Immersion

We all have our grails, holy or otherwise, that we spend our lives searching for. Mine are love, travel, reading, theater, a profession (writing) in which I can find fulfillment, and, since so many hours of my days are spent playing computer games, a virtual world that I would never be able to experience within the mundane confines of the construct that we arbitrarily refer to as reality. (Was it Robin Williams who said that reality is overrated? I should have that phrase embroidered and tacked to the wall of my home office, where it can glower down at me whenever the limitations of the so-called real world become inadequate to provide me with all the experiences that I’d like to have time for in the limited days, month and years that remain in the rapidly vanishing time that I expect to remain in this plane of existence. We are all on a one-way trip to death and the nature of the journey that we take to get there is no more or less than what we make of it.)

“Immersion” as a gaming buzzword has become overused to the point where it’s very nearly lost all meaning, but from the moment I bought my first home computer, a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model III, and began to grasp what even its pathetically crude Z80 processor and pixelated video display were capable of, immersion in an imaginary, interactive world became my obsession.

What exactly is immersion? To me, it’s an all-consuming virtual experience that for hours at a time supersedes the world constructed of subatomic particles and the sensory experiences produced by the interaction of those particles with the particles that constitute my sensory apparatus. Computers provide an alternate means of experience that nature is incapable of or unwilling to provide us with, an idealized experience that few of us are likely to encounter away from the computer unless we enlist in the armed services or civilian rescue activities and frankly I’m getting too old for that kind of thing.

Donkey Kong on a TRS-80 Model III

I’m sure that a psychologist would tell me that such escapism is unhealthy, that immersing myself in a virtual world is a drug that releases unearned endorphins that substitute for a life well lived. But in less than two years I’ll be 70 and I live as much life in the real world as I can. The trip that Amy and I took to the United Kingdom in 2017 was a spectacularly energizing experience that I wouldn’t trade for a thousand computer games, but I only have so much time and energy left for vacations like that and for our frequent trips to the theater, most recently to the touring companies of Dear Evan Hansen, Come From Away and that old chestnut Hello, Dolly, not to mention to a recent concert at Disney Hall in Los Angeles for a beautiful program of music reflecting the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

These excursions broaden my life far beyond computer games, and yet computer games are what I keep returning to. These games are an immersive experience that I can keep in a box and when I’m not traipsing across London or watching a stunning recreation of the 7,000 grounded airplane passengers who found themselves in Newfoundland during the September 11, 2001, emergency that grounded air traffic over the North Atlantic for several days (Come from Away), computer games are my go-to form of immersive recreation.

Come from Away

The proximate inspiration for this post is the Ubisoft game Far Cry: New Dawn, though it could just as easily have been Skyrim, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey or any of a dozen other immersive computer games. I count myself lucky to live in a time when real life can be simulated so vividly on a magical electronic machine that it multiplies the experiences that I’ll have in my lifetime so many times over that I’ll live more lives before I die than any generation that came before me. Far Cry: New Dawn pushes so many endorphin buttons that I can’t begin to count them all and is as close to perfection as any computer game I’ve ever played. No doubt I’ll say that again when I play Metro: Exodus or The Outer Worlds or System Shock 3, all of which promise the same kind of immersive experience, but so does the trip to Spain that Amy and I plan to take some day or the books that I have on my Kindle already queued up to be read or the movies and TV shows that Amy and I are already planning to binge.

Yet the best computer games offer a special kind of immersion that can only be duplicated by real life and I’m amazed at how real a game like Far Cry: New Dawn feels. I can’t take a trip to Europe every month, but I can still play games. Say what you will about substituting virtual experience for real experience. It’s something I can enjoy from the comfort of my office chair and it’s a lot less expensive (and physically demanding) than real world adventures. And while I prefer the latter to the former, and New Dawn will fade into the recesses of memory much faster than Europe will, for the brief interval in my lifetime that New Dawn lasts, it brings me tremendous pleasure at a fraction of the cost.

There are many types of immersion. And computer games, thank God, are a kind I can carry with me on a laptop and, with the aid of a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, they offer me worlds that I can explore while sitting in the corner of the local Starbucks while sipping on a warm macchiato. Which is more than you can say for Europe.

Though, in all fairness, the macchiatos in England are a lot better than the ones at Starbucks. Trust me on that.

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The Other Games of 2018

One game in 2018 stood out so prominently from the crowd that I wrote an entire post nominating it as the Game of the Year and possibly of the decade. That was Hitman 2. Frankly, the year was all downhill from there (or before there, but you get what I mean). Still, I played quite a few games in 2018 and even enjoyed some of them, though most of the ones I’d expected to love were, to one degree or another, disappointments. I don’t want 2018 to slip any further behind me before I say at least a little about the most interesting, if not necessarily the best, games among them. Everybody loves a listicle, so I’ll just list them here with commentary. The order is meaningless.

Far Cry 5

I wrote about this game far too enthusiastically back in April. Yes, it was fun. Yes, it had almost all the elements that I enjoy in Ubisoft’s carefully crafted formula, but more than a few that I don’t. You can read what I had to say about it in the link at the beginning of this paragraph, but what finally demolished my enthusiasm for the game (and has left it lingering in my Steam cloud, unplayed since probably May) was its insistence on yanking me out of its open world and sending me off on hallucinatory missions triggered by post-hypnotic suggestion. (My trigger, oddly enough, was the song “Only You” as sung by The Platters and I’ll give the game’s composer credit for incorporating the melody into the incidental music in clever, unconventional ways.)

These missions were non-elective. You couldn’t control when they happened and you couldn’t get out of them once they’d started. It must have taken me at least 20 tries to get through the main hallucinatory mission the final (?) time it was forced upon me and even when I finally escaped from its gunplay-heavy puzzle box I was plunged into a second, even more difficult hallucinatory mission, when all I wanted to do was go back and explore Hope County, Montana, with the help of my circus bear. (Don’t ask.) Far Cry 5 is a game with huge potential as an open-world extravaganza, but it insists on throwing away that potential for the sake of a gimmick that isn’t nearly as clever as the game’s designers seemed to think it is.

Just Cause 4

I had briefly tested the Just Cause waters once before, with the third game, but had found its grappling mechanic so confusing and awkward that I quit before the tutorial was even complete. For some reason, I felt a great deal more comfortable with it this time around, so much so that I went back and played Just Cause 3 for at least a week before I went back to Just Cause 4. Grappling to the top of a tall building in a single bound turns out to be a wonderful kinetic blast and jumping off those buildings to make long aerial excursions by parachute almost equally so, though I can’t seem to maneuver in Rico Rodriguez’s wingsuit for more than a few seconds without taking a quick header into the ground. (The load screens hint that you can do rapid ground skimming with it, though damned if I can figure out how.)

The Just Cause games are deliberately silly, the fourth entry perhaps more than the third. Just Cause 3 opens with a pair of missions where you take a town and an industrial complex away from an evil dictator by blowing up “chaos objects” helpfully marked with red and white stripes. Doing this while zooming around with my grappling hook provided some of the most brainlessly entertaining exercises that I’ve had at my computer since the halcyon days when first-person shooters were still fresh and exciting, and I’ll give the game kudos for those missions alone. But its racing challenges, which you use to get additional perks between missions, are difficult and frustrating. Who cares how far I can fly in that damned wingsuit? I just want to blow up chaos objects. The problem was that it suddenly got hard to find any. One of the characters kept suggesting that I meet him “outside town” to talk about an assignment, but I never actually figured out where “outside town” was. Instead I finally located some more chaos objects at a heavily guarded military base and found myself so busy dodging incoming mortar fire that I completely forgot to enjoy myself. I’m sure there’s something I’m supposed to do first, if only to locate and blow up the damned mortar; maybe when I find out what that thing is, I’ll start enjoying Just Cause 3 a lot more.

In the meantime, I played a bit of the new game, which ups the silliness to the point where I found myself doing zany things, like performing stunts in an overly enthusiastic movie director’s new film, because I couldn’t find anything more substantial to waste my time on. Well, I did find one substantial thing: helping an archaeologist uncover the buried history of the fictional South American country of Solis and this looks like it could turn out to be a long-form quest worth following, but after I finished the first part of the quest it turned out that I had to engage in more silliness before I could get to the quest’s second mission, which is why the game is currently sitting in Steam wondering why I haven’t come back to play it. I will, eventually, but I’m too busy right now replaying Hitman 2 on both my PC and XBox One, to be bothered.

Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey

I started playing Ubisoft’s previous Assassin’s Creed game, AC: Origins, in 2017 and thought it had promise. Last summer I played it for real and found that it did a very good job of keeping that promise. Ubisoft has retooled the AC games as full-blown open-world RPGs and Origins is a lot more fun than the previous game in the series, Syndicate, which had some RPG features and a nifty replica of Victorian-era London for the characters, sibling assassins Jacob and Evie Frye, to romp around in, killing off Templars and jumping off fast-travel towers all over a map of the city and its surroundings. (The city of London is actually a great deal smaller than the area that we typically refer to as London, consisting to this day primarily of the banking district, which is one of the dullest parts of town.) But the game got monotonous fast and pretty soon I grew tired of running missions for historical figures like Alexander Graham Bell, Charles Darwin and Karl Marx out of my lavishly decorated private railroad train, though Bell’s shy flirtations with the charmingly perky Evie were more than a little fun to watch. I’d flirt with her too, given the chance.

Origins opens up the world of late Ptolemaic Egypt a lot more imaginatively than Syndicate opened up London and exploring it turned out to be a joy. I ticked off every experience point I could find before my 21st Century counterpart, Layla, switched to channeling the main character’s wife with her home-brewed animus in order to found the Assassin’s Guild, at the time called simply “The Hidden Ones.” Along the way I met both Caesar and Cleopatra, the latter a great deal more attractive than historians claim she actually was. (She reminded me a bit of Kate Mara.) There’s a nice twist toward the end and the resolution is satisfying. It was probably my second favorite game of the year after Hitman 2, but it didn’t actually come out in 2018.

Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, which did come out in 2018, looked to be more of the same, though set in earlier Roman times (which, oddly, predate the Assassin’s Guild that gives the series its title, though they still lived more than 25,000 years after the pre-human race that created the various Maguffins, er, Pieces of Eden that the games’ characters are always searching for), and it has an even larger world and much sharper graphics, but it just isn’t as much fun. The game insists on leveling up your enemies so that you can never become more powerful than they are and much of the play is spent standing on the decks of various ships, where you can become a pirate or a hero or both, much like in the earlier AC game Black Flag. But I haven’t enjoyed a piracy-based game since the original Commodore 64 version of Sid Meier’s Pirates and standing on the deck of a boat firing cannons at other ships before they can sink my own isn’t my idea of a good way to spend my open-world time. I seem to be in the minority here, because Black Flag is one of the most beloved games in the series, but I’ve put Odyssey on the same virtual shelf with Just Cause 4 and Far Cry 5 where I’m sure I’ll get back to playing it — sometime.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider

This was one of the greatest disappointments of 2018 because there was every reason to expect it to be terrific. In hindsight, though, the warning signs were in place before it was published. The last two games in the series, which was rebooted in 2013 with the recycled title Tomb Raider, had been superb. The first was a delightful surprise, with a new, more realistic Lara Croft, clever worldbuilding, and the origin story that the original, more cartoonish Lara never really had. The second, Rise of the Tomb Raider (which I wrote about in some detail here), built nicely on the first, with a compelling story about a Shangri-La in the mountains of western Russia threatened by Lara’s nemeses, the para-military organization Trinity. As the titles of the games imply, the first is an origin story where Lara discovers her affinity for high-wire acrobats and survival in deadly exotic locations. The second is about Lara gradually developing those talents and becoming the confident heroine she had been in the original games. And the third was supposed to bring us full circle to a newer, better version of the original adult Lara, but something went wrong.

