As 2020 draws to a close, bringing with it some highly anticipated games and consoles, I wanted to sit down and think about the games I’ve played, while reflecting on whether or not I’ve finished them, as well as what they say about industry trends as a whole.
Ultrakill — Unfinished (because it’s in early access)
I’d like to start off with one of my favourite games this year, and possibly one of the gamiest games to have been made in the past few years. A love child of Quake, Doom (2016 + Eternal) and Devil May Cry (3 and onwards, to be exact), I absolutely adore this title. It’s got a unique, cyber dystopian rendition of hell, brutal enemies, punchy weapons, and two of my absolutely favourite gameplay concepts: A coin that reflects your shots, and a fist that can parry just about anything.
The coin. I love the coin.
Every gun in Ultrakill has 4 different modes, each of which provides a different alternate fire mode. For example, the shotgun’s default mode lets you charge an explosive grenade shot, while the second mode lets you pump up multiple shots to do more damage, but with a reduced range. The pistol’s default mode is a charged shot that does decent damage, but its second mode’s alternate fire is a highly rewarding, stylish as hell coin toss.
Every time you toss the coin, any shot that hits it (and that means ANY shot) will reflect towards the nearest enemy and hit a weak spot, unless you’re hitting it at a precise timing, which causes your shot to split down into two, and hit two enemies. Hitting the coin requires a lot of muscle memory and twitchy aiming, but when used effectively, it can have devastating results. A fantastic way of taking out heavy enemies is shooting the piercing, high damage single shot energy gun at them, and timing it in such a way that the shot pierces the enemy, hits a coin tossed behind them.
The coin can be parried as well, which leads me to my other favourite gameplay concept: You can parry ANYTHING.
True to form for a gameplay focused game, Ultrakill gives the player a fist, and with correct timing, you can parry every single projectile in the game. I love parrying, any game that gives you the option to parry instead of just dodging (or worse: blocking) is automatically made better in my opinion. One metric I’ve heard to discuss how interactive and mechanically dense a game is as “meaningful decisions per second”, and I believe a highly applicable, high risk high reward parry mechanic is almost universally a fantastic way to raise that interactivity and depth.
Pushing the mechanical depth even higher, Ultrakill allows you, with precise timing and aim, to parry your own projectiles. Doing this will give your projectiles a significant speed boost and make them explosive. A really powerful technique in this game is called the shotgun parry, which involves a precisely timed pull of the trigger, followed by a parry. Originally I thought this was an unintended, but useful “happy accident” bug that was left in the game, but then when I saw the mechanic pop up in the game’s trailer on Steam (which is kind of like showing gameplay secrets in the game’s attract mode, if you think about it), I realised that no, the game is just that thought out.
Anyway, I think I’ve talked about this game enough. It’s still in early access and only about 1/3rds done, but I absolutely adore it. There’s a lot more to discuss about it, so hopefully if it’ll be done next year I’ll get to bring it up again!
Hades — Still playing after seeing the credits
Hades is the culmination of the dungeon crawling roguelite genre. The trend that games like Binding of Isaac started culminated into this insanely polished, beautiful, fun diamond of a game.
There is not one aspect of Hades that isn’t bursting at the seams with personality and attention to detail. From the ludicrous amount of interactions that you can have with the characters of the world, to the wonderfully escalating music, which gains more rhythm and weight as you progress through each of the four worlds, to the staggering amount of combat skill synergies. Every run feels different, interesting and fair. One thing, however, stands out to me with this game, and that’s the way the game managed to keep me engaged with the story.
The way Hades handles its story and characters managed to do something to me that very few story heavy games tend to do, which is actually make me want to see more of the story, and not want to skip it for the sake of gameplay. I think this can be attributed to a few things:
First of all, the game takes a great deal of care to make sure that the conversations with the gods who assist you are short. This means you know when you step out into Tartarus to try to escape, you won’t be bothered with mountains of text, only a handful of conversation pieces, a dozen or so on average I’d say, each of them adding character and/or providing context.
