And so, as hangovers across the nation slowly clear, and the sun sets on the first day of 2014, I return to my final duty of the previous year – listing ten of the games I liked best, and writing about them a little bit.
Now, you might consider it to be cheating to carry on the list after 2013 is over. Interestingly, it’s entirely possible that some of you might consider some of my choices for this part of the list to be cheating too.
Funny how these things come together.
Let’s move on, shall we?
Explore the solar system, watch it explode, then do it all again in…
#4 – Outer Wilds (PC)
The first reason why this part of the list might be cheating is that Outer Wilds is a free download of an as-yet unfinished project. The second is that it technically came out in December 2012, but I didn’t hear about it for a good few months, which still counts. Also, this is my list, so I can do whatever I want.
Outer Wilds had me utterly in its thrall for a good few weeks. The simple premise is that you’re the latest in a series of space explorers from a microcosmic planet of adorable little aliens. After a brief tutorial, in which you’re taught the basics of movement, you’re let loose to explore the tiny solar system. So, you take off and potter about for a while, taking in the wondrous imagination on show on each of the planets. Maybe you’ll explore the Hourglass Twins, two planets locked in a binary orbit, one draining sand across space into the other. You might even brave the Dark Bramble, a foggy mess of twisted thorns full of dangerous creatures. For roughly twenty minutes, you’ll happily lose yourself poking around whatever world you’ve chosen to explore.
After twenty minutes, the sun explodes.
Time rewinds, and you find yourself right back on the launch pad, ready to take your first flight all over again, but with all the knowledge you had from your previous life. It’s Groundhog Day In Space: The Game, and over the course of ten or so lives you’ll gradually discover more and more about the solar system around you. Maybe you’ll discover what those little crystals are for, or where the aliens who came before you have gone. Maybe you’ll even discover the secret of the Quantum Moon, a rogue satellite that flits from position to position, and disappears as soon as you stop looking at it. Often the things you’ll find on one planet will give you clues that’ll help you pierce deeper into another, until you’ve unearthed everything there is to see.
Now, I’m aware this is a very personal choice. I’m sure this game won’t show up on many other GOTY lists. But for whatever reason, it had a very deep effect on me. Maybe it’s something to do with the idea of an utterly doomed planet repeatedly sending out their one and only remaining astronaut in the desperate hope of finding some way out of their predicament – an astronaut who remembers every single attempt, but is still forced to watch his whole world burn every twenty minutes.
Outer Wilds is probably the second best space exploration game ever made, and it’s still just an unfinished alpha. I’d absolutely love a bigger, deeper, more expanded version of this. Sadly, as much as I’d like to say a full release is on the way, it’s been a year since the last release, so I have no idea whether the project will continue in any way. Still, I think the developer has moved on to other projects now, so hopefully some of that magic will carry on.
Meanwhile, in a galaxy slightly further away…
#3 – Kerbal Space Program (PC)
Kerbal Space Program is a game about taking the little green men of the planet Kerbin, and showing them the stars. You start with the simplest of rocket parts, putting together a contraption that you hope will take you at least to the upper atmosphere, if not into orbit. You fail. You try again with more advanced parts, you fail again, over and over, but every time you learn a little bit more about how the game’s physics work. Eventually, you make orbit. Then you try to land on the moon… And you fail. But while you’re failing, you’re learning basic astrophysics. Orbital dynamics, atmospheric drag, thrust to weight ratios and much more besides. Honestly, if Kerbal Space Program isn’t being used in schools to get students excited about science, it really really should be.
This is easily the best space exploration game ever made. And yes, again, it might be cheating to include it, as it’s still technically in alpha, with a full release still a long way away. But Kerbal Space Program is still being regularly updated, and most recently it has been updated with a fully-featured science and research program. This really has made KSP feel more like a game, rather than a sandbox. It’s turned the game from something I watch other people do on YouTube, to something I’m actively interested in playing for myself.
Rather than having access to an overwhelming array of rocket parts right at the start, the science update lets you research new bits of equipment one by one, utilising scientific data from past missions. This means you can learn to use each part as it comes along, figuring out how it fits into the grand scheme of space flight. It also lets you plan specific missions with a purpose. Rather than aimlessly meandering around the solar system, you’ll aim to gather data from, say, the northern hemisphere of the moon of Duna, and return a surface sample back home. That little bit of extra context makes your eventual victory, or failure, all the more significant.
What this means is that when your Kerbal finally takes his first steps on another world, it’s purely down to your own ingenuity. You researched the equipment he used, you designed and built the rocket he travelled on, you applied your knowledge of orbital dynamics to get him there, and you piloted his landing craft safely down to the surface. In terms of amazing, empowering moments in gaming, that’s hard one to beat.
A revisitation of a revisitation of a classic invasion…
#2 – XCOM: Enemy Within (PC)
XCOM: Enemy Within is the expansion for the original XCOM: Enemy Unknown, easily one of the best games of 2012, which was itself a reboot of the classic UFO: Enemy Unknown, also known as X-COM: UFO Defense in the United States.
Got all that? Good.
For the fourth time today, it does feel slightly like cheating to have a game that’s still predominantly the same as it was in 2012 on the list. But the sheer fact that Enemy Within has rekindled my love for such a brilliant game makes it a perfectly valid choice. It’s a proper expansion pack, too, not like the crappy DLC most studios trot out. Slotting neatly into the middle of the original XCOM’s plot, Enemy Within adds far greater depth to your options, on both a tactical and a strategic level. On the smaller, tactical level, new abilities like gene mods and the hulking, robotic MEC troopers allow a much greater variety of approaches to combat, whilst on the grand strategic scale you’re dealing with a whole new threat alongside the already extant alien invasion.
Exalt are a group of humans who, for whatever reason, actually support the aliens who are killing their friends and destroying their cities. I think they’re supposed to be brainwashed or something, but I prefer to think of them as just quite stupid. In any case, they’re smart enough to be a pain in the arse, stealing money from XCOM and delaying your research projects until you wipe them out for good. On top of that, you’re dealing with several new types of council mission, story based sections that deal with a variety of small tales within the overarching narrative, like captured humans or a huge nest of Chryssalids. These help add colour and flavour to what was, honestly, a fairly generic storyline to begin with.
Happily, the real reason everybody played XCOM is still intact. The stories of heroism, loss and camaraderie generated by the permadeath Iron Man mode haven’t changed one bit – losing your prized sniper to a lucky shot at the end of a brutal mission feels just as soul-crushing as it ever did, and pulling off a last-minute save of an otherwise doomed mission still makes you feel like a god.
Enemy Within is XCOM, upgraded. It’s brought me right back into the fold, and I’m loving it all over again.