Tuesday, December 29, 2015

My Favorite PC Games of 2015

As with last year's list, a game's absence should not be taken as an indication of its quality as I can only comment on games that I've played, and certainly didn't play everything released on PC in 2015.

Also, for the first time ever, I've created this list in video form for those who prefer that sort of thing.

For fans of reading, enjoy the list in its more traditional form.

#10 - Warhammer 40,000: Regicide

If you ask me, everyone should have a good chess game in their library and "Warhammer 40,000: Regicide" is that plus a bit more.

The game has several modes including traditional chess played with lovingly-animated Warhammer 40,000 pieces but the "Regicide" mode is where it really shines. Basically, "Regicide" adds an extra set of game mechanics to traditional chess. At the end of each move, players can take up to three actions such as buffing friendly pieces, weakening enemy pieces or performing ranged attacks on said enemies. This makes it possible to take pieces at a distance and completely changes the dynamic of the game.

There's also a tutorial and a single-player campaign with a series of structured missions that introduce players to the new mechanics in a gentle, sensical manner.

Beyond that, players can skirmish against the AI, which accommodates a wide range of skill levels, or face off against other human players via online or hot seat multiplayer.

#9 - Elite Dangerous

To me, there's something inherently appealing about the idea of being a starship captain. Cruising around the galaxy, exploring star systems, trading goods, mining asteroids and engaging in epic space battles. These things all appeal to me and they're all things "Elite Dangerous" does really well. Factor in its robust multiplayer systems and clever controller support options, and it's no wonder how this game made my list.

At it's heart, this is more of a sandbox playground than a structured, guided game experience, so it will be up to you to make your own fun out of it; however,  if you're looking to do a little space trucking with some friends (or enemies) and you're willing to spend some time mastering the complexities of a game that leans heavily toward the simulation genre, you really can't go wrong with "Elite Dangerous."

Elite Dangerous (via Steam)

#8 - Warhammer: End Times - Vermintide

The lazy, reductive way to describe "Warhammer: End Times - Vermintide" (Vermintide) would be to call it "Left 4 Dead with rat men instead of zombies." I hate that comparison because it both negatively portrays the effort that was clearly put into Vermintide itself and the ability of the average gamer to perceive and appreciate its unique attributes.

Is it possible, even likely, that Vermintide was inspired by "Left 4 Dead?" Certainly, but there's more to it than that. From its loot and leveling systems, to the unique pros and cons of the weapon loadouts for each of the five classes, to the melee-heavy core gameplay, to the risk/reward tome and grimoire mechanics– Vermintide has its own unique identity and attributes that make it far more than a simple copy of another game.

Is it the most original or innovative game of the year? No. Do some technical issues with the bots and the overall performance of the game prevent it from being all it could have been? Yes, but Vermintide is ultimately still praiseworthy for the many things it does well despite its shortcomings.

#7 - Rogue State

Ever wanted to run a small, fictitious Middle-Eastern country's provisional government in the wake of a bloody revolution while surrounded by other fictitious Middle-Eastern countries who watch and react to your every move differently each time you play the game? If so, "Rogue State" is for you as it joins the thin yet storied ranks of classic "dictator simulators" such as "Balance of Power," "Nuclear War" and "Tropico."

As you might expect, a big part of this game's appeal are the random elements that can occur during each playthrough, which make it challenging and interesting to balance the needs of the country, the desires of its various factions and your own personal whims and morals.

I would love to see a more robust version of this concept– ideally with a multiplayer component in the future but don't let that stop you from enjoying what "Rogue State" has to offer in the here and now.

Rogue State (via Steam)

#6 - Dying Light

After the disappointment that was "Dead Island: Riptide," I was a little hesitant to pull the trigger on "Dying Light" when it first released way back in January. Fortunately, I did eventually get around to picking up the game (on sale) and found it to be quite good for the most part. Techland have clearly learned a few things about making a fun, well structured first-person co-op game set in a zombie apocalypse since creating the original "Dead Island."

Unfortunately, the lack of choice in the way the main story unfolds sucked a lot of the enjoyment out of the game for me. The discontinuity between the open world and the rigid, often off-putting and downright lazy storytelling of the game's narrative made it much more of a slog and way less satisfying of an experience than it should have been for how good it is mechanically.

Ultimately, I recommend "Dying Light" for its outstanding implementation of four-player co-op throughout the core game. I just wish I had been able to make proper choices concerning what my character did in various situations instead of being stuck in cut scenes that forced me to do things I would never do or be okay with doing under any circumstances.

