A Short Hike is a small and delightful game in which you hike to the top of Hawk Peak provincial park. Follow the trails or go off the beaten track, meet other hikers, find some collectables, and just unwind for a couple of hours.
It has really charming 3DS-style low resolution graphics and a fantastic chilled out soundtrack. A lovely little experience!
Lonely Mountains: Downhill bears some similarities to A Short Hike: it’s a quiet experience where you make your way down a variety of picturesque mountain trails. Only this time, you’re on a bike. There’s no music – the only sounds that accompany you are the sounds of nature and your bike carving across the terrain.
The difficulty curve is really well done. Your first time on each trail, you just have to get to the bottom of the mountain. Then, you might have to do the same trail but with a time limit, or a limited number of crashes (and you will crash a lot). Then an even tighter time limit or even fewer crashes. For each challenge you complete you’ll unlock extra bike parts, trails, and mountains. As you get to know each mountain you’ll find extra routes to take to shave seconds off your time and you’ll get more confident with the fantastic controls.
Outer Wilds (not to be confused with The Outer Worlds, which came out around the same time) took a little while to grab me, but once I got into it I was captivated. It’s now easily one of my favourite games that I’ve ever played.
You play as the latest astronaut to join Outer Wilds Ventures, a budding space agency on the small planet of Timber Hearth. You climb into your rickety wooden spaceship and jet off into space. There’s no mission given to you and it’s up you to explore the solar system however you like. You could visit Brittle Hollow; a crumbling planet with a black hole at its center, Giant’s Deep; an ocean planet covered in perpetual storms, or perhaps the Hourglass Twins; a pair of planets that orbit one another as sand pours from the desert of one onto the rocky landscape of the other. As you travel, you’ll uncover the history of the Nomai – an ancient raced who lived here before you, hundreds of thousands of years ago.
And then, 22 minutes after you set out, the sun explodes. You wake up back at the start of the game, ready to set out on your maiden voyage. 22 minutes later, the sun will explode again. You’re stuck in a time loop, and you’re the only one who knows it’s happening. Your leisurely wandering suddenly takes on more meaning: can you uncover the secrets of the solar system, and find out why the sun is exploding and your day keeps repeating itself?
I don’t really want to share much more, as the whole joy of the game is in the discoveries you make along the way. However I will say that the ending of Outer Wilds is an experience will stay with me forever.
Finally, Control is an action game set inside The Oldest House, a building that warps time and space which is home to the Federal Bureau of Control – a branch of government tasked with investigating the paranormal and the unexplained.
As you enter the building, you discover that it’s been invaded by a hostile force. It’s up to you to learn the build’s secrets, find out exactly what the Bureau has been up to, and to take back control. Along the way you pick up a very satisfying array of paranormal activities such as levitation and telekenesis. By the end of the game, you feel like a complete badass. There’s one particular late-game sequence that really lets you show off your skills and it’s one of the best set pieces I’ve ever played in a game.
2018 was the first year I’ve managed to consistently track the games I’ve been playing throughout the year. I’m using a Trello board to track games I want to play (Unplayed), am playing (Playing), have played (Beaten), or gave up on (Abandoned)1.
Rather than writing a list of ‘top games’ of the year, and inspired by a couple of my colleagues (#1, #2), I thought I’d instead simply post a summary of the various games I played in 2018 and what I thought of them. I’ve highlighted my favourites with a ⭐️.
Shadow of the Colossus is easily one of my my favourite games of all time. It’s so simple, yet does such an incredible job of conveying the atmosphere of its empty world. The remaster takes an old game that had really clunky performance, and makes it look and play like a dream.
Celeste is an outstanding indie game, and a deserved contender on a lot of top games of 2018 lists. I got so into it that I stayed up into the early hours of the morning playing the last couple of chapters all in one sitting. I just couldn’t put it down.
