When I said I needed more consumers, I didn’t mean a devouring swarm. My corporate empire can sell its wares to democracies, slave states and even some robots, but a hateful hive mind inclined to eradicate all other sentient life is bad for business. Worse, they border my best customer, a hapless race of egalitarian slugs who cannot confront the swarm alone. Joining the federation that eventually defeats the Savix’Qast Swarm protects my profits and, I suppose, my customers’ lives.
MegaCorps are great fun, an excellent headline feature in an expansion (and accompanying update) which greatly improves the galactic economy of Stellaris, the aspect of the game most in need of attention. It has taken some time, but Stellaris is now the best space strategy of its kind. MegaCorp is a major reason why.
In Final Fantasy XII, players win or lose battles before they begin. Contrary to most conventional strategy game design, Final Fantasy XII charges players with devising a plan before combat which your party later executes. You choose instructions for your party of four adventurers in a menu based on simple ‘If’ statements; in battle each party member follows their own instructions to the best of their ability. Often, that might be as simple as attacking the nearest enemy. However, it’s also possible to give them more complex directions, like healing allies who fall below a specified health threshold, or attacking enemies who target the party archer. Fights are less about thinking quickly and more about testing out a machine you’ve already built. It’s as much Opus Magnum as it is a conventional RPG.
It is a tremendous idea which has potential only partially realised in game. Writing a battle plan is extremely fun, but the system can only work to the best of its ability if the challenges are serious and the options for overcoming them are numerous. Final Fantasy fails to meet both of these conditions. Combat is rarely difficult, and even when an enemy makes trouble, it’s usually cause for grinding in the wilderness rather than rethinking your tactics. The game also does its best to lock off options from players, to drip-feed basic instruction sets, and even to limit the number of instructions that can be given.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is, aside from Bloodborne, the best PS4 game. Guerrilla Games, the developer of Horizon, have done a spectacular job making the main activity in the game – hunting machines that resemble animals – thrilling and challenging. Not content to make one great system, though, Horizon also has one of the best open worlds ever devised: a stunningly beautiful, expansive world with a compelling fiction that’s a joy to traverse. When I get a quest in Horizon I’m simultaneously excited to explore a beautiful landscape, hunt machines, and resolve a story I’m confident will be well told. Horizon is a well written game. Every tribe you encounter are fascinating, and unravelling how their culture works and fits with the others is a compelling mystery. Aloy, the protagonist, is a likeable companion, someone whose curiosity about the world around them matches the player’s. She’s as well written as she is performed, likely to be remembered as one of the stars of this generation of consoles.
There’s a rhythm to meeting a new machine in Horizon. You scan it, scout its patrol route, place traps, engage it and remove key components. When you’ve killed it you gather material from its body to improve your equipment. The best fight I had in the game was against a Scorcher, one of the first machines I found in the Frozen Wilds, a new area added in the expansion to Horizon. Because I was running in a blizzard, the Scorcher saw me before I saw it. My first indication that there was an enemy nearby was the red exclamation point indicating you’ve been spotted, followed by a growl.
The immediate impression Elite Dangerous makes is that it’s a very complicated game. The core of the game, flying a spaceship from station to station, easily becomes lost in the sea of systems the game drowns you in when you begin. What I love about Elite, though, is how accomplished flying is. It’s supremely satisfying to drop out of warp, to request docking permission from station security, to execute the perfect landing, to plot the optimum route to your next stop. Elite is a game of routine so it’s a good job Frontier, the developer, have done such a stellar job making every part of that routine the best it can be. I played Elite Dangerous in 2017 but it was first released in 2014. This year saw the game change dramatically plus it was released on PS4, so I feel comfortable including it here.
I haven’t finished Opus Magnum. When I play most games I finish them quickly if I like them; with Opus Magnum I love it too much to move on. Opus Magnum is a puzzle game. You build machines that combine, transport and transmute elements to solve problems. In most puzzle games, I finish a puzzle and move on to the next, so I can see the challenge and start thinking. Opus Magnum’s changed that. Every machine that does its job can be made more efficient. It can work more quickly using less space and fewer parts. It took about ten minutes to solve the game’s first simple puzzle, Stabilized Water, but since I completed it I’ve returned three times with ideas about how it can be modified and made more elegant. Opus Magnum’s made me play differently, and that’s remarkable.
If you’ve followed this blog for a long time, you’ll have noticed there were fewer posts in 2017 than any previous year. Mostly, that’s because I didn’t have time to play games. I graduated, changed jobs, moved house, and dealt with other life events too boring to narrate here. I haven’t played enough to do a proper top five list, but over the next few days I want to celebrate four of the best games I did play.
Gwent, of course, is cheating. I’ve written about how much I love it here and on Rock, Paper, Shotgun already. I’m not tired of praising it, though, and that’s a testament to just how spectacular it is.
Hoplite is a mobile game in which you play the titular hoplite, descending through hell to retrieve the golden fleece and beat your high score. The game is played on a hex grid: each turn, you move one space and when you make a move, so too do all the enemies. If you move into the hex beside an enemy or if you pass them, you kill them, but if you end your turn in a hex beside you they hurt you. When you complete a level, you select one upgrade from a list for your hoplite. As the game progresses it introduces enemies with more complex moves and attacks.
Since I’ve been out of the country lately, I’ve been playing a lot of Hoplite on my phone. For the most part it’s an excellent substitute for PC strategy games, and it’s the first roguelike I’ve really loved. However, Hoplite’s progression and upgrade system are tedious. Bizarrely, your first few games of Hoplite will be the least compelling you’ll play, and the game only opens up after you unlock a few achievements. As I mentioned, you pick one upgrade from a randomly generated list every time you successfully clear a level of enemies.
Turning my citizens into robots was a long-term project. Just to enhance my population with cybernetics, I had to acquire mountains of Stellaris’ new resource, unity, to invest it in traditions, plus I needed to research advanced robotics technology. Then, to put the cybernetics into effect I had to research a special engineering project so gargantuan it consumed half the lifespan of one scientist. It took decades after that to acquire the necessary technologies, traditions and finally to manufacture robot bodies for every cyborg before I could go digital and upload most of my empire to their new, immortal, perfect bodies. Paradox have come up with a brilliant answer to Stellaris’ flawed mid and late game: take the best thing about the game, namely the way in which you create a species and define it through play, and spread the process out across the whole game. Stellaris’ new free update, Banks, and the accompanying paid expansion Utopia do a superb job of catapulting Stellaris into the top tier of space strategy games.