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Maths, No Man’s Sky, and the problem with procedural generation

This isn’t a review of No Man’s Sky, nor is it a critical teardown of what is (and isn’t) in it. This is a discussion about maths and procedural generation.

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Maths, No Man's Sky, and the problem with procedural generation

Disclaimer: This isn’t a review of No Man’s Sky, nor is it a critical teardown of what’s in it and what isn’t. This isn’t an expose on Hello Games or their development practises, and it certainly isn’t a litany of complaints about the things Sean Murray may or may not have said to the press in his unchecked enthusiasm. We might touch on those things occasionally, but there have already been more than enough think pieces and hot takes on No Man’s Sky the finished product versus No Man’s Sky the expectation; probably around 18 quintillion, at last count.

What this is, however, is a discussion about mathematics and – more specifically – the mathematics of procedural generation.

Additional disclaimer: There’s also some swearing. For emphasis.

Good at Maths

When I was at university, we lived next door to a bunch of lads from Northern Ireland, in our first year in student housing. Long story short, and I don’t remember the exact details of who broke into whose kitchen via the fire escape to play Pro Evo… in any case, we all got like a house on fire; ironic really, as the fire escape door was broken in doing so. Stick with me folks, there’s a point to this sentimental rambling.

The Northern Irish chaps, all friends from school who had travelled to England together, often had an interesting turn of phrase that the English (and to be fair, the Scottish and Welsh) would need explaining. An example:

Brian came home one morning, still wearing the clothes he had on the night before, having done the walk of shame across campus. Paul and Ryan asked Brian (yes, these are their real names) about who he’d hooked up with the night before, but rather than immediately show us a photo on his phone or wax lyrical about the girl he’d just met, he was rather cagey and quiet.

“Ah, she must be good at maths then, is she Brian?” Came the inquest from his oldest friends. The rest of us, unaware of this expression, asked for an explanation.

“It’s basically, if you’re going out with a girl and she’s not much of a looker or she comes from a rough area or whatever, and you’re a bit embarrassed,” they explained, “then you figure she must have something else going for her, you know? So like at school, you’d go out with a girl, even if she wasn’t very attractive, if she could help you with your maths homework. So, you know, they’re good at maths.”

Sean Murray and Hello Games – and ultimately, No Man’s Sky itself – are very good at maths.

‘Superformula’

There’s an algorithm used, in No Man’s Sky, that sits at the core of everything the game promises. Over 18 quintillion planets, all birthed randomly out of pure mathematics by procedural generation; it’s a fairly serious undertaking by a small development studio.

There was a concern, following the game’s initial delay and the secret legal wrangling with the Sith Lord owner of Sky Media Rupert Murdoch (over their permission to use the word ‘Sky’ in the name) that another hiccup could interfere with No Man’s Sky’s release: the suggestion by a Dutch botanist Johan Gielis that Hello Games has used his patented ‘superformula’ without permission in the creation of their near-infinite universe. Sean Murray quickly nixed those qualms with a tweet stating that the Dutch ‘superformula’ wasn’t used in No Man’s Sky, and asked that “everybody chill”.

I bet he’s wishing for those days of people agonising over a potential name change or a mathematical patent right about now, incidentally, and everybody really does need to chill.

But there is a formula used to create the 18 quintillion planets in No Man’s Sky, and while we don’t know the details of the algorithms Hello Games used – and Sean, if you ever want to get together and discuss hardcore maths, then please get in touch – it must be pretty a pretty super formula to do it.

18 quintillion planets. Just take a moment to stop and think just how big that is. No, seriously. Stop flinging your excrement at Sean Murray and Hello Games on Twitter and Reddit for one sodding minute to think about just how brain-meltingly, calculator-crushingly large a number that really is. To put that in a little – or rather, very large – bit of context, our home galaxy, the Milky Way, upon whose sweeping spiral our insignificant blue speck drifts giddily through the universe, is thought to have at least 100 billion planets. “At least” means it could well be more, but that’s a good low-ball estimate.

No Man’s Sky contains over 18 quintillion planets. That’s over 180 million times larger than the Milky Way, and the install is about 6GB in size. Those are utterly bewildering numbers. It’s one of the technical achievements of the century.

Speculation time: As I said earlier, I don’t know any details of the formula that Hello Games used in the procedural generation in No Man’s Sky (and they’re more than welcome to enlighten me) but I’d be willing to bet there’s a healthy amount of just-in-time instantiation – that is, only creating objects when called upon by the algorithm, i.e. things popping in as you fly towards them – combined with some prodigious deduplication.

Deduplication, in the world of information technology, is a method of reducing storage usage by marking pieces of data as duplicates of one another and only keeping one master copy (with pointers to where it can be found in place of the deduplicated data). On a really basic level, that’s like only keeping one version of a Word document even though you might have the same thing stored in ten places. In reality, that happens at the block level – as small as 4KB in size, the storage equivalent of atomic particles – which probably explains how No Man’s Sky is able to fit so much into so little. It builds the universe on the fly, and it’s really efficient in only storing deduplicated copies of the absolute base components, the atomic building blocks it needs to build said universe.

