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Bolt Thrower : StarCraft, Civilization, X-Wing, Hard West, Journey

It’s been a while since I steered anyone toward my series on tabletop versions of video games over at Gamerati. But since I did one on the StarCraft board game to coincide with the final digital game in that series, Legacy of the Void, I figured it was time for a reminder.

However great the StarCraft board game was, I think it would have been better with looser ties to the source material. It would almost certainly have resulted in a similar game but one which was a lot less complex to digest. In that respect it’s almost the opposite of the Civilization board game which, as I argued in another column, is a quite brilliant reduction of the digital essentials to tabletop format.

The other thing I wanted to talk about this week is lasers. I was playing X-Wing a couple of weeks ago when my opponent pulled out a laser line for checking up on some the firing arcs. It’s a brilliant idea: X-Wing models are so top-heavy, it’s hard to get a ruler in to measure the angles properly without knocking them all over. The laser is more accurate, less clumsy and, best of all, looks awesome in the middle of what’s supposed to be a laser dogfight.

I was so impressed that I wrote a piece about using the device in X-Wing and Armada for the manufacturer. It’s called a Target Lock and, while they’re made in Denmark, you can get them from specialist shops all over the place. So stick one on your Christmas list. I can see it being useful in pretty much any and every miniatures gaming system.

Speaking of Christmas, what I’d like most in the whole world is some more Patreon supporters. But it’s not something I can really put on my Christmas list so I’m putting it here instead.

My video game time recently has been all about Hard West. This has been trailered around as being a “cowboy XCOM”, which it kind of is. But the essential mechanics of XCOM remain easily good enough to power a game. And on top of that, what makes Hard West special is the excellent and imaginative atmosphere and storytelling.

It’s more weird west than wild west, but the supernatural elements are done with subtlety and flair. You do get to flat-out demons in the end, but the narrative along the way is excellent. There are eight campaigns, each of which, in a neat twist, ties in with events or characters from one of the previous stories to make a satisfying whole.

It hasn’t got massive critical acclaim, but I think it’s one of the best things I’ve played this year. Worth the entry price for the experience alone.

I’m also contributing to Pocket Tactics now, which is great as I can’t think of a much better place to explore my crossover of interests. My first piece there was a review of Steam: Rails to Riches, a title I wholly recommend to deep strategy masochists who don’t want to deal with other human beings, even over the internet.

The other big event in gaming is that I finally got to play Journey. It was worth the wait. I feel like I could write essay upon essay about this game. About all the tiny clever design choices that go in conveying emotion to the player. About how you naturally find ways of communicating with your fellow players using only musical notes. About how freedom of movement, or lack thereof, is central to the game’s message and appeal.

But I won’t. I’ll just settle for saying if you haven’t played it, play it. It’s one of the best games of the last decade.

Bolt Thrower: XCOM TBG, Steam Sale, Witcher 3

XCOM The Final Team

My Gamerati series is actually running a bit ahead of my columns here, so this week you get another one! This time it’s deconstructing XCOM: The Board Game.

In the sense of looking, sounding and playing like the original video game XCOM is an abysmal failure. And this is a good thing. There’s no way a tabletop game could try and replicate the bizarre blend of strategy, tactics, economics and role-playing that made the original such fun.

Instead it wisely goes for the strategic layer alone. And it does a very clever thing. By using a simple but tense and effective push your luck mechanic for resolving pretty much everything it captures the feel of the video game. That sense of always being one risk away from victory of failure is part of what made XCOM so compelling. The tabletop version has that same texture about it.

So it’s a great game which evokes the sense of XCOM while being nothing like it. That’s smart design. Smart enough that you’ll want to read the original in full for all the detail.

Anyway, on to the actual video games. I’ve spent most of the last fortnight gleefully generating and selling trading cards from the awful Steam sale mini-game. Not sure why the bothered with the effort of coding that, especially since you could get cards without playing.

I’ve spent more than I ought to on games I’ll probably never play because they sound fun and were less than the price of a sandwich. Looking at my vast collection of untouched Steam games compared with my tiny collection of expensive console games made me wonder. What does this glut of cheap games do to our perception of value?

