My most loved games of 2015

When I wrote for a metropolitan newspaper, I did the obligatory “Games of the Year” write-up, which culminated in my best pick as Game of the Year.

I’m not going to do that anymore. I’m not going to decide from the games I’ve played this year (which hasn’t been as many in past years) which one is the best of the lot. What I’m going to do is tell you which games were my highlight of the year, in no particular order.

Let’s start, shall we?

The cast of Until Dawn: They quite like what I've written about the game they star in, too.

The cast of Until Dawn: They quite like what I’ve written about the game they star in, too.

Until Dawn: Something of a surprise hit to everyone, which is even more surprising as I can’t recall it getting a lot of marketing love from PlayStaiton. It’s also a game that I didn’t actually play until after watching a YouTube walkthrough. Yep, that’s right: I played it after watching a video playthrough. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of horror games and Until Dawn is a horror game, through and through, so I wanted to see how scary it was going to be. It has jump scares but it’s almost like a pick-your-own adventure where you determine the path that the characters take then they do it. Yes, it’s cliche-ridden and holds your hand at times but it’s horror done right.

BatmanBatman Arkham Knight: Probably one of the only AA titles that I really, really enjoyed this year. I’ve always liked Rocksteady’s take on Batman and Arkham Knight was no different, even if the Batmobile might have been overused too much and there were too many of those damn tank battles (those who have played it will know what I mean). What I’ve always liked about Rocksteady’s Batman series is the grittiness and the ever presence darkness that Batman is all about. Arkham Knight might not be the best in the trilogy but it’s damn good. [I’m sure someone will exclaim “But you can’t say Arkham Knight was a good game because it was broken on PC!”. Actually, I can say it was a good game because a) I played it on PS4 and had no problems  and b) it’s my list and I can have whatever games on it I like.]

life-is-strange-episode-1-0016Life is Strange: Dontnod’s episodic coming of age story about Arcadia Bay teenager Max Caulfield (with a little bit of super powers thrown in) was a bit of a slow burner for me. I played the first episode months ago, and liked it, but it didn’t capture me right away. May it was the at times cringe-worthy dialogue, but I could see it had promise and Max’s ability to rewind time to change events held all sorts of interesting propositions. For some reason or another, I didn’t start playing the second episode until few weeks ago. I finished it a couple of nights ago and I’m interested again. It was if the writers stepped things up a notch at episode two and it’s not captured my attention. Hopefully, I’ll finish the other episodes before the end of the year.

screenshot0607Everybody’s Going to the Rapture: Yes, The Chinese Room’s latest game could be described as a walking simulator because that’s what you do most of the time but I loved it for the story that it told and the emotional narrative. Set in a quaint English village after an apocalyptic event, the player has to unravel and piece together what has happened to the villagers by tracing the paths left by, I guess, their spirits that are still around the village. The story telling and emotional voice acting is what gripped me from start to finish. I didn’t care that it was slow-paced and measured. It was quite nice not having to shoot anything, either.

rise-of-the-tomb-raider08Rise of the Tomb Raider: The latest game featuring long-time video game adventurer Lara Croft is perhaps one of the best as she once again tries to find a precious artifact that will destroy the world if it falls into the wrong hands. While being an Xbox One exclusive for the time being may harm the sales of the game, Rise of the Tomb Raider is better than Crystal Dynamic’s Tomb Raider reboot because, pure and simple, it features more tombs to explore, and that, for the most part, is why people started playing Tomb Raider games. Rise is a return to form for the series.

What are your favourites for the year?

What the feck is Baba Yaga? It looks scary, that’s what

I liked Rise of the Tomb Raider. I actually liked it much better than the 2013 reboot (I liked them both, but I liked Rise better).

Last week, at The Game Awards, Crystal Dynamics revealed some story DLC that’s coming out in early 2016 and, frankly, it looks as freaky as shit, dropping Lara Croft deep in something called the Wicked Vale, somewhere deep in the wilds of Siberia.

