You can have some games, as a treat

I haven’t written anything about my recent gaming since… well, my end-of-year post. So I should probably rectify that.

As indicated in the recap, I was at that point making my way through the Gears of War series on the Xbox Series X. I’m not entirely sure they’re designed to be shotgunned one after the other, but that’s apparently the way I roll, so I inhaled more brown swampy palettes and homoerotic cover shooting than any one person should have to deal with.

And I guess it was… OK? I never really got into the games when they were first released, so I’m not viewing them with the rose-tinted steampunk goggles that other players might. They were capable games, and there is no small amount of satisfaction found in the bug-shooting rampages that go on, but I can’t say I was particularly over enthused.

Mind you, they’re the gaming equivalent of a high concept flick: something to plough through without too much thought. No, they’re not as enjoyable as Starship Troopers (what is?) but they’re fine. I can’t see myself going back to them, however, despite the please-keep-playing-our-game mechanics they’ve shoehorned into the fifth edition.

I continued with the play-an-old-series-in-order kind of deal by playing some Call of Juarez next. I skipped the first (as I’ve played it a number of times now, because it was one of the things that would run on an old potato of a Dell I owned when it came out) and went on to the second, American Civil War-period game. Again, serviceable. I’d forgotten that it was a cover shooter, so the experience was basically Gears of War with more spittoons and old-timey language.

It hadn’t aged as badly as I’d expected, but following it up with CoJ: Gunslinger really showed the cracks in the gameplay, even though Gunslinger suffers from a big dose of linearity as well.

Yee and ha? Colour me sold.

What I didn’t get through was Call of Juarez: The Cartel, the attempt to modernise the series by adding a lot of supposedly in your face attitude was… underwhelming. So underwhelming, in fact, that I noped out of the game within about 15 minutes, after the opening sequence (and dick-swinging character introduction briefing) robbed me of my will to live.

Given that I am a man who is not averse to playing games where you date pigeons or tanks, I suppose the bar for enjoyment is, well, low, and so to have a game limbo under that so quickly is fairly remarkable.

I mentioned the Xbox earlier, because it seems it’s what I’ve been doing most of my playing on of late. I upgraded to the Series X late last year thanks to a deal with my telco, and it seems to have been a good choice. I’d probably have preferred a PS5, given how much I dig the exclusives on that console, but they are rarer than rooster choppers and seem to have fuck-all games available at present, so… the GatesBox it’s been.

Part of the deal with the console I have is an included membership to Game Pass, the subscription service Microsoft have been pushing with this generation. It’s pretty incredible, and at this point makes Playstation Plus (which I also receive) look like the sibling that’s been kept locked in a garret for some time. The range of titles is only set to expand – and bear in mind they added another sixty titles just the other day – as the organisation continues to buy up studios the way poseurs nab NFTs.

(Also, the entirety of the Yakuza series which – you will remember – I fuckin’ love, will be playable on Game Pass by the end of this month. I’m absolutely going to go from zero to seven on the black monolith in these winter months, given that it’s unlikely I’ll be able to do so on the PS5 until closer towards the end of the year.)

Anyway, the point is that games are continually coming and going from the service, so it allows me to try things I might otherwise purchase and put on my unplayed pile of shame (hello, Steam) without forking out anything more than the subscription. So I’ve taken a punt on things that have seemed cool.

First up was Night Call, a detective game.

Of course there’s smoking. It’s illegal to set anything in Paris without it.

The setup is simple: you’re a taxi driver with a background you’d rather not have explored. A murderer is stalking the streets of the metropolis, and turns out they’ve been in your cab: you’re the only survivor of an attack. You’re enlisted in the hunt for the killer, though you can remember nothing, and the detective running you wants answers… or else.

The gameplay is pretty simple: you travel to various locations and quiz people about things that could relate to the murders. After your evening shift, you spend some time at home with your cork board, trying to figure which stories you’ve heard point towards which suspect. Eventually, you’ll have to make a call and see if your hunches have paid off.

There’s a couple of stories to choose from, though they are all set up in the same way: you escape a killer’s clutches and are roped into investigation. I played each of them – they take a couple of hours each – and found them to be worthwhile. I didn’t have much in the way of errors or bugs in my play through, but I think the game comes closer to visual novel than walking simulator. The murder stories are well told, but for me the real joy of the game was randomly picking up passers-by and having cabbie conversations with them.

Daft Punk are Antifa.

There’s a lot to be said for the writing in this part of the game: the developers obviously wanted to move the story along at all times, but they’ve also allowed a bit of mindless mindfulness. The game leans into the oddness of conversations on the way home from a night out, and allow relationships with characters to deepen if you happen to give them rides more than once. The storytelling in these vignettes – from the travails of a vigilante, to the worries of parents-to-be, the thoughts of a movie buff and the tender nature of relationships under strain – is great, and I felt like the city was full of people rather than avatars.

There’s a very filmic feel to the game, with conversations accompanied by passing bridges, or rain on streets, with occasional splashes of colour to highlight the world in a kind of Frank Miller glow. I enjoyed it a great deal, even if I don’t see a huge amount of replayability. (I must admit that I’m keen to talk to all the passengers, though.)

Never trust a raccoon, dude.