Second, the characters are very well thought out and delivered. There are no unlikeable characters in the game, at most they can be a bit bland (like Hypnos), but they all have a great visual design, dialogue and voice acting. This results in no “Oh, you again?” situations.
Third, dialogue is very smartly programmed to react to both short and long term events. The short term events will cause the gods to comment on one another’s actions in your run, while the long term causes them to react to story progress. The sheer amount of work put into this must have been immense, and I can definitely say it paid off.
All in all, this game is a massive success and I just can’t stop playing it. It’s been so nice seeing Supergiant Games finally strike gold once again after Bastion. All their games are amazing, but I guess not all of them are quite as easily accessible as Hades.
Doom Eternal — Finished, waiting for final DLC
An under appreciated masterpiece, Doom Eternal is what happens when developers understand that a truly fun game requires a hazardous balancing act of frustration.
Fun and frustration are to gaming as sweetness and brew times are to a cup of espresso. Brewed just right, under ideal conditions, espresso can be shockingly sweet and delightful to drink, but if you brew it for a bit too long, that bitterness starts flooding the palate, ruining the cup. A player’s temperament when put into challenging situations is like that ground coffee, the pressure and heat force effort, quick thinking and planning, which, when expertly balanced, turn into FUN. In my opinion, Doom Eternal succeeded in its difficulty by toying with player frustration.
Doom Eternal’s devs talked a lot about this process, which they named the “Fun Zone”, which happens when you push the players into having to interact with the game in a specific way. In Doom Eternal this manifests in several manners, being the relatively low ammo count (which forces you to use all your weapons and other combat abilities, as well as the chainsaw to replenish ammo), the painfully hard hitting enemies in hard difficulties, and some of the enemies requiring specific weapons or hitting specific weak spots to use.
This concept of the fun zone reaches its culmination in the Marauder enemies. These enemies force you to pay close attention to their tells and keep them in an optimal distance (not too close, not too far), or else they block all your attacks. The frustration of having to deal with one of them, especially when they’re not alone in a room, is a bit overwhelming at first, maybe even a bit unfair.
You can’t ignore them, you can’t take them out, can’t just spray lead into them blindly as you may have been conditioned to do to other demons, you have to balance your attention between them and any other threats in the area. On Nightmare difficulty, a few slip will cause your death, and so this balancing act becomes an absurd challenge, especially in the DLC, which adds even more of these uniquely challenging enemies. Ultimately, however, this challenge helps “brew” the player and pushes them into the fun zone, and it was masterfully designed to be just frustrating enough to get you there while also giving the player a helpful hand to prevent them from getting frustrated. Combining any enemy with the Marauder provides a unique challenge, which makes them a very powerful level designing tool.
The feeling of reward and empowerment comes from overcoming challenges with your own acquired mastery, rather than acquired strength upgrades the game gave you. The art of creating a challenging game is creating these peaks of difficulty that push the player just enough that their skill grows as a result. The slight increase of pressure that adds a lot of sweetness to the cup.
The success of Fall Guys is interesting to think about, and it embodies one of the more interesting gaming trends of 2020.
First of all, as far as easily consumable games, Fall Guys is probably one of the best games I’ve ever seen. Everything about the game just screams cute, harmless, cartoonish violence fun. The game’s visual aesthetic is a wonderful callback to Takeshi’s Castle, Bouncy Castles and sick Gymborees you loved as a kid. I can’t look at the game and not feel like I’m about to have a good time, even if I know I’m not because my competitive nature overrides the childish wholesomeness. The fact that there can only be one winner, and that there are some people who are consistent winners, does something to my brain that feels similar to playing smash brothers.
The game’s soundtrack is also a nice feature. While it’s not extensive, it’s got some groovy sides to it, with an emphasis on a strong bass part, and even a bit of a Splatoon influence in there too. Have a listen:
More interestingly, though, Fall Guys precipitated a highly noticeable trend of “flavour of the month games”. While there were always new releases that brought the attention of youtubers and streamers, Fall Guys was a massive phenomenon, capturing the attention of over 60 million players (crazy, right?) and becoming a gaming landmark for a handful of weeks of this year’s summer. After Fall Guys, Among Us became the next flavour of the month, and after that, Phantasmagoria.