Although the games were published by Square Enix, it was developer Crystal Dynamics that apparently understood that what this long-running series needed was an injection of graphic realism and believable characterization. They took a formula that had long ago become stale and made it come alive again — or, to be honest, they made it come alive for the first time. Lara Croft went from being a cartoon pinup for adolescent boys to a fully realized young woman and the semi-open worlds that she explored became vividly real, not just backdrops against which the dynamic Ms. Croft could kickbox with mercenaries and wolves. These were Tomb Raider games for the 2010s, not for 1990s Playstations.

So, of course, Square Enix took the third game in the reboot away from Crystal Dynamics and had it developed at Eidos-Montreal instead.

The results were predictable. The graphics in Shadow of the Tomb Raider are drab and unpleasant, the plot is linear and uninspired, Lara seems a little bored by everything and I seemed a lot bored while I played it. Eventually I got tired of jumping from one climbable wall to the next and stopped playing. I probably won’t finish it.

The reviews were mixed, though Wikipedia cites a few inexplicably good ones. A more telling indicator of its reception is that it gets a score of 71 percent positive reviews from users on Steam while Rise of the Tomb Raider got a spectacular 92 percent. Suffice it to say that the game isn’t loved. After a few years, maybe it will be safe to reboot the series again, though at this point I’d just as soon Square Enix gave the design duties back to Crystal Dynamics and asked them to do the game right. That’s about as likely to happen as, say, the Call of Duty games actually becoming worth playing again. The nearly perfect 2013 reboot was one of those miraculous flukes that nobody really expected, least of all me. I don’t expect it to happen again.

The Long Dark

The brilliant survival game The Long Dark finally left Early Access in August 2017, but I didn’t get a chance to write about it in my 2017 wrap-up, so I’m going to write about it now, mainly because it just went through a major overhaul that promises to turn it into the game that it should have been all along. When I first encountered one of its many pre-launch incarnations, I thought The Long Dark was one of the greatest computer games I’d ever played and had the potential to be even better, but it turned out to one of those unfortunate examples of an Early Access game that was excellent long before it was completed and a much weaker game afterward. What was good about it in early access is still there, but like a painter who insists on adding just a few too many details to a still life that was better in its early, minimalistic glory, developer Hinterland began fixing things about The Long Dark that weren’t really broken. The status indicators at the bottom of the screen that tell you how hungry, thirsty, cold and tired you are went from clearly labeled numbers to small, nearly uninterpretable icons. (Is that blob supposed to be my stomach or my bladder?) But their real mistake, which sounded like such a good idea at the time, was the decision to add a story mode to what was already a brilliant sandbox experience.

Wintermute, the tale of an estranged couple separated anew when their small plane goes down over northern Canada in a “geomagnetic storm” (something like a massive electromagnetic pulse), was overly linear and underbaked. I gave up in the first episode while trying to figure out how to put some wood in an old lady’s fireplace (or something like that; it’s been a while). I just didn’t find myself hooked enough to keep trying. Instead, I reverted to the sandbox mode, playing yet another involuntary wilderness explorer to see how long I could keep him from dying of frostbite. (My survival record so far is 12 days, though the diary entry about it got lost in one of the game’s many upgrades.)

Fortunately, the end of 2018 saw Hinterland revise some of their own revisions and though I haven’t had much time to play (that damned Hitman 2 still keeps getting in the way), even a short session indicated that the latest batch of changes have been mostly for the better. The icons at the bottom of the screen are a lot easier to see now. (Yes, that blob really is my stomach.) And the Wintermute story mode feels much more leisurely, easing players into the action and hopefully removing a lot of the boring repetition that follows (though I haven’t gotten past the plane crash part yet).

In the final analysis, when The Long Dark‘s long journey into night is forgotten and only the polished, hopefully final version remains, I think it will be remembered as one of the greatest computer games of the 2010s, the best and most lovingly designed survival game in an era that has seen far more survival games than the market can bear (though I have to admit that there are several zombie survival games that I’m embarrassingly enamored with). Whatever Hinterland moves on to next, I hope it’s at least as good as what they’ve managed to produce on their first foray into game design. Like Campo Santo, the indie developer behind the wonderful and unexpected Firewatch, they’re clearly a company with a bright future.

Unavowed

In one of my first posts on this blog, I wrote about adventure game designer Dave Gilbert’s Blackwell saga, a nostalgic throwback to the heyday of LucasArts and Sierra adventures that got a lot more right than just the nostalgia. Gilbert (no relation to famed LucasArts designer Ron Gilbert) understood what had made 1990s graphic adventures so much fun and created a five-part epic that fed an appetite for puzzle-solving and character development that I’d forgotten I had. When I wrote that article, the Blackwell games were almost the only things he had written. (There had been one earlier mystery-solving game called The Shivah, though Gilbert’s company Wadjet Eye has published some excellent adventure games by other designers.)

The final game in the Blackwell saga made it clear that Gilbert was done with that set of characters, but his talent for adventure game design was so obvious that I couldn’t wait to find out what he would do next. This year he showed us, with an epic demon-hunting game called Unavowed, about a team of spiritualists with various supernatural abilities of their own tracking down a rogue demon who gets his kicks by taking over dead bodies or just by making bodies dead. I’m not finished with the game yet — I’ve gotten stumped by a puzzle centered around a Chinese restaurant — but I’ve played enough to see that the Blackwell games weren’t a fluke. Gilbert excels at creating interesting characters, abetted by a team of superb artists who convey personality deftly in the portraits that appear on-screen whenever somebody’s speaking. (The animation isn’t quite as deft. Watching the entire group walking down a street is like watching paper dolls lurch across a beautifully painted background.)

The game’s central gimmick is that, while you have four characters (so far) at your disposal, you’re only allowed to take two of them with you on any particular mission, so you have to choose the ones whose talents seem like they’ll be most useful, something that’s not easy to do when you don’t yet know what puzzles you’ll encounter. However, in one of the year’s most inspired pieces of game design, Gilbert has constructed the missions so that there are multiple ways to solve the puzzles and you can find a solution no matter who you bring and what their powers are. (I’ve come across one exception to this, where he forces a specific character on you at a point in a mission where that character absolutely needs to be on the team.) This gives Unavowed a degree of replayability in that, once you’ve played through it the first time, you can go back and see what a different pair of characters would have done in each situation.

I miss Rosa and Joey from the Blackwell games. They had wonderful chemistry together even though there wasn’t a hint of romance. But this brand new crew have considerable depth in their backgrounds, personalities and relationships with one another. I hope this turns out to be a full-blown series, with multiple entries, though I also hope I solve that Chinese restaurant puzzle before the next one comes out.

Quarantine Circular

Quarantine Circular, the latest project from quirky British game designer Mike Bithell, is a quasi-sequel to his earlier Subsurface Circular. Bithell is best known for giving relateable personalities to geometric shapes in the simply drawn but surprisingly clever platformer Thomas Was Alone. That game was originally developed as a Flash-based browser game that Bithell threw together at a 24-hour game jam, though now it’s available as a standalone game on Steam.

Quarantine Circular has more ambitious graphics but a similarly simple underlying design. Like its predecessor Subsurface Circular, it could be loosely described as an adventure game, but it’s really more of a game about conversation. In Subsurface Circular, the conversation was between you as a robot and the various other robots who wandered into the subway car where you were carrying out your cybernetic duties. In Quarantine Circular, the conversation is distributed among a larger cast of characters, including an intelligent alien who may or may not be a threat to life as we know it. In both games, the conversations lead up to one big decision and you use the information you’ve gathered in the previous couple of hours to make it.

These games aren’t so much about what decision you make as they’re about why you made it, and only you as the player can know what that was. The category Choices Matter has become a common tag on Steam, but in the Circular games the choice matters less than the moral universe that you’re making the choices in and discovering that moral universe is the heart of each of the games. I suspect Bithell would like you to think carefully about why you make the choice you do, though if you want to pick up all the Achievements on Steam you’ll need to revert to your last checkpoint after playing so that you can make both of them. I guess that says a lot about the moral universe that game players live in.

Frostpunk

Somehow I failed to notice Frostpunk when it came out early last year, maybe because the logo vaguely resembles the logo for Brutal Legend (or maybe because my eyesight just isn’t as good as it used to be). At any rate, when I finally realized it was a new game from 11 Bit Studios, previously known for the harrowing survival sim This War of Mine, I hastily bought it. What I discovered was one of the most innovative and, well, brutal city-building games anybody’s ever brought to market. And when I say “city-building game,” I really mean “survival game where you have to build a city before the citizens revolt and exile you to an icy death in the wilderness.”

Frostpunk borrows elements from other games, but in combination they produce something totally original. The world as we know it has ended, a new ice age has descended on what remains of civilization, and you have to lead a group of survivors to a crater in the permafrost over northern England centered on a steam vent that you can use to power a refuge from the relentless cold. It’s graphically stunning, hellishly difficult and a lot of fun to play, right up until you realize that all the NPCs in your care despise your city-building skills and think that somebody else — anybody else — could do the job better. I haven’t done a very good job yet myself. Maybe you could give it a try.

Life Is Strange 2

The original Life Is Strange, published in five parts by Square-Enix in 2015, is a hard act to follow. It did so many things perfectly — creating a graphically believable world, a realistic high school, a pair of main characters that the player cared deeply about — that building a sequel that abandons both the original’s settings and its characters seems like a futile endeavor. Only one chapter in the five-part, Telltale-style adventure has been released at this point and I’m still on the fence about it. What it does correctly straight out of the gate is to establish a pair of leads — two young Hispanic brothers, living in Washington State — who the player can root for and it throws them into a situation where there’s a lot for them to overcome. The game courageously tackles the issue of anti-Hispanic bigotry, something that’s remarkably timely and urgent in the current American political atmosphere. It’s certainly not something I expected to find myself playing a computer game about.

Designers Dontnod Entertainment have made their Latino brothers as sympathetic as possible without making them perfect human beings and by the end of the first part the player has already started to care whether they can find a way out of the seemingly hopeless situation they’ve gotten themselves into. However, there’s a secondary plot element lurking in the background — something to do with telekinesis — that has barely been explored at this point but will probably be a major component of future installments, the way Max’s time-rewinding capabilities provided a science-fictional twist to the original series. But time-rewinding served a double purpose in LIS1: It not only drove the plot but served as a tool for examining the role of player agency in a Choices Matter-style game. If you wanted to see what would have happened, at least in the short term, if Max had made a different choice, you could actually spin the time stream backwards and see what was waiting down the road not taken. Like any good science fictional premise, it served as more than just window dressing. It was an essential part of Max’s life and story. Whether the designers can do the same with telekinesis isn’t clear from Part 1. Still, I’m genuinely interested in seeing where the story goes and enjoyed the brief glimpse of Arcadia Bay, the first game’s setting, that the player gets during a pause in the brothers’ travels. We last see them on a bus headed for Mexico, but I hope they wind up someplace just as interesting as Arcadia Bay was.