"Dying Light" is a good example of a great game tarnished by a ruthlessly-rigid and unsatisfactory narrative but as the saying goes, co-op makes everything better.

Dying Light (via Steam)

#5 - Helldivers

This hardcore, extremely tactical, top-down, twin-stick, co-op shooter was by far the biggest gaming-related surprise of 2015 for me. Rarely have I seen a game that pushes all the right buttons in terms of delivering just about everything one could reasonably expect from the best of the genres it represents while still bringing its own unique flair and style to the party.

Even if top-down shooters typically aren't your thing, this is a game that could easily make someone a fan of the genre with its sheer quality and depth of gameplay.

While it's possible to play and enjoy "Helldivers" as a single-player experience, I would highly recommend bringing at least one friend along for the ride.

My only real complaint with the game is that it's not possible to center the camera on your character during online multiplayer. I understand the necessity (for local co-op) and possible appeal of having all players on screen at all times in a game like this but many other titles of this sort provide discrete cameras without negatively impacting gameplay– so the absence of such an option in "Helldivers" seems odd given all the other things it does so well.

Helldivers (via Steam)

#4 - Rocket League

Playing soccer with rocket-powered cars isn't a new concept. In fact, "Rocket League" is a sequel to an unfortunately-named game called "Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars" that I played back on the PS3.

I bring this up because, while I love "Rocket League" and have had lots of fun playing it, it is a bit of a disappointment that the game isn't more technically robust or feature complete than it is. Don't get me wrong. "Rocket League" is a great, fun game but the more one plays, the more noticeable a variety of issues with it become. From sub-optimal matchmaking, to clipping, collision and physics issues, to a scoring system that fails to recognize some of the most important plays on the field, there are a variety of areas where the game can and should be improved, and will ultimately need to improve to justify another sequel.

Of course, the average player will need to spend many hours with "Rocket League" to fully reveal such subtelties and those hours will be filled with the sort of joy that only comes from experiencing something that is inherently fun. Just know that at some point the fun will fade a bit and be replaced with hope for improvement in the future.

Rocket League (via Steam)

#3 - Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Siege

In my opinion, the first-person shooter (FPS) genre has gotten a bit stale over the past few years with various AAA developers and publishers pushing out DOA IPs and annual sequels for franchises whose best iterations are an incrasingly-distant memory. As a consequence, "Rainbow Six: Siege" (Siege) stands out as the only pure FPS released in 2015 that felt at all relevant or noteworthy to me.

I'm not entirely sure if I like this game so much because it's genuinely great or am just so happy to have some new (or at least not seen in a big-budget title in a while) FPS mechanics to play with. I'm also not entirely convinced that the game's $60 price point is justified.

Still, I have had quite a bit of fun with Siege and it has managed to push some buttons and scratch some itches for me that haven't been properly stimulated since the FPS glory days of "Battlefield: Bad Company 2," and that should count for something.

#2 - Shadowrun Chronicles - Boston Lockdown

I love turn-based strategy games and I love co-op. So, when "Shadowrun Chronicles–" a game built around those two ideas was announced, I jumped on it with both feet, and eagerly awaited its release as I periodically checked in throughout the development process.

In the end, "Shadowrun Chronicles" is a good game that deserves more love than it gets. Could the gameplay be deeper? Yes. Would it be nice if the production values were higher? Sure, but show me another turn-based, SRPG with four-player co-op that came out for PC in 2015 and I'll give it a few breaks as well.

#1 - Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

For me, "Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain" (MGSV) represents the pinnacle of traditional game design. I struggle– even months after completing the campaign, to think of a better game that I've played in the past few years. That's not to take away from the other games on this list, which are all noteworthy in their own right, but to illustrate just what a fantastic game MGSV really is. Every mechanic, every artistic flourish, every moment of the experience of playing MGSV feels like a love letter both to gamers in general and gaming as a passion and hobby.

The only possible legitimate criticism I could see being leveled against MGSV is that the narrative is a bit uneven and convoluted (even for those familiar with the series) but the bottom line for me is that it never gets in the way of the actual gameplay, and never forces the player to do anything that isn't appropriately contextualized.

Never played a Metal Gear Solid game before? Doesn't matter. If you love games, this is one you need to play.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

A Content Creator's Perspective on YouTube Gaming

There's no doubt about it. People like watching video-game-related content. Be it pre-recorded videos on YouTube or live streams on Twitch, the popularity of such content has steadily risen over the past few years, and shows no sign of ebbing.

From a content creator's perspective, it used to be a simple equation: Live stream on Twitch and post highlights or more highly-produced, pre-recorded videos on YouTube.

That's pretty much the way things have been for the past five years or more.