If I had to speculate why this happened, I would say the corona pandemic is the key catalyst. The pandemic caused massive damage to social lives all over the world, but especially young people, who I assume tend to meet up with their friends much more than older people. Physical interactions became less desired, to the point of being outright banned, which caused young people to seek online spaces even more than they would in normal years. This caused young people to simply spend more time online, which meant playing more games, naturally, but it also meant playing more games with their friends, consuming more online content, and also spending more time on para-social interactions, such as stream viewing.
Streamers and youtubers are on a constant, unending quest for the latest hot content, and this content ends up drawing in more players. It just so happened that as the pandemic was keeping people at home, and as the summer release schedule was starting to dry up in the pre holiday - new console season, there was more demand for the new hot thing than there was supply.
Along comes Fall Guys, with a delightfully accessible, comforting aesthetic, low skill ceiling gameplay, and most importantly, FREE for all PSN+ players. Truly catching lightning in a bottle, the game caught the attention of streamers to a ludicrous degree, and genuinely became a cultural phenomenon. After that happened, its success was all but guaranteed.
We’ve since had Among Us, which seems to have a more enduring popularity, primarily I would say thanks to its incredible potential for cross e-celeb content, but I think Fall Guys really opened the door, and I’m sure that its unique case study will be thoroughly dissected for years to come.
Ghost of Tsushima— Abandoned, I don’t like walking in games!
Ghost of Tsushima is a very pretty game, I kind of like its violent, sharp combat and the locations can be very beautiful. Honestly though, the game bored the shit out of me with the insane amount of walking you have to do in it.
Walking around in games is boring, and time spent walking might as well be spent looking at a loading screen.
I understand why it’s there. Walking in games has several purposes:
- Let the players look at nice scenery
- Give the player time to rest until the next encounter
- Make the game seem bigger and longer
I get it, but to me, none of these things really matter.
- Scenery is nice to look at, but unless it’s some truly unique, well designed and ideally otherworldly scenery, it won’t catch my eye for more than a few seconds, and it definitely won’t make me feel like I’m not wasting my time staring at it.
- Time to rest is definitely a subjective measure, some people get exhausted and need a long time to cool down, while others are left hungry after the encounter and crave more. I fall firmly in the latter camp, and when a game hands me a small platter of gameplay, only to take it away and force me to “digest” until the next one comes along, I get really frustrated. If I need to rest, I’ll pause the game.
- Game size is an anti feature for almost every single game I’ve ever played. I genuinely struggle to think of games that benefited from having a bigger world, or having more game time spent holding the left analog stick forward. Only a game like Breath of the Wild, which achieves a miracle by cramming the world with diverse terrain and tons of secrets, benefits from having a big world.
Calling back to the metric of “meaningful interactions per second”, Ghost of Tsushima suffers immensely from a near flatline of such interactions whenever you’re riding your stupid, immortal horse. Because the world is boring and empty outside of enemy encampments, and because navigation is trivialised by the inclusion of next generation map markers (the wind, which is pretty much identical to this lazy form of player guidance that we’ve been dealing with since Oblivion and is a staple of almost every single open world game I can think of), the only decisions you can make are how to ride your horse around a mountain, and how to get to a cliff that’s a small enough of a drop so that your horse jumps over it, usually causing it to topple over and throw you off it.
This is not gameplay! It’s not interesting! And this is what you do for over half the game!
Of course, I can use fast travel, but that forces me to look at a loading screen and still have to ride to the area where I need to go, usually having to endure the same old boring game of find a cliff.
To add another insult to injury, the game’s story is full of uninteresting people, whose stories take way too long to unfold (divided across NINE different missions, per character) and whose dialogue, and cutscenes CANNOT BE SKIPPED. I just don’t understand how, in the year of 2020, a game exists where you can’t instantly skip story and dialogue. Is it out of laziness? Is it out of a genuine belief that the story they’re telling is amazing, and not a total waste of time? Whatever the case, my initial burst of enjoyment of the game was very quickly eroded, as my I lost my patience with the story and the walking.
