Xenonauts - Evan
On Christmas Eve I committed my mind and body to surviving Xenonauts. Earlier in 2014 I’d spent 20-some hours losing and ragequitting through it, abandoning dozens of battered save files. I’d enjoyed myself along the way, but lost over and over to a combination of my own impatience and Xenonauts’ extra layer of depth and difficulty—its Normal setting is roughly equivalent to Veteran in modern XCOM.
I marathoned Xenonauts for a couple of days, losing all of of my starting soldiers one by one. At one point a soldier—I’m not sure if it was Lt. Abraham Lincoln or Cap. Orson Welles—vaporized when I shrugged off the 14% chance that my hovertank would have its railgun shot blocked by a tree. Whoops. Still, I pressed on. A squad wipe halfway through meant that I had to avoid difficult missions and shoot down smaller, less dangerous UFOs to train my inexperienced recruits on before they could take on downed alien carriers and strike craft. It took much longer, but it was safer.
A two-hour terror mission was the highlight. It was the first terror mission I’d tackled of the campaign, and luckily I’d drawn “robots” as the enemy type rather than Reapers (aka Chrysalids). After connecting on at least a dozen “must-make” shots, my team was beat up, low on ammo, but intact. Thinking I’d entered the “mopping up” phase, I explored the final edge of the map to reveal two Heavy Drone units. I hadn’t even encountered any medium drones yet—what the hell were these? Lt. Katie Williams died fighting the first one, bravely firing a burst shot into the air. Her valor earned us the knowledge that Heavy Drones explode violently across multiple tiles when killed, preventing countless future deaths.
During the playthrough I swapped Xenonauts’ music for a Spotify playlist of “Space War-Appropriate Williams/Zimmer/Wall/McCreary” and others that I’d also used for Sins of a Solar Empire, which was splendid, although themes from Star Wars now fill me with an unusual seriousness and dread. I also used a mod that added dozens of new, more realistic character portraits.
Nearing the end on January 2, I didn’t realize that I’d have a single shot at Xenonauts’ final mission. What a thrill! The briefing for the finale is harrowing: not only are there a ton of tough enemies thrown at you immediately, with little cover, but if you dally too long (as you’re free to do in practically all of Xenonauts) dozens of Reapers start streaming from the middle of the map, way too many for you to survive.
43 dead soldiers later (and 96,125 civilians, RIP), Lt. Wes Fenlon said something masculine and clever, flicked a railgun shot at the final alien commander, and escaped onto a teleporter pad with Reapers on his heels. It was some of the best gaming I did all year.
Terraria - Tom Marks
If you listened to our end of the year podcast, you’ll know that I’ve been eagerly awaiting Terraria’s 1.3 update which is, regrettably, still without a release date. I’d been waiting to jump back into Terraria until I heard more concrete info about the update—I tend to binge on the game only to burn out for a while—but the combination of another teaser from developer ReLogic and the return of one of my favorite youtube series’ meant I couldn’t hold back any longer. Suddenly I was back in my old stomping grounds, killing slimes and looking for chests.
Trying to return to an old character in Terraria after a few months feels like being thrust into another person’s consciousness. I don’t remember what I was doing, what I’ve done, or why I built my base where I did. This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful Honey Bee Mount. So in classic survival game fashion, I threw all of my previous accomplishments in the dirt and started anew. A lot of people have trouble doing that, but starting on a new world with a new character is my favorite part. Terraria has a brutally challenging end game that is a ton of fun, but I loved spending my break learning the layouts of caves and building my NPCs homes that didn’t look like prison cells (it’s bad enough that I am required to ritualistically murder one of them to progress in the game, the least I can do is craft him a bookcase.)
Being given a fresh map to shape is an invigorating task. Even with how much I’ve played, I always find some new terrain formation I’ve never seen before and have experiences that feel unique. After already having two major content updates, there are so many different ways to play through it and an uncountable number of things to do. Diving into Terraria again reminded me why it always pulls me back in a way that Minecraft never quite did, and it’s only made me more excited for what’s to come with 1.3.
