Tim Clark: Simulacra
Look, I'm nothing if not entirely predictable, so to the surprise of absolutely nobody, least of all myself, I failed to catch up on Assassin's Creed: Origins. To be fair I did boot it up and made it through a couple of missions, but as I saw its vast sandy expanse stretching away into the distance, I felt the clarion call of my old favourites. And so most of the break was spent grinding Destiny 2 for masterworks weapons, of which I now have an indecent amount, but somehow still no raid hand cannon. I also managed to crank out a successful Hearthstone Dungeon Run with every remaining class, thereby earning the card back. Shaman was the last to fall, and finally got over the line last night—but only after I started auto-quitting unless I was able to get the 'double Battlecry' passive buff and a decent batch of Jade cards.
In at least a slight change of pace, I did play most of my games on a laptop this Christmas, a gift from my family and myself to myself. Being able to plug the 1070-equipped ASUS into the bedroom TV and enjoy Destiny 2 at 1080p/60fps made for an illicit pleasure and long lie-ins. (I also ended up buying a wireless adapter and charging pack for the Elite controller.) And at least I managed to play one entirely new game stuff on the laptop. Inspired by Hannah Dwan's retrospective on 2017's best visual novels, I picked up Simulacra and finished it over the course of a couple of nights on the sofa with my other half.
This was the first 'missing phone' game I'd tried, and I loved the mix of stalker-themed Tinder mystery with weirder supernatural trappings. Creeping around the emails, Twitter account and chat logs of a girl who has disappeared becomes propulsively dramatic when a blizzard of new notifications start popping up. Simulacra doesn't quite stick the ending, but as a self-contained mystery it was still a great way to spend a few hours. You can pick it up on Steam in the Christmas sale right now at 30% off.
Steven Messner: Path of Exile
I had great, ambitious plans for this holiday break. With a back catalogue of games that had grown considerably over 2017, I was looking forward to making a big dent while sipping rum and eggnog in my underwear. I was going to finally wrap up Persona 5. I was going to try out PUBG’s new desert map. I was going to shovel the walks like a good neighbour should. And then I logged back into Path of Exile to give the new seasonal league a quick taste. I fell in love with the free-to-play ARPG back in September with its Fall of Oriath expansion, but I was curious about seeing how it had grown since then. Nearly two weeks later, I’m looking back at my holiday break in despair. Where the hell did it go?
It’s been years since a game has wormed itself so deeply into my brain, but Path of Exile is like a fever that won’t break. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I woke up exhausted more than once because of a restless sleep filled with dreams of running maps, finding exorbitantly expensive unique items, and theorycrafting my build. I clocked in over 60 hours this holiday break—an average of five hours a day (though I’m ashamed to admit there were a few days where it was much more). Path of Exile consumed me. I’m finally willing to say that it might even be my Dota 2, the game that I will happily clock a thousand hours into and countless more talking and dreaming about.
Tyler Wilde: Civilization VI
I uninstalled all my Civ 6 mods (some old, manually-installed mods were breaking all the icons and I couldn't remember which) and relegated half of New Year's Day to building a prosperous Russian civilization. I quit in the Classical Era to go find my old mods, though, disappointed by how few quality of life improvements have been made standard so far. Still no production queue? A strange omission. That aside, I still love Civ 6's district system, as I always thought it was silly that a city near the ocean couldn't have a harbor, and city-planning minutia is my favorite aspect of the series.
Building mines, farms, camps, and roads, protecting caravans, erecting wonders and ensuring that every district is placed exactly where it out to be, maximizing gains—these are the reasons I play Civ, not warfare, so I'm typically on the defensive, protecting my perfectly symbiotic metropolises and hamlets from the absurd imperialist reasoning of my neighbors. Presently, Mvembra a Nzinga is furious that I won't spread my religion to his people, and Qin Shi Huang is upset that I've built more wonders than him. What did my peaceful, overly efficient society do to deserve such petty neighbors? Yet again I wonder if I wouldn't enjoy Civ more if I were by myself in the world.
Evan Lahti: They Are Billions
Some of the most fun I had with RTSes as a kid was messing around with Command & Conquer: Red Alert's map editor. I'd make winding tesla coil death mazes that my opponent had to navigate in order to reach my spacious, well-supplied base. They Are Billions revives that same feeling of defense-focused strategy, except I'm the one being tortured.
