XCOM: Enemy Unknown (2012)
The venerated turn-based tactical series X-Com returns in a friendlier form from Firaxis to fend off a new alien invasion. Build up your base, research new technologies, recruit and train your forces, and send out squads to mash the moonmen. Battle by battle, level by level, your organisation grows in power and tactical know-how to surpass the escalating invasion – up until your prize sniper misses a crucial shot and sets off a cascade of failures and then what do you do, wiseass?
Nate: The original-original XCOM, 1994’s UFO: Enemy Unknown, is one of the most fiercely beloved, zealously defended games in strategy history. Everyone who played it and loved it (and yes, I was among them), feels a need to constantly attest to this fact, a bit like how people from Yorkshire constantly have to bring up the fact they’re from Yorkshire. As such, Firaxis rocking up eighteen years later with a remake was a bold move, akin to someone showing up in a Wakefield deathpub and casually announcing a nearby industrial estate as “the sequel to Yorkshire”. XCOM 2012 should, by all rights, have fallen flat on its face, a monument to hubris. But it didn’t: it nailed it.
In fact, it was so good, it revealed a lot of crap about XCOM 1994 that I would have previously howled myself hoarse in defending as genius. Turns out fourteen people in a squad was… too many! Turns out the tech tree was… completely broken, to the point where beelining heavy plasma was all that mattered! Half the equipment wasn’t worth using! Inventory management was hell! XCOM 1994 was still a great game, but XCOM 2012 showed us what we never knew we needed to see: the same principle, executed without any of its glaring errors. It was as if my love for XCOM was a child, raised with lead weights sellotaped to every limb, and the tape had finally been cut. I’m not sure what this simile was setting out to do, so let’s just agree that XCOM 2012 is an extraordinarily muscular child.
Sin: I disliked this, but my god didn’t it prove us right? Prior to this game, all we had was terrible UFO clones and third rate, vague successors, while legions of us insisted that turn based tactical games should be revived, and a competent modern XCOM would be huge.
We’re now eight years on from Firaxis taking the plunge, and this bold, hyper-competent not-remake is still the constantly imitated standard for a thriving subgenre of tactics and strategy games. It may have taken an approach that alienated some of us, but it gained far more in terms of reaching people and covering new ground. If you can’t respect what XCOM achieved, even if you didn’t like it, I honestly don’t know what to say.
PlanetSide 2 (2012)
There’s a planet, see, and there are sides. Two. Three future armies wage eternal FPS war over an alien world, capturing and defending and recapturing bases out outposts. Death is a mere inconvenience, and however badly you’re doing, it probably won’t matter that much because there’ll be dozens, hundreds, occasionally thousands of others to make up the difference. Bored of being infantry? You can vwum up a tank or aircraft at any time, too.
Sin: PlanetSide 2 is huge. Two factions are fighting over a base. Hundreds of players on each team form a brutal meatgrinder, inexorably taking more ground over the course of several hours. Outside the building, aircraft prowl, tanks circle, and soldiers cautiously skirmish. Terran reinforcements roll down from distant hills, but the convoy is distracted by a savvy handful of Vanu infantry, who know they’ll die and have to respawn miles away, but will keep those tanks from reaching the important battle for a vital 15 minutes. In the West, a lone New Conglomerate player quietly parks an APC, and over the next ten minutes it becomes the locus for a hundred-strong invasion.
Miles away, 12 players skirmish over a minor outpost. Two engineers chat while repairing an empty base as their friend practices piloting. An infiltrator harasses a trio of scouts in the wilderness. 50 more players are fighting a tank battle in the mountains, while an organised commando team runs in to open a second front.
PlanetSide 2’s pretty landscapes, jetpacks, cloaks, mechs, alien hovertanks and purple spandex are important. They liven up what could be po-faced modern snorefare. But the scale of its shooting, flying and quadbiking make it genuinely spectacular, and its room for megabattles and tiny 2-person dramas out in the sticks make for a simply unmatched experience.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (2012)
20 years on, Counter-Strike still has terrorists and counter-terrorists throwing down in largely the same way. The multiplayer tactical first-person shooter has settled into a near-final form, like football. Even adding or rebalancing a single weapon at this point can be a huge change. Valve’s ongoing updates focus on prettying-up, fine-tuning, and metagame incentives like battle passes and weapon skins because, well, what would you even do to CS? Good ol’ CS.
