Friday, October 19, 2012

Byte: XCOM - The Next Generation

I know you could be fooled from my activity rate on the internet in general lately, but I am not dead, just busy. After moving home in the summer, I was rather too busy to even think about games (and I was also without the internet for five weeks thanks to not having a phone line, so I wasn't exactly keeping up with the new release schedule), but in the last fortnight or so, I've been inundated with good new games to play.

One, of course, is Mists of Pandaria, which I've not put too much time into yet, but based on my time in the beta, and the dabbling I've done with it so far, is a pleasing addition to the World of Warcraft. I can see myself putting quite a few hours in with my Kung Fu Pandaren.

In the same vein, I was pleased to be able to download Torchlight 2 after I got my internet back. It's essentially Torchlight, but shinier, and with multiplayer. The player class and mechanical tweaks are very welcome (especially the ability to give your pet a shopping list for identify and recall scrolls whenever you pack them off to town). I've not had opportunity for multiplayer as yet, and probably won't for the foreseeable future, but it's exactly the kind of game I'll be able to dip in and out of when I'm too tired and brain dead to play something more cerebral. It's on a par with Diablo III, and I really loved that.

And that "something more cerebral" is Firaxis's reimagining of UFO: Enemy Unknown. In short, it's fucking terrific. It's absolutely identifiable as a UFO/XCOM game, but with a slinky new interface, revamped aliens and a whole host of 21st Century finishing touches and improvements. The move to proper 3D means that the maps have shrunk somewhat, though that's not necessarily a bad thing - you're not going to spend twenty turns hunting for an alien that's panicked and is hiding in a dark corner of the map. The squad sizes have been reduced to compensate (which I'm less keen on), starting at 4 and expandable to 6, and soldiers how have classes that get unlocked after their first promotion. Speaking of soldiers, Firaxis have avoided the seemingly trivial mistake that put me off the UFO: After* series of XCOM alikes, and indeed, improved on the original. I am, of course, talking about being able to rename soldiers (not just give them nicknames). The XCOM doesn't just let you rename your soldiers, though - you can customise their voices and appearances, too. So my soldier actually has a passing resemblance to me (complete with the Merv Hughes style moustache I'm going to grow again next month for Movember). This was always a key part of my immersion in the game for the original ("No! Not Paul! Nooooooooooooo!"), so to be able to properly customise the soldier avatars so they look like my friends and co-workers is a stroke of genius.

This isn't the only new feature: there's much more of a focus on attempting to tell a story and the presentation is much more cinematic, thanks to the improvements in technology since the original game was made. Your scientists and engineers have a face and interact with your aide de camp to move on the overall narrative. The XCOM council is now a more tangible presence in the game, who give you objectives and requests to be fulfilled and it's much easier to keep track of which countries are at risk of withdrawing from the project, thanks to the excellently named "Doom Tracker" in the Situation Room. Another change is that now you only have one main base for troops, engineers and scientists (though you do have other remote bases for interceptors). It does help streamline the game in terms of your strategic management, but I'm not far enough into the game to know whether this restricts you just having one squad to respond to incidents. I suspect it does, and I'm in two minds about it. In the original, the ability to have multiple squads to respond to UFO recoveries, terrorisms and base assaults was key to being successful. Restricting you to a single squad to respond to incidents just seems to be a way of artificially ramping up the panic level on the Doom Tracker. But it's a minor gripe, as the rest of the game has been executed brilliantly.

The turn-based combat has been tweaked, moving away from the RPG-like system of the original to one based on the rank of your soldiers (the higher the rank, the higher their health, aim rating, etc). Regardless of rank, you still only get to do up to two movement actions per turn or fire once per turn (depending upon your class and perks taken), but the changes make a lot of sense in terms of keeping the game flowing and balancing the risk and reward of deploying quickly or cautiously. It's a bit of a shame that they've done away with the auto-shot option (where you had three pot-shots at the target, for a slight aiming penalty), but at least there's a much greater transparency about the amount of weapon damage and how it relates to the health of your squad and the aliens. Speaking of which, the new Mutons and Chryssalids are terrifying, and the less said about the new Cyberdisks, the better. (Suffice to say, they're horrid.) It's definitely worth your while investing in the larger squad upgrades as soon as possible, as things can get pretty tough with only four squad members if you have ten aliens to kill in a large scout. Yes, the UFOs themselves have had a revamp, too, with a particularly evil, brand new type of alien found at the heart of the UFO.

