One of the markers of a great game is that I think about it when I’m not playing it. The games I really love aren’t just enjoyable while I’m playing, they’re compelling. If I’m reading a history book, I sometimes find myself wondering how Europa Universalis IV implements the country or idea I’m learning about. When I’m doing something routine like ironing I’ll sometimes think about what I’ll do differently the next time I play Hitman. Gwent is a really great game. Since I got into the beta about a week ago, I’ve been thinking about how I could change my deck and what cards I’d need to build another, even when I’m not playing the game. I’ve enjoyed drawing up a list of cards for a necromancy deck based around returning units from the graveyard, and it’s been fun to improvise with the cards I already have.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a first-person infiltration game. In most missions, and certainly in the game’s best missions, you’re given a target such as a file or a person and told to make your way into a secure area to get at it. It’s not a stealth game in a strict sense, since the remarkable thing about it is the amount of freedom you have to approach problems. Most people will likely avoid detection and silently eliminate guards, thugs and other enemies as necessary, but it’s equally viable to go loud and wipe out the whole security staff. Much like its predecessor, Human Revolution, you decide your playstyle by choosing which augmentations to invest in as you progress through the game. Stealthy players might want to run silently or visualise enemies’ fields of view, and more action-y players might want to turn their skin into armour or stabilise their weapons. Whatever combination of the twenty or so augmentations you invest in and upgrade, you’ll have to use them inventively to infiltrate facilities from huge corporate banks to small-time criminal warehouses. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a great game and a great sequel. It rectifies many of the problems with Human Revolution, which was already among my favourite games, and builds on its considerable strengths.
An article I wrote appeared on the website Rock, Paper, Shotgun about Stellaris. It discusses the very bad victory conditions in the game, and you should read it here. I’m proud of it, and it’s been considerably improved in the editing. I have a few more thoughts about what might replace victory conditions as they exist, which I left out of the article since it detracted from the central point. Over the next little while, I’ll likely edit them into a more complete post and add them here, so look forward to that.
I’ve written about Dark Souls here before, but I’ve never adequately expressed how much I adore the game. Dark Souls isn’t my favourite game, but it’s one of the few I find endlessly fascinating. I watch a few of the community’s personalities dissect the lore, I read wikis, the subreddit and follow the parts of the game which are still being uncovered and still being reported despite the game’s approaching fifth (!) birthday. This is all to say that reading You Died: The Dark Souls Companion by Keza MacDonald and Jason Killingsworth has been a delight for me. The book ably combines personal stories of the authors’ experience with Dark Souls, interviews with community members prominent and unknown and serious discussion with people involved in the game’s development, such as its English translator. Given the range of material You Died covers, it’s an astonishingly successful book, among the finest tributes to one of the greatest games ever made.
When I started playing Galactic Civilizations II, I was given good advice to turn the frequency of habitable planets from the standard ‘occasional’ to ‘uncommon.’ Without that change in the galaxy setup the first hundred turns are tedious, as you compete with AI (or slower still, human) opponents to build and micromanage your colony ships to take as many planets as possible as quickly as possible. The uncommon setting makes Gal Civ II speedier, and critically makes finding a habitable world exciting rather than routine. Stellaris’ galaxy settings aren’t as complex as what Gal Civ II provides but it also has an option which improves the game’s pacing. That option is the spiral galaxy type, which makes for a better early and mid-game as you advance from fighting or befriending empires on your star belt to encountering aliens across spiral arms. The trouble you’re bound to have with moving between arms also opens up a range of problems for players which simply aren’t present on elliptical or ring galaxies.
I am an enormous murder mystery fan and I have a particular fondness for Agatha Christie. To date, I’ve read about ten of her books and across the whole selection I’ve found her a tireless innovator, always tinkering with the formula of the murder mystery. Novels like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd are famous for this, but even Murder on the Orient Express, likely her best known work, defies the usual routine of a murder followed by a systematic investigation, a dramatic confrontation and a satisfactory conclusion. In both of those novels, too, relatively archetypical characters are more vivacious and compelling than they have any right to be as mere mystery puzzle pieces. So I was excited to read Sparkling Cyanide, a novel I picked up for the price of a coffee.