But when you’re building 18 quintillion planets from shared building blocks, that level of procedural generation and hardcore deduplication is going to show. Unfortunately in No Man’s Sky, it can show pretty early on.

Attack of the Clones

One of the chief concerns being levelled at No Man’s Sky – and certainly one of the more founded ones that, isn’t just teen angst and base internet rancour – is that it can be somewhat repetitive. Though to some, that’s entirely the point.

Anybody who spent years of their life trading commodities in the original Elite can tell you that there was no real aim to that game; the joy was in Littlest Hobo-ing your way around the galaxy, occasionally getting into scrapes and adventures, but mostly just wondering in the vast black expanse of an infinite universe. If that’s your interpretation of No Man’s Sky – as it is ours, here at Thumbsticks towers – then you’re probably the ideal person to play No Man’s Sky, and will get the best out of it in the long run. You should also read Keith Stuart’s piece over on The Guardian on that very subject; it’s really rather good.

But No Man’s Sky is repetitive, nonetheless. I’ll concede that the inventory is too small, and managing it is a constant juggling exercise. I’ll concede that resource mining is a bit of a grind, and can be tedious and frustrating in equal measure. I’ll concede that the trading posts and alien encounters are cookie cutter, and may as well just be text-based menus after you’ve seen the animation once (like the interminable, un-skippable guardian summon monsters in Final Fantasy VIII).

And while I will also concede that the planets can be a bit samey and ultimately repetitive, I’m afraid I’ll have to step in at this point if you’re using that as one of your many slings and arrows with which to attack Sean Murray and Hello Games. The planets have to be similar, or at the very least repeatable or formulaic, because if they weren’t? We’d never be able to get anywhere.

Let’s take a look at those 100+ billion planets in the Milky Way again for a moment. Do you know how many of them are habitable or hospitable? To our precise knowledge, exactly one: Earth (though there has been a good candidate for a second found orbiting Proxima Centauri very recently). And never mind whether they’re actually hospitable; do you know what percentage of them would even have a crust, mantle or surface that you’d be able to walk on, or land a dinky little starship on? The percentage is probably stupendously tiny.

If Hello Games had, with their formula for procedural generation, allowed the galaxy of No Man’s Sky to form in any old way it wanted, then there would be no game, kids; or at least, it would barely be playable. Here’s a fictional diary extract of what would happen if the game were truly random:

Day 1.

I awoke on an alien planet, stranded with my stricken ship, unable to escape this bizarre world. After some time wandering, it seemed that I could scavenge the resources I needed to repair my ship, and set about the task. After several hours of shooting rocks and trees to garner mineral deposits, I was able to craft the requisite parts and fuel up my ship for departure. I only hope the next world I find is friendlier than this one.

Day 287.

I have died so many fucking times it isn’t even funny any more. The first eighteen planets I tried to land on were all gas giants, and my ship simply sank to the core of the planet and, if I wasn’t burned up by whatever hellish gas composed the planet’s surface, I was crushed by its gravity at the centre. The next dozen or so were so hot that my ship melted and I was boiled alive before I even touched the surface. Then the next few months have been spent in a vicious cycle of the two; of finding a new planet, attempting to land, dying, and reloading my fucking save. I’m going to try planet 13,722 now. Wish me luck.

Day 288.

I’ve made a massive fucking error. Planet 13,722 is even worse than all the others! I’ve finally found a planet I can land on, but there’s literally nothing here. It’s just a fucking rock, floating in space like a giant, frozen turd. There’s a relatively hospitable atmosphere and a stable mantle, so it didn’t insta-kill me when I landed, but there’s literally nothing here. There’s no fuel. There’s no minerals or resources. There isn’t another living creature or useful thing on here, and my ship is out of fuel. I spent months wanting to land on a fucking planet that wouldn’t fucking kill me, and now I finally have, I can’t get off the fucking thing. Ever.

Doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? Anyway, back to the maths.

Sean Murray is a Generous God

Hello Games have had to create the procedural generation algorithm for No Man’s Sky with a number of parameters and variables locked in, to result in an actual, playable experience.

Think of it like generating a random world map for a game of Civilization: You pick the size of map you want, you pick what percentage of water, what density of forest, what global temperature range, what distribution of resources, and the game builds you a random world based on those parameters. Do that a thousand times and you’ll never end up with the same map, but you might get some that are very similar if you punch in comparable starter variables. That’s procedural generation at work, folks, and it was foolish of people to expect anything different from No Man’s Sky.

