Probably not the last time this shows up in our countdown

The End of Year Hullabaloo: Top five games of 2018, Number 3

It’s time for our #3 games of 2018, which means that I only have a couple more days of pre-made content that I can just cut/paste while smoking big cigars [Dave doesn’t smoke -ed.] and sipping scotch [Dave doesn’t drink -ed.]. Then it’s back to the hard work that is running these digs [Dave definitely doesn’t work -ed.]. Anyway, that’s next weeks problem [Dave does have a lot of problems -ed.], so let’s get to today’s batch of goodies.

Alex Connolly #3: Kenshi

Lo-Fi Games‘ futureworld pastiche has finally left Early Access. I’ve been playing on and off for years, from its early days when shunted quietly out in pre-release form. Something of this scope shouldn’t work. But it does. A sweeping adventure of your own making. It’s STALKER, Egosoft’s X; the rarity of ambition being a promise delivered.

Much like the aforementioned, Kenshi delivers an indifferent atmosphere that doesn’t require you to be the linchpin of world events. This is a place that doesn’t care for or about you. You’re just some grit-ridden bum, and if you get brained by marauders behind that dune, nobody would notice. At least, not until you start making your mark. Time spent with endless fresh builds in pre-release has had me on all sorts of crazy jaunts, growing retinues of warrior bodyguards, or starting up a trading house and building caravans to traverse the desert. Clashes in mountain passes between parties, fights that go on for hours. Or merely being the Lady Luck’s favourite and finding the remnants of a group, come to grief in the open sands. Loot, loot, loot.

This is open-ended sandbox gaming at its finest. No triple-A production values needed, though Kenshi has a beauty all of its own. Intricate systems, the likes of which are often reserved for the marathon development cycles of traditional roguelikes. Again, this speaks to Kenshi’s breadth of possibility. If you think you can, there’s a fair chance you might just pull it off.

Kelsey Rinella #3: Into the Breach

FTL was great. Into the Breach is better—more tactical, less random (well, somewhat less random, anyway), and it has mechs. My only disappointment with Into the Breach is that many of the unlocks, which provide the principle reward, become scarce and reliant on good fortune later in the game. While the spatial puzzles which battles present are excellent, what makes them feel so important is the control you’re able to exert over the tools you bring to them. Different teams of mechs play immensely differently, and can be upgraded into a wide variety of roles with numerous opportunities for clever plays.

Nick Houghtaling #3: Dead Cells

Dead Cells is platforming roguelite action at its absolute best. It’s one of the very few Early Access games that made me wonder “how the hell are they going to improve on this?” Somehow, they did.

It’s got your basic do a run, die, repeat structure. But where it really shines is how flawless the movement and combat systems are. There has rarely been a moment in the game where I have died and thought to myself “that was the game’s fault, not mine!” The dev team has done a great job tightening up the controls into something that is quite fun to play.

And there are many ways to play in Dead Cells. It all depends on the weapons and spells you find along the way. One run, it may be a dagger that does a three hit combo, the third hit being a critical hit. On another, you may get an ice bow that freezes your enemies. The way you play the game is going to be dictated by these many permutations.

It’s all tied together by the traditional roguelite structure of making a small amount of progress towards upgrades that will make future-you’s job slightly easier. I’d be hard pressed to think of a more polished, replayable game that I experienced this year.

Tanner Hendrickson #3: Return of the Obra Dinn

Return of the Obra Dinn has my favorite moment of any game I played this year. It wasn’t a line of dialog or specific puzzle. It was the moment at the very beginning where I grasped exactly what the game was asking of me, and my brain immediately began racing through all the possible directions the game could go with that concept. I started laughing. Obra Dinn goes in all of those directions, and more, to the point where I don’t know if it can be followed up. Or if it should be followed up. There’s no other game that’s made me feel like a detective like Obra Dinn did, and the novelty of it all goes a very long way. I find myself torn between wanting more and also knowing that it’ll probably never be as good as the first time. Of course, Lukas Pope might have some genius idea to advance this microgenre. That’s why he’s a successful game developer and I just nitpick games in my spare time. But the ride is incredible while it lasts, and should be experienced by anyone with a passing interest in logic puzzles, insurance adjustment, or extremely cursed nautical voyages. Just be sure to savor the experience.

(Also, it’s some real horse hockey that you can’t navigate via the book. The ship is a marvel of a virtual space, and walking every where is part of what sells it as a real place, but keeping track of the vignettes in the last third of the game is a nightmare. You have a magic pocketwatch that shows you deathscapes from corpses! The book can be magic too, just let me click on the pages to go the vignettes! Okay, that’s it. That’s my one problem with the game. When the rest of the game is so good, the very few problems stand out more. You should still play it.)

Tof Eklund #3: Battletech

Flawed games often fail to make best-of lists regardless of their other strengths, something I think of as the “five and fail” rule, after the style of grading papers that takes a full letter grade off for every grammatical error, and stops grading at the fifth error (because the paper is an automatic fail at that point). I don’t grade my students work that way, and I don’t review games that way either.

When Harebrained Schemes‘ Battletech launched, it was a hot mess. Performance issues out the wazoo, and while they’ve make a lot of improvements since then, some people still find that it runs crazy hot or stutters on what should be solidly sufficient hardware. YMMV. What makes Battletech a winner in my book is that it is pretty-much the best Battletech game possible. The Mechwarrior games have generally done an excellent job with the ponderous mechs and political fractiousness of the venerable and underrated Battletech setting, but Hairbrained’s Battletech is a homecoming similar to the way Baldur’s Gate brought D&D games back to D&D.

