This is where I track the games that I'm currently playing. I try to update it once per month if I've been playing something new (to me).
I didn't get around to playing Bethesda's DooM Eternal this year, but I finally picked it up during the Christmas sale. I didn't get around to buying it earlier because I've been working off a backlog of games I bought during other sales, and from Humble Choice. I started playing Subnautica in November, and immediately knew it was going to be my favorite game of the year, so I waited until this month to do a review. Other non-vr games that I played this year that deserve special mention are Shadow of the Tomb Raider, which I reviewed in January, and the Isle of Siptah expansion for Conan Exiles, which I reviewed in September. Having played other Tomb Raider games, and not really gotten into them, SOTR was a nice surprise that came to me via Humble Choice. It really knocked it out of the park. The graphics are great in a beautiful jungle setting, the gameplay is solid, the story is well written, and the length is perfect. Conan's Isle of Siptah was a must-buy for me, as a change of scenery and some new content in one of my favorite games of all time.
My personal favorite of the year goes to the underwater survival-adventure game, Subnautica. The game had an early-access release way back in 2014, but I didn't hear about it for several years after that. It left early access in 2018, and released an expansion (Below Zero) in 2019 - which I have not played. It's definitely a finished and polished product at this point, and I recommend it without hesitation. The game is set on a watery planet where your ship, The Aurora, has crash landed. Your goal is to explore the planet, gather the resources you need to build an escape craft, and get yourself back into space. You're not entirely alone, however. The technology of some ancient aliens is both helping and hindering your progress, and won't let you leave until you cure yourself of a bacterial pathogen which seems to be plaguing the planet.
Subnautica is unique in that it takes place almost entirely underwater (as you may have guessed from the name). The underwater environment is beautifully rendered, and the feel of truly being beneath the surface is there. The exploration of the planet is nicely guided by the game's story, while letting you set your own pace and preserving the open-world feel. The diversity of resources is wide, but not overbearing, and crafting is straightforward - but features enough depth to keep it engaging. In other words, it's a very well-balanced survival/crafting experience. The story starts off slow and mysterious, and finishes strong. It's interesting enough to encourage you to learn more, but not tedious with needlessly deep lore. It took me around fifty hours to finish, but that also includes some messing around in the game's VR mode - which doesn't have the same polish, for Valve Index users anyway. You use a gamepad instead of the Index controllers - and it took me a good hour to figure that out. That's how unguided the VR mode is, and it definitely feels like a console port. Once you get your gamepad set up, the VR experience is interesting enough to at least start a new game and see how it goes. The graphics are still fluid and sharp, and there is no motion sickness problem.
Half-Life: Alyx, and 2020 in Virtual Reality
My other favorite game of 2020 is Valve's Half Life: Alyx. The long awaited third installment in the Half Life series came to us in Virtual Reality. The game is a remarkable achievement, and Valve's best work in years. Alyx was included with my purchase of the Valve Index VR kit, and is exactly what a AAA Virtual Reality title should be. The movement and inventory system are a world apart from any other VR title I've tried yet, the visuals are amazing, and every bit of the game design really shows that the title was planned out to fully utilize the VR environment from the beginning. The story is also five out of five stars, everything you'd want in a Half Life title. Valve could not have done a better job with the headliner title for their premium headset. Having said all that, there is one problem. The title is too good. It makes other VR games seem like cheap demos designed for ten minutes of play in a retail store. The one exception to this in my VR adventures thus far would be Moss (see my May, 2020 review). Another game exquisitely designed from the ground up for VR, it's a short but highly rewarding game that shows off the endless possibilities of VR.
I really hope that there are more games coming like Moss and Alyx. I have to say that, so far, those are the only titles that really have really made me feel like I made a good decision dropping a grand on a VR headset. For the most part, it feels like I bought a really expensive arcade/demo piece of hardware that doesn't really have a lot going for it, in terms of software. But, I'm still happy with the decision. This is still first-generation consumer VR, and I'm glad I bought in at the high end of this gen. If Valve drops a VR sequel to L4D2, all will be well with my soul.