Yes, there’s a hell of a lot more variables, and yes, the results are a hell of a lot stranger than anything we’re used to – and the created universe is still unimaginably large and entirely unfeasible to even comprehend – but it’s still just procedural generation. It’s like one of those children’s games where you can jumble up the face, legs and torso of different characters to produce some comical results, but on a bewilderingly large scale.

I’m willing to bet that the procedural generation algorithm behind No Man’s Sky does the same thing as Civilization’s map builder, just hidden in the back end and with a truckload more variables. Here’s some to get you started:

  • Planet’s radius.
  • Percentage of water.
  • Density of foliage.
  • Temperature.
  • Resource distribution.

Thus far, all pretty similar to Civ, just a bit more spacey. But No Man’s Sky goes a lot further than that, delving into the funky and the fantastical:

  • Monoliths.
  • Artefacts.
  • Alien races.
  • Colour of ground.
  • Colour of foliage.
  • Colour of water.
  • Atmosphere.
  • Toxicity.
  • Radioactivity.
  • Types of plants.
  • Types of animals.

There’s probably several hundred variables for each planet – and consequently some components like plants and animals will have their own sub-procedural generation and their own individual base variables, based on the planet they inhabit – and the formula will be incredibly complex, but they all have to stay within a liveable set of parameters, because to leave a player stranded on a planet they’re unable to leave would be unforgivable.

That’s ultimately why No Man’s Sky feels repetitive, and it’s also why it feels easy (bordering on the mundane) at times: there’s a benevolent deity, in the form of Sean Murray’s mathematical formula for procedural world-building, watching over you at all times, making sure that you’re always able to progress and keep on trucking with your interstellar gap year. No Man’s Sky is not a hardcore game with procedural generation attached (as you’ll see in other survival roguelikes The Long Dark and We Happy Few), rather it’s a procedurally generated universe with a game attached, and there’s a finite limit to how challenging that game can be while also remaining playable for all possible eventualities (of which there are also quintillions, most likely).

No Man’s Sky is a an astonishing mathematical algorithm for procedurally generating 18 quintillion worlds in 6GB of space, created by a tiny team of enthusiastic coders in a meagre office in Guildford – which in itself is remarkable enough – but it’s not the pillars of fucking creation. It’s a mathematical framework, a complex formula for spitting out odd planets and weird life-forms, but it’s still just procedural generation. Stop treating it like it should be an entire living, breathing universe, with a history of billions of years of evolution and chaos theory in action, because that’s simply not possible.

I’ll repeat that point in case you missed it, because it’s really important and I think some people out there aren’t fully taking it on board: No Man’s Sky does not contain the pillars of fucking creation. It’s still just maths – enormous, staggering, overwhelmingly clever maths, admittedly – but at the end of the day?

No Man’s Sky is just really, really good at maths.

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Tom is an itinerant freelance technology writer who found a home as an Editor with Thumbsticks. Powered by coffee, RPGs, and local co-op.

Features

Dan Marshall: It was ‘astonishingly easy’ to add accessibility options

Dan Marshall, of Size Five Games, says adding accessibility features to Lair of the Clockwork God was “all pretty straightforward, easy work.”

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Lair of the Clockwork God
Size Five Games

Dan Marshall, of Size Five Games, says adding accessibility features to Lair of the Clockwork God was “all pretty straightforward, easy work.”

The year is 2020. Technology has never been more advanced. And yet, we live in a bizarre, regressive world where anti-vaxxers are on the rise, the UK is leaving the EU of its own volition, and the President of the United States yells at an autistic teenage girl for daring to suggest that his generation perhaps doesn’t ruin the planet for future generations.

In the world of video games, one obvious symptom of this intellectual vacuum is the anti-accessibility crowd. From gatekeepers who want to preserve the rarity of their “achievements” to those who are simply incapable of human empathy, there are still people who don’t believe video games need accessibility features. In 2020.

They’re dead wrong, by the way. (And if you disagree with that, maybe don’t read our website? We’re big advocates of accessibility in games and we’re frankly better off without you, thanks.)

Dan Marshall, of Size Five Games, spent a few hours this weekend adding accessibility features to upcoming game Lair of the Clockwork God. A sequel to Time Gentlemen, Please! and Ben There, Dan That!, Clockwork God is a mash-up of indie platformer and the series’ classic point-and-click adventure mechanics. It’s obviously a text-heavy game.

We spoke to Marshall via email, to ask about the process of making Lair of the Clockwork God more accessible, and why it’s important.

“I have been useless at all this stuff,” Dan concedes, “but the reality is it’s always good to make sure the game can be enjoyed by as many people as possible. Getting a game out the door is hard, and I do think it’s understandable when this kind of stuff hasn’t been implemented, because that pre-launch to-do list is so incredibly long, and especially for smaller indies who have such astonishingly low resources.”

“So for me, this kind of thing has always sadly fallen off the back burner,” he continues. “This time around I’m in the fortunate position to have the cash and resources behind me to spend a little time thinking about and implementing a few minor changes, that make the game so much more enjoyable for so many people.”