One change that I'm not terribly fond of is the revamp of base economics. Money is very tight at the beginning of the game, and in the original, you could use your engineers to keep you afloat by being an arms dealer in laser pistols and rifles. In the new game, you're much more limited in what you can sell to the "gray market", so you've got to really watch where you're spending the pennies and balance your budget in terms of expanding your base, interceptor and satellite fleet and the weapons you're building for your squad. To make things even tougher, the research requirements actually consume the things you're researching, and the number of raw materials (such as alien alloys) to build new weapons are massively increased over the original. This is particularly punishing, because you can't manufacture alien alloys (at least at the point where I am in the game). Is it a game balancing mechanic, or just a way of making the game artificially harder? I'm not sure. Still, who said that defending Earth from an overwhelming force of technologically superior aliens should be easy?

It is terribly addictive - even if it does feel like you're having your hand held a little through the narrative of being set tasks and mission objectives by the XCOM council to direct you towards the ultimate showdown at Cydonia. The original was much more a voyage into the unknown - since you never knew what was important to research and what wasn't - here you have much more explicit guidance about what you need to do, and I think I'd prefer a bit more freedom. That said, however, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a fantastic game, arguably the best turn-based strategy & tactics game since it predecessor.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Byte: Dig For Victoly!

While it might not rank in my top 10 films of all time, I do think that Jurassic Park is indisputably the perfect Saturday Matinee film, just because there's so much there in terms of details that both adults and children can enjoy. It's one of those little details that links (tangentially) to the game I want to write about. There's a scene towards the beginning of Jurassic Park that most people probably forget. It's where Gennaro, the lawyer whom is destined to become a light snack for the rampaging T-Rex, visits the dig in South America where the amber-clad mosquitoes that provide a DNA source for the park's dinosaurs are found. He has a conversation with the lead palaeontologist about who Hammond is going to get to sign off on the park, and the palaeontologist scoffs "Grant? You'll never get him out of Montana. [Why not?] Because Grant's like me... He's a digger."

I always liked that line, because if I'd ever become an palaeontologist (and believe me, I was tempted) I'd be a digger, too. Now, I never did become and palaeontologist, much to my regret, especially after having met one of the UK's most charismatic and successful dinosaur diggers, Dr Phil Manning, a few weeks ago at the Science Live exhibition at The Royal Society. He's doing some amazing work marrying palaeontology with x-ray spectroscopy (dinosaurs and particle physics, at the same time? where do I sign up??), but more on that another time, perhaps...

Thankfully, where real life fails, videogames deliver. I still get to be a digger, though in Terraria, I'm not after dinosaur bones.

My first experience with Terraria about a year ago was rather short-lived. After about five minutes failing around uselessly, I quit and didn't look at it again. It wasn't the fault of the game, I might add. I was trying to play it when tired and a wee bit squiffy, which is not a good idea with a game that has this much depth and a relatively steep learning curve. I came back to Terraria a few months ago, when I realised that it's a game that runs nicely on my aging netbook, and its diggery charms haven't really let go since. It's quite a simple game in many ways, but when you get into it, Terraria's vastly complicated for a 2D platformer. There's crafting, combat, exploring and even world-rebuilding to be done. But the key is digging. DIG FOR VICTOLY!

When you realise that you've got to spend a few minutes chatting with the Guide (the first NPC you will meet) to get some kind of idea of how to get started in the game world, things drop into place pretty quickly from there on. You scrape together a few resources to build a safe haven. Chop down some trees to make a work bench and some rudimentary weapons. Then it gets more complicated. Mine some stone to marry with the wood you've chopped down to make arrows. Kill gels to make combine with wood to make torches. Now you can make flaming arrows. Get more stone and you can create a furnace to melt down metal ores. Get enough iron and you can make an anvil - and then you can make more sophisticated weapons and armour. And once you've got armour and passably good weapons, you can make higher tier tools (mining picks, axes and hammers) to gather resources more quickly, and it all just snowballs from there.

