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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Humankind impressions: off to a promising start

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Humankind

I’ve finished two games of Humankind, the new historical 4X strategy game from Amplitude. It’s really good — better than I had expected. It’s also a lot more challenging, and I think that’s why I’m enjoying it.

Comparisons to Civilization will be inevitable — I’ll go out on a limb and say that at a design level, I think Humankind does Civ better than the most recent Civ games. While I play and enjoy Civilization VI as a “numbers go up” game where the fun is in designing and building powerhouse cities, that game’s AI is simply not aggressive or tactically competent enough to feel like a true rival. If I do lose a game of Civ VI, it’s because I did a poor job of making the numbers go up, hence allowing the computer to reach the victory conditions first.

Victory in Humankind goes to the player with the most fame points, which are awarded for reaching goals in each era. These goals relate to science, enemy units destroyed, money and influence earned, population size, number of territories, and the number of districts built. So far I find it very easy to accumulate points for science and (when at war) destroying enemies, and harder to accomplish the other objectives.

By contrast, playing on Empire difficulty (5 out of 7 — I agree with the consensus that experienced 4X / strategy gamers should crank the difficulty up), Humankind consistently puts me under pressure — I have yet to win a single game. In my first game, I barely scraped into #2 place on the final turn. In my second game, I came a more distant #3 — and I consider that an accomplishment, given that at one point, I was dead last! This kind of game is all about snowballing — setting up a virtuous cycle of more food, production, and science, which allows more upgrades, which allow more food, production, and science — and it’s notable that the computer knows how to do that. In my second game, one AI player built a gigantic lead by playing as a series of agrarian cultures, amassing a huge population (at one point its cities were size 40+ at a time when mine were in the 20s), and conquering a neighbour early on. It hit the final era well before me, and won by a commanding margin.

Not only is the computer capable of building strong empires, it’s perfectly willing to muster its armies and batter down my gates, just as Civ IV‘s AI did back in the day. My first game was very military-focused — the computer was much more bellicose than I expected, and from the ancient through to the early modern eras, I was almost constantly at war. An early-game rush from the neighbouring player made me fight for my life — the computer cleverly took advantage of my neglecting the military. Subsequently my neighbours hated me for most of the game, until something changed and most of them suddenly wanted to be my friend — my best guess is that when I converted to the dominant religion on the continent, that removed the main source of friction.

The setup for the first battle I (blue) ever fought against a rival empire (yellow), which rushed my capital early in the ancient era. I only had a single professional military unit, so most of my force comprised city militia. Fortunately for me, the canyon channelled the enemy army, and it took a further penalty from having to cross the rivers.

Combat itself is solid and the individual battles are generally interesting to play out. Early on, the rule is “strong melee units in front, archers behind”. New eras introduce new wrinkles — for instance, early gunpowder units can’t move and attack in the same turn, so my Medieval-era Varangians were still extremely useful for flanking and charging enemies even once I started fielding arquebusiers. By the modern era, battleships and bombers can deliver devastating bombardments to support land battles. I really like that cities generate freespawn militia (this is what saved me from that first rush!), and the clever way in which sieges gradually shift the advantage from the defender to the attacker over time, as powerful siege engines go up. Choke points are important, and help a defender against a numerically superior attacker. I do find it unintuitive to read the terrain — it’s often unclear to me which differences in elevation can be traversed by units.

The setup for a later battle – this time, I was on the offensive against the purple city. I put my tough melee fighters, the Varangian Guards, up against the wall, while my trebuchets were further behimd.

So far I have a pretty good grasp on the military aspects of Humankind, to the point where I can consistently beat the computer on the battlefield. In contrast, I’m still learning how Humankind’s economic “engine” works — the key seems to be a combination of territorial expansion; placing districts to take advantage of adjacency bonuses; and savvy use of each culture’s powerful unique buildings. It seems easier to amass science than the other resources — is that actually the case, or is that simply because my playstyle focuses on science? There are other systems I have yet to engage with, such as religion and cultural influence — I don’t know how important or deep they are.

One area that could do with fine-tuning is the final, modern era. The foundations are there and the ideas are interesting – for instance, when pollution caused a penalty to food production on each tile of a large city, I sat up and took notice. When it comes to implementation, the numbers feel as though they still need tweaks: science costs in the final era seem a little low, production costs seem a little (or more than a little) high, and the pace feels a little too brisk, as if the developers overcompensated in a bid to avoid Civilization’s sluggish late game.

Humankind’s space race is less important than Civilization’s – it grants bonus points but doesn’t trigger victory. I won the space race in my second game, but still finished in third place.

One thing I do like is the game’s signature mechanic: the player chooses a new culture for each era, instead of being locked into one for the entire game. The decision to change culture plays into what is required at any given moment. In my first game, I started as the Zhou in the ancient era to take advantage of their science bonus. When it became clear that I’d be locked into brutal wars, I needed the toughest fighters I could find — I chose the Romans, and steamrolled my foes with Rome’s unique units. After that I continued as the Byzantines — with their equally impressive Varangians — in the medieval era, then finished with a string of science cultures: Joseon, industrial-age France, and modern Japan. I love that these options all feel cool and powerful — this is the right way to implement a philosophy of “interesting decisions”.

Each culture in Humankind receives a passive bonus (which carries forward to future eras), a unique city district, and a unique military unit. At first I picked the Byzantines for thematic reasons after earlier playing as the Romans, but I soon became glad for their powerful Varangian Guards.

Edit: I haven’t found bugs to be too bad. So far I’ve encountered 2 crashes (not a big deal, as the game auto-saves each turn) and a couple of cosmetic glitches. The most concerning is that the computer player in a particular slot (purple) reportedly receives automatic influence upon independent minor factions — hopefully Amplitude will address this soon.

A final point is that the art lives up to Amplitude’s typical high standard. Special mention for the art that illustrates each technology in the game — with a quick scroll left and right along the tech tree, I can see Humankind’s (and humankind’s) progress from the pyramids to the space age.

Overall, I’m very positive so far. Humankind already has the “just one more turn” magic backed by solid strategic gameplay, and I expect it will have room to grow via DLC and patches. I look forward to my next game!

I love that the ending narration congratulates you on your achievements.