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Spec Ops: The Line and the Future of Shooters

This year’s E3 marked a dramatic shift, albeit one that was not immediately noticeable.

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Spec Ops: The Line

As E3’s go, it was not a revolutionary year, no major new hardware announcements were made, nor were there game reveals that left everyone stunned. That is not to say that it was a bad year, for it demonstrated confidence from the industry following the new hardware releases at the end of 2013.

It is still too early to expect anything truly revolutionary from the larger developers, as they are still getting to grips with the new hardware and trying to appease the demands of achieving the coveted 1080p 60fps “gold standard”. This has been reflected with the number of upcoming titles that, on the surface, are playing it fairly safe. EA, Activision, and Ubisoft all have new instalments from their major franchises. Whilst most of these new entries do offer new takes on their respective series’, none are to the extent that they can be deemed truly new to video games.

What became evident from E3 this year was the change in tone and setting found in the industry’s genre staple, the shooter (this includes both First and Third person shooters). Activision’s Call of Duty is no longer taking place in a (relatively) modern setting and has moved to the near future with soldiers that fight for private militaries, use exoskeletons, and are given orders by Kevin Spacey. Activision are also publishing Halo creator Bungie’s new IP Destiny which takes place far into the future on Earth after humanity’s galactic golden era has already been and gone. EA’s Battlefield, whilst still taking place in the present day can no longer be called a military shooter, for it is now effectively a game of cops & robbers.

Kotaku recently pointed out just how many new space themed games are coming out in the coming year or so, and whilst only a couple of those are shooters it is a marked change in setting from the recent console generation which seemed to have a fixation on the modern setting. Space settings can often be symbolic of a desire to explore a more optimistic potential future, but it can also be used to explore the problems of today but through a different lense, either to obscure the link to the present or for the creative freedom it can allow.

Although whilst that can be the case, many of the space themed games mentioned in Kotaku’s list focus more on exploration or combat instead of concentrating on developing fixed narrative (with the exception of Tales from the Borderlands). These titles promote the idea of the player creating their own story based on the experiences they have in the game. That is not to mean that single player narrative based games are in decline (again Tales from the Borderlands counters this), but the move away from a contemporary setting and the current military identity can be seen as a growing tiredness of the modern military shooter.

As mentioned previously, whilst Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (CoD4) was not the first modern military shooter, it was the first to popularise it. Likewise Yager’s Spec Ops: The Line is not the last game to utilise the conventions of a modern military shooter (as there have already been two Call of Duty’s and a Battlefield game since) it can be argued that it symbolised the fall of the genre. Often when game is attributed to a fall of genre it is because it represented the last tired attempt of trying to grasp at the remaining money that can be made from it, or that it was so bad that it put people off from buying more games from that genre and therefore developers from making those games. One such example is the demise of the music rhythm genre which Activision helped to bury after numerous unnecessary Guitar Hero iterations.

Spec Ops is not an example of this. Rather it did such an outstanding job of creating a meaningful modern military shooter that explores the horrors of conflict that can take place in a modern setting (even though it is loosely based on a novella written at the end of the 19th century) whilst also managing to highlight the problems that had plagued the genre. So intrinsic was this aspect that the game essentially played out like a parody of the genre whilst simultaneously becoming increasingly bleak. Throughout Spec Ops presented players with the illusion of choice, yet these choices always provided a desperate result with the possible outcome being either bad or worse; there was no good choice. Ultimately the only real choice that was given to the player was whether or not they wanted to continue. The game was an exercise in pointing out the horrible things that were taking place in games from this genre that were never properly analysed. Spec Ops changed this and instead asked the player if they felt like hero.

In modern military shooters (and shooters in general) the player is tasked with shooting pretty much anything that moves without giving it a moment’s notice. The problem with this approach is that players are willingly led into assuming that everyone who they kill in the game deserved to die, with the only real reason for this being that the “enemy” would do the same to them. During the Death From Above mission in CoD4 the player is tasked with shooting at any humans on screen that are not clearly identified as an ally, but for all they know they could be shooting at civilians. Spec Ops actually takes this notion and makes it a reality.

Spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line from here on

During the infamous White Phosphorus scene, the main protagonist Captain Walker finds his Delta Force between a rock and a hard place and makes the choice that using white phosphorus is the only way to progress forward towards their (his) goal. The way the scene plays out is very reminiscent of Death From Above with the same distorted video screen and the use of heat signatures. However at the end of the scene instead of emerging as victors of a battle, Delta Force are portrayed as the villains, whilst they walk past the scorched remains of the American soldiers that Walker subjected to devastation of white phosphorus. From here the situation only becomes worse, for Walker discovers that the large mass of people by the gates were not a further group of soldiers but instead the very survivors they came here to protect. The intensity of this horror is strengthened by the image of the charred remains of a mother trying to protect her child from the raining death that Walker was unleashing on them.

Towards the end of the game Walker challenges Colonel Konrad, who Walker has fixated upon as being the cause of all of the suffering that has occurred, accusing him of having done all of this. Konrad retorts ‘no, you did’. He then adds that ‘none of this would have happened if you’d just stop’. Konrad may be talking to Walker but he is also addressing the player. If the player had stopped playing the game then the horrors that took place would not have been committed at the hands of the player. They had one real choice, and they chose to continue playing. As Walker is trying to comprehend the situation and his own mental sanity he proclaims to Konrad that he is ‘done playing games’ to which Konrad responds ‘I assure you this is no game’.

It is hyperbolic to claim that Spec Ops is more than a video game, because in terms of the gameplay experienced Spec Ops presents itself as a competent third person shooter. It is better than average to play, but aside from the occasional use of sand to alter the battlefield, provides little that is new to shooters. Although this is a positive element as it prevents the gameplay from detracting from the wider themes that the game is addressing, but is good enough so as not be a hurdle to the player (the game is still difficult, but fair). This is in contrast to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 which after the success of its predecessor, Infinity Ward decided to start the game with a scene designed purely to shock the player. But they failed to make it meaningful in any way, and the end result became another example of video games problem with violence. The lacking importance of the scene was further highlighted due to the player being warned about the nature of the upcoming scene and then asked if they wanted to skip it. Spec Ops confronts the player with shocking scenes, but they are accompanied by meaning, Modern Warfare 2 offers the player a shooting gallery full of innocent civilians with the only justification being that it is what terrorists do.

Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw made an important observation during his “review” in which he compared Spec Ops to a horror game, and due to the deteriorating psychological state of Walker and Delta Force this is rather apt. This is a much more appropriate way to explore war rather than the fun shooting galleries presented in Call of Duty and Battlefield. Even though CoD has abandoned modern military it is still focusing on the role of the military, except this time it looks like it might be taking a page out of Metal Gear Solid’s playbook. Battlefield on the other hand is trying to reinvigorate itself by being more like a modern TV police drama and firmly dropping its prior militaristic gung-ho attitude.

Shooters will always be around, and have been one of the strongest genres since the days of Wolfenstein 3D in the early 1990s. They will continue to evolve and change, but for now people have become tired of the modern military genre (and the real world circumstances that it portrays) like they have done previously with both World War 2 and space settings, both of which are making a form of return, highlighting the cyclical nature of the genre. Yet changing the setting alone is not enough for shooters to develop, for the way that players interact with them need to evolve as well.

One such potential example is Ubisoft’s upcoming Tom Clancy game The Division. David Polfeldt, managing director of Massive Entertainment (the games developer), points out the inherent problem with shooters being the amount of killing that takes place. This might be an oxymoronic statement to make considering that killing is considered the point of shooters, but it need not be. Shooters do not have to be about killing, Portal is technically a shooter as it utilises most of the same conventions, and in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater it is possible to go through an entire playthrough without killing a single person.

Spec Ops may have asked the player why they mindlessly killed hundreds of people, but it still made them in order to drive the question home. In The Division shooting apparently does not always have to be the answer to a situation, allowing for the possibility of more player choice in how they approach a game, rather than the usual of how they can kill someone. Spec Ops was progressive by being self-aware of what makes a shooter and brought attention to the flaws within the genre to produce a memorable experience. The Division could take things further and implement change into its gameplay making it a morally aware shooter.

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Despite studying Politics at Undergrad and then War Studies at Master's level, James managed to write multiple essays relating to technology and more importantly video games.

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.

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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


Visit our new releases section for more on this week’s new video games.

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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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The 19 best video games of 2019

We did one of those game of the year lists for 2019. We only fell out a dozen times discussing it.

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Obsidian / Remedy / HouseHouse / Thumbsticks

We did one of those game of the year lists for 2019. We only fell out a dozen times discussing it.