Graham: Counter-Strike was first released as a mod in 2000, and it defined the future of games. Early access games? Games as a service? Counter-Strike was early proof for the benefits of both back before either had a name. Then consider: Steam’s development started as a project to more smoothly distribute Counter-Strike patches.
Global Offensive, meanwhile, offered only a set of marginal improvements over the base game. There were a couple of fun new modes, a handful of (mostly inferior) new maps, and prettier re-creations of the classics. It turns out that’s all Counter-Strike needs to stay relevant for a second decade. The Deagle, AK47, M4A4 and AWP are still four of the finest things to shoot in any first-person shooter. It still has more great maps than any other multiplayer shooter in history – my favourites are still those that are asymmetrical, like Militia and Assault.
I enjoy the meta-structure Valve have added as part of their modern stewardship, and I have paid real money for access to upgradeable badges and so on. But I will still more often than not ignore the competitive servers in favour of joshing about like it’s still 2002, only now I’m not running up an expensive phone bill on a 56k modem.
In the depths of a desert cave, the legend says, a great treasure awaits. Just head down. And down. And down, through the many biomes of this roguelikelike platformer. Items, enemies, secrets, and your own damn foolishness come together to form a satisfying system with many emergent surprises and even more deaths. Following the original free release in 2008, this is the fancy remake which came to PC in 2013.
Graham: Probably the greatest game ever made, in this decade or any other?
Spelunky places the broad, messy design ethos of the roguelike genre into the crucible of a Mario-like platformer, and boils it down into a set of simple, predictable rules. Bats ascend towards you at the same angle every time, frogs always hop the same fixed distance, and the procedural generation remixes levels from templates that quickly become familiar. The game lulls you. You’ll look at a screen of Spelunky and think, ah yes, I know what to do here. I can master this.
The alchemical miracle of Spelunky is that this boiling away has not stripped the game of any of the surprise, variety, or feeling of improvisation that makes roguelikes so rewarding. Because physics, and your own fumbling control – two things typically missing from turn-based roguelikes – adds all the chaos that’s required.
All you need to do is bomb through this wall, right? But you don’t spot the rock nearby, and the explosion launches it directly at your head. Game over.
All you need to do is descend this long fall and you’ve got the cape item that lets you do so safely. But you don’t spot that rock on a jump pad, being punted into the air over and over, and it knocks you out of the air as you float over it. Then it hits you again, and again, as you lie there unconscious, till you’re dead. Game over.
These deaths can strip you of an hour or progress, but for all the dismay they cause, they don’t frustrate. They are wholly fair consequences of the game’s many systems interacting with one another. You could have accounted for that rock and it is your fault alone that you did not.
Plough on and you will be rewarded, over and over, with new areas, with secrets, with new items which make you feel briefly powerful, briefly safe, until another rock kills you. Each new discovery slots into the game’s deadly, delightful, and perfect machinery.
Sin: Even I like Spelunky.
Deadly Premonition (2013)
When a popular young woman in a small Pacific Northwest town is murdered, an FBI agent arrives to investigate her death and its possible connection to a string of murders. Yes, that does sound familiar. This mystery plays out in an open-world daily life RPG with a kick of survival horror. First released on consoles in 2010, it came to PC with a god-awful janky port in 2013.
Alice0: Deadly Premonition is a game where exhaustion and hunger may mean you need to sleep on a camp bed in a graveyard then wake up to scoff can after can of green tomatoes stolen from the keeper’s shack.
Deadly Premonition is a game where you can get a part-time job at the supermarket, shuffling storeroom boxes in Sokoban puzzles to earn loyalty discounts.
Deadly Premonition is a game where our character interrupts long drives to talk with his imaginary friend about punk rock and Richard Donner movies. His imaginary friend may be us, the player.
Deadly Premonition is a game where you often need to drive long distances in a car which controls like a whale and goes 50mph. If you crank the siren it’ll hit a speedy 55, though the excitement will slowly push your pulse up to dangerous levels. However, you can buy identical copies of other characters’ cars.
Deadly Premonition is game where NPCs follow such fixed routines and are so unreactive that you can ram their car with your identical copy of their car and they will keep on driving straight ahead.
Deadly Premonition is a game where you can peep through windows to spy on people. You do not need to. The FBI pay you a bonus for peeping. It has hundreds of windows.
