Most years here at Reticule Towers we do some sort of review of the last year in games, or celebrate the games of the The Reticule years. While we took a break last year, this year we’re back with a mixture of Our Year in Games where we review our gaming stories of the last year, and we’ll also take a look at what we consider to be our Games of the Year. Here we have Ross talk about how his 2020 in games has shaped up.
2020. A year unlike any other. It’s been tough navigating the sheer insanity of it all, but over the Summer I was gifted something special: the opportunity to write for this website. I’d been dabbling with Steam reviews since the Spring and realised I was quite enjoying myself, so I reached out to our editor-in-chief, Chris, about potentially penning some stuff for him. He was kind and gracious enough to offer me the chance, and it’s hard to overstate how vital that’s been in the effort to stay sane and weather the many storms of 2020.
So: thank you!
My year in games was actually spent replaying old classics, at least for the most part. I had an itch to rediscover the games that inspired and influenced me, particularly FPS’s—probably my favourite genre, thinking about it now. Half-Life. Quake. Doom. Red Faction. Far Cry. System Shock. Thief. Deus Ex. It was pretty educational, but more than that it was therapeutic. Like a warm blanket on a cold day, they provided exactly the kind of solace I needed as the world fell to pieces. I also tucked into a few “must play” titles I hadn’t experienced before, such as System Shock and Bioshock Infinite.
For your sake and mine I won’t list every title, but here’s some thoughts on a selection of them.
It started, as most of my stories seem to, with Half-Life.
“I’m Alyx Vance. My father worked with you back at Black Mesa. I’m sure you don’t remember me, though.”
I touch base with the Half-Life games once a year. For the sake of A Place in the West it’s important to stay connected to the source of inspiration to ensure we never stray too far from Valve’s world. This particular play-through of Half-Life 2 and its subsequent episodes was special, though. I used them to start commentary threads for each chapter on Twitter, which helped me re-engage with material I was already all too familiar with.
It was a fun little project that lasted throughout the year, and I’ve started to expand the concept into mods and maps.
If ever there was a gift that keeps on giving, it’s Half-Life. Ta, Valve.
“It’s a rock. It’s what you asked for. Am I gonna get paid or not?”
The Thief series is very dear to my heart. It’s probably no exaggeration to say it’s my favourite franchise OF ALL TIME (soz, Half-Life). I had no plans to revisit my sardonic friend Garrett and his dark, fantastical medieval city populated by religious zealots, corrupt lawmakers, and a debauched wealthy elite (so the rich, then), at least not anytime soon.
But I’d been watching Robert Yang’s Level with Me series as he tackled The Dark Project, and seeing him slink between shadows and bonking guards on the back of the head stoked a desire to return. Once started I knew I wouldn’t be coming up for air until I’d finished the trilogy.
It culminated in a joint piece with Chris on Thief: Deadly Shadows’ ‘Shalebridge Cradle’ mission, which I’m still quite proud of: ‘Our Tales of the Cradle’.
Insert a bad line of dialogue here
It’s a remarkable feat of the Resident Evil series that for every decisive step forward it is often followed by two steps back. It wasn’t always the case (see the original three, Code Veronica, Resident Evil Remake, and Resident Evil 4, a crew of nothing less than some of the best games ever made), but the likes of Resident Evil: Zero and Resident Evil 5 notably failed to follow up on the brilliance of their forebears.
Enter 2020’s Resident Evil 3, coming off the back of Capcom’s triumphant remake of Resident Evil 2 in 2019. Secure in the knowledge that a market for this particular template existed, this unambitious and lazy game was ushered out the door on the heels of its predecessor to scoop up as much money as possible.
It’s such a shame. Jill Valentine deserved better. We all did.
But I will credit Resident Evil 3 with this: I was disappointed enough to march on over to Steam and express my displeasure, which led to my writing more reviews and, ultimately, landed me my position here.
Thanks for sucking!
No, no you don’t get a quote.
I played the much-ballyhooed Bioshock Infinite for the first time. I was sorry to find what started out as a promising tale revealed itself to be anything but. Critically acclaimed and almost universally adored, Infinite’s story, world and themes are lauded as high watermarks of the medium. Finishing Infinite for the first time I wondered how that could be right.
There isn’t the space to dig into it here, but the game draws a false moral equivalence between white supremacism and a largely black uprising against their racist oppressors. The assertion that violence is always bad and that any faction exercising it is equally bad is so thoughtlessly conveyed that the game’s thematic pretensions break apart. Drawing a moral equivalence between oppressor and oppressed in a setting this surreal is laughable. It thinks that by blurring the lines between good and evil it’s reaching for some greater truth, but it’s not. That it uses racism as a pretext to do so is offensive.
It seems to have escaped censure at the time of release, but in 2020, in which Black Lives Matter protests flared the world over to strike back against institutional racism and broken power structures, it struck me as grotesque.