The developers knew that travelling through the world is not interesting, and so they provided you not only with a fast travel system, but also an invincible, teleporting horse!
Your horse, which has no purpose outside of getting you from point A to point B, has next to no mechanical complexity beyond forcing you to get off it from time to time to scale a cliff or cross into an unhorseable area. It can’t die, no matter how many times it falls off a cliff, or how many arrows it gets hit by. It will never hate you, no matter how many times you stab it with your sword. It doesn’t even have any material presence, as you can call it and it will quite literally teleport behind you, no matter how far away it is and how high the cliff you just scaled was.
The horse’s immortality and quantum state are there because the developers were afraid, rightfully so, that the player would get bored of running on foot from place to place, because there’s nothing to see in the vast, empty plains of Tsushima. It’s completely redundant and only offers a rare pulse of interactivity in a flatline of holding forward the left analog stick. It’s completely redundant, and it might as well not be there, but that would require making the game smaller so you could get anywhere on foot… Which would have made the game better.
Gunstar Heroes + Alien Soldier + Mischief Makers — Finished
One of the more subtle effects of living in the future, with our powerful computers, fast internet, good controllers and vast knowledge, is the perception that what’s new is inherently better than what’s old.
My consumption is so attuned to new games coming out, new hardware, new gameplay, that I have a tendency to leave the old in the past. Of course, I know a lot of people spend most of their time playing older games, with the stern belief that new = bad old = good, but for me, I tend to find myself either playing relatively new games, or playing a roguelike where the gameplay is short and addicting.
I decided to try and play some older titles, ones that I wanted to play as a child but couldn’t for one reason or another, and I wanted to start off by completing some Treasure games. I’d heard great things about the company, and I felt ignorant to not have played a single one of their huge roster of highly appreciated games.
Starting off with Mischief Makers, I was shocked to see how this game’s gameplay and setting hold up as fresh and unique. I would say the game’s got two major selling points — the movement, which involves using thrusters in cardinal directions to push you around the two dimensional levels, and grabbing onto things, which can have many different outcomes depending on what you’re trying to grab.
Maybe it’s the dark ages of 2d games that we experienced after the end of the gamecube, and until the rise of indie games, but it feels like the game’s unique take on platforming and combat was never even attempted by a future game, and it’s unfortunate. As time goes on and the amount of games in existence grows, the influence and importance of every individual game begins to shrink as a result. Some games like Mischief Makers, with its odd aesthetic and unique movement could be completely forgotten about. It’s a real shame.
After Mischief Makers I moved onto Gunstar Heroes, which was Treasure’s first game, and an incredibly impressive one at that. A classic contra-esque 2d brawler/8 directional shooter, the game has some fun anime style graphics, great music, satisfying weapons and very high replay value. Games like Gunstar made me understand better than anything how speedrunning became such a major past time for gamers all over the world. A short game with tight controls, non stop action and a high skill ceiling is a game that begs to be replayed by the player, as they improve. Truly the antithesis to Ghost of Tsushima.
Finally, Alien Soldier, which surprised me, seeing as I knew nothing about the game at all. Not only did it have a weapon wheel, which is a feature that wouldn’t be relevant for years into the future, but it was a boss rush game, with over 20 unique, challenging bosses and brutal gameplay. The game doesn’t lack in esoteric gameplay decisions, such as boss weaknesses (some bosses are very weak to one type but immune to the other) and the importance of parrying (which becomes critical in the last boss and turns it into an absolute slog unless you know how parrying works and what it does), but it makes up for it with incredibly tight controls, great music and a truly otherworldly setting.