“Oddly enough, Lair of the Clockwork God’s themes kind of deal with all this,” Marshall explains. “By the nature of the beast, that it’s written by and starring two straight white guys… I mean, there’s obviously nothing we can do about that, so we’ve tried to be mindful every step of the way making sure the game is as inclusive elsewhere as possible.”

“The script itself deals head-on with topics like the ‘wokeness’ of the indie scene, or getting older and feeling out of place with new trends and other peoples’ needs… y’know in the game Ben’s this kind of relic from the LucasArts era, and Dan’s desperately keen to be part of this new vibrant indie movement he’s heard so much about, so taking the steps to make the whole game as accessible as possible kind of goes hand-in-hand with all that.”

So how easy has the process been, to add accessibility options to Lair of the Clockwork God?

“Astonishingly easy, to be honest. I spent about 4-5 hours total adding 9 core changes (including some that people had recommended over Twitter), and honestly,” Marshall says, “it was all pretty straightforward, easy work, which is exactly what I need right now. In the scheme of things, that’s probably less time than I spent choosing the colour of the options menu, so it’s worth doing.”

Lair of the Clockwork God accessibility options

“And yeah, some of it was just unbelievably quick. Two lines of code and a new toggle added to the menu and it’s in. So why not do it? There’s obviously some bigger stuff that’s likely to let’s say, break everything, and I’ll do my best to get them in before launch. Lesson learned for the next project is: it’s just sensible to keep this stuff in mind the whole way through!”

For little more than an afternoon’s work, Lair of the Clockwork God is now a far more accessible experience.

Clockwork God now includes options for a dyslexic-friendly font, and adjusting the size, colour, speed, and labelling of text to make it easier for everyone to follow. This might not seem like a big deal if you don’t need it, but it will literally be the difference between someone being able to play the game or bouncing off it.

The year is 2020. Fictional Ben may be insistent that Lair of the Clockwork God’s mechanics stay rooted in 1991, but just like his in-game counterpart, real-life Dan is making sure it’s a modern video game, too.


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Features

The 20 most anticipated video games of 2020

We put together one of those lists again. This one’s the 20 video games we’re most looking forward to in 2020.

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20 most anticipated games 2020
Square Enix / Naughty Dog / Xbox / CD Projekt Red / Thumbsticks

We put together one of those lists again. This one’s the 20 video games we’re most looking forward to in 2020.

There’s a lot to look forward to in 2020. Well, in video games, at least. The rest of the world is a nightmarish hellscape of fire and fascists, but in the final run-in to the next generation of video game consoles, there are a lot of brilliant games just waiting to release.

Maybe it’s because we’re coming to the end of the current generation. Lots of developers who have targeted the current generation have a very limited window to get their games out – games that have been in development for a very long time, like Cyberpunk 2077 and the Final Fantasy VII Remake – before there’s a risk of them being eclipsed by titles on the more powerful PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X.

Whatever the reason, 2020 is shaping up to be a vintage year for video games. Here are the 20 games we’re most looking forward to – 20 games, 2020, see what we did there? – laid out in alphabetical order. Just so the screeching loons can’t bicker and argue about how we’ve “ranked” them. (It’s not our first day. We know how the internet works.)

Update: This post has been amended to include updated release dates for games that have been delayed since it was first published.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Yes, the most recent trailer for Animal Crossing: New Horizons felt like a Tom Nook timeshare presentation, but anybody who says they’re not excited for this slice of loveliness is lying to you. We’re wondering if KK Slider will swap his guitar for a ukulele, for the full island vibe? We’ll find out March 20, 2020.

Carrion

Carrion, the “reverse horror game” from Phobia Game Studio and Devolver Digital, is for anybody who ever wondered what The Thing would be like if the protagonist were the thing, and not Kurt Russell’s MacReady. Messy is the answer to that query. Very, very messy.

Cyberpunk 2077

Cyberpunk 2077 Keanu 500px

This is a game that’s been in the works for so long, there always felt like a chance it might slip to the next generation of consoles. There’s little doubt that Cyberpunk 2077 will look amazing on the PS5 and Xbox Series X, but we’ll all get to experience the breathtaking Mr Reeves on April 16, 2020.

Update: Cyberpunk 2077 has been delayed to September 17, 2020.

Dreams

Dreams has been out in a limited form of early access for a little while now, and what people are making in it seems remarkable for a hobbyist, console tool. But Dreams launches proper on February 14, 2020 – happy Valentine’s Day! – which is when the fun will really begin.

Dying Light 2

Dying Light 2, which is expected to launch in Q2 2020, has been rumbling around the events circuit for a few years now. Every year, we see more and more impressive demos of the worldbuilding and the game’s Chris Avellone-powered branching narrative chops, but we’re yet to actually get our hands on it.

Update: Delayed until… we don’t actually know. Just delayed.