There isn't a major new release slated for 2021 that has me eagerly waiting to spend sixty bucks the moment it drops. Right now, the event I'm most anticipating is the departure of Satisfactory from early access. The final update should integrate the game's story, finalize the tech tree, and hopefully bring dedicated servers to multiplayer. I've purchased four copies of this game, one for myself on Epic when it first came out, and three more of the Steam release for my niece and nephews. Cross-PC-platform play works very well, but right now one of us has to host the game on our local PC.
Blizzard might be releasing Diablo 4 and Overwatch 2, which I'll probably pick up right when they drop - but I'm not counting on those titles actually releasing in 2021. If they do, great. For the first part of 2021 I'll be working off a backlog of games that I've bought, including Doom Eternal and a handful of VR titles I haven't tried yet. I also plan on building a dedicated VR machine to go in my living room where I have my lighthouses mounted. That project is entirely dependent on when/if the 3060ti or 3070 become available to buy at the price that NVidia initially released the reference cards. I'm willing to buy a new card at this point for my primary rig, and move my 1070 into the dedicated VR machine, but I'm not paying ebay scalper prices for a 3000 series card. My hope is that by summer NVidia will have produced a reasonable number of cards to sate the demand.
I picked up Golf With Your Friends in Humble Monthly, and several of my friends either had it already or bought it too. It was well worth it. It's a fun little putt-putt game that you, and as many friends as you'd like, can play together. The physics work nicely, and the variety of courses is extensive. There is a multitude of user-created courses available via Steam Workshop, and a lot of them are very high quality. The game also has configurable features to mess with the rules and physics of the game, allowing for things like hopping and turning player-collision on and off. This adds even more variety and strategy to the way you play, as well as frustration and rivalry! If like miniature golf, you can't go wrong picking up this title for ten bucks. I have yet to play with the course-creation tools, but I'm looking forward to building my own 18 hole course.
I spent this month mostly playing the new Conan expansion, and Overwatch. One new game that I tried, and really enjoyed, was DRONE The Game. It's essentially an arena shooter, but you're flying a drone instead of controlling a dude. The game has a build-your-own feature too, where you can construct your own drone and take it to the fight. Overall, it's a fun little game with tons of maps out of the box. It's considered early-access, and definitely needs a few items polished. The lobby/friend system needs some help, and the game would benefit from an infusion of playerbase - but I fully expect it to be a success. I picked it up for a song, and it's been a great value. I also picked up Star Wars: Battlefront 2 on sale from Origin, and I'm looking forward to logging some hours in it. I also got Golf With Your Friends in Humble Choice, and I've had a blast playing some zany putt-putt with some of my gaming buddies. It's not as fun as something like Human Fall Flat, but it's a surprisingly good time.
I'm closing in on 1000 hours in Conan Exiles, and this year I will probably move it up in the rankings in my Top 20. This month, Funcom dropped a $20 early-access expansion for the game called Isle Of Siptah, which is more of a new game than an expansion. Although all the game mechanics are fundamentally the same, the expansion is an entirely new map that runs on entirely new servers. This means starting an entirely new character. This was an absolute blast for me, even though it's the fourth or fifth time I've taken a character from scratch to level sixty. The island features a transient maelstrom that strikes the center of the map, spawning demons from another dimension who drop a new material when you slay them. When the storm lifts, there is a short and localized rain of starmetal nodes which everyone on the server rushes for. A series of dungeons around the island yield another new crafting material, to go with a new workbench and new recipes. The thrall-taking mechanic is completely different, with random surges appearing that drop low-level crafters and tier 1-3 fighters; if you want better crafters and fighters you need to summon your own surges at one of the islands Leyshrines, making use of the expansion's new materials. Overall, I give it a solid thumbs up.
I didn't sample any new games that really warranted a review this month. In VR I tried GORN, but it's a game that held my attention for about twenty minutes. It's funny, but clunky and repetitive -- more of a VR demo to show your friends when they come over. I don't see myself playing much more of it. Similarly, Jurassic World : Evolution came to me via Humble Monthly, and it seemed like an RTS that I might enjoy, but I quit after about five hours of play. It was fun enough, but there was nothing compelling me to keep playing after the tutorial. If I was more into dinosaurs, it might have been different. Most of my gaming hours this month were spent playing PUBG with my regular gaming group, and playing Overwatch with my niece and nephews. They're getting old enough now that they quickly pick up sophisticated games, and are quite good at them. They've really surprised me at just how good they are at Overwatch -- all of them regularly getting a "play of the game" and plenty of gold medals.
