we wanted to provide him with a bigger playground to operate in." Each mission will now take place on an archipelago—with one main landmass surrounded by smaller satellite islands.

"It perfectly fit into the Tropico theme because it underlines this tropical Caribbean atmosphere," says Mussler. "But of course we also wanted to ensure we gave the player meaningful ways to engage with the archipelagos and new islands." This is primarily achieved through resource distribution. In one of the maps I'm shown, certain resources like iron and gold are limited to a satellite island, forcing players to create mines far away from their main settlement.

As in previous games, each Tropican is simulated, and so they won't just magically appear in the place you need them to be. That means you need to connect your islands together, either physically, through bridges, or by providing public transport. By building a landing dock and teamster port, citizens will be able to take boats between islands, and resources can easily be transported to your main dock.

In Tropico 6, however, the simulation is being pushed further than ever. In Tropico 5, workers had a permanent effect on the production output of their workplace, even if they were weren't physically in the building. Here, though, workers will clock in and out of their job, and the productivity of each building will reflect that. "Production buildings will only operate when workers are on site," says Mussler. "That's why it's so important, especially in Tropico 6 with the archipelagos, to ensure that travel times are as short and efficient as possible."

Efficiency has always been an element of the Tropico series to an extent. I've spent many hours in previous games waiting for construction crews to reach the site of my next development project. But, with satellite islands forcing Tropicans to travel longer distances, developing good infrastructure is more important than ever. Even if you connect all of your islands with bridges, only the richest Tropicans are able to run cars—unless you spend $1,000 per month on the Free Wheels edict. If you're not prepared to do that you can build bus stations instead, but it'll be on you to create routes that will get your workers where they need to go.

In a mission I played in the beta build, I found it more useful to grow small communities around key businesses on satellite islands. Away from the main city, a small logging settlement emerged, focused on felling trees and turning the logs into planks that could be exported. The businesses required workers, which meant building houses, and the residents required services and entertainment, which meant more businesses. It's not a major new direction for the series, but I enjoyed creating these specialised ad-hoc communities.

Many of Tropico 6's new features are simple in nature, but let you make the most of the space available on each map. Tunnels, for instance, let you extend roads through mountains—reaching otherwise inaccessible parts of the map. And teleferics can transport Tropicans up to hills and plateaus, letting you build at different elevations. Not all options will be available at the start of each mission, though. As in Tropico 5, you'll need to progress through different eras—from the colonial era to modern day—with new building options, edicts and research unlocking as you progress. And even when you've hit the relevant time period, you'll need to spend money to unlock blueprints for more advanced buildings.

Tropico 6 will launch with 15 story missions, and each mission map can also be played in sandbox mode (on top of a further 15 maps exclusively designed for sandbox play). Based on what I've seen, each seems to have some interesting wrinkle designed to make you engage with various systems. In one mission I'm shown, titled Bureaucracy, various edicts are randomly activated by the AI. This forces players to react to the consequences of political decisions made outside of your control—be it loss of faction standing, additional expense, or, to pick a specific example, the loss of productivity that results from enforced siestas.

Another mission sees El Presidente attempt a grand experiment to create a city free of houses—forcing citizens to live in tents and shacks. There's no great story to the campaign—it's an anthology of absurd scenarios, filtered through the series' typical broad, politically charged humour, but the best seem designed specifically to subvert the city-building genre in fun ways.

Even in sandbox modes, the design of the archipelagos will force players to get creative at times. Many will be missing vital resources, requiring you to source them from elsewhere. This can be done in a number of ways, either through trading, or via the new raid system. Create a raid building—such as a pirate cove—and you'll be able to spend raid points to send a crew out on missions to steal the things you need. You can loot a variety of raw materials, or even send out a rescue party to gather new citizens.

Raid buildings also let you trigger a heist—an ongoing mission to steal world wonders from other nations. "When you activate a heist it basically unlocks a quest that the player needs to fulfil in order to ensure that the people you send out to steal the buildings can actually achieve it," explains Mussler. "It does take a while to accomplish that, but the thing with world wonders is they're not just a gimmicky thing that look cool."

Ultimately, Tropico 6 doesn't feel like a revolutionary new direction for the series. Instead, it's positioning itself as a definitive version

Mussler's island, for instance, is the new home of Saint Basil's Cathedral, which used to live in Moscow. Its bonus means that whenever a citizen gains or loses faith happiness, their other happiness aspects are all affected by the same amount. In practice, it means, as long as Saint Basil owners focus on giving Tropicans access to churches and cathedrals, and fulfil requests made by the religious faction leader, they can mitigate the happiness penalties that occur for poor food quality, high crime or insufficient healthcare.