I’ve been playing Splatoon 2 multiplayer since it was released in 2017, but I finally finished up the single player ‘campaign’ at the start of the year. It was fine, I guess? The boss fights were the best part, but I think the main multiplayer modes of Splatoon are good enough that it’s not really necessary.
I absolutely loved my time with Tropical Freeze. It’s hands-down one of the best 2D (with 3D graphics) platformers ever made. Really inventive, nicely challenging, great to play, and the levels are full of life.
Wow. Hollow Knight is my favourite game that I played this year, and is instantly one of my favourite games of all time. It just has so much atmosphere, and it’s great at drip-feeding you abilities and giving you a rush when you realise you can now access some previously inaccessible area. I still shudder when I think about Deepnest…
Probably my second favourite game of the year, after Hollow Knight. It’s an open world game, but the developer didn’t feel the need to make the world too big, or cram it full of too much stuff. It’s managable, in a way that a game like Assassin’s Creed isn’t. I’ve almost 100%ed the main game, which is something I never normally bother to do.
A Metroidvania with a digging mechanic. It has quite a tight little gameplay loop, with you revisiting the surface regularly as you dig deeper and deeper, but it didn’t really ever completely suck me in.
I really enjoyed Breath of the Wild, but I haven’t been back since I beat Ganon. I started the DLC earlier this year and had a good time with it, but I haven’t played in quite some time. I think it might be tricky to pick it back up. It has a lot of overworld exploration and tasks, which is great for me as I didn’t really enjoy the game’s shrines (and I only ever bothered completing a fraction of them).
I’ve really enjoyed God of War so far. In particular, the opening hour or so is like something straight out of a Marvel movie. But for some reason I keep falling off it and I still haven’t got round to finishing it.
After playing quite a lot of Dark Souls, I now see what all the fuss is about. The world, the atmosphere, the combat, the thrill and relief when you finally find a bonfire after attempting an area time and time again. But I put it down to play other games and I haven’t come back yet. The oppressive atmosphere and high difficulty isn’t generally what I’m looking for when I just want to relax with a game in the evening.
I’ve never finished a Pokemon game. I started with Pokemon Red on the Gameboy, and I’ve picked up a few others along the way – Black, Y, Soul Silver… but I’ve always lost interest quite early on. I’ve got a reasonable way through Let’s Go, and it’s a wonderful update of the original Pokemon Yellow… but I’m very close to dropping out yet again. I think at some point I might just have to accept that I don’t find Pokémon battling very interesting.
One of the best things I’ve played this year, and one of the best things I’ve played in VR. Astro Bot Rescue Mission has Nintendo-levels of whimsy, character, and innovation. A must-have if you have PSVR.
I’ve been unsure whether to pick this one up for some time. I’m a big Zelda fan, but I didn’t know whether I’d like the Musou gameplay. Turns out I do! It kind of operates on two levels – the battlefield management sometimes gets quite stressful, but the moment-to-moment fighting is actually quite mindless and relaxing. Plus it’s just amazing Zelda fan service.
Wandersong is a wonderful (or should that be WANDERful?), original indie title where you play a bard and interact with the world entirely through singing. I put it down for a bit while waiting for a bugfix to be released, but I can’t wait to get back into it and wrap up the story.
I picked up a handful of games on the Switch that I’m not actively playing, but I’ll probably continue to dip into now and again: Stardew Valley, Dead Cells, Flinthook, Immortal Redneck, and Hand of Fate 2. I’ve also started but completely abandoned a couple of games, including the Horizon Zero Dawn: The Frozen Wilds (I absolutely loved Horizon Zero Dawn, but I left it way too long to get back into it and I just feel like I’m done with that world), and Bayonetta 2 (completely not a game for me. I really really don’t like the gameplay or the aesthetics).
So: 12 games beaten, 8 still on the go, and a handful abandoned. 2018 was a great year for games, and for me once again it was dominated by the Switch.
Hat tip to Shaun Inman’s Unplayed lists for the original inspiration for this categorisation. ↩
My first impressions of Nintendo’s latest console and its flagship game.