It’s nearly the end of the year. That means terrible jumpers, drinking too much at work functions, and game of the year lists.

We’ve done one, again. And as usual, we’ve done 19 games, purely because it’s 2019. We’re aware that’s going to get really unwieldy by 2077 – the year, not the game – but we’re not really planning and/or expecting to be alive that long. (We’ve also included a bunch of games that didn’t make the list, for various reasons, as honourable mentions. It’s harder to keep it to just 19 than you’d think.)

And as usual, we’ve done the list alphabetically, to avoid any argument over rankings. The fact that Tom’s choice is at the top? Purely a coincidence.

A Short Hike – Tom’s favourite

2019 has been an awful year. It’s been a dreadful few years, in fact. Politics, global warming, and the general miseries of humankind are enough to make you want to crawl into a little nest of blankets and pretend the world doesn’t exist. A Short Hike, the short, quirky adventure game from indie developer Adam Robinson-Yu, has been one of those blankets this year.

As the title suggests, A Short Hike is a short game. And that’s perfect. It’s a three- to four-hour diversion from modern life, both for the game’s protagonist on her adventure, and for the player, using it as classic escapism from the horrors of modern life. If you’re having a bad day – or longer – and you just want to get away from the world, go on A Short Hike. You won’t regret it.

Ape Out

Ape Out is avant-garde. Ape Out is bold. Ape Out is clever. But above all, Ape Out sounds amazing. The whiplash moment hits when you’re told that not a single bit of the game’s musical composition is pre-recorded. None of the trumpets. None of the drums. The individual samples, hundreds of them, are fed into the game’s audio engine. Then, as you play through the game, the score is procedurally built based on what’s happening on the screen. You’re literally building the soundtrack as you go, and it is astonishing.

Or as our review puts it: “Ape Out is a dynamo of a game, simultaneously stylish and meaty, that manages to succeed as both a technical demonstration of procedural generation – particularly that magical audio – and a bloody fun game to boot.”

Control

What makes Control really special – and why it was atop our game of the decade list for 2019 – is that it’s the rare example of the AAA game that is also, frankly, bonkers. Remedy is famed for it, of course, with the hit-and-miss, mixed media experience of Quantum Break its most recent foray, but Control is arguably the studio’s best. (And in a back catalogue that includes Max Payne and Alan Wake, that’s high praise.)

Being weird or wacky on its own isn’t enough, though. Otherwise, Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding would clearly have gotten the nod. (See also: Rage 2, Kingdom Hearts III, Shenmue III.) But unlike these other examples, Control manages to excel at both being both a bonkers idea and a brilliant game in the critical, classical sense. That’s a very rare thing indeed, and Remedy should be celebrated and cherished because of it.

Crypt of the Necrodancer: Cadence of Hyrule

It feels like such a long time ago that Cadence of Hyrule released, landing with a bang during E3 2019. While people loved it at the time, it seems to have dropped off the radar for game of the year lists; probably just because it feels so long ago.

What’s really important about Cadence of Hyrule is not the game itself – lovely as it is – but what the game represents. When Nintendo allowed Ubisoft to use its Mario properties for Kingdom Battle, that was a surprise. (And an even bigger surprise, it was an excellent game, in spite of featuring Ubisoft’s insufferable Rabbids.) But for the notoriously protective Nintendo to hand the keys to Hyrule castle over to indie developer Brace Yourself Games? That’s unheard of.

Disco Elysium

The history of Disco Elysium’s world – built on the rubble of a failed communist revolution that left many, many people dead – can be ignored. Your history – as an amnesiac cop who drank himself into an oblivion so dark and deep he can literally remember nothing – cannot be remembered. But, at times, the truth of the past breaks in and you are confronted with who you really are, what the fictional city of Revachol really is. In these moments, Disco Elysium stops being funny and irreverent and is just unspeakably sad.

Disco Elysium

It’s a game that asks you to forge a new identity for your character – are you Art Cop? Hobocop? Pinko Cop? Fascist Cop? – but makes his past inescapable. There is an irrepressible melancholy to every moment in this decade-in-the-making world.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses – Dan’s favourite

Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a linear, turn-based game that we, adults, happily played for 70-plus hours. That’s the highest praise we can possibly bestow. In a year that was packed with good-to-great games, Fire Emblem’s combination of tense tactical battles, solid character work and long-haul storytelling managed to keep us invested for more hours than anything else we played this year. If only we had the extra 200 hours necessary to give it the time it deserves.