Call of Cthulhu

I’ve been meaning for some time now to write a post on the role that H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction has played in computer gaming. There have been quite a few games over the years that have claimed, to one degree or another, to be inspired by Lovecraft’s work, but I’ve yet to encounter one that actually captures what it was that I loved about Lovecraft’s stories when I was 16 years old. Most of what gamers know about Lovecraft seems to have trickled down via the Chaosium pen & paper RPG Call of Cthulhu and I have to wonder how many game designers have read much of his actual work.

Lovecraft wrote for pulp magazines like Weird Tales and Astounding Stories in the 1920s and 30s, dying of stomach cancer in 1937. It was only in the last 11 years of his life, beginning with the publication of the novelette “The Call of Cthulhu” in 1926, that he discovered what was to become the central theme of his greatest works: the insignificance of humanity in the cosmos at large and even on our own planet. This was a period when astronomers and cosmologists were fully beginning to appreciate how large and old our universe actually is and the immensity of time and space scared the hell out of Lovecraft, or at least he chose to use it as a motif for scaring the hell out of readers.

Yet most Lovecraft games I’ve seen revolve around three things: cults, Cthulhu and private detectives. I can’t recall a single Lovecraft story about a private detective — that was for writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler at the pulp magazine Black Mask — and while cults are mentioned in at least a dozen Lovecraft stories, they’re rarely central to the stories themselves but are used as deep background. As for Cthulhu, there was only a single story about him. That story, “The Call of Cthulhu,” was the turning point in Lovecraft’s career (there’s a later mention of “Cthulhu cults” in his monumental novella “At the Mountains of Madness”), but it was a relatively weak story compared to the great fiction that followed. The prominence of this tentacled, aquatic monster in references to Lovecraft seems to derive from the term “Cthulhu mythos,” which was coined not by Lovecraft himself but by his correspondent August Derleth, who founded the publishing firm Arkham House two years after his friend’s death for the express purpose of making the great horror writer’s fiction available in book form. Derleth seemed to feel that Lovecraft had been constructing some kind of organized pantheon of gods, when in fact organization was the last thing on Lovecraft’s mind: He was writing about chaos.

So forgive me if the cults, Cthulhu and cops theme of most Lovecraftian games strikes me as beside the point. I want to see a game that captures the sense of weak-kneed awe that came over his characters when they realized that the earth was populated by intelligent beings so arrogant and powerful that they regarded humans as at most an annoyance, the way we regard roaches, and more typically as non-existent. The typical eldritch Lovecraft monstrosity didn’t seek down and kill humans so much as it was amused by us or ignored us completely; that was what was so terrifying about them. Lovecraft called this “cosmicism,” though it’s more typically referred to as “cosmic horror.” Lovecraft wasn’t enamored of the science fiction that began appearing the pulps of the late 1920s, so he basically reinvented the genre in his own style. The cults that are so prominently featured in HPL-inspired computer games were incidental details in his writing.

Still, when I saw that a Call of Cthulhu game was being published with an actual license from Chaosium, I had to play it. And…it isn’t bad. I haven’t finished it. I haven’t finished most of the games I’m writing about on this page. There aren’t enough hours in the day. I was a bit daunted to discover that the story was about, yes, a private detective. But I’m far enough into it to be impressed by its graphics, its interface and its use of unusual stats like “Psychology” and “Occultism.” The player’s ability to reconstruct scenes of horrifying violence as vivid mental models is cleverly done and at times even feels somewhat Lovecraftian, though more in the way of pre-Cthulhu stories like “The Dunwich Horror” than the later cosmic horror epics.

There’s a scene a few chapters into the game where the player descends into a tunnel hidden beneath a crumbling old mansion that gave me a genuine chill, because Lovecraft adored that kind of thing. Passageways into vast, dark underground chambers appear in Lovecraft stories from “The Rats in the Walls” to “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” to “The Shadow Out of Time” and to find one in this game gave me hope that developers Cyanide Studio had tapped into a genuine Lovecraftian vein. But when you get to the bottom of this dark pit you find…a cult. I was underwhelmed.

I’m currently lost somewhere in the maze of an old-fashioned mental asylum that shows some promise and maybe before the story is over there’ll be some genuine cosmicism on display. But I’m not holding my breath. This game captures the feel of Lovecraft’s work better than anything else I’ve played to date, but that’s damning it with faint praise.

The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrow’s Deep

I can’t say much about this because I’ve barely started playing it, but what I can address is inXile Entertainment’s decision to re-release the original Bard’s Tale trilogy, from the mid 1980s, in remastered editions that almost precisely replicate the original games with new hand-drawn art that removes the pixelation you’d get if you played the originals on an emulator. Thirty-some years ago these were state-of-the-art RPGs, but now they’re mostly museum-quality nostalgia artifacts. Having begun playing the first game again, I can’t say I’m getting the rush of excitement that for some reason compelled me to play all the way through it in 1986, when I carefully mapped all the dungeons and city streets on graph paper so that I wouldn’t get lost while chasing after whatever Maguffin the game was leading me toward. My impression so far is that The Bard’s Tale is one of those fond memories that should remain just that; even remastered, it’s a tedious exercise in menu-driven dungeon crawling that’s been left behind by so many advances in the RPG-designing art that it seems like something you’d play briefly in the subway on your iPhone. (Surprisingly, I can’t find it in the App Store.)

I have to wonder if this remaster wasn’t released just to show players how much better Barrows Deep is than the game some of us remember from back in the day. What little I’ve played of Bard’s Tale IV so far is fairly impressive, though I’ll probably have more to say about it when I’ve mastered its somewhat arcane combat interface. My characters seem to be a little low on spells and combat moves right now and I’m having trouble figuring out how to juggle their inventory items. This may simply be the result of my inexperience with the game or it may speak to a deeper failure to design more intuitive on-screen controls. So far I’ve mostly experienced a series of fights while trying to find my way to the Adventurer’s Guild, which is where the original game started. I’ll be coming back to it when I get the chance, but like Life Is Strange 2 I’m not sure I’ve seen enough to assess it on its merits. I just wish I felt more compelled to plunge back into Barrow’s Deep to find out what those merits are. The reviews I’ve seen have been mixed, which doesn’t do much to alleviate my fear that The Bard’s Tale may be an artifact that was better left buried in the dungeon of old computer games that led the way to the beautiful and complex ones we have today but that got left behind as a couple of new generations of game designers stepped in and demonstrated just how much more could be done within the broad confines of the role-playing art.

Games I’m Not Going to Talk About

Fallout 76

Fallout 76 is sitting in my Bethesda game library — I found it cheaper to play it there than on Steam — but all I’ve done so far is wander around looking for the vault overseer while fighting off radioactive zombies. For the present I’ve deleted it to make more space on my game disk while it languishes in the cloud. God knows, this was one of my most anticipated titles of the year, but all of the terrible press that both preceded and followed its release has put me off playing it. Bethesda seems to be scrambling to add new features and squelch bugs in a belated attempt to bring the game up to the level of Fallout 3 and New Vegas, not to mention the under-appreciated Fallout 4, but I suspect it will be a while before I venture back into the wasteland to see if they’ve actually added something that makes it worth playing. Although it’s possible to solo it, going the multiplayer route as the game’s primary focus seems to have been a mistake. I haven’t heard any loud clamoring from other players to join them in co-op or PvP sessions. Nobody except a few video bloggers on YouTube seems to care about the game at all.

Return of the Obra Dinn

I wish I could say more about Return of the Obra Dinn, a visually stylish nautical mystery solver that seemed to come out of nowhere and has Overwhelmingly Positive reviews on Steam, but I can’t figure out how to get off the titular sailing ship’s main deck. I’m sure I’ll find a key to the cabin or a cleverly hidden entrance next time I play and maybe get a glimpse of what all the excitement’s about. Until then, I have pretty much nothing to say about it, except that its white-on-black graphic environment looks very, very cool.

Subnautica

I’ve heard so many wonderful things about the survival game Subnautica that I wish I had more hours in the day to craft the equipment that would let me explore its underwater world more thoroughly. I’m sure there are secrets lurking in its depths, or in that burning wreck of a crashed spaceship on the horizon, that will make me feel like I was wasting my time playing all those other games instead.

Jurassic World Evolution

In the category of Games That Should Have Been Freaking Incredible But Apparently Sucked, there’s Jurassic World Evolution, where Frontier Developments, makers of mega-theme-park simulator Planet Coaster, allow you not only to build your own dinosaur zoo but your own dinosaurs through genetic engineering. You know, like in the Jurassic Park/Jurassic World movies. To me, this premise sounds too good to be true and apparently that’s exactly what it is. I’ve only played a tiny piece of it, not enough to judge it by, but reaction has been startlingly negative. It has a Metacritic score of 69 and a Steam user rating of 71 percent. It may have fallen victim to the licensed-property curse, where games based on popular media properties are rushed to market or expend most of their budget on licensing the property, leaving relatively little for development costs. Too bad, because I really, really want to raise my own dinosaurs. And if they occasionally want to burst out of their cages and dine on my guests, at the very least I want a front row seat.

Red Dead Redemption 2

The big gaming news this year hasn’t been about anything on PC. It’s been about Red Dead Redemption 2, which is so far only available on XBox One and Playstation 4. I own an XBox One and have played it, but I said pretty much all I have to say near the end of my review of Hitman 2, which is that it throws the player into a gorgeous open world with nearly an infinite number of things you can do, then centers the game around scripted sequences that feel like they came straight out of Call of Duty. The press about the game has been so glowing — the New York Times did a full article on how it was created — that I feel obligated to keep playing, because at this point I’m only 5 percent into the story, not even counting the numerous side quests that seem to be available. But I can’t help but feel the game has an emptiness at its core, one that may get filled as I develop my character farther — all he knows how to do currently is hunt, pick herbs for cooking and shoot at NPCs — and as I discover what the game is really about. I mean, I’m sure it’s about something other than shooting bad guys and robbing trains. It must be, right?

(NOTE: A friend whose opinion I trust tells me that I’ll get a really good story if I keep playing, not that I wouldn’t have continued with Red Dead Redemption 2 anyway. But I’m sufficiently intrigued that I’m actually going back and playing RDR1 again, this time on my XBox One using its XBox 360 emulation, just to reacquaint myself with the world and the characters. Who knows? If I actually finish it this time, along with the sequel, I may write a post later praising this series to the skies. Or I may fall victim yet again to what I think of as Grand Theft Auto Syndrome, getting lost in a Rockstar world so vast and full of possibilities that I still can’t find the main throughline that will reward me with the powerful story I’m sure is lurking inside it. That’s happened several times before.)

