Ugh. I’m already tired of thinking about 2020. I’m trying to enjoy my 2021, so the last thing I want to do is revisit the tribulations of yesteryear. Let’s just get this over with.
2. Half-Life: Alyx
I waited thirteen years for a new Half-Life game. I got to the end of Half-Life 2, Episode 2 in 2007 and then began eagerly waiting for the follow-up. The Half-Life 2 installments came out in 2004, 2006, and 2007, so there was no reason to suspect that the next game wasn’t just around the corner. It seemed like we were leading up to a big finale in Episode 3.
Then as the years dragged on, Valve seemed to lose interest in game development. The anticipation of Episode 3 transitioned into a tenuous hope for Half-Life 3. Then after a few more years it was clear that the game had died on the vine. Gradually the various creative people left the company and it became clear that the series was done. Even if Valve suddenly became interested in Half-Life again, they no longer had the personnel to make it happen.
Or so I thought.
Half-Life: Alyx feels like a proper Half-Life game. So many of the original creative people are gone, yet the new entry fits perfectly into the established tone and style of the original games. It’s been over a decade since the last entry in this franchise, yet it feels like the series picks up right where we left it in terms of tone and mechanics. There’s the unique feel of the faux-euro scenery that manages to evoke Eastern Europe without being any one place in particular. The gameplay is still built around teaching a new mechanic and then having you engage with it in increasingly complex situations. The gallows humor is as fun as ever.
Like its predecessors, the designer allows you to explore on your own for large blocks of time and doesn’t feel the need to chat you up with hand-hold-y dialog every three minutesAs an introvert, I find a lot of modern games to be EXHAUSTING, with various characters chattering at you constantly with little reminders. I like the tension of feeling isolated and solving problems on my own, so having some dipshit coach me through puzzles is a complete killjoy..
Maybe this faithfulness to formula is frustrating to the people who wanted Half-Life to modernize its design, but personally I’m grateful for the lack of “innovation”. Thief 2014 demonstrated what happens if a new team tries to update a game without understanding what made the original work, and I’m glad Half-Life: Alyx didn’t throw away what made this series unique in pursuit of a more mainstream design.
So if Half-Life is one of my favorite franchises, and this is a faithful Half-Life game, then why isn’t this game #1 on my 2020 list? Is the #1 game THAT GOOD?
Not really. The truth is that despite the great storytelling and design work, I didn’t have a great time with Half-Life: Alyx. This game is VR-only, and I spent most of my time wishing I could somehow play this thing outside of VR.
Don’t get me wrong. I like VR. I enjoy short, atmospheric experiences. I like casual, low-stress VR games. I love experimenting with the medium and I love the weird sensation that comes from existing within the gameworld rather than viewing it through the window of your typical monitor. On the other hand, I don’t enjoy hours-long room-scale VR sessions.
Half-Life Alyx is not a game you jump in and out of. It has a long startup time and an excruciating load time for levels. This isn’t a game you play in fifteen minute chunks, even though that’s about how long I could play before it became uncomfortable.
I played this game via the Oculus Quest 2. The weight of the headset would dig into the bridge of my nose and my cheekbones. My skin would start to sweat and I’d get itchy. So then I’d lift up the headset to scratch, and the bullshit poorly-designed overpriced flimsy link cable would slip loose, breaking the VR experience. So then I’d have to take it off, shut down the game, re-connect the headset, restart Steam VR, restart the game, and endure the agonizing load to get back into it. This would happen even if I lightly grazed the cable and the connection was disrupted for less than a second. The software was unable to recover from small hiccups like this.
I spent a lot of time sneaking around in the dark. Literally! I was walking with my head down, knees bent, cradling my gun in my outstretched hands. That’s amazing. Immersion is good! But that posture is really hard to maintain for hours at a time, so I’d end up with a backache the next day.
My hand would cramp from gripping the controller for so long. My legs would hurt from standing in a slightly crouched position for extended periods of time. My eyes would get tired because I couldn’t look away from the screen and rub them occasionally like I can in non-VR situations. My ears would hurt from all the gunfire being pumped through the headphonesSure, you can turn it down. But then it’s hard to hear those faint shuffling noises in the distance. Having a huge dynamic range is realistic, but it’s also hard on my ears in extended play sessions.. My glasses prescription is such that I almost don’t need them. I can wear my glasses and have a very uncomfortable face-smashy experience, or I can leave them off and have everything slightly out-of-focus, all the time.
Now, you could argue that none of these problems are the fault of Half-Life: Alyx: I’m old. I’m out-of-shape. It’s not the game designer’s fault my eyesight is deteriorating. The Quest 2 isn’t the most comfortable headset out there and maybe with more time and experience I could find a way to mitigate some of these issues.
I don’t dispute any of these facts. I agree that Alyx is one of the best VR games to date, but the truth is that this is a fantastic game that physically hurts to play, and that prolonged discomfort interfered with my ability to enjoy it. It’s not anyone’s fault and I’m not saying the designer did a bad job. I’m just describing my experience.
