2016 was for me a year of playing older games, not least because my PC is now at the point where I most likely cannot run new AAA releases with any satisfactory performance – except for one.
So for the first few months, I really fell into a habit of playing Hearthstone. I was consistent with playing constructed and diligently did my daily quests in the run up for Whispers of the Old Gods. I ended up splashing my earned gold for 40+ packs. Whispers was a really fun expansion and I had a good card collection to play with. C’thun decks were fun, and I played Priest and Druid for the most part. Shaman was a real annoyance though and soured my experience as time went on.
At some point though I stopped really enjoying myself, playing the same decks against largely the same kinds of decks over and over. The increasingly RNG nature of the game started to grate more and more. I’ve defended Hearthstone’s RNG-ness in the past and still think that it’s just a different kind of strategic gameplay compared to more deterministic games. I just realized that more determinism would make the game more fun for me. I dropped off entirely to take a break before Kharazan came out, returned when the first wing was released and eventually got all the wings. There were some fun decks to play, the most memorable for me was Thijs’ Priest Resurrection deck. But not long after Kharazan was finished I fell out of love again.
Now that Gadgetzan is out, I’m playing again, though much more rarely and casually. Thankfully I still have a good enough collection that I can play good decks for the most part, so I’m not completely out of the loop.
The only 2016 game I REALLY enjoyed. My PC just about runs it smoothly on lower settings, though the game is still gorgeous. It’s the most outright joyful and fun multiplayer shooter I’ve played in years. What can I say that hasn’t been said already all over the internet. What I personally love the most is the variation of first person movement that is offered. Be it Hanzo’s climbing and mantling, Widowmaker’s grappling hook, Tracer’s blink or Lucio’s wall skating. The distinctiveness of each hero underlines Overwatch’s focus on diversity and inclusiveness. There’s a place for mad skillz twitch players as well as people who’s strength is in tactical awareness.
Additionally, I really like that though Blizzard has big esports ambitions, there’s a lot to get into for casual players, where I feel much more at home. I’ve tried competitive and I sucked. But most of all I didn’t like how serious the game becomes. The arcade has been a great addition in that regard for me.
Heroes of the Storm
Late last year, I’d pledged that I’d get into Dota 2 for real. But my lifestyle just can’t support it. I just cannot commit myself to game without break for an hour and more. In my household there’s always something coming up that demands my attention. I hate this state of affairs because I actually love the MOBA genre. I was there in 2008 when DotA All-Stars became my entire gaming diet. I miss this game.
Overwatch is a great multiplayer game and scratches the MOBA itch to some degree. Then in November I came upon the Nexus Challenge. I was always skeptical of HotS, because it felt more like Blizzard saying “me too!”, which is their philosophy I know but only this time, their effort was NOT better than the competition. HotS felt like “baby’s first MOBA” and I felt stupid for playing it. Add to that some significant performance issues where framerate drops in big fights really hamstrung me and I was like “no thanks Blizzard”, especially when Dota 2 runs flawlessly on my PC.
Anyway, those issues have been largely resolved it seems, and HotS has grown and matured into a much more rounded and full-fledged experience. I do like the streamlining they’ve done compared to Dota. I enjoy the talent system, having no items and most of all the short match times. I realize that Dota 2 is still the deeper, more complex game, but I’ve come to terms that HotS is the better choice for my lifestyle. I can carve out time for 30 min matches and it offers the biggest draw MOBA’s have for me. It’s learning to control different heroes with their own ability sets that’s so satisfying, and I wonder if this is where HotS can carve out their niche. They’ve done some innovative work when you look at Cho’gall or Ragnaros.
HotS has basically taken the place Hearthstone had in my gaming diet and I’m happier for it.
XCOM Enemy Within
One of those big games that hung around in my backlog. I’ve finally beaten the campaign. It was a very mixed experience, I have to say. While I really love the actual turn-based combat, the strategic component was obtuse and badly explained. There’s a lot to consider and for me the feedback on my decisions was almost non-existent. Stuff like what things to build, what items to craft etc became a constant source of worry because I didn’t know if I was messing up or not. The feeling that XCOM can outpace you and leave you in a negative spiral only added to the anxiety. I ended up following a walk-through for guidance.
All these criticisms aside though, there’s a reason why XCOM became such a success. The battles are an amazing kind of chess for miniature soldiers. Fist-pumping moments were had and I once had an entire squad wipe during a story mission. The one where I had to investigate a whale corpse infested with Chrysalid eggs. Even though this mission spelled the end of that particular Ironman campaign, it stuck in the memory how all my team except for one was killed off in a zerg rush. It felt like watching Alien, only more intense.
