Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Best Games of 2016

Hello again, it has been a while! So, I have been thinking about this post for a few weeks now. I know this will be a long entry as I have quite a bit to say about it. So get comfy, because this might take a while. Spoiler : for me it has been a fantastic year of gaming, the best in years. Speaking of which, if you are interested, see my past entries on this subject for 2015, 2014, 2013 or even get in the way-back-machine to 2012.

This year I have fairly seriously played, in one way or another, a game for much of the year. I have put in hundreds and hundreds of hours, which is in some ways shameful. I game about as much as some people watch TV, or perhaps read, so I see that as my outlet. Anyway, in order of playing this year we have (with the hours played in brackets, as of writing) --

  • Fortresscraft Evolved (367)
  • The Witcher III : Wild Hunt (163)
  • 7 Days to Die (86)
  • Stardew Valley (82)
  • Sheltered (26)
To be fair, about half of the Fortresscraft Evolved (FCE for short) hours were from last year, and a small amount may be AFK. Even still, that adds up to  717 hours, or if you break that down to 8 hour days a whopping 90 days - 3 months. Considering I have a full time job and a family that is a fairly impressive total. So what are these games, and why are they any good? Read on...

Fortresscraft Evolved.
Really, I just kept on playing this from the end of 2015 into 2016. Thinking back on this the more detailed story is that a new patch came out, which it does fairly regularly as the developer is active and very good, so I started yet another new world. Armed with the knowledge of what NOT to do, and what TO do, I set about making the "perfect base", or at least a close proximity to it. From start, there are a lot of stages to go through, and some people may see this as "grind", while others see it as "game". Your mileage may vary, but I think this is an important point. Please see last years entry on this, as I have gone into more details as to why this game is so good - and why it won 2015 for me.

One point I want to take a moment to explain is that FCE is now really two games, with the "Frozen Factory" DLC expansion being the second half. To continue to talk about this game I am going to stray into minor spoiler territory, so only read on if you don't mind this...

* Minor spoilers ahead *

Once your base gets beyond the basics your "threat level" will rise enough that your base will start to be attacked. Defending against those attacks effectively and later dealing with the source of the attacks becomes the main focus of the game. Of course, having all your ores efficiently being mined and processed helps support this, so that needs to be well sorted too. This involves mineshafts and probably beaming cutter heads to your ore extractors. Anyway, once you have dealt with this part of the game (and it is somewhat optional as you can farm mobs in an ongoing way if you wish) you can then disassemble much of the base in preparation for the FF expansion. There is a side-project of setting up a resin farm that is pretty much mandatory, and even doing this fairly early is advisable. And this is pretty much where I stopped, on the doorstep of the FF expansion.

* Spoilers end *

So, for me, I played the vanilla game in all its glory, but stopped at going headlong into the FF expansion. Why? Well, partly I was wary of the time commitment needed, and it did kind of seem like "more of the same". I watched a few youtube let's-plays of this to get a sense of the tactics I would need to do it right the first time, and it exposed to me that the balance of this part of the game was not quite right and probably too grindy. Also, by this stage I was starting to feel like a change, and a Steam sale convinced me to put FCE on hold for now and move on to the next game....

The Witcher III : Wild Hunt

I am late to the party on this one, I know. Most gamers know and love this game, and I discovered for myself why this year. I will say that I am generally not a fan of third person perspective games, my preference is first person but W3 won me over on this pretty quickly due to the mostly excellent implementation. It seemed that I could experience more of the world this way, at the slight expense of not being as immersive from the characters perspective of events. I was controlling Geralt, rather than being him, is perhaps how I should put it.