Croft’s mission is to find a missing man, presumably part of a Soviet expedition that went missing,  but, according to information, what she finds is much, much worse: A witch called Baba Yaga.

According to Slavic legend (thanks Wikipedia), Baba Yaga is a supernatural being who appears as a deformed and/or ferocious-looking woman. The legend says Baba Yaga flies around in a ,mortar, wields a pestle and lives deep in the forest in a hut usually described as standing on chicken legs or sometimes a single chicken leg. That’ll be the creep hut that we see stalking the forest.

Apparently, though, it’s ambiguous whether Baba Yaga is out to help visitors or scare the shit out of them.

Crystal Dynamic said Baba Yaga: Temple of the Witch, will have see Lara face off against deadly new adversaries, exploring a new puzzle-filled tomb and solving a decades old mystery, all culminating in a “showdown with an ancient and mythic evil”

I don’t know about you but I’m getting the creeps already, and that’s just from watching the trailer. The add-on isn’t due until sometime next year, which means I’ve got plenty of time to get worked up about it.

Rise of the Tomb Raider: Lara’s all grown up

RiseLaraHere’s some advice for when you’re playing Rise of the Tomb Raider: Don’t try to stealth knife a bad guy in the back while you’re holding a molotov cocktail – it’ll only end in tears.

And flames. And blackened limbs. And screaming. And eventually, death. How do I know this? I did it. Twice.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is first game in the series made for the current generation – exclusive on Xbox One, for a bit – and guess what? It’s bloody good. Visually, it looks impressive (the snow in the game’s opening level glistens so beautifully and the world just looks alive and lived in) but importantly, it seems developer Crystal Dynamics have learned from the criticisms aimed at the Tomb Raider reboot and made a game that’s much better than its predecessor.

What’s better? Well, for starters, the challenge tombs are much, much better. I’m not saying the tombs in the reboot weren’t any good but there weren’t enough of them and, frankly, they weren’t challenging enough, and they tended to reward you with useless things.

Rise-of-the-Tomb-Raider-Ice-ScreenshotThat’s all changed in Rise of the Tomb Raider, where conquering them actually gives tangible rewards that are worth something in the game. The tombs are also a challenge, too, which is what gamers want: A challenge. There’s also plenty of leaping, ledge shimmying, and wall climbing.

Returning to Rise are the base camps, save points where Lara can upgrade weapons and equipment and fast travel to unlocked base camps, and the game world, which revolves around a central hub location, is bursting at the seams with collectibles: Scrap (to upgrade weapons and equipment), survival caches, documents, relics) and animals to hunt and resource. A new feature is that Lara can now craft anywhere if she has the right resources handy and heal mid-fight, which comes in handy if you need a band-aid or two.

The narrative, written by Rhianna Pratchett, is engaging, pitting Lara against the evil group Trinity who are both trying to discover the secret to immortality, but Lara this time around seems much more hard-edged, much more mature She’s not the victim anymore but a young woman who can look after herself.

RiseRise of the Tomb Raider is a rollercoaster ride that paces itself nicely and there’s some supernatural goings-on and simply put, it’s a fantastic game that’s also full of surprises, like when I was searching an abandoned Russian base for hostages and I bumped into what was a dead body – only to discover it was a very much alive enemy soldier!

I tried to see if I could play the game as stealthily as possible, trying not to kill too many enemies, but it proved too difficult as many situations just seemed to lend themselves more to gunplay or aggressive situations. That said, I used the bow and arrow as much as I could, upgrading it as fast as I could. That was my go-to weapon, especially once Lara had learned to craft grenade arrows.

If there’s any sticking point for me, it’s the combat, with some of it stuck in gaming’s past with mechanics that should be retired. Maybe it’s just me but I’m tired of the heavy-armoured/shield carrying enemy that takes a lot to take down or situations where suddenly several enemies attack you in a room. A lot of enemies, especially the tougher ones, seem to be bullet sponges, too, taking several bullets to take down.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is a fantastic game that shows what can be achieved when a developer focuses on what works and focuses less on what doesn’t. I know that Fallout 4 is also out this week (what was the publisher thinking?), and will no doubt swamp Rise of the Tomb Raider, but Lara Croft deserves attention in her latest outing. It’s genuinely one of the best  gaming experiences I’ve had this year.