There's a great balance between risk and reward. To get the materials you need to create more powerful gear, you've got to explore - either wider or deeper. And this means you may very well encounter enemies or environments that are profoundly hazardous for your character's currently level of development. Terraria isn't an RPG as such, though there are similarities between Terraria's open world and that of Fallout 3 - wander too far off track and the game world will be only too happy to hand you your arse on a white marble tombstone (a nice touch, it records the manner of your death). Death isn't too punishing in softcore mode as you just lose half your cash - a penalty easily remedied by leaving all your money at home in a piggy bank that you can buy from the Merchant NPC. Hardcore mode is a different proposition (you lose everything) and there's a perma-death mode as well if you're after serious bragging rights. Terraria features all sorts of different biomes, which get increasingly hostile, the further away you get from your character's starting location, in the forest biome. The jungle biome in particular is especially nasty, as is the Corruption biome. Also, the deeper you dig, the nastier things get, though the more likely you are to find useful objects, like Depth Meters, Enchanted Boomerangs, explosives and Life Crystals, so if you want to get the best gear, you've got to take a chance on (literally) getting out of your depth.

There's also a day-night cycle that allows you to gather resources relatively unmolested during the day, but unleashes zombies and undead demon eyes at night, meaning that it's best for you to take cover underground or stay in your home; unless, of course, you want to go hunting for fallen stars, which you can use to boost your mana stat, amongst other things.

Once you've grasped the basics, Terraria is immensely satisfying. There's something comforting about the clink-clink-clink of a pick axe striking rock, digging you deeper towards unknown dangers and loot. Dig deep enough and you'll be fighting demons in lava-filled caves, hunting for golden chests filled with rare gear - gear that you need to stand the slightest chance of surviving encounters with the very same demons guarding them. Liberate enough Life Crystals (that permanently add 20 life to your maximum health, up to a cap of 400), and the game will decide you're ready to start tackling boss battles. The Eye of Cthulhu can spawn randomly after you've got 200 health, or you can summon it at a demon altar, provided you've taken enough lenses from demon eyes. It's usually the first of the world bosses you can fight, and they drop materials and gear that are handy for when you want to start exploring the more hazardous areas. Since Terraria is a sandbox, there isn't really any sort of narrative - you can't "win" the game, though for most people I guess defeating the bosses and handling all of the random encounters that can be set of by blowing up Shadow Orbs in Corruption zones would count. Oh, did I not mention there are explosives? Oh yes, there are grenades, guns, bombs and dynamite. Though using explosives can be as hazardous to yourself as your enemies. Goodness knows I've blown myself up enough times when using bombs as a fast-track digging tool.

The sandbox nature of Terraria is probably the thing I like best. Once you're over the initial hump of the learning curve, the ability to reshape the world is something you can sink hours into. I've built castles out of red bricks, towers made from glass and even flattened the top of the world as far as I dare explore, just to make hoovering up fallen stars all the more easy. You can dig labyrinths, leaving behind a trail of torches or glowsticks to mark your way down through the world. I've put 35 hours into the game, and if the wiki is anything to go by, I've barely scratched the surface of all the crafting possibilities and haven't even discovered all of the biomes yet. There's just so much you can do in Terraria, it's easy to forgive the lack of narrative and the 16-bit retro graphics. In fact, that just adds to the charm, because your imagination is free to fill in the gaps, which I've always found more pleasurable than having photorealistic graphics and an invariably rubbish story forced down your throat anyway. I think I'll be digging for a long time yet. Where'd I put my gold pickaxe and explosives?

Friday, July 27, 2012

Byte: Summer is here!

It's the summer holidays! YAAAAAAY! So you might see my writing face around here a little more often over the next few weeks. Or maybe not, because I'm back on the Warcrack again.

I soloed Utgardt Pinnacle last night with my Druid, which was quite challenging, but a lot of fun (I was down to about 3k health when I nailed the final boss, Ymiron). Though that was just for fun. I'm playing mostly with my third tier alt characters at the moment - my Paladin, Mage and Priest, and in the course of the last week or so, I've put a combined nine levels or so on them. Gormlaith is now up to a Cataclysmic level 81, Kaeleigh is now up to level 75 and Aoibheann is now level 70. I've also been working a lot on their professions skills, and Gormlaith in particular has been doing pretty well, basically just selling metal bars for blacksmithing in the Auction House - where she made nearly 2000 gold this week - enough to buy her Artisan riding training, without borrowing any gold from my main, Sharéth. Aoibheann's Tailoring and Enchanting skills have been coming on pretty well too, but I have to put another five levels on her to get the next skill tier, which is pretty tiresome, as I don't like playing as a priest that much.

