Kotaku recently did an article on the ubiquity of video game adaptations of the Warhammer IP. It's impressive when you consider that since 2014 they have been coming out at the rate of nearly one an month (when you average things out). Rather than rehash what has already been said elsewhere though I'd like to talk a bit about a genre that is seeing a sudden resurgence this year - the 4X.
If you're not familiar with the term, "4X" stands for "X-ray," "Xmas," "Xylophone," and "Xenophobe"...just kidding it actually stands for this. Honestly though, the way this year is shaping up you might want to add another "X" that stands for "eXplosion"; Stardrive 2 just got a major overhaul in the form of DLC, the new Master of Orion entered early access, and Stellaris recently got a release date for May 9th. I should clarify a bit in that "eXplosion" isn't just a matter of timing, but rather a comment on the state of these games. In other words, they're kind of a mess. Stardrive 2 has always been buggy, and while the one-man dev team is working hard to stomp out issues the game still retains its share of glitches. Master of Orion has some really nice presentation, but the programming code underneath is undergoing a lot of revisions in order to address problems with the fundamental gameplay. Stellaris can't be judged simply because it isn't out yet, but given the pedigree of Paradox Development Studio the game will most likely be a serviceable foundation in need of patches, mods and DLC in order to realize its full potential.
Ultimately, I hope all three games turn out great in the end though. Each is an attempt to put their own spin on the genre. Master of Orion is trying to recreate the magic of the past. Stellaris has Paradox's signature grand strategy elements. Meanwhile, Stardrive 2 feels like both the natural evolution and a parody of its predecessors. All this variety makes it a great time to be a fan of 4X games...assuming you have the time to spare for these time sinks. A popular saying among hardcore 4X players is "go big, or go home." For me though it has become more like "go small, or go crazy," with an optional extension to the phrase being "...from lack of sleep and social isolation." Hmmmm...maybe that fifth "X" should stand for "eXpedite."
Growing up, I had a lot of the hot toys of the 80s and 90s; G.I. Joes, Transformers and tons of Legos. One particular toy line that I owned never really earned popular fame, but still to this days holds a special place in my heart - Robotix. Basically they were a collection of plastic pieces that could be interconnected via simple hexagonal male/female hard points. That might sound like nothing more than some oddly shaped building blocks, but what made them interesting was the little battery powered electric motors. I had six of them, four from one set and two from another. With these parts it was possible to construct all sorts of contraptions from wheeled vehicles to grabber claws, and even the robot dinosaurs (which were the default design). I had a lot of fun with Robotix, but like most of my childhood toys, they have been lost to time. Enter the video game equivalent of my former hobby - Besiege.
Essentially, this game is Robotix with unlimited parts and motors. A select list of challenges exist for would-be players. Although, from what I can gather most people don't play the game so much as use it like a tutorial after which they let their imaginations run wild. Some of the creations players have come up with for something as basic as left/right steering are incredibly creative. This game could definitely be a powerful educational tool (at least as an introduction to engineering). Granted, Besiege isn't trying to be completely realistic in that players don't have to worry about what's supplying the power to their creation's wheels and cogs. I think that's fine though since it helps strike a nice balance between respecting physics while still allowing ease of enjoyment.
True to its namesake, Besiege is primary about assaulting fortified locations. However, it does mix thing up from time to time with zones that have unusual objectives. The most clear-cut example that comes to mind it a giant valve that has to be rotated clockwise several times in order to advance to the next area. Personally, I look forward to seeing what the developer throws at the players next.
You can still buy Robotix online. They're a lot more colorful than they used to be, but the parts and motors remain functionally the same. I imagine Besiege too will have largely the same components in the future even if the content changes as the game continues to progress through early access. It has been slow going for the game due to the upgrade to the latest version of the Unity rendering engine. But since that is now finished we might finally get to see some more unlocked continents on the starting selection globe. Until then keep on building you crazy diamonds.
It's always a bit disheartening to see a game's potential held back by what I like to call a mismatch of genre and setting. Case in point Battleship, the video game adaptation of the summer popcorn flick of the same name, was a FPS that had very little to do with its nautical namesake. Granted, even if it had been more focused on naval warfare there's no telling if it would have escaped the jaws of mediocrity. That said there are some games out there that are pretty good, but could have been even better. To illustrate this kind of wasted potential let me present three examples.
Bioshock Infinite initially got rave reviews from most major outlets, but as the excitement died down post-launch there was a significant backlash centered around the interesting setting being wasted on bland FPS mechanics. Critical consensus eventually reached the notion that all the shooting in the game prevented players from really appreciating the unique and beautifully crafted environments. Areas that could have been filled by detailed interactions with characters and objects instead became little more than loot spots or (worse still) flat backdrops for running and gunning. Of course the perception at the time was that had it been an adventure game or puzzle platformer it wouldn't have sold in sufficient numbers to justify the development budget.