It’s hard to separate the Nintendo Switch and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild when considering their relative merits. The two were released on the same day, and for most people the Switch is ‘just’ going to be a Zelda machine for some time due to its meagre launch lineup.
And that’s fine.
I originally preordered the Switch as soon as preorders were available, but ended up cancelling it shortly before the Switch’s launch. I was bitten 5 years ago by the 3DS – there were almost no games worth playing at launch, and then the system received a price cut of about 1/3rd just 4 months after it was released. Fool me once…
But then the Zelda reviews rolled in. Everyone who’d got a Switch already seemed to love the console, and Zelda was getting almost universal praise. Despite the Switch being sold out everywhere I managed to catch them in stock for a very short period at Nintendo UK, put in my order, and it arrived the next day. So how is it?
In my opinion, the Switch is the best hardware Nintendo has produced in 10 years, since the original Wii and the DS Lite. For the most part, it’s really well built and the design is minimal and unfussy. It’s nice and compact, but the screen and controllers are just about big enough. The tablet is also reasonably light and reasonably thin (here’s a comparison to the iPad and iPhone, if you’re interested).
The 720p screen is high quality, and in a first for Nintendo it uses capacitative touch instead of resistive touch. It feels much more modern than the 3DS and the Wii U, both of which had terribly low resolution screens with large gaps between the display and the ‘glass’. It’s the first time I’ve been really impressed with a Nintendo display in a long time (or perhaps ever?).
The system software also feels much more modern than anything Nintendo have put out before. It’s got a very nice clean UI, without any of the ‘chintz’ that I typically expect from them – pinstripes, bubbley 3D buttons and the like. It’s also nice and fast, and feels like it’s actually capable of handling several tasks at once. The 3DS and Wii’s software always felt very modal to me; you had to stop one thing to do another. It certainly feels like a version 1.0 though, and I’m excited what Nintendo add to it in the future.
I think my favourite part of the whole system is its flexibility, which is of course the main selling point of the whole system. You can dock it and play on your big TV, or pick it up, slide in the controllers and play it handheld. Or you can prop it up, slide out the controllers and play it in ‘tabletop’ mode. Or stick the controllers into a grip and use them in a more traditional configuration. I’ve found myself switching between all the different modes and it feels great in each. It’s also really easy to switch between them.
The Joy-Con controllers feel nice in the hand, but can be a little fiddly. The shoulder buttons in particular are quite small and close together, and if you’re not using the controllers in a grip it can be hard to switch your fingers between them – there’s not quite enough to hold on to. That said, I do really like them (the neon coloured versions are amazingly bright – photos don’t do them justice), and the Switch’s flexibility means you can use them however is most comfortable to you: in a grip, held individually, attached to the Switch itself… There is also a ‘Pro’ controller available, which I haven’t tested myself but I’ve heard good things about.
I also think it’s utter genius that each console effectively comes with two controllers. When Mario Kart launches, you’ll be able to play two player local multiplayer right out of the box.
We only have one TV in our house, so I often find myself playing my PS4 via the PS4 Remote Play app on my laptop if my wife is watching TV. It works well enough, but of course a lot of visual fidelity is lost due to video compression when streaming. The Switch, then, is the perfect fit for me as it’s designed around this exact use case. The visuals are excellent when playing handheld. In fact, Zelda actually seems to perform better in handheld mode, with fewer frame rate drops but no noticeable difference in quality.
The only piece of Switch hardware that feels lesser quality to me is the TV dock, which is a bit of a disappointment. It’s a lightweight, slightly flimsy-feeling block of plastic, although I do like the glossy Switch logo on the side of it. The Joy-Con controllers are so satisfying to slide onto the Switch itself – they snap into place with a pronounced click, which is mirrored by a visual effect on the screen and a sound played by the system software.
The dock has no such satisfaction. There’s nothing to really guide the Switch into the right place and it just spongily makes contact with the bottom of the dock with a bit of a bounce. It never really feels like it’s in there properly. I wonder if Nintendo will improve this with future revisions.