But wow, what a game. It has a fairly slow start which is partly tutorial and I appreciated this as a newbie, but experience player may be slightly impatient with this bit. Once you get into the open world and start exploring the map and mechanics you get a sense of the vast living world with a deep interesting story. Chapters of the game are sometimes as good as whole other games all in themselves, and I remember the "Bloody Baron" part of the game as being one of the few moments in any game that actually made me feel genuine emotions for the virtual characters. Reading and listening to the dialogue was not a chore to get through in the way of the action, it was something to pay attention to and even relish. The addictive nature of finding useful loot to make your character more powerful is a well worn formula, but it works here as well as anywhere.

What perhaps makes no sense to anyone will be that I still have not finished the game. I almost have, I feel like I am close, but I suppose I don't know for sure until it actually happens and I very much am avoiding all spoilers to this one. I got to this point and suddenly stopped, and I know this is odd, considering what I am about to say next.

This is without doubt one of the best games I have ever played. There is a great attention to detail, and the mechanics are quite refined. If I was to level one problem with this game, and it is the same for Skyrim or any of this type, it is simply the replay-ability factor, which is fairly low. There are some potential branches in story line, but a lot of it would be repeated a second time around unless you purposefully tried a different play style. Overall I was having a blast with this, and my character was getting pretty darn powerful to the point of being OP for most monsters. In fact the issue of it being "too easy" (and let me be clear, this was after 163 hours of play) is what drew me into the next game, which I was just going to play for a little bit and then get back to Witcher, but has not happened yet.

7 Days to Die

I like survival games, and in a lot of ways, the harder the better. 7 Days is first person experience, which as I have already said above, I find more immersive and is my preference. The early game is brutal and unforgiving. My first few games ended in a critical failure of some kind. In one I simply didn't find good shelter in time. In another they broke into the house I was staying in and I got overrun. In the next I was doing well until I accidentally drank dirty water instead of the clean one in my backpack (they kind of look similar) and got diarrhea and was then unable to run more than a few steps without getting exhausted. However, with each attempt I got a bit smarter about how I was doing things, what stuff was good and worth finding and keeping and how to defend myself. I did also adjust the settings to make it slightly easier - no mobs running at night, show airdrops on the map, slightly longer day - that sort of thing, to match my skill. There is a narrow band of punishment that provides reward when you overcome it, but too much punishment and you are simply overwhelmed and disheartened. It is important to be able to scale the difficulty to get in that reward zone, and I think the developers have done a fairly good job with that.

Speaking of the developers, let me talk about this as compared to Witcher that game is definitely a "work in progress". Not that I hit any show-stopping bugs, but more that the feature set is still being developed. I have been playing Alpha 15, and watching the dev (Fun Pimps, a great name) youtube channel the next version will have new features that will effectively make it a different game to play. For example, in Alpha 15 the houses and other buildings start off empty, all the zombies are outside (but can come inside). In Alpha 16 there will be zombies asleep in bedrooms and other parts of the house - making close encounters a real possibility when trying to seek refuge. This will change the risk/reward equation of searching through a house quite different. It will also mean you can't alway use a ranged attack. Often in the start of a game you will find a house that you want to make your base, even if temporary, and you are possibly just hanging onto life. Having an infested house may be the last straw in this case, I don't know, but I feel it will up the tension levels even further.

7 Days is unique in all the games I have ever played in that it has produced real fight-or-flight responses in me as a player. I have had the hairs on my arms stand on end. I have yelped as a zombie has managed to come up behind me. My heart has actually raced when I get trapped or in a panic about being overwhelmed. It can be pretty intense, particularly if you are role playing, and even simple mistakes or lapses of concentration can be gruesomely punishing.

After a few goes though, you get the hang of it a bit and surviving is something you can more or less do. Then you notice the days counter at the top, and learn that on every multiple of 7 there is a zombie hoard that comes for you, and you can't really hide from them (and thus the name of the game). So building a base for this event becomes a focus for your activity. You skill up, you find weapons, you plan a base that will protect you while you can still attack them. It gets you thinking and planning, because if you don't get it right they will tear you to shreds. Will you survive? Have you done enough? Will the defenses hold? There are choices here too, and elements of luck, which makes for a rich game play experience.

