Best of 2016

Better late than never!

I found last year about as good for games as it was reasonable political discourse and beloved celebrities. Hell, my annual top tens, shortened to top fives in recent years, now find themselves shortened to a three-game single-post list – and still there weren’t many notable leftovers. These were basically the only ones that gave me the butterflies that a true GOTY contender should bring.

I enjoyed Fire Emblem Fates but disliked its split across three games; the long-awaited The Last Guardian came close but fell short due to technical issues that were somehow worse than its 2005 predecessor, Shadow of the Colossus, making it my least favourite of the series; Pokémon Go was among my most-played games but I don’t think there’s enough actual game there for me to put it up there with these three; Battlefield 1 was reliably fun and surprisingly polished for a DICE game at launch, but couldn’t hold my interest for long. I liked Project X Zone 2 as well, but I can’t ignore the fact that its main hook for me was the presence of Ryo Hazuki.

With most of my gaming time spent on retro these days, I had worried that my declining interest might have been terminal. But my document listing potential GOTY nominees for 2017 is already longer than the below, and Red Dead Redemption 2 is coming, so maybe it was just a crap year.

3) Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

The most technically impressive reason to own a PS3 continues the pattern on the PS4. Uncharted 4 is stunningly beautiful, as I’m sure you’re aware – probably the closest we’ve come to a playable CG movie, so polished in its performances, cinematics and attention to detail that it makes everything else look amateurish. Frankly the visuals would have been enough to drag me through it, but it’s one of the strongest adventures in the series, and deserves credit for being the only mainline Uncharted game not to shit the bed with annoying supernatural enemies in the final act.

That said, I’ll be disappointed if we get Uncharted 5. ND’s done well to wring another top release out of this series and I’d like to see it turn those remarkable skills to something new.

2) The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine

Yes, one third of my already-truncated list is an expansion. I said it was a bad year.

Blood and Wine, though, is the first expansion in a long time – maybe since the GTA IV episodes – that’s an actual expansion. Not a handful of missions wrapped up in poor-value DLC. It’s new environments – on a similar scale to the already vast original and arguably the most beautiful locale yet – hosting a new scenario, new gameplay styles, new characters, an almost entirely new story.

It’s also probably the best part of the game. It was fun to take part in a smaller adventure, where you’re not fighting for the fate of the universe, that doesn’t use narrowing the focus as an excuse to skimp on the production values.

CD Projekt Red has fast become one of my favourite developers; one that – like Naughty Dog above – commands my full attention simply by announcing a new game. Only this is done without the financial and technical powers of a first-party publisher behind it. Is it simply lower costs of doing business in Eastern Europe, or an unexpectedly vast bounty coming from the admittedly brilliant Good Old Games? Who cares as long as Cyberpunk 2077 can come close to this?

1) Doom

I could probably have guessed at the beginning of 2016 that new releases from Naughty Dog and CD Projekt would be there or thereabouts when I was compiling my favourites of the year, but a new Doom? No way. I don’t think id’s games have been hugely relevant since Doom 3 got overshadowed by Half-Life 2, and the multiplayer and E3 demos didn’t instil confidence.

What I got, though, was a shockingly fun old-school shooter that revelled in its status as a game, and a Doom game at that. It has the visual design of the classroom doodles of a 14-year-old angsty teenager – but that’s a good thing. It’s about speed, responsiveness and blasting demons without only token gestures towards providing depth and a storyline for motivation – but that’s a good thing too. The soundtrack is awesome, no caveats required. The whole thing pressed the buttons I’ve been trying to touch with a recent retro fixation, reminding me why I grew up loving games above any other medium.

It’s brilliant, pure and simple. The excellent Wolfenstein: The New Order – based on an id property but not developed by the studio – reminded us to pay attention, but it was only the herald for the true return of id Software.

A slow year for games

Yesterday’s update on my HTPC was my first post on here since my annual look at the best of the year, a gap of nearly ten months. I must have a lot of exciting games to talk about after such a long hiatus, right? Well, no.

Truthfully, the back end of this site is loaded with unpublished drafts of hands-on impressions of the impressive HTC Vive, the gloriously nostalgic revival Doom, The Witcher 3’s standard-setting expansions, the ridiculously gorgeous Uncharted 4, and even a handful of books. None more than a few paragraphs and all abandoned after my failure to arrange them into a coherent post in time for a timely publication.

