SO LATE! Later than a gridlock’d alligator, that’s me – craziness in the real world has left me with scarce opportunity to write in this thing. It certainly doesn’t help that whenever I try to write about any of these games I end up playing them instead (for “research”, obv.).
I’m not complaining, mind – when I introduced the first part of this list I mentioned that 2014 was my favourite year for video games ever, and these four games are the reason why.
Still, I couldn’t just leave the list dangling without mentioning the four biggies which made the year so special for me so here’s the final installment, tardiness be damned. If you want a refresher for the rest of the list the first two bits are here and here.
Ready? LET’S GO.
4 Hearthstone (Blizzard, Windows)
Seriously, what is this even doing here?
I don’t do the online multiplayer thing. Between my howling ineptitude as a player and similarly limited social skills that should be a no-brainer, but to my eternal discredit it took me what seems like eons to realize I was a poor fit for online play. It was only after years of intermittent dallying with the Battlefields and Chivalrys of the world that I finally twigged to being the weakest link on every team I was on and hung up my now well-pitted helmet (and that’s if I was even on a team – in free-for-all deathmatch type games, I typically didn’t register as a signal in the first place).
I’ve never been hugely interested in card collecting games either (the super intriguing Netrunner, which I’ve still not played, notwithstanding). Couple that with my not getting along at all with Blizzard’s recent forays into creepy real-life auction houses and anti-consumery online DRM and, well… let’s just say that Hearthstone was well off my radar.
So what happened? It’s all (as it so frequently is) Richard Cobbett’s fault. His brilliant write-up about enjoying Hearthstone despite being wary of online stuff was enough to pique my interest. Plus, the game’s free, right? I’ll just give it a quick go and see what the fuss is about.
You can see where this is going already.
Almost overnight I was booting into Windows regularly to sate my Hearthstone mores. I quickly became frustrated with having to reboot to play it so I installed it in a VirtualBox machine. Then I got frustrated with having to boot into that so I dicked around with PlayOnLinux to get it running through an obsolete version of WINE (the current version of WINE has introduced a bug which breaks Hearthstone’s compatibility so you have to use an older version. The joys of emulation, eh?). Now it’s almost a year later and rarely a day goes by where I don’t get my ‘Stone on.
I realize this is all reading like some sordid addiction story (“I only tried it once and NOW IT HAS CONSUMED MY WAKING BEING“, etc), but the greatest thing about Hearthstone is that it’s not like that at all. Look, here’s a metaphor.
Imagine you’ve somehow scored Brian May to play on your band’s new single. You send your backing tracks over for him to work with and wait nervously for his response. When he sends you his finished track you’re thrown by what he’s done, because he’s barely there at all. He could steal the show with his impeccable, majestic solos but he instead chooses to sit quietly in the background – because he understands that it’s not about him. That’s Hearthstone.
No, really. Hearthstone has been designed around the idea that it’s not the centre of your life, and as such it’s incredibly easy to drop in and out of. When you feel like playing you just fire it up and join a game right away. If something comes up and you need to leave a game early then that’s easy too – you don’t have to worry about inconveniencing your opponent because they get a free win (and possibly some in-game currency with it) for their trouble. In a world full of games that force you to play for an extra half-hour to reach the checkpoint that saves your progress, Hearthstone’s acknowledgment that you have a life is a welcome reprieve.
All the compulsive Skinner box-y tropes are still there, of course – if you want to play it obsessively and go on a 48 hour Paladin bender there’s nothing to stop you, and best of luck with that – but it’s nice to feel like you’re being given a choice as to whether or not to pursue that stuff.
Apart from enjoying it far more than I expected to, the game is pretty much how I imagined it would be: nothing fantastically deep or innovative, but impeccably polished and balanced to within an inch of its life. There’s random chance at play here, as well as the pay-real-money-to-get-better cards stuff, but for all that it never feels cheap or cheaty. I’m regularly trounced by people with decks which probably cost more than my annual income, but I’m just as often humbled by folks using the basic cards. Which feels just about right to me.
I’m still completely rubbish at it, but it doesn’t really matter. The welcome decision to strip out player chat and public stats completely eliminates all the noob-trolling bullshit which blights other online games (though you do get the odd dickhead giving you grief by spamming the in-game e-motes). Indeed, Hearthstone is a rarity in that it’s a game where I find losing to be sublimely enjoyable – often, the more humiliating the better. But that’s a story for another post methinks.
It’s only slightly tarnished by a rubbish interface in the pre-game menus and a tendency for the servers to go down for hours without warning (which, maddeningly, locks you out of playing offline with bots as well – Blizzard’s infamous player-baiting DRM at work again, alas).
And it’s free! I haven’t spent a cent on the thing yet.
3 Civilization V (Firaxis; Linux, Windows)
Seriously, what is this even doing here?
I hate being that person who discovers something years after its zeitgeist.
Yes, one of my favourite games of 2014 was Firaxis’ evergreen 4x-er from 2010 (is this the videogaming equivalent of Dad Rock? For what it’s worth I loved that new Pink Floyd album as well). And yes, it’s the unexpected release of a Linux version which triggered this particular belated Golden Age.
