2021: my gaming year in review

Happy New Year, everyone!

My gaming resolutions for 2021 were to try new things, and write more for this site. I wrote about several games — notably Humankind, Highfleet, Sable, Stars in Shadow, Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia, and assorted flight sims — and interviewed the developers of Stars in Shadow. I delved into deck-builders, sampled various indie games (mostly on Game Pass), and tried unique experiences such as Highfleet and Subnautica. I also kept playing one of my mainstay genres, the 4X strategy game, and revisited a genre from which I’ve lapsed, the narrative RPG.

Build deck, fail, try again

In 2021, I played three deck-building, card-battling roguelites:  Slay the Spire, Nowhere Prophet, and Fights in Tight Spaces.

At the time I would have called Nowhere Prophet my pick of the three, based on its emphasis on worldbuilding and (emergent) narrative. You lead your tribe across a post-apocalyptic colony planet in search of a promised land, managing supplies and battling rival factions along the way. Managing a desperate turnaround to win the final battle was one of my coolest gaming moments all year; and I loved that the ending reflected my choices along the way.

Right now, my favourite would be the more replayable Slay the Spire — I liked it enough to pick up the Switch version after first beating it on Game Pass for PC. It’s quick, satisfying, and never leaves me frustrated — even when I frequently die. And the game’s art style and quirky charm have grown on me.

I love Slay the Spire’s sense of whimsy. Where else would you fight a final boss shaped like a giant, dancing doughnut?

An honourable mention goes to Fights in Tight Spaces, a stylish Bond/Bourne/action movie-themed game where, with full visibility over the enemy’s upcoming turn, you use cards to manoeuvre your agent around the battlefield and strike back.

Discovering new worlds

Subnautica is one of the best science-fiction experiences in game form. It captures what it must be like to explore a new world: marvel, mixed with terror. Over time, as I build bases, upgrade my equipment, and learn more about the surrounding seas, the terror abates — but it never quite goes away, not for voyages into the unknown. If I have a complaint, it would be the “needle in a haystack” progression. I estimate I’m in the late midgame, so there should be plenty left to discover.

Challenging myself

Highfleet deserves special mention for its approach to difficulty. This is a game that demands the player learn how it works, understand systems such as detection, and learn the tools available, such as how to strike from long range. Then it throws the player in the deep end against superior enemy fleets, and early on, before I learnt, those fleets pounded me to bits. That made it all the sweeter when I turned the tables.

Flight simulators — and in particular DCS World, the modern military flight sim — might also belong here. I don’t think I will ever master the intricacies of a modern fighter in DCS. At the same time, DCS at its best is a flow experience: flying, working the radar, manoeuvring and shooting, and once, seeing a glorious sunrise as my reward.

Revisiting the 4X genre

In 2021, I played two 4X games that shine at the clash of empires: Humankind and Stars in Shadow. Humankind is at its best when I’m fighting for my life against army after enemy army, desperately buying breathing space, and then grimly preparing for the next war. Meanwhile, Stars in Shadow strips away the bloat from the 4X formula with a focused design, an emphasis on ship design & tactical combat, an AI that knows how to challenge the human, and an overall sense of charm.

Defending my capital against an early predator in Humankind.

Replaying Civ VI (this time on Switch) shortly before the release of Humankind let me compare them side-by-side. I think they’re very different, with Civ VI being better for tile and city optimisation, enlivened by great music, whereas Humankind is better with conflict and the threat of conflict. Overall, I like both, with a preference for Humankind.

I’m proud of building the Opera House in its correct city in Civ VI!

Last but not least, I had a great time replaying Shadow Empire, via a co-op succession game with a friend.

Returning to narrative RPGs

I used to be a big fan of RPGs, both Japanese and Western, before drifting away over the last decade. In 2021, I powered through Dragon Quest XI and finished the main game, after playing on and off for several years. At its best, it tells a story about character growth and resilience, wrapped up in a charming, whimsical world.

I love the localisation in the Dragon Quest games.