The Outer Worlds

Games I’m looking forward to in 2019 include Obsidian’s The Outer Worlds, a Firefly-ish space western that’s getting surprisingly little press but that looks stunning (and quite amusing) in trailers; Metro Exodus, which looks like it will open up this survival horror series far beyond the subway system that gave it its name; Wolfenstein: Youngblood, where the next generation of the Blazkowicz family, BJ’s twin daughters, get to show if there’s any life left in the series that originated first-person shooters and has shown remarkable staying power in the reboots created by Bethesda/Id subcontractor MachineGames; and Rage 2, Id Software’s opportunity to demonstrate whether Avalanche Games, creators of the Just Cause series, can do a better job with this Mad Max-like post-apocalyptic world than Id itself did with the first Rage title, which was pretty to look at but boring and linear in its gameplay.

Cyberpunk 2077

Beyond 2019, I’m looking forward to playing Cyberpunk 2077, CD Projekt Red’s bid to escape the open-world fantasy niche that they’ve exploited so brilliantly with the Witcher series; Beyond Good and Evil 2, a generational leap for Ubisoft’s cult action favorite from the early 2000s that also looks pretty dazzling in the trailer; Dying Light 2, a follow-up to one of the best open-world zombie survival games on the market; and — drum roll, please — The Elder Scrolls 6, where Bethesda may or may not get a chance to make up for the mess they’ve made out of the Fallout series. I hope they can get this one to market while I’m still young (at heart) enough to enjoy playing it. I get that it takes time to do these things right, but Fallout 76 suggests that Bethesda, once the best game company in the business, may be stretching themselves a little too thin. So if they need until 2025 to do this one justice, I’ll be waiting, probably while leaning on a wooden cane.

The Game of the Decade – A Year Early

Has there ever been a game like Hitman 2, which (if you own the Hitman 2016 GOTY Edition) offers every mission and cut scene dating back to the launch of the rebooted Hitman series three years ago? I’m not just referring to stealth assassination and theft games — those have been around since at least Thief: The Dark Project, Looking Glass Studios’ brilliantly innovative 1998 head basher, which introduced so many new ideas to the first-person shooter genre that it ceased to be about shooting. It became about strategy, patience, and clever new weapons that no longer put holes in victim’s heads but extinguished torches and distracted enemies while the player stalked hallways and hid behind barrels. Thief made darkness and soft carpeting the player’s best friends and the world of intelligent, adult gaming hasn’t been the same since.

But Hitman 2 is so much more. I’m on record ad nauseum as a fan of games that feature open worlds that encourage exploration, but the last two Hitman games have demonstrated that exploration is possible in a world that’s a fraction the size of Skyrim while still filled with discovery, quests, characters, scenery and moments as thrilling as anything since Doom first revolutionized first-person play back in 1993. The worlds of Hitman 2 are small and tightly packed almost to the point of claustrophobia. What makes them wonderful is that IO Interactive has brought these worlds vividly to life, creating mini-universes where your taciturn, unflappable avatar Agent 47 rubs shoulders with characters that seem as real as the shoppers in a crowded department store, but who are much more interesting to be around. All of this is so seamlessly integrated that you don’t even notice how good it is because the new Hitman games don’t feel like they’ve been designed; they feel like worlds that were always there, just waiting for Agent 47 to wander into them.

What’s most impressive about Hitman 2, though, is its nearly infinite replayability. In every mission, you are assigned between one and four targets that you’re required to eliminate — permanently. (Impermanently eliminating a character by knocking them over the head and hiding them in a closet is also allowed and even encouraged for non-targets. The game’s praiseworthy sense of morality docks you a substantial number of Mastery points if you kill anybody who doesn’t deserve it, even in self defense.) There are so many ways to accomplish your missions that you can start making up new ones as you go along — or you can consult the menus of Mission Stories and Challenges for suggestions. If you set the right option, the Mission Stories will guide you from step to step through an assassination, but they won’t hold your hand. They lead you to your targets, but quite often you still have to figure out how to kill them.

The Hitman series has been around since the early 2000s, but it eluded me until I decided to buy the 2016 reboot. Long-time players on Steam sometimes comment negatively on the latest entries because they don’t live up to the ones they played when they were 15 years old. But that’s nostalgia speaking. I’ve gone back and tried the earlier games, but except for Absolution, they have control schemes that make playing on a PC keyboard frustrating at best and so awkward that at worst you tend to get killed before you can find the button that lets you choke an opponent into unconsciousness. Even Absolution is flawed, compared poorly by many players to the barely playable games that preceded it.

But the 2016 reboot brought the series into the modern age. The controls are helpfully displayed on screen when an action is possible, but they aren’t QTEs (Quick Time Events, though you occasionally get those when you make the mistake of fighting a guard with your bare fists). The controls feel natural enough that you barely need to be reminded what key to press to pick up an object or drag an unconscious body into a closet to keep some wandering NPC from discovering it and waking the victim up. Interaction is intuitive enough you feel the distinction between you the player and Agent 47 vanishing into that magic zone where player and game become one. Like only a very few games before it, Hitman 2 isn’t a game; it’s an experience.

Hitman 2 has become a compulsion for me. This has happened before with games, some of which I’ve written about, but I don’t remember it ever being quite this intense. Hitman 2 is a puzzle box that not only invites you to solve its puzzles but often to find them. At times its challenges are deliberately silly: slap a character with a fish to get them silently out of your way or distract them with a squeaky toy shaped like a duck. (There are a lot of ducks in this game, some of which are actually bombs. Clearly somebody on the design team spends a lot of time around lakes.) I’ll stay up half the night just trying to figure how to drop a chandelier on a target’s head.

As you may have figured out by now, Hitman 2 is designed as a series of missions, separated by cut scenes that tie those missions into a continuing story. A briefing at the beginning of each one, narrated by your handler Diana Burnwood, tells you why these people deserve to die. They’re terrorists or murderers or people who finance terrorists and murderers; in other words, they’re all people the world is better off without. Although technically you’re a freelancer, you work primarily for the ICA — International Contract Agency — which sells your assassination services for what one assumes to be a hefty price tag. Once you’re past the opening briefing (or have just skipped over it), you can choose what gear you want to bring and then you’re dropped down into some exotic setting where you can use your sense of intuition (the CTRL key on PCs) to spot the people you’re supposed to kill, as the world turns gray and your targets stand out in bright red, even at considerable distances. Getting to those targets and killing them without being killed yourself before you can escape is what each mission is about.

But enough about the premise. Let me enumerate in detail all of the things that make Hitman 2 worthy of the Game of the Year, and possibly of the Decade, title.

Graphics

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Agent 47 on the beach, God rays and all.

Hitman 2‘s graphics are state of the art, but the game doesn’t rub that fact in your face. Yes, there are God rays descending from the sun on a cloudy afternoon, but you don’t notice them unless you’re looking for them. Specular patches gleam in the moonlight on the shoulders of 47’s wet suit, but they’re just a detail that adds to the scenario’s realism, not a deliberate attempt to dazzle you with the programmer’s cleverness. These subtle touches of photorealism seep into your awareness almost subliminally, which is why the relatively small worlds of Hitman’s missions seem alive without feeling like the designers are showing off. The graphics work in the service of immersing the player into the action, not distracting from it.

Characters

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Getting lost in a crowd — with a dancing flamingo

There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of characters populating the streets and hallways of the Hitman setting and each seems to have a life of his or her own. Walk past two or three people having a conversation and you can overhear what they have to say. Sometimes it’s important information that triggers a Story Mission, but more often its idle chatter. This is one of the reasons the games are so replayable. There must be a hundred such conversations in each mission, but every time you play you’ll only hear a few of them. Play again and you’ll notice different characters chattering and occasionally it’s even different chatter. Not all of the chatter is compelling, but it still sounds like things real people would say. Stand too close to a character and they may even shut up until you move on and eavesdrop from a stealthier position. This is a world you have an effect on — and the characters are aware of that effect.

Disguises

Unless you want to receive Mastery points for completing the entire mission in the suit you arrived in, you won’t be able to explore the entire environment without occasionally changing clothes. Wear the wrong outfit in the wrong place without being sufficiently stealthy and you’ll be spotted by the authorities, who’ll start shooting if you don’t run away fast enough. (They’ll start searching for you if they spot you, but if you hide long enough they’ll get bored and stop looking.) Better to find an appropriate set of work gear lying around (the game leaves a few outfits in unexpected places) or hit someone upside the head with a wrench and steal their clothes. Changing disguises has an almost magical effect. Agent 47’s generically handsome features go unnoticed by most NPCs; they only pay attention to what he’s wearing. Disguising yourself as a guard will get you into backrooms where 47’s standard suit wouldn’t allow him to go and knowing what disguise to wear where is one of the most important elements of stealth play. You’ll need to go through a mission several times just to figure out what disguises are available — and even when you’re wearing the right one, there are characters that the game refers to as Enforcers who will still recognize you for the impostor you are. (You’ll know who they are by the white bubbles floating over their heads, though there are “Blend In” points scattered throughout the world where you can stand unnoticed doing whatever job the outfit’s original owner was supposed to do so that enforcers will ignore you as you pass through their field of vision.) You’ll get extra points if you put on every disguise available in each mission’s world, but that’s not as easy as it sounds. There are dozens of them, from construction worker togs to flamingo suits. (Yes, that’s one of the sillier things about the game. Walking around in a flamingo suit makes you remarkably invisible.)

Replayability

I’ve discussed this above, but I want to talk about it in more detail. As I’ve indicated, there are multiple ways to kill your targets and most of them aren’t obvious. You can discover them on your own by exploring the environment and using your powers of observation. Or you can look at the game’s menus, which contain two types of information about the opportunities that the world offers.

The first of these are Mission Stories (originally called Opportunities in Hitman 2016) and there are usually seven of them per mission. Each is an elaborate scheme for isolating your target and dispatching them from the mortal sphere. Not all players care to use these, but if you turn one on (or are alerted to it by overhearing the right conversation), Diana will purr the basic details into your earpiece in her upper-class British accent. (Diana’s intelligent but sexy vocals, courtesy of voice actress Jane Perry, are one of my favorite things about the game. She’s also one of my favorite characters, with some surprising secrets hidden in her past.) If you have the right options turned on, you’ll then receive a series of instructions in the upper left-hand corner of the screen, telling you what you have to do next to take advantage of the opportunity the story affords, plus a green waypoint guiding you in the direction of the opportunity. Figuring out how to reach the waypoint isn’t as easy as walking from Point A to Point B. You’ll usually need to change disguises along the way.

The second are Challenges, which are broken down into three categories: Assassinations, Discoveries and Feats. Assassinations, obviously, are various ways that a Target can be killed, from dropping a chandelier on their head to poisoning their favorite cocktail. I’m not entirely clear what the difference is between Discoveries and Feats, but the first seem to involve things that you have to find in the labyrinthine maze of the game world and the second are merely cool things you can do that often don’t involve using your murderous skills, like collecting frogs in the local swamp. (Actually, that might be more of a Discovery.)

To collect Mastery points, you merely have to accomplish one of these challenges; you get the points for them immediately, whether you finish the mission or not. A lot of the challenges are mutually exclusive, like the various ways that you can kill the targets or the escape routes you can take after the lethal part of the mission is complete, but that doesn’t mean you can’t accomplish them on one playthrough. Just be sure to keep your game saved at key moments, restore to those saves, then take on a different challenge. You’ll still get your Mastery points. Which brings us to….

