Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Best Games of 2012

Yes, I play games.

Despite being not-so-young any more, I still play the odd game. I've always enjoyed playing games, and I've basically never stopped. One thing that perhaps has changed is that I feel I've become more discerning, more selective. I buy very few games in a year, although slightly more when they are $2 or so on the phone - but overall I'd be luck to spend $200 per year on games these days. On saying that, I've been playing quite a lot recently, even for me.

Some Contenders
So what has been absorbing my time? Well, there have been a few fads games that have come and gone fairly fast. Most of these are the cheap phone games, but I'd almost throw Diablo III into that basket. I didn't finish it, it just didn't seem worth my time, it was too much of a grind and I felt that the items I was finding were all fairly average. Overall, I was expecting a lot from this game, and unlike Skyrim before it, I was fairly disappointed. To put things into perspective, I played Diablo I and II quite extensively. I think I play Diablo II through about 5 times.

And the Runner up is...

This is a little unusual, it's not what you think.When I say that its Plants vs Zombies, you probably go "Yeah, well, that's a good game". And you'd be right, but the thing is that I've played most of it to death and I'm bored of 95% of the game. But one mini-game still has me completely hooked - "It's raining seeds". It takes about 10 minutes to play (with almost no variation in time) and can fill any of life's little waits very nicely. The thing I like about this game is that it's very random what you get - it's actually quite counter most of the rest of PvZ where you have to manage the resources to plant things. Instead you need to quickly form a defense and sometimes all you get are flowers and lillypads. You need to think reasonably fast, but there are times when you should wait with a drop until the very last second before placing it. There is one minor irritation - sometimes it registers a double tap on my phone and I inadvertently place something in the wrong spot. This can be very frustrating, as it's often something you really needed somewhere else. Anyway, I think I've played this mini game more than the rest of the game put together. It's an absolute cracker, and very satisfying when you beat the last wave.

but the WINNER is....

This is easy, we have a very clear winner. And I would not be surprised if it wins next year too, and maybe even the year after. When you fist see this game, you might go "I don't get it". It seems slightly plain in it's graphics compared to most blockbusting games, and pales next to Diablo III, which as I mentioned above I ditched some time ago. It's not really about the graphics, although I think they are ok. It's about the playstyle, the complete sandbox experience and the creativity and community it brings out in those that play it. Do you know what game I am talking about? I'll give you a hint...

Yes, it's Minecraft. Now before you roll your eyes and click away, please hear me out! Although, It's kind of hard to know where to start. Ok, well, let me tell you how you start. If you are playing "survival", which is in my opinion the best part, you start empty handed in a random location in a part of the minecraft world. It could be a tropical rainforest (and raining) or a desert, or wild mountains, or a swamp, or a nice field. Things look a bit chunky, as everything is made of blocks. And here is what the game is all about - you can collect various blocks, and build things with them. You may start with nothing in your inventory, but you can carry a surprisingly large amount once you get going. First of all if you hit (left click) the ground you end up with a dirt block. Then you can go somewhere else and place (right click) that same block. In this way you could build stairs, or a house, or... anything you want.

The "Craft" in minecraft is important, and shows another side to the game. You need to make some better tools for yourself, as you can't do certain things without them or at the very least it's easier. For example, you can get wood from punching a tree (it's a funny game in lot's of ways) but it's much quicker if you have an axe. To make an axe you need a crafting table. To make a crafting table you need wooden planks. To make those you need wood, which you get  from initially punching a tree.

There are nasties in this world too - things that want to kill you. So crafting a sword is a good idea, and later a bow. They mostly come out at night, and you start in the daytime, so you have a little while to prepare, but time goes quickly in your first game as you fumble about. It helps if a seasoned user is explaining things to you as you go, and this introduces the concept of community - as players often play together. You just need two computers, a network and you are set - it's really easy to join a LAN game.

Friends (and family) can play together in a virtual world with a common purpose. In this way, you might think this is something like Second Life. I have played that, and other virtual world style games, and they are not the same. Minecraft is not commercial in-game. If you are stuck on how to do something, you can ask, or chat in game (typing), or visit the online wiki which has all the items and recipes for things. But don't hit the wiki too early, you'll freak out at all the items there and it makes it look complicated. There is a lot of stuff you can do but that doesn't mean you have to do any of it. If you want, you can make a simple hut by a river and fish by day, or perhaps grow some wheat to make bread. Or keep some livestock - a few chickens, cows and pigs. That's because you do have to eat every now and then or you starve.

As the name suggest, minecraft is really also about mining. You can go caving too, there are plenty around, and crafting a torch is one of the first things you learn so that you have some light. In a slight quirk of the game, you have to place the torch somewhere for it to light up though - you can't just carry one around and see. Mines offer you precious ores - iron, gold, emerald and the most precious of all, diamond. You can only find diamond in very deep mines, and you need to be careful, because there is lava down there and monsters in the darkness. You can make better tools and armor with these ores, and other things.

You can find abandoned mineshafts, strongholds, vast caves, pyramids, temples, villages complete with odd villagers. Once you really get into the game, you can craft portals to two completely other worlds - the "Nether" which is like Hell and has never ending fires and lakes of lava (and new monsters), and the "End" which has Endermen and the final boss of the game, the Ender Dragon.

Yes. You can do all that. Or you can just build yourself a really nice house. Or perhaps make some pixel art out of wool of your pet. Or build up into the sky and make a castle in the clouds. There is even a form of basic electrical circuits you can make, so that you can construct automated doors or even larger complicated machines. The world of redstone is vast if you want to explore this side of things.

So what is minecraft all about? Once you learn the basics, it's about pretty much whatever you want it to be. With some restrictions (which are more motivational than anything else), you can do pretty much anything. And I think this is minecrafts biggest appeal. If you want a big adventure, knock yourself out. If you want to become a simple farmer, go for it. Feel like being a miner and going digging? Sure. One thing you will learn though is that activities are subtly linked, so that one thing you may want to do requires you to do something else first, and that requires other things, etc. If you want a glass window in your house, you will need sand to melt, a furnace to melt it in, and fuel to do the melting, for example - so you may go mining to find coal, or on a quick adventure to find sand in a desert or beach.

There are often two or more ways of doing the same thing - and most of it is logical. There are, however, a few illogical things in minecraft - for example, when you take a block of wood out of a tree trunk it doesn't fall over. It just hangs in space with a bit missing. Sand and gravel fall down, but most other blocks don't. What else? You can carry several thousand cubic meters of stone. Try doing that in real life! There are other examples but really it's a game, and it's part of the charm of the place and you just have to go with it. It seems perfectly normal very quickly.

So anyway, I strongly recommend this game. It's cheap and the developers are continuing to improve and expand it and it just keeps getting better and better.

Now two words of warning if you play this game for the first time. Firstly, watch out for "Creepers" which are the signature monster in the game. They are green things with sad faces that silently come up to you and then briefly "hisssss" then blow up, possible taking you and a part of your nice house with them.  Kill them with a bow, run like hell, hide somewhere, build a protective fence or wall, do whatever you need to do to stay the hell away from them.

Lastly, just be prepared for this game creeping up on you. It's such a wonderful game you will want to play it over pretty much any other, particularly if you get into it with your friends. I think it's a healthy game to play though as it encourages creativity and cooperation. Enjoy it, I know I have in 2012, it's my game of the year - easily.