Deadly Premonition is one of the very few games to surprise and delight me with plot twists.
Deadly Premonition is a game which might resemble Twin Peaks in many ways, but is most notably Peaksian with melodrama. The characters are exaggerated and familiar, their stories silly, and their animations a limited set of stock poses and expressions. The soundtrack is a few ambient mood pieces which are often jarringly out of touch with the tone of a scene. I adore the cheery whistling.
Deadly Premonition is a game where the FBI will fine you a “stinky agent” penalty if you wear clothes for too long. You’ll need to build a wardrobe and send suits out for dry-cleaning.
Deadly Premonition is a game with bland combat and a truly awful PC port. Neither of these stop me.
Deadly Premonition is a real video game because it has a fishing minigame.
Deadly Premonition means more to my heart than any ‘prestige’ video game. I adore the melodrama – the characters, the absurdity of giant beds and tables, the obsession with coffee and snacking, the stock poses and out-of-place songs, the rigid way everyone follows their daily routine, how way dozens of unnamed NPCs are dismissed as unrelated to the case. It means more to me for being such a veneer of simulated life, for being so rickety, for having such wonky combat. I can’t love a glossy game but by god, I can fall for the underdog with a heart of gold.
If only it weren’t such a buggy port.
Dota 2 (2013)
The game that launched a thousand ragequits, Valve’s MOBA is the official continuation of the Warcraft III mod which also inspired League Of Legends. At this point I hope and trust enough people know about MOBAs that I don’t need to explain it’s a 5v5 competitive multiplayer game about wizards trying to ultimately destroy the other team’s base by fighting alongside AI-controlled armies, levelling up to unlock new skills, earning gold to buy items, killing each other to fuel that growth, and vying for map control to restrict the enemy’s safe space and battlefield knowledge, because lord knows such a description gets complicated.
Matt: For several years, Dota was my life. I’d sink into it every evening, gradually carving out my understanding of Valve’s ludicrously complicated wizard clicker. Anyone who describes anything except literal travel as a ‘journey’ should be sent straight to cringe-jail without a trial, but it’s hard for me not to look at Dota that way. By the time I’d emerged from nearly 4,000 hours of it, I was a different person.
It was best in the early days, I think. Not the early early days. Not those first couple of dozen games where nothing made sense, nor seemed like it ever would. Just past that. When I was over the first hump, and laughably believed I knew what I was doing. Then some more experienced Dota pals started talking about fundamental concepts I hadn’t even heard of, and I realised how many more mountains lay ahead.
You’ve heard of paradigm shifts? How our understanding of science occasionally revolts, old ideas are discarded, and our model of the world is brought closer to reality? Dota’s like that but with wizards.
Alice0: After hundreds of hours of Warcraft 3’s DotA mod I thought I’d got it out my system. Then Valve took that, rebuilt it, and have kept honing it for six years. I barely play anymore but when big updates come out to rewrite the rules which once carved new neural pathways in my brain, I’m once again lost in theorycrafting what it means for Dota. I no longer understand the game it has become, I’ll admit, but revisiting it just the other week I still adored it.
Papers, Please (2013)
When the country of Arstotzka warily reopens its border with former enemy Kolechia, we’re volunteered to man the crossing booth. Inspect travellers’ documents, stamp them approved or denied, and try to keep up as the unfolding political tensions mean crossing rules become more elaborate restrictive while travellers become more dangerous. Oh, and try to earn enough to keep your family alive.
Alice Bee: I love games that force me to write my own notes in IRL pen on IRL paper. For Papers, Please I ended up writing out my own versions of the complex rules, stamps and permits I needed to check, and sticking them around my screen. I was quite an efficient worker. But Papers, Please also throws moral dilemmas in front of you. You are fairly obviously working for a terrible police state, so should you let the freedom fighters over the border? What immediate cost will that have to you? What long term?
I was just doing my job, sure, but I also ultimately had an extraordinary amount of power. Which is why, in the end, I opted to let passport-less scamp Jorji through, after repeated attempts. I had to respect his positive mental attitude.
Papers, Please is the sort of game where you things get a lot easier if your mother-in-law dies.
