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.

When the X-Universe gives you lemons…

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series X4: Foundations

I’ve been playing X4: Foundations, a game that feels like a cross between Freelancer, Mount & Blade, and a tycoon game. On the surface, this resembles Freelancer: a space sim with mouse-based controls. Its underlying structure is closer to Mount & Blade — it drops the player into a living universe, whose factions mine, trade, and battle on their own; and within this world, my character has gone from solo adventurer to galactic magnate. Finally, the details resemble a tycoon or Anno game — I have spent most of my time building factories, juggling elaborate production chains, and keeping my bases stocked with a network of freighters.

This has been a wonderful setting for emergent, self-directed gameplay; and as the galaxy evolved, my goals changed, too. My X4 campaign began with odd jobs, such as dropping off satellites and retrieving cached goods. From these humble beginnings, I scrimped, saved, and bought my first few mining ships. I sent a ship to mine silicon in the resource-rich space of the Argon Federation, only to find some time later it had stopped selling to the refinery. What happened? It turned out there was no more refinery: a hostile fleet had pushed into Argon space; blown up the refinery; and destroyed the Argons’ space fighter production, too.

Well — here was my new objective. Roleplaying a patriotic Argon businessman, I decided to help the Argons rebuild, and earn a living in the process. Now there was a gap in the Argon economy, and I plugged it by building my own silicon refinery. That refinery became the cornerstone of my empire: I turned it into an electronics factory, supplying the surviving Argon shipbuilding facilities, and it became the cash cow that funded my expansion across the galaxy.

My Argon electronics factory, seen from the cockpit of one of my mining ships. I designed and built that over hours, module by module. Note the two NPC crew.

Now after 160+ hours, my bases span the map, producing spaceships of every size; a network of smaller factories feeds my shipyards with parts; and a swarm of miners and traders keep everything supplied. The Argon are restored; and I still have a soft spot for the territory where my character made his fortune.

As that timeline suggests, the most unique thing about X4 is its pacing. It takes significant real-world time to gather minerals or produce goods; hours to build up a station; and time compression is gated behind in-game requirements. I treated X4 as something closer to a real-life hobby, perhaps gardening or baking: every so often I would come by, check on my empire, tinker a bit, and order new construction. Then I went away, and let the game run in the background while I did other things. So while my Steam playtime is impressive, I have spent only a handful of the nominal 160 hours actually in control! The fun, for me, was in devising a system that could run smoothly on its own.

A fast corvette docked with my flagship, the carrier Morgaine. X4 can be a spectacular game.

Occasionally X4 can be a bumpy experience. The game is very playable as of the current version (3.3), but I have encountered the odd bug — I once had to sell several freighters that refused to do anything, no matter what I tried. And its presentation — gorgeous universe, beautiful music, evocative system names such as “Fires of Defeat”, “Grand Exchange”, and “Second Contact” — is periodically marred by swathes of missing flavour text.

My biggest problem is the way X4 presents information. At heart, it is a complex tycoon game, and it should give the player the appropriate tools to manage this. There were many times I wished I had a sortable “empire overview” screen, similar to Civilization (or to the sidebar in Total War games): this should outline the player’s ships and stations together with appropriate data such as profit or loss, goods carried or produced, and goods currently in inventory. It would be better still if I could drill down from that hypothetical overview screen, like a pivot table. Instead I had to click station by station, eyeballing the production figures. The developers could learn a lot from strategy games — 4X and tycoon — and from real-world spreadsheets.

Planet Zoo is my current gold standard for laying out information in a game. At a glance I can see which staff are busy; how the animals are doing; where my money comes from; and where it is going. In this example, I have broken out my zoo’s income from shops. X4 could learn a lot from this.

At the end of the day, though, X4 is a unique game that sells the “space opera” fantasy better than any other space sim I’ve played. This is the only game where I can stand on the deck of my own shipyard, and watch the traffic come and go; build a carrier at the yard; and command my fleet from its bridge. I can forgive it for also being the only game that makes me periodically wish for an accountant.