My Steam collection contains a large number of excellent, deep and long-running games that I’ve only played for an hour or two. STALKER, Left 4 Dead 2 and TorchLight 2 are just a few examples. Because I bought them all on the cheap I had no sense of compulsion to plough on and make the most of them. These great games have become throwaway rubbish in my head, just because of the price I paid.

Contrast this with console games that I’ve paid a pretty penny to obtain. I’ve played almost all of those for multiple hours just to be sure I got full value for money out of them. They were all fun, although many were just averagely so. A few, however, like Gears of War, I kept on with in spite of an average start and eventually found to be amazing games. Had they been Steam sale titles, they’d have languished, forgotten.

It’s the same with the low, low prices on the app store. Because freemium exists, excellent games are often priced at a pittance. A hundred or so of them sit barely played on my iTunes account.

I’ve always been dismissive of the argument the music industry makes that making things cheap or free reduces their value in the eyes of the consumer. It seemed like a feeble excuse to try and keep profits up in the face of piracy instead of innovating. Now I’m not so sure. While music and games are quite different things, there do seem to be parallels here. I enjoy games more when I’ve paid good money for them. And I worry about what the value perception here means for game prices in the long term.


One of those expensive titles, The Witcher 3, continues to occupy all my gaming time right now. It’s very good, a fantastic blend of action, role-playing and fantasy narrative that just makes you want to keep on playing and playing. While not truly open world, the areas you play in are vast, and reward exploration and creativity.

Yet there are aspects of the design that I find bizarre and baffling. The most ludicrous is the teleporting horse. In such big areas you need fast transport, and in this fantasy setting it’s provided in equine form. Because you might need it any time, you can whistle for it and it magically comes trotting in from the edge of the map, no matter how far away you left it.

The silliest example is when you’ve been on the water. The horse can’t swim, so to cross water you have to get off and swim or use a boat. Yet when you get to your destination, you whistle and the horse somehow finds its way across, even if you’re on an island. This is so patently idiotic it ruins my sense of immersion every time.

It’s an example of the way AAA games have arrived at a strange place where they’re forced to be realistic while making endless concessions to design. The horse can’t swim, yet it can cross the water when you need it to. So why not just have a damn magical swimming horse in the first place and save all this silly busy work, this clicking and waiting to no benefit?

Witcher 3 is full of this stuff. Equipment needs repairing so you’re forced to find a smith to do the job and wait until sunrise for him to open. Why? It adds nothing to the game. One smith in Velen highlights the issue starkly. He goes to bed when the sun goes down, yet his kids stay up all day and all night, playing in his yard. Where’s the sense of realism there?

Games are not real. That’s kind of the whole point of games. Even if they wish to strive for realism, the technology is so far away from it as to be laughable. We can’t even work out how to make pretend people who’ll react sensibly when you put a bucket on their head and steal their stuff. Trying to defend the inane “realism” in these games causes fanboys to tie themselves in knots, trying to defend the lack of black people in a land filled with ghouls and griffins. It’s about time we just dropped this stupid pretense, and played.

Why the Internet is Full of $#!t About Destiny’s Story

Destiny-Logo-XBox-One-PS4Like many of you, I’ve been playing Destiny. I’ve mostly retired from playing AAA video games for a number of reasons documented here at NHS and elsewhere, but a new game from the creators of Halo was compelling enough to get me to go to Gamestop- for the midnight release, no less- to pick up a copy of this big-budget blockbuster. Because Bungie understands video games better than many other developers. They understand play, and the Halo games have always excelled at providing players with lots of ways to engage their content. Their mechanics are impeccable and their games are thankfully free of the kinds of negative, hateful “let the bodies hit the floor” style violence so common in other popular action games.

But one thing Bungie has never been good at is telling a story.

Let’s face it, if you were over the age of 18 or so when the first Halo came out then you’re old enough to realize that the success of Bungie’s world-building and lore-crafting has more to do with their James Cameron-like sense of military detail and production design grounded in practicality. The actual writing, the dialogue that spills out of the mouths of Master Chief, Cortana and…that other guy…is atrocious. The plotting is nebulous at best, nonsensical and incoherent at worst. Dialogue is mostly of the sort that sounds really awesome when you’re 15. Tropes flood the games, watering down the most successful parts of the story- there is a mega-weapon called the Halo. Aliens shoot at you unless you shoot them first.