Each wonder offers a different bonus. The Statue of Liberty, for example, ensures that all tourists arrive with 100% happiness and in full support of El Presidente—a boon that I'm not sure is shared with its real life counterpart. The Great Pyramid of Giza, meanwhile, increases the construction rate of each worker. Presumably the countries that used to own these wonders will have something to say about their removal, but that's all part of the fun of Tropico's geopolitical tensions.

In addition to having to placate various political faction leaders and superpowers, as well as your own citizens, El Presidente can, once again, go into business for himself—siphoning off money and diverting it into his Swiss bank account. This is something I've always wanted to see expanded in a Tropico game—the series is great at offering ways to abuse your power, but hasn't always provided a good reason to do so. In Tropico 6, though, your Swiss money can be given to a broker in exchange for a variety of favours.

If you're about to lose an election, for example, you can pay your broker to launch an image campaign. "When elections come up, and if you identify you're not doing well, this is a short term thing," says Mussler. "It won't help you in the long run but at least it can get you past an election." The broker can also be used to effectively cancel a political faction request without suffering a reputation penalty. Beyond these specifics, though, you can also exchange Swiss money for resources—either research, cash, raid points or new immigrants.

Ultimately, Tropico 6 doesn't feel like a revolutionary new direction for the series. Instead, it's positioning itself as a definitive version—reintroducing elements removed from Tropico 5 such as election speeches and work modes, as well as tweaking and expanding key systems to offer more options and new ways to define how you want to play. But, while never groundbreaking, having a larger canvas to create on—and the infrastructural additions that archipelagoes provide—does make a difference. Will it be enough to make Tropico 6 a must play? Limbic is hoping you'll vote yes.

Stardew Valley

Stardew Valley creator Eric "ConcernedApe" Barone announced earlier this month that he was parting ways with publisher Chucklefish and going it alone as a self-published indie. But it turns out that he's not really "going it alone" in the strictest sense at all. In fact, he's putting a team together to help him continue to work on Stardew Valley.

That's actually bit of a double-twist, as Barone has also said previously that he wants to devote all his time to the new game he teased last year. But he just can't quit Stardew Valley. 

"While there have been times in the past where I felt burnt out, and maybe even said that I wanted to move on, I always find myself coming back to Stardew Valley," Barone wrote in a new developer blog post. "For one, I keep getting new ideas for ways to improve and expand upon the game. This world is so full of potential, I could probably work on it for the rest of my life." 

This is going to be a big change for me... I ve always worked alone, and working with a team is a whole new ballgame.

Eric Barone, Stardew Valley creator

"There’s also such a wonderful community surrounding the game… and I like making you guys happy. I’m extremely grateful to all of you for supporting my work and creating this wonderful Stardew Valley community. I wouldn’t be where I am today without you. And knowing that there’s still tons of people out there who love the game and would be extremely happy to get new content motivates me to keep working." 

His commitment to Stardew Valley is so great, in fact, that he's put his new, as-yet-unrevealed project on hold so he can work on a new free content update for Stardew Valley. But he still wants to be able to work on his new game, too—there are just not enough hours in the day to do it all. That's part of why he'd given thought to wrapping up Stardew Valley completely. Instead, following the release of the 1.4 update, he's going to try to get some help. 

"This is going to be a big change for me... I’ve always worked alone, and working with a team is a whole new ballgame," Barone wrote. "However, just as I did with Stardew Valley originally, I’m just gonna go for it, and have faith that I can rise to the occasion and make it work. My hope is that the new team will help take some of the workload off me, so I have enough breathing room to divide my time between my new game and Stardew Valley." 

Barone acknowledged that the console update schedule is lagging: The 1.3 update still isn't out on PS4 and Xbox One, and there are some technical issues on the Switch and Vita that need to be addressed. Getting those issues addressed are his "top priority," Barone said, even ahead of new content, although he pointed out that he does not work directly on the console editions of the game. 

"[Console updates] are done by Sickhead Games, so there’s nothing I can personally do to have an effect on that process, beyond setting it into motion," he explained. "I am also doing what I can to see the issues with Switch multiplayer get fixed, but that is also not something I can directly accomplish. So when I do work on new content, it’s only when I have no current avenue for addressing these higher priority issues."

Barone said that even with a team in place, he'll continue to have full control over the direction of Stardew Valley, and promised that there are some aspects of the game that he'll never turn over to others, such as music and writing. "But when it comes to programming, fixing bugs, administrative/business work, or even pixel art... I think I’d be okay with having some help," he said. 

Google Earth VR

For all the hullabaloo about “VR is the future of gaming” or “VR is dead in the water,” one thing remains clear: You can’t perform surgery with a PlayStation (yet?), but you can with VR. You can also treat a soldier’s PTSD, cheer on a comedian alongside an actual human audience, or make some bonafide art. Point being, VR is and always has been a tool for more than video games, and we’d be fools for thinking it’ll vanish for another decade or two just because VR games have struggled to break out.