I can’t even argue that the game should be converted to non-VR. Valve went to a lot of trouble to make a game that was specifically designed for VR. This isn’t a game that just uses VR as a gimmick. VR is fully integrated with the game and it would require a lot of compromise and redesign to make the game work on a traditional screen.
These are all laudable things. This is what VR needs to move forward and reach a larger audience. VR is unlike 2D gaming, and to get the most out of it – and the expensive hardware – you need experiences that are created specifically to leverage its strengths.
But damn it. My nose hurt, my neck hurt, my knees hurt, and by the last chapter I just wanted to sit in a chair and play this game without several pounds of technology hanging from my face.
It’s awesome, but it hurts. I’m really glad I don’t assign review scores to games, because I don’t think I could come up with a single number that could adequately reflect how I feel about Half-Life: Alyx.
(TODO: Insert obligatory Half-Life 3 joke here.)
1. Watch Dogs: Legion
Well, this is unexpected. When was the last time an Ubisoft game landed in my end-of-year list, much less snagged the top spot?
So let’s talk about the various complaints with the game…
“The thing where you can recruit anyone in London to join your group of insurgents was cool, but it didn’t have a huge impact on the gameplay.”
“The various abilities of individual team members aren’t that powerful or interesting.”
“The emergent side-missions are neat but they don’t tie into the main story.”
“Your crew members look and sound different from each other, but they don’t really force you to vary your playstyle very much.”
“The characters seem really varied and vibrant, and it’s interesting that we don’t have a single main character. But in the end you’ll probably just pick a single favorite and stick with them most of the time.”
“London is large, but it feels kind of empty since it’s just a sea of map markers where you do the same three missions over and over.”
Now, technically all of these gripes are true, but I find them incredibly frustrating.
See, Ubisoft is in a rut so deep it’s become a canyon. Their games are an exhausting grind of repetition where the creator seems to have a violent allergy to anything that might resemble a creative risk. But somehow the designer of this game managed to wiggle free of the Ubisoft orthodoxy and take a small half-step towards innovation.
There are genuinely good ideas in this game, and my major complaint is that they didn’t go nearly far enough. I’m worried the Ubisoft leadership is going to see that long list of gripes and say, “Oh wow! People do not like it when we do something new. I’m going to make sure nobody deviates from our uniform design in future projects!” So many of the criticisms are focused on the New Things, which might send the message that we don’t like New Things. The actual complaint here should be, “New things are good, but you didn’t go nearly far enough!”
It almost feels like the team is trying to sneak innovation in under the nose of an overbearing ultra-conservative leader. There’s a really cool side-story where someone uploads the consciousness of another human being without their consent, and the story plays around with some fairly dark ideas for a little bit. It’s gripping stuff, and it even leads to a rare moment of player choice at the end. But this happens in the middle of a side-plot that the game wants to rush you through, and the rest of the game immediately negates / ignores the incredibly interesting choice you just made.
Meanwhile, the main plot is a ridiculous and childish story about an outrageously implausible fight against a boring cartoon villain with nothing to say, and then it ends with a out-of-nowhere betrayal that is somehow both obvious and nonsensical. And then you’re dropped into an extended late-game combat slog that negates all of the cool mechanics of the rest of the game by forcing you to use a single character to become your “central” protagonist while the rest of your team vanishes from the story, thus undercutting the most interesting thing the game had going for it.
Like the previous games in this series – and a lot of other stuff Ubisoft puts out – this game acts like it has something Very Important to say about society. It swings around some heavy hot-button topics, but then it never really says anything about them.
What is this game about? Job loss due to automation? Rising surveillance state and the loss of individual privacy? Violent and unaccountable police? Immigration? Corporatism? Racism? Turning over too much of our infrastructure to AI?
Imagine the extended family has gathered for Thanksgiving dinner. In the middle of the meal Uncle Vern suddenly says in an angry voice, “Do you know what most people don’t understand about Donald Trump?”
Suddenly everyone freezes, and you get the feeling Vern is about to say something that’s either obvious and banal, or completely infuriating. Everyone holds their breath while Vern chews a piece of turkey and gathers his thoughts.
Eventually everyone gets restless. Vern is nodding his head like he’s going to speak any second now, and everyone feels like the meal can’t continue until this (whatever it is) is over. The family waits and waits, staring at Vern impatiently.
Finally the group gives up. Vern seems to have forgotten he was about to say something. Everyone resumes eating.
A minute later Vern suddenly growls, “Anyway, like I was saying about Donald Trump…” And then he pauses and the whole process starts over.
That’s what these kind of Ubisoft games feel like. I seriously doubt this writer has the skill to say anything insightful about the hot-button topics they keep mentioning. I don’t need the writer to weigh in on the controversy of the day. In fact, I’d prefer they didn’t try, since it would probably be overly reductive, heavy-handed, and childish. But the story keeps bringing this stuff up and then refusing to do anything with it. Worse, the game is otherwise devoid of a message or theme. The writer doesn’t seem to have anything to say, but they keep acting like they do. It’s distracting and off-putting.
