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.
At the time of writing, I’ve just conquered Kent, the last English province on the British Isles. It took 298 years (between the game’s opening in 1444 and the final peace in 1744) but at last Ireland controls the whole of both islands. When I’ve finished integrating the land into my empire I get the message I’ve been waiting for: I’ve earned the ‘Luck of the Irish’ achievement. To get the achievement, you’ve got to be playing the game as an Irish state in ironman mode and you need to own and have cores on every province in the British Isles. It’s tough, partially since Ireland doesn’t exist in 1444. Instead, you choose one of the many independent kingdoms on the island (Kildare for me) and by making a few judicious alliances you conquer your equally small neighbours. Playing as an Irish state means constantly dodging annihilation. If you stab your friends in the back and eat your neighbours too quickly, they’re likely to band together, beat you, and divide you up. If you don’t, though, you’ll be unprepared for the moment England or Scotland decide Ireland looks like a nice place to expand.
Trying to get Luck of the Irish made for a great campaign and it speaks to what makes achievements in Europa Universalis IV so good. They ask you to succeed with states you wouldn’t normally play, or to pursue specific, unusual goals with the major players. Without achievements, EUIV’s immense sandbox is often overwhelming. In the beginning, it’s difficult to find an interesting state to play since the game’s options are so vast. In the late game, it’s hard to stay interested in a campaign without a goal. Achievements solve both of these problems: they allow Paradox, the developer, to highlight cool scenarios and they help players stay interested in their campaigns by setting clear goals.
I’ve written about Dark Soulshere 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.
Roguelight is a fun little game you should get for as little as you like. You play an archer descending through a randomly generated 2D dungeon, guided by the light from your limited quiver of arrows. As you go deeper, the environmental lights become fewer, the flaming tips of your arrows extinguish more quickly and enemies and traps become more frequent. It’s a simple, challenging premise very similar to Spelunky’s excellent dark levels, held together by a well-designed bow with thoughtful environments surrounding it.
This post contains plot spoilers for Life Is Strange up to and including episode four.
Guns have a very special place in Life Is Strange. They’re not commonplace, as is the case in most games, nor are they merely functional, disposable tools. Rather, the few guns which appear in Life Is Strange are lethal and terrifying; immediately after the game begins you’ll be keeping mental, if not physical, notes of who has which gun. Because the world of Life Is Strange is roughly speaking the real world, characters have the rare luxury of having feelings about guns and who should have them. A key feature of Life Is Strange is the ability to rewind time and redo decisions: one of the main reasons I used it was to change who would end up with a particular weapon in a scene. Since Life Is Strange is a game less about beating your opponents and more about negotiation, I did this as often to take guns away from my friends as to deny them to enemies. Max, the protagonist in Life Is Strange, becomes entangled in dangerous scenarios with increasingly regularly in later episodes of the game. In these moments, guns are an unpredictable ‘nuclear option’ for characters who are either unstable or annoyed enough at Max. By the second episode, almost everyone will agree with her that “guns make me uncomfortable.”
Shadowrun: Hong Kong likely had an excellent script. It is an entertainingly written RPG with particularly vibrant companions in a spectacular setting which blends cyberpunk and fantasy. Its mystery is, conceptually at least, as compelling as its predecessor’s, Shadowrun: Dragonfall. In the translation from script to game, however, Hong Kong has suffered badly. Combat, an unavoidable and crucial part of the game, is at best simplistic and trivial and at worst infuriating. New additions to the series like stealth sections are appallingly barebones. A matrix system revamp was earned by the community when Hong Kong’s Kickstarter raised $700,000: the disastrous result will likely make fans wish the game had earned less so the old system would still be in place.
The worst of Total War: Rome II’s many problems is its failure to explain its mechanics clearly and especially how they interact. The internal politics of Rome – something critical to why the Rome: Total War was good – are a particularly badly represented mess: a variety of bars and numbers move around the politics screen without explaining themselves or what they mean in relation to the rest of the game. The food system, newly introduced in this iteration of Total War, is not necessarily the worst offender but it is the one I’ve had the best luck untangling and so it provides a good case study for why Rome II’s obscure, badly implemented mechanics utterly rob the campaign of its joy.
At its worst, Europa Universalis IV is a game of unchecked conquest. It shares a common problem with many grand strategy games, namely the fun struggle to survive and grow as a state is gradually replaced with a lengthy period of easy conquest and ‘cleaning up.’ EUIV’s timeline spans 400 years (1444-1821), but it’s rare for most players to ever get beyond 1650. By then you are the strongest: alliances can be broken with impunity, neighbours devoured and coalitions smashed. Without the challenge of the early and mid game, EUIV and other titles like it devolve into rote warring to expand your territories. Interesting decisions evaporate, and as long as you’re clever enough not to let a massive coalition form, you will be unchallenged. Playing as Austria is the antidote to those problems. It provides a unique, long-lasting challenge which is different from the experiences of other, more conventional states.