I also started on the Yakuza series with Like a Dragon, and replayed a decent chunk of Final Fantasy XII.

What were my favourite new games of 2021?

Out of the few new releases I played in 2021, Humankind is my pick for Game of the Year. Other notable releases included:

  • Highfleet, with its combination of imagination and uncompromising difficulty.
  • The cheerful, charming Sable.
  • Unpacking, a satisfying puzzle game that traces a person’s life over the decades by unpacking her belongings after each move.
I love the details in Unpacking, such as the boxy beige CRT monitor in the early years, and the faithful pink toy pig.

I’d like to spend more time with two games whose fluid combat and striking graphics made a good first impression on me:

  • Record of Lodoss War: Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth — a retro Metroidvania.
  • Death’s Door — an isometric action game.

What were my favourite discoveries from previous years?

During 2021, I discovered a lot of games that had originally released in previous years, from a wide array of genres. The highlights included:

  • Subnautica — survival and exploration
  • The digital version of Wingspan — a relaxing, delightful board game about attracting birds to a sanctuary.
  • Stars in Shadow — space 4X
  • DCS World — military flight sim
  • Slay the Spire — deck-building roguelite
  • Nowhere Prophet — deck-building roguelite
  • Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia — console strategy-RPG
  • Good Job — an often hilarious physics puzzler
  • Northgard — a clever variation on the RTS, with a greater focus on building and manning a settlement. If only the font on the Switch version were larger…
  • Carto — a puzzle game with a unique mechanic: rearranging pieces of a map to change the world around you
  • Troubleshooter: Abandoned Children — an indie squad-based tactics game with some interesting twists on the XCOM formula, such as a greater focus on melee combat
  • PGA Tour 2K21 — my first ever “realistic” sports game, after I previously enjoyed Golf Story

Honourable indie mentions include:

  • River City Girls — a beat-em-up
  • Silence: The Whispered World 2 — an adventure game, short on narrative coherence but with some striking “scary fairy-tale” moments

The perennials

I revisited some games due to new DLC (Anno 1800, X4: Foundations, Total War: Three Kingdoms), updates (Shadow Empire), or buying on a new platform (Civ VI). Majesty was a childhood favourite whose HD version I replayed on Steam — after two decades, I finally beat the campaign. And Mario Kart 8: Deluxe is an evergreen favourite.

Looking forward to 2022

2022 should be exciting for 4X lovers: Distant Worlds 2 is scheduled for March, while Soren Johnson’s Old World will come to Steam in Q2.

Two of Old World’s stablemates from Hooded Horse Games, Terra Invicta and Falling Frontiers, are also scheduled to release in 2022. Both are space combat strategy games, with Terra Invicta also adding an element of “XCOM: Council Simulator” as players compete for influence and resources on Earth.

Two upcoming Early Access titles look interesting: Eugen’s WARNO, a spiritual successor to the Wargame franchise; and Nebulous: Fleet Command, another space combat strategy game. Both are due to enter Early Access in early 2022 (January and February, respectively).

And finally, Slime Rancher 2 was the highlight of E3 for me. The original game was colourful, cheerful, and by virtue of being first-person and 3D, satisfyingly tactile to explore. I look forward to the sequel bouncing onto my screen in 2022!

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Around Japan in Microsoft Flight Simulator in 317 days

Today, I finished my on-and-off project in Microsoft Flight Simulator: flying from one end of Japan to the other, one hop at a time. It has taken me nearly a year, since last Christmas; my flights began a few days apart, then became a few weeks apart, and eventually a few months apart. Now, I’ve done it!

I took this picture of the Japan Alps on a flight between Toyama and Matsumoto, before I began my tour.

My journey took me across all four of Japan’s major islands, starting from the far south of Kyushu and culminating in today’s flight across Hokkaido, from Sapporo to Kushiro. Along the way I stopped in cities such as Kobe, Tokyo, and Sendai, saw sights such as Itsukushima Shrine, and enjoyed the countryside from above.

