Thursday, January 15, 2015

Best Games of 2014

2014 has now been an gone, and I thought I'd take a minute to announce again my favourite games of the year, like I did in 2013 and previous years. Note that it is "favourite games" and not game, as I will give out the best PC game and best mobile game, even though potentially they could be the same game.

PC Game of the Year - Winner

So, let's get down to business shall we? What is the best game on the PC for 2014? Well, that is easy. For me, this is...

Elite Dangerous! Yay!

I'm a fairly old gamer, as I have said before I think. It is a guilty pleasure of mine that I don't look to be growing out of any time soon. "Gamer for life", that should be on my T-shirt I suppose, or tattoo perhaps! Nah. Anyway, I am actually old enough to have actually played as a young man (boy?) the original Elite on the BBC micro, and I enjoyed it back then too although I recall it being quite hard to dock without crashing and burning. Fast forward from the heady days of 1984 to today, and a lot have changed in the world of computing. Except perhaps my Model-M keyboard, which I am typing on now, but I digress.

Elite is a fascinating game on several levels. One such level is the whole Kickstarter-to-Release development process that Frontier Developments went through. I bought into the Premium Beta phase, where it was not too expensive and it started to actually look like a playable game. I also went out and bought myself, after some quick research, a cheap but cheerful magnet based joystick, the Thrustmaster T.16000M, which I really like using. You really, REALLY need to use a joystick to get the most out of this game, I really would not recommend playing it without one. The Thrustmaster is a fine choice if you don't want to spend too much and don't want to think about it. Otherwise you may want to extend your budget to a full HOTAS system with a joystick for one arm and throttle control for the other. There is a learning curve for your brain on how this all works, but if you start of slowly with the basics it becomes as natural after a while as driving a car.

I am not normally into flight sims, although I have enjoyed some over the years. I am also not really into space sims, and Elite is very much a change of pace from MITE, the ultra-hard Minecraft variant I was playing previously to this. What drew me in initially, apart from nostalgia of the original game, is some of the astronomy aspects. I'm not really into astronomy either, to be up front, although I do think the night sky is something magical and special.

Anyway, the idea that they have integrated as much of known space into the game as they can is a great idea to me. That is, by an large, the stars you can see at night and have been named within our galaxy are likely to be in the game and you can, potentially, travel to any of them. How is that for a sense of unlimited freedom? Although I would stop short of saying that this was educational, I think it does provide a sense of scale to the actual galaxy that we are part of - ie it is huge, mind bogglingly enormous. Even inter-solar system travel at fractions or multiples of the speed of light give you an understanding of these distances. You kind of need to get your head around these things to play the game effectively. And I believe it goes further to even try and simulate the planets and stars themselves to be reasonably accurate in terms of their appearances and specifications. Exploration of new systems provides you with an income, so exploring the far reaches can be a career choice in game, although it is not particularly profitable (ie balanced) at the moment.

Then there is the whole combat thing, which is rather cool. If you grew up in the "Star Wars" generation then at some stage you probably wanted to be in a space fight. This game certainly caters for that need. I sort of suck at combat, but through practice I am getting better. I think I have about 250 NPC kills to my name so far, and I am slowly getting more confident. Other human players are typically a LOT better than the NPC's, so they need to be treated with respect. PVP is a whole other thing which I am not really into, and is quite rare, but can provide some of the most intense gameplay moments there are.

Or you can be a space trucker, and ship goods between systems for profit. In fact, you kind of need to do this to afford most of what the game has to offer, and it encourages you to get out there. Some people see this a s a grind, and like all things, it can be if you are in a certain frame of mind. An alternative to this are missions, which can be picked up at stations and can gain you local reputation.

There is a background story that is slowly developing via the "Galnet" news system visible in each station. This can lead to new trades, or combat zones, or perhaps other things. This is really still on the bleeding edge of the development of the game though, so I think we have only seen a little of what this can offer.

And this needs to be said : at the time of this post the game is still, if we are being honest, being written. It is not perfect, and in some places quite far from it. Some people are disappointed with it, hitting a bug or limitation or under-developed feature and having tantrums about it (aka Rage-quitting). The Elite forum is excellent for the most part, but this is where these player complains are heard. I think there is a higher than usual proportion of older gamers attracted to this game, so often there is reasonable discourse, which is a rarity in many forums. I have at times spent almost as long reading the forums as I have playing the game. One observation is that Frontier Developments appear to be very good developers - responsive, capable and enthusiastic. I have faith in them. The version change logs are often extensive and a joy to read - even if they are somewhat illegible. There are plans to add two major features to the game - planetary landings and the ability to walk around your ship and stations. These will be paid expansions unless you bought into the lifetime expansion pass, which I didn't.

I have at the moment a Cobra and Type-6 ship almost as fully kitted out as you can get. In trading "rare" goods I am able to make close to a million credits in about 1 hour, which is far from the best you can do but it is not too bad. On this basis I can afford to upgrade my ships and save up for some of the more exotic ones. In some ways the game does not scale very well, but in others it is just fine - it is a difficult thing to get perfectly right but I think it is more of less on the right track. The most expensive ship is over 100 million credits, and that is just for the basic hull with a crap loadout - you need to spend half that again probably to get it into a good state.

So, in summary - Elite Dangerous is providing hours of fun and is a game that has massive potential to get better and better as the development continues. It has finally shifted Minecraft away as my go-to game.

And now a quick word on mobile gaming!

Mobile Game of the Year - Runner Up

This game blew my mind, I had really never played anything like it. The game is Monument Valley.

This is simple on the surface, but the puzzles get a little more complex as you go on, and there is a play on perspective that is disarming at times. It looks impossible to solve until you break the normal rules of 3D space. This is the closest thing to playing a game in an M.C Escher world as you can imagine. The game is a real delight to play, the only reason it didn't win is because it is simply too short - the whole thing can be done in a few hours. Worth it though, I even bought the extra levels, and I rarely buy any game add-ons or content.

Mobile Game of the Year - Winner

This is a simple game on the surface, not quite as deep as chess but more than checkers, and with a ancient greek flavour. It is "Hoplight", a funny name, but a great game.

What you see here is the game screen and all the kinds of monsters on it. This is the whole game, really, and it is turn-based so you can take your time to plan your next move or moves. There is a fair amount of strategy, some luck and it is a perfect game to pick up an play for 10 minutes while you are waiting for a bus or an appointment. Check it out, I think it is really good and it will get you thinking. There are plenty of reviews of this around, but this one will give you more of an idea of the gameplay if you want to read more about it.