Fall Guys

Expected to launch sometime in 2020, Fall Guys was one of the unexpected stars of E3 2019. Developed by Mediatonic and published by Devolver Digital, it’s a cross between the 100-person battle royale spectacle, silly physics games (like Gang Beasts and Human Fall Flat) and physical comedy game show Takeshi’s Castle. What’s not to love?

Final Fantasy VII Remake

Final Fantasy VII Remake 500px

The Final Fantasy VII Remake has been in development for an age, and when the game does release on March 3, 2020? We’re still only going to get to play about a third (at most) of the original game’s story. (Our bet is that the first “episode” will run until the assault on Shinra headquarters, and the subsequent escape from Midgar.) But it looks so flipping good, and our hands-on preview was one of the highlights of E3 2019.

Update: Delayed until April 10, 2020.

Ghost of Tsushima

Sony showed off four games at its last foray to E3 in 2018, in a confusing, venue-changing press conference. Two of those games, Insomniac’s Spider-Man and Death Stranding, have since released, while The Last of Us Part II is slated for May 29, 2020. That leaves Sucker Punch’s Ghost of Tsushima as the last remnant of PlayStation at E3. We still know precious little about the stealth game, but it’s still expected to launch in 2020 before the PlayStation 5 hits in time for Christmas.

Half-Life: Alyx

One of the biggest shocks of 2019 was that Valve – the game developer who stopped making games to develop a big storefront, instead – is developing a third game in the Half-Life series, Half-Life: Alyx. It’s not strictly Half-Life 3, nor is it entirely a Valve creation, as recently-acquired Firewatch developer Campo Santo has shelved In the Valley of the Gods to work on Alyx. And it’s also a VR-exclusive, which has ruffled some feathers, but Valve is hoping that Half-Life: Alyx will be the killer app that has hitherto been missing, and brings a payday for its investment in VR technology.

Halo: Infinite

Halo Infinite 500px

It seems wild that Halo: Infinite is the only next-generation title on this list of the most anticipated games of 2020, but that’s simply a result of how few launch titles have been confirmed for the PlayStation 5 or the Xbox Series X. If we’re being completely honest, we’re not that excited for a new Halo, but it felt wrong not to include something from the next-gen.

Lair of the Clockwork God

Lair of the Clockwork God, from Size Five Games, is the third game in the Dan and Ben Adventure series, following on from the brilliant Time Gentlemen, Please and Ben There, Dan That. Ben is sticking with series’ staple point-and-click gameplay, while Dan has decided the “real money” is in indie platformers. Lair of the Clockwork God mashes the two together in a brilliant character-swapping adventure.

Maneater

Maneater is a goofy, B-movie of a video game, where you play as a man-eating shark. It features open-world (ish) gameplay and RPG mechanics as you level up to become the biggest predator in the water. It won’t be safe to go back in the water on May 22, 2020.

Microsoft Flight Simulator

Microsoft Flight Simulator was always one of the most deeply boring aspects of PC gaming. Why would you want to execute boring, realistic manoeuvres in the real world when you could be whizzing around space in an X-Wing, for instance? But the modern version, that combines cloud computing with high-resolution satellite imagery, really looks like something else.

The Last of Us Part II

The Last of Us Part II 500px

The Last of Us Part II – along with Cyberpunk 2077 and the Final Fantasy VII Remake – is one of the big-ticket items of 2020. We don’t need to sell this one to you. At all. Not even a little bit. We’re equal parts excited and terrified to pick up Ellie’s adventure on May 29, 2020.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps

Ori and the Will of the Wisps is the follow-up to 2015’s indie darling, Ori and the Blind Forest, from developer Moon Studios and published by Xbox Game Studios. Simple, stylish, beautiful; expect more of the same on February 11, 2020.

Resident Evil 3 Remake

If you’d asked us a couple of years ago if we’d be excited for a remake of Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, we’d probably have shrugged. Said something noncommittal. Tried not to hurt Capcom’s feelings with our lack of interest. But after the stellar Resident Evil 2 Remake in early 2019, we’re expecting the Resident Evil 3 Remake to be similarly superb when it releases on April 3, 2020.

Spiritfarer

Spiritfarer 500px

Spiritfarer, Thunderlotus’ beautiful, poignant game about helping others into the afterlife was one of the stars of E3 2019. We played it and it is every bit as lovely as it looks. Rumours that we spent our entire time with the demo just hugging the cat are completely unfounded.

Streets of Rage 4

It’s been almost 26 years since the last Streets of Rage game, Streets of Rage 3, released for the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis. At one point, we would’ve been happy with it being left in the past. But seeing the stellar work done by Dotemu and Lizard Cube on the remake of Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, and the amazing glimpses of the art and style of Streets of Rage 4, this is a blast from the past we can’t wait to play.