Mastery Points

Giving the player a score for accomplishments is a holdover from the early days of arcade games, when game designers needed to motivate players to keep dropping quarters into machines so that they could get their names onto the leaderboard. Hitman 2 has a leaderboard, but it’s not likely that you’ll ever get your name so high on it that anyone but your friends will notice. Hitman 2’s Mastery points actually gain you something tangible, virtually speaking. As your Mastery level goes up, you’ll get perks in return — new weapons, new disguises, new places that you can start the mission, giving you the chance to bypass a lot of the complicated costume changes required to get you into, say, the kitchen area (great for poisoning your victim) or the guard house (so that you don’t have to worry about some other guard pulling a gun on you before you can get inside). Mastery Points aren’t essential to completing a mission, but neither are they meaningless collectibles. There’s a certain thrill to being told that the game loves you so much it’s going to make your next session a little easier. And there are a few weapons, like the deadly statue of Napoleon Blownaparte, that you can’t get any other way, at least not that I’ve been able to find.

Each mission has a total mastery level that you can reach, usually 20, and you’ll reach it long before you’ve completed all the Challenges. To encourage you to keep on going, the missions also come with a completion percentage. And to reach it, you’ll have to complete some of the Classic Challenges at each of the game’s difficulty levels: Casual, Professional and Master. Some even have to be completed across multiple missions before you get any percentage points for them at all. I’ve yet to reach 100 percent on a mission and seriously doubt that I ever will.

There’s also a global Player Level, which goes up as you complete challenges in every part of the game. This is the closest thing Hitman 2 offers to the scores you used to run up on PacMan, but unlike PacMan, there’s probably a maximum that you can attain, though the game doesn’t tell you what it is (and it will no doubt go up as new missions are added in the DLC). It’s just another incentive to keep playing long after you’ve mastered every mission on the board.

Missions

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Agent 47 goes to a fashion show.

The missions are, of course, the heart of Hitman 2 and each one has clearly been thought out with an eye toward making your stealth killing spree as spectacular as possible. The quintessential Hitman 2 mission is the Paris-based “Showstopper,” a legacy mission from Hitman 2016. “Showstopper” was what sold me on the series and it has everything: a wealth of different environments and fascinating characters packed into a single large mansion and its grounds. Walking from one area in “Showstopper” into another is like jumping between alternate universes. The action is centered around a fashion show taking place in the central room of the house. Guests stand around a long runway as models parade from one end to the other wearing the latest designer fashions. (In one of the Mission Stories, Agent 47 can even become one of the models.) In the next room, fashion models and makeup artists buzz around preparing for the runway romp while in another the guests hover around cocktail tables and sip drinks from the bar. Outside, more guests mill around or wander through hedge mazes. You can stand on the banks of the Seine and stare out at the sunset — or push a target into the river while nobody else is watching. (If they are watching, be prepared to run fast and find another disguise in a hurry.)

It’s not easy for 47 to get from one room to another and the trickiest place to reach in this particular scenario is the attic . In the James Bond-like world of Hitman, the attic holds a dark secret — an auction for terrorists where they can bid to finance the heinous acts of others. Almost every Hitman mission holds a secret like this: A submarine base under a mob compound, a torture room in the basement of a farmhouse, a biolab in caverns below a family estate. You can’t turn a corner in the tight Hitman universe without discovering something you never expected to be there.

Because Hitman 2 also contains the missions from Hitman 2016 (if you own the GOTY Edition), those scenarios have been retrofitted to contain some of the updated features, like scores for discovering locations or simply referring to Opportunities as Mission Stories. Unfortunately, your accomplishments from the first game aren’t carried over to the new game (though for some reason your perks seem to be; I’d be lost without that lockpick) and you’ll need to work your way through them again to add their points to your Player Level. But I could play each of these missions a hundred times without getting tired of them, so I’m happily giving the missions in Paris, Sapienza and Morocco another go, though I’m not sure I want to play those tedious tutorial missions again. (I’m also surprised at how many of the Mission Stories I never completed back when they were called Opportunities.) The graphics have also been improved, though the changes are subtle. You get God rays now where you didn’t in 2016. I’m sure there are other improvements that I haven’t even spotted, but that I’m unconsciously aware of. I’ve even bought copies of the games for my XBox One so I can see the glorious colors in all their upconverted glory on my 4K television and I’m really starting from scratch on that one. I don’t even have a lockpick yet.

Weapons

The slogan for Hitman 2 is “Make the World Your Weapon” and it almost literally describes the gameplay. Although you can take a very few weapons with you into each scenario, most of what you’ll use to disable enemies and eliminate targets will be found just lying around. Need a deadly ranged weapon? Pick up a screwdriver from an abandoned workshop. (Like most found weapons in Hitman 2, screwdrivers can either be thrown or used for melee fighting.) Just want to knock out two or three people in quick succession? Pick up some soda cans from the litter and throw them rapidly at a row of guards before they can report the attack or shoot back. (Unfortunately there are a few weapons, like soda cans and cocaine bricks, that disintegrate on use, so you’d better save them for the ideal moment.) Want to kill someone from a safe distance without even using a weapon? Just flip the switch on a crane that causes it to drop that heavy crate it’s carrying and anybody standing underneath it will be pancaked into the concrete beneath them.

Unlike older games where weapons and healing potions would turn up on every street corner, Hitman 2 puts its weapons in logical places. You won’t find a handgun sitting in the bathroom, but you might find a deadly pair of scissors. And emetic rat poison is usually sitting in storage rooms or kitchens where you’d find rats. Why would you need emetic rat poison? Mostly to get people to run for the nearest bathroom to throw up, giving you the opportunity to drown them in the toilet. A few objects, like cans of expired spaghetti sauce, seem to exist primarily as callbacks to earlier scenarios, where they had more specific uses, though they can also serve as a lethal poison. (Remember that the next time you check the pull date on a can of Chef Boyardee.)

Sound Design

There are places in Hitman 2 where you can almost find your way around blindfolded. In “Showstopper,” the fashion show is filled with throbbing music and that same throbbing beat is audible but muffled in the makeup room, while it’s completely drowned out by piped-in music at the bar. Waves crash in along a beach front while televisions blare newscasts in private homes, often describing murders that you yourself committed. Bands play music and somebody wrote an entire song with accompanying rock video for the fictional band The Class, the lead singer of which you have to kill in the Morocco mission “Club 27.” (The video is only glimpsed in the game, but you can see the entire thing on YouTube.)

Humor

The James Bond movies have a lot to answer for. Ever since Sean Connery quipped “Shocking!” when he fried Oddjob on an electrified fence, action heroes from Dirty Harry to anybody played by Arnold Schwarzenegger have been throwing off dry one-liners whenever the subject of death comes up. Voice actor David Bateson doesn’t actually get a lot of dialog as Agent 47, but when he does it usually contains at least one and usually several double entendres. He can’t serve a poisoned meal to a target without suggesting that it’s “to die for.” And in a less punny vein, the first word out of his mouth when he’s disguised as a San Fortuna “hippie” tricking a guard into letting him deliver a poisoned cocaine brick to the mob’s resident Walter White is a gravelly cynical, “Groovy.” Yeah, that’s how hippies talk. (The real hippie, before Agent 47 choked him out and stuffed him in a closet, sounded more like he was on a cosmic acid trip.)

And then there are those fish and ducks. Blowing up your target with a multicolored remotely triggered squeaky toy and watching them fly through the air like a figure skater missing the landing on a triple lutz is inherently funny, not that Agent 47 would ever crack a smile. And that’s what so funny about him.

The Story

Hitman 2 isn’t really about story so much as it’s about missions, but there’s a story running through it in the form of cut scenes placed between the missions. The cut scenes and missions aren’t entirely unrelated; Agent 47 occasionally stumbles across scraps of information that suggest something’s not quite right behind the clients that ICA is working for and the cut scenes address that information. The story in the 2016 missions is mostly about discovering what’s really happening behind the curtain, but the cut scenes in the latest missions go further. They aren’t fully animated, the way the cut scenes in the earlier section are, but the story they tell is more interesting and toward the end becomes both startling and moving. If the story in the 2016 game is about ICA’s clients, the story in the new game is about the ICA team itself and who these people, including Agent 47 and Diana Burnwood, really are. I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the questions raised here are not fully answered, but that’s why I’m holding my breath (breathing intermittently to keep from turning blue) for a third game in the rebooted series. I want to see where these characters are headed. More importantly, I want to learn where they’ve been. It’s a subject that brings a tear even to the stoic 47’s eye.

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Agent 47 and a childhood friend. Getting teary-eyed yet?

And Yet…

None of what I’ve said above fully conveys what it is that makes Hitman 2 so good, because the game is more than the sum of its parts. All of the elements I’ve discussed work together in such perfectly integrated synchrony that you can’t really separate them while you’re playing. Gliding through a Hitman mission is like listening to a symphony so beautifully composed that you don’t bother to distinguish the string section from the percussion; you just let yourself ride on the crest of the music. You could spend your entire mission just staring at the scenery and enjoying the ambient conversation without even meeting your targets and still have more fun than you would in a less perfectly executed game.

Also…

It’s difficult to nominate Hitman 2 as Game of the Year, Decade or any other roughly concurrent span of time without addressing the big, ultra-hyped elephant (or horse) in the room: Red Dead Redemption 2. Though it hasn’t made its way to PC yet (and nobody’s entirely sure if it will), I’ve spent several hours with it on my XBox One. I’m not quite able to assess it property because my console controller is defective — the replacement just arrived in the mailbox — and I’ve spent those hours fighting an annoying tendency for my main character to keep looking up at the sky, but I’ve seen enough to get a sense of what the game is about. RDR2 seems to alternate between two modes: gorgeous open spaces heavy on grandeur and light on characters and scripted sequences like a graphically gorgeous train robbery where you constantly find yourself kicked back to the last checkpoint if you don’t move fast enough to keep yourself and your companions alive. This is probably unfair to Rockstar, a company that’s reportedly willing to work its employees nearly to death in order to achieve perfection, but when the scripted sequences kick in I can’t help feeling like I’m playing Call of Duty: Frontier Warfare. Yes, Colonel, I’ll blow up the caboose now.

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Red Dead Redemption 2: Burning down the house

There are scripted sequences in Hitman 2, generally in the Story Missions, but even when a script is active you can cleverly subvert it in a Stanley Parable-like way, flying in the face of the designer’s intentions just to see if the game can handle it. And the remarkable thing is that it can. Spoilerish case in point: In the San Fortuna scenario, “Three-Headed Serpent,” there’s a Story Mission in which you have to drop a statue on the head of one of the three designated targets. Following the script, you disguise yourself as a mariachi musician, get the heavily hungover band back together, and start playing a lively accompaniment to the statue’s unveiling. When the script is executed as written, there’s a prompt for you to start playing a drum roll that’s the cue for the target to pull the tarp off the statue, which you’ve previously loosened with a wrench, bringing it tumbling down unexpectedly on his head. Target eliminated and you can walk away with no one the wiser. But if you ignore the prompt and don’t play the drum roll, the target gets angry and pulls the tarp off anyway, just a little more viciously. And if you walk away while the band is still playing and slip up on the cliff above the unveiling, you can push the statue off its pedestal yourself. Time it exactly right and you can take out two targets for the price of one. All of these are viable ways of accomplishing the mission and only one of them follows the script.

