Saturday, November 4, 2017

Best Games of 2017

So in what is now a pretty strong tradition, I'm going to say what I think was the best game of the year. It's a bit early this year, as the year is not really over yet, but I'm pretty sure I know the outcome so I'm going to do it now anyway. It was a bit of a journey though, and there are a few points I want to make, so settle in and hopefully enjoy the post.

The winner last year was 7 Days to Die, and rightly so - great game which I am still playing. As an early access game, like so many I seem to gravitate towards, there was a period where a new version was coming up. I had been playing Alpha 15 (A15), and the talk was all on A16 on the excellent forums. The new version sounded great - particularly in terms of the world generation and points of interest. There was a time when I felt I had played A15 enough and was waiting for A16 to be released. You don't want to invest in an old version when you know you will have to restart in the new one. I really wanted to get back into 7D2D in A16, but the cycle was such that there really was room to play something else for a while, so I did.

Oxygen Not Included (ie ONI)
The game I chose first was ONI, by the same people who wrote the game "Don't Starve", which is a pretty good game in itself. ONI is a 2D colony simulator, set inside a large rocky world.  The animations of the characters (Called "Dupes") are spectacular, with very cute and realistic touches. It is a lot of fun to watch them go about the tasks you have set them. You don't tend to specify a single dupe to do work, but instead do things like mark a section of rock to dig, and they will do it when they can. You can stop time at any point to get these commands sorted out. There is research and progression into various equipment types which allow your base to grow more and more complicated. There are some tricks to enabling it, but it is more or less possible to have a self sustaining colony, and this has certainly become easier with later versions. At one point it was only really possible by having everyone vomit all the time and collect it up and use it as a water source - yuck! Not my idea of fun.

Your mind gets involved quite quickly with solving immediate needs, and then onto efficient base design. You have to keep your dupes happy or else they stop doing what you ask them to do and do something bad instead, like eat all the food or destroy something important. With the use of massage tables, it is fairly easy to do this, although it can be tough at times. If you make a serious boo-boo you can even kill a dupe, like walling them in by accident or letting them run out of air. So yes, as the name suggests this game makes you not only keep track of food and water and heat and electricity and other things, but also the air they breathe! This is the name of the game, after all - the oxygen is not included. There are handy overlays which show how things are going for each resource type, which is clever. One amazing part to this game, in my opinion, is the fluid dynamics modeling - you can see water flow and gasses mix and then eventually separate into layers. CO2 is heavy, while helium is light. There is some very clever programming behind this game.

I was having a lot of fun with this game, but after a while you more or less develop an optimal plan for your base and understand the best progression. A new world only gives minor variations on this, and there was not end-goal to speak of other than try and stop everyone from dying - which they might eventually as resources get so far from your base and you might even hit the un-passable walls at the world edge.

The developers are really great, and a new version was coming out. I'd played a good 150 hours at this point. The versions are somewhat themed, and they were working on a new germ/sickness model which presented a new kind of threat to deal with. This didn't actually appeal to me too much, it seemed more like a hassle than anything. Anyway, I got caught in a similar issue as 7D2D, which was being between versions, so again I looked for a new game to play to pass a bit of time, and then I fell into ...

In a great many ways, Rimworld is similar to ONI. As I was writing the above, I was surprised by how close some of the mechanics sound alike between the games. They are both colony simulators, and while Rimworld is a top-down more than a side-view like ONI, they both give you a god-like world view. You can set priorities, and tag things to be done - like plant crops or build structures.  Like ONI again, you are building a base but also keeping a close eye on the happiness of your pawns (not dupes in Rimworld!).

There are some fairly significant differences between the two though. For example, Rimworld does not have particularly good animations (unlike ONI), things just float around without legs. The graphics are clean but not amazing - but there is something very special about this game anyway. Don't get put off buy that. Unlike something like the text only Dwarf Fortress, which it is sometimes compared to, you can certainly see what is going on. The graphics are more of an art style than anything. Once you have passed the first few days in game, things start to ramp up. There are raids which lead to combat, and other events and disasters you need to deal with while trying to manage all the needs of your colony.

I have played Rimworld now for 300 hours, actually just a bit more than my total for 7D2D. That is a fair number, and mostly on A17. It is so easy to do "just one more thing" with this game, and discover that hours and hours have passed. It can be a bit stressful at times, but much of the gameplay is quite relaxed and you can pause at any time with the spacebar.