“Love is just a chemical. We give it meaning by choice.”
I hadn’t played BioShock’s controversial sequel before but I was delighted by what I found. More than anything it gave us a rare depiction of an elderly black woman, which instantly felt superior to Infinite’s idiotic and frankly racist depiction of racial tensions. It’s a bummer BioShock 2 is seen as the lesser of the three titles. It doesn’t succeed at everything it sets out to do, but it builds on the foundations of the original in surprisingly ambitious fashion.
Rapture doesn’t have long left here; the ocean is kicking butt in its war against the city. But somewhere in the ashes of Ryan’s dystopian dream is the notion that the utopian ideal exists in acts of empathy, carried on the backs of those Ryan derided as slaves. With free will restored, they have chosen their values, and turned their backs on this sinking temple to ruthless self-interest.
Unless you choose the bad path, of course. But why would you do that?
Scrawled in blood across the neon lit walls of the Von Braun’s medical deck, this portentous warning is the first sign in System Shock 2 that the present nightmare has happened before. Only I didn’t remember Citadel. I’d never been there. Whatever nightmare it evoked wasn’t mine. It didn’t have to be—I was already plenty afraid.
But I wanted to remember.
I’d tried to play System Shock some years ago but I’d barely made it past the evil hoover that assaults you in the first couple of minutes. I was convinced its complex and layered interface was impenetrable.
When a friend asked me to play it alongside him (not literally), though, I was compelled to return. I made it past the evil hoover, and in defiance of my own expectations I absolutely loved it. Alongside Alyx it was easily the best gaming experience of 2020.
And now, having finally played it, I will always remember Citadel.
“Its heat scorches your hand, and its terrible secrets blight your mind…”
My return to Quake was nothing short of thrilling, but as much as I adored blasting through it (and being blasted, as Quake is wont to do) again, along with its two stellar expansion packs, Scourge of Armagon and Dissolution of Eternity, the real discovery was MachineGames’ Dimension of the Past.
Available to play for free, this semi-official third expansion pack to Quake was created to commemorate Quake’s 20th anniversary back in 2016. It’s a taut, expertly designed piece of first-person gaming, and worth visiting solely for experiencing the world of Quake as conceived by modern sensibilities.
“Who will notice a few more vanished miners in all this confusion?”
2001’s Red Faction is a raw, unrefined thing, clearly put together by a small team on a limited budget who never fully defined the shape of what it was they were creating. Its levels are large but sparse, its gameplay engaging but generic, its story compelling but loose—often to the point of meandering. I guess you’d say it’s amateurish, if you wanted to be direct about it.
But it’s also fun, especially as a strange artefact of that transitory period for the first-person shooter, evolving from the template laid down by the likes of Half-Life and Quake into something more involved and intricate. Red Faction owes its life to that lineage, even if it hasn’t a hope in hell of living up to it.
In a way it doesn’t really matter: there’s a place for the likes of Red Faction, and it’s not without virtues that are all its own.
November sucks; autumn is drawing to a close, often heralding a cold, dark, and miserable winter (so far so good!). With zero chance of a holiday in the throes of the pandemic, I settled for a virtual trip to relative paradise.
Far Cry is The Island of Doctor Moreau reconfigured as an action adventure with guns and gore aplenty, but not an ounce of brains. It’s made a fraction more interesting by carrying traces of its European heritage, but here’s the bottom-wrung of gaming narratives; one mired in clichés, laden with awful dialogue terribly delivered, and serving no real purpose other than to hang a game on.
So, why is Far Cry so damn good?
It helps that Crytek know they’ve spun out pure trash, but that’s not what gives their debut game its fierce energy and commanding sense of fun. Somewhere between its tough-as-nails combat and beautiful and exotic archipelago lies Far Cry’s winning formula. It’s the closest I’ve come to experiencing Jurassic Park in a video-game.
“You’re my big, ugly Alice, so go on—follow the White Rabbit.”
Lionel Starkweather, Manhunt’s disgraced director villain, is a lot of very bad things. Sociopath, sadist, pervert, to name a few. But he’s also kind of a game designer, crafting contrived levels through which to shuttle his victim, James Earl Cash, in service of the ultimate piece of snuff. He’ll lock doors in obscure ways, shut down generators, and demand Cash complete arbitrary objectives, giving shape to the artifice Rockstar use to interrogate their subject matter.
Manhunt is Rockstar’s dark, unsung masterpiece from the mid-00’s that doesn’t have “Grand Theft Auto” in the title. It’s an unremittingly bleak, gruesome journey through a forgotten rust-belt city that serves as a watershed moment for video-game violence.
I had no idea I loved it so very much.
If 2020 was the year for revisiting the past then 2021 will hopefully be about the new. Chris would probably appreciate that. That’s providing I can pull free of Half-Life’s gravitational pull, of course.