The best non-game VR apps are what will hopefully keep the technology thriving long enough that eventually anyone and their mother can afford a powerful headset. We’re here to show you just which ones to show off.

Google Earth VR

Price: Free | Headsets: Rift, Vive, Go

The absolute king of non-game VR experiences, in my humble opinion, although certainly not the easiest for the less tech savvy. I’ve had the good fortune of introducing people of all ages to Google Earth VR, and particularly for the elderly, the experience can often be an emotional one. Though not every square yard of the earth is rendered immaculately (your rural town might be a little, uh, flatter than usual), the feeling of being transported back to a childhood street or a place in the city your friends used to meet up at is something that can hit a person pretty hard.

My own father, an elderly trucker, managed to find the Nevada desert road where he and a friend were stopped by rifle-toting federal agents for getting too close to Area 51, or so he tells me. Regardless, my old man managed to follow the twisting roads back to the Vegas area school he used to teach at, and I’m sorry, that’s just pretty darn cool. Google Earth VR still has a little ways to go (a “search by address” feature would be nice, along with less floating obelisks in the streets), but it’s an absolute must for anyone using VR.

Aircar

Price: Free | Headsets: Oculus Rift

How much you like Aircar depends on your definition of what a game/experience is, but nonetheless, it’s is a hidden gem among a sea of smaller VR experiences. The whole gist is right there in the title. You drive a little hovercraft around a dense, Blade Runner-like city, all set to some really subtle, moody electronic music. Dozens of other hovering vehicles float along the city streets, and larger transports rise up above the skyscrapers, all while rain collects on your windshield.

For as many VR space flight games as there are, Aircar manages to get to the point the fastest and in the most accessible form. Aircar, to me, is the science fiction equivalent of pulling off the road and taking a minute to enjoy the peace and isolation that only your car can provide, so much so that it's become my meditation app over actual meditation apps.

Anne Frank House VR

Price: Free | Headsets: Oculus Rift, GearVR

One of the things you most hear about the Anne Frank house tour (the real one) is that it feels like a place frozen in time. Desolate, ghostly quiet, but still harboring those flickers of life that surely carried Anne Frank, her family, and several of their friends through two years of hiding. For such a simple concept (you teleport from tiny room to tiny room of the Frank’s annex home, built using beautifully rendered 3D scans of the real home), it’s shocking how well this VR tour captures that haunting stillness.

I stood silent as a tomb, as if I were among a real tour group, hearing the real birds outside her window and listening to narrated versions of her unfinished diary entries. VR is great at evoking plenty of emotions—fear, awe, discomfort—but never before have I felt such quiet wonder at so simple an experience.

The Foo Show

 Price: Free demo, $5 per episode | Headsets: Oculus Rift, Vive

You may recognize Will Smith (the other one) from an infamous Giant Bomb clip, where his virtual body collapses in on itself as he takes his headset off, and because VR was still fresh, not even Jeff Gerstmann was quite prepared. The Foo Show itself is a fun jaunt through the world of game and film development. Smith joins some developers in a VR TV studio, where viewers can don their headset and watch like a real studio audience. Then Smith usually accompanies the developers to a VR version of a notable location from their game, where they go in-depth about how they built their world. It’s fascinating stuff, and Smith is a very likeable host. There hasn’t been any word on a season two, which sucks, but it’s hard not to see how innovative the Foo Show is when it really gets going.

Kingspray Graffiti

Price: $14.99 | Headsets: Oculus Rift, Vive

Good art takes time, and hopefully you don’t have to actually do time for it. Kingspray Graffiti lets you tag everything from a brick wall to a bus to a train car, and you can even do it with some buddies. Kingspray Graffiti sports some pretty welcoming tutorials, so you won’t be dribbling paint the entire time. Even if you are, the magic of VR allows for unlimited do-overs so you aren’t pulling any Banksy shred jobs.

Altspace VR

Price: Free | Headsets: Oculus Rift, Vive, Windows Mixed Reality

Don’t get me wrong. Virtual reality social gatherings are still, to put it simply, the worst. Altspace is...a little better. The developers respond well enough to input from the community, and the number of things they’ve got for users to do (or at least try) is impressive. Aside from the typical meet-and-greets, Altspace hosts some surprisingly unique ones, like a Women of VR gathering, live stand-up comedy sessions from the likes of Drew Carey and Reggie Watts, and even D&D sessions. They’ve done an admirable job of keeping things relatively fresh, accessible, and not overly terrifying.

Bigscreen (Beta)

Price: Free (Beta) | Headsets: Oculus Rift, Vive, Windows Mixed

While Altspace might be about chatting with strangers, Big Screen tends to be about shutting up and watching some movies with friends. The community aspect of Altspace also means you have a bit less customization available. Thankfully, Big Screen will let you adjust your view to be as big or little as you like, or pull up Steam and just start playing some non-VR games in VR, you elite.