What's worse is that I've topped out my rogue's Inscription skill, and he can't buy the next tier until level 65... and he's currently level 51. Ouch. That's not happening anytime soon, not when I've got to work on my main's leatherworking skill first. Still, it's good to be having fun again with Warcraft, after a brief foray into Star Wars: The Old Republic (tl;dr review - No great shakes) and Diablo III (tl;dr review - Addictive but forgettable).

The other thing that caught my eye in the news recently was this piece on the BBC discussing Gabe Newell (of Valve fame) and his response to Windows 8. No surprise that he feels a bit threatened about Steam's future given the intergration of a Windows Store into the operating system, but if this prompts a migration of Steam to Linux, there will be a lot of happy geeks out there, including me. All my Steam catalogue running seemlessly, without fiddling, on my Ubuntu install? YES, PLEASE! And the sooner the better, please Gabe!

Monday, April 30, 2012

Byte: Growing pains

Over the last few weeks and months, there's been a tiny nagging doubt chewing on the loose end of my frontal lobe. As it's been munching away on brain cells that have been shrunk or killed by drinking too much beer, it's been whispering disquieting thoughts, such as this:

"Skyrim is as good as videogames are going to get. So why play them anymore?"

Now, this could be me being my usual dour, Scottish, optimistic self. *coughs* Or it could be the seed of something a little more profound.

According to Steam, I've got nearly 275 hours logged on Skyrim, which added to the couple of dozen hours or so I've put in on the Xbox 360 version, easily puts Skyrim into the top three of my "Most Played" videogames list (still a long way behind World of Warcraft, but probably getting even with Elite on the ZX Spectrum). This is what scientists like myself call "a jolly long time", so perhaps my nagging doubt is little more than a thought instigated by the maxim that familiarity breeds contempt, but I'm not so sure.

You see, I love Skyrim. If I take off my Rose-Tinted Glasses of Nostalgic Memory (+2), Skyrim's arguably the greatest videogame ever made, despite of (or perhaps because of) its many well-documented flaws. And it's not just because I want Lydia to carry my burdens or to jump Annekke's crag or hug a Hroki (yes, they're all euphemisms; do try to keep up) but Skyrim is probably the most exquisitely designed and realised and game world ever made. Here's why...

Not only is the design of everything within the game world (from the clothes and architecture, to the weapons and monsters) brilliantly designed and thematically consistent, while the graphical fidelity of the game engine and the game world is on a scale and level of detail that's unparalled in a game of this scope, there's still room for the most vital interaction between any virtual world and the player: there are still nuances and fringes around the game experience that allow the player to fill in gaps with their imagination to flesh out the game world and their experience. The player is given a beautifully realised game world to play in, but the designers have left tantalising gaps in fabric of the game for the player to weave closed with their own discoveries and narrative as they wander through the game world.

This is a design philosophy that is increasingly rare in modern videogaming. I may be generalising slightly, but for so-called 'AAA' releases the tendency these days is to create a highly polished game world and experience, at the cost of reducing videogaming to an interactive movie where all you get to do is choose which order you get to shoot stuff - in high definition slo-mo, of course... Perhaps more damningly, these (single-player) experiences are over in less than ten hours. In other words, less than a serious weekend's worth of gaming. You could argue that the modern gamer plays predominantly online, but I am not a modern gamer. I am old. I am old-skool. I am also a highly antisocial bastard. Unless I'm playing something like World of Warcraft, Unreal Tournament 2004 or Team Fortress 2, where I actively want to engage with other players, I don't want other puny humans standing between me and my fun. Furthermore, I want my interaction with the game world to be slightly more sophisticated than only having the option of going around killing things. Sure, in Skyrim, you get to kill more than a serial killer on uppers; vegetable, animal or mineral, you get to smack it to pieces with a sword, axe, pickaxe, bow or spell and dragonshout, or whatever the heck your preferred instrument of slaughter is. But the important thing is that's not the ONLY thing the game gives you the option to do. You can ignore the main quest, clear out a cave and live as a hermit if you want to. You can get married. You can become an agent of the goddess of love and help people find marital bliss. You can solve murders. You can become a murderer by joining the Dark Brotherhood as an assassin. You can invest in farms and shops and make money by being a silent partner in merchant enterprises. You can find obscure books for a curmudgeonly librarian. You can become a master Thief serving a Daedric goddess. You can do all of these things, or none of them, and many, many more things besides. They're just so much scope within the game world - much more so than "Run this way while we set off explosions around you to be dramatic and shoot some bad dudes. Rinse and repeat.", which is all the experience things like Call of Duty give you.