Wasteland 3

Speaking of blasts from the past, Wasteland 3 is scheduled for release on May 11, 2020. It’s part of a wider revival of classic C-RPG series, including Torment, Pillars of Eternity and Baldur’s Gate, but Wasteland’s place in history – as the grandaddy of Fallout, among other things – can’t be overlooked.

Watch Dogs Legion

Watch Dogs Legion 500px

Watch Dogs has been on a journey, hasn’t it? From the po-faced Aiden Pierce to the neon giddiness of Marcus Holloway’s San Francisco, it’s facing another yo-yo in tone for Watch Dogs Legion, where Brexit has happened and the outcome for the UK is about as awful as we all expect. The real highlight, though? The ability to recruit any NPC in the game, with the right motivation. Yes, even Helen, the Antifa nana who stole our hearts at E3 2019.

Honourable Mentions

Here are a bunch of other games we’re also looking forward to in 2020, but we had to be ruthless and keep it down to 20. (Otherwise, we could just list games for days.)

  • 12 Minutes
  • Bleeding Edge
  • Boyfriend Dungeon
  • The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope
  • Doom Eternal
  • Empire of Sin
  • Godfall
  • Gods and Monsters
  • Hollow Knight – Silksong
  • Kerbal Space Program 2
  • Little Nightmares 2
  • Marvel’s Avengers
  • Murder by Numbers
  • Nioh 2
  • Oddworld: Soulstorm
  • One-Punch Man: A Hero Nobody Knows
  • Psychonauts 2
  • Sports Story
  • Super Meat Boy Forever
  • Twin Mirror
  • Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines 2
  • Way to the Woods
  • Windjammers 2
  • Yakuza: Like a Dragon

Did we miss anything you’re looking forward to? Then why not let us know – politely and calmly – on Twitter.

Support Thumbsticks

We hate to ask, but global advertising revenues are the lowest they've ever been. It's killing the online publishing world. If you like what we do and want to support free, quality games writing, then please consider supporting us via Patreon, buying us a coffee, or subscribing to our newsletter.


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Features

Is Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot worth playing?

Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot, a new open-world RPG from CyberConnect2 and Bandai Namco Entertainment, is out now, but is it worth playing?

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Dragon Ball Z Kakarot
Bandai Namco

Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot, a new open-world RPG from CyberConnect2 and Bandai Namco Entertainment, is out now, but is it worth playing? We take a look at the game’s critical reception.

Despite a lack of pre-release reviews, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot topped the UK video games chart in its debut week. It’s an impressive performance for an ambitious game that blends RPG mechanics, brawling, and open-world exploration.

Reviews for the game are still hard to come by, but publications covering the game have found it to be an enjoyable enough adventure with engaging combat. The consensus, however, is that the open-world lacks substance. The game, ultimately, appears to be one for committed fans of long-running anime franchise.. Here is our pick of the game’s reviews.

Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot review round-up

PC Gamer

Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is by no means perfect, but it’s a solid RPG that very efficiently covers the entire Dragon Ball Z saga. The game sometimes crumbles under the weight of its own systems, but Kakarot is still a fun title for anyone looking to revisit (or even experience for the first time) the Dragon Ball Z saga.”

76/100 – Review by Liz Henges

Polygon

“As a video game, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is competent. Flying around the world takes some getting used to. But with practice, you can soar just like Goku and friends in the anime, even if it’s just to see how the massive Dragon Ball Z world fits together and to collect upgrade orbs. The combat is also more complex than it originally seems. There’s only one button for punching, but the combination of dodges, punches, Ki blasts, and special moves manages to keep fights fresh and, occasionally, challenging. The real meat of the game is still the combat, and the combat is still competitive with some of the better brawlers out there.”

Not scored – Impressions by Ryan Gilliam

Collider

“I don’t know how folks who aren’t familiar with DBZ will respond to this game, but I can’t imagine it has a lot of appeal for them above and beyond what other action-focused RPGs offer. Kakarot is a nostalgia play, through and though, and it excels at that. It’s absolutely gorgeous, arguably more dynamic and powerful in its epic moments than even *gasp* the anime itself. Sure, the pacing is quite a bit faster than the anime, so there’s not as much time in the build-up to those powerful and sometimes heart-breaking turns, but man do they pack a punch.”

Grade B – Review by Dave Trumbore

Destructoid

“It’s not the anime game to end all anime games. It’s not going to convert any non-believers or onboard them into this decades-old classic universe. Even as someone who still re-watches DBZ, it can be grating at times ⁠— but the juice is mostly worth the squeeze.”

Not scored – Review by Chris Carter

GamesRadar

“… numbers and tutorials aside, the world of Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is actually quite good fun to explore. There are loads of places to discover from caves to ravines. It’s just a shame that there’s not much reason to do so. One of the biggest issues that Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot faces is meaning, at least when it comes to everything outside of the main story. There’s never enough reason to take part in the multitude of things you can do, not unless you’re simply trying to kill time, which renders many of the large open areas effectively worthless.