Tilt Brush

Price: $19.99 | Headsets: Oculus Rift, Vive

Without a doubt, the best casual-level tool for making 3D art in VR, and it certainly puts up a fight when it comes to more professional artwork, too. All you have to do is look at some of the stunning pieces created by artists to get your own creative motors running, and Tilt Brush makes it surprisingly easy to get started on your own path. It’s an incredible amount of fun to give your art a neon glow, or scale it up and down so you can focus on the tiniest of detail, or, you know, just set it on fire.

NextVR

Price: Free | Headsets: Oculus, Vive, Windows Mixed

You know those ads going around with Jonah Hill and Adam Levine watching basketball in VR? Yep, that’s NextVR. A little slice of cable programming in your headset. Their current lineup includes some random NBA games, lots of stand-up comedy, and just as many musical performances. Not exactly DirecTV, but how else are you going to afford courtside seats with friends by your side? If you can stomach the fact that it’s 360 degree video and not true VR, it’s a perfectly good time. 

Virtual Desktop

Price: $14.99 | Oculus, Vive, Windows Mixed

Though it was one of the first of its kind, Virtual Desktop has stuck around by, well, just being really good. Blow up your desktop’s output and get that 30-foot wraparound monitor you’ve always wanted. Some built-in features include Milkdrop for music visual effects, 360 degree video playback, a game launcher with voice support, and the ability to edit your environment of choice.

Vinyl Reality

Price: $19.99 | Oculus, Vive, Windows Mixed

One of VR’s biggest issues is the disconnect users feel when their hands fail to grab onto simple objects because of tracking issues. Vinyl Reality manages to sidestep most of those problems for a shockingly tight turntable DJing experience. Make your own music? Upload it and flex those fingers. Worried about accidentally losing the tempo? BPM settings can either make things accessible enough for newcomers or challenging enough for longtime fans.

Stellaris

The Stellaris: Megacorp expansion came out a week ago and Fraser seemed to like it quite a bit, if you can call being appalled by the bottomless depths of your own rapacious corporate excesses "liking it," and I guess he does. Anyway, it turns out that it will be game director Martin Anward's last bit of work on the game, as he announced yesterday that he's moving on to something else.

The good news is that he's leaving Stellaris, but not Paradox. "This move has been planned since a long time back, and I am still very much staying at Paradox Development Studio as a Game Director, I am just moving over to another, secret project," he wrote on Twitter. "I will continue to host the Stellaris dev-clash streams until at least the end of the current season, and I'm sure you'll continue seeing more from me on other streams and Paradox events." 

Anward gave no hint as to what he's moving on to (unless it's something so cryptic and deeply buried that only the most hardcore of Paradox fans might pick on up it), nor did Paradox itself, although responses to this tweet indicate that quite a few fans are hoping for a Victoria 3 announcement.  

PC Gamer

I recently visited Obsidian Entertainment to see the studio's new RPG The Outer Worlds, which I called a blend of Firefly and Fallout. It may look like the space cowboy version of Bethesda's recent Fallout 3 and Fallout 4, but its roots run deeper than that: lead developers Leonard Boyarsky and Tim Cain created Fallout together in the 90s, along with other famous PC RPGs like Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines.

You can read a lot more about The Outer Worlds in my feature, but I also talked to Tim and Leonard about their careers making RPGs, and how that experience and working at Obsidian is affecting this new game. Here's what they had to say.

Wes Fenlon, PC Gamer: Tim, did you sort of have an inkling of what this game was going to be before Leonard came over to Obsidian from Blizzard, or did you form the idea together?

Tim Cain: I had no idea what it was going to look like. We had not picked any art style. We knew it was going to be sci-fi.

Leonard Boyarsky: Obsidian asked Tim to make a new IP and Tim reached out to me, because we complement each other really well in terms of what we're good at and what we're not good at, and just kind of went from there. We knew going in that we wanted it to be a space opera-y kind of thing. We hadn't really done that before. We'd done post-apocalyptic, we did Vampire, and Arcanum, steampunk fantasy.

I think now I know a lot more about what I'm good at and what I'm bad. Where 20 years ago I'm like, 'Maybe I'm good at everything!'

Tim Cain

Even before we had the art style, I definitely knew that it was going to be another one of these kinds of alternate history, weird things that most other people wouldn't try to tackle. I think it's more prevalent now, but back when we did Fallout, people didn't quite get the 1950s post-apocalyptic thing right out of the gate. They weren't quite sure what to what we were talking about.

Tim: We like to do things like… with Fallout, we said 'what if the transistor never got invented?' People would've stayed with vacuum tubes and then boom, all this stuff happened. For this one, we're like, 'what if space travel was possible this way.' Then it's like, we'd probably have these kinds of colonies, and everything would be really expensive so governments and big corporations would have to pay for them, and then everything just starts steamrolling from there. Then Leonard did a lot of work on story, and I like playing around with system mechanics, and we try to make sure they mesh.