Crystal Dynamics’ Mike Brinker talks Rise of the Tomb Raider




A couple of weeks ago at XONZ, I spoke to Mike Brinker from game development company Crystal Dynamics about Rise of the Tomb Raider, the game he felt was the “quintessential Tomb Raiding experience”. Here’s the interview.


Game JunkieNZ: I really liked the reboot of Tomb Raider but do you think Lara Croft has got tougher, more hard-edged over the years?

Mike Brinker: I guess you have to look at what she went through in the last game. A lot of her story was circumstances she didn’t want to be in so she was learning to survive. There were some tough lessons during that survival but what we’re really focusing on in Rise is not just about survival but it’s about she got a taste of those mysteries, those truths that are out there. So now that’s what’s driving her. That’s what she was to uncover and expose to the world. So, she is now going in prepared and is being resourceful about that. All the systems in the game speak to that, right, and that’s about her going after those ancient truths out there.

GJNZ: What have you build on from the 2013 game? Have you built on the foundations of that game or have you tried to push the envelope in terms of game play?

MB: A bit of both. Building a sequel is important because you want to do the things you did well in the last game again – but at the same time you want to do them better – but then you want to get in some of the things that the fans want. Some of the big things we really wanted to focus on was what do the fans want. And the big one was “Bring back the tombs”. [laughs] Really, that was the huge thing. In the small taste we had today [the XONZ Rise of the Tomb Raider demo] we’re going back to those epic spaces and the big grand feel of them. There’s a through-line of history that ties in with the main story for each of them and then bringing back the deadly elements [the guardians] and then the formula for how we actually put the puzzle together, which isn’t just one in one area but multi chambers that solve the puzzle. That’s one of the things that we look at when we think about the evolution: We’re trying to keep what worked but look at what the fans want and what we can expand on. That was one of the key things.

GJNZ: Touching on bringing back more tombs, was that one of the biggest criticisms of the reboot: That it didn’t have enough tombs for people to explore?

MB: I think if you look at what the both the fans and the reviews stated is that they felt that they got puzzles but they didn’t get that sense of an ancient layer of history and that ancient scale, that epic, large unknown spaces that were really more grounded in some of the Yamatai mythos. What we ended up saying was “Sure, that worked for the last game but now we really want to delve into what those history layers are and bring that back”.

GJNZ: How much depth is involved in delving into a story line that contains an historical basis? Do you need to be historically accurate or can you take some creative license?

MB: Those are always great questions in anything creative that you do: Movies, TV, books, whatever. So we take a look to see what gamers grok [understand ] right away – and that’s usually something based in reality. That’s something that there’s a known layer of history, like we look at some of the ancient mythos for stories and characters that are involved in anything that has to do with being invulnerable, or having immortality, right? Those sort of uncoverings that we have when we’re doing our research lead to things like locations and types and styles of architecture. So, we do a lot of research in the historical side but then our creative director, Brian Horton, went to Turkey to do real world research and came back with that, so we bring all those elements in, ground it for a lot of the game, then we start to feel like “What are the elements that make things exciting as a game?”

GJNZ: What sort of philosophy does Crystal Dynamics use for the Tomb Raider game? What is the overarching ethos of the company?

MB: We’re all about being able to tell a very interesting and engaging story with a character that we can understand and relate to and I think that as a company we’re striving to build the best possible Tomb Raider experience through that lens of what’s the historical knowns then what is the interesting and fun aspects of the story.

GJNZ: And a really strong narrative?

MB: Absolutely.

rise-of-the-tomb-raider08GJNZ: In Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara has Jonah [who appeared in the Tomb Raider reboot] as her, I guess, companion. What was the reason behind choosing Jonah?