Another short and sweet game I played was Donut County, which is a puzzler that could well be the anti-Katamari. It’s simple: you manipulate a hole (much like the kind of Portable Hole you find in cartoons) and attempt to make things fall into it.

It’s addictive and doesn’t outstay its welcome. Also, the story is kinda conspiratorial, and relies on misunderstanding what a donut is, all described in language that seems to have been borrowed wholesale from a 15-year-old grommet. It’s ridiculously enjoyable, and the fact that this is a project created by one person from beginning to end makes me wonder what the fuck I’m doing with my life.

More games with raccoons in them, thanks!

Call of the Sea was another Game Pass discovery that chewed up a dozen-ish hours in a pleasantly eldritch kind of way. I don’t particularly want to say too much about the story, other than that it starts off as a missing person thing and ends up going in another, weirder direction. Developed in Spain, the translation only has a couple of clunkers, and certainly not enough to put a dent in the immersion.

There’s a lot of the linear walking simulator in this game, but I do enjoy playing something that tells a story and tells it well, which this does. There’ll be a certain point at which Nora Everhart’s quest sparks an AHA! moment, but it’s a proper two-fisted tale with some puzzling attached. I found the ending more satisfying (and touching, honestly) than I had expected, and it was lovely to play something with a woman as a main character.

Real effort went into ensuring the story was period-appropriate, and while there’s elements of exoticism that can be perceived as troubling (the reduction of some Tahitian-adjacent culture to the realm of the ’30s tiki) it’s a good natured excursion. If you’re into Mythos stuff, give it a whirl.

Amen.

The game I finished today was a fair way from steamers and islands. Deliver Us The Moon is a game I’d initially backed on Kickstarter, but ended up playing only when it came up on Game Pass. It’s about a ten hours of sci-fi puzzle solving which is brilliant when things go well, and frustrating as shit when they don’t. (A function, I think, of a relatively small design team.)

In The Future, humans have fucked the planet, and so a bunch of lunar colonists use the Moon as a place to mine newly-discovered Helium3. The energy this element creates is then sent back to Earth using an enormous transmitter, in the hope that we’ll finally stop using carbon-based power stations and, you know, not die from the enormous dust storms travelling the planet’s face.

This works fine for a time until Weird Shit Happens and the lunar transmitter goes offline. It’s a catastrophe, and that’s where you come in. Some time later, you’re the sole astronaut who’s sent up there, in the hope of restoring the energy connection. (And to discover what the fuck went on.) Additionally, your dad was a prime mover up there, so… family reunion?

I was in the neighbourhood and figured we should catch up.

There’s a bunch of mechanics at work in the game. While there’s a lot of typical here’s-a-recorded-message exposition, you do get to discover things on your own. You also get to launch a rocket, drive a lunar rover and hope like fuck that you can hold your breath long enough to survive some oxygen-free periods.

Most of these are done pretty well, but I felt the developers really nailed the weightless sections. The confusion that marks such gravity-free situations is real, and it’s easy to become disoriented. It feels properly science fiction, finally, moreso than a lot of other space-based games I’ve played.

The story is standard SF fare, but it’s done well. There’s a creeping sense of dread, and the fragility of your life mirrors that of the world below – you have to get things done, and the encroaching worry, the what-do-I-do? conversations drive things forward. It’s a shame that this is undercut at times by puzzles that don’t necessarily make sense, and by some lacklustre jumping puzzles. (These aren’t dealbreakers, but there were moments through the game where what I was supposed to do wasn’t adequately flagged, leaving me frustratingly unable to move forward.)

In space, no-one can hear you SHIT FUCK WHAT THE CHRIST?

Again, this is a game by a small devteam, and what it does right – the design, the soundtrack, the feel – it does superbly. I figure that’s enough to outweigh the frustrations that I ran into during my play through. Give it a try if some grim SF is your thing.

(I might play it again to nab all the Easter eggs hidden inside. Just not yet.)

The other two games I’ve been playing on and off are Genshin Impact and Destiny 2. GI is everything you’d expect from a team that describes themselves as otakus – think big boobs, flirtatiousness and the kind of putting-stuff-together system that will give you a headache if you think about it too much.

Exactly like you imagined.

And Destiny 2?

Well. I’ve previously written about playing the game, and I wasn’t that big a fan.

I decided to give it another whirl – again because the latest expansion was included in Game Pass – and so I dived in, even stumping up the small amount for this season’s pass. I created a new character (I’d previously played on PS4, though now the game is cross-platform) and started from the beginning.

Pictured: grinding.

And I didn’t hate it?

Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a paucity of narrative, or at least a pauctity of narrative that’s not locked behind missions of the “go and kill 5000 of baddie x and then report back for an update” variety. But I’m enjoying the grind a little more than I did previously, and I’m finding that the addition of a “dark” energy provided a nice counterpoint to what I’d experienced previously.

I am, however, concerned that the game still relies on convincing the player to log in daily to keep up, and the feeling that one is playing to keep numbers going upwards rather than for a sense of enjoyment is worrying. I’m not entirely sure I’ll keep playing beyond this season, but if there’s some gee-whiz moments that reel me in as they unveil more narrative (which occurs weekly), then I may well.

(I’m still shithouse at multiplayer, though.)

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