PC Gamer: When you thought about the games you've made before, what did you say at the beginning of developing this game that you wanted to do differently? Not just the theme, but the guiding tenants of the design, of the story you wanted to tell, what the player was going to be able to do in the game. What did you want to do that you hadn't done before?

Tim: When we made Fallout, I was always going 'in the main quest, you always have to be able to fight your way, talk your way, or sneak your way through. Since then all this stuff has happened with companions and people love having companions. We're not doing romance because, well, that's been done. But I wanted to explore the things a player can do with his companions that still felt like the player's the hero, but make the companions much more integral to his path through the game. And that's what that fourth path came up, the leader idea.

There are skills that support it. The way you interact with your companions changes, and it's just a really interesting path through the game. It's more of a jack of all trades. Once you switch out companions you're good at different things. That is a really fun character to play because you're like, 'hey, let's go try and talk to these people.' You do it and fail. 'Okay, you two go back in the ship. I'm going to load out these two combat guys and we're just going to go kill everybody.' You can't do that with other characters. You can't just change your build on the fly like that.

Cain and Boyarsky's approach to RPG design hasn't changed drastically since Fallout in 1997.

Leonard: From a story standpoint, every time we do a game, we're just trying to get better. You learn way more from failure than you do from success and we've had a lot of, uh, learning experiences. But yeah, I've always strived to have characters that no matter how ridiculous the situation is or even how ridiculous their motivations might seem on the surface, that have some sort of a depth and reality to them. Even if they feel silly, there's a heart to them. So to me it's all about just finding new and better ways to tell a story.

Tim: None of our villains ever feel like they're just, 'I'm evil and twiddling my mustache for the fun of it.' They always think they're being good or they know they're being evil, but there's ultimately a good goal or they feel like there's no other choice but to do this. So sometimes you're like, 'you know, you're right. I think I want to be evil with you.' It's an interesting thing because you find yourself feeling sympathetic for some of the evil characters.

Wes: It's kind of obvious from seeing the game that it's not gonna feel like a Star Wars light side/dark side, or a Mass Effect Paragon/Renegade kind of game.

Tim: It's all grey side.

Leonard: That's something we always do. We can't seem to get away from it. Not that we want to, but that's what appeals to us. The ability to not only be able to make your own decisions and make what choices you want to make, but also not having a clear-cut 'what is the best choice here.' And so that's where players have to start really thinking about 'what do I want to do as a character' as opposed to, 'well, you know, I always play the good guy, so I'm always just going to pick helping people.'

Well if you're helping this guy, is that actually the good thing to do? It just promotes some more thinking on the part of players who care to contemplate that. There's certain people on our team who just like to run around shooting people, which is fine too. That's a valid way to play. And that needs to be fun too.

Tim: That's why we always have slides in our games at the end, and we're going to do it in this one too. It's saying, you know all these things you did while you played? These were all the effects you're going to have. And it often makes people go, 'I want to replay the game. I didn't realize I was being so much of a jerk.'

On Arcanum, Cain & Boyarsky learned not to try to do *everything* in one game.

Wes: I want to go back to something you said a minute ago. Not to twist the knife too much, but do you have any examples of things that you would consider a failure, or something that didn't turn out the way you hoped, that have informed you learning and being better at writing or designing for Outer Worlds?

Leonard: We were very, very fortunate in the original Fallout. Every time we seemed to run into a problem, the solution was better than what we had before. The way to fix this problem, or 'Oh my God, we're running out of our resources to make this' or whatever it was, we'd figured these things out. On every front that seemed to happen. Or just random inspiration of like, oh, this should be 1950s, post-apocalyptic instead of the Road Warrior rip-off game we were making like two months ago. Those things generally don't work out, so in a way we started out learning the wrong lessons because we're like, 'well, it'll just work out like that every time.' Going from there to Arcanum, we just threw everything and the kitchen sink into it, which is a sophomore curse when you're making games. 'I'm just going to make this game everything.' So that's when we learned to be more focused.

We don't have to spend energy convincing the people of the company that the type of game we want to make is good.

Leonard Boyarsky

Vampire had its own challenges. I think some of the stuff in Vampire was a little bit more linear. But we looked at, 'oh, if we do some of these things, you still have choices, but if we tweak some of these things that enables us to tell deeper stories.'

Tim: For me, Fallout had great story and characters and Arcanum did too. He went to go make Vampire and I was making Temple of Elemental Evil. And I said, 'I can do that myself.' And that's when I learned I can't do story and characters. That game shipped, and it's a great D&D simulator, but the story and characters aren't very good. And that's one reason why when Feargus said 'Hey, do you want to make another IP here?' I'm like, 'yeah, but I need someone who's really good with story and character.' That's something that obviously 15 years before I didn't say. So you have to sometimes do something and learn. I think now I know a lot more about what I'm good at and what I'm bad. Where 20 years ago I'm like, 'Maybe I'm good at everything!'