Gato Roboto

Aside from the name, which is stupid, the Metroidvania genre has a lot of problems. Lack of instruction, signposting, checkpointing, difficulty spikes, generally being a pain; they can be frustrating to veterans, and are often impenetrable for players not familiar with the genre.

With its 1-bit visuals and stripped back style, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Gato Roboto would be a Metroidvania for the purists. And it is one that the purists will enjoy, make no mistake. But Gato Roboto simultaneously fixes almost all of the genre’s most embedded flaws – with a minimap and co-ordinates system, regular and generous checkpointing, and a disembodied voice on the radio to guide you through – to make it a thoroughly modern Metroidvania.

Just look at this flipping adorable animation. And to think, people think retro, 1-bit visuals are “plain” and “boring”.

Gears 5

Change is hard. Personal growth is a challenge. The older and more grizzled we get, the harder it is to change, to grow, to better oneself. And when you (nominally, we’re anthropomorphising a video game series here) are as grizzled as Gears of War, change must be very hard indeed.

But change it has, and Gears 5 feels like those years of hard-fought change coming to fruit. It’s a Gears game with a female lead, and Laura Bailey’s performance is one of the stand-outs of the year. It’s a gears game, but it features open-world segments and character building in addition to gnarled corridors and waist-high cover. It’s a Gears game, but it is desperately sad in amongst the gore and guitars and chainsaw bayonets. It’s a Gears game, but it is an absolute paragon of accessibility. Gears 5 is a thoroughly modern shooter, a revolution for Gears of War, and one of the best third-person shooters we’ve played in ages.

Luigi’s Mansion 3

Luigi's Mansion 3

Nintendo as a publishing force has, again, had a hell of a year. Super Mario Maker 2. Yoshi’s Crafted World. The Link’s Awakening remake. Pokemon Sword and Shield. Ring Fit Adventure. Astral Chain. There are even a few on this list, including Cadence of Hyrule, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and Tetris 99. (We won’t talk about the ill-advised forays into mobile gaming, however.)

Luigi’s Mansion 3 has made the trip to the Nintendo Switch best of all, however. Expanding on the scope of the previous games – moving the setting from a haunted house to a hotel with different themed levels on every floor – the game is a brilliant extension of everything we loved about Luigi’s Mansion. And then there’s Gooigi, the gelatinous green doppelganger that allows Luigi to solve puzzles, solo or in co-op, who is the real star of 2019.

Outer Wilds

While the opening moments may depict a tale that’s ostensibly small in scale, the most impressive part of Outer Wilds is just how wildly inaccurate that first impression turns out to be. Your adventure as a lowly alien finally making its long-awaited transition into the depths of endless space is spellbinding, seeing you drift to breathtaking planets, uncover ancient mysteries, and follow in the footsteps of entire species that lived decades before you.

Yet, for all its epic scale and mind-blowing reveals, Outer Wilds is ultimately a reflective game about the fragility of life, the inevitability of the universe, and the beauty of the journey we weave throughout both. We could go on for days about its sensational approach to environmental storytelling, the intricate attention it pays to realistic physics, or the genius central mechanic that reveals itself an hour into your first playthrough. But in truth, The Outer Wilds is a game best explored blind. Do yourself a favour. Don’t watch any videos; don’t read the reviews. Just get your hands on a copy and experience it for yourself. You won’t regret it.

The Outer Worlds

The Outer Worlds

The Outer Worlds, more than any other game I’ve played, pushed me to appreciate the joys of the blank slate. Until I sat down with Obsidian’s first-person RPG, I had always favoured the Arthur Morgans and Geralts of Rivia; the characters with set-in-stone personalities, that give players a little room to chisel. As a fan of emotionally resonant storytelling, I’ve always preferred games that offered me a full-fledged person to care about, not a voiceless vessel to embody.

But The Outer Worlds motivated me to make a character out of nothing. I plotted out a backstory and personality, and roleplayed this character to reflect a history that only I knew. As I played, The Outer Worlds never got in the way of the story I was telling. Instead, Obsidian provided me with new considerations that enriched the character I was playing.