Whilst reading my first draft of this post, I realized I forgot to mention the battery life of the Switch. That’s because so far it’s never been an issue for me. It’s far better than I was expecting, and I’ve never found myself running out of battery when I want to keep playing.
Finally, modern hardware and software from Nintendo that feels competitive with smartphones / tablets and other consoles.
Great feeling hardware (tablet and controllers) with excellent build quality.
Flexibility of play styles, which is easy to do and very well executed.
Battery is better than I was expecting.
Dock feels flimsy and is awkward to use.
Very few games so far. But Mario Kart, Splatoon, and Mario Odyssey are coming. Also, Zelda.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Zelda is the Switch’s flagship game, and by all accounts is a real system seller. And with good reason. It’s excellent.
It feels like a Zelda game, but it’s also completely different from any other Zelda game. Pretty much from the get-go, you can go anywhere, tackle anything in any order you want, and there’s no hand-holding. The world is big. You won’t believe just how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. There’s always somewhere new to explore, or some side quest to get lost in. The world also has a really interesting physics engine behind it all, which opens up all sorts of possibilities for combining different items. Shoot an arrow through a campfire into a tree and the whole thing will go up in flames. The joy is in the emergent gameplay that crops up through these interactions.
The game’s openness works really well with the Switch’s flexibility and portability. The system sleeps and wakes instantly, so you can carry this vast world around with you and drop in and out whenever you like. And if you feel like it, you can play it on the big screen too. I can see myself dipping into this world for many months (or years) to come.
I will say that whilst I am absolutely loving the game, I don’t think I agree with all of the 10/10 scores it’s been receiving. It’s definitely a 9/10 and probably even a 9.5/10, but I think it’s slightly let down by a couple of issues. It’s technically impressive what Nintendo manage to pump out of this small portable device but after just finishing Horizon: Zero Dawn on the PS4, with its lush, richly detailed landscapes Zelda feels a little lacking in places. For example I’ve come across mountain peaks with very low model and texture details: smooth domes with quite low resolution textures smeared across them and no extra set dressing. It’s perhaps a little unfair to compare the two games, but it doesn’t stand up to Zero Dawn‘s incredible world.
Objects also pop in and out of existence at a little closer distance than I’d like. You’re able to get a telescope-style zoomed view to look at the landscape around you, but it’s hard to scope things out when any enemies that may be in the distance don’t get rendered. You’ll also occasionally see super low-polygon versions of structures that are a long way off. The world is certainly beautiful, and moments regularly crop up that make me just stop in my tracks to admire the scenery. It’s just that these technical issues occasionally do crop up and break the spell:
I’m not going to say too much more, because I think the fun in Breath of the Wild is all in discovering things for yourself. If you like Zelda games you definitely need to play it. If you haven’t played them before, you should definitely give it a go.
The perfect game for the Switch. Dive in and out whenever and wherever you like.
An incredible, vast world filled with things to see and do and play with.
An exciting new direction for the Zelda series.
Combat is fun and satisfying. There are also many, many ways to tackle different encounters with enemies thanks to the physics system.
Technical issues do let the game down in places. It’s not too often, but sometimes breaks the immersion.
Voice acting is very hit and miss, and the dialogue is pretty poor.
I’m really pleased with the Switch. The hardware is pretty perfect for a first revision. It’s very well built and well designed. Nintendo have finally produced hardware and software that stands up there with modern mobile devices, and it’s exciting to see where they’re going to take it. Having one device that works seamlessly from your living room to anywhere-else-you-want-to-use-it feels exciting and new, and it works exactly as it’s supposed to.
Zelda, too, feels like something new and is the perfect accompaniment to the Switch.
I really hope the Switch is as successful as Nintendo need it to be, and that they (and third parties) continue to support it with great games.
Ever since I first tried VR, I knew I had to own a headset. I finally do, and I’m really pleased with it.