A dramatic sky as I departed Sapporo.

There has been the odd mishap — flying from Sendai to Sapporo, I crashed because I didn’t realise I had to manually toggle from an empty fuel tank to a full one. (As I made it most of the way, I skipped to the landing on my second try!) That was the exception — mostly I took off and landed in one piece.

What struck me was the diversity of the Japanese landscape. Flying over major cities such as Tokyo, it was urban sprawl as far as the eye could see:

Tokyo sprawled out as I approached Haneda airport.

Soon afterwards, I flew over remote mountain forests, seemingly devoid of human beings; and marvelled at the difference. Following the coast north from Sendai, I saw what I think were fishing towns — how important must the sea be to those communities?

This morning, I flew in opaque fog over mountains (wondering if my little plane could safely make it across), before the skies cleared to reveal lowland fields. Panning the camera around rewarded me with a view of my plane emerging from the fog, with the mountains behind:

It was a great feeling when I emerged from the mountains and reached the safety of the lowlands.

I’ve seen beautiful sunsets:

The Japanese coast at sunset.

… flew through snow during the last northern winter (how time flies!), and felt the thrill when the runway came into view at the end of today’s flight. At last, I was at journey’s end.

Taxiing to park at Kushiro airport.

While my tour might be over, this won’t be my final flight, over Japan or in Flight Simulator. I’m sure I’ll have more scenes to see.

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My journey into flight sims

My latest rediscovery has been the flight sim genre. In the early 1990s I grew up on Microprose and Origin titles, such as Gunship 2000 and Chris Roberts’ Strike Commander (at the same time that I played lots of space sims, such as the Wing Commander series). Late last year I began to drift back into the hobby, and it has been a rewarding experience.

I’ve divided this post into two parts. In the first part I share my adventure to date, across civilian and military sims. In the second part, I summarise what I’ve learned in a FAQ for anyone else wanting to get into the hobby.

The adventure so far

I can divide my time with flight sims into three phases:

  • Phase 1. Seeing the world from my desk with Microsoft Flight Simulator;
  • Phase 2. Testing the waters in War Thunder; and
  • Phase 3. Learning modern military aircraft with a HOTAS & DCS World.

Phase 1. Seeing the world from my desk with Microsoft Flight Simulator

My journey began last October, with the latest edition of Flight Simulator. Flight Simulator is an ideal gateway into the hobby: it’s beautiful, accessible, and affordable. It’s available via a Game Pass subscription; controls well with a gamepad; and includes a good tutorial and numerous toggle-able realism options. Flying small aircraft is easy and pleasant: it’s hard to mess up in training aircraft such as the Cessna 152 and 172, and aerobatic designs such as JMB Aviation’s VL-3 can dance across the sky.  (Airliners are harder, although a recent patch just added two airliner tutorials, which I haven’t tried yet.)

For me, Flight Simulator also worked as a gateway into military flight sims. Knowing how to fly a plane is transferable — I think my proudest sim moment to date is landing a damaged fighter in War Thunder using what I learned in Flight Simulator.

As to where I’ve been in Flight Simulator, it’s already a long list. I’ve explored regional Australia, followed the roads and parks near my house, flown above world cities from Paris to Kuala Lumpur, and seen the sights from the Hoover Dam to Hawaii. My current project is a hop-by-hop tour of Japan, inspired by this post on the Stormbirds blog. Starting at the southern tip of Kyushu, I’ve flown to the northern tip of the island, then to western Honshu, and across to northern Shikoku. Here are my snaps of Itsukushima Shrine:

Phase 2: Testing the waters in War Thunder

After Flight Simulator, I gave War Thunder a try. What I found was a really, really good game held back by its F2P revenue model.

War Thunder offers three air battle modes of increasing realism: Arcade, Realistic, and Simulator Battles. I had plenty of fun with Arcade mode, which offered instant action, cinematic set-pieces such as canyon runs and frantic furballs, and a smooth sense of flow: respawns were quick and I typically waited <20 seconds between battles.

