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The week's highs and lows in PC gaming

HastyRawHen (gfyCat video)


THE HIGHS

Tom Senior: AGDQ
Awesome Games Done Quick is my high of the week. It’s a charity drive for the Prevent Cancer Foundation built around a live event in which some of the world’s best speedrunners break games in beautiful ways to complete them in the shortest time. My favourites disrupt my familiarity with games I’ve played to death. Speedrunners use engine quirks and geometry exploits to phase through walls, jump over entire levels and perform other acts I’d never thought possible.

I enjoy the speedrunner’s determination to shave a few seconds off a previous time, and the diligence needed to discover new tricks. For most of the playthroughs in Awesome Games Done Quick the performers narrate their runs, explaining the tactics they’re using to subvert the developers’ intentions. You learn that holding a box in the face of an NPC can skip cutscenes, or that hopping backwards in a certain way can allow you to go fast enough to leap past a village. These game-breaking techniques puncture the illusion the game is trying to sell. It’s the curtain moment in the Wizard of Oz—the realisation that games are just numbers and collision meshes.

However, sometimes there is no way to cheat. The only way to go fast is to be insanely fast, as Staiain
demonstrates here in StepMania. Wow.

Tyler Wilde: Virtual reality reality
In 2013, a kid no one had heard of made a Kickstarter campaign for a VR headset, and this week the first consumer version of that headset went on sale. VR is happening. I want to celebrate that, because before Oculus, home VR was dead as far as I knew. It was a joke, but here we are, a few years later, and Valve, HTC, Facebook, and Sony are all working on it. There are lots of reasons to have reservations, but putting aside sticker shock and fears that Facebook’s going to mine our skulls for data, I’m glad this story happened. I wonder if VR will be the mainstream revolution some have predicted—I think Palmer Luckey thinks it will be—or if it’ll settle into a niche gaming space, but I’m fine with either. I’m just happy it’s here.

Don't Starve Shipwrecked Slide

Tim Clark: Monkey islands
I’m having a great time playing Don’t Starve: Shipwrecked at work (when no one’s watching). I pretty much skipped over the Reign of Giants DLC because, having already presided over a 300+ day save, I’d already sucked much of the marrow from the base game, and needed more than just big new monsters to lure me back. Shipwrecked’s tropical setting has done that, and rekindled my love for Klei’s brutally brilliant permadeather in the process. It’s exciting to see there’s already a rich roadmap of stuff still to come.

The expansion, which was partly outsourced to Capybara Games, does a great job of encouraging you to play differently. Because the map is broken into islands, you’re effectively forced to explore further afield rather than turtle up in your ever-expanding base. The fact you can make all manner of seafaring vessels to chart the inevitably lethal oceans very much makes this Don’t Starve’s own Black Flag. And then there are the monkeys. These light-fingered grinning idiots will steal your stuff if you leave it on the ground for a second. Which is obviously massively irritating, but also means it’s incredibly satisfying to corner one, brain it, and see all your gear pop from its corpse. Don’t tell PETA, but I know how I’m spending my weekend.

Samuel Roberts: Creed 2017
It’s a bit too fashionable to hate on Assassin’s Creed since it’s such an easy target—it’s out yearly, it’s a mega seller even when the year’s entry isn’t that good (ACIII sold 10 million copies) and its platforming and combat systems are too simplified for me. There’s a lot to love about the series in terms of art direction, scale and audio design—but the game within it is just too simple, and too broadly targeted to offer any real player expression. I don’t think the series has had any positive long-term influences on the medium, honestly.

With the rumour this week that the
series is going on hiatus this year, and taking more of a Witcher-type direction with a ‘freeform’ combat system. Better yet, it’ll be developed by the Black Flag team, which is the best one (mainly because of the naval combat, a system added to the series that didn’t just play itself with one button press). This sounds like sensible thinking to me, if true. A year off and more detailed ways to interact with those amazing worlds is exactly what Ubisoft’s series needs. 