But what realy impresses me about a game like Skyrim is the way you can access the game's lore - that is, you can choose to or not. The game doesn't force the story down your throat. You don't even have to play the game fulfilling your character's destiny as the Dragonborn. If you want to ignore all the lore books and main story quests, you can. You aren't forced to play the game on any terms you don't want to. You could still easily stick two hundred hours or more into the game without touching the two main storyline quests, and you wouldn't feel short-changed by the experience. Skyrim is an outstanding game on just about every conceivable level - and that's even before you try to mod it. (I may write more about the game's mod support in a future post)

Videogames are amazing. The technology we have now is so good that comparing something like Skyrim to Manic Miner is ludicrous - it's not even in the same league. What we should learn from games like Skyrim is that even now, in today's vapid "if I don't get an explosion every thirty seconds, I'm not interested" culture, videogames can be complex, sophisticated, multi-layered and (most importantly) still be financially successful. So why should we be satisfied by anything that's not as good or ambitious as this? Forget mass-market, lowest common denominator crap with big marketting budgets like Call of Duty. I'd take one Skyrim over a hundred Call of Duty's any day of the week.

Bark: Screnzy

Well, my Script Frenzy this year was a resounding success. A grand total of 143 pages, written in thirteen days, over the Easter holiday at the beginning of the month. It's essentially my own take on Game of Thrones (but set in a different fantasy world), with elements of The Iliad thrown in for good measure. It's got love, lust, intrigue, violence, religion and politics, plus characters that veer between heroic and admirable to self-centred and despicable - definitely not for kids or safe for work. I've been reading Game of Thrones rapaciously since Christmas (currently on part 1 of A Dance With Dragons in the paperbook format), and the TV series isn't half bad either (though I'm going to have to wait ages until Series 2 comes out on DVD - Winter is coming... slowly!) - it's definitely a massive influence on my psyche right now, and it shows in the script. I've had a lot of fun writing the script, and either over the summer or for next year's Screnzy I'll write the follow up (I see it as a trilogy of films, but set over more of an epic time scale than something like Thrones - decades, rather than months or years), if I get feedback that it's worth doing. I've not had many people offer to read it so far, and fewer who've actually had time to finish it and give me feedback, but it would be nice to think that it'd be worth a second draft and then trying to do something with. Though to be honest, I really wouldn't mind if nothing ever came of it - I was more trying to reconnect with my joy of writing, rather than attempting to reimagine the fantasy film genre - so in that sense, it's a success, even if it were only to linger uselessly on my hard drive for the next couple of decades. I downloaded Celtx a couple of weeks ago to have a play with that, and it's much better than using Word templates to write scripts with. And it's free, which always helps. I've got another two screenplays in mind at the moment, that I'm going to have a bash at over the next few months, which I think would be suitable for TV shows; both based on ideas for short stories I've had knocking around for a couple of years now - one a contemporary drama (semi-factually based on a trip home I had from work one Friday night) and the other being a sci-fi/noir detective story. I must do more writing here, too. I blame Skyrim. I used to write on my blog, but then I took an arrow in the knee...

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Bark: The Sabbatical Ends

I've been reading a lot of books this year, and it's really made me very keenly aware of how much I miss the act of writing something that's not a goddamn lesson plan or scheme of learning.

So, after the best part of a two year writing hiatus, I've decided to enlist for this year's Script Frenzy - an exercise I did somewhat successfully way back in 2009. I've had a fantasy short story/novella that's been knocking about for over a year now - to which I added about 15,000 words over Christmas, but upon re-reading it, I'm finding it pretty derivative and not really that great - though I still do like most of my characters. So I'm going to re-write and re-vamp the story with new twist, rather than a traditional high-fantasy swords and sorcery thing, I'm going to give it a more 'Games of Thrones meets The Iliad' vibe, by taking out all the orcs and the elves (or derivatives thereof) and kind of really focus on the human characters, but also really develop the mythology of the setting, harking back to the way Greek gods used to dally in the affairs of mortals. And I'm going to write it as a film script, as I really enjoyed writing in that form when I adapted Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic from game to film for Script Frenzy in 2009.

It should be fun. And it's one way of taking my mind off all of the stress of buying a new house... It's going to be a busy Easter...