Now, I bought Civ 5 back when it first came out so I technically could have played it any time I wanted, but in practice that’s not how it goes. There’s a large psychological barrier to rebooting into another OS just to play game – having to close down all the stuff I’ve got running, then waiting for the computer to reboot and the other OS to load. And if it’s been a while I’ll immediately be bombarded by half a dozen nag windows for software upgrades – at least a couple of which will be important security ones which should be dealt with right away lest I forget about them. So I grumble and click yes and wait for them to download and install. Once that’s done it’s a case of loading Steam and launching the game proper – but the game has a required update which needs to be downloaded before I can play it so I have to wait for that to come through, and so I’m waiting again. And so it goes on (and that’s not a dig at Windows specifically – it’s the same every time I turn on my Wii-U).
Given that there’s been a large-ish uptick in the amount of games available on Linux in the last few years (owing largely to the Humble Bundles and Steam), nine times out of ten I’ll just opt to play one of those instead of braving the reboot/update ritual. And while it’s awesome to have that option, it does mean that I inevitably end up skipping over some Windows-only titles, even if I’ve bought them and am genuinely keen on playing them (poor old Saints Row IV – I’ll get to you one day, I promise. EDIT: Holy fucksticks a Linux port of Saints Row IV was just announced at GDC. YES!!).
So Civ 5 sat neglected in my backlog, even as I heard stories from the world outside of all night Civ benders. Of its unexpected popularity in the Steam rankings and its continuing sales. Of the two big expansions and how they addressed a lot of the concerns people had with the base game. Of this awesome Papers, Please mod. It was like there was a crazy Civ 5 tornado raging all around me and I was stranded in its placid centre.
Over the years I sort of got used to feeling like that, so the Linux port was a welcome surprise. And much like with Hearthstone, a couple of ‘quick test games just to see how the port runs’ quickly turned into a regular weekend binge. I’ve clocked up 150 hours already, and that’s with me putting strict restrictions on myself for when I can play it – I haven’t actually started playing it for real yet (he stated hollowly, despairing at the thought there might exist people who’d believe it). But you know this already, right? The whole ‘just one more turn’ thing. Or when a game turns sour early on so you start a new one – which also goes bad, and so on until you’ve been up all night chasing a decent run. It’s the way of the Civ. I may have been late to the party but by Nimoy it was worth the wait.
The Linux port is actually a bit shit when compared to the other versions, but it’s not something I’m hugely bothered by, I’m just happy to finally be able to play it. And maybe I lucked out a little by having to wait to play it, as it meant that I got to experience it from the get-go with the two big expansions and all the patches in place.
Those barbarians can rightly go and get fucked, though.
2 Crypt Of The Necrodancer (Brace Yourself Games; Linux, Windows)
Seriously, what is this even doing here?
I hate rhythm action games. As in: with a seething, insatiable passion which boils ulcers into my stomach and tortures me in my dreams. I mean they’re all just fucking Simon, aren’t they? Do what you’re told and don’t fall out of line, with player agency hovering somewhere between zero and fuck-all. A waste of a wonderful medium says I, even if Guitar Hero and friends did make a decent tilt of building some social infrastructure around it.
I don’t even remember why I bought Crypt Of The Necrodancer in the first place, as I was absolutely certain I would hate it. Maybe it was just morbid curiousity, or maybe I just felt like punishing myself or hatewatching. And to be fair, I’ve certainly owned worse. But whatever the reason I’m glad I did take the plunge and buy it, because it’s extremely ace.
You see, the brilliant thing about Crypt Of The Necrodancer is the way it completely inverts what the eponymous ‘rhythm’ in rhythm games is all about. Usually in these games the player doesn’t have any choices to make – simply a series of correct moves to replicate, and the rhythm element wallpapers over that lack of agency by introducing a means by which the player can lose. It’s a way of tacking a fail state onto something which would otherwise be stateless, and as such only serves to underline how little impact the player has on the proceedings.
But in Crypt Of The Necrodancer the player has plenty of agency, so when the timing element is added it’s that agency which is emphasized rather than the lack of it. The result is Sid Meier’s series of interesting choices bearing down on you like an unwanted admirer at a roller-disco. Each beat is effectively a time limit on your next move, depriving you of the chance to take your time and agonize over every big decision (one of the few bones thrown to the player in traditionally rock-hard turn based roguelikes). Instead you have to make your choices almost instantly, which can be a trying task when there’s enemies enroaching from all directions and you need to prioritize which ones to deal with first.
The result is my favourite of all the recent turn-based roguelikelikes – nah scratch that, one of my favourite games period. The hardcore challenge has become an unwavering fixture of my day, its zippy playtime allowing it to fit into even the busiest of schedules (though lately I’m lucky to last more than a couple of minutes. Today I was killed on the second level by stepping on a bomb tile and not getting out of the blast range in time. Did I mention I’m rubbish at videogames?).
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Necrodancer is also the best example of the Early Access model I’ve yet seen. Despite only just hitting version 0.4 at the time of writing it doesn’t feel unfinished or buggy – on the contrary, it could been easily have been sold as a finished product in its current state. Of course, that it is being actively improved only makes it a more compelling proposition. It just feels like you’re getting a bunch of free DLC every couple of weeks.