I realize it feels really weird to give this game my #1 spot for the year and then blow a thousand words explaining how irritating it was. My point is that the overall structure of this game is a typical Ubisoft-style gameplay grind with a dull and predictable story. But then in the margins are all of these wonderful ideas, interesting mechanics, emergent stories, and surprise moments.
What I’m getting at is that the good parts of this game are unique to this game, and the bad parts of this game are the things it has in common with other Ubisoft titles. It feels like there are a bunch of really smart, creative people working on this, and the Ubisoft leadership just needs to get out of their way. I had a lot of fun running around cyber-London, punching strawman fascist cops, hijacking vehicles, and hacking computers. But as amusing as that was, I could tell there was an even better, smarter, more interesting game the team could have made from this same framework.
Don’t go back into the rut, Ubisoft. Run with this idea of emergent operatives. It works. You just need to commit.
So let’s talk about some upcoming games. This isn’t terribly important now, but in a year it’ll be fun to look back and roll our eyes at all of this foolish optimism.
Mass Effect Remaster – I just want an excuse to play through Mass Effect 1 again. That’s all I’m looking for. I’m very worried some dipshit will use the remaster as an excuse to shove a bunch of obnoxious Cerberus retcons into the first game. It’s very obvious that Cerberus is the pet villain of someone at BioWare, and that person isn’t above flagrantly self-gratifying and tone-deaf bullshitThey put Cerberus into ANDROMEDA, for crying out loud.. I don’t plan on playing through ME2 or ME3. I really have seen enough of that nonsense, and I know it all ends in frustration anyway. Like The Matrix, Mass Effect is so much more enjoyable if I can pretend it’s the only one. All I want is the original with a fresh coat of paint.
Manifold Garden – This is technically out now. It appeared on the Epic Store first, and I gave it a pass because I was tired of the Epic Store. It came out on Steam in October, but by that time the end-of-year deluge had begun. My plan is to play this one during the slow summer months of 2021.
Hitman 3 – The rebooted Hitman series is 2 for 2. Can they make three great games in a row? Probably. This one is out on the Epic Store, but I own the previous two Hitman games on Steam. They share a common pool of levels, so I don’t want to break up the set. So while this is a 2021 release, I probably won’t get to play it until 2022.
Cyberpunk 2077 – This is, of course, out already. I mean, it’s buggy and full of holes, and it’s obviously far short of the game the developers planned to make. But we’ve been promised updates and bug fixes. We’ll see how that turns out.
Deathloop – I’m not sure if I’m going to dig this. I loved Prey, the previous game from this developer. On the other hand, Deathloop sounds sort of like a AAA roguelike. I’m worried I’ll find that more frustrating than fun. It’s hard to tell. I liked the Mooncrash expansion and that was a rogue-ish sort of game, but this sort of thing is incredibly hit-or-miss for me.
Bloodlines 2 – I already talked about the troubled development of this game earlier in this series. It’ll supposedly come out this year. We’ll see how that turns out.
Gotham Knights – Ugh. I’m pretty confident I’m not going to like this one. I hate everything the designers are doing. But I’m still waiting for someone to recreate the magic of Arkham City. I need to play this, because otherwise the internet will never let me hear the end of it. Also, you never know! It might be goodThis is not a prediction. I’m just allowing for the fact that this is technically possible right now, no matter how unlikely it seems.!
New World – I doubt I’ll enjoy this. MMOs are pretty hit-or-miss for me, and I’m pretty burned out on the idea of a “pre-industrial setting with magic”. I’ve spent decades doing that, and I’d much rather go to space, or a post-apocalypse, or maybe a cyberpunk sort of deal. On the other hand, this game is coming from Amazon Game Studios. It’s been ages since a new publisher entered the ring, and I’m really curious what happens when a new player joins the game and tries to race up the tech tree like this. Personally I’d advise making a few small, focused titles to get your teams to gel before you scale up and blow a hundred million bucks entering the MMO space, which has devoured many large companies over the decades. But whatever. It’s not my money, so I’m happy to see them take stupid, irresponsible risks with it.
So that’s it. Now I just need to survive 2021, and then we can meet back here and see how it all turned out. Wish me luck!
 As an introvert, I find a lot of modern games to be EXHAUSTING, with various characters chattering at you constantly with little reminders. I like the tension of feeling isolated and solving problems on my own, so having some dipshit coach me through puzzles is a complete killjoy.
 Sure, you can turn it down. But then it’s hard to hear those faint shuffling noises in the distance. Having a huge dynamic range is realistic, but it’s also hard on my ears in extended play sessions.
 They put Cerberus into ANDROMEDA, for crying out loud.
 This is not a prediction. I’m just allowing for the fact that this is technically possible right now, no matter how unlikely it seems.
Video Compression Gone Wrong
How does image compression work, and why does it create those ugly spots all over some videos and not others?
Raytracing is coming. Slowly. Eventually. What is it and what will it mean for game development?
PC Gaming Golden Age
It's not a legend. It was real. There was a time before DLC. Before DRM. Before crappy ports. It was glorious.
The product of fandom run unchecked, this novel began as a short story and grew into something of a cult hit.
Resident Evil 4
Who is this imbecile and why is he wandering around Europe unsupervised?