A new year has arrived. I’m not really one for resolutions; on the rare occasions that I’ve made them in the past, my commitment to them has rarely lasted more than a week or two – so I don’t make them anymore. Instead I tend to just look back at what I’ve done in the past and try to make a couple of mental notes of things I could try to do differently this year. Not better, necessarily… just differently.
I’ve been thinking about how I consume games. I’ve thought about the idea of setting myself some kind of crazy target for the year. The idea of trying to reach Pirate Legend in Sea of Thieves without firing a pistol sounded attractive for a brief moment, before coming to my senses and realising that a challenge like that was neither fun nor possible. Only playing Gamepass games was another that occurred to me – and might well be one for next year or the year after. I’ll wait and see on that one. Then I took another sip of cold tea (my tea always seems to be cold, the world’s an imperfect place) and it came to me. The perfect new year gaming challenge. It’d let me play lots of games and it wouldn’t cost me a penny. A win-win, right?
Do you have a pile of shame? I do. Lately, it seems to get bigger rather than smaller. I’m succumbing to the age-old middle-aged gamer cliché – when I was young enough to have time to play all the games in the world I couldn’t afford many games, these days I can buy whatever I want but rarely have the time to finish anywhere near as many as I hope to. I’m aware of this everytime I come home with another game or find myself perusing the Xbox store… but I’m a sucker for a sale. My pile of shame goes all the way back to my SNES – I’ve started Secret of Mana three or four times and have yet to finish it.
So, this year, I want to make a concerted effort to clear some of my backlog. The keyword in that sentence is "some" – I’m going to concentrate on my current-gen backlog, because if I start going back to the Xbox 360 games that I still have sitting on my shelf (one of them unopened!), I may never return from the pit I’m digging for myself. This list isn’t exhaustive, and it isn’t in any particular order, but these are the games I want to finish this year. Most of them are... big. In fact, even as I sit and look at the top couple scribbled down on the pad to me, I'm beginning to realise that this is going to be a seriously uphill struggle.
Alien Isolation looked awesome. Everything about it was a love letter to the VHS generation, from the loading screens to the menus, to retro-futurism of the Sevastopol space station itself. It was a game I thoroughly enjoyed right up to the point where I suddenly didn't - which was the point where I realised that the titular Alien was simultaneously the game's biggest asset and biggest problem. The Alien had famously complex AI, and would learn the way in which you played to a degree. The intention was that you never felt entirely safe at any moment - an intention that Creative Assembly delivered on time and again. The problem though was that while this incredible beastie was impressive, I often ended up feeling that each attempt at a mission involving avoiding it boiled down more to blind luck than anything I did or didn't do - I was a player stripped of agency. Some missions would flow perfectly only for the Alien to drop from a vent and begin investigating when I was in an exposed position with nowhere to hide - resulting in a short pursuit followed by an instant death. While I could appreciate that the AI was doing exactly the right thing, it became frustrating nonetheless.
And the androids (see above) had a tendency to scare the crap out of me, with their plastic faces and dull, red eyes.
In spite of all of this, I plan to go back and finish it. I'll need to start again - I can't remember the story for the life of me - and I'm quite looking forward to it. It was a gamble that paid off. The people I know who've finished it speak of it highly. And the more people play games like this one, the more likely it is that we'll eventually get an Aliens game that doesn't suck and isn't on a mobile phone.
Final Fantasy XV
I fired this game up just to grab screenshots for this post, and it took me all of 30 seconds to be reminded of what I was enjoying so much about FFXV. I got the gang into the Regalia (that's the big swanky black convertible in the pic above) and set a destination. The game dropped the roof of the car and began driving there automatically - leaving me to watch the Prince and his entourage entertain themselves for the journey, flick through the music selection, and admire the scenery rolling past. As a game mechanic it was divisive. Some people bemoaned the loss of control, the apparent emptiness of this giant world. I always saw it as an almost meditative moment. An opportunity to immerse yourself in the beauty of the world Square Enix had created, and just marvel at the sheer spectacle. And the spectacle is marvellous. Since I last played, it's had a 4K patch added to it - and the screenshot above doesn't really do it justice.