Really, though, that about sums up my gaming for the year. There hasn’t been much of it. I’ve played some Doom, Witcher and Rainbow Six over the last couple of evenings, which was my first time on a ‘proper’ game in nearly two months, judging by the timestamp on my Doom save. I moved to a new flat in December and sold a lot of the family silver to pay for that, so even my collection looks threadbare and shorn of its crown jewels. Invitations from gaming friends to arrange a game in Battlefield 1 this weekend have been rejected because I haven’t even bothered to preorder it. I’m helping my girlfriend move house in preference to playing a new Battlefield. What’s happening? It’s like I’ve become an adult or something. *shudder*

I’ve been one of those people who talks about games more than actually plays them for a while now, and this indifference has recently acquired a pining for the old days and a cynicism of what now constitutes a game. An occasional release will pique my interest and bring me out of retirement – Persona 5, Red Dead 2, The Last Guardian and, of course, Shenmue III are a few that will do that over the next couple of years – but I now struggle to put together a top ten for the year simply because I haven’t played that many games.

Don’t expect things to change any time soon. My only preorder for the rest of the year is for a Nintendo Classic Mini, after all. But I’m still here, and I’m going to keep posting.

HTPC update

It’s been a couple of years since I moved my wall of discs to a NAS/Kodi setup and it’s worked admirably, growing as I added storage capacity to its current peak at 16TB. The onward march of technology, however, has uncovered a few cut corners that I’ve taken the opportunity to fix.

New hardware

Intel D34010WYKThe first is a simple lack of horsepower. HEVC is here and I’d like to use it, but my Zbox drops frames even at DVD resolutions. What’s more, the old AMD chipset is no longer really supported, so the recently lost ability to play VC-1 smoothly looks unlikely to come back. I wanted HEVC and I wanted good Linux driver support, which means I wanted an Intel chip.

Add to my list of problems to solve the inability to turn on my HTPC with my Harmony remote and the lack of hardware support for bitstreaming HD audio to my receiver (those pesky AMD Linux drivers again), both of which would handily be fixed by switching to Intel. I therefore picked up an Intel D34010WYK NUC used on eBay for only £142 shipped. It came ready to go and the Haswell (2013) Core i3 CPU was more than capable of meeting my needs. It even came with Windows 10 installed.

I’ve recently acquired a Raspberry Pi 3 and tested that out to see whether a £30 computer was up to the task, something I dismissed out of hand during my original build. Perhaps the fact that I went on to buy a NUC answers that question. The Pi’s media playback performance is impeccable, handling my 1:1 Blu-ray rips without a single dropped frame. It chugged massively when browsing my library, however, with dozens of high-res movie posters on-screen at once being a big ask for a device with only 1GB of RAM. And, frankly, once you’ve added a nice case, a messy external IR adaptor, power cables, codec licences, etc, the price difference starts to shrink.

Updated software

LibreELEC logoFirst task, of course, was wiping out Windows 10, saving the key for future use. Massive overkill and much more effort to maintain than a purpose-built media centre OS. My software of choice, XBMC, is now Kodi, and OpenELEC has been supplanted by its better-supported fork, LibreELEC, which works in exactly the same way. I don’t want this to do anything but act as a media centre, so a Linux-based JeOS suits perfectly. If you wanted a bit more flexibility without Windows, Kodibuntu is another option – it’s worked well in my testing, allowing you to quit Kodi for a standard Linux desktop.

I’d only recently become aware of the LibreELEC fork, when trying to find out why OpenELEC was lagging behind standalone Kodi – it hasn’t had a stable release since February and hasn’t yet updated to Kodi 16, even as version 17 nears release. Most of your developers jumping ship will do that, I guess. LibreELEC is getting more regular updates and isn’t constantly trying to sell you crappy embedded boxes. Double win.

Problems solved?