3/5 – Review by James Coles

Publication

“As a Dragon Ball love letter, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is nearly perfect, featuring an amazing world and attention to detail. But as an RPG and action-adventure game, it’s only good. Its combat can be fun and some of the more in-depth elements are a good change of pace, but a lot of it feels pointless or time-consuming.”

7/10 – Review by George Foster

Other publications

  • PlayStation LifeStyle – 80/10
  • Spazio Games – 7.5
  • The Sixth Axis – 7
  • Famitsu – 34/40

Title: Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot
Developer: Cyberconnect2
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Release date: January 17, 2020
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows


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Features

Interview: Making AO Tennis 2 a Grand Slam winner

We speak to Big Ant Studios about the development of AO Tennis 2 and the pressure to improve on last year’s instalment.

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AO Tennis 2 header
Big Ant Studios

AO Tennis 2 is the second officially licensed Australian Open video game from Big Ant Studios. We talk to CEO Ross Symons about its development and the pressure to improve on last year’s instalment.

AO Tennis 2 – which is developed in partnership with Tennis Australia – is billed as a significant upgrade on its predecessor and includes a plethora of new features and gameplay improvements.

The headline addition is a revamped and narrative-focused career mode, similar in structure to Codemasters’ impressive F1 campaigns and FIFA’s The Journey. The studio’s full-featured content editor also returns, giving players the tools to create everything from venues and players to car parks and uniforms. It also helps players fill the gaps that the game’s licence doesn’t cover to create a comprehensive simulation of the sport.

We spoke to Big Ant Studios CEO Ross Symons on the eve of the 2020 Australian Open to find out more about this year’s game.

Thumbsticks: AO Tennis 2 includes a new, narrative-driven career mode. Why did you decide to take this approach?

Ross Symons: One of the things that people love about tennis is the personalities that are involved; people have their favourite players, and watch their careers, with the highs and lows that it entails. When looking at AO Tennis 2, we wanted to find a way of reflecting that – tennis is as much about what happens off the court than on, so giving players a chance to engage with that side of the sport was important.

What is the most challenging aspect of adding narrative elements to the game?

We had to build a lot for the narrative career mode – we needed to build the manager’s rooms and the press conferences for the cut scenes, for example. We also needed to find a way of balancing what occurred through those scenes, and making sure they had some impact on the development of the player’s career.

To do that we needed to introduce new systems (such as the reputation system) and new mechanics to go with that. It was a lot of work. We think that the results have been more than worthwhile, though, and a lot of fans have come up to us to say they appreciate what we’ve done there.

AO Tennis 2 screenshot

The first AO Tennis game had a slightly rocky launch, but it was much improved by a series of patches and updates. Did you take anything from that experience and apply it to the development of AO Tennis 2?

We always take fan feedback on board at Big Ant Studios. It’s a core principle that drives our team and we use that feedback to help inform our development. AO Tennis’ improvements came thanks to the excellent feedback and support of a truly passionate community of fans, and AO Tennis 2 is the next stage in that ongoing evolution.

Speaking of that community, Big Ant’s content editor has a devoted user base. How important is the editor to AO Tennis 2, and do you see it as a key component of the studio’s future games?

Our content creation suite has been a point of pride in our games for a very long time now, and we continue to build on it as we can. Whether it’s Tennis, Cricket, Rugby League, or another property that we’ve worked on, we’ve always wanted to provide that sandbox experience that allows players to take the game, and make it their own in every way.

Being able to share content online also means that we’re able to give our players an endless well of new experiences to enjoy. You’re right that we’ve got an enormously devoted community – AO Tennis 2 has over 20,000 players available to download already! It adds great value to the game for everyone.

AO Tennis 2 screenshot

AO Tennis 2 stars some of the sport’s biggest players, including Rafael Nadal, Ash Barty, and Angélique Kerber. How do you approach bringing such distinctive athletes into the game and representing them accurately in-game?

With a lot of research. We make sure we take the highest quality photogrammetry of each player that we can – and we personally take control of the photography to ensure that it’s of a universally high standard. Then we sit down and watch hours of videos to understand how each player moves and behaves on the court.

We’re lucky that we’ve got a lot of passionate tennis fans at Big Ant, who have a great eye for the subtleties of the sport, and a great respect for how individual the game really is.

As a Melbourne-based studio, do you feel a sense of responsibility in developing the official game of the Australian Grand Slam? 

It’s not just that we’re Melbourne-based – we’re just a couple of minutes walk from the tennis precinct itself! Yes, we do feel a great deal of responsibility for making sure that our game reflects the energy and excitement of the biggest tennis event in the southern hemisphere.

Luckily we’ve been able to work very closely with Tennis Australia themselves, who are very much fans of video games and want to give tennis fans the complete experience – watch the games at the venue, and then come home and recreate your favourite moments on your gaming console.