Once you get into the Challenges, which are much more numerous than Story Missions, there are no scripts at all, at least not ones the player is consciously aware of. You’re free to improvise whatever you can get to work. Sometimes this involves following characters through their own scripts, but how you intercept them with the killing blow is up to you. And there’s often even less script than that, like a challenge at a Miami race track where you have to take five fish from an aquarium and throw them back in the ocean. I suppose the fish are scripted to flop a bit when they’re out of water, but that’s it. (As with ducks, there’s a definite fish theme running through the game. Whenever you see an aquarium, you can blast it apart with your gun and watch the fish spill all over the carpeting. I hate doing this, because I don’t like to see fish suffer — but it’s kinda fun.)

HITMAN 2 12_31_2018 3_42_56 AM
Never invite Agent 47 to an aquarium.

If that’s not enough to convince you that Hitman 2 is the best game anybody’s published in the last decade (or, like, ever), you can try playing it yourself. Maybe it won’t be to your taste. But you can’t say that IO Interactive hasn’t put a hell of a lot of work into making the game world feel real. If it isn’t as sprawling and grandiose as the one in Red Dead Redemption 2, it certainly feels a great deal more alive.

Killing Akhenaten, Ramesses, Nefertiti and Tutankhamen in Assassin’s Creed: Origins

I don’t usually offer game tips on this blog, but I’m in the process of finishing up the Curse of the Pharoahs DLC for Assassin’s Creed: Origins and am still fresh from getting mummy dust on the blade of my sword. There are four major boss battles at the climax of the DLC, against the zombified mummies of Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Ramesses and Tutankhamen and the first two whipped my ass when I initially went blade to blade with them. Once I developed an effective strategy, though, it turned out to be ridiculously easy to send them off to the duat or wherever undead god-kings go when they’re no longer undead and I was able to plow through the feral pharaohs like a sickle blade through a flamingo. (Yes, you can fight flamingos with sickle blades in this game, though you’d be better off shooting them from a nearby blind with a predator bow so that they won’t fly away when they see you coming.)

I’ve seen other strategies online that involve complicated combos and rapid dodging, but my strategy only requires an overpower attack and a lot of running — about 20 minutes worth of running per pharaoh. Keep a bottle of Gatorade by your side to fight controller fatigue. The best thing about this strategy is that there’s no luck or skill involved. It’s guaranteed to work unless you seriously screw up. And it isn’t a cheat.

Overpower
Overpower attack in action.

I recommend using a bladed weapon, like a sword, because you’ll need to get in and out very quickly during the overpower attack. Under most conditions, heavy blunts have the best overpower attack in the game, essentially turning you into a superhero for the 15-20 seconds it takes to clear out nearby enemies, but they’re also slow, inaccurate and won’t let you get back out of the mummy’s way when the overpower attack wears off.

I strongly recommend that you have the Overpower Fury ability, which heals you during an overpower attack. It’s not strictly necessary, but you’ll be glad you have it if you get sloppy and take damage. (This is most crucial during the fight with Ramesses, which takes place in the desert, where brief sandstorms occasionally obscure your view of the enemy. Ramesses may get in the occasional non-fatal blow, but Overpower Fury will heal it the next time you attack.)

All that said…

Here’s How It Works

When the fight begins, start running in circles around your adversary, staying out of reach of their weapon. This isn’t as difficult as it sounds. The undead pharaohs are fairly slow moving and your constant motion will prevent them from landing a strike. You’ll find that your adrenaline bar goes up while you run, something that doesn’t seem to happen in other fights. As soon as you have enough adrenaline for an overpower attack, use it. The pharaoh will be stunned for about a second, giving you time to back off and start running again. Repeat this over and over until your opponent is dead.

That’s It?

Yeah, that’s it. No complicated moves, no fire arrows (though a fire blade might not hurt), no bodily damage to Bayek. The only risk this strategy carries is tedium, because it takes a long time to whittle away at a mummy’s hit point bar, even with overpower attacks. But if you keep running and don’t wander within reach of your opponent’s weapon, you’ll eventually win the battle. And winning these battles is crucial to completing the DLC.

One Note…

Fighting Ramesses in the afterlife, which is where that particular battle takes place, requires first fighting his “shadow” in the streets of Thebes. For that you just have to hang around town until he materializes (the game will let you know when a pharaoh’s shadow has appeared), locate him on the map (he’ll look like a cryptic rune scribbled in bright red ink) and gallop over to his location. (Combat by horse is strongly recommended.)

The battle itself is trivial. Just target the ghostly figure and ride around him in tight circles. He won’t fight back as long as you keep hitting him and it only takes a few seconds to reduce his hit points to zero. Then you’ll be given the quest to meet him in the afterlife.

If I’ve saved any player the aggravation of dying repeatedly while fighting undead pharaohs, my work here is done. Your comments are welcome.

 

Game Crossovers and the Lack Thereof: Sam Fisher in the Wildlands

Yesterday morning I got a notification that a new mission had been added to Ghost Recon: Wildlands, which anyone who actually follows this blog knows was one of my favorite games from 2017. The team of four “ghosts” that constitute the game’s core fighting force receive a directive that they’re to accompany Sam Fisher, the lead character from Ubisoft’s long-running Splinter Cell series, in a stealth mission at the headquarters of the Bolivian state police. At first it felt odd to see a fairly iconic character from one series of games appear, seemingly from out of nowhere, in another series of games from the same publisher. Yet, after a little thought, I realized that it was even odder that I’d never seen Ubisoft or any other game publisher do this sort of thing before.

 

Justice Society
All-Star Comics #3 – Wait a minute! What are these guys doing in the same room with each other?

There’s a long history of character crossovers in other media, from television to comic books to novels. The first that I can recall — and, I hasten to add, it happened long before I was born — was in All-Star Comics #3, where DC teamed up all their most popular superheroes (minus Superman and Batman) in the Justice Society of America, breaking the unwritten rule against characters from one comic book appearing in stories about other characters. Years later, DC and Marvel broke that other unwritten rule about characters from one publisher appearing in comics from another, with their joint venture Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man: The Battle of the Century, a crossover that occurred long after I’d stopped reading comic books, but that at least caused me to pause at the newsstand and thumb through a copy.

Superman vs Spiderman
Superman vs. Spider-Man: Wait a minute! What are these guys even doing in the same universe?

By the 1980s, comic book character crossovers had become the rule rather than the exception and they spanned entire lines of comics, with massive events like DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths basically retconning every long-running series in the publishers stable and throwing them into a giant blender, from which they emerged substantially scathed. Now it seems that one comic book publisher or another has a cross-series event running almost constantly, e.g., Marvel’s Civil War series, which was loosely adapted into a film. Hawkeye even recently  murdered Bruce “The Hulk” Banner in a crossover Marvel murder event. Comic book characters can’t seem to stay in their own comics any more.

Civil War
Civil War: Pretty much every character in the Marvel line crossing over into one event.

TV shows also do it occasionally. CSI would begin a story in one of their franchises and end it in another. Lisa Kudrow’s character from Mad About You crossed over in the 90s to interact with Lisa Kudrow’s character on Friends. When St. Elsewhere flippantly ended its six season run by revealing that all the events on the show had taken place in the mind of an autistic child, somebody calculated that, when crossover events were taken into account, almost every series on NBC had been part of that child’s fervent imagination. I hope he grew up to be a network executive.

Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula
Sherlock Holmes and Dracula – Aren’t public domain characters wonderful?

Crossovers are less common in novels and generally involve characters who have long ago passed into the public domain. Sherlock Holmes, in the decades since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle went on to that great apiary in the sky, has become a crossover favorite, going up against Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the real-life Jack the Ripper multiple times. I’m sure by now someone has written a novel where Conan Doyle’s Holmes has teamed up with Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger. The combination would be a natural.

So where are the gaming crossovers? Maybe it’s because no other publisher has as many similar series running simultaneously as Ubisoft does. Solid Snake (who gets a nod from Sam Fisher in Wildlands) never got to appear in any other Konami games, but maybe that’s because Konami doesn’t have any other games where he’d be a comfortable fit (and Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima may not have wanted any other developers playing around with his signature creation). But Id Software has established several long-running worlds and has at least one signature character other than the anonymous space marines in Doom and Quake. Why hasn’t it occurred to anyone to let B.J. Blazkowicz cross over into the Doom or Quake universes? Raise your hand if you’d buy a game where Blazkowicz shoots demonic aliens instead of Nazis, which would hardly be a stretch. I’d buy that game in the click of a Steam button. And if Bioware could send Commander Shepard of Mass Effect back in time to fight alongside dwarves in the Dragon Age series, the demand might finally get some people to start running Electronic Arts’ Origin interface again, especially after Mass Effect: Andromeda tanked.

(SIDENOTE: It occurred to me after I wrote this post that the Walt Disney Company, in collaboration with Square-Enix, is responsible for the most ambitious game crossover project ever, Kingdom Hearts, where Mickey Mouse and Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty can mix it up with characters from the Final Fantasy franchise, but Kingdom Hearts is fairly unique as a gaming concept and aimed largely at younger players, as are the various Nintendo games where Mario can race go-karts with Diddy Kong and other signature Nintendo characters, games that are also aimed at younger players. As someone way past the age where racing karts sounds interesting, it’s crossovers in adult games that I find far more intriguing — and promising.)

The Sam Fisher crossover in Wildlands is short but difficult. I haven’t been able to complete it yet, but I watched a video on YouTube where somebody did. You have to slip into a Unidad compound (which, as any Wildlands player knows, is the toughest thing you can do in the game without getting all hell rained down on you) with your hands tied behind your backs by an injunction from Fisher himself forbidding you from killing anyone or even being spotted on your way to meet him. The moment an Unidad officer sees you crawling along the ground, the familiar skull symbol engulfs the screen and you have to start the mission again from roughly 300 meters away. Fortunately it’s a night mission. If it took place during the day it would be impossible; as it stands, it only requires infinite patience.

Once you’ve slipped into the base, you have to protect Fisher while he hacks a computer. That’s when you can start shooting, as soldiers and helicopters descend on your tiny bunker in an attempt to turn Fisher into one of those corpses the cartels love to hang from bridges. If you’re lucky, you’ll have enough ammo, and good enough aim, to let the Splinter Cell icon finish his hack. Then you have to rush him to a vehicle and drive him to the nearest rebel base alive, where Fisher quite clearly has a romantic interlude with your handler Karen Bowman while you and your companions are ejected into your next mission, albeit 1,500+ experience points richer.

This isn’t Ubisoft’s first Wildlands crossover. The earlier one, released a few months ago, spans media for its premise, pitting you against the invisible alien from the Predator films in a tedious, frustrating round of shooting at someone or something who can vanish and reappear at will. But this is the first time the crossover has actually involved someone from a completely different series of games.

Has this been done before? If not, why hasn’t it been? Why isn’t it done more often? Is it too redolent of comic books and Nintedo consoles for sophisticated game players, who like to think of their hobby as a nascent artform?

