The week's highs and lows in PC gaming



Tom Marks: XCOM in excelsis
My high of this week is technically actually my high from last week, but I wasn’t allowed to talk about it a week ago. I got to play XCOM 2, and since then pretty much all I’ve wanted to do is play more XCOM 2. I had a moment as I began the tutorial stage where I realized “aw crap… this doesn’t come out for two more months” as it started to wrap its tendrils around my brain. My two-hour play session left me craving more, so much so that I promptly reinstalled XCOM: Enemy Unknown to sate the feeling.

Fundamentally, XCOM 2 is Enemy Unknown but made better in pretty much every possible way. It’s more detailed, more customizable, more replayable, better looking, etc. I could see that potentially not being enough once I spend an extended amount of time with the full game, but the original XCOM formula wasn’t broken, so Firaxis hasn’t tried to fix it. I much prefer this approach—changing only what’s needed, improving everything else—to altering the core of a game just for the sake of it being a sequel. Enemy Unknown is a phenomenal game, so describing its successor as “more but better” is possibly the highest compliment I can give.

Samuel Roberts: Mars smash
Last weekend I decided to knock through some games in my Steam library. Not any of the ones released this year, it turns out, just the very obvious choices of South Park: The Stick of Truth and 2009’s Red Faction: Guerrilla, the latter of which allowed you to smash and blow up buildings in an enormous open world on Mars. After THQ burned the series down with the dreadful, underground-set Armageddon, which narrowed the scale so much that it eliminated the ability to drive a car through a building and watch it collapse, the whole destructive physics thing has been more or less left alone in open world games.

Still, Guerrilla remains, and new owners Nordic Games saved it from GFWL with a Steam version that’s compatible with Windows 10. Last weekend I picked it up again, and sampled its Wrecking Crew mode, a score attack aside where you have to level as many buildings as quickly as possible using gravity bombs, remote mines or just a hammer. Because so few people are playing it, I broke into the top 20 in the world on one of the map’s leaderboards. It’s possible you have it in your Steam library from various Humble Bundles and sales—give it a go. It’s a perfect five-minute sampler of the game, and you can come knock me off my ludicrous perch on the leaderboard. Sometimes you just need to break things with a hammer, you know?

Tribes Slide

Angus Morrison: Tribes ascending
Tribes: Ascend is one of the few free-to-play games I’ve invested in. Though I’d argue the quality of free-to-play generally is on the up, they don’t often hold me for long—there’s nothing like parting with £40 to make you sit down and squeeze your money’s worth, after all. But Tribes: Ascend was the perfect antidote to hitscan shooters and Battlefield iterations when it released in 2012, all fluid motion and skillshots to the point where you could feel yourself improving round by round. I figured it deserved some financial appreciation.

You can imagine my chagrin when Hi-Rez summarily abandoned Tribes in favour of Smite. For the past two years, servers have varied from graveyard silence to library hush. Yesterday evening, however, Hi-Rez sprung a patch on us, fittingly titled ‘Out of the Blue’. It’s not just housekeeping either: classes, weapons, maps and the business model have all been overhauled.

Finding life in such a tragic wreck is exciting, but the real high comes from the team’s acknowledgement that this is not a money-spinner. Indeed, anyone who has ever dropped a penny on Tribes: Ascend will be given the Ultimate Weapons Pack gratis, taking the bottom out of the business model. Out of the Blue feels like Hi-Rez seeking forgiveness, and I’m partial to a bit of grovelling.

Wes Fenlon: An overclocking game-changer
A couple weeks ago, an extreme overclocker managed something no one thought possible: he overclocked a locked (non-’K’) Skylake processor that shouldn’t have been overclockable. No one knew quite how he did it, at first, but it turned out to be a modification on his Supermicro motherboard. And it looks like more motherboard makers may enable the same overclocking capability on their own boards with a BIOS update. This could be huge for budget PC builds. With a cheap processor (and quite possibly budget motherboard, too) you’ll be able to add as much as another GHz of speed on top. If you have the cash for a fancy unlocked i5 or i7, this won’t matter to you very much, but it’s an exciting development nonetheless.

StarCraft 2 Slide

James Davenport: Coming back to Starcraft
I stopped playing Starcraft 2 halfway through the Heart of the Swarm campaign, and I’m not sure why. Likely because I was playing during some heavy schooling or early teaching months. But last night I hopped back in on an inexplicable whim and can’t quit thinking about it. The story is hokey sci-fi nonsense, but I forgot how sticky sweet RTS nostalgia can be. It felt like 2003 again (I was late to the Starcraft party).

You never forget your first Battlechest. The Helena, Montana Target, a snowy drive home, our yellowed Compaq, and night after night of sneaking out of bed to work on my macros in preteen stealth. Starcraft 2 is hitting all the right notes, and the way it plays within its traditional RTS design boundaries is a constant delight. More so than the narrative, I’m excited to see what gameplay twist the next mission will unravel. Some levels are straight up old school base building battles, others are hero controlled Diablo-esque missions, complete with character abilities and boss battles. Even if the multiplayer isn’t for you, Starcraft 2 feels entirely worth it. Whether for the gameplay twists or just to soak in some of the good ol’ vibes I heartily recommend trying it if you’ve yet to, especially with the recent release of the final campaign (which Chris liked quite a bit).

Andy Kelly: Out of this world
This week I’ve been playing the beta of Elite Dangerous expansion Horizons, which will be released on December 15. This ‘season’ of new content kicks off with planetary landings, a feature that people have been anticipating since that first Kickstarter pitch. For now it’s only airless worlds you can land on, but the tech is already really impressive. Flying towards a rocky moon in some backwater system, I notice immense valleys criss-crossing the surface. I fly closer and soon I’m skimming over the surface, watching those great canyons grow larger.

I land my ship on the lip of the nearest one and the sheer scale of the thing is dizzying. Suddenly the Grand Canyon doesn’t seem so grand. There’s nothing to do but gaze in awe, but the transition from space flight to bouncing around on the surface of a planet in the new Scarab buggy is thrilling. Frontier say planets will have things to discover, and a few I landed on had stations to dock with, but for now I’m happy just to explore. After a quick drive around the block, I return to my ship, climb into the cockpit, and blast off back into space. It’s amazing what Frontier are doing with Elite, and I can’t wait to see what else Horizons has in store.

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