Hearthstone - Tim
I had grand intentions to use the holiday break to catch up on the backlog of games I either haven’t finished or had missed entirely. My other half and I even planned to play through Far Cry 4 entirely in co-op. None of that happened. Instead, as soon as the clocking off horn sounded I immediately succumbed to Tyler/Evan’s flu and then spent the next 10 days in a sherry-fuelled fugue on the sofa, watching festive movies (Todd and Margot from National Lampoon’s Christmas vacation are my spirit animals) and playing Hearthstone. Of course I did. I also gave up on my high falutin’ ideas about making Legend rank with my beloved Ramp Druid, and finally gave in to the siren call of maining aggro Hunter. To be honest I don’t like the playstyle at all, but I do like winning 75+% of my games. Cue an easy life winstreak from rank 10 to 5 in a single day. I feel icky indeed.
Fractured Space - Tyler
I’m not sure what it is with me and this game. I wrote about playing Fractured Space a bit last year (and given all the game updates since, the video I made is already horribly outdated), and kept on playing matches through the holiday. I guess I was craving a competitive multiplayer game to call home, but rather than move into some established house like CS:GO or Dota 2, I’ve taken up residence a half-built framework.
If you’re a normal person who hasn’t heard of it, Fractured Space is a 5v5 giant spaceship combat game on Early Access, and it’s far from ready for mass consumption. The rules have changed so much since I started playing that I’ve already had to adjust my playstyle and favorite ship class more than once. There’s rarely more than one match going at a time, and the lag can be vicious when the only server with a game is in London. There’s only one map and mode, and there are generally just a lot of moments where I think, “Yep, this isn’t done.”
Despite all that, I’m enjoying the opportunity to get settled in a competitive game before there’s already a league of superskilled players. My favorite thing about Fractured Space is how useless I am by myself. I originally played the stealth Assassin class, which was rightfully nerfed because I could solo seven or so kills per match with way too much ease, but I’ve now switched to the Sniper. I opted for a shorter-range weapon than the standard Sniper cannon, which has been an interesting challenge. It’s powerful as hell when I can land a shot, but I’m too slow to keep up with circling Hunters and Frigates. Unless I get lucky and jump in on a slower, wounded Flagship, I need to hang out on the edge of someone else’s battle if I’m going to survive long enough for a kill. That’s just a given for the class, but the biggest problem to solve is making sure my teammates are fighting the right fights for me to join in on. And that’s what’s really been fun for me: instructing newer players on where to go, then following them into battle with my big gun to offer support.
I’m far from the best player in Fractured Space, but I do have the basic strategy down, and I like to think that by giving some friendly guidance to new players (and scoring some kills off the back of their work, but hey, we all have to eat), I’m helping establish a pleasant household. Er, that’s not to say I think I’m some kind of saintly guide—just that I feel good doing my small part to make the game more fun. Maybe that’ll all change when it eventually releases, but so far, everyone I’ve seen in chat has been kind and helpful. Here’s hoping it stays that way.
Elite: Dangerous - Chris Livingston
My first few days playing Elite Dangerous didn't consist of much play. I'd pop in, wobble around in confusion, then quickly duck out, promising myself I'd watch all the videos and read the manual before I tried again. I didn't keep that promise, though. I just don't learn well from videos. If a video teaches me ten things, by the time I've learned the tenth I've forgotten the first nine. I learn best from trying and failing, and eventually I just jumped into the game and stayed, letting myself fail often enough to start succeeding.
The great thing about this approach is that figuring out something simple can feel like a major accomplishment. The first time I docked without crashing into anything, pretty much the most basic maneuver in the game, I held up my fists triumphantly and yelled "Whoo hoo!" And mastering one little skill in Elite quickly leads to something new. Once I'd gotten good at docking, I started carting goods around so I'd have something to sell after I landed. Once that got old, I started mining asteroids so I could sell goods without having to buy them. Finding fruitful asteroid belts meant learning to explore, and I've now discovered enough new systems to have achieved the "Scout" status. Again, small accomplishments, but they feel big.