Now, in the wake of Amazon's acquisition of Twitch, Google (YouTube) has gotten rather serious about trying to grab a slice of the live streaming pie where gaming-themed content is concerned.

This has led to the creation of YouTube Gaming– a sort-of sub-site to YouTube proper, which sports a radically-different user experience to what folks have come to expect from YouTube up to this point.
 So, is YouTube Gaming the future? Should Twitch be worried? I decided to spend a few days kicking the tires of the YouTube Gaming beta to see for myself.

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly and the Awesome

The following points represent the major (or at least noteworthy) conclusions I've come to regarding YouTube Gaming after using it to live stream for about a week. As it is clearly a product that is intended to directly compete with Twitch's live streaming platform, I will not be shying away from direct comparisons of the two systems.

My findings are as follows:

#1 - 9,000 kb/s streaming is amazing, when it works

The 3,000-3,500 kb/s upload limit on Twitch streams (depending on various circumstances) has long been a source of concern among those streamers striving to produce high-quality 1080p, 60 FPS content on Twitch.

YouTube Gaming comes out swinging with support for 9,000 kb/s video encodes, which look absolutely amazing by comparison to what we've all become accustomed to seeing on Twitch.

There are, however, some problems with 9k streaming. For one, videos generated from streams at said bitrate occasionally contain minor video and audio artifacts that weren't present when the stream was live. I've personally seen brief skipping or stuttering audio and video as well as audio drop-outs of 1-3 seconds at seemingly-random intervals in videos generated by 9k streams.

While rare, these issues were noticeable and were enough to discourage me from using the full 9k bitrate option on a regular basis until they can be completely eliminated.

The good news is that values from 3,500 up to and including 7,000 kb/s produce great, consistent results that easily exceed the quality levels we've all come to expect from Twitch streams.

Without a doubt, this support for higher encoding bit rates is YouTube Gaming's biggest advantage over Twitch in its current form– even if 7-9k encoded streams appear to stretch the system's capabilities a bit past the red line at present.

#2 - OBS is A-OK

Reconfiguring OBS to work with YouTube Gaming is a snap if you already have it set up for streaming on Twitch. Simply change the "Streaming Service" to "YouTube / YouTube Gaming," enter your YouTube Gaming stream key and set your "Max Bitrate (kb/s)" in the "Encoding" section of the OBS settings panel and you should be good to go. Took me less than a minute.

#3 - Everything is awesome until the stream ends

The web-based interface for monitoring and controlling YouTube Gaming streams is pretty solid and compares favorably to what folks have come to expect from the Twitch Dashboard. When your stream goes live, you get almost instant updates on stream health, stream duration, current viewers and access to your chat and stream properties without any need to refresh the page. 

I have to say that I immediately felt comfortable and in control of the streaming process from the interface and appreciated the clear and easy to read indicators for the vital information I just mentioned.

The problem for me occurs once the stream ends and the VoD (Video on Demand) for it is not immediately available on my YouTube or YouTube Gaming channels. There is instead a lengthy "Processing" phase that the video must go through as if it were uploaded from an external source before it is then automatically made public on the channel page. This can take several hours or even days depending on how long the stream was and the encoding bitrate used. As you might imagine, higher bitrate streams take much longer to process, which is another reason why I find myself shying away from the 8-9k bitrates as I use the system more and more.

I can't help but find it ironic that I am easily able to get VoDs and highlights from my Twitch streams onto my YouTube channel faster then I can get VoDs and highlights from YouTube Gaming streams to it. Obviously, this can and should be addressed. 

On a similar note, the time it takes to "Trim" a video using YouTube's video enhancement option to for example cut out the first 10-20 minutes of a stream intro so the VoD/highlight can start with actual gameplay/commentary is absolutely ridiculous and not at all practical from a content-creation standpoint as compared to how those same functions work on Twitch.

On the bright side, YouTube gaming does provide a clever mechanism whereby streams that are stopped then resumed without the stream description being updated are automatically merged into a single video. This is handy when the stream has to be temporally stopped for a streaming software reset or system reboot and prevents you from ending up with several VoDs for the same stream in such cases.


YouTube Gaming is in a bit of an odd place at the moment. On one hand, it has a few key advantages over what Twitch has to offer from a content creation standpoint. Unfortunately, with the exception of the ability to host higher bitrate streams, I don't see anything happening on YouTube Gaming that Twitch couldn't easily duplicate or ideally improve upon with minimal effort.

