Took advantage of the Steam sale to buy a bucket list of games I had missed earlier. I’ll give the lowdown on why I liked or disliked each of them here.

Elite: Dangerous – more yay than nay, for the fact that the base mechanics work well and deliver hours of fun. It’s a space dogfight game at heart, so one shouldn’t expect a space adventure or any amazing plot or characters, but what’s there is enjoyable. The upside is that it hands you most of the tools right away and lets you go off and play however you want to. The downside is that there’s no character progression for the player except grinding for money to buy a bigger ship to keep grinding with, to eventually have a chance to compete against players who already completed the grind. I didn’t care for that aspect of it and eventually uninstalled. I did spend more than a hundred hours with it, so it must do something right.

Crysis 2 – more yay than nay, for the agency offered you by the nanosuit and the relatively open level design. You are given special powers and the freedom to pick your own approach to a mission. The story is hogwash, and I didn’t care for the design of the enemies the game throws at you (generic mercenary and tentacled squid alien). The movement and combat feel entirely solid and empowering, though. It’s a popcorn scripted setpiece shooter and not ashamed to be one, it has terrible on rails vehicle sequences, but I still felt motivated to finish the campaign because of the solid core gameplay. I didn’t care about the nanosuit “skill tree” or the weapon doodads and found them utterly inconsequential. By and large though. the game is OK with me and even fun. If you like the original Crysis, you won’t be totally disappointed.

Rage – Has some of the prettiest scenery I’ve seen in any videogame and breathtaking environment artwork skills on display. Great sightseeing tour. Has textbook FPS interior level design and solid gunplay. Has slightly generic enemies and a racing aspect nobody needs. The story is rubbish, the end is disappointing but some genuine shooting fun is to be had. Good solid weapon lineup, choice of ammo is actually fun and the exploding bolts and EMP shells made the guns more useful instead of less because they made each weapon fill a niche. So the special ammo actually helped differentiate the various shooting tools more. Go figure. Overall more yay than nay, but no replayability to speak of, so – uninstalled after finishing once. Was disappointed that enemies and loot didn’t respawn in the various dungeons. Didn’t play any of the minigames, ever. Didn’t feel like I missed anything.

Bioshock 2 – surprisingly disappointing since I love the original Bioshock, but this feels too obviously like more of the same without the character. You play as a Big Daddy, the first game’s signature enemy, and you have to save a little girl, both of which are tired, worn out tropes. I didn’t care too much after a while and just uninstalled.

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst – I didn’t get to play this one yet because it wanted to force me to install EA’s Origin store software. Hold on, two unwanted online shop systems being forced down my throat before I can even play the damn game is just too much. I dropped it right there. The first game was awesome, so I’m disappointed with the marketing bull obstructing the sequel. I’m just not taking that crap anymore. This just reminded me why I should buy games from GOG, and I will look there first in the future.

Tomb Raider 2013 – Had high hopes for this one but after half an hour of “Mash this key to escape / climb / kick / grab” I just uninstalled it. I just don’t have the patience anymore for this kind of thing. Perhaps it gets better later on, but a landslide of scripted events and button-mashing turned me off very quickly. Another dream shattered. I love Tomb Raider, but the kind that lets you explore lost places, not the kind that forces you on a rollercoaster ride of scripted bullshit. This made me want to reinstall TR: Underworld more than anything. Disappointing.

Dishonored – Instant like because of the freedom in gameplay. You’re dropped in a beautiful world and left to your own devices. Didn’t care about the stealth aspect that much. Found myself turned off by the weak story and characters – the empress has been murdered, you’ve been unjustly framed for it, here’s some weapons, go kill people. What in the world is this? Who cares for this? Also, you’re being handed a stabby sword and a host of murder tools, but using them is counted against you by the game’s “chaos system”. That’s a bit of a shame. I also didn’t care for the dual wielding in this one. I generally find alt-fires and juggling guns and plasmids, spells, superpowers at the same time distracting especially if there are too many options. Give me one tool that does the job well. I liked the blink ability and I can deal with that, but if I constantly have to switch alt-fires, I get annoyed. Better to make things like the see-through-walls an innate ability or something that just lasts 30 seconds after eating a magic fish – more of a powerup instead of an alt-fire.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution – Quickly turned off by the lack of interest in the characters and plot. Another man is turned into a cybernetic fighting machine. Big deal. Stilted movement and wooden combat, the blocky looks of a late-nineties shooter game, visuals ten years behind the curve for its release date, it all did nothing to engage me. Perhaps I didn’t give it enough of a chance, but I couldn’t figure out what all the hype was about. Dropped it after a while.

A few takeaways for the game developer:

  1. Agency! Give the player tools and abilities and opportunities to use them. Don’t treat the player like a dunce, don’t tell them exactly, repeatedly what to do. Give them the tools and give them the choice.
  2. Make the player care. Motivate them. Make them sympathize with the protagonist, with the characters. Give them a job they want to do. No cookie cutter Robin Hood fascist regime resistance fighter alien invasion bullshit.
  3. Solid base mechanics. Movement and combat, or stealth, or crafting, whatever your game is doing, have to be spot on. Make them feel empowered.
  4. Default controls have to make sense. Don’t make them press Left Control with their pinky finger to do the second most important thing in the game. The fewer keys used, the better – the simpler the input scheme, the better. Don’t overload the controls.
  5. Cut the crap. Don’t give us information, upgrades, toys, alt-fires and minigames that aren’t quintessential to the game. Keep it simple. The only exception I found was the different ammo (electric, armor piercing, explosive) – Rage and Bioshock (and Stalker, and Crysis…) all do this successfully. Perhaps it works because you don’t have to constantly manage it, it’s rather long term customisation of your gear. It goes back to #1 – tools and options.
  6. Exploration – the more open and interesting the world, the better. This also goes back to #1. Make the player feel in control, give them options, let them take their own decisions.
  7. Consequence. If you give them a deadly arsenal, reward them for skillful use of it. Don’t punish them for using the tools you hand them.
  8. No scripted bossfights, no scripted vehicle turret sections, no quicktime events, nothing that requires the player to follow a predetermined sequence of actions in order to proceed. This drives me nuts. It also goes back to #1. The best bossfight is the one where you just pump the bad guy full of lead, or rockets, or blow him up with the exploding RC car, not the one where you press a button or shoot the glowing thing.
  9. Perspective. Dangle something in front of their nose that’s worth going for – not just a bigger spaceship, but a better position, a different approach, a new location, a plot twist, a new enemy, a new game mechanic. Real development.
  10. Replayability. Give them a reason to come back.

I find more and more that the better games work just like chess. Give the player the game pieces, keep the rules simple, but give them options. Complexity will emerge.