I was more excited leading up to the release of the PlayStation VR than I remember being for any other recent tech product launch. Mine arrived last week and a lot of people have asked me what it’s like, so I figured I’d write up my thoughts.
The headset itself is really comfortable. The design, build quality, and materials that Sony have used are excellent. The inner padding of the headset is a really nice textured rubber, and it feels great and looks very premium.
The headset is also very easy to put on. No awkward velcro straps like the Vive or Rift. There’s just a sturdy band that fits around your head, and a small dial to turn to tighten it once it’s on. Once it’s in the right place you can slide the actual visor (containing the screen) forward and backward, so you can move it closer to your face and find the ‘sweet spot’ where it’s in focus. Whereas the Vive and Rift screens are pulled tight against your face like a pair of ski goggles, the PSVR comfortably hangs in front of your eyes.
And it works really well with glasses! Sony paid particular consideration to users with glasses, and for me at least it’s very comfortable. Whenever I’ve used a Vive or a Rift in the past, I’d have to put it on in an awkward way to fit around my glasses, and they’d get stuck inside it when I took it off.
There’s a small amount of ‘light leak’ at the bottom of the headset, where you can see the real world if you look down. Apparently this was an intentional design on Sony’s part, to allow people to ‘ground’ themselves if necessary. I have to say that once I’m playing a game, I don’t notice it at all.
Setup was very easy, despite there being quite few cables involved. The cable from the headset to the processor unit1 felt to me to be much thinner and less intrusive than either the Vive or the Rift’s cables. It also contains a useful little inline remote into which you can connect a pair of wired headphones (which receive full 3D audio). The remote allows you to change the volume, turn the headset on and off, and mute or unmute the headset’s microphone.
I’m impressed by the quality of the PSVR’s display. The colours are great, it’s bright, and there’s little to no screen door effect2. It’s not the highest resolution (it’s marginally lower than the Vive and the Rift), but I can live with that as it’s just a reality of where VR tech currently is.
It also seems like it’s the games that are mainly letting things down on the resolution front – in a game that’s rendering at a resolution higher than that of the panel (‘supersampling’), such as Job Simulator which runs at 1.4x resolution, things look quite sharp. Other games are clearly running at a lower resolution in order to get the required performance, and it shows. EVE: Valkyrie in particular gets very blurred at a distance, and whilst I haven’t played it I’ve heard that Drive Club has big resolution issues. I think the PS Pro should help in this regard, as it’ll allow games to render at higher resolutions.
The only other issue I have with the screen would be that it has a fairly prominent ‘mura effect’ in dark scenes. This is where you can see a random pattern of slightly lighter coloured pixels across the screen. It essentially means that dark / black scenes aren’t truly black, and instead are like looking at a dark grey textured pattern which moves with your head. It’s not awful, and it’s easy to look past, but it’s there.
If you’ve never experienced VR for yourself, it’s difficult to convey what it’s like. Not only does the game surround you everywhere you look, but the sense of depth and scale is incredible. It’s like nothing else. The head tracking on the PSVR generally works really well; the framerate is excellent, and the gameplay very smoothly follows your head movement.
Head tracking in general works well, and rotational tracking (tilting your head to look in different directions) is certainly spot-on. I’ve had a few small issues with positional tracking (your 3D positioning in the world, as you move forward / backward / left right) in some games and when sat further away from the camera. In particular, in the demo of Job Simulator, the environment around me continually moves forward and back slightly whilst I’m stood still, which can result in you feeling a little weird / drunk.
Both headset and controller tracking3 rely on the PlayStation Camera (required for PSVR, but not included with the headset) tracking the visible light from their bright LED strips. Occasionally the controllers also suffer from some ‘jitter’, and if their LEDs aren’t visible to the camera they can disappear in games entirely. For the most part it works well enough, although one can certainly question Sony’s decision to base fairly critical parts of PSVR on slightly flaky 6 year old technology (although presumably cost was a big factor). Having used both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, I can say that both of their tracking systems are rock solid in comparison.