Reading quite a few of The Witcher novels has given me a deep appreciation for the complex characters and inventive lore of the setting. The constant deconstruction of tired fantasy tropes only reinforces the overall quality of the storytelling. The games do a good job of preserving the narrative strengths of the series, but I feel like the writing is burdened by shallow RPG elements. There's not a whole lot of role-playing that can be done since Geralt of Rivia is already a fully fleshed out character with his own distinct personality traits. His status as a witcher also lends to a very specific kind of gameplay that limits how much players can customize their experience (particularly with regards to appearance and abilities). While the basic real-time combat is fine, I think it would have been a lot less obtrusive if it had been more The Last of Us than say Dark Souls with less variety.
There's no questioning the impressiveness of the visuals in Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak. Unfortunately, most players won't have very many chances to enjoy all the meticulously crafted scenery outside of cutscenes. There are LPs of this game on Youtube in which every single level is played all the way zoomed out. From the sensors manager screen the gameplay visuals are reduced further to lots of red and green geometric shapes dancing around each other. It's a common problem with RTS games exacerbated by the evermore frantic and intense school of design that dominates the genre. Simply put, it's not a good way to enjoy the setting. The plot also lends itself to a character focused adventure game rather than an emotionally detached RTS. This isn't the empty vastness of outer space here, Kharak is a living, breathing world that deserves to be seen up close and personal (if only the game would give players a chance for them do so).
There are other examples out there, but I think I've made my point; uniquely artistic settings frittered away in order to satisfy business marketing needs. I don't say that simply to bash corporate culture. Rather, I'm trying to encourage developers to maximize the potential of their ideas instead of letting them become marred by the false assumption that homogenization is what gamers really want.
As someone who started playing From Software’s Souls series from its inception, I though Demon’s Souls was a flawed masterpiece and Dark Souls a spiritual sequel that improved on the original in every way. Unfortunately, the franchise started to show signs of fatigue with the release of Dark Souls 2, and Bloodborne (while commendable in many respects) didn’t do enough to distance itself from tired formula. Enter Dark Souls 3, which (if From Software is to be believed) is the final part of the series. While many enthusiastic fans are focused on this last chapter, in what has become a trilogy of dark fantasy action RPGs, I find myself preoccupied with the question of where From Software goes from here.
If anecdotal evidence is any indication, the vast majority of Souls veterans want to see a new IP from the mastermind behind it all - Hidetaka Miyazaki. Sounds great to me, but what kind of game would it be? I think it’s highly unlikely that the studio would make anything other than a third person action adventure game with some kind of RPG elements. That’s just what From Software does. It’s the sort of game those guys knows how to make. So assuming that’s the case, what kind of setting would they create? The well of European fantasy concepts seems to be running bit dry at the moment, but a hard sci-fi setting might be too big of a tonal shift. What if they choose to go somewhere in between?
As it turns out there’s a style of 1950s fiction that came out of Googie and the Art Deco movement called, “Raygun Gothic.” Sometimes it’s also referred to as “the future that never was.” Now, I know there are folks who will read those last two sentences and say, isn’t Flash Gordon and the Jetsons a bit too bright and colorful to be a From Software production? It might be, but there is a dark side to Raygun Gothic as well. Take for example the Necromongers from Chronicles of Riddick or the spacesuits seen in Prometheus, both of these things represent a grimmer aspect of the subgenre. Films such as "Forbidden Planet" or "Tomorrowland," show how places of wonder and beauty can suddenly be transformed into nightmares given substance. There’s an interesting website called Atomic Rockets that uses the Raygun Gothic aesthetic as a jumping off point for explorations into the realm of hard science. It works superbly and I feel like From Software could similarly find a good balance between the two extremes of pulp and the cerebral.
At the very least there’s little need for magic since a big part of Raygun Gothic is technology that fills largely the same role whether it be disintegration beams, energy shields, hover belts, or autonomous machines. The same holds true for fantasy monsters because it’s easy to re-label them as dangerous alien life forms when transplanted to a retro-futuristic setting. Perhaps instead of souls or blood, the universal currency could be some exotic form of matter…say energy crystals?
Back when I was a kid, I used to read a comic strip called Calvin and Hobbs. One of Calvin’s favorite pastimes was to fantasize he had crash-landed on the surface of a desolate alien world teaming with hostile creatures. Being a little boy’s daydream, the story rarely advanced much further than that point, but what if there were the ruins of an ancient civilization on that world? Or a space pirate’s base of operations? Or the wreckage of another larger crashed spaceship still inhabited by the degenerated descendants of the original crew? Imagine taking that childhood fantasy and projecting it into a video game similar to Dark Souls? I’m not exactly sure what kind of experiences it would provide, but I don’t think it's a stretch to say it would have the level layout of Metriod and the difficulty of Space Ace.