Coming back to Destiny, one of the common complaints that discussion forums and comments are neck-deep in this week is that the Destiny story “sucks” or is practically non-existence. There is a sense of disappointment that there’s no Master Chief-like character to anchor the action. Folks are upset that there isn’t more of a sense of world-crafting or specific narrative upon which to hang all of the alien-shooting.

At first, I’ll admit I felt that too, that it was missing a narrative binding to hold together the outstanding, finely tuned gameplay. But then I realized after a few hours that not only was I thankful that Bungie abandoned both their own storytelling techniques from last generation, but also the faux-Hollywood methods that have poisoned AAA game development by shoving gameplay to the back of the bus in favor of non-interactive spectacle.

Instead, it seems that Bungie took a cue from the Souls game rather than The Last of Us. The story of Destiny is effectively told in two pieces. One piece, the most important one, is in what you as a player do with your character over the course of the game. The weapons, missions, social connections, discoveries and events are the story. It’s not told in non-interactive cut-scenes. It’s not told in a vast, open world filled with NPCs spouting canned sentences.

But the other piece of the Destiny story is the more interesting one. Bungie has opted to do something that is almost never popular with the proletariat. They decided to create the world, the story of Destiny almost entirely through vague suggestion, imagery and wilful exclusion of detail.

Even if you’ve just played the alpha or beta, you can see this in the Russian area of the game. You know about the Traveller, some vague suggestions that it has some kind of function similar to the Monolith in 2001. There’s a couple of different alien species that have sort of waylaid humanity’s expansion into space. There’s a mysterious power called “the Light”. And then the Guardians, sort of ranger-warriors fighting to preserve what’s left of humanity.

It’s clear when you first walk out into post-Collapse Russia that something went down. There doesn’t need to be any more detail than what is shown. You see downed, ancient jet fighters and tanks. There’s that amazing vista of the Cosmodome, its launch pad prepped for launch but in a state of arrested function. Do you really want there to be a cut scene that shows you exactly what happened, or would you rather engage your imagination and wonder?

There are, of course, some minor details supplied by Peter Dinklage’s much-maligned, disaffected line readings. There are bits of background story amorphously suggested here and there- the names of guns, systems of nomenclature, allusions to organization and culture. But the vast majority of what happened and is happening is implied, not enumerated. I think this was a brilliant decision, and one that is already divisive. They went gameplay first in it, but they took a much more sophisticated approach to world-building and storytelling than I expected.

Destiny, in a lot of ways, shows how Bungie is very much trying to sort out what exactly a next generation FPS game looks like. It’s a highly studied, carefully constructed game that draws from a number of trends in game design from the past several years. It’s surprisingly experimental for a game with a gazillion dollar budget, but it plays it very safe in terms of actual gameplay. Yet they’re skirting close to (and actively) antagonizing gamers by witholding “lore” details.

I applaud Bungie for taking a big chance by jettisoning the weakest part of the Halo formula. I’m really quite stunned that they dared to dare players to use their imaginations, to tell their own story through gameplay rather than by parading didactic fake cinema across the screen and calling it a “game”. Once again, the internet dogpile mob has demonstrated that it can’t be trusted when it comes to opinions and analysis about video games.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is Manipulative and Perfect


I played Brothers: A Tale of Two sons over a month ago. I sat down on a Saturday afternoon, looking for a break helping my kids cram a month’s worth of science project research into a single weekend. I had no clue what kind of experience I was in for. I thought it was just a cutesy game about two brothers, which you control simultaneously, where you spent a few hours overcoming obstacles, got a happy ending, and then forgot about the game forever.

About three hours later I sat, dumbfounded, as the credits rolled. I don’t know precisely how to frame what this game is, but I do know there is no other game of any kind or length that had me from the word go and wouldn’t release me until it was finished with me rather than I with it. Forgettable it is not.

The question becomes how to describe what makes it so unique and so special. The game, at its core, is horribly manipulative. It’s also heartfelt and full of wonder and sad and note perfect. I’ve put this post off for weeks because I simply do not know how to write about it. I don’t know how to do justice to what Starbreeze Studios has concocted.