To me, the big miss with YouTube Gaming is how clunky and time-consuming the process of working with the video generated by a given live stream is. While both systems currently allow viewers to go back to the beginning and watch a stream in progress, on Twitch, the VoDs from my streams are immediately available to watch on my channel even before the stream ends and highlights are similarly immediately available for viewing as soon as I create them. How this is not the case on YouTube/YouTube Gaming is perhaps the biggest problem I have with the whole system in its current form. It simply does not compare favorably or meet my expectations as a content creator who is accustomed to having such features for years now on Twitch.

Having said all that, I like YouTube Gaming. I like it because it's just the sort of competition Twitch needs to keep a fire under its ass– the sort of thing that can and should motivate the company to keep improving and reaching beyond what it's already accomplished.

I also wouldn't be at all surprised to see YouTube Gaming evolve quite a bit over the next year or so to give Twitch a real run for its money. Twitch may be out in front at the moment but the gap isn't quite as wide as I thought it was. After spending a week actually using YouTube Gaming, I can absolutely see a future where I might regularly stream to both services or even prefer it over Twitch if the previously-mentioned issues are resolved.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

My Favorite PC Games of 2014

As many of you already know, I've been deeply immersed in the process of creating a new game of my own over the past several months. Prior to that, I was all-but-consumed with my previous non-gaming-related job going all the way back to mid-2013.

As a consequence, I didn't play many games in 2014– or more accurately, I didn't play many games for very long during the past year. I did; however, find a few that managed to really impress and entertain me when I needed it most and I want to call them out here.

Unlike previous years, where I played most everything of significance and felt comfortable making a "Best of" list, I'm simply going to focus on the games I played and ignore the ones I didn't– ergo, a given game's exclusion from this list should not be taken as a comment on its quality.

With all that out of the way, I want to throw out two quick honorable mentions for the PC (Steam) versions of "Dead Rising 3" and "Valkyria Chronicles" that came out in 2014. Even though both games originally shipped in previous years, they're both quite good and deserve a play– especially if you've never played them.

#10 - Meltdown

Good co-op games are generally few and far between in my experience and "Meltdown" is a good, fun co-op game. The premise is pretty simple as you progress through a series of procedurally-generated "space dungeons–" leveling up your character and unlocking new weapons and abilities. There are some interesting little mechanical wrinkles such as cover and some cleverly-designed puzzle-like encounters to boot. Unfortunately, those wrinkles do tend to be overused a bit by the time you see everything the game has to offer but overall, "Meltdown" is a game that fans of co-op, isometric shooters with RPG elements should have in their library.

Meltdown (via Steam)

#9 - Gods Will Be Watching

This is a love it or hate it game. I love it but I can absolutely see how others might not. The core concept involves guiding a group of characters through a series of seven or so scenarios by making what often end up being life and death choices about what should be done with the limited resources available to them. The pixel art visuals and retro audio are well realized though they might not be everyone's cup of tea. The mechanics of the scenarios are generally interesting and often creative– though the trial-and-error nature of the gameplay can be frustrating and (one might argue) excessively cruel. Still, this was one of those rare games that I just couldn't stop playing once I got into it. Ultimately, I include "Gods Will Be Watching" here because I feel it would be a shame for anyone who might enjoy what this game has to offer to miss out on playing it.

#8 - GRID Autosport

In a lot of ways, this is the GRID game I've been waiting for since the series first started. "GRID Autosport" is a racing game with a nice balance between simulation and arcade physics, a good selection of vehicles and tracks to race, and some clever multiplayer options that helped keep it fresh and interesting for me much longer than the average racing game. Unfortunately, a major bug in multiplayer, multi-event Custom Cups with AI that basically killed the game for my group once single races lost their appeal keeps it from appearing higher on the list. I'm still waiting on that patch Codemasters and my offer to buy the season pass if you fix said bug still stands.

GRID Autosport (via Steam)

#7 - ZMR (Zombies Monsters Robots)

Free-to-play games and free-to-play shooters in particular are a dime a dozen these days. The interesting thing about ZMR is not so much what it does but how it does it. The developer/publisher's prior work on "Gears of War" and "Tera" no doubt helped them craft some of the most fun and compelling third-person-shooter gameplay of the year. ZMR isn't a particularly deep game mechanically but there are oodles of options for playing it competitively and cooperatively in a wide range of game modes spanning many diverse environments. The "Monsters vs. Mercs" PvP mode and the "Assault Ops" and "Extinction Ops" PvE modes stood out to me in particular.