Wes: This is your first game together at Obsidian with a studio full of RPG developers. They've been making these kinds of games for a long time. How has working with the team here fit in with you leading the project?

Tim: I started here in 2011, and worked on Stick of Truth and the first Pillars of Eternity. So I already kind of knew how things worked at Obsidian, and about a third of the people who work at Obsidian were from Black Isle, which we worked at together.

Leonard: For me coming here from Blizzard, Blizzard was a great experience. But coming here was like, 'oh yeah, I remember this is how I used to make games' because Troika and Obsidian both sprung out of interplay and Black Isle. We both had the goal of maintaining that vibe that Interplay had back in the day, which was great. So coming here was like a homecoming for me and a lot of these people I knew back 20 years ago, but there's also people who worked at Troika here with us.

Tim: I remember my first day here, starting at a new company and already knowing about a third of the people. It's weird because it's a company that you've never stepped foot in before, but a lot of these people were people you've worked with in the past.

The Outer Worlds is a long ways from Fallout's browns and greys.

Leonard: They've been, for the past 15 years, refining their process. They have one of the best dialogue tools I've seen. Back in Arcanum and Vampire we were using Excel spreadsheets to write our dialogues. Very powerful tools, but very difficult to use at the same time. They've developed a lot of practices that make the kind of games we want to make easier to make. We don't then have to come in and say, 'Oh, here's how we make RPGs' because we all make RPGs the same way, and that's not the case when you go to other places. Every company has their own unique way of making games. It's weird coming into a company and it's like, oh yes, this is exactly how I make it.

Tim: Yeah, I can't overstate that idea. The tools. All of our RPGs have branching dialogues based on lots of conditionals and lots of text. Their tools here just handle that incredibly easily. And then when you want to localize them you literally press a button and all the strings have been sent it to the Italian localizer, all the strings have been sent to the Spanish localizer. It's the kind of thing that 15, 20 years ago we were pulling our hair out trying to do, and here it's just press this button, it's automated. It's really cool.

Leonard: We also don't have to spend energy convincing the people of the company that the type of game we want to make is good. We all come from the same place, Black Isle, Interplay. The fact that we don't have a voiced protagonist, you know, that wasn't something that was even really a discussion point. Everybody here was like, 'Oh yeah, we know exactly why you'd want to do that because it gives you more options as a player,' which is one of our key values when we're making a game like this, and it's one of Obsidian's key values. They want you to be able to play the character. We want you to be able to play the character.

Tim: A lot of other companies are moving away from that.

Wes: One of the things I thought was interesting in the dialogue you showed: if you don't have a high enough intimidate skill, you'll still show the option there to make the player go, 'oh, I wish I had that.' Are there cases in dialogue using one of those skills, like intimidation or persuasion, where it fails if you're not at a high enough level?

Tim: No, it will always succeed if you're high enough level. One reason we show when you're close is you could always take a drug that improved that skill. You could run back to your ship and get a companion that can improve the skill or you can say, 'wait, I'll be back.' You'd go up a level, put all the points into that skill, and come back. So you have all these options if you're really close. That's why I like it.

Leonard: When you get to major story points or major turning points in the main story arc, nine times out of 10 to get into the place where you can start using your dialogue skills effectively, you have to have an extra piece of information, maybe have done research on the character, find that item that they've always been looking for because you've talked to people and you find that out. It's not just a simple matter of like, 'I'm going to put all my points into dialogue skills and then whenever I talk to these guys, I get those options.' Once you get those options, they'll get you to where you want to go. 

To answer one of your previous questions, this is maybe something we have learned, over the years. We used to do dialogue where you had to pick the right choices all along this path to open up the [skill-based] dialogue choices, and then you have to pick the right dialogue ones, and it's just like 'I put all my points into dialogue and if I blow this, I'm screwed, because I'm going to have to end up fighting this guy.' So we wanted to make it still feel challenging. It still felt like you were making choices, but a much more directed form of that. So you don't have to get every decision right to get into the right place to be able to pick the right dialogue skill, if that makes sense. 

Your spaceship will serve as a home base, much like in Mass Effect.

Wes: I think a lot of people will see shades of Mass Effect in Outer Worlds. In Mass Effect you would go to a planet, do a whole hub and then you leave and you probably wouldn't go back to it if it wasn't like the Citadel. How are the explorable spaces in this game going to compare? It seems like you're gonna be returning to places a bit more. You're spending more time in different areas of these two planets?

Tim: You're returning to the planets a lot, but going to different areas.

