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Truthfully, the back end of this site is loaded with unpublished drafts of hands-on impressions of the impressive HTC Vive, the gloriously nostalgic revival Doom, The Witcher 3’s standard-setting expansions, the ridiculously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.

Best of 2015 #3: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom PainDespite The Phantom Pain facing ardent attempts to undermine it from both Konami’s avarice and Kojima’s lack of restraint, its qualities manage to shine through. And believe me, if the game is still shining after living through this many attempts to torpedo it since release, the core game must be shining pretty damn brightly.

It would have been higher on the list this year were it not for some poor design decisions and an annoying structure. It’s a superb 15-20 hours stretched quite thinly over 50-60 hours, with the second act being mindbogglingly bad in its design. I was wishing for it to hurry up and finish by the end, which even with the best underlying gameplay in the world, is not a good sign.

But when The Phantom Pain is at its best, it’s so, so good. The open world complements an infiltration game incredibly well, dramatically increasing the strategic options in a series that has always been famous for giving you more than one way to complete an objective. Going back to classics like the first game, suddenly the option to go through the front door or the vent doesn’t seem too freeing. Do you go in from the north, south, east or west? Day or night? With a sniper or the dog? By vehicle or on foot? With explosives or silenced weapons? Non-lethal or live rounds? Extract or eliminate?

It’s just a shame when all this variety is used to infiltrate the same encampment for the 12th time. Hopefully whomever is in charge of Kojima now won’t give him such free rein.

Best of 2015 #4: Rocket League

Rocket LeagueConventional sports games haven’t done much for me in a while, the limitations of real sport striking me as unnecessarily restrictive on gameplay design in an effectively limitless medium. Real sport is for playing or watching in real life. If you’re going to turn it into a video game, let me fire a missile at the other participants or take them on with full, 360-degree movement.

Rocket League is grounded in reality – people play competitive games with real RC cars, after all – but, as I like it, with some of the limitations removed. You can boost yourself up walls with rockets, flip through the air, even fly to an extent if you have the patience to master it. This is a sport that I wish really did exist.

Either way, Rocket League was tremendous fun, certainly the best indie game of the year, and thanks to it being given away to PS Plus subscribers, one of the few multiplayer games that isn’t Call of Duty to have maintained a healthy population of players. It’s a fun, accessible party game with split-screen – remember those? As a free game for PSN subscribers it was, of course, a no-brainer, but even at the current price of £9.49 it would be one of my first recommendations for the post-Christmas glut of new PS4 owners.