The hell with art: I think we should petition Id to let Ubisoft borrow Blazkowicz for an anachronistic Nazi fight in the Bolivian jungles. After all, South America is where all the surviving Nazis fled after Berlin fell. Their grandchildren and great-great grandchildren would make terrific rifle fodder for the ghosts. And Blazkowicz, who went bionic in his last game (also one of my favorites of 2017), will probably live forever.  Ghost Recon: Wolfenstein — now that’s a game I’d pay $60 for!

The Birth of 3D Gaming

This is going to be a story about me and about games. But mostly it’s going to be about 1992.

1992 was when it all changed. It was the year when texture-mapped 3D graphics became up close and personal, no longer just a collection of flat-shaded polygons viewable through the windows of airplanes in flight simulators and tanks in military simulators, instead offering a down-and-dirty first-person view that remains the standard in computer graphics to this day.

Two very different yet equally important games appeared in the spring and summer of that year. The first was Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss from Blue Sky Productions, an early incarnation of Looking Glass Studios, which would go on to create both the System Shock and Thief series. Underworld was only nominally an entry in the long-running Ultima line of RPGs. It was a standalone role-playing game where you explored a multi-level dungeon, the “abyss” of the title, in its full, three-dimensional glory. Technically, it was so far beyond anything else being done at the time that nobody even attempted to imitate it, and it remains one of the greatest CRPGs ever published.

Ultima Underworld
Ultima Underworld – The first true 3D dungeon crawl.

Three-dimensional dungeon crawls weren’t entirely new. Games like Dungeon Master (which I’ve written about before), and Dungeon Master clones like Eye of the Beholder, used a kind of stepwise 3D to simulate a four-way perspective view of a dungeon, but the smooth gliding movement of true 3D was conspicuously lacking. Even earlier, games like Wizardry, The Bard’s Tale and Might and Magic did something similar, but with less high-resolution realism. Ultima Underworld, though, was the real deal.

Yet it was eclipsed only four months later by a game less radically innovative but far more influential: Wolfenstein 3D. Its creator, Id Software, set their sights much lower than the creators of Ultima Underworld, but in terms of both popularity and influence what they achieved was considerably greater. They created a new genre, the first-person shooter, and imitations flooded the market for the next year and a half, until Id upped the ante again with the considerably more ambitious Doom. But Wolf3D was where the 3D revolution really began, for two reasons: It was easy to imitate and the gameplay was startlingly fast, even on 33mhz 80486-based PCs. Some players complained that running down endless hallways shooting at Nazis gave them motion sickness; now that’s realism! Never mind that those Nazis were flat cartoons pasted on top of the 3D background like sprites in an arcade game. The sheer exhilaration of the gameplay was something new under the gaming sun. Wolf3D was fast. It was addictive. It changed the way gamers looked at games.

Wolf3Db
Wolfenstein 3D – The game that launched a thousand Nazi hunters (and one B.J. Blazkowicz).

Let me back up for a moment. To the extent that I’ve had a career in the gaming industry it involved writing books about it. In late 1991, while I was serving as a moderator on the Compuserve Game Publishers Forums, I ran into an editor/publisher named Mitch Waite, who owned a company called Waite Group Press and was looking for someone to write a book about programming flight simulators. I had strong coding skills honed through years of programming as a hobby and I’d experimented a bit with 3D graphics — I’d managed, at least, to create a three-dimensional cube with multicolored sides that I could rotate on my computer’s screen — so I rashly volunteered to write it. To my surprise, I found myself almost immediately with a contract in hand for a book to be called Flights of Fantasy.

Mitch Waite wanted a book about flight simulators, but I was in touch with enough aspiring game programmers via Compuserve that I knew the market was ready for a lot more than that. I took writing Flights of Fantasy as an opportunity to teach both myself and other self-taught programmers how to create a wide variety of games with professional quality code. The irony was that I was not a professional programmer myself, unless you counted the programs I’d published in my earlier books for young adult readers, but Compuserve put me in touch with enough people who developed games for a living that it was fairly easy for me to learn how to write fast, optimized code for DOS-based animation. What I couldn’t learn from other programmers I could learn from books, many of them intended for advanced college courses in computer science. And what I couldn’t learn from books I could figure out by myself. Not to brag too much, but Flights of Fantasy was the first book that contained all the information programmers needed to write commercial games and I’d like to think I helped set a generation of young programmers on the road to doing precisely that.

Flights of Fantasy
Flights of Fantasy – I would have preferred a cover where the words “Programming 3D Video Games” were a whole lot larger.

My friends on Compuserve knew what I was working on and were eager to see the results. Just as I was putting the finishing touches on the book I logged on to Compuserve’s PC Forum and found a copy of the shareware version of Wolf3D, which had appeared without any advance publicity, in their download libraries. Somehow it had failed to appear in the gaming forum libraries and a few days later it wasn’t available on Compuserve at all. The company’s German branch had complained about the Nazi iconography that Id had liberally sprinkled about — swastikas and pictures of Adolph Hitler — and demanded that the game be taken down. But it was too late to prevent the game from becoming a juggernaut. Wolf3D was the talk of the summer.

It blew me away. My friends on Compuserve’s Flight Simulator Forum scoffed at it. Wolfenstein 3D wasn’t a true three-dimensional game, they complained. It cheated by using a 2D map and translating it into a three-dimensional image through some simple algorithmic trickery. To my mind, that missed the point. Computer games were all about illusion and the fact that Wolf3D created the illusion of high-speed 3D movement was enough to start the revolution in gaming graphics that the slow-moving, if engrossing, Ultima Underworld had failed to ignite.

Flights of Fantasy found an audience large enough to place it on computer-book bestseller lists for several weeks. (I should add that it would never have been finished without the help of my online friend Mark Betz, who wrote the flight model and designed the dashboard graphics while I wrote the 3D engine. I have no idea where Mark is now, but I owe him a debt of gratitude for helping me out on the most difficult book project of my career.) As it became apparent that Flights of Fantasy was a success, I suggested to Mitch Waite that I should follow it up with a book that demonstrated how Wolf3D and its imitators worked. The result was Gardens of Imagination, which wound up hitting bookshelves just a little too late in the curve to draw the audience that its predecessor had. Flights of Fantasy demonstrated that there was a huge audience for books on game programming and other publishers had already jumped into the fray. I’d created a field that was already too crowded for me to compete in.

Yet Gardens of Imagination was a lot more fun to write because it turned out that a Wolf3D-style graphics engine was remarkably easy to program. Even before I agreed to write the book, I created a prototype game in C++, using a simple trick called raycasting to simulate Id’s graphics. Like Minecraft three decades later, Wolf3D created its world out of blocks, much larger blocks than Minecraft uses, large enough to simulate walls and hallways, and drawing those walls on a video display involved a few simple trigonometric stunts that cast visual rays outward from the position of the player — hence the term “raycasting” — to determine what pixels those rays encountered as they snaked their way across the floor, up the walls, and back across the ceiling. It took me about three hours to get my first raycasting engine running, minus floors, ceilings and any kind of texture mapping on those surfaces. It was the kind of elegant programming that I found exciting because the code practically wrote itself. Adding texture mapping was more complicated, but it was still simple and elegant. The hardest part was making it run fast enough for realistic animation, which took me several weeks, as I rewrote a few key parts of the code in assembly language and unrolled loops into inline code, because by then my programming time was being eaten into by the task of actually writing the book.

But enough about me (for now, anyway). Anyone who was playing games in the period between Wolfenstein 3D and Doom remembers how raycast games suddenly flooded the market, many of them using Id’s own graphics engine. Raven Software, a company that was immensely skillful at taking other programmers’ ideas and making them look a thousand times better, created Heretic (for Id) and Shadowcaster (for Electronic Arts) using a modified version of the Wolf3D engine. When Id struck out on their own, their former publisher Apogee launched its own raycast shooter franchise with Blake Stone and the Aliens of Gold, but it came out just before the entire game changed, as it were, and never caught on.

Blake Stone and the Aliens of Gold
Blake Stone, substituting aliens for Nazis.

That period BD — Before Doom — seems distant and nostalgic now. Doom, released in shareware form in December of 1993, was so much more sophisticated than Wolf3D had been, using programming tricks so clever that I tried to imitate them in Gardens of Imagination and failed, that it encouraged developers to create increasingly advanced 3D shooters that always seemed a step behind Id’s brilliant lead programmer John Carmack — e.g., Bethesda Software’s Terminator Rampage and The Elder Scrolls: Arena, which seemed locked into the period between the two Id games in terms of their graphic capabilities. (Arena did essentially invent the 3D open-world game, but I’ve written about that elsewhere.)

Phantom Pain
Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain – As good as it’s going to get?

With the arrival of 3D graphics accelerators like the 3DFX Voodoo cards in 1996 and 1997, and the publication of games like Quake that could be modified to take advantage of those cards, computer gaming entered a new era of graphical realism, one that finally seems to be nearing its apex more than two decades later with games like The Witcher 3: Wild HuntMetal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain and Far Cry 5, which contain such vividly rendered worlds that it’s hard to imagine that 3D gaming is going to get any better on a technical level in the years to come. All that’s left is for developers to find increasingly inventive ways to use the graphics tools at their disposal. And, with the cheap and ready availability of gaming engines like Unreal and Unity, even small teams of indie developers can contribute to the continuing three-dimensional wave. Games like Gone Home, Dear Esther and Firewatch show how much can be done with a relatively tight budget and a lot of stylish ingenuity. But you can trace that wave straight back to 1992, when it first began surging toward the distant shore, that it finally seems to have reached, of photorealism.

With the publication of Ultima Underworld and Wolfenstein 3D, 1992 was when 3D gaming began. And I’m glad that, in my small way, I was there.

Catacomb 3D
Catacomb 3D — Actually a pretty good raycast FPS

NOTE: I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Wolfenstein 3D didn’t really originate the first-person shooter; it just popularized it. The original FPS was probably Id’s earlier raycast game Catacomb 3-D, first published in the floppy-based magazine Softdisk in November, 1991, an EGA shooter with a dungeon setting. But C3-D lacked the public visibility, as well as the 256-color VGA graphics, of Wolf3D and barely made a ripple in the computer-gaming pond.

Ubisoft in a Blender: Far Cry 5

Ubisoft games are addictive. I don’t mean that as a trivial observation, like “Ubisoft games are a steaming pile of horse puckey,” but as an operative principle. Players and critics commonly snark at the company for using the same tropes in game after game, series after series, but it’s as canny a move on Ubisoft’s part as the addition of extra nicotine is to the manufacture of cigarettes (and, to be fair, less harmful to the user). Through trial and error, or perhaps through real-time MRI scans tracing endorphin activity in the brains of beta testers, they’ve discovered tropes that induce pleasure in the gaming cortex, drawing players back for more — tropes that are, not to harp on it too much, addictive.