The Forest caught my attention as a potential multiplayer game that I could play with other friends who have VR headsets. The game is billed as a first-person survival adventure set in an open world. Although it has the elements needed to be a good survival game, it is not. It's more of a campaign where the player is almost completely unguided and left to discover the story on his own. I almost never recommend this, but anyone wanting to play this title should probably watch a playthrough first. My disappointment stems from the fact that, although the game provides base-building and other survival elements, it's almost completely pointless. As soon as you establish a stronghold, you're subject to relentless attacks by the AI enemies (cannibals and other strange abominations) that make it impossible to accomplish anything else. A base should be, well, a base of operations. Safe from all but an occasional attack, and a place where you can regroup and craft needed items, a base should be a place to launch explorations and complete the campaign. This game fails miserably there, as you end up defending your base as a fulltime occupation -- repairing damage to yourself and the base. I started playing with one of my friends in VR, and eventually a couple others joined us.
We had a lot of fun for 15-20 hours of play and then abandoned it since we could make no progress. I recommend just playing the game as a solo FPS campaign, only stopping to build a basic shelter which serves as a savepoint (no autosave in this game). Another annoyance to expect is that 75% of the game takes place in nearly-unlit underground caverns. If you like seeing nothing but whatever your torch illuminated ten feet in front of you, this is your game.
I took a break from my new VR setup during June and played some chill games during June. I played another 2 year game of Stardew Valley, built some new bases in Conan Exiles, goofed around in Human Fall Flat with some new people, played some Fortnite and Satisfactory with my nephew, and tried a couple of Humble Monthly titles. I gave XCOM2 and Rise of Industry a try, neither of which did much for me. I was surprised Rise Of Industry didn't hold my attention, usually that kind of game is appealing to me; I guess I just wasn't in the mood for what seemed excessively tedious. The other Humble title I need to try is Jurassic World Evolution. I've got it installed, but haven't tried it yet. The Steam Summer Sale landed, and I now have a serious backlog of games to explore. Among the titles I have in the queue now are Star Trek: Bridge Crew, Subnautica, Transference, and Gorn. I also grabbed a multiplayer VR game called The Forest which I just started playing. I will review it next month, but so far it's decent.
I've played a lot of VR during the coronavirus tyranny, and I feel lucky that I got my headset when I did. I started off with Valve's The Lab, pictured, which is a freebie that serves as a demo; a good way to dip your feet in VR and get your space set up. I expanded my play area to about 13' x 11' which is close to the max you can do with two lighthouses, and it also is close to the realistic limit with the length of the included PC tether. I've had none of the problems with the hand controllers that others have had in the past, and the charge on them lasts me about 3-4 days of play. Other than an occasional glitch where the headset isn't discovered at boot, the system is functioning well. I've played two titles to completion, two more that I'm about half way through and intend to complete, and one more that I probably won't revisit. I've decided to give them all a mention this month.
Hands down, this is the benchmark for a AAA, full price VR game. Valve invested in Half Life: Alyx like they would any other prestige title in their catalog, and the result is the target that all other VR devs should shoot for. The game is set between the events of Half Life and Half Life 2, but you don't have to be familiar with the Half Life universe to have fun in Alyx. The interdimensional alien Combine has humanity under its boot and you have to do your part to help take them down. A pair of gravity gloves help you fling things around and retrieve items, and a small arsenal of upgradeable weapons let you slay the headcrabs, zombies, and Combine soldiers. The environments are creepy, well-planned and designed to work with immersive, room-scale VR. The game's weapons handling mechanics are extremely satisfying, and the movement system is just about perfect. In my limited experience thus far, games seem to REALLY struggle with getting movement right -- and Alyx absolutely nails it. Time to finish, 16 hrs.