I stopped playing this for two reasons. The first is that I got a bit of adrenaline overload, and wanted to have a less intense experience where every second didn't count. Also, I have been reading about Alpha 16 and the great changes for that version so I wanted to do it all again in a new random map (which is what I play) when this is released. The world generation looks like it is significantly better with township zones, new traps, better buildings and designs, and improved AI. This is really shaping up to be one hell of a game and one of my all time favorites, I am a big, big fan. Open world, crafting, survival, zombie killing - it sounds like minecraft in some ways, but the emphasis is completely different : in this game you are normally scared and slightly panicking about running out of time, or at least, you should be. Finding good loot might be the difference between surviving or not.

Stardew Valley

If there is a linear scale of stress, then Stardew Valley is on the other end to Seven Days. You inherit a run down farm in a small town and spend your days (quite short days actually, only 13.5 minutes each) being a farmer in this small community. There are four seasons of 28 days each. There are 5 main skills to master, and it takes quite some time to do this - farming, mining, fishing, foraging and combat. Combat? That sounds aggressive doesn't it? Well.. . not really, in the mines there are some things there that are more pests than anything, no hair raising experiences here. It is all very tame, cute and relaxing. However, there is still a game to be had here, and lots to do if you want to get your farm in top shape. I don't want to spoil it by mentioning more of the plot, but there are areas of the game that only unlock past a certain point, and some new parts of the map become open to you. Finding these quirky parts of the game are partly what keeps you playing, along with a sense of completion (eg. I want to catch every type of fish!).

Sometimes a little help goes a long way with this game, and I have hit the wiki a few times. It is very good, so I'd suggest bookmarking it if you start playing this. I use it mostly to find out what each of the villagers likes the best for presents as this isn't obvious otherwise. You don't want to miss their birthdays.

Looking at this game and 7 Days, I have played about the same time in each. Thinking about which game I am more likely to keep playing for longer my bet is on 7 Days. By the 80 hour mark you will probably have done most of what both games have to offer and the shine wears off a bit. Stardew Valley is a great ride though, and well worth the asking price, and good for all ages. It is a low-res game, but cute and your imagination fills in the rest. There are some jokes in there too, as well as some mystical lore to make it more interesting. It really is a "Feel good" experience, no matter how you play it and that alone makes this a special game. The music is good too.


And just when I thought I was already overloaded with games for the year, one more sneaked in before it ended : Sheltered. This is a 2D only game centered around a small family that finds itself in a run down fallout shelter. It is very similar in play style to the game Fallout Shelter by Bethesda, but I think it is better. This is yet another Alpha game that is being developed and although great fun, I think the difficulty balance is not quite right yet - it is a bit too hard at the start and too easy at the end. The next version is going to have more difficulty options, so this should address this problem and make for a more challenging game.

It is fun, but ultimately limited by the play style options you have. There is more or less only one optimal way of playing this, and you are likely to have that technique at the start.

I would say that this is definitely a game to keep your eye on, as it may well develop into a real classic. It is playable now, and likely to get better with time, there is a lot of potential there and the developers seem responsive and keen.

And the winner is...

Like I said, this was a stellar year for gaming, a real standout for me. My steam account still has games queued up to play, but I have been entertained all year without touching them. Looking at the 5 games above though, which one is the "best"? Well, it is clearly a tough choice. When I was playing it, Witcher III was amazing in the same grand scale as Skyrim.  If you had asked me then, I would have said that it was my game of the year and nothing was likely to beat it. But then I started playing 7 Days, and because of the genuine physical responses this game gave me, and it's stellar potential for replayability, it surprised me by being even better. So the winner is : Seven Days to Die. Highly recommended from me if you are over, say 13, but it is probably too scary for anyone younger. For those young ones, go for Stardew Valley instead.

I hope you enjoyed reading my thoughts on games of the year. If you agree or disagree, or otherwise want to add anything, please feel free to comment!

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