Some of the greatest games only get one play through. Whether the adventure lasts for ten hours or one hundred, or occupies your gaming time for several months, there will come a point where the most entertaining game fulfils its purpose. The story is complete; all achievements are unlocked; each puzzle solved; every enemy slain. No matter how great, most games fail sooner or later.
But not every game. Amongst the shelves of past games or buried in a hard drive is that game you can always return to. Regardless of how long it's been since your last visit, that game will always deliver. When it seems like you've played every game in your collection, a little voice reminds you that you could always play that game again, and you can't think of any objections. I would very much like to talk about that game today.
Below are my most Dependable Games. The first is a game I've been playing and replaying since I can remember. The second is a game that will always prove reliable with friends. The third is a newer game, slowly proving to be a steadfast companion.
The Faithful Old Friend – Populous: The Beginning
I know that I played other games before Populous, but this is the first game I can remember asking for. I was really, annoyingly insistent about it. After months of petulant begging and not-so-subtle hints I was allowed this game for my birthday. By then I'd played the demo through so many times the game felt like an old friend even before the full version arrived.
As strategy games go, Populous is straightforward. You begin each level on a new planet, in control of a small tribe. At first you have two unit types. The first is a simple villager, capable of building new wood huts and throwing a few punches, should an enemy villager get too close. The huts they build generate more villagers (which are curiously all male in appearance) and so the tribe grows stronger.
The second unit is the key to the whole game. You control a single Shaman who wields god-like magical powers. Even by the end of the first level she can torch enemy tribesman and call forth lighting. There are over twenty five spells to discover. Should the Shaman die in battle, she will resurrect back at your tribe as long as there is a tribe left to return to. Once you or the enemy tribe is reduced to zero, the level is done.
With each new level, new units and new spells are unlocked, bringing greater strategy and chaos into gameplay. Your tribe grows more powerful: warriors could take on three tribesmen with ease; fire warriors allow for mid-long range attacks; priests convert enemy warriors to your cause. The Shaman herself gathers a terrifying arsenal of powers: panic-inducing swarms of insects, spells that reshape the land, firestorms… the number of possible ways to decimate your opponents is just one of the ways the game drags me back even today. In some levels I challenge myself to build my army up to its maximum (200 units) before storming the enemy encampment. In other levels I only used the Shaman, calling on every spell to torment and terrify the evil Shaman's minions. On more than one occasion I only used the 'Erode' spell – which sinks a patch of land into the sea – slowly dragging the aggressors into the ocean.
I won't argue that this is a perfect game. Time has certainly not been kind to the visuals in the game. The levels are repetitive - despite different landscapes the objective is always the same and the opponents barely change throughout. There is also one embarrassing issue with the intelligence of your tribesman. If you ever command them to go to an area they can't reach they will throw their hands up in the air with dismay and, unless you tell them to do otherwise, will stay like that until they pass out and die. Yes, your units can die of confusion.
Nevertheless, I have returned to this game on countless occasions, several times each year, if only for one or two levels. The whole game is instantly enjoyable and satisfying. The sheer number of offensive options allows for diverse gameplay. The presentation is welcoming, neat and oddly childlike (Fire-blasted enemies arch through the air like they are in an episode of Tom and Jerry). Plus, the game truly allows you to play god. And not in the modern, life-or-death altering way. This game allows you to play like the Greek and Roman Gods of old.
I love this game. I've been playing Populous: The Beginning since 1999, and whilst it now only makes fleeting appearances, it still gives me joy between games. Whenever I find myself at the end of surprisingly short campaign and I can't think of what I want to play next, there is always Populous.
The Trusty Multiplayer – Mashed: Drive to Survive
I've no interest in an authentic racing experience. Sit me at the controls of the most accurate, high definition vehicle every created by game developers and you will see a man confused. How do I boost? Where are the guns? Why design a racetrack you can't fall off? WHY HAS NO ONE EXPLODED YET?
In my younger gaming days I was fully aware that there were racing games that wanted to be realistic and racing games that wanted to fire you from a cannon and throw things at you. TheMicro Machine games were an especially adored franchise amongst my friends growing up. When Mashed: Drive to Survive emerged, I saw a chance to relive the enjoyment with the friends I met at Sixth From College.