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Byte: The inevitable, yet belated, "Best Videogames of 2011" post

Having had a few days to really reflect on 2011 as a whole (that is, check on Wikipedia which games were actually released in 2011), I've picked out seven games that have really left a lasting impact on me from last year. Rather than ordering them by merit, instead, I've ordered them by release date.

Magicka
Initially bugged to hell, though that was fine, because I didn't buy it until it had been patched into a state that was vaguely playable. Magicka (not a vampire!) is a delightful little game. It has a wonderful internal logic in the way that you combine spells together, actually has a lot of freedom and flexibility in the way you can create your own tactics for dealing with singular or groups of enemies, plus it really pushes all the parody buttons you can think of: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Warhammer, and many, many more. It also has some inspired DLC and lots of replay value, as you really try and get to grips with the sheer breadth of the spellcasting system. Like many of the other games on my list, I wish I'd had more time to devote to it. Not finishing it, nor getting to try out the online co-op and combat modes is one of my great gaming regrets from last year.

Dragon Age 2
This was arguably the first of the laughably-called "Triple AAA" titles of 2011. Featuring the greatest (possibly only) Welsh game character ever, Dragon Age II was a wee bit lacklustre - obviously rushed and dumbed down compared to its predecessor; Bioware couldn't even be bothered to put a colon and a subtitle into the game's name - but it was sufficiently interesting enough for me to want to finish it. What it lacked in finesse and deep game mechanics, it compensated for with some of the best written characters in an RPG for years. While most Bioware RPGs suffer from the "Ship of Fifth Wheels" problem, Dragon Age II actually attempted to make you want to experiment with all the characters it gave you to play with by giving them interesting story arcs and real character. Isabela, Varric, Bethany and Merrill are all fantastic characters, very well played by their actors. I wasn't too keen on how they'd changed Anders from Dragon Age: Awakening - Bioware seemed to suck out all the fun from his character, going from Alistair-lite-relief to Angsty-Emo-Anders. It just grated with the rest of the atmosphere of the game and his previous character, somehow. The only party character that really fell flat was Fenris, who is so utterly forgettable, I wouldn't have even remembered to include him in the write up if I'd not seen his name on the characters page on Wikipedia... I'll gloss over Carver, since he always died in the prologue due to my character class choices, so I've not played with him through the whole game.

Dragon Age II has a lot of flaws. It's too action-focused, the RPG mechanics are too streamlined for my liking and the main story arc isn't any great shakes. Also, the ending is fairly terrible and arguably doesn't even make sense in terms of the game world, as well-established characters act completely against type to make things more dramatic. But, despite all that, it's fun to play. It's no Baldur's Gate, or even a Dragon Age: Origins (which in my opinion is by far the superior game), but it's not the soulless piece of EA shovelware some internet reactionaries would have you believe.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings
Given how voiciferous I was about the merits of the first Witcher game (to the extent of basically getting ostracised by some elements of the games journalism community for criticising a certain review of The Witcher), you may be surprised to hear that I was a wee bit underwhelmed by The Witcher 2, given that it was one of the games I was expecting to r0xx0rz my s0xx0rz last year. My initial reaction to The Witcher 2 was one of horror. Not because it seemed like a bad game. Far from it... Everything about it made me want to play it: the graphics, the setting, the premise - the lack of DRM. This may sound petty, but there was one big thing that really put me off playing the game (which led to it being put aside for the perpetual charms of World of Warcraft and other games), not only is the beginning of the game beset by horrible difficulty spikes and inconsistent difficulty levels, the initial release did not come with the ability to invert the y-axis of the mouselook, instead requiring an ini file hack, until they patched it a few weeks after the release. I've got a lot of time for CD Projekt RED, since I think they've got genuine vision and insight into how PC games should be produced and released (that is, don't treat your customer like a criminal), but this is something that should have been thought of long before the game had even gone gold, let alone been released to the paying public. I will go back to The Witcher 2 at some point this year to finish it off, since it would be a shame to let a game with this much potential stay unfinished, especially as CD Projekt RED have shown the same willingness to provide long term support for their game and really try to make it as perfect as possible - just as they did with The Witcher. It's rare that a developer and publisher give this much long-term love and attention to their games once they're shepherded out of the door. This alone practically merits The Witcher 2's place on my list: PC gaming (and videogaming in general) needs more developers like CD Projekt RED.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution
This is another game I didn't put as much time into as I wanted, and will probably end up completing this year, instead. I have to admit, when I first heard about Desu Ex 3, I was skeptical. Actually, skeptical is an understatement. I thought it would be shite. By goodness, was I wrong. Not only did it feel like Deus Ex, it played like it, too. In any other year, this could have been game of the year. What a shame then, that it was released in the same twelve months as arguably the greatest single-player RPG ever made.

Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine
It's not big, it's not clever, but by the gods of Chaos, isn't it fun. Stomp, slash, shoot and mash your way through a big horde of orks, and then do the same with an even nastier horde of Chaos forces. Short, accessible, direct, to the point, and lots of fun. The one stand-out game mechanic is the way you regain health by performing execution moves. It adds a surprising amount of depth to the combat, so it's a crying shame that the end boss battle sucks out all that depth and turns it into a Quick Time Event button-mash-fest. Press X for the Emperor! The storyline was rather ponderous and predictable, too, but that's not stopping me holding out for a sequel at some point.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
I've got over 144 hours currently logged on Skyrim, according to Steam. Considering that the game's only been out for 2 months and for one week of that I was away from my games rig in France and for the rest of the time I was working about 60 hours a week in my day job, I think that's pretty appalling and pretty impressive. I can't think of a game I've enjoyed this much since Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Never mind game of the year, Skyrim's gone straight into my All Time Top 5 Videogames. Okay, it's buggy and glitchy and you have to hack the game to marry the Athene-like Lydia, but it's just such a well realised game world, that I find it hard to care about the giants that send NPCs into orbit with a hammer strike, dragons that fly backwards, horses that can climb sheer rock faces and other such problems. Skyrim's a truly great game. There's just so much to discover and do. It's achingly beautiful and the RPG mechanics are streamlined, but not dumbed down. My main character (who's finished the Alduin and the civil war questlines now - so has effectively "completed" the game) is Level 49 now, but still isn't utterly untouchable. Ancient dragons can still hand him his arse on a plate if you get the battle tactics wrong and multiple enemies can still pose quite a serious challenge. But the real motivation to keep playing with him is that Skyrim is a game where there are strong story threads weaved throughout the game, but there's still plenty of scope to create your own adventures and narratives. If I had time I could write up dozens of anecdotes of amazing experiences I've had in the game - ranging from the awe-inspiring to the farcical. Its a game where the world gives you freedom and where the mechanics give you real choice as to how to customise your character - and it's a match made in Sovngarde. I'm going to be playing this for a very long time to come, because when I get bored with my main character, I've got a Mage and a Thief waiting in the wings to play with.

Star Wars: The Old Republic
As one of the guild names on my server (The Arkanian Legacy) so succinctly points out, Star Wars: The Old Republic is "WoW in space". A gaming paternity test would tell you that it's the bastard love-child of WoW and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. I've put a few more hours into it since I wrote about it last, and the game's starting to grow on me, though I still have grave doubts as to whether it's the long-awaited-for WoW-killer the MMO genre really needs to breathe fresh life into it. I've tried four of the character classes so far: Bounty Hunter (Level 17), Jedi Knight (Level 17), Sith Inquistor (Level 11) and Smuggler (Level 5). My Bounty Hunter and Jedi Knight both have recently acquired their ships, but it doesn't seem to do that much in terms of fundamentally changing the game, though I must caveat that in saying that I've not had chance to try out the space combat yet.

While the game is starting to grow on me, I'm still yet to be convinced that the 100% voiceacted script truly makes it more immersive and involving than your average MMO. In my mind it's almost like the game has been designed to be a single-player MMO, as weird as that sounds. The problem with voiceacted cutscene conversations is that they inevitably focus more on the player watching the unfolding story, rather than making the player drive on the story for themself. As I see it, the common-or-garden MMORPG player plays an MMORPG for one of two reasons.

One: To develop characters and explore the game world (i.e. The MMO Tourist), or
Two: To play socially within a guild for dungeoneering, raiding and PvP (i.e. The MMO Hardcore)

Neither of these two kinds of player really wants to be sitting around watching conversations between NPCs and their toon. They'd both much rather be out in the game world doing cool stuff. It's for this reason that I think that while the game will be a success, it's not going to be a game changer for the genre. That's not to say it's no good at all - I will probably sink a few hundred hours into it over the next year or so - but will it topple WoW from the top of the MMO tree? I don't think so.