The structure of it is somewhere between StarCraft and a horde mode game like Killing Floor 2: you expand outward with pylon-like towers, hoovering up wood, minerals, and food off the map to feed your economy, but there isn't a true opponent on the map with you—you're the only one with an expanding base. Instead, there are crowds of mostly stagnant undead (with various durabilities, speeds, and attack types) occupying the map, and massive waves of them that attack every 15 minutes or so from a random direction.
I love the preparation for the payoff at the end, a Left 4 Dead-style finale where actual thousands of zombies are on screen simultaneously, seeping in from all cardinal directions. Your north wall may be impregnable, but did you gather enough resources to reinforce that bottleneck to the west? An Early Access game, They Are Billions needs a little more depth and unpredictability in its midgame, but it nails the fun of building a sprawling defensive death machine and having it continually tested by a tough enemy.
Chris Livingston: Rick and Morty: Virtual Rick-ality
I finished Rick and Morty: Virtual Rick-ality before the break, but despite its size (it mostly takes place in Rick's garage and only gives you three spots to stand in) it's a impressively expansive VR playground. This is mostly to do with the Combinator, one of Rick's inventions that allows you to put two items onto it and see what you get when they're scientifically merged (think of Jeff Goldblum and a fly getting into a teleporter together).
Often it's nothing exciting (combine a glass with a bar of soap and you'll get a bar of soap made of glass) but there are enough weird and surprising combinations to make you want to combine everything with everything else, and then combine the resulting combinations with the resulting combinations. And then combine those some more. Throw in some growth pills and the fact that you can copy your own brain (by laying your VR head on the combinator) and you might, with enough re-combining, wind up with an enormous twitching brain that fills the entire garage.
And despite it looking like a cartoon, it's still the most convincing VR experience I've had. I almost fell over after trying to lean on a countertop that doesn't actually exist, I've punched a few real walls throwing things around, and I realized that when eating or drinking something in the game I actually open my (real) mouth.
Wes Fenlon: Thimbleweed Park and Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward
My holiday gaming involved a lot of puzzle solving. Over Christmas I was away from home and my gaming PC, so I actually spent most of my time with friends playing games on Nintendo's SNES Classic and Switch. If you love XCOM, you really need to try Ubisoft's excellent Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. In the last few days of the break, though, I really dug into two games I've been meaning to play for months: point-and-click adventure Thimbleweed Park and escape room visual novel Virtue's Last Reward.
Thimbleweed Park is delightful so far, with classic adventure game puzzles that err on the side of reasonable instead of impossible logic. It gives you multiple characters to control so you don't get stuck and can jump between puzzles and areas at will, and there are also some clever bits that require using one character to help another. It's a little meta jokey for my taste (as mentioned in our review) with frequent jokes about the genre itself, but the laughs I've gotten from the ridiculously foul-mouthed Ransome the Clown have more than made up for it.
Currently, though, all I can think about is Virtue's Last Reward, which has its hooks in me deep. The central mechanic of this escape room game is solving the mystery of your imprisonment, with every major decision you make creating a new branching path—but you can go back and take a different route whenever you want. Information you gain from some dead-ends actually lets you progress down paths that don't end with horrible suicides, explosions, or deaths by lethal injection. The way it teases out the solution to its mystery is maddening, and there's a bit more repetition of similar conversations than I'd like, but I need to find out what happens, and each cliffhanger I hit just adds fuel to the fire.
Andy Chalk: Hob
I started playing around with Hob shortly after it came out in September, but I didn't make a concerted effort to really do anything with it until the holidays arrived. With time on my hands, I got down to the business of properly exploring the bizarre, wild mechano-landscape, collecting its secrets, and unraveling the great mystery that lies beneath. Most of my gaming time is dedicated to shooting dudes or playing roles, but this odd little diversion ("little," I say, as Steam shows 36 hours sunk into it) was nothing less than magical: Complex without being obtuse, challenging but never punishing, and set in one of the prettiest and most unusual game worlds I've ever explored.
The platforming is a tad wonky at times but never unfair, and more importantly the sights and sounds are so wonderfully weird that even after botching an obvious and simple move, I never felt the urge to pound my mouse into pieces with my keyboard. The ending was brilliant, too. No spoilers, but there is a story being told amidst all the strange grunts and glowing hieroglyphics, and the payoff was unexpected—and unexpectedly difficult to process, too. For all that I loved the game world, the fact that Hob isn't just jumping and slashing its way to a simple happy ending might be my favorite part of the game.
Everything we said in our review was spot-on (although I would've scored it ten points higher—sorry, Other Andy) but I feel like it could stand to be shouted from the rooftops a little more loudly: Hob is a fantastically good game. (And Runic deserved better.)