At its best, War Thunder is a fun, cinematic experience.

Meanwhile, WT’s Simulator mode let me dip my toes into the water to see if I’d enjoy realistic military flight sims. While it was much harder than Arcade mode — even staying straight and level was a challenge — I found it intriguing, and I wanted to learn more.

Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing. This was a good landing.

The issue is that while the game itself tries to nurture a sense of flow, the F2P mechanics break it up. Repairing damaged aircraft requires a lengthy cooldown between battles — but oh, if you have in-game currency, you can skip it. Unlocking new aircraft through research takes quite a bit of time once you get past the early-game 1930s aircraft — and then they need to be bought using in-game currency. I thought seriously of paying for premium time or aircraft (which speed up the rates at which research and currency accumulate), but in the end decided to spend my money on other sims.

Lest I frighten you off, I should say that I enjoyed my time with WT and I think it would be an excellent first step into the world of military flight sims. While I’ve moved on from the game for now, I’m grateful for the fun that it gave me; for the variety of aircraft that it showcased; and for letting me test my hypothesis that I was interested in sims — all for free.

Phase 3: Learning modern military aircraft with a HOTAS & DCS World

The third phase began during the Christmas and New Year sale periods, when I picked up:

  • One space sim, Star Wars: Squadrons.
  • One WW2 sim, IL-2: Battle of Stalingrad and the Battle of Bodenplatte module.
  • Two modern-day military sims:
    • DCS World — first a free trial, then a paid module.
    • Falcon 4.0 and the Falcon BMS overhaul mod.
  • And crucially, hardware: I was fortunate enough to find a great post-Christmas deal on my first HOTAS, the Logitech X-52. While Flight Simulator and Star Wars: Squadrons control well enough with a gamepad, and War Thunder’s arcade mode was designed around mouse control, the HOTAS was the key that unlocked realistic military sims for me.
A night-time take-off in DCS World’s F-15.

Out of the military sims, the one I’ve played the most of is DCS World. DCS offers a sandpit where players can fly instant action missions, play official campaigns, design their own missions and campaigns, and fly missions or campaigns designed by other players. It is modular in that different aircraft, maps, and campaigns are sold separately — out of the box it includes a Caucasus map and two free aircraft (the Su-25T and an unarmed trainer version of the P-51). Other maps and aircraft modules are available for purchase, although even on sale, one typically costs as much as an entire game.

My DCS journey really began when the HOTAS arrived. During DCS’ free trial period over Christmas, I tried and loved the F/A-18 Hornet, and eventually bought the much cheaper F-15C module together with a campaign, “The Georgian War”. While the F-15 lacks an in-game tutorial, I’ve been able to learn using several fan-made resources (refer bottom of this post for the list). Now I can take off, fly around, (sometimes) land, and intercept targets, such as cargo planes and helicopters, that don’t shoot back. Challenging other fighters tends to end with me floating back down to earth in a parachute — but oh well, practice makes perfect!

Does this still count as a landing?

As this suggests, learning military sims requires patience. Learning how to fly the plane and operate its systems is the easy part — learning tactics is the hard part. Add to this the need to track down player-made resources, and rough edges in the software: last evening I managed to get past a campaign mission after what must have been 8 or 10 tries, only for DCS to fail to register my progress! Did I hit the wrong button? Was I supposed to do something after the “mission complete” message? Should I have landed instead of assuming my progress would be saved? Or was it a glitch in the game? Whatever it was, I was extremely frustrated: I ended up using a text editor to manually update my pilot profile and unlock the next mission.

The other main military flight sim on the market is IL-2. I haven’t played much of this as I find WW2 aircraft much harder to fly than modern ones. In an F-15 or F/A-18, the onboard systems will do their best to prevent me from crashing the plane, whereas I find it all too easy to enter a fatal spin (… or fail to take off due to engine torque wrenching the plane off the runway…) in IL-2’s P-51s and Tempests (and, for that matter, War Thunder’s P-40s in Simulator mode).