You can tick these tropes off in bullet points that could pretty much serve as an outline for the company’s next game:

  • Someone gets killed (Ghost Recon: Wildlands, Watch Dogs, Assassin’s Creed: Origins) and/or a community finds itself in the clutches of a malevolent criminal organization (Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, every Far Cry entry, Wildlands, Watch Dogs 2).
  • A lone hero (the player) sets out in the company of animal and/or human companions to right the wrong and take down the hierarchical pyramid of bad guys responsible by conquering the regions of the game world that they’re in charge of (every game named above).
  • The territory is mapped out by climbing to the top of various towers (every Assassin’s Creed and Watch Dogs game, Far Cry 3 and 4).
  • A drone, bird or dog spots enemies from, usually, an aerial perspective (Wildlands, Watch Dogs, Far Cry Primal, Far Cry 5, Assassin’s Creed: Origin) and tags them with distinctive markers, making them visible through buildings and scenery.
  • You engage in reckless, destructive vehicular chases (WildlandsWatch DogsFar Cry 3 on), a trope stolen from Grand Theft Auto.
  • Somebody natters at you on a car radio or walkie talkie (Wildlands, Watch Dogs, Far Cry), playing music or occasionally giving you news that’s actually useful, a mechanism that seems primarily designed to keep you from getting bored during those vehicular chases. (Yes, this is also a trope stolen from the Grand Theft Auto games, though Ubisoft doesn’t offer as many channels on the car radio.)
  • Cut scenes when some major goal has been achieved to reward you for completing multi-part missions that steal several hours out of your life (Wildlands, Watch Dogs, Far Cry, most Assassin’s Creeds).
  • Somebody slips you a drug every now and then so that you can drift your way through fantasy missions that look like the Dark Dimension sequences from Doctor Strange (recent Far Cry games, several Assassin’s Creeds).
  • You stumble on arcade games that let you play quick, casual versions of the same game you’re in (Watch Dogs, Far Cry 5).

Repetitive though they may be, I can’t find a single element here that doesn’t give me pleasure (except for the GTA elements, like the nattering car radio and the vehicle chases, which I could happily live without). There’s a sweet satisfaction in the swooping duotone territory reveals produced by Far Cry 4‘s tower climbs and a burst of pleasure every time I see an enemy light up with a red dot when viewed from a drone (or through binoculars or simply by pointing a weapon in their general vicinity). Even the cut scenes are spaced out at intelligently planned intervals rather than used as constant interruptions of the action, as they are in the GTA games.

I miss these tropes when I’m off playing something else, which is why I’ll pick up a new Ubisoft game the moment it hits Steam rather than wait for it to show up on sale. It’s like ending a period of withdrawal with a hit from an old, familiar drug. And it’s why I’ve now been playing Far Cry 5 for five days running. The addiction has kicked in again.

The great thing about Ubisoft games is that, should you inadvertently fall in love with one of them (as I inexplicably fell in love with three of them last year), you’re pretty much in love with all of them. I’m not the first or even thousandth person to observe that Ubisoft reuses the same tropes through game after game, adding just enough variation within a series and  between series to keep those tropes from growing old. But most people seem to find this a negative. For me, it’s the reason I keep coming back to their games.

Far Cry 5 has pretty much all the tropes listed above, except for climbing towers to map terrain, a mechanic that’s jokingly dismissed in an early mission when your radio correspondent tells you, “Don’t worry — I won’t have you climbing towers all over the county.” Instead, you have to pick up map fragments lying in old houses to fill in the dark spots on the map screen. Or you can simply explore.

Far Cry 5 Street Scene
What else can a poor boy do?

At first Far Cry 5 plays like a retread of the previous two games in the series, which were embarrassingly identical twins. (I preferred Far Cry 4, but maybe that’s just because it’s the one I played first.) You start out, as per formula, by meeting the Big Bad, running afoul of the leader of a doomsday cult that has Hope County, Montana, locked down without communication lines to the outside world. (Presumably you could just hoof it over to the next county down the road, as a lot of the locals have, but you’d get a “Leaving Mission Area” error if you tried and plenty of NPCs have an understandable interest in sticking around to keep their businesses and homesteads intact. Why none of the escapees thinks to tell the authorities to send in the National Guard is never explained. Or maybe the cult has killed all the escapees. They do, after all, seem to be everywhere.)

The cult is called Project Eden’s Gate, but the locals, who hate the cultists with a vengeance that the player is supposed to supply, just call the members Peggies as a deliberately trivializing shorthand. Following the standard Die Hard approach of previous Far Cry games, you start out having to fight the cult alone, then join an occasionally helpful resistance group that expects you to do most of the work. This is where the game opens up and becomes at least a little different from its predecessors. As in earlier games you can hire locals to fight with you — up to two, once you acquire the Leadership perk — but some of these are “specialists,” NPCs both human and animal who bring some useful skills to your game. My favorite, and by now apparently everyone’s favorite, is Cheeseburger, a local circus bear you can befriend with a freshly caught salmon. (And, yes, you have a mission to catch that salmon before you can catch that bear.) Cheeseburger is the best weapon I’ve seen in a video game, even better than the BFG in Doom. I’ve watched him take down entire Peggy compounds without my having to do anything except revive him after he gets shot. (He does the same for me, licking me back to life while I’m holding down the CTRL key to “cling” to my waning existence.)

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No, I’m not going to shoot Cheeseburgerr. He’s my friend!

The missions are generally well designed — my favorite so far has you playing defender against an onslaught of brainwashed cultists at a prison, a seemingly hopeless bloodbath that turns out to have a satisfyingly simple solution — but a few of the main missions are merely annoying, e.g., a tedious Story Mission where I had to rescue some guy named Merle who was trapped on a ridge and needed somebody to keep him alive until the rescue chopper arrived. I must have died 40 times before I realized that all I had to do was hide behind a large rock with Merle and pick off the Peggies as they climbed up the cliff after us. What made my repeated failures so frustrating is that the mission was neither optional nor something you could put off until you were in the mood for it; you had to save Merle before you could go back to the open world of the main game. There are also some annoyingly non-optional hallucinatory missions where the cult leader drugs you with something called Bliss and forces you to make a timed run through a gauntlet of ghostly enemies, ending with a wild leap into what looks like the Outsider’s otherworldly domain in Dishonored. I hate those missions and they recur at what seem to be timed intervals. In fact, Father Joseph has a bothersome habit of playing catch-and-release with the player character, interrupting whatever I’m doing to force me to fight my way back out of one of his compounds to get on with my life, such as it is. Why he just doesn’t kill me after he’s caught me, I haven’t figured out yet, but I wish he’d just let me keep playing the damned game. That, after all, is why I’m here.

As frustrating as these mandatory quests and unasked-for interruptions can be, the open world is worth getting back to. It’s huge and it’s gorgeous, a bit like the Bolivia of Wildlands crossed with the Kyrat of Far Cry 4. There are spectacular mountaintop views that are better than anything in Skryim, even now that Skyrim has been given a nominal retrofit for more up-to-date graphics boards. The facial renderings are as realistic as anything I’ve seen in a computer game, with the sort of sweaty specular patches on NPC brows that only a couple of years ago would have been reserved for pre-rendered cut scenes. Even when tied up and forced to watch talking heads jabbering backstory at you, the game lets you squirm around and view those heads from different angles, so you can tell that the rendering is being done in real time. This may be the first instance where I’ve begun to wonder if there’s anything left for video hardware manufacturers to add, other than speed, that will make games more photorealistic. There’s no uncanny valley here: These virtual puppets look like real people who could have walked out of your television screen, except that they seem a little more real than most characters on TV. The voice acting is little more than adequate, with no real standouts, with the possible exception of a feral female archer who keeps heaping off-the-cuff praise on Cheeseburger. (“Bitchin’ bear!” “I wish I had a bear!”)

As in any open-world game worth the description, Far Cry 5 lets you solve most problems in any way you can get to work. I remember the thrill I got in Watch Dogs when I realized that a car chase I was unable to complete wasn’t even necessary. All I had to do was shoot the car’s tires out before I began chasing it. (Several car chases in Watch Dogs turn out to be avoidable with a little thought.) I felt a similar thrill in Far Cry 5 when I realized that I didn’t have to land my helicopter in the path of a convoy and then chase it in a ground vehicle to destroy its contents. I could just shoot the crap out of it from the helicopter and never so much as touch ground.

The dialog, which is often no more than functional, can occasionally be crisp and witty. (Specialist: “You and me, we’re gonna be like Butch and Sundance!” Specialist’s Wife: “Nick, they both died in the end.” Or: Feral Archer: “You drive like my drunk old man. That’s a compliment.” Or my favorite: “I used to be a deputy like you, but then I took a bullet to the knee.”)  What the game lacks is a villain as fascinatingly charismatic as the flamboyantly metrosexual Pagan Min in Far Cry 4. Father Joseph Seed, leader of the cult, is a bad guy just a little too obviously from central casting, too straight-faced and dry to be fun, too ineffectual to be intimidating. His main strength is the bizarre hold that he maintains over what seems like thousands of nameless Montanans who follow him under the influence of drugs, because what clear-headed person would fall under the spell of a guy this boring? It’s certainly not because of his charisma.

Joseph Seed
Father Joe, droning on and on and on…

The scariest villain in the game may well be Joseph’s sister Faith, a diaphanously dressed flower child who blows Bliss in your face and flirts with you in a field of sparkling grass and butterflies, then floats away on angel wings. She’s scary because, like Pagan Min, she isn’t played as scary.  She’s played as innocently seductive, like a drug — and drugs are her specialty.

Faith Seed with Butterflies
Faith Seed with butterflies. (SPOILER: The butterflies represent drugs.)

Marshall with Butterflies
Rescuing the Marshall from Faith Seed’s butterflies. (SPOILER: The butterflies…oh, never mind.)

Before this game came out, I had my Ubisoft addiction on low maintenance by alternating between Assassin’s Creed: Origins and Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, the latter a game I’d had no interest in until an online acquaintance suggested I try it. Neither of those is as much fun as this game is — Origins takes itself too seriously; Syndicate, though less serious, is more than a little repetitive (though nowhere near as repetitive as the initial game in the AC series, which I’m pretty sure, after 11 years, I’m never going to finish). Far Cry 5 is more fun than either of these games by a Montana mile.

I know I’m supposed to hate this game, to get all snarky about it like this, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I know there’s nothing remotely original in Far Cry 5, but that’s not why I play Ubisoft games. I play them for the same reason a surprisingly vast audience plays retro games, for the comfort of familiar mechanics that I already understand and have developed an affection for. Far Cry 5 takes most of the Ubisoft tropes I’ve enjoyed in their other games, throws them in a blender, and comes up with an Ubisoft smoothie, but damned if it isn’t a great smoothie, one that feeds my addiction as effectively as taking a long drag on a cigarette must feed a smoker’s nicotine craving. Still, even something this entertaining gets wearying after a while and if Father Joe sends me through his drug-induced “cull-the-herd” gauntlet one more time I may put the whole thing aside for a week until it begins to seem fresh again.

It will, though. There’s just too much to love in Far Cry 5 for it to stay boring for long. And I haven’t even met all the human and animal “specialists” yet, though I plan to have that bear on my team no matter who my second specialist is. (Right now it’s pilot Nick Rye, who neatly picks off Peggies from his airplane as I cower behind nearby concrete barriers and watch.) Yeah, it’s silly. Yeah, the interruptions are annoying. Yeah, much of the premise makes no sense. Yeah, I feel a little embarrassed at how much I’m enjoying it. But when that bear goes into action,  it’s more fun than any circus act I’ve ever seen. The game is worth playing for that damned bear alone.