After finishing these games I decided to read up on the company, and their story is really inspiring. Leaving Konami, a group of 7 people decided they’d had enough of corporate culture stifling their creative freedom and set off to make a new company, whose goal was to “make great games”. Their story is inspiring, not only because they had absolutely succeeded in their mission, but also because they were arguably one of the first indie studios in history. A studio that willingly splintered away from corporate culture towards creative liberty, with all the anxiety and difficulty that comes with it.
I really hope they release a new game.
Monster Hunter World: Iceborne — Finished and then some
Monster Hunter is a remarkable game. A ridiculously generous, deep, fulfilling gameplay experience that never fails to entertain, even after many hundreds of hours later.
While Vanilla MH:W was a great experience, it definitely lacked in content quantity, as well as difficulty. Iceborne absolutely managed to fix these issues by addressing them directly. Nearly doubling the amount of unique monster fights from the base game, and greatly increasing the challenge, as well as reducing the amount of annoying, unsatisfying grind, it’s a marvellous achievement and one I hope every single player tries out for themselves.
I love a lot about Iceborne, but I think I said most of what I love about the game in last year’s review, and I don’t have a lot to add, because it really is more of a good thing, but even better. I love Monster Hunter and I cannot wait for Monster Hunter Rise!
Team Fortress 2 Classic
Another example of appreciating the old, some genuinely amazing people had spent years of their life creating a Source mod of Team Fortress 2 as it was in 2008 (mostly).
This means that Valve’s original vision for the game’s aesthetics (which is genuinely groundbreaking and unsurpassed to this day) is intact. No stupid cosmetics, no new weapons (for the most part) which drastically alter how classes were meant to be played, and no matchmaking.
Team Fortress 2 is a game that I hold in very high regard. I’ve not played it for probably over a decade, until this year, but when it came out and for those first few years it was the only thing I was interested in playing. I made some amazing friends playing the game, and I have very fond memories joining my community’s server and enjoying the horrendous, poorly mixed music played over the in game microphone (colloquially called “micspam”). I was excited but also a bit worried that going back to this landmark game, that I’d lost interest in so long ago, wouldn’t hold up.
I was very happy that my doubts were proven wrong. The game really is as good as I remember. The iconic maps, the “glance value” character design, the glorious micspam classics, all as great as I remember.
The fact that TF2C is as good as I remember it, really just proves to me that sometimes too much innovation is not a good thing. Maybe the hubris of thinking that we can do better sometimes gets in the way of appreciating what was already great. It’s not that I’m fooling myself into believing that TF2 is the pinnacle of the class shooter genre, it’s just that all its successors have completely failed in surpassing it. Then again, I don’t want to live in a world, or a state of mind, in which improvement for anything is impossible. It’s only human to believe that everything, truly everything, can get better, and can improve, and I want to share that belief, even if sometimes when I look at those improvements, they really just look like downgrades.
A running theme I noticed with many of the games that I enjoyed more this year, was returning to explicitly labelled, capital L Levels. Levels, as opposed to a big open world seem to have so many benefits. At the cost of immersing the player’s (forgetting you’re a person playing a game, and getting sucked into the experience), you gain tight control over the player’s experience, less downtime and a greater ability to increase variety, theming and setting diversity. I know that this isn’t anything new, and we’ve been having levels in games since gaming was in its very infancy, but still it’s interesting to see how such an old system, born from hardware limitations, is still vastly more enjoyable to me than big games with big worlds that are designed to “immerse” rather than provide a simple joy.
I’m curious, given the colossal failure of Cyberpunk 2077, and the rapidly inflating time and money costs of these huge games, if we’re going to see a mini crash, wherein companies would go back to making smaller titles, with explicit levels and a focus on gameplay mechanics, over this fleeting sense of immersion, which seems to have diminishing returns with every new console generation.
2020 was quite a good year for gaming, even though it was undeniably a horrendous year for humanity. I wouldn’t mind if 2021 would reverse things a bit, although with Monster Hunter Rise coming out in March, I don’t think that’ll be the case.
Thanks a lot if you made it to the end, I really appreciate your time. I hope 2021 will be a great year, full of health and recovery and fantastic games.
Have a great one!