Even with these challenges, I’ve greatly enjoyed my flight sim journey. It’s been a pleasure to see my skill gradually improve, across different aircraft, games, and settings. It’s helped me “reach out and touch history” by allowing me to better understand and relate to aviation memoirs. And flying is one of the great marvels of our world: I will never tire of seeing the sun rise over a horizon, or of watching sunlight turn the sea to shining silver. I’m glad I can do it from my desk.

Getting into flight sims: a FAQ

What should I get if I want to fly WW2 planes?

You probably want the IL-2 series:

  • Cliffs of Dover: Blitz Edition is a fan-overhauled version of an early 2010s game — as the title suggests, it focuses on the Battle of Britain. A more recent DLC takes place in North Africa.
  • The Great Battles entries are the latest in the series. On Steam, look for IL-2: Battle of Stalingrad, the base game; other modules (including Battle of Bodenplatte, which shifts to the late-war Western Front) are available as DLC.

What should I get if I want to fly modern planes?

DCS World or Falcon BMS.

What should I get if I want a dynamic campaign?

Falcon BMS. DCS has none, although one is currently under development.

I’m not sure if I’ll enjoy flight sims. How can I test the waters without spending too much money?

Microsoft Flight Simulator is probably the best starting choice. For military sims, there are several options:

  • War Thunder, especially its Simulator Battles mode.
  • IL-2 becomes very cheap on Steam sales.
  • Falcon BMS — the original Falcon 4.0 is very cheap on GOG and Steam — although I find it harder to learn than DCS.
  • While DCS comes with two free aircraft (the Su-25T and the TF-51), I don’t think the free Su-25 is a very good introduction to the game. I think a better bet would be waiting for a free trial event, or buying one or all of the Flaming Cliffs 3 aircraft — a much more affordable selection of aircraft (such as the F-15) that are controlled using keyboard/HOTAS shortcuts instead of clicking switches in the cockpit.

I don’t have a HOTAS. What can I play using a keyboard, mouse, or gamepad?

Microsoft Flight Simulator has an excellent default gamepad control scheme.

War Thunder’s Arcade Battles and Realistic Battles (not Simulator Battles) use mouse controls.

My experience with the “realistic” military sims — Il-2 and DCS — is that they need a HOTAS. Gamepads are possible but I found I needed the finer controls provided by the stick and throttle. In the case of DCS, the hat switches also it much easier to control important functions such as radar.

Which HOTAS should I consider?

I’ve seen plenty of recommendations for VKB sticks, but they may not be available where you live. They were not available for me.

Other than that, the “big name” brands offer several mid-priced products:

  • Thrustmaster T16000
  • Logitech X series (X52, X52 Pro, and X56) – I went for the X52.

What resources would you recommend to learn the F-15 in DCS World?

As the F-15 does not come with an in-game tutorial. I learned using these:

For other aircraft, refer to the very detailed Chucks Guides.

What resources would you recommend to learn IL-2?

Oddly enough, IL-2 lacks in-game tutorial missions. Fortunately, a fan-made set of training missions is available here. Chuck’s Guides (above) also include a few for IL-2.

What I played in 2020

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everyone! I hope you’re all safe and well.

This year I played the usual new and new-ish strategy games. XCOM: Chimera Squad, Shadow Empire, and Crusader Kings III were all strong releases. Amongst 2019 games, Age of Wonders: Planetfall was a solid combat-focused 4X and Planet Zoo was a charming and pleasant management game.

My great discovery was the Anno series: I’ve put almost 150 hours into Anno 1800 alone, a game that combines gorgeous production values, engrossing city management, and Paradox-like depth and replayability. On some evenings, I tinkered with coffee production chains or proudly set up new tractors. At other times, I found myself plunged into a city-building version of the Empire: Total War successor I’ve always wanted, as my trading empire fought for its life across multiple continents. Whether trying to inaugurate a World’s Fair, or ensuring that the chocolate must flow, there is always something more to do. And I think the Anno series’ central idea — that society depends on long, elaborate production chains — felt especially relevant this year.