The NUC’s performance has really impressed me. It boots within seconds and turns on and off with a command from my Harmony hub. Navigating the menus is much snappier than the Zbox, thanks to the boost in horsepower and the move from an old HDD salvaged from a launch PS3 to a shiny new mSATA drive. And, most importantly of all for my purposes, it’s able to run everything I’ve thrown at it, up to and including Blu-ray quality HEVC samples and those VC-1 rips that the old AMD chipset stopped liking. This should keep me well into the 4K generation.

What’s more, it’s able to bitstream HD audio to my receiver, lighting up that lovely DTS-HD or Dolby TrueHD light and saving the trouble of converting my rips to FLAC. The whole thing feels more like a purpose-built media centre than a repurposed PC.

It’s still perfectly possible to build a media centre that will meet the requirements of 99% of users with cheaper hardware. Indeed, those who only want to digitise their modest DVD collection and aren’t fussed about perfect quality from their Blu-ray rips will be more than happy with a Raspberry Pi 3, which is probably only a couple of generations away from matching my NUC in multimedia performance. What this has shown me is that it’s not a huge investment to reproduce the experience of a dedicated set-top box with only middling hardware and free software.

My Pi, meanwhile, is to become a retro emulation box with RetroPie. More on that soon!

Best of 2015 #1: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

The Witcher 3: Wild HuntWhen I finished The Witcher 3, for the first time in a while, I was left with the feeling that my most anticipated game of the year had knocked it out of the park. I’d expected great things, having loved the previous game and enjoyed the books too, but The Witcher 3 turned out to be a genuine, unequivocal masterpiece that puts similar games from bigger developers to shame.

I love how The Witcher 3 not only seems to invite the comparisons with Skyrim but revels in them once you get to Skellige, a cold, mountainous and Nordic land ruled by jarls and peppered with ruins to explore and dragons forktails to kill. And The Witcher does it with an astonishing breadth of content that belies how little it cost, every quest offering its own plot arc and well-acted, well-voiced characters – a far cry from Skyrim’s endless treks to identikit dungeons on the orders of barely animated automatons.

A truly good game shouldn’t be defined by its competition, though. This game is put together with confidence, from the writing – it’s come a long way from the stunted script of the first game – to its treatment of difficult subject matter. I didn’t feel like any of the list of touchy subjects, from abortion to spousal abuse via racism and persecution, were given superficial coverage here.

What could be described as the typical fantasy fare, too, is interesting. CD Projekt Red delved deeper into real-world mythology than is typical – elves and dwarves are relegated to side characters while you’ll face obscure creatures from Eastern European and Asian folklore like djinn and the fabulously creepy – particularly when you stumble upon them when you’re woefully under-levelled, as I did – leshies. I mentioned before, apropos Metro 2033, that I often find Eastern European takes on sci-fi and fantasy refreshing next to the predictable English-language offerings around at the moment, and the Witcher series is a big part of that.

It took me months to get through The Witcher 3’s main campaign, and it’s still in my PS4’s drive as I find new secrets and work my way through the first and smallest expansion – and CDPR’s positive approach to DLC in these cynical times deserves commendation on its own. Sadly I don’t think I’ll be able to justify the gorgeous Blood and Wine expansion as a contender for the Best of 2016, but I suspect it wouldn’t be undeserved. A superb game.

Best of 2015 #2: Bloodborne

BloodborneI’m still yet to get further than about ten hours into a Souls game, and that trend continues with this spiritual sequel. I’m afraid I just don’t have the nerves, nor the patience, for it these days. But even if I couldn’t get to the end, this is probably my favourite of the lot.

It’s slicker and significantly less janky, more focused on timing, aggression and combat skill than skulking along behind a shield. Also gone is the medieval European fantasy setting, which had its own take on the style but inevitably felt limited because, honestly, what is there left to do with knights and dragons?

I’d been saying for a long time that Assassin’s Creed should do Victorian London, and in the year that it happened, this did it better. This isn’t precisely Victorian London, of course – more like the comic book take on that era of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies crossed with a dash of Lovecraft – but it’s really wonderful. Oppressive, frightening, unique and filled with much more personality for that unique brand of minimalist storytelling than swords and sorcery.

The one prediction I can make about Dark Souls III with reasonable certainty is that I won’t finish it. But although that’s not a criticism in my case, what may be is that I’m far less interested in another romp through ruined castles after playing this.