Are they any aspects of the Australian Open that give the tournament a specific flavour that you try to capture?

Melbourne Park is such an iconic venue. It’s not just a court where people play tennis. It’s a space that, after many years now, has a heritage and history that deserves respect. We’ve gone to great lengths (and worked closely with Tennis Australia) to make sure that we’ve got the small details of this venue down right for the game.

Generally speaking, the Australian Open is well-regarded as “the happy slam,” so we also wanted to make sure that AO Tennis 2 reflects that positive celebration of the sport that the crowds that come to the event have come to love.

AO Tennis 2 screenshot

Big Ant Studios produce games across a range of platforms, from iOS and Android to Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. How do you work to scale your games across platforms of such varying capabilities?

We develop our own engines and technology at Big Ant, and having that extra level of control over the engine allows us to be more flexible and creative with it. As a result, we’re able to work rapidly to bring our games to new platforms.

AO Tennis 2 feels like a significant step up from the first game. Do you plan to continue your partnership with the Australian Open, and what else can we look forward to from Big Ant in 2020?

While we can’t discuss future development plans in any detail, we can say that we remain committed to our existing properties, and we’re always on the lookout for new opportunities. It’s going to be an exciting couple of years for sports fans, so stay tuned!

AO Tennis 2 is available worldwide on PC. The Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One versions are out now in Europe and Australia, and will come to North America on February 11, 2020.

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Is Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore worth playing?

Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore is the latest Wii U game to be ported to the Nintendo Switch. Is the game worth a curtain call?

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Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore review
Atlus

Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore is the latest Wii U game to be ported to the Nintendo Switch. Is the game worth a curtain call?

Slightly overlooked on its original 2015 release, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore takes to the stage once again as the latest Wii U game to make a Nintendo Switch comeback. It’s a heady blend of the Shin Megami Tensei and Fire Emblem franchises that taps into Japanese idol culture to create a distinctive RPG based around dungeons and dancing.

The game is broadly untouched on Switch, but it does include all post-release DLC, a new zone and some new costumes. Some of the features that used the Wii U Gamepad have also been adapted.

The critical response is broadly positive, with many reviewers having the chance to experience the game for the first time. Here is our pick of the best Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore reviews.

Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore review round-up

The Verge

“It’s becoming cliche to say that a game is perfect for the Switch, but RPGs in particular benefit from the platform. Tokyo Mirage Sessions is a great example of this. So much of the experience is slowly trawling through maze-like dungeons, with plenty of strategic battles along the way. These moments are perfect for playing on the go, while the story sequences — particularly the gorgeous cut scenes — benefit from a bigger screen. Either way, the game looks great, and the copious text and menus are still legible on a small display.”

Not scored – Review by Andrew Webster

Eurogamer

“Generally, the Fire Emblem influence remains incredibly easy to ignore, certainly due to the Fire Emblem developer Intelligent Systems hardly having had a hand in either design or development. That makes Tokyo Mirage Sessions approachable for people who are unfamiliar with either series, but it seems odd to market something as a big crossover of two beloved properties and then skimp on the crossover elements.”

Not scored – Review by Malindy Hetfeld

Nintendo Life

“Tokyo Mirage Sessions is a constant barrage of colour, J-pop music and general unrepentant joy. Even during its less enthralling story moments or its more repetitive sections, it still does its very best to put a smile on your face with its constant positivity.”

8/10 – Review by Chris Scullion

USGamer

“When #FE failed to make an impression on RPG fans in 2015, it wasn’t the game’s fault. Now that it’s a well-advertised game on a popular platform, it should make more of a splash. It deserves to. I missed out on #FE Encore during its first tour, and I’m happy I was able to indulge in its strange hybrid charms the second time around.”

4/5 – Review by Nadia Oxford

Destructoid

“It’s an unapologetically silly game. But for as unconventional as it is, Tokyo Mirage Sessions frequently manages to pay clear homage to both Shin Megami Tensei and Fire Emblem in interesting ways. For instance, the rock-paper-scissors-styled combat of Fire Emblem is still in play here. While the battle system itself feels like a particularly flashy spin on the type of combat found within Shin Megami Tensei or Persona, having a level of familiarity with Fire Emblem’s mechanics is going to help a lot in pinpointing an enemy’s weakness.”

Not scored – Review by Dennis Carden

Twinfinite

“Your enjoyment of this game will depend on how much you love and embrace the carefree lightheartedness of the story. Tokyo Mirage Sessions is very much a bubbly and upbeat RPG that never dives too deeply into the sinister side of idol culture, and instead focuses on fun and colorful musical numbers, and the general sense of having a good time.”

4/5 – Review by Zhiqing Wan

Other publications

  • God is a Geek – 8.5/10
  • The Sixth Axis – 9/10
  • Metro – 7/10
  • DualShockers – 9/10

Title: Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore
Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Nintendo
Release date: January 17, 2020
Platform: Nintendo Switch


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