The tracking is my only real complaint about the whole experience, and it’s not enough to put me off PSVR or rely detract from gameplay at all. Most of the time it’s fine, and I think as a more technical user I’ve actively been analysing how well things perform and looking for problems. Most people probably won’t even notice.
Ever since I first tried VR, I knew I had to own a headset. I finally do, and I’m really pleased with it.
Sony have done a good job of delivering convincing, immersive VR at a much lower price than either the Vive or the Rift. And that’s just the cost of the headset – I also don’t need to buy or maintain an expensive PC, which is a huge plus for me. Whilst the visuals may take a bit of a downgrade, and the tracking isn’t as good, it’s plenty good enough to fool your brain4 and there are some fantastic games and ‘experiences’ available.
In fact, I think one of PSVR’s stand out features (besides cost and easy of use) is that it has a great lineup of launch titles. In the next post, I’ll give a brief opinion on each of the games I’ve tried so far.
A small box that connects to your PS4, which handles splitting the HDMI signal to the TV, 3D audio, and the PSVR’s ‘cinematic mode’. ↩
Screen door effect is where you can see black lines between the pixels of a VR headset (hence it’s like looking through a fine mesh / screen door). Apparently the PSVR largely avoids this due to having full RGB subpixels, although I don’t really understand the technicalities of it. ↩
The standard Dual Shock 4 and the PlayStation Move controllers can be used in various games, and they often have a virtual representation in the game. ↩
I’ve not suffered from any motion sickness from PSVR (although many people do get it from certain VR experiences), but it’s triggered my fear of heights many times. Whilst I know there’s no danger – I’m sat in my living room, after all – the experience is convincing enough for my brain to momentarily go AAAAAARRGGH. It’s kind of fun though. My favourite is currently in RIGS, where you get launched 60 foot into the air out of your RIG whenever it explodes. ↩
Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer is a card game that has some similarities to the popular Magic: The Gathering collectable card game. My first introduction to Ascension was through its well-received iOS version, which I liked so much that I went straight out and bought a copy of the physical game too1. This is primarily a review of the iOS version, but both versions play exactly the same and are equally enjoyable.
Ascension is a deckbuilding game designed by a former Magic Pro Tour champion. I’ve played a small amount of Magic in the past but was put off by the amount of pre-game preparation that is necessary and the sheer number of cards that are available (although I realise that it’s exactly these elements that draw many people to the game).2 I think Ascension struck a chord with me because it’s reminiscent of Magic but (in my opinion) improves upon it in a number of ways.
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP is an experience. It’s an audiovisual treat and, in my opinion, a wonderful example of games as art. I don’t think it would be too bold to describe S:S&S EP as iOS’s Shadow of the Colossus1.
At the end of March, I picked up a Nintendo 3DS. I wasn’t initially sure whether to get one up at launch, but in the end I went for it. This post is an attempt to come to some conclusion regarding how I feel about the device, and why I bought one.
I love videogame music. Rarely a day goes by where I don’t have some game tune stuck in my head (Mario and Mariokart being the worst offenders). I find a lot of game music is great to work / code to, as it’s generally upbeat and devoid of lyrics. I thought it’d be fun to put together a short list of my favourite albums and share it here. I’ve put in download / purchase links where possible. For those without a link, you should be able to find them easily enough with a quick google.
I thought I’d write a quick roundup of the movies I’ve seen, games I’ve played, and books I’ve read this year. Note that not everything on this list may have been released this year, but I experienced them for the first time this year. Feel free to just skim the headlines if you can’t be arsed to read the whole thing. Without further ado…
I’ve recently become somewhat addicted to Minecraft – the hit indie game that’s currently earning its creator over £100,000 a day. I find it quite hard to summarise what I find so brilliant about Minecraft, so I’ve collected together a few links to articles or videos that give a good idea of why Minecraft is awesome, and why you should be playing it right now.