I love the idea of government types in Stellaris. Encountering an empire which describes itself as a ‘Science Directorate’ is extremely evocative of the kind of society you’re dealing with. They add immensely Stellaris’ randomly generated AI opponents, ensuring you won’t face exactly the same threat twice. For the player, though, the choice is a neat way to give your empire a bit of identity, but the differences in government structure are too minor and governments in the same group too similar to really make you switch up your playstyle. In this post, I’ve gone through each government type and suggested ways they could be made more distinctive. I haven’t added or subtracted from the existing set, and I haven’t addressed the ‘effects’ of government types (for instance +20% naval capacity and -5% ship upkeep for military dictatorships) because I haven’t played enough of the game to venture to rebalance these. Some government types work as well as they can without major changes to the game: I’ve noted their name and given their in-game description nonetheless, but left them without comment.
Lorian & Lothric are bound to be Dark Souls III’s most controversial boss. You’ll call Lorian’s teleportation ‘cheap’ or ‘impossible to beat’ and die to it without really understanding it. You’ll hurl a controller across the room when you find out that you need to go back through phase one of Lorian’s fight to activate Lothric, even if you’ve beaten it before. And then, just when you think you’ve dodged the beam from Lorian’s sword you’ll be hit by Lothric’s magic homing arrow and keel over a few yards from victory. By the time you beat the boss, though, you’ll hopefully have an appreciation for its fantastic, fascinating design. The best Dark Souls bosses are those which at first appear impossible but, gradually, retry by retry, reveal weaknesses and openings and predictable patterns to exploit. Lorian & Lothric are Dark Souls III’s finest boss, and among the best bosses of the whole series.
Dark Souls III is the first From Software game I’ve played at launch. I’ve yet to play Dark Souls II, and in the case of both Dark Souls and Bloodborne I played them long after they released. In the tutorial area, there were fifty bloodstains leading up to the optional crystal monster fight which, like the message telling players to turn back, only enticed me to fight it (and die six times). Playing a Souls game with a procession of players fighting and dying in the same areas as me has been a delight. After four hours, I want to discuss how playing a Souls game changes at launch and share some initial impressions.
This post contains gameplay spoilers for the final sections of Dark Souls and Bloodborne. If you haven’t played either, I highly recommend doing so and reading this after.
I submit the soul of one of Dark Souls’ final few bosses, the Four Kings, to the Lord Vessel. That opens the game’s last area, a long path to the final boss, Lord Gwyn. Dark Souls has a reputation for being difficult which can sometimes be overstated, but I was understandably nervous about the climactic battle in a game packed full of really tough boss fights. From Software even emphasise the magnitude of the fight through level design here, since the whole area slopes towards Gwyn’s chamber which is visible from minutes away. When I arrive at Gwyn though, I’m disappointed. Visually he looks great, the boss arena is wonderful, and his moves are suitably intimidating. He isn’t a badly designed boss like the Bed of Chaos or the Capra Demon, both of which will almost always kill the player once. Instead, my problem is that he’s easy. When Gwyn swings his sword, I can absorb the blow and attack through, literally trading hits with him. I take a more substantial chunk of damage than him, of course, but I also have the ability to heal which Gwyn lacks. Moreover, I’m wearing Havel’s armour, the heaviest in the game so I can afford to take multiple hits before I even think about retreating to heal. He doesn’t even harass me as I drink my Estus, like the giant duo Ornstein & Smough. I’m thrilled when he’s dead initially. I’ve beaten an extremely tough game and concluded one of my best experiences in videogames overall. When I’m watching the credits, though, I’m left to wonder: did I play Dark Souls wrong?