After the break, I take my best shot in a deeper, rather spoilery dive…


A Tale of Two Sons begins with the youngest of two brothers unable to save his mother from drowning in stormy seas. It’s emotionally charged, sure, but nothing we haven’t seen before. Fifteen minutes into most any Disney or Dreamworks animated movie and you’ve seen the introduction of a character who’s endured some kind of tragedy. Our protagonist must have inner turmoil, after all; doesn’t mean the rest of the tale isn’t filled with cotton candy and unicorns and snow princesses singing Let it Go. And even though, some time later, dear old dad is sick and the boys must go on a quest for a cure, what you see during the opening hour of the game is a full plate of sweet musings. The boys can interact with almost everyone on their way out of town, whether it’s to stop and pet a friendly cat or to tease the drunkard on the bench or give the local bully his just deserves. It’s all innocent.

Then you hit the troll caves and some of them are nasty, but you help a couple of them out and they’re nice to you and, hand-in-hand, they help see you off for the next phase of your journey. This is all set up. It’s a very successful attempt to lull you into a false sense of security. At this point you know the game will have drama, but you’ll face it head on, overcome some clever puzzles that make you feel smarter than you actually are, and everything will be wonderful. Because that’s the script we all know. We’ve seen and played it a hundred times already. And whether it’s brother The Older assuring brother The Younger that he holds no blame over him for their mother’s death, or the rescue of a young girl, or a wild aerial ride on a hang-glider, it offers the perfect balance of tension followed by wonder, followed by achievement and warm fuzzies. It does these things for one reason and one reason only — so it can take it all away.


By the time you reach the climax of the boys’ journey, you begin to sense the script changing. Deep down, as you drag your mortally wounded older sibling to a tree stump and leave him there, promising to return with aid, you know that this story has curdled. You just don’t want to know it and so you press on. You get the magic elixer. You return to the lifeless form of your brother and you believe with every fiber of your being that this will be when the sun comes back out and you both return to dad and you live happily ever after. It has to happen that way because anything else is unthinkable. And, ever so briefly, Starbreeze lets you cling to that notion. It lets you have your happy ending. Until it doesn’t. They’re taking the knife, the one they slid ever so carefully into your gullet, looking you dead in the eye, and giving it that extra twist. And they’re doing it just because they can; because they want to give you that brief sensation of warmth and comfort before they strip it all away again and leave you sitting on the cold, hardened earth.

Your return home offers no triumph, but it does offer you a glimpse at how The Younger has grown, the strength he has gained from his experience. It does so, brilliantly, through a single press of the gamepad trigger. It’s an act you perform a thousand times in the game. It’s reflex. But not here. Here it is loss and gain bittersweetly intertwined and it’s the only way to reach the end of the journey. But even here, Brothers isn’t done with you.

You’ve returned. You’ve overcome your fears and you’ve rescued dad. And your reward? A second gravestone and a broken father on his knees as you, in turn, stand above him. You’ve lost your mother, your brother, and by all given accounts your dad has checked out, so you’ve likely lost him too. And what have you gained?

Finding the message here isn’t easy. Life is hard, wear a helmet? There are certainly grounds to argue that this game is simply manipulative for the sake of being manipulative. But all narratives manipulate. The question is how effective is it? Guessing where it’s going before it gets there doesn’t mean it’s not effective. It just means you’ve got your smarty pants on. So, it’s tempting to ask, what exactly was the point of all this? Why would anyone want to subject themselves to it? I suspect the point is the same as in any tragedy — to feel.


This is a sorrowful game, but it’s not a game about sorrow. It’s not even a game about loss, really. It’s about the importance of the journey. It’s about what people give to each other along the way. It’s about knowing how to feel and embracing that full spectrum of feeling. Life is not joy and it’s not sorrow. It’s disparate moments of both of those things spread across time, while mostly ranging in places in between.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is an opus that Starbreeze composes and plays expertly, without a missed beat or an off-tune note. It is one of the single most memorable games I have ever played and if you haven’t yet, even knowing what you know now, you should take the four hours out of your life to experience it. There is so much more to the measure of this journey than how it ends or in this quick summation of how it gets there. Take in the lives of these two brothers for yourself. Celebrate with them. Mourn with them. Remind yourself of what you know already — that the journey matters.

