Tuesday, 23 December 2014

2014: What I've Been Playing – Invisible Inc, OlliOlli, Peggle

Our final bit of catch-up blogging on every game I've played this year. After the laser focus of the last two posts – on Friday I wrote about the multiplayer games I've most enjoyed while drinking with friends,on Sunday I talked about my unexpected love for the Wii U – there's no real pattern connecting the remaining games I wanted to talk about. So, I proudly present:

The Rest of What I've Been Playing

Invisible Inc 2

Permadeath, hacking and cartoony visuals. Random generation, of levels and baddies. XCOM's turn-based strategy, mixed with Splinter Cell's stealth. These are a few of my favourite things.

Actually, when it comes to games, these are pretty much my absolute favourite things. Invisible, Inc has them all, plus a moody soundtrack, cyberpunk-meets-Mission:Impossible style, and the impressive pedigree of developer Klei (also responsible for the excellent Mark of the Ninja and Don't Starve).

Stealth is traditionally the preserve of third-person and occasionally first-person games, like Splinter Cell, Metal Gear Solid or Thief. Switching the perspective to the god's eye view of something like XCOM is an unusual decision, which abstracts the experience slightly. Then again, with their light meters and vision cones, stealth games were hardly the most naturalistic to begin with.

It also shifts the focus away from the moment-to-moment tension of being caught, and the voyeuristic thrill of watching from the shadows, towards careful planning. Information is still limited, but you've got much more to work with – I went back to Dishonored recently, and after playing Invisible Inc, the constant obfuscation of its first-person sneaking just felt wrong.


Invisible Inc

With that extra information, and less concern about fiddly execution, it makes it easier to come up with an interesting idea – hey, if I distract this guard with a noise and lead him over here, I can sneak behind him, hack this panel, then switch the targeting on that turret so it takes him out.

Without the potential for a fudged button press causing chaos, all that matters is that you have a sound plan. This gets even better when you consider that the game lets you control two agents simultaneously – or even three, if things go well. It allows for some great moments, as you close the patented 'Clever Girl' manoeuvre on an unsuspecting guard.

Best of all, Invisible Inc is a work in progress. You can buy it on early access, with updates every couple of weeks – meaning the finished product could well make another appearance on these lists next year.

Olli

My only encounter with a real physical skateboard ended with me running over my own arm, but as a kid with a chipped PlayStation in the early '00s, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater is written deep into my gaming DNA.

OlliOlli is a minimalist demake of those games, flattening its levels into a linear two dimensions, but keeping the sprawling objectives. These are often mutually exclusive, sometimes explicitly so: pull off this difficult grind; reach the end of the level without doing a single trick. It's an encouragement to endlessly replay levels, bail after bail after painful bail, until the memory of every gap and rail is locked into your fingers.

...Or something like that, anyway. Honestly, I find OlliOlli difficult to write about because the experience of every session washes away as soon as I close the lid of my laptop, but also because, while you're in it, the game is so absolutely consuming.

Any stressful thoughts you might be carry unspool in the face of hitting a grind just perfectly, that satisfying kiss of axel on rail, and the inevitable failure that follows it, your avatar's face meeting pavement for the hundredth time in a row. OlliOlli is the most frustrating relaxation game you'll ever play.

Peggle Blast

After a years-long drought, 2014 was blessed with not one but two installments in the Peggle series. Peggle 2 is essentially a bigger, brighter remake of the original – itself a shinier version of pachinko or pinball, with a single aimed ball leading to all sorts of unintended consequences as it pings between pegs – with all the production values pushed up to next-gen levels. Peggle Blast, on mobile, pares back the Peggle formula so it fits into a free-to-play app.

If pressed, I'd tell you Peggle Blast is the better game.

The free-to-play model brings out the nastiest side of Popcap. The game gives you a limited number of lives that refill over the course of hours, it's constantly pushing extra shots or power-ups in exchange for cash or watching an ad – but it also forces them to to be more inventive.

Peggle 2's biggest trick is giving each of its five characters a different theme song. As your ball bounces around, it triggers a chime which gets higher and higher with each peg you hit, building up to the pay-off when the screen is finally cleared, rewarding you with fireworks and a climactic blast of soundtrack. Given how much Peggle has always been about disproportionate audio-visual feedback for its challenges, this certainly isn't insignificant – especially as it manages to find songs as triumphant as the original's Ode to Joy, and, in the case of Hall of The Mountain King, even more so.

Peggle

However, as Peggle Blast seeks to make the game harder and more addictive, in an attempt to pilfer pennies from players' pockets, it has to keep finding new tricks. Secondary objectives; boss fights; pegs with different properties; colour-coded keys that unlock certain parts of the screen; even goo-spreading gnomes, for some reason.

One of the original Peggle's charms was that it felt like no other videogame out there. Peggle Blast goes the other way, giving it the feel of an arcade game – and one that, for all my problems with in-app purchases, doesn't actually require you to pop in a single quarter to have fun.

So that's everything I've played this year, pretty much – with one notable exception. We'll be talking about that next week, though, when I write up my Game of The Year.

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.