It took me about four hours to finish Moss, which makes the value proposition questionable at full price - but I picked it up in a Humble Bundle at a super low price, so that wasn't a factor for me. Having said that, this is an exceptional game. This game is proof that VR isn't going to be limited to FPS's and sims. This is a puzzle game where you thumbstick-control a tiny rodent's movement through miniature scenes, while also interacting with the scene as "full sized you" using the controllers as hands to manipulate objects. Designed exclusively for VR, you can move your head (and body if you want) around to look for hidden items and figure out how to get the mouse from A to B. It's billed as a seated-position game, but I played standing and really liked it. Some of the combat got a little twitchy and tedious, feeling out of place, but it wasn't too bad. I hope that titles like this inspire others to make VR games that don't follow the standard VR formula. Moss gets two thumbs up from me for an excellent use of the technology, and the creators were obviously passionate about turning out a quality game.
I had my eye on this game since I first started pondering getting a VR headset. It's a zombie-killing FPS set (as you might expect) in the Arizona desert. This is one of those titles that is highly rated, but really comes up short if you compare it to games like HL:Alyx. The selection of weapons is fantastic, and the shooting mechanics are satisfying, but the game has a lot of glitches. I've had to re-start chapters to recover from vital items simply vanishing from my inventory or the holster-system simply ceasing to function. The sniper weapons never worked for me either. The environments are well designed, but the dimly lit underground areas can get tedious. This game goes on sale quite often, and can be picked up for less than $10 if you are patient. I highly recommend it at that price. You'll have many hours of zombie-murdering fun with it, just keep your expectations in line with the price.
Doom? In VR? How can you go wrong? As a mega-fan of the DooM franchise, and someone who loved the 2016 release of the game, I thought this would easily be my favorite VR title - having bought it before I even ordered my headset. I was wrong, and very let down. The game is fun, and it could easily be fixed so that it would live up to my expectations. All it needs is a way to rotate your player without physically spinning in the real world and getting your tether wrapped around yourself. Maybe the experience is awesome on wireless sets - but my frustration with the title comes from how insanely close it is to being done right. The player rotation is a fatal flaw, and I can't recommend buying it unless it's nearly free. Even on the easiest setting, it's still too hard if your spinning-in-place is physically restricted by a tethered headset. HL:Alyx got player movement down 100% correctly, Bethesda take note and fix this otherwise awesome game. I'm begrudgingly pushing my way through the title, because DooM.
Distance is a futuristic arcade-style racing game, played in VR in the seated position. I had a blast with it for about two hours, and then got to a point in one of the tracks that was simply too tedious to pass given the games fickle and half-working controls. I played with an XBox controller, and had great difficulty trying to customize the button layout - basically giving up after an hour messing with it. Distance vaguely reminds me of S.T.U.N. Runner, a classic arcade game from 1989, but not as engaging. Head tracking is well done, and VR makes you feel like you are really sitting in your vehicle - but the airborne control system is in desperate need of polish, and probably more tutorial if they want to have such twitchy areas of track. This game is highly rated on Steam, and the few negative reviews echo my own complaints about the game. This was an extra in a bundle for me, though, so I can't complain about the value side of it.
I finally committed to a VR headset and purchased the Valve Index, which clocks in at a hefty $999 -- long story short, money well spent. We're basically at the end of the first-generation of modern home VR systems, and the Index is the high end of the market. It supports high refresh rates (90Hz-144Hz) needed to reduce nausea and headaches experienced by some, and a 1440x1600 resolution per eye which mostly eliminates the screen-door effect that plagues lower res headsets. The Index also features integrated stereo pass-through cameras, a microphone, and high fidelity off-the-ear headphones. It was important to me to have two way audio fully integrated into the solution so that I didn't have to muck with clumsily wearing multiple peripherals. Unlike other sets, the Index also has physical FOV and IPD adjustments -- the latter being very important to me since my eyes are pretty close together. The Index has the best FOV on the market, which really helps with immersion, and well-designed and comfortable hand controllers. The only downside of the Index is that it's still tethered. A single cable integrates display port and USB, and hangs off the back of your head while you play. My GTX 1070 has no problem pushing the titles I've tried so far, several of which I will review next month.