I know, I know, I'm supposed to be out there dogfighting and hunting pirates and capturing bounties. I'm sure I'll get to that. But I just mined my first ton of platinum, and I'm going to bask in that small accomplishment for a bit. Woo hoo!
The Banner Saga - Tom Senior
The Banner Saga is a sort of Nordic fantasy road trip in which you lead caravans of refugees and warriors across an icy land in turmoil. The mysterious Dredge are pouring out of ancient abandoned fortresses, razing villages and driving humans and giant Varl people into the wilderness. I spent my Christmas leading them through the mountains.
It’s tricky. Leadership in the Banner Saga is about muddy choices. A gang of bloodied strangers asked to join me on the road—do I take them on and use their battle experience, throw them out to avoid being robbed, or attack on sight? The game asks you to make important decisions on limited information in a way that feels realistic rather than frustrating. The men joined my caravan and seemed to be getting along well with my people, but vanished a few days later with half of my supplies. Damn, should have seen that one coming.
I’m still thinking about the people I left behind on Christmas day. The Banner Saga is snowy, which makes it seem festive if you’re in a post-feast stupor. Escaping a burning village, my companions heard the sound of screaming survivors through a nearby wall. They’d locked themselves in and the Dredge had found them. I could rescue them, or snatch up food for my clan before it burned. Knowing I only had a couple of days of food to feed dozens of mouths, I chose the latter. I wonder what new companions I could have have gained if I’d been braver. I wonder how many I would have lost to starvation if I didn’t make the choice I did.
The Banner Saga is a great RPG, not just because of these constantly interesting decisions. I love the way its conversation, combat and resource systems interact. You balance the lives of your heroes against the sum of your caravan's warriors, and risk both to maintain supplies and morale. A conversational move can lose supplies, or rescue you from starvation. I found myself hardening as the journey continued. My cheerful altruism became steely pragmatism, as cold and unflinching as the mountains of Hraun.
Guild Wars 2 - Phil
I was determined to do as little as possible over the break; which is why I spent the last few days of my week-and-a-bit off sprawled in front of a TV watching inconsequential tripe. Or Marvel's Agents of SHIELD as it's also known. Despite that, I still found time for Guild Wars 2, which is less of a game, and more the background radiation of my gaming time. If I'm not doing something productive, I'm probably playing Guild Wars 2. In many ways, it's an augmentation of my Skype calls. A way to both engage in long-distance socialising and also maybe kill a dragon or two.
It is, in and of itself, inherently social. Players are constantly drifting in and out of self-made groups. Roaming packs hunt through the battlegrounds of World vs World; flash mobs form to take down a world boss; people quietly assemble and disperse across the recently added Silverwastes. There's also the constant flow of guild chat. The PC Gamer guild are regularly organising Guild Missions, WvW raids, PvP sessions, or just offering up advice. Recently, one of our members crafted Dreamer; a legendary bow. Acquiring legendaries is one of the most difficult and time-consuming tasks in the game. We had an impromptu party in Lion's Arch to celebrate. It was nice.
In completing my own long-term project I finally started running Fractals, the repeatable dungeon fragments that ostensibly provide some of the hardest challenges in the game. Turns out they're not so bad. The community has crowdsourced a series of tricks and tactics for getting through the most difficult of battles, and, as you watch those more experienced, you learn and adopt—later passing these inherited behaviours onto other, newer players.
Maybe that's why the game so easily occupies my time. It's comfortably familiar. It's part game, part well-worn slipper; a pleasant space filled with incremental progression. That in itself is fine, and as things stand I'll continue to play on and off over the next few years. But I'm also past the point where I expect the game to surprise me. What I really want is something dramatic and new.