Leonard: And it just depends how you want to play it. What we showed off in the demo, that's a fairly large area. You could go through there and spend a whole bunch of time exhausting everything in that area. I don't know if there's anything that sends you back to that specific area, but in other places we do have things that'll send you back so you can see how your choices have influenced the outcome. Once again, it's the open-endedness of letting you play how you want. If you're on a main quest and you're like, 'oh, I want to get here so I can get over to this place, maybe I won't spend all the time like exhausting every corner of this map.' It feels a little bit more open-ended, or at least we hope that's what it will feel like to players.

Wes: Is there a pacifist route through the game? Is it possible to get through it without shooting anybody?

Leonard: We... don't know yet.

Tim: If there is, it's going to be very hard. We'll probably also make the rule that it doesn't count if you kill a robot. We actually say the robots aren't sentient in our game and people are like, 'what do you mean by that?' So we started questioning. Are they sentient in Star Wars? There are times when they switch off a robot or they buy and sell them, and if they really are sentient, it adds a really dark twisted humor to it. They're all slaves.

Leonard: It's not even a question in most of the cases in our world, it's obvious these things are just mechanical non-thinking automatons. That might feel like a cheat to some people, but we think it's completely valid that if I'm running around just killing robots, then I'm still technically a pacifist because I'm not killing a living sentient being.

Wes: A very PC question here. Have you thought about mod support for the game? If you look at Skyrim, Bethesda's other RPGs, mods add an immense amount of longevity to them.

Tim: We have talked about that. Because we're using Unreal we're kind of limited to what kinds of things people are allowed to mod. Some things Unreal tucks away, some things they don't. We're certainly not going to prohibit it.

Leonard: From a philosophical standpoint that's something we would like to eventually support. We're not shipping an editor with the game or anything like that. And as Tim said, we need to have further discussions with Epic about, if we were to eventually give an editor out, what could we include.

Mod support? Here's hoping.

It's fun to see that sometimes people don't care about your puzzle.

Tim Cain

Tim: One of our level designers wrote one of the most popular mods for Skyrim, so obviously it's in our DNA.

Leonard: What you said is completely true. I mean, we understand that is one thing people want from these types of games. But as with a lot of other things, you know, we're starting an IP from scratch. We're starting with a brand new engine. We've got a lot of people on our team have been here for awhile, but there's a lot of people on our team who are new. So all these things together, we really are just concentrating on making this great RPG experience. We want to do all that stuff. We want people to be able to do that stuff, we want all the bells and whistles, but our very first step on that road is to make a game that hopefully people will love. Then we go from there and see where we can go.

Wes: For a lot of these kinds of games, like Fallout, a lot of times people really love the RPG systems but combat sometimes falls by the wayside in terms of how good it feels to shoot a gun compared to a first person shooter. Can you talk a little bit about the design of the combat, the work you're doing on the feel of the melee weapons and the different types of guns.

Tim: We examined a bunch of first person shooters, we saw talks given at GDC about first person shooters. Private Division got us in contact with a subject matter expert on first person shooter combat and he reviewed our game and gave us a lot of great tips. We want it to be fun, but then we wanted to take some elements of the first person shooter and extract them into RPG skills so that if you're not a twitch shooter, you can up your skills and feel like you're good. I think we have managed to straddle that. 

A good example of what I tell people, our melee just feels really good. We have good heft, good swing, good inertia, good knockback on people. Good impact when you hit them. But the actual damage your weapon does is dependent on your melee skill. There's a range that a melee weapon does and as your skill goes up the minimum goes up as well. That's the kind of thing that feels good, and it feels like you're getting better at it. It doesn't feel like you're missing. It doesn't feel like you're not having the impact.

Leonard: Several of our games have had the comment 'you know, the RPG stuff and the story is excellent. The combat's... okay.' If not worse, like, 'well you just gotta deal with the combat because the rest of it's so cool.' We did not want people saying that about this game. We wanted people to have fun if they wanted to focus on combat, but at the same time, this is the main thing we want people to be able to do: play it as an RPG, make the choices, and have fun combat. So we had to balance those things, which is what Tim's talking about. Extracting some of those shooteresque things and putting them into your skills...

We don't want to sacrifice either side. Obviously we're not trying to be like, 'if you play this as a shooter, it's going to be the best shooter out there.' But that doesn't mean that we can't have the aim of having a fun combat experience at the same time as having a great RPG.

Wes: Are there any other forms of interactivity in the game, beyond combat and talking to characters? You showed a really brief lockpicking segment that seemed like it was just, hold a button and if your skill is a high enough threshold, it works. Are there puzzles or minigames, things you're intereacting with in the world?

Leonard: We originally talked about lockpicking minigames or hacking minigames. There's a couple different schools of thought. Some people here believe that they have yet to run into one of those types of minigames that is actually satisfying to play over and over and over again. And, you know, once again, we're starting from scratch. If I want to play a stealth character who lockpicks a lot, if I don't like the kind of minigame we picked, then is it going to make my experience worse? That is an art in and of itself. So instead of us taking time to figure out the different minigames and iterate on those games and polish them and make them fun, we would just rather concentrate on creating this great new IP with this new world that people are going to love, hopefully. And this great story and this great setting. It would be detrimental if we came up with minigames that weren't fun. I don't think it's detrimental to not have those minigames as a stealth player.