I'm no Final Fantasy purist. I played VII and thought it was cool, I really enjoyed VIII (the hours poured into that one nearly cost me my degree, in retrospect!), but then I left the franchise behind. It was very much a Playstation thing, and I was mainly an Xbox/Nintendo player, so I wasn't exposed to it much. As XV drew near though, I knew there was no way I couldn't play a game that had been in development for a decade - I was so curious to see how it had all played out, and whether it would all have been worth it. I picked it up and was blown away by the beauty but grew tired of fetch quests. I also found myself quite liking Noctis and his little gang. Their haircuts and outfits were questionable, but they came across as a group of young men who had a deep and legitimate love for one another. I've a feeling that Destiny was responsible for pulling me away from this one (as it did with so many other games), but as soon as the idea of going back and finishing up some older games on the pile popped into my head, this was the first game I thought of. I'm really looking forward to diving back into this. I think a few goes at the combat tutorial and a bit of a Google to remind myself of The Story So Far, and I'll be ready to pick this one back up where I left off. Which was in a car, on a highway, driving toward a waterfall, somewhere in Chapter 3.
Mass Effect Andromeda
Where to start with this one? I loved the first Mass Effect game, really liked the second one (but probably not quite as much as the first if I'm honest), and enjoyed the third. Even with *that* ending. I didn't want Bioware to go back and change it - I was quite happy for them to have narrative control over their creation even if that meant me not being happy with the ending, and I never really expected any more Mass Effect to appear. Then Andromeda was announced. Hopes were high, development was problematic, and the final game was flawed. The internet exploded, and I bought it anyway and decided that, as usual, the internet was making everything out to be worse than it actually was - because if there's one thing the internet can be relied upon for, it is to ramp expectations to unrealistic levels and add volume to negative opinions.
To be clear, Andromeda was a mess in comparison to the games that came before it. By all accounts, it's in a lot better shape now. I was enjoying it at the time - I think I only ended up leaving it behind due to a holiday that left me to lose the thread of what was going on it. Firing it up today, following numerous patches (including one that brings it up to 4K on Xbox One X), I was confronted by a game that looked a lot better than I remember. I'd lost track of it once it had been confirmed that there would be no DLC for the game - but prior to that several patches had been shipped that had improved the situation by the sound of it. 4K support was added for N7 day back in November.
I think I'm going to try and play this with Lachesis. While I doubt that she'll be interested in the weapons or the biotics, I have a feeling that the morality of the game will appeal to her.
South Park: The Fractured But Whole
South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut nearly killed me. Honestly. I'm not exaggerating. We went to see it in a movie theatre in London. At the time, I was suffering from a really bad chest infection - laughing would send my chest into spasms that would make me cough. Painfully. We sat down in the theatre and all was well - right up to the point where Terrence and Phillip started farting and the word 'Unclefucker' started being bandied about... which happened about 5 minutes into the movie.
I like South Park rather a lot. I played South Park: The Stick of Truth on its release, and ended up actually playing it downstairs with Lachesis - much to my surprise. This one follows in the same vein as the first game, and is equally as offensive and funny - there's a lot of 'more of the same' with only a re-vamped combat system standing out as really obvious differences to the first game. I think we were about halfway through when Assassin's Creed Odyssey appeared - and as soon as we gave that an exploratory go, we found it almost impossible to walk away. We're still playing it, nearly four months later. And as soon as it's done, we're goin' back to South Park. Gonna have ourselves a time.
I'm not naive enough to think that I've got enough time on my hands to see everything that this has to offer - but having started it twice I'd really like to get to the end of the campaign. I was having a lot more fun the second time around - but a lull in Destiny 2 came to an end and suddenly the space magic grind shot back to the top of my priorities, so I ended up trading New York for various interplanetary locations. Again.
The eagle-eyed among you will probably notice a trend here. All of these games are big, and most of them were walked away from in order to spend more time with Destiny. When I talked about the opportunity cost of playing a massive grindy game, these games are what I was talking about. These are the games that, for me, were pushed aside by Bungie's juggernaut - and as my relationship with that game hits rocky waters, they're the games that I want to revisit. I want to see if they're as good as I think they were. And I guess part of me wants to see if all the time poured into Destiny was worth it. Especially as Bungie and Activision part ways (which reminds me, I need to post something about that...) and Anthem hoves into view. I feel like I need to decide what kind of videogames I want to play. These are going to help me find out.