Tabletop Battletech has always been chockablock with different mechs in a pretty wild range of designs, and in my experience one could easily spend more time tinkering with one’s mechs than actually fighting with them. Only Steve Jackson Games’ Car Wars took more pleasure in the details: as I recall, that game allowed you to purchase different kinds of headlights that would promptly get shot out, and included rules for mixing and matching different kinds of tires (steel-belted, racing, reinforced, solid rubber…), even though doing so was an undeniably bad idea. Some people hate this degree of micro-management, and rightly so. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I love it. Balancing my desire to strip and refit all of my mechs after every battle with the cost and, often more critical, time it takes to do so was exquisite torture for me: I could really get into a fleet maintenance game built around those opportunity costs.

I deeply appreciate clean, tightly designed games, but I fall in love with baroque, messy ones. Battletech’s faithfulness to tabletop embraces this in every aspect. There’s the completely bananas set of options for outfitting your mechs, the quest for rare higher-grade parts and weapons, and the best use of a random to-hit table in gaming. In Battletech, everyone’s targeting systems are Imperial surplus. Such targeting! So precise! This is why battlemechs are better than tanks: heavy tanks can mount utterly devastating weapon payloads, but their lack of hit locations (just a few per facing) makes them extremely vulnerable to concentrated fire.

This much RNG gives some people hives, but it gives Battletech a betting and bluffing mechanic and strategic placement mechanics that couldn’t possibly be more different from those of Into the Breach. In Battletech, sometimes the best thing you can do is turn your back to the enemy, sometimes your support mech and your “tank” (in the MMORPG sense) have to switch roles, and there are enough “hail Mary” plays that the right calculated risk can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat or render a victory suddenly Pyrrhic. That’s what kept me playing a game that some would have excluded from GOTY candidacy on release day. …it also didn’t hurt that this is, AFAIK, the only AAA game out this year that let me create a non-binary avatar.

Nick Vigdahl #3: Card Quest

If you’re one to judge a book by its cover, or a game by its art, you’d probably pass on Card Quest. I did too, initially, but circled back to it and am quite glad I did. The art is poor and there are some questionable UI decisions, but clever design and entertaining gameplay not only save Card Quest but make it one of the best games of the year. Despite the mundane name, Card Quest is more of an intriguing set of tactical puzzles than a true card game. You pick an adventurer—wizard, rogue, warrior, or hunter—each of which has a deck full of class-appropriate cards to use in a series of combat encounters against packs of deadly foes. Each encounter forces you to determine how best to use your cards and other resources to avoid getting your ass handed to you. As you win you gain better weapons, magic, and gear—some of which is persistent across different games and all of which is necessary to surmount an ever-escalating level of challenge. Once you figure out a style that works for you and unlock better cards, Card Quest is very rewarding and a ton of fun.

Dave’s #3: Civilization VI for iOS/Switch

I thought long and hard about making this my #1 game of 2018–it released on December 20, 2017, just inside the December 1st cutoff–mainly because no other game on my iPad has seen as much play. For a year now, I’ve had games of Civ VI running back to back on my iPad. I’m still amazed they managed to cram a game of this size onto a tablet, sacrificing only leader and wonder animations along the way. There’s not much more to say; this is the full Civ experience on the go, which is all I’ve ever wanted. Speaking of on the go, the fact that it’s available on both iPhone and Switch is another big plus. The iPhone version UI changes are masterful, making a game that shouldn’t work on a 3.5″ screen work perfectly. The Switch version has horrendous loading times (if I’m hearing the entirety of Sean Bean’s leader intro before I can enter the game, something’s wrong), but does include leader and wonder animations. Weird, but happy to have it on as many platforms as possible.

The only thing wrong with Civ VI on small(er) screens is the missing content. Rise and Fall has been out for nearly a year, but has still not shown its face on iOS or Switch. Now, Civ VI is a great game even without the expansion, but the iPad and Switch are my preferred platforms and it would be nice to have all the content regardless of where I decide to play. A new expansion is coming to the PC version in February. Here’s hoping we have Rise & Fall before then, and don’t have to wait a year for Gathering Storm to arrive. Also, can we get hotseat in the Switch version, please? The fact that I can’t play with my kids on the big TV really sucks.


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Notable Replies

  1. Are we nearing the point that the editor is writing more than the columnist? :yum:

    Anyways, if I did one of these lists, Dead Cells would absolutely be on it!

  2. Lol had the very same thought here. This mysterious ED seems to be overdosing on his Sickburnometazin drugs lately :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

    Also interesting thoughts on Battletech here. By god I am SO the category of user who would play it 24/7 if not for the fact that “playing” 24/7 would after 10 minutes result in critical meltdown of something in my PC…for whatever reason the game is haunting my hardware on whatever setting - and even if I throw my pc into the neighbor’s ugly snowman for cooling* the game still freezes once or twice each other minute for another half minute.
    Maybe that is an evil/Samaritan move to prevent me from raging more about still not being able to use my favorite mechs in the game?

    *on second thought lets not…

  3. Someone’s gotta make that word quota…

  4. Kolbex says:

    Oh, Kenshi, I want to love you so much. Twenty year old me probably would have loved you so much. Why do you refuse my advances so.

  5. -ed. is in serious need of an ass-kicking.

  6. image

    …close enough…

  7. We were going to fire -ed., but his uncle owns the theater

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