Sunday, January 4, 2015

My top 5 PC games of the year

Top X lists are fun and useful, if only because that force you to reflect a bit on why something connected with you in a meaningful way.  I play a fair amount of computer games, as my wife would attest, and I dabble in most genres.  I don't buy everything shiny that comes out, and I often play games that are 1-2 years old after they've languished in my Steam library gathering mold.  So this list doesn't only include games from 2015 - it's just the top 5 digital games I enjoyed the most this year. Rather than waxing poetic about the loveliness of each, I'll try to hone in on one specific design feature that impressed me about said game.  That way I won't feel too guilty about including this post on my design blog.

5.  Wasteland 2

I actually talked about the new Wasteland in my last blog entry from a couple months ago.  I probably ended up putting in around 20-25 hours in, not quite getting out of Arizona but certainly exploring most of the game's mechanics.  What impressed me design-wise?  Honestly, not too much. This was an old-school RPG through-and-through, with a creaky interface, poor inventory management, and an (over)abundance of skills.  BUT I thought the designers did a nice job balancing the amount of reading vs. action you engaged in.  RPG worlds are often built on dialogue and text, but if you overwhelm your player with too much of this, they can quickly lose interest and start ignoring all the lovely books and conversations your design team spent hundreds of hours writing into the game.  Wastelands 2 gives you enough dialogue and text to feel like you're engaging and exploring this novel post-apocalyptic world, before you move on to your next (stressful) combat encounter.

4.  Titanfall

Almost every year, I dip into a multiplayer FPS to see what the kids are up to.  Last year it was Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (solid), and this year it was Titanfall.  I played this around 30 hours and that was enough to develop some skill, explore all the maps, and level up to 50.  Probably the most obvious design aspect of Titanfall to laud is its accessibility - but the difficulty of this achievement should not be under-appreciated.  Multiplayer FPS's are notoriously cruel to novices and can be brutally demoralizing.  By giving everyone access to the Titans, however, you guarantee that every player is going to feel deadly and powerful at least once a game.  Furthermore, the parkour-like movement was smooth and effortless, again allowing novices to feel like experts after relatively small time commitments.  For these reasons, I'm sure more "hard-core" FPS players scoffed at Titanfall, but as a casual consumer I appreciated the approach.  

3.  Endless Legend

This was my favorite strategy game of the year.  I've logged nearly 80 hours, which isn't even close to what I've put into any Civ title, but that shouldn't subtract from its accolades.  It's an excellent fantasy 4X - derivative in many ways, but innovative too.  Possibly my favorite design feature was the idea of one city per region.  This limited city building (and thus economic expansion) significantly, placing greater emphasis on a more efficient core of cities.  It also helps the AI, who tends to get lost in any game where infinite city-sprawl is a possibility.  I also really enjoyed the addition of a specific "quest-line" for each race in the game; a quest-line that also served as a unique victory condition. This design feature showed that it is possible to add significant flavor and narrative to 4X games beyond the player-built narrative that emerges from their own choices.  A lovely, engaging game.

2.  Bioshock Infinite (including Burial at Sea 1 and 2)

I was a little late to the party on this one, but to my credit, I did play all the DLC (including an unhealthy amount of Clash in the Clouds).  Burial at Sea episode 2 was possibly the tightest, most emotional narrative experience I've ever had in a PC game.  But let's ignore the story of Bioshock Infinite for a moment and just consider game-design.  What's impressive?  World-building, certainly.  But perhaps most notably, Infinite gives you a soul to inhabit.  I became Booker when playing the game - and, in a wonderful turn of events, I became Elizabeth in Burial at Sea, Episode 2. How did Levine et al accomplish this?  I'm not entirely sure.  It has something to do with making them honest, flawed characters with complex histories.  How often does that happen in a FPS?

1.  Diablo 3 (including Reaper of Souls)

Yes, sadly perhaps, my most played game of the year.  I won't even tell you how many hours.  Diablo 3 is great entertainment when you have a 4 year old who constantly calls your attention away; you can dip in for 15-30 minutes and then walk away until tomorrow.  The folks at Blizzard are masters of game design.  Now, I'm going to cheat here and talk about a design feature that is not unique to Diablo 3 - it's something that several action RPG's make use of - but it's still interesting to dissect.  The interaction between skills and loot.  ARPG's have to make you want to 1) level up, to open up more skills, and 2) explore and kill, to garner more loot.  But how these two features interact can spell success or doom for a game or franchise.  In Diablo 3, you're never actually swinging that giant 2-handed axe you just found to cause damage.  Rather, you're using a skill (called, Slash, for example) that hits X number of enemies within Y range for Z damage. That damage is based upon 1) the intrinsic power level of the skill (it is a low-cost skill that you use over and over again, or is it something big and powerful with a long cool-down), 2) the damage your weapon deals, and 3) the various attribute bonuses your other skills and loot confer.  So you still want to unlock more skills, since they'll give you different tactical options to play with - but the more powerful your weapon is, the more damage you'll deal when activating any particular skill.  It's somewhat complex -- perhaps too complex to instantly grok.  But, certainly, when you try out a new legendary and suddenly monsters start dropping after 2-3 hits vs. the 10+ they were taking before, you understand that something important and awesome has happened.  

There's more to Diablo 3 that's great (and none of them include the word, "story"), but ultimately I appreciate it's basic veneer of simplicity that belies the complexity beneath.  This is something that no boardgame could do well.  Indeed, I don't fully understand why so many people are obsessed about designing (and playing, for that matter!) tactical dungeon-crawls with tons of dice, cards (equipment), and minis. All the stat modifiers!  Uggg.  That is what computers are for.  We should design boardgames wherein the players will experience something that can't be better experienced digitally - we should take advantage of our medium.

Regardless, that's my list and I'm sticking with it.  Happy 2015, everyone!