#6 - Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft

Like many others, I used to play a lot of "Magic: The Gathering" back in the day. I even still pick up the occasional annual PC game based on that TCG (Trading Card Game) but I haven't really played a TCG seriously in years. "Hearthstone" is a close as I've come to that level of obsessive madness since the 90s. In typical Blizzard fashion, they've managed to craft a perfect little hamster wheel that keeps you coming back over and over and over again until you've managed to wring every last ounce of entertainment value from the game's dead husk. Is "Hearthstone" a good game? Yes. It is; however I can't help feeling a little dirty when I load it because part of me knows that it's playing me as much as I'm playing it.

#5 - Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

As a former "Battlefield" player, I never would have thought that Activision could have done anything to make me want to buy and play another "Call of Duty" (CoD) game. It probably helps that I hadn't seriously played one since "Modern Warfare 2," but setting that aside, I still feel like "Advanced Warfare" is a pretty great game. The exaggerated movement mechanics, the Supply Drops, the game modes and map rotations, and the overall feel of the total package just works. In a lot of ways, "Advanced Warfare" is the most fun I've had with an arcade/twitch FPS since the original "Unreal Tournament" and that's probably all I really need to say.

#4 - Fight the Dragon

Easily the best co-op game of the year, "Fight the Dragon" is in many ways "Adventure Construction Set" for a new generation. At it's core, it's a very Diablo/Torchlight-like gameplay experience, which might be good or bad depending on your point of view. Beyond that, and proper controller support, the real hook to this game is the user-created content and the fantastic tools the developers have created to empower even the least technically-minded players to create and publish said content. There are some mechanical limitations to what can be created with the editor and the pool of ready-made objects and enemies might seem a bit limited but it's nothing short of amazing what folks have already managed to do with what's currently in the game. With continued support from the developer and Steam Workshop functionality already in place, I see myself returning to "Fight the Dragon" on a regular basis.

Fight The Dragon (via Steam)

#3 - This War of Mine

Every so often, a game comes along that really blows me away to the point where I say it's a must-play title regardless of what sorts of games a person typically plays. For me, "This War of Mine" is that game for 2014. As I've said many times, there's no such thing as a perfect game, but this is as close as I've seen anyone come in a while. The basic premise involves guiding a small group of pre-determined and randomly-selected characters as they struggle to survive in a city being occupied by an invading army. Everything about this game is simply exquisite– from the gameplay mechanics, to the visual and auditory presentation, to the gut-wrenching, emotionally-poignant moral dilemas faced by the characters and you as the player. I'm generally not a fan of point and click, side-scrolling games but the user interface in "This War of Mine" is so well implemented and the pacing of the gameplay so deliberate and believable that it completely won me over. The only real problem with this game is that the subject matter is so serious and the manner it's presented in so convincing that I actually find it somewhat draining to play. As a consequence, I couldn't make it my game of the year but believe me when I say that "This War of Mine" is a title that any serious gaming enthusiast should play.

This War of Mine (via Steam)

#2 - Talisman: Digital Edition

Without a doubt, this is the game I got the most enjoyment out of in 2014. I never had the chance to play the actual board game– though I did once see a minor fistfight break out between some guys who were playing it across a room from me back in the day, which oddly enough always made me want to play it more but I digress. For me, "Talisman: Digital Edition" is one of those games that I can play and enjoy in just about any circumstance. There's something about the staggering number of things that can occur during a game (especially with the release of each new expansion pack) that keeps me coming back over and over to see what crazy new madness will happen next. It's true that Talisman is a far from perfect game that's often brutally unfair and unbalanced but there's something endearing about its rough edges that I just can't deny. Looking forward to more expansions and patches (Please continue fixing bugs Nomad!) in 2015.

#1 - The Crew

This is my favorite game of 2014 for one simple reason: More than any other title I played this past year, "The Crew" feels like it was made specifically for me. The open-world driving, the co-op functionality, the not-too-serious/not-too-cheesy story line, even the ridiculous difficulty spikes in certain missions all combine to make a game that compels me to play it. Am I always having fun when I'm playing "The Crew?" No. Sometimes it frustrates the hell out of me but if I'm being honest, I kinda like that– not because I enjoy being frustrated but because the overall game is good enough that I feel justified investing in it and pushing myself to be better and overcome the more challenging bits. And that's the magic of "The Crew." The crushingly-dificult parts of the game only work because I care enough about progressing to put the time in to get past them. It also helps that I can actually feel myself becoming better at the game with each hour I put into it. A lot of people complain about the random events and traffic patterns during missions but I see them as a long-term positive because they force you to become a better driver and to not simply memorize where things are going to be in a given scenario. As with most things that are a matter of opinion, I'm sure a lot of people will disagree with this selection but for me, "The Crew" is my favorite PC game of the year.

The Crew (via Steam)