MB: Well, when you look at what I was talking about in telling a good story, part of building up a good character is understanding where those strengths and where her loyalties lie and what some of the driving forces are for her about going through these adventures. So bringing Jonah into the picture is really more about understanding the tie to the last game that people who played the last game can understand but also give Lara some grounding because if she were going after all this by herself without having any person to relate this all to, to bounce ideas off of, you lose a little bit of who she is, how she is, as far as a character is concerned so Jonah is really a key part of that.

GJNZ: Tell me a little about Crystal Dynamics’ creative processes

MB: Iteration is one of the things that we look from a design side but also narrative. We have a team of writers that we work with – Rhianna Pratchett is one of those people – and we really focus heavily on iteration. It’s about “Let’s get something on paper, get it going, play with it, let’s poke it then get it in front of users right away” and say “Hey, test this: Let us know what you think”. So, we do that constantly with level design, system design, game design, and even just the story itself. We do a lot of put it out there, poke holes in it, come back, tool it, tweak it. I think one of the beauties about working at Crystal Dynamics on this game is that we have this iterative cycle that we’ve pushed to its limits.

GJNZ: There was a game play trailer that came out, I think, around E3 that was a very action orientated sequence. I think there was a bit of criticism because Lara was a bit too violent and full-on. I now see that there is a new trailer out where you can do that sequence stealthily. Every player is going to play the game differently so does that create a difficulty for a developer where some player might want to play guns blazing but another player might want to sneak over rooftops? What kinds of challenges does that open-ended design create?

MB: Oh, that’s a great one. So one of the big things about Rise of the Tomb Raider that I’m so happy and excited about for both our fans and those that want to play it both ways is that we have all those options available. So a lot of it is we work with our system to work out that problem. Something new is Lost Target. In the last game, if you distracted an enemy with an arrow, you shot it over into the weeds, he go over and look at it. The moment he looked at it he knew exactly where it came from and where you were – and he attacked. So now in Rise of the Tomb Raider we have something called Lost Target which allows the enemy to look at that arrow and say “I think it came from over there. Spread out” then the enemy force tends to go looking for where it has come from, not “There she is”. So now you have an element of the player being able to stealth their way through encounters so you have a lot more choice. You can go in guns blazing, if you want, and you can upgrade your weapons to do that or you can play it the stealth way and not kill anyone. Just distract them and get around them.

2809266-1424111574-11GJNZ: Did you play the original Tomb Raider?

MB: Oh, yeah, absolutely! That’s a good story too. I remember I was in my college [university] dorm room, right, and I remember discovering and playing this game character who was in these amazingly huge and epic spaces with grand puzzles. The way she was animated and the fluid movement … It was such a neat combination of discovery and adventure that I’d never played before so it’s funny looking back on it: Where I was, what I was doing, what I experienced and where I am now and am able to influence that. It’s really neat.

GJNZ: That’s an interesting one, isn’t it? You’ve gone from playing the game to now working on it. Were you a huge fan of the series?

MB: I experienced a lot of the first Tomb Raider on PC but I remember tailing off for 2 and 3 because I was doing other things, but going back to when I was interviewed for the job at Crystal and hearing where the franchise was going and what they were doing, I was really excited. I was super stoked to not only be able to go back and look at what the origins are but the reboot. So to me, it’s more I had that beginning and ending experience, so to speak, and the beginning was the rest of my future in the franchise. I think I’ve had the best of both worlds when I look at it.

GJNZ: Do you think that the hardcore fans of the series are really critical of what you’re doing? Is there an extra layer of pressure on you to make sure you don’t stray too much from canon? What kinds of pressures are there?

MB: Oh, there are all kinds of pressures, and not just what our fans are after. There are fans who have played all the games, they know all the detail and they will definitely remind us every single time of the detail we may have missed or the thing she [Lara] may have done. What I’m also really happy about our fan base is that they’re able to grasp what we’ve been trying to do with the reboot and they’ve really dived in.

GJNZ: Given the games’ historical basis, what are some of the most interesting things you’ve learnt over this journey of the past two games? over the course of the two games?