I assumed that Mashed would deliver a few hours of light-hearted enjoyment. It wasn't long before me and my friends realised that this was a game we could always rely on for entertainment. Any great 'local co-op' game is simple to learn and play, and Mashed is truly simple. The aim of this top-down racer is to go faster than your opponents. Go far enough ahead and your one, two, or three opponents will detonate. You get points, and the race resets. So the game goes on until enough points are reached.
Then there are the weapons. Mounted Machine guns and homing missiles give the racers at the back of the pack chance to catch up (or send the lead cars into oblivion). Drum bombs and flamethrowers give the leading vehicles a chance to claim a point. Even when an opponent is knocked out of a round, they have the option to aim missiles at the cars still in play, claiming revenge from the grave.
One of the main reasons I adore Mashed is that the game mechanics are just a little bit...off. The physics is a little suspect – whilst a single blast might turn your car over, two or more simultaneous explosions can send your automobile shrieking through the air. A skilled driver can deliberately cause their car to 'fish-tail' in the road, and a well time swing can smack a chasing car off the track. On top of this, the vehicles perform almost as effectively goingbackwards as they do going forwards. This leads to situations where two or more cars come out of a collision facing the wrong way, but continue on as if nothing has happened.
Grown up jobs and greater distances have meant that meeting up for a game of Mashed: Drive to Survive seldom occurs these days. Whenever we can visit each other, we know that there will always be one dependable game to go back to.
The New Contender – XCOM: Enemy Unknown
This game may or may not prove to be a Dependable Game for me. Nevertheless, two years after first playing this XCOM instalment, I know I can easily begin a new campaign and experience the same levels of excitement and enjoyment.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a game of two, very distinct halves. On the one hand there are the turn-based combat missions that see your 4-6 elite soldiers pitted against an assortment of vicious aliens attempting to blast or bite their heads off. Between missions the game reverts to a micromanagement game, in which you organise research and resources that keeps your troops fighting effectively. Both halves of the game promote a sense of tension. The wrong decision back at base could hamper your team's chances of success, and a death in the field is permanent.
The 'permadeath' aspect of the game makes every mission feel infinitely more dangerous. The wrong move could cripple your team. Even an injury can leave a soldier out of action for weeks. On the flip-side, each alien successfully dealt with feels like a real achievement; one less chance for a team member to be struck down. Every well-aimed kill-shot feels ten times more triumphal than your average FPS. The game also makes a point of emphasising each death with a cinematic camera angle, enhancing each success.
My favourite aspect of XCOM: Enemy Unknown: the games ability to generate war stories. I've played the game several times through now, and I've yet to complete two battles that felt the same. The randomness of missions, enemy strength and numbers, and locations means that each new mission has a certain uniqueness. Every time your troops return from battle, they return with a new story to tell.
In my most recent campaign, which is about the sixth run through, I was still seeing new events. In one recent battle, my troops were inside an enemy ship, reloading their weapons and healing before entering the heart of the ship. At that moment three Chryssalids – four-legged monsters made of claws and jaws – entered the ship behind my troops. They had apparently gone down to the shops when the battle started. The trio of slobbering death bore down on my tightly packed group of soldiers, totally exposed. Alien claws stopped inches from human faces.
This was pretty early on in the game; one bite could end a life, and it would normally take two shots to take a Chryssalid down. In that moment my team was beaten a rock and a hard place. Mercifully and miraculously, every single shot landed a critical hit, the sniper and assault soldiers each taking an alien down. My soldiers walked out unscathed, high-fiving and fist-bumping all the way home.
I enjoy games that tell a story. I really enjoy games that allow you to make that story your own, personal adventure. XCOM is a game of little personal victories and stories, and I find it hard to imagine that I won't be going back to this game in another ten years time.
We are always excited by new games. This month especially, with all the news from E3 stirring imagination for future gaming possibilities, there's a lot on the horizon to be excited about. You might be getting ready to grab any number of these new games the moment they step out into the light. Or maybe you're happy to wait, but are excited by these new games nonetheless (it will be a year or two before I play anything announced at E3, but I'm still excited about a lot of it). Whatever your, never forget to appreciate those games that will always be there when you need them. Appreciate that game (or games) that have always proved faithful friends. Hopefully you have an old, reliable game that welcomes you back each time you play. If you don't have a Dependable Game, maybe one of the suggestions above will fill that void.
Do you a Dependable Game or a game that might prove to be reliable in time? Maybe it's one of the games above, or maybe you disagree with my suggestions. Let me and others know.
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