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Regular price: £14.99
Sale price: £5.99
The ultimate prey being man is such an old chestnut of satire that most people wouldn’t know where it originally comes from – the 1924 short story The Most Dangerous Game, by Richard Connell. Sir, You Are Being Hunted certainly has its origin in that trope, but the spin this time around is that the hunters are robots. You play a hapless inventor who has accidentally teleported himself to an archipelago of grey, rainy islands and must attempt to recollect the pieces of his device to send himself safely home.
This is a humourous game that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The robots are clad in tweed and top hats, spouting off radio-warbled English pleasantries, and the islands are modelled after a certain concept of Britain – drizzly, bleak and industrial. The food that you scavenge to stay alive includes jars of marmalade, fruitcake and Stilton cheese, and you’re guided by the distinguished voice of your overly polite scientific assistant. In the sense of creating a unique atmosphere, Sir, You Are Being Hunted is certainly a success.
As a game? Not so much. Traditionally stealth games put you in the place of the silent killer in the shadows, from Splinter Cell to Metal Gear Solid to Dishonored – you’re toast if you face the enemy head on, but if you do things properly you’re the hunter, not the hunted; the terror in the night, the stalker in the grass. Sir, You Are Being Hunted obviously flips that on its head – it’s right there in the title – and while the concept is good, the execution is poor. You have a meter in the bottom left-hand corner which shows how visible you are, much like Metal Gear Solid 3, and much like Metal Gear Solid 3 this means the most effective way to get about unseen is by slowly wriggling your way through the grass, inching across the landscape. Sir, You Are Being Hunted has a procedurally-generated environment, with structures which can be looted for supplies but not actually entered, and after a while it seems to feel a bit pointless. It’s quite difficult to find the missing pieces of your teleportation device, even after you locate the scanner, and the ultimate feeling is one of slowly turtling your way through a repetitive countryside looking for a needle in a haystack.
The game also suffers from a few glitches; more than once I found myself suddenly stuck staring at the sky, able to do nothing more than fruitlessly discharge my revolver. And it would have been quite spooky the first time I encountered The Landowner, and heard his eerie hooting cries, were it not for the fact that he was stuck in a tree and kept stubbornly trying to run through it.
Sir, You Are Being Hunted is a laudable attempt at a creative and original indie game, both in terms of atmosphere and mechanics. But for me, it fell flat.
Regular price: £29.99
Sale price: £7.49 (bundle, including expansion packs)
Age of Empires is what you might consider a legacy franchise: a hugely successful series which has dominated its genre and set the pattern for rivals to follow. One of my earliest memories of this series dates all the way back to the turn of the century, when I was somewhere on the border of primary school and high school, and – probably as part of the marketing campaign for Age of Empires II – you could get a free CD of Age of Empires I in a box of Nutri-Grain, which I dutifully choked down in order to secure the CD. I also have memories of a term break somewhere in early high school, playing Age of Empires II on the creaking old computer in the cold, draughty back room of my Dad’s house in Karrinyup; that must specifically have been in the winter of 2003, because it’s also linked in my memory with reading the fifth Harry Potter book. That copy of the game was probably bootlegged – not downloaded off the internet, not in Australia in 2003, but probably passed around on burned CDs at school. And again, I recall settling in to play a round against Chris on our notebooks while we were backpacking through China in 2010, one evening in our cavernous room at the hostel in Dali, retreating for a brief spell back into our childhoods from a tiring foreign world.
Thank you for indulging me in that extended trip down memory lane. What I’m getting at is that Age of Empires stirs strong, nostalgic feelings in me, even if I never particularly loved the games. I suppose as a kid, at least at the time, you had fun with what you had access to. That’s probably why I never bothered playing Age of Empires III, because by the time that came out in 2005 I had a Playstation 2, an Xbox, and much more disposable income. So I mostly bought it in the Steam sale out of curiosity, and because the price dropped down to a reasonable level. I honestly cannot fathom how Microsoft thinks it’s reasonable to charge £30 – nearly $60! – for a game that’s almost 10 years old.