Activision-Blizzard published a free-to-play spinoff 2019's CoD Modern Warfare called Warzone, which features a battle royale mode and a much more arcade-oriented mode called Plunder. My gaming group has been playing quite a bit of Plunder, being our preferred mode, as it lets you get right into the action with your desired loadout of weapons -- and respawning is on a 15 second timer. It's a pretty straightforward loot-and-shoot FPS where you open crates and kill enemies to obtain cash, weapons and special-use items. The team with the most cash at th end of the match wins. We played a bit of the battle royale, but were not too impressed. Warzone is free, and is a redemption title after the miserable Blackout game Activision released in 2018. I paid full price for Blackout and had sworn off Activision games as a result -- now I consider us even. Cheating seems to be mostly under control, the amount of play required for unlocks is not absurd, and the initial grant of in-game currency was generous enough to buy the first Battle Pass which unlocked more items and more in-game currency. A positive experience overall, and everything full-priced Blackout should have been.
Tarkov is a looter wrapped in an FPS. You, and teammates if you have them, are spawned at random places around a map and your primary goal is to make it to your designated exit alive. Your secondary goal is to get as much loot as you can, either by killing players and NPCs or finding loot in the world. It's a decent enough game, conceptually, and the loot is (painfully) detailed -- down to the individual rounds you can load in a magazine. Your "main" character can play any time, but you also have a disposable "scavenger" character that can spawn in every fifteen minutes -- with a random loadout. This gives you a chance to get loot without really risking anything. Again, conceptually this game is pretty solid. The execution is lacking, however. The game runs terribly and the server infrastructure is pathetic given the number of players the developer is trying to support. The player movement is lumbering, the controls are cumbersome, and the "realism" of not having a HUD to see your teammates is zero fun and makes you not want to play with your friends. This was a game hyped by streamers who were paid to hype it, and my gaming group bought into the hype. It was a waste of fifty dollars as far as I'm concerned. It's also not available on Steam or any major platform, and runs in its own launcher, which is another huge negative. This is an unpolished early access title that's selling for full price, and if it doesn't improve I won't be playing it again. I consider it a $50 lesson in why nobody should ever trust YouTube and Twitch "influencers," and how you can be affected by their dishonesty even if you're not a primary party to it. Caveat emptor, no refunds.
Driven away from PUBG by absolutely rampant cheating, my gaming group decided to give Apex Legends another try after first playing it about a year ago. We weren't overly enamored with it previously, and the sentiment more or less holds now, but the game has improved somewhat since our first go-around. Apex is a free-to-play, hero-based battle royale which pits teams of three against each other in a fight to the last team standing. Each player chooses a character for the match, with different heroes having different special abilities -- one on a short cooldown, and one ultimate on a longer cooldown, as well as some passives. The game makes its money via paid faster unlocking of additional heroes and cosmetics. The grind to get unlocks without spending real money is fair, and not too arduous. My team seemed to win our fair share of matches initially, but we seemed to rapidly move into much tougher matches - presumably via the game's matchmaking. Within a couple weeks of play we were no longer winning any matches and we rapidly lost interest. Studies in lab rat play-fighting show that if they don't win at least some of the time, they stop playing, and I guess we aren't that different. Still, it was a nice break from getting hacked in PUBG.
I usually play an hour or two of a Tomb Raider game and then shelve it, but this title drew me in a little more with its immersive setting in the Peruvian jungles and its stunning visuals. (click to enlarge high res image) For those unfamiliar, Tomb Raider games are typically over-the-shoulder adventures chock full of platformer-like jumping, climbing, shooting, looting, and plenty of stealthing around -- with puzzles. The closest I could compare to another series would be a more linear and constrained Far Cry, with a more polished environment. I'm about ten hours into the campaign and I think I'm getting close to finishing it, but I haven't done any side missions or exploring so my completion percentage is probably not that high. Like other Tomb Raider games before it, Shadow suffers from an excess of long cut scenes, and the occasional twitchy sequence that makes you feel like you're playing an 80's laser disc game, guessing the right keys to press at the right time to keep from dying. On the whole, the puzzles are satisfying, the plot is more than tolerable, and the gameplay in general is fun. The game's beautiful environment and the design of tombs and crypts are very well done, and I recommend giving it a shot.