None of this is new! But The Outer Worlds did it incredibly well, and set my roleplay in a colourful galaxy with stellar art direction and endearing companions. It isn’t the most original RPG, but it pushed me to think deeply about the character I wanted to play. I didn’t just consider whether I was a good or bad person, a paragon or a renegade. I thought about my character as a person with preferences, political opinions and an attitude toward the efficacy of violence. The Outer Worlds invited me to become a co-creator.

Pikuniku

There are plenty of sweet, silly, charming indie games this year. At the close of the year Wattam springs to mind, but where Keita Takehashi’s colourful romp suffers a little for its retro control scheme – complete with shoulder button camera rotation – Pikuniku is a modern, accessible platformer. That not just in reference to the way it plays but to the game’s modern sensibilities, a game that feels borne of social media and millennial nihilism, with a wit and charm and humour that sparkles in its tale of the little people fighting against environmental destruction, capitalism, and the evils of working for exposure.

Best of all, though: if you play Pikuniku’s co-op mode and bray the little car’s horn, it plays a familiar tune. We defy anyone to not smile.

Resident Evil 2 Remake

Speaking of the little details, did you see that, in the Resident Evil 2 remake, Claire and Leon hold their flashlight under their chin while they reload their gun

That’s not the only thing that’s great about the Resident Evil 2 remake, but it is emblematic of the level of care and detail that Capcom has poured into this remake. It would have been so easy (relatively speaking; we’re not game developers) to produce a shot-for-shot remake of Resi 2 in a modern engine, tank controls and all. But what Capcom produced is a stunning realisation of a game steeped in memories and mythology, combining Resident Evil 7’s engine and stunning visuals with Resi 4’s high octane third-person action.

And if you needed any more evidence that Resident Evil 2 was a success? They’re doing it all again.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice – Callum’s favourite

Despite how press surrounding the game tries to present it, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is not just Dark Souls with samurai swords. What Hidetaka Miyazaki and FromSoftware have created through their newest foray into the crushingly challenging Soulsborne genre is perhaps the most refined, evolved and frequently rewarding example of the formula to date. The combat is electrically paced, brutally frenetic, and manages to superbly balance offence and defence to create a system that keeps you constantly on your toes. Meanwhile, the breath-taking world, boss design and obscure storytelling show FromSoftware’s aptitude for atmosphere and intricate detail.

While it’s clear the game won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, if you enjoy Soulsborne games, this is easily an absolute masterclass on how to do the genre right. From the cinematic prologue to the adrenaline-fuelled final showdown, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is unforgiving, unrelenting and simply unforgettable.

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order – Andrew’s favourite

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order was buggy as hell at launch, doesn’t quite nail the effortlessly exhilarating combat and movement Respawn has built its first-person games around, and borrows a little too shallowly from a few too many genres

But! Bugs were minor on my PC. The combat, which draws heavy inspiration from Dark Souls, is still a tonne of fun. Deflecting blaster bolts at Storm Troopers feels ridiculously good and the suite of force powers that vanilla Jedi Cal Kestis unlocks lead to some impressively expressive gameplay. And, all the genre-borrowing leads to a game that has all the right mechanics in its repertoire at all the right times.

Fallen Order is a cinematic thrill ride when it needs to be. It’s an exploration-focused Metroidvania when it needs to be. It’s a more-than-competent lightsaber duel simulator when it needs to be. All of that adds up to a game that never lost my interest across its 15-hour campaign. What Respawn has created isn’t the future of gaming, but it is an excellent pastiche of much that’s come before. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is the most entertaining game I played this year and nothing else even comes close.

Telling Lies

Just before the new year in 2018, Netflix and Charlie Brooker released Bandersnatch, under the Black Mirror banner. Following on from its aborted efforts with the (now defunct) Telltale, the streaming provider had been keen to get into primetime interactive content. While telly fans remarked at its creativity and went diving for endings and easter eggs, video game adventure fans were a little derisive of its level of interactivity compared to, say, Life is Strange 2 or Man of Medan, or indeed, Telltale’s back catalogue.

Enter Sam Barlow, the master of the FMV game. We won’t go into too much detail, so as not to spoil it, but Telling Lies takes everything Her Story did, then blows it up with increased scope, ambition, and enormous (relatively speaking) production values. Video games are still the rulers of this domain, and Sam Barlow sits atop the biggest throne.