Dishonored and DLC
I had played and beaten Dishonored when it was released but felt like playing it again. I ended up beating the campaign again, this time playing more aggressively while going for the “Mostly Blood and Steel” achivement. It is a much easier but also more satisfying way to play this game. Feeling liberated to use my arsenal was cathartic. The DLC was great too! While Daud plays almost exactly like Corvo, the missions were on par in quality with the main game. Its final mission at Brigmore Manor might even be better than Lady Boyle’s last party.
I’m just sad that my PC won’t be able to run Dishonored 2. I’ll probably wait a few years when hopefully I have a new PC and Dishonored 2 with all DLC.
Baldur’s Gate 2
I’ve picked up where I left off last time in the Underdark. I started and restarted Baldur’s Gate 2 since it was first released, always spending a huge amount of time doing quests in the remarkable chapter 2. This time I was determined to actually beat this game and see how the story concludes. After the Underdark, the remaining chapters are quite stream lined and the pace picks up nicely. I have to say that the final battle and revelation about Jon Irenicus were really cool. I had huge difficulty defeating him, probably because I wasn’t really in the mood to keep doing side quests to get better gear and level up. In the end I completed the story and it’s really nice to be able to put this game to bed. I could do the Throne of Bhaal expansion of course and I probably will in the future. For now though, I’m happy to have completed both Baldur’s Gate games. I have no inclination to play Siege of Dragonspear though. I feel burned out on Baldur’s Gate and probably will be for a while yet.
Final Fantasy VII
Final Fantasy VII is a special game to me. It’s the first RPG I’ve ever played, and my most lasting PS1 gaming experience – even edging out Metal Gear Solid. I’ve since gone and played most of the main line Final Fantasy games. What I kept secret though: I had never actually beaten a Final Fantasy game, not even FFVII.
I played it as a kid and never got past some point I’ve forgotten about. A couple of years ago I played this game on an emulator and stopped after I entered the final dungeon. My party was woefully under-prepared for the spiking difficulty. I fell victim to insta-death abilities of common mobs in that dungeon, and playing on an emulator I had only the one save! Now on PSP, I played it properly and being on a handheld, I could actually keep going at it steadily over a long time frame, similar to how I beat Tactics Ogre and Persona 3 Portable. The PSP is the perfect JRPG device.
About the game itself, I’ll say this: the Final Fantasy formula as it was in the PS1 era is still my favorite as it represents a perfect marriage of elements that we don’t have in modern entries anymore. I love the pre-rendered backgrounds coupled with the musical score of Nubuo Uematsu. I love traversing the 3D world map that feels both intimately small and vast and full of possibility at once. I love how there’s no voice acting which makes the character interactions look like a adorable puppet show. I love how low-fi the presentation is a times, and how proudly it presents its FMV sequences where you can still control your polygon avatar. That stuff was the bleeding edge in the 90’s, and is charmingly retro today. I love how the story feels deeply personal and goes to some uncomfortable places for its protagonists, but isn’t so up its own ass with self-seriousness. There’s a perfect balance between fun and slapstick and drama that AAA games seem to think doesn’t befit a big budget release these days. But most of all I love that I still love Final Fantasy VII after all these years. Yes, nostalgia is a significant factor in my enjoyment, but I can still appreciate the gameplay and I recognize an attitude, a philosophy that is behind this game that is missing in most big releases of today. When designers had ambitions to create something greater than “just” a game (though that’s also a good thing that they feel more confident in this medium now) and explored what it means to tell a story in a game. They just don’t make ’em like this anymore.
2016 was a year of making some significant headway into my backlog. I’ve slayed some dragons that bothered me for more than 10 years! Baldur’s Gate 2 and Final Fantasy VII are huge games that I’d always felt bad about not having beaten. To do so in the same year, along with XCOM and Dishonored + DLC feels good man! I fell that I can move on now.
I’ve also changed my multiplayer gaming significantly and landed mostly on Blizzard games. Hearthstone, Overwatch and Heroes of the Storm make out the bulk of that, and I’m happy to dabble in all of them in a casual but consistent way.
My only regrets this year has been not getting into big strategy games and roguelikes. My big campaign in CK2 was hampered by increasing slowdown the longer the campaign went on (I was some 200 years in) and my EU4 campaign kind of did too. I lost interest to a certain degree and the nagging feeling that I should play these games with a better CPU, more RAM and proper widescreen monitor doesn’t help. Both are great games that I wish I could really delve into, but I get burned out quite easily. For roguelikes, I didn’t play FTL at all (such a good game though!), Spelunky and Isaac were the only ones I had any real progress with, though not nearly as much as I’d like.
So that’s that for gaming. I had great fun and feel good about the things I did achieve this year, and hopefully 2017 can continue in this vein.