Tim: We put a lot of puzzles into the game itself. There's this is one area where if you're really good at hacking, you can hack a terminal and get the robots to attack each other, but if you put your points more into sneaking, then you can go sneak into an area to get the access code for that terminal and get them to fight each other. And then if you're just so good at sneaking and have absolutely no hacking whatsoever, just sneak by the robots altogether and don't even try to get them to fight each other. But what I like about that is you often find people go, 'I keep trying to sneak by the robots but I can't. What's that computer do? Ohhh.' If you're trying to do something and it's too hard there's always another way to do it. And we tried to do it without the Deus Ex 'there's always going to be a big vent.' Sometimes it's like, what in this environment have I not tried to use yet? Or am I like two points away from being able to hack something? Wait, this drug makes me smarter and smarts make my hacking better. Ding, I can temporarily hack this. And that just feels fun. It feels like a great use of both that drug and my hacking skills.

Wes: Is it a constant battle to not use the crutch like the Deus Ex vent, for example, when you're laying out a room to go 'well, it'd be so easy if we just had a back door.'

Leonard: I don't think it's bad to do that. For me, looking at a game like Dishonored. I thought that was really interesting use of that kind of thing because it was very strategic. We don't have anything like mantling or any of that or any of the parkour stuff. But I do feel like whether it's a vent or whether it's a different way through, it's about just figuring out different interesting ways for players to be able to find their way..

Tim: My lead designer Charlie was the lead level designer on New Vegas. There's this one map, and there's a robot standing by the door at the end. And there are all these steam vents that are putting high damage steam into the room. The idea was you either have to go up and along the catwalk and sneak by, or there's this computer over here that you have to use your engineering skill on to get steam vents turned off. One person just went 'I don't care, AHHHH,' ran through the steam, and beat the robot to death.

Well I guess that's one way through! They were a pure combat character, like 'I'm not going to sneak and I'm not going to use a computer, I'm just going to run through, take damage and crush things' and I was like, good for you. They liked playing that way. So it's fun to see that sometimes people don't care about your puzzle.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

ATLAS

The year is almost over so it must be time for our Game of the Year awards. After lots of deliberation, spreadsheets, gushing and proselytising, we’ve put together our list of the very best games that came out in 2018, along with some personal faves. 

We also sent Pip out into the ocean to look at Atlas, the pirate MMO from the makers of Ark: Survival Evolved. It’s a huge nautical sandbox that can be shared by thousands of players, fighting in naval battles, conquering and ruling islands and, like Ark, getting chased by giant monsters. 

It’s been 20 years since Baldur’s Gate came out, cramming the Forgotten Realms into our PCs, so Paul Dean, Rick Lane, Richard Cobbett and Andy Kelly get a bit nostalgic, writing about their love for the epic isometric romp. 

Previews this month include Civilization 6: Gathering Storm, Resident Evil 2, Tropico 6 and more. As for reviews, we’ve got Hitman 2, RimeWorld, Fallout 76, Darksiders 3 just to name a few. This month's free gifts are a copy of Cook, Serve, Delicious and a 2019 calendar featuring the best gaming levels.

Issue 326 is on shelves now and available on all your digital devices from Google Play, the App Store and Zinio. You can also order direct from My Favourite Magazines or purchase a subscription to save yourself some cash, receive monthly deliveries and marvel at our exclusive subscriber covers. This month's has some kick to it:

This month

  • The PC Gamer Game of the Year Awards 2018. 
  • Pip tells us about Atlas.
  • Everyone gets nostalgic about Baldur’s Gate.
  • Civilization 6: Gathering Storm, Tropico 6 and Resident Evil 2 and more previewed.
  • Hitman 2, Fallout 76, Darksiders 3 and more get the review treatment.
  • Hardware buyer’s guide.
  • Our gaming mouse group test.
  • And much more!
Subnautica

Epic Games wants you to pay attention to its new store, and it's not playing. As of right now, and until December 25, the outstanding underwater exploration sim (and horror game) Subnautica is free to take, and keep. This was previously announced shortly after the Epic Games Store launched. 

Subnautica is really great: Philippa called it her favorite game of the last five years in her 89/100 review, and Steven explained the importance of water bottles in this all-too-true tale of spinning small troubles into full-blown catastrophes. It was enough to convince me to try it, even though survival games aren't really my thing, and they were so right—it's one of the best things I've played in years. 

Not much more to it: Go to the Subnautica page on the Epic Games Store, click the "free" button, and go for a swim. You won't regret it. 

...

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