Sin: Jorji is that one character in Papers, Please who comes to your booth every day, and tries to cross the border with no papers. Each time the rules change, he comes back a day later to make a new attempt, each more silly than the last. He provides a much needed levity, but also he’s a brilliant gauge for how your humanity is doing. It’s always so tempting to let him in even at your own expense, because he’s such a cheerful delight, but the longer it goes on, the more paranoid you get that somehow he is the one – he is the worst of them, and if you let him in he will do something truly awful.
But I want to let him in. Even though it will cost me. Even though it’s not just breaking the stupid, authoritarian rules, but the useful, sensible ones. Hell, maybe because of all that. That’s your humanity. You must never silence it.
Alice0: All I want in life is a big stamp and lots of papers in need of stamping.
Cataclysm DDA (2013)
The zombie apocalypse hit, and then it got weird. This roguelike survival game sends us out into the end times to scavenge for supplies, fend off ever-stranger monsters, learn survival skills, and just try to live any way we can manage. But you’ll have a very different experience of the end of the world if you start out as an electrician or farmer instead of, say, an otaku or skater boy.
Sin: Cataclysm Colon Dark Days Ahead is a lot of things that I hate. It’s a roguelike about zombies with ASCII style, “learn 50 keyboard shortcuts” controls (with, admittedly, a robust set of easily-accessed tilesets). Plus survival requirements, a once vanishingly rare element that I coveted in games but now find mostly obnoxious.
I still play it every year. Cataclysm is a post apocalypse survival sim that tries to cram everything in, and it works. Want to gun down zombies? You can. Want to tool up and sneak into towns by night to steal beans? You can. Want to learn kung fu and karate an angry moose to death? You can. I invariably end up living in the woods, foraging for edible roots, bird eggs, and litter, gradually teaching myself to grow food and make clothes. But eventually, I’ll need an item I can’t fabricate. A spring, perhaps. And then it’s time to brave the monster-infested city. Or worse, a terrifyingly empty city, which surely has something lurking, waiting for a gullible fool to wander in for the free supplies. There are far worse things than zombies lurking in the infinite end of civilisation.
It has a billion cooking recipes and crafting items, to the point where ironically a kitchen sink is possibly the only thing in the game without a direct use. You can hunt and skin animals, and farm seeds into fibres for stitching your homemade leather into a fetish outfit, for reasons. You can reverse engineer and build your own cars. You can suffer horrible or beneficial mutations, or install cybernetic doodads in your body. You can form a faction that will farm and hunt while you’re away. Or you can relax for a few days, sitting at home with your stockpiled flour, smoked fish and dried fruit, to drink blueberry wine and read magazines from a decaying world.
Sometimes it’s harrowing. Sometimes it’s overwhelming. Sometimes it’s exciting and dramatic, sometimes it’s fiddly and repetitive, and sometimes it’s peaceful and bizarrely pleasant. It’s all down to what you do with it.
Cataclysm DDA may never be finished – it’s an open source project updated constantly in small increments over many years. But it’s already incredible.
Explore the bars, alleys, schools, nightclubs, car parks, tunnels, and fish tanks of an alien city at night in this wonderful walking simulator. I don’t know who we are but why we’re here is clear: we’re going for a walk. Once you have enjoyed your walk, congratulations, you have won the game.
Alice0: Tip-tap tip-tap, here’s me, a friendly idiot, come to wander through your fine spacecity. What’s this room full of people and tables and bottles and noise? I love it! What are you doing up against the wall outsi- hey, you’re leaking yellow! Amazing! Why’s everyone in this room sat watching a small being holding brass tube- oh my god they make a noise, it’s fantastic. Is this a giant power generator? I probably shouldn’t be here, but it’s very impressive! How did I end up in this tunnel full of murderfast hovercars? They’re so close I could touch one, oh wow!
Bernband is the game of “I’m just happy to be here.” I don’t know the language, I don’t know the resident species, I don’t know local customs and social norms, I don’t know much of anything. And therefore everything is great. I’m a big rube as delighted by a greenhouse as I am a nightclub. I don’t know where I’m going, and am just as pleased if I end up in a classroom as if I find myself inside a fish tank. It’ll be fine. Don’t worry about it.
I adore the sights and sounds of Bernband. Even the mundane is exciting and unfamiliar with blown-out neon lights and rumbling, warbling sounds that overpower my ears, and bustling crowds. It’s a world full of life, even if that life mostly considers me in the way.