Whos Your Daddy Slide

Chris Livingston: The parent trap
This week I watched as James Davenport ate a handful of batteries before climbing into an oven and tried to cook himself. This was during a session of Who’s Your Daddy, a two-player online game in Early Access where one person is a reckless baby and the other is a protective parent. Baby’s goal is to die in any number of ways: sticking a fork into an electrical outlet, eating glass, drinking bleach, climbing inside major appliances, and so on, while the dad scurries around desperately trying to stop him.

I guess it’s a bit weird to say I enjoyed watching a baby die, or enjoyed—as a baby—delivering myself to a horrible end. But it was fun, in a sort of comically repulsive way, and I’d say it successfully demonstrates the types of fears new parents must have and the general feeling that if they turn their heads for even a second their infant will meet a terrible demise. Lessons learned: keep your batteries on a high shelf, don’t let your baby crawl around with a hammer, and lock up your sex toys.
You can see some animated gifs and read our discussion here.

Phil Savage: Pony Island
This week, a game called Pony Island was released on Steam. It costs £4/$5. You should buy it.

I don’t really want to say more. As a critic, that feels like a cop out, but your experience will be enriched by knowing as little as possible. I bought it without even looking at the Steam page screenshots, and had a more exciting ride—haha, ponies—because of it.

I’ll say this: it’s not really about ponies, or even islands. It’s a puzzle adventure, although that’s a deliberately reductive label. It’s also the first great game of the year. One moment in particular was one of the most unexpected and temporarily alarming things that has happen to me in a game—beautifully and cleverly blurring the line between fiction and reality in a way that drew me fully into the game’s world. It’s definitely, unquestionably worth a look.

The Long Dark


THE LOWS

Chris Livingston: Can’t bear it
Last year I became PC Gamer’s go-to guy for Early Access survival games, and after playing about a dozen of them in a short period of time, I became understandably burned out. I decided to kick off the New Year by easing myself back into the genre, and I thought I’d start by taking a long-overdue look at The Long Dark. Sad to say, I think I’m still not ready.

Not to say it’s a bad game, just that I’m disappointed to find I’m just not enjoying it. As with many survival games, I feel like I’m having to eat far too much, that dehydration comes too quickly, that the stamina bar is far too easily depleted (not that I could personally run far in the snow carrying gear without becoming exhausted, but I’d prefer a bit more latitude, this being a game and all). Not having a physical body (it’s a ‘floating eyeball’ FPS) hurts the immersion, and I’m not sure if it’s Unity or what but I feel like my character is approximately two feet tall.

I plan to keep at it, though, and hopefully it’ll click with me at some point. The survival genre still interests me, and I’d hate to think that I’m done with it completely.

Phil Savage: Valve time
Marc Laidlaw has left Valve. And to an extent, so what? The story for Half-Life 3—assuming it’s still an active project—was probably mapped out long ago. Losing a writer or designer does not signal the death of a project. Especially given that, as of Half-Life 2’s episodes, Laidlaw had moved from “sole writer” to “lead writer”. Unsurprisingly, Valve has other writers.

That’s not really my low: a 19-year-long career that helped make some of the best games of all time is a thing that should be celebrated, not mourned. But it did make me realise that I’m not waiting for Half-Life 3 any more. I’m not waiting for any new Valve games. There’s enough going on elsewhere in the industry that the lack of new titles from a single developer isn’t really a big deal. And, in the grand scheme of things, maintaining and improving Steam probably does more good for the PC industry at large than releasing an FPS. In many ways, this realisation comes as a relief, but it also feels like an end of an era. I don’t really care if Valve makes any more games, but I’ll still be glad when they do.

Oculus Rift Slide

Tyler Wilde: Even more VR talk
My take on the $600 USD Oculus Rift price is, basically: “It sucks, because I don’t have $600 right now, but ultimately it just means I have to save up or wait for the price to drop.” The assumption that a high starting price is going to kill VR is way premature. It’s an exciting, high-end piece of hardware—like a 4K monitor, only newer, weirder, more untested. It makes sense that it’s $600. But I’m still bummed that I foolishly went into 2016 thinking that this would be the big year for VR.