While Age of Empires focused on the Roman era and Age of Empires II shifted to the Middle Ages, Age of Empires III covers the Age of Exploration and the colonial expansion of European powers in the 17th and 18th centuries. This is a much more interesting period in history for me, which is why it’s so disappointing that the campaign mode is so bad. I recall Age of Empires II charting a fairly reasonable course across history, pitting you in scenarios based on real battles, with campaigns based on real historical figures like Joan of Arc or Saladin. Any educational merit is tossed overboard in Age of Empires III, which replaces these campaigns with a pseudo-historical load of claptrap about the Fountain of Youth and a secret society of Templars, equal parts Pirates of the Caribbean and the Da Vinci Code. The terrible writing and voice acting hardly helps.
I know that by this point the RTS genre had moved on, and had become much more about online gameplay, which is probably more enjoyable anyway; as always, the computer AI in skirmish mode is solidly predictable. But I wasn’t about to bother looking into whether a nine-year-old game still has active servers; even if it does, the only people playing on it would be dedicated fanatics who would slaughter me as soon as I set foot on the map. So I have to judge the game on its single-player mode, and on that front it fails. Oh, it’s addictive for a brief spell, building up little societies and climbing up the technology chains, but it soon wears out its welcome once you reach the top of that ladder. Every scenario plays out the same: hunker down, build up resources, fend off a few half-hearted attacks by the enemy, and eventually build up a big enough army that you can go out and stomp them in the chaotic scrums that inevitably develop whenever two armies encounter each other in this franchise. Rinse, repeat. I enjoy the building and expanding more than anything else, which is maybe why I enjoy simulation games like Sim City more than RTS games like Age of Empires.
Normal price: £14.99
Sale price: £7.49
I heard about this yonks ago, when somebody linked me to the Kickstarter, but it wasn’t until Christmas that I realised an early access version had been released. I’m always wary of early access games; it seems like a cheap and lazy shortcut for developers, especially when some of them charge what seems like a full price for an incomplete game. The Long Dark, fortunately, is completely bug free. Early access simply provides two sandbox maps, rather than the fuller story mode.
The Long Dark is a post-apocalyptic scarcity survival game. An electromagnetic pulse of some kind has caused all of the world’s electronics to fizzle out forever. You’re a bush pilot who has was flying when the pulse went off, and survived the plane crash only to find yourself stranded in the Canadian wilderness: cold, hungry, and completely cut off from whatever’s going on in the outside world.
The game gives you four meters to keep an eye on: hunger, thirst, cold and fatigue. There are also wolves about, excessively keen on ripping your throat out. The landscape (there are currently two maps: a shoreline and a forested lakeside area, connected with each other) is scattered with cabins, logging camps, forestry lookouts and fishing huts, and you can ransack these for supplies. With every passing day, as you slowly add to your collection of tinned food and meagre weapons, you feel more confident. But The Long Dark is an instadeath game. One wrong move and you’re gone, your save file erased. My first death came as I trudged across a snowy valley, low on food, but confident I could reach the structure I’d seen on top of a hill by nightfall. Then the wind picked up and the temperature plummeted, and I couldn’t find my way up the hill. It was too windy to light a fire and I started freezing to death by the time I found the path. Footsteps slowing, vision blurring, I was almost dead but confident I’d make it inside by the time I reached the top… only to see that the structure was a fire lookout, at the top of a long set of stairs. I collapsed and froze to death halfway up them.
The Arctic environment is wonderfully rendered: beautiful, but deadly. The developers have used cell-shading to give it a cartoonish feel, but you soon grow used to it, and even running it on low graphic settings as I am, it’s very pretty. The sound effects are top notch – I particularly like the howling of the wind scraping against the walls once you’re inside, as though it’s a predator deprived of its prey. And a sudden, nearby wolf howling when I was in a narrow frozen river canyon made me freeze in my tracks.