But really, my love for Necrodancer is all about how it’s rescued rhythm action games – it’s found a way to take a miserable genre that’s all about stripping choice from the player and make it all about the player’s choices instead, and for that I can’t love it enough.
1 The Binding Of Isaac: Rebirth (Nicalis, Edmund McMillen; Linux, Windows)
Like, seriously, why wouldn’t this be here?
The number of times I’ve sat there, effectively paralyzed, trying to choose between the Book Of Belial and the Book Of Revelation. One will grant me extra soul hearts, the other will summon extra firepower until I leave a room. They’re two of the best powerups in the game, but I only have room to take one of them with me. Each one could mean the difference between a successful playthrough (and the corresponding unlocked item) and an unceremonious death, but it also depends on what other complementing (or competing) powerups I might receive later on in the game. But I have to decide now.
And the number of times I’ve sat there, effectively paralyzed, staring at the game over screen and thinking to myself: “I totally would have made that run if I’d picked up Revelation instead of Belial.”
Welcome to the new Binding Of Isaac, same as the old Binding Of Isaac. If you’re wondering why this write-up is three months late, then here’s your answer.
And the thing is, I’ve been in this exact place before. The original Binding Of Isaac absolutely consumed me. I played the DRM free version so I have no idea how many hours I sank into it but it was easily in the hundreds. I had a printout of the item screen permanently set out on my desk so I could easily identify the ones I hadn’t unlocked and steer my playthroughs towards them, crossing them out once I’d achieved them. For a while – a long while – it was the entirety of my videogaming life. It’s one of a handful games where I loved and played it so much I eventually burned out on it, like a kid who binges on their favourite candy bar and gets so sick they can’t bear to ever eat another one again.
When Rebirth was announced I cursed myself for having done that, as it meant I’d never be able to enjoy McMillen’s Directors Cut in the same way I did the original – I’d simply Isaac’d myself out. And remakes in general never grab me like their original incarnations do. Take for exa mple the recently remastered Grim Fandango. It was great to play the game again and see all the little improvements and ehnancements they’d made, but at the same time I didn’t completely immerse myself in it like I did when I first played it. With a game that wonderful, you can never go back to your first time.
Except that’s precisely what Ed McMillen’s done – despite the hundreds of hours I spent with the original Isaac, BOI:Rebirth feels like the first time. Falling in love all over again.
It wasn’t love at first sight, mind. I was still Isaac-sick from my original binge, and the various changes meant I couldn’t rely on muscle memory to ease myself in. I was blindsided by the new enemies, new attack patterns, new bosses and new room layouts along with some subtle retooling of how the underlying systems work. I was struggling to make any kind of progress, even on the new easy difficulty setting. A stranger on my own turf, as it were. That changed as I slowly began to unlock some of the more useful items, including the ones I was familiar with from the Isaac’s original outing, and began to familiarize myself with the new baddies. Eventually I experienced the same phenomenon I did with FTL’s Advanced Edition – I started parsing the new version as the ‘normal’ one, and forgot what the old version was like.
Once I’d adjusted to the lo-res graphics and reworked soundtrack (both sadly inferior to those from the original game – a shame, but the rest is such an improvement that the disappointment hardly registers), I began to see where McMillen was coming from when he proclaimed the old Isaac to be a dud. Returning to the first game after having grown accustomed to this one is painful. The things I was willing to overlook before (the dodgy item interactions, the modest framerate, the infamous slowdown on all but the emptiest of screens) became unbearable now I’d played a version with them fixed. It’s like the classic nostalgia comedown, where you return to something you loved years ago only to find that it’s not what you remembered – only in this case it’s McMillen’s revisionist retooling, not an unreliable memory, which facilitates the shift.
And that’s of course ignoring all of the new things which Rebirth has introduced. Not just the extra characters (of which Azazel, the demon who can fly and shoot brimstone right from the get-go, is my firm favourite), but the multitude of new items, challenges and unlocks. I’m currently working my way through the boss rush achievements, where you have to finish the first six floors within twenty minutes. The time limit means I don’t have the luxury of scouring each level for all of the pickups and items, forcing me to decide on the fly what to leave behind . It requires a completely different mindset and makes Rebirth feel like a new game, even over a hundred hours in. The same goes for the challenge runs, which I recently finished and could easily justify the game’s pittance of a price on their own.
I can’t quantify exactly what it is about Binding Of Isaac that clicks with me, which is frustrating as it means that whatever I write about it will only serve to undersell it. I think the closest I can get is by saying that it’s my Spelunky. I could never get into Derek Yu’s caverunning permadeath platformer, and I always feel like a bit of a philistine when I hear other people speak of their near-divine experiences with it. But when I play The Binding Of Isaac I can see where they’re coming from. Like a TV series you always return to or the song that lifts you out of a funk on even the shittiest of days – for me, the Binding Of Isaac is that game.
Or to put it another way: the original Flash version was my favourite videogame of all time and this new version is a hundred times better than the old one. As I said: meet the new Isaac, same as the old Isaac. As brilliant as games can be.