I got my hopes up for a $350 system and wide adoption and a wave of new VR games and unending things to talk about. After years of trying the prototypes, meeting with VR game developers, covering the conventions and the breakthroughs, frantically reporting on the surprise entrance from Valve and HTC—all of that—a pressure has built up. I’ve talked and talked and talked about it, but when is VR really happening? Or is it just going to burst after all? I thought this year, with the consumer releases, would ease that pressure, but I think it’ll be another couple years more before we have a stable sense of where VR fits into our culture. And given how quickly the Rift delivery date is moving back for new pre-orders, it’ll still probably be a year before I have my own system set up in my home (be it a Rift, or an HTC Vive). So it’s another year of speculation and observation and not enough flying around in VR spaceships.

Tim Clark: Stream scare
As an avid watcher of the Hearthstone competitive scene, it was shocking to hear that Jakub “Lothar” Szygulski, captain of the G2 team, had suffered some sort of seizure while playing the game on stream. I’m happy to say that after being rushed to hospital he’s undergoing tests and was able to tweet his thanks to well wishers. Twitch is such a young, strange, powerful medium. I spend so much time watching people play a game I love that at times it can feel like we’re almost friends, even though we usually haven’t even met in real life. So, when something this unexpected and scary happens it feels upsetting. Not on anything like the same level as it does for those actually involved, of course, but still—the feeling is there. I want to write more about Twitch culture in 2016, how it’s shaping the future of PC gaming, and how those involved are affected by the exposure. In the meantime, get well soon Lothar, I hope you’re back SMOrc-ing it up on the ladder again soon!

Im in the hospital, I will have some test done. Im overwhelmed by the good wishes, i wasnt aware so many people care. I will update later <3

— Jakub Szygulski (@LotharHS) January 7, 2016

And yes im aware that I lost that game 😉

— Jakub Szygulski (@LotharHS) January 7, 2016

Samuel Roberts: Star Wipe
For a lot of us, this week meant the return to work after time off over the holidays. It makes for a pretty slow week for news, and a pretty sad week for me personally, since I can longer just eat Pringles, drink red wine and play Fallout for ten hours a day. One of my personal bugbears this week was discussion about the Star Wars open world RPG Kickstarter that was riddled with spelling errors and eventually cancelled, obviously destined to never be a real thing and ultimately a joke. This has been reported on and dissected in-depth, because it’s January. I don’t really think it was worth talking about—and I’m kicking myself a little bit for mentioning it now.

It’s a nice idea for a game, a funny pitch, and it sounds like the creator of the Kickstarter, Devin Tripp, is a good guy who loves both Star Wars and games—like a lot of us. But I don’t really see how this was any more of a real thing than me yelling an idea for a game in a bar after three beers. Just because it’s been put on the internet and it’s borderline funny, what difference does it make? There’s no greater sign that it’s early January than prolonged conversation about nothing. Still, it was a little more substantial as a story than the livestream of people jumping over a puddle, which made national news in the UK, swallowed Twitter’s tedious back-to-work attention and represented, as PC Gamer’s Tom Senior put it, ‘a new low for social media’. Agreed. In the bin it goes. Can January be over yet?

Tom Senior: LeChuck’s revenge
I would love to believe that game piracy could magically vanish within years. It has an insidious and damaging affect on the industry. Aside from the theft of work that teams have spent thousands of hours creating, the potential sales hit directly alters the decisions that publishers make. In some territories always-online free to play games are more viable than a boxed single-player experience that will be cracked within hours. If you’re operating there, why would you bankroll an adventure game, or an RPG, or a story-driven FPS? You can argue that a pirated copy doesn’t equal a lost sale, and I would agree, but that doesn’t matter—to business, the mere impression of lost sales affects the projects that are greenlit.

Piracy has become an accepted part of the industry, and developers have come up with creative ways to punish people who have downloaded their game illegally. Some small developers without the resources to run verification servers instead appeal to pirates directly, asking them to consider throwing a few bucks in the pot for the hours of free entertainment. A few years ago, Ubisoft went nuclear with always-online systems that would pause legitimately bought games mid-session if an internet connection was lost. There was outrage, but today similar (better-implemented) online verification systems are commonplace. I’d be interested to know whether the introduction of Steam refunds will have significantly affected piracy rates by catering to players who want to try before they buy. Still, the arms race continues.