Outlast Blows it Within 20 Minutes


Last night I knocked off an inch-think layer of dust from the PS4 to start playing Red Barrels’ Outlast, newly released for the can’t-say-no price of free for PS Plus members. As you may or may not know, I’m a huge fan of horror anything but my tastes run more to stuffy old Hammer horror films and smarty pants spook shows like Rosemary’s Baby than to gore, torture porn and graphic violence. That means, more or less, I’m usually screwed when it comes to getting my horror show kicks through the video games medium.

The game starts out quite promisingly- your character is going to investigate a creepy asylum called Mount Massive and you’re driving up to the front gate. You’ve got a camcorder with a night vision lens and limited battery life. You pull up, go through the front gate and look around. In a window, you see a figure walking by. Lights turn on and off. The atmosphere is thick, chilling and you get a palpable sense of “why the fuck am I going to go into this place?” but you’re compelled to explore. Some military vehicles parked out front aren’t a particularly comforting sight

Of course, the doors are locked so you’ve got to scale some scaffolding to get in through a window. The place is in disarray. Graphics are really good, if not quite up to the vaunted promises of “next gen”. You stumble around for a bit, finding some documents that tell the game’s story. You catch glimpses of someone or something walking around. Your character reveals that he is, in fact, just another horror movie idiot when he sees a busted-out ventilation shaft with a puddle of blood under it. I don’t know about you, but I don’t see something like that and think “hey, I should climb up into that.”

But the creep-out is still working at that point, and it looks like Red Barrels are doing something quite interesting- a horror game about exploration and suspense rather than shotgunning zombies or solving silly puzzles. There’s a strong sense of place- it’s not as characteristic as the house from the first Resident Evil and it’s not quite as balls-to-the-wall terrifying as some of the locations from the original Silent Hill, but Mount Massive feels like it’s becoming a character- a character that doesn’t like you. You open its doors slowly, always sure that something is about to jump out at you.

And then something does, and the game totally blows it. All of the delightful dread, suspense and tension are squandered in a silly scene of over-the-top gruesomeness that is sure to tickle the fancies of kids who still think the lacivious covers to death metal records are awesome and the folks that still read Fangoria. All the promise that this game might be a sophisticated, intelligent horror experience working on psychological levels rather than visceral ones goes out the window- just like you do when a zombie mutant “variant” catches you, calling you “little pig” for reasons unknown before a defenestration.

Then there are the eye-rolling clichés- cryptic bullshit written on the wall in blood. Experiments gone wrong, despite somebody saying “hey, let’s don’t do that”. A Nemesis-like super zombie that you probably ought to just run away from. Hiding in a locker while a would-be killer looks for you. A motionless body that suddenly jumps up out of a spooky old wheelchair. I mean, come on.

In a way, the game reminds me at this point of Condemned without all of the punching. The terror (not horror) comes from the threat of realistic violence and brutality- not from encountering the supernatural or unexplainable. I’m not against a little blood and gristle when it drives the horror home. But I’m just not into excessive gore or violence as a shortcut to scare an unsophisticated player. It’s disappointing that video games far too often go for the juvenile shock rather than the high-minded scare.

I haven’t played through the whole game yet, maybe the goofball gameplay trope of having to flip two switches before I can flip a third will give way to something more compelling. Maybe the zombie mutants will reveal something more interesting or emerge as something more gasp-worthy and less cringe-worthy. Maybe there will be an explanation as to why batteries and file folders are the only things you can pick up.

At the very least, I can say that the game is probably better than The Last of Us- at least it’s honest trash and not practically breaking its own back reaching for some kind of artistic validation. And it’s free, so it’s zero risk if you have PS Plus. I’ve loaded it up more than once, which is more than I can say for just about every PS4 title I’ve played so far. But as for a “next gen” horror game, Outlast isn’t really doing much other than trying to scare me with *gasp* decapitated heads and piles of intestines. Hopefully, some developer will one day realize that modeling video game horror after carnival rides and silly haunted houses is definitely the low road.

You want a real horror game? Try Year Walk on IOS, one of the best horror video games I’ve ever played.