I like that Bernband is not a single open world, but split into separate zones loaded in when we pass through lifts and tunnels. It’s a world of notable and interesting areas connected by jump cuts, feeding that feeling that I don’t know where I’m going and am unlikely to find my way back anywhere, I’m just happy to see what I find. This makes it a rare treat to realise I can see somewhere I’ve been before, or discover I recognise part of the route to my new favourite back-alley bar. I’ve had that experience as a tourist in so many cities. I’m just happy to be here.
Drift through a dream in this series of surreal and unpredictable vignettes with the feeling of falling asleep in front of late-night TV. Between title cards and video scenes, you might wander lost in foggy woods, chop food, run through the streets of an empty city, watch that city float away, fry an egg, discover the Moon inside your fridge, or rocket through space. Each playthrough picks a new selection of scenes, every night a new dream at 2:22am.
Alice0: 2:22am is a feeling too familiar, of being exhausted but unable to sleep, drifting through nights half-awake, in and out of dreams, falling asleep on the sofa, aimlessly wandering the city, staring at the fridge feeling I need to eat but just… ah y’know, it’s nice to realise that’s behind me. I still enjoy 2:22am for so wonderfully capturing that dreamlike feeling.
Dreams are not levels where you platform along a trail of blood. They are not coherent visions where every object and symbol can be read with a dictionary. Dreams are messy, dreams are fleeting, dreams are the mundane flowing into the unreal and back again, dreams are repetitive, dreams are revisited, and dreams are lost when you try to describe them.
2:22am is a series of vignettes. Blurry videos give glimpses of subway trains, boiling water in a pan, city streets, cherry blossoms, and fields. Sometimes we can wander, walking through an empty city or foggy woods, leaping through a meadow leaving a trail of sparkles, climbing a seemingly-endless ladder into the sky, or rocketing through space with fire out my arse. Or we’re locked into a view frying an egg in a pan, trying to catch pling-plonging light-up orbs in a mug, chopping vegetables with a knife coming dangerously close to our thumb, or digging a grave in the back garden. These are all excellent snippets of dreams and dream-like states, the familiar and fantastic coming together and it’s never clear what’s real. That’s the dreams I know.
What I most appreciate about 2:22am is how it revisits dreams and scenes across and between playthroughs. It’s a dream across days and weeks, the sort of exhausted state that feels like a prison. New scenes will shuffle in, and familiar ones might be slightly different. The tree and the moon proliferate, looming larger, perhaps a reminder of something terrible we’ve done – or just of a dream. I do not know. I do not care. It is not a dream to pick apart and perfectly understand. It is a dreaming state, and it is perfectly horrible. What an excellent horror game: one that by now feels like part of it has come from inside my head.
Two players duel to win the adulation of the crowd and the privilege of being devoured by a vast worm in this minimalist local multiplayer game. With one-hit kills and only a few moves, swordfighting may be simple but it’s artful and dramatic. Kill quickly, die often, and, above all else, try to style out your mistakes and put on a good show. After years exclusive to the indie party scene, Nidhogg finally got a home release in 2014.
Nate: Good god, Nidhogg’s a funny game. I despise fighting games, as they boil away all whimsy and narrative from a game, until all that’s left is a bitter, viscous contest of skill. I have little skill, and even less desire to calibrate it against the skill of others. But the utter frenzy of playing Nidhogg, the absolute, petty bastardry it drives people to inflict on each other, drives it right through that layer of humourless tar, into an ocean of shrieking, effervescent hysteria.
It’s funniest, of course, when both opponents are pathetic, but willing to play as dirtily as possible. You might crunch your geezer up into a comedy little turkey-looking sprite, for example, crouch-jumping your way around the place so your opponent can’t get a hit in. You might sprint away from your enemy at top speed, only to stop dead, flick a key and turn on the spot, ker-splunching them with your sabre. Last time I played, I was leaning back against a sofa full of people, and someone laughed so hard they farted right in my ear, then couldn’t stop doing it. I still won that round.
Alice0: Nailing someone with a thrown sabre is one of the greatest victories in video games.
Dave: Every person I have talked about Nidhogg to who hasn’t played it has asked the same question: “Why are you fighting to be eaten by a big snake?” I never have an answer for this.
But what I do say is that this is, at most, a minor detail. By the end of the session, the talk is always of that feint that won the game. That and, yes, the throwing of sabres.