I also replayed many classic strategy games, ranging from the 1990s to the 2010s. These included Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance  Jagged Alliance 2, and a raft of 4X titles: Imperialism 2, Master of Magic, Age of Wonders III, Civilization IV, and Alpha Centauri.

The standout was Alpha Centauri, which I would argue is still the best 4X game ever made: it has some of the best science fiction worldbuilding in any game, while also shining on a mechanical level. With Alpha Centauri, 1990s strategy game design reached its peak: it offered the player a dazzling range of toys without falling into the pitfalls that afflict modern games, such as bloat or an over-emphasis on “balance”. And it could teach the modern Civilization series how to handle warfare: armies, navies, and air forces are punchy and interesting to use, without either the problems of Civilization IV‘s stacks of doom or the subsequent one-unit-per-tile rule.

Transcendence victory in Alpha Centauri! I achieved this via a science/economic boom as the Peacekeepers, backed by a powerful air force and navy, and an alliance with the Gaians.

Finally, this was the year in which I tried new and different types of games, both on PC and on Switch:

X4: Foundations and the early access version of Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord made me realise how much I love dynamic worlds, where I can set my own objectives and carve out a niche alongside a map full of NPC factions trying to do the same.

I returned to flight sims for the first time since childhood with the beautiful, accessible Flight Simulator. Within a few hours, I was confidently taking off, flying, and landing Cessnas; now I’m sightseeing around the world. Flight Simulator proved to be my gateway back into the genre: I went on to test the waters of combat sims with War Thunder. In the last week, I bought Star Wars: Squadrons and IL-2, and I’m currently eyeing DCS World’s modern aircraft.

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is my first real experience with Metroidvanias (I played Symphony of the Night many years ago but didn’t get far). Now that I’m nearing the end, I see why people love this genre! The blend of combat and exploration reminds me of a much easier, 2D version of Dark Souls — I love working out where to go next, based on the latest ability I’ve unlocked — and its goofy, over-the-top cast and setting are far from what the ominous title suggests.

Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey was my first Assassin’s Creed game since AC4: Black Flag. Its much better, more mobile combat and gorgeous depiction of Classical Greece won my heart. I just need to play more…

The cheerful, colourful Slime Rancher benefits from being in first person and in 3D. This gave it a satisfying physicality when puttering around the ranch or exploring the wilderness — something I found missing in top-down games such as Stardew Valley. It’s also very, very cute.

The Twinkle Slime wishes you a Merry Christmas, too.

After casually playing Mario Kart games for years, and never doing well on anything faster than 100cc, this was the year in which I set out to master Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Along the way, my admiration grew for how well-designed MK8 is — its balance of skill and luck, its charm and character, how well it eases the player into a state of flow. MK8 also became the first game to get me back into online multiplayer since Eugen’s Wargame series, years ago. Just don’t ask me to do well on Rainbow Road…

First place in every race in this 150cc cup in Mario Kart! I managed this after playing 200cc races and gaining experience online.

Nintendo has the knack of making me try even genres I don’t normally play: Mario Galaxy is delightful, although I’m still at the button-mashing stage in Mario Tennis Aces. Animal Crossing: New Horizons offered a pleasant experience that easily fit into my Switch routine.

My most notable Switch release of the year was a third-party game. Hades combines fast-paced action with good writing: the more I played, the more I realised how cleverly it blends a modern interpretation of Greek myth with the original themes. I cleared it for the first time on my 17th attempt, and narratively this is just the end of the beginning.

Hard-earned victory in Hades.

Amongst other third-party games, Two Point Hospital was an excellent port and a good game, albeit one that dragged on slightly too long. I enjoyed improving my virtual swing in Golf Story — while practicing for the final course, I revisited every previous course and consciously made an effort to use every tool the game placed at my disposal. Finally, the delightful A Short Hike was my favourite short-form game in years.

Best wishes to all of you for 2021, and I’ll see you next year.