MB: Boy, that’s a good one. I think for me the most interesting stuff that we’ve learned is that the mythos of having immortality runs in a lot of different directions, not just one ancient religion or ancient version of something. It’s actually in multiple story lines and people, different ages and time periods. That, to me, has been the most interesting “Wow, I didn’t know that” part. To me, it’s been more of a discovery of all the different threads of that mythos.

GJNZC: Lastly, where do you think the franchise can go from here? What direction do you think it will head?

MB: That’s a really difficult one to answer. It’s hard to say because we’ve been so focused on this one but I think the basis for what the story is going to tell is the evolution of her character and what she’s going to be, and also that layer of history that she has yet to uncover. Those are the core elements that I don’t think will ever go away.

XONZ 2015 in pictures: A mini, mini E3, of sorts

Last Thursday, I was kindly flown to Auckland (a city in New Zealand in the North Island) by Xbox NZ to check out XONZ, an Xbox One-dedicated showcase of upcoming games and some hardware for the Xbox One console.

The event was open to invitees today but I attended the media day on Thursday.

While there weren’t a huge number of games on display, it was a nice, intimate event where I got to show how badly I suck at Halo MP (there were a couple of rounds of one of Halo 5 Guardian’s 24-player MP modes), I got to play through a level of the soon-to-be released Rise of the Tomb Raider, ate some popcorn chicken and some Mac ‘n cheese balls and then chat with Chris Bishop (Forza 6), Kevin Franklin (Halo 5 MP) and Mike Brinker (Crystal Dynamics/Rise of the Tomb Raider).

My interviews will be up when I’ve transcribed my interviews (I’m still yet to decide whether I just publish the audio of the interviews as is, with all the noise and stuff, or transcribe them and write a story from each one. If you have a preference, let me know in the comments)

I thought, though, to tide you over until I get the interviews posted/written up, I’d post some photos I took from the event. Caveat: The photos were taken with my smartphone (an HTC One M8) and it the venue was mood-lit (translation: It was dark with lots of Xbox green) so they’re not that great but I hope they capture the event nicely.

Disclaimer: A big thanks to Xbox NZ, which flew me from Christchurch to Auckland to attend the event. I paid for my bus fare from the Airport to the city and back again, though.  I was too cheap to pay for a taxi to get me there. 

Sharp looking: The hands belong to Xbox NZ chief Steve Blackburn and he's holding the new Elite controller. It's highly customisable and in high demand, even before it's launched.

Sharp looking: The hands belong to Xbox NZ chief Steve Blackburn and he’s holding the new Elite controller. It’s highly customisable and in high demand, even before it’s launched.

Lego Dimensions

Lego Dimensions

Vault Boy: This fine chap was guarding a presentation from Bethsda for Fallout 4.

Vault Boy: This fine chap was guarding a presentation from Bethsda for Fallout 4.

Bird's eye view: The main area at XONZ was where the Halo 5 Guardian's MP matches took place.

Bird’s eye view: The main area at XONZ was where the Halo 5 Guardian’s MP matches took place.

XONZ: Bathed in Xbox green, XONZ showcased upcoming Xbox One games.

XONZ: Bathed in Xbox green, XONZ showcased upcoming Xbox One games.

Watch 13-minutes of Rise of the Tomb Raider

Rise of the Tomb Raider, the next instalment featuring adventurer Lara Croft, was on show at last week’s Gamescom in Germany. It’s an Xbox One exclusive at this point.

Watch these 13-minutes of gameplay (a gift from me to you, if you will) and let me know what you think. Are you keen on it?

The gameplay shows Lara traversing seemingly impossible climbs but actually shows her investigating an impressive-looking tomb, which is often a reason why we play Tomb Raider games! I was impressed with the little touches in the gameplay video like how Lara leaves a spot of blood on a rock that she’s leant against (2:11) and the lighting. That said, the tomb has a lot of big spider webs: Doesn’t that mean big spiders!!!

The game is out in November but I’m starting to like the look of it more and more.