Oh, and a special mention to the music in this game, which is sensational. I turned it off after a while, because I like to listen to my own, and it's hard to have any music play for 300 hours, but it is seriously good still. You find yourself humming the themesongs during your day when you are not playing the game, the music is that good. It is a curious mix of space-western, which might not appear to be appealing, but it fits the game and sets the mood so well.

My first few colonies were disasters. I recall one where I was trying to hunt a Muffalo, which is a fictitious beast like a white hairy buffalo I guess. They drop meat and fur, which is all very good. The problem was that it got mad at me for attacking it, and ALL the Muffalo in the area started attacking my pawn, who was also fairly near my base. These guys are pretty tough, and I tried to fend them off with my other pawns but this was a tactical error. Before long everyone was dead or dying. Lesson learnt : never attack a pack of animals unless you are prepared to take them ALL on. And this is part of the Rimworld experience : it can be unexpectedly brutal.

Next game I got a bit further in my colony and made a caravan for the first time and set off for a nearby town. I didn't calculate it right, and they ran out of food along the way. I tried to make camp but they were not prepared, got attacked and one got kidnapped.

Failure IS an option, and sometimes it can seem unfair. The thing is, if you play carefully and creatively, there is almost always a way to deal with the threats and to prosper. This is of course another way of say : "git gud". I started playing the slightly harder scenario where you start off as a single person, and go from there. If that person died, I considered it the end of the game.

A strange thing happens as you play Rimworld - you start to care about the little people in your colony. There are typically not very many of them, my largest had 12 or so, but they can get larger than that if you really develop things. You know them by name. In battle they can get hurt, sometimes pretty badly and hilariously specifically (ie a damaged middle left toe). Healing them is an option, with a variety of medicine options (some good, some not so good), but for serious wounds you may need to go to operations with prosthetics or even bionics. And this is where having a pawn who is skilled in medicine helps. It might mean the difference between life and death in a hospital bed if the doctor knows what they are doing, in real life and in this game. There are other skills, and matching the right person for the job is one of the things you need to do.

Sometimes your pawns have relationships - like they are family members. They might learn to hate each other, and even start a fight and hurt each other. Or they might go the other way and fall in love, and then need a double bed to sleep together. If all goes well, they may marry too. You don't really play the game to make this happen, it is just something like many other events that might happen as you play.

There is an end goal, and I've done it once only - to build a space ship and leave the planet with at least 4? of your colonists. I took them all in my case, but had to leave behind the pets, which was a bit sad but, oh well. You get to see the credits when you do this, but can actually keep playing afterwards if you want to.

I tend to like the early game, where you are setting up a base and defenses.  Note that Rimworld is mod friendly and if there is something that bugs you about the game, there is a fair chance there is a mod to fix it. I like to play mostly vanilla, but there are some things that a mod makes sense to use.

Recently there has been a new version of Rimworld come out, alpha 18 (A18). This adds quite a bit of new stuff to the game, and most of it I think is an improvement. However, one problem is that it breaks most mods for now, until they are updated for this version, so it is back to pure vanilla again. Research seems to be quite a bit slower in this game, and also the end game of building the ship also seems more drawn out.There is a hint of some other possible end game scenarios too, but I'm not sure of the details of that.

And so, the winner for 2017 is....

Yeah, Rimworld, by a mile.

There is a depth to this game which is astonishing. Pretty much every decision you make has consequences, and things can go pear shaped very quickly. In some ways, the game shines the most when things do go badly - it tells a story of your colony which might end up being a warning tale to others. An example of this might be an ex-lover who was jilted and so just before the wedding went crazy and destroyed the main electrical generator - and then there was a raid so the turrets all powered down and allowed the raiders to come in and kill everyone. I made that up, but it is the kind of thing that does actually happen. You can reload from an old save when such disasters happen, but I tend not to. To me, this is the story telling element of the game, and it is the end of the story and time to start a new one.

Note that the difficulty settings of the game are quite easy to tweak, so for a new player you can make it a lot less challenging and more of a base building game. At the other end of the scale you can plant your colonist on an ice sheet with freezing temps and no resources and they are lucky to live out a week. Yes, there are several biome types around the globe, and you can choose to live or travel to them. These biomes have their own flora and fauna, and trying them all out give different challenges all of its own. You may start in a mountainous region and make a base dug deep inside, or a desert with simple wooden huts out in the open. It's all up to you.

Anyway, I'm not going to go on any more about this game other than say it has given me a great deal of pleasure in 2017 and I would recommend it highly.

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