The Long Dark has a few issues. One of them is the way the developers have opted to run the scavenging: like crafting, fishing, harvesting meat or starting a fire, it’s displayed as a loading bar. This is usually fine, but there’s an awful lot of houses on the coast map, full of properties to be ransacked, and after a while it can begin to feel like you’re playing Canadian Cupboard Opening Simulator 2015. And the survival mechanics are a little odd. On the one hand, they seem to have thought of so much: animal carcasses left outdoors will freeze and take longer to carve up (but can be thawed again by lighting a fire next to them), the rifle will not automatically have a round in the chamber simply because you found it with bullets, things like that. On the other hand, it’s eminently possible to live indefinitely by drinking soda, or eating an entire box of tea, and your clothes and tools are ridiculously vulnerable to damage. (This last one seems to be an irritatingly common trait in scarcity games.) The lack of a game-style “you are here” map is an excellent choice, but it would be nice if the developers included a compass and an actual paper map as an object – it sort of defies belief that none of those ranger cabins have a map of the region.
Perhaps the biggest issue with The Long Dark – one which is fortunately temporary – is that in sandbox mode, it’s a foregone conclusion. Sooner or later you will die. My longest run thus far is eleven days before that fucking wolf in the hydro dam got me again, but I suspect that even apart from the wolves, you will die a slow death after exhausting all the canned food across the map; once you’ve used up all the bullets, all you can do is snare rabbits and catch fish, and I doubt that would be enough to get you by (especially as your tools degenerate.) Without a goal to strive towards, survival games inevitably become dull. You’re driven by survival, but you don’t actually have anything to live for.
But I’m sure that will be rectified once the story mode is released. (Which, apparently, is going to feature the familiar gravelly voice of David Hayter, a.k.a. Metal Gear Solid’s Snake.) Even until then, The Long Dark is a deeply engrossing survival simulator that I hugely enjoyed and thoroughly recommend.
One of the things I personally enjoy most about games – the thing which I believe indisputably makes them capable of being great art – is their ability to create a world far more immersive than that of books, comics or film. The player’s agency is what makes these worlds feel so much more real than those of any other art forms. It taps into that exploratory part of your brain from childhood, that feeling that you can go anywhere and discover anything; the kind of feeling you had as a kid when you were taken to some strange new place on holiday, given the whole day to explore a forest or a coastline. When so much of life can feel like a repetitive grind, experiencing a new environment can be hugely engrossing.
When I was trying to throw together a shortlist of games I thought I might like last year, while languishing in office-driven cabin fever, I discovered the phrase “walking simulator.” It’s used to describe games which involve little more than walking around and exploring, perhaps with some puzzles thrown in (I never played them, but suspect this began in the 1990s with the Myst series.) Obviously it’s meant in a derogatory tone, but the idea sounds great to me, and it must do to other people as well, since the category tag gets heavy use on Steam. The Moon Sliver was one of the games with that tag that was cheap to begin with and slashed further during the sale, and at less than a pound you can’t really go wrong.
The Moon Sliver takes place on a tiny, desolate island, the sun hanging low over the ocean and the wind howling across the sand dunes. You have no tools or weapons apart from a flashlight, and no indication of why you’re there or what’s happening. As you explore the ruined buildings along the shoreline, fragments of text hover over the screen, and you begin to learn the story of the people who lived here, and perhaps still do – their fate is unclear.
The Moon Sliver is a short game; the opening text suggests you should set aside an hour to complete it, although it took me less than thirty minutes. The story is about as well written as you’d expect from a budget indie game; there are some clunkers of names and phrases, and I can’t say I was hugely moved by it. But what the game does accomplish is creating an environment: a sad, eerie, disturbing place of death and abandonment, the wind whistling over a ruined village, the sunken remnants of houses suggestive of rising sea levels that will one day swallow the island whole. (And it’s certainly very creepy to be expecting to be attacked when you have no weapons and all you can do is run.) For 99p, I got my money’s worth. I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend it, but neither did I feel my time was wasted.