Tetris 99

Tetris 99 was the game nobody knew they wanted. To be honest, it’s the game nobody even thought was possible. In a bizarre mashup of the classic puzzle game and trying to chase the battle royale trend, Nintendo released Tetris 99 exclusively for its Nintendo Switch Online service. It was ostensibly a bit of throwaway fun to sweeten the pot for paying subscribers, in addition to those retro games (and lovely, exclusive controllers).

But do you know what? It’s actually really good. Still weird, though.

Untitled Goose Game

The danger with Untitled Goose Game, as is so often the case with games that have built a cult following around gifs and trailers, was that it was never going to live up to expectations. From a gameplay perspective, it probably didn’t quite live up to the hype. Underneath it all, it’s still a stealth game, and stealth games can still be a bit of a chore.

But where most stealth games need you to kill your way out of trouble when your stealthy plan inevitably goes awry, Untitled Goose Game allows you to grab and flap and HONK! your way to freedom. In spite of its serious political leanings, the goose is just a bundle of joy and mischief, and the combination of bold art style, ingenious sound effects, and procedural music are just delightful.

What the Golf?

Speaking of games that are just joyous, here comes What the Golf? to round out our list of 2019. Made by Triband, the crew behind Keyboard Sports – Saving QWERTY, What the Golf? (their punctuation, not ours) is what happens if you smush a golf game together with one of those “You wouldn’t download a house! You wouldn’t download a car!” anti-piracy adverts from the 90s. What if you golfed a house? What if you golfed a car? What if you golfed a hole in one? A horse? A footballer? The golfer themselves? It’s as stupid as it sounds, but that’s the beauty of What the Golf? (That was a statement, not a question.)

Spare a thought for the creators of What the Golf?, though. As Tim Garbos told us in an interview two years ago: “To us everything now looks like a golf game, so we’re no longer allowed to eat eggs for breakfast. We need help!”

It’s a small price to pay for bringing the world so much enjoyment, Tim. We thank you for your eggy sacrifice.

Honourable mentions

  • After years of waiting, we didn’t think Borderlands 3 wouldn’t make the list, but here we are
  • Ditto Kingdom Hearts III, actually
  • And Devil May Cry V
  • And Metro: Exodus
  • And Shakedown: Hawaii
  • We’re not remotely surprised that Shenmue III didn’t make the list, but it’s still a very notable release
  • Crackdown 3 didn’t turn out great, either
  • And Days Gone is just the worst
  • Alien: Isolation came out on Nintendo Switch and it is just great, but re-releases don’t get included in the list
  • And all the other ports that Feral Interactive did, like GRID
  • Return of the Obra Dinn came to consoles, was still amazing
  • Meanwhile, Red Dead Redemption 2 came to PC, and looked prettier than ever
  • Remember Reach?
  • The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt running on Switch is just magic
  • Don’t forget all the Final Fantasy games – yes, including Final Fantasy VIII – that came out on Xbox One and Nintendo Switch this year
  • And the Resident Evil games that came to Switch
  • Death Stranding isn’t the entirely new genre we were promised, and it suffers from the same story and writing issues as every other Hideo Kojima game; wandering around that wilderness is just lovely, though
  • Anthem proved that live service games are still a bit rubbish if they don’t have a killer hook
  • Ditto Ghost Recon: Breakpoint
  • The Division 2 was better, to be fair
  • And Apex Legends is really solid, proving that Respawn is brilliant at most everything (even if it didn’t quite dislodge Fortnite or PUBG from the top of the battle royale tree, despite early buzz)
  • Nintendo had a strong year of exclusives with Yoshi’s Crafted World, Super Mario Maker 2, the Link’s Awakening remake, and Pokemon Sword and Shield
  • Baba is You? Baba is very clever indeed
  • Sunless Skies is another epic festival of wordsmithery from the masters at Failbetter, including the year’s best character, the Inadvisably Big Dog
  • Katana Zero, Knights and Bikes, Sayonara Wild Hearts, Obervation, Heaven’s Vault, Wargroove, Neo Cab, Lonely Mountains Downhill, Sea of Solitude, Dicey Dungeons, Boyfriend Dungeon, Satisfactory, Hypnospace Outlaw – there were just too many great indie games to fit into our list this year
  • Planet Zoo is typically lovely strategy fare from Frontier Developments
  • Kind Words is a beautiful experiment in using video games for positive ends
  • And right at the end of the year comes Wattam; it’s sweet and silly, and a lovely thing to finish on
  • Oh, and speaking of whimsical games sneaking in at the close of the year, Frog Detective 2!

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