So sure, we’ve had Halloween sales and Thanksgiving sales, but the Christmas sales tend to be the biggest and best. To prepare you for them, I’ve compiled a list of games worth buying (or worth buying if on sale).
Worth buying on sale
Some games are great, but publishers have yet to accustom themselves with reasonable prices – especially in Australia. Keep an eye out for sales on these games:
Okay, it’s zombies. It’s tropical islands. It’s scavenging, exploring and committing hideous atrocities in the name of survival. While it’s quite rough around the edges (sound support is a bit dodgy, and weapon degradation is ridiculous), it’s pretty fun and the graphics are great. The Australian accents are terrible. The gore is horrifyingly visceral (you can pop skulls, break limbs, expose broken rib cages…) It doesn’t all hang together perfectly, but it’s pretty good in general. If you think of it as a first-person action RPG, you’ll do fine. This will likely go on sale to promote the major expansion pack: Riptide.
It’s been a while between triple A stealth games. This game gives you the option of run `n’ gun or stealth, with various shades in between. You’re an elite bodyguard (which somehow makes you an elite assassin) with mysterious powers. The powers wouldn’t be too out-of-place if replaced with their equivalents in a distant future Deus Ex. Nevertheless they work well. Teleporting lets you get around quickly and helps avoids guards. You can turn on an x-ray vision and see guards and their lines of sight. There’s all sorts of possession and nasty body-exploding abilities. Really, the powers give you the option to be an unstoppable killing machine, or a shadow in the night, and everywhere in between. My personal approach is like an honorable ninja: creep around rooftops and drop down to knock out guards and hide them in dark corners, occasionally using sleep darts to get multiple targets in the one move. I haven’t cared much for the characters or story yet, but stealth is a welcome change from the shoot-first-what’s-a-question approach of other games.
Max Payne 3
Third installment of the series and the first one to be handled by Rockstar, makers of the GTA series. You’re the aging, drug-addled, self-loathing cop Max Payne, caught up in an old-school noir-style scheme. The gunplay is fantastic, if a little hectic at times. There’s a lot of cool action sequences and different challenges to mix it up. The story lacks a bit of immediacy because this isn’t so much about Max himself. Nevertheless, it’s a very slick and interesting game, with stylish cuts between scenes and stories, and a great variety of detailed environments. The pavelas in Brazil are quite excellently realized. The multiplayer is interesting, although I didn’t play it for super-long (yes, there’s bullet-time in multiplayer). Definitely worth it now on sale.
If you’re jonesing for another hit of Portal 2 with maybe some new mechanics, then Quantum Conundrum might scratch that itch. One of the lead designers, Kim Swift, was one of the lead designers on the Portal series. It shows, but you can also see the differences of not being in Valve. There’s a bit less polish, a bit more weirdness, but some courage to try new things publicly. Basically the premise is you’re wandering a house of a crazy inventor Uncle, and have the ability to mess with different dimensions for each puzzle room. You press a button and the world shifts to another alternate reality. For example, you can go to the fluffy dimension, which makes everything light and bouncy (and pink!) Alternatively, you can slow time, make things heavy, or reverse gravity. The way these work together is sometimes inspired. Throwing a box, then slowing time to run around and jump on the box, then speeding up time to ride it over an abyss, reversing gravity at times to lift you up in the air… it’s mad but it works. Some of the puzzles are infuriatingly fiddly and I ragequit a few times, but they are all doable without ninja-like reflexes.
Scribblenauts has always been about that beautiful focal point between creativity and discovery. For the unfamiliar, there’s a world of puzzles and you are given a magic notebook to write any word you can think of, to summon that object and try to solve the puzzle. In Scribblenauts Unlimited they give you the freedom of using adjectives as well, so you can summon a stately t-rex, a magical ping-pong paddle, or an invisible panda bear. While the puzzles themselves aren’t usually super-taxing (there’s always an obvious item to use), the fun comes when you try to be creative or obscure. A little girl needed someone mid-career to show off at their show and tell, so I summoned a president, who promptly appeared, looking very Obama-like. It’s these little delights that make the game fun.
[Frowny-face aside: Warner Bros distributes the game and screwed it up in a major way. North America release was weeks before the Australian release, and both were potentially months ahead of a vague Europe release. For a digital game. Not only that, but in the time between the US release and elsewhere, they'd actively block you from seeing certain trailers and webpages if you weren't American. Super thumbs down. Plus the release price in Australia is $50, 1.6 times the US price, even though 1 AUD buys you 1.06 USD. Don't buy this at full price or you'll just encourage them.]
The Secret World
MMOs are in a weird state. The juggernaut of World of Warcraft looms over everything, crushing many games in its path. There’s not a lot of innovation in the genre, and many of them try to emulate WoW to try to get the same insane cash flow. The Secret World was a bit different. It’s an MMO with actually good writing, great graphics, excellent world and creature design, actual puzzles and does not have a bunch of the game mechanical baggage that others assume is vital. It’s modern-day but has grabbed everything from conspiracy theories, Lovecraftian horror and classic horror tropes. There are no real classes, so you can specialize skills however you like. You can do pretty well solo (although the full experience does require some team raids). Unfortunately, I think this game would have made a spectacular single-player game. The MMO mechanics they did retain (mostly the fighting) is fairly lame. In any case, in the last few days it’s gone buy-to-play (so you buy the game and there’s no subscriptions, but you can buy things in the store). If you can get this cheap, do so. The crazy characters, excellent universe and awesome ARG-style puzzles are well worth it.
X-Com: Enemy Unknown
For better or worse, this is exactly what you’d hope for in this combination: Firaxis (makers of the recent Civ games) and X-Com. It’s the classic turn-based tactical squad battles of X-Com, with the style of Firaxis games. Which means the combat can be punishingly random, and Firaxis still don’t know how to make a game where weird edge cases in the game mechanic don’t poke you in the eye all the time. For example, in this game line-of-sight is essential. But you have no idea if your sniper perched behind a tree on a hill can see what you can see, which might mean total destruction of your team, or a very casual time shooting aliens. They’ll sometimes unfairly spawn aliens out of nowhere. Sometimes you can stick a gun in an alien’s mouth and pull the trigger… and miss. Aliens can one-shot kill your elite troops, or perfectly thread a grenade toss through windows and debris to explode half your team.
Nevertheless it’s a fun game. The squad management in and out of combat is great. Detailed enough without being overwhelming. There’s a lot of battlegrounds, some of them quite interesting or beautiful. Make sure you name your squad with memorable names so you have great stories to tell after amazing or catastrophic battles.
Worth buying regardless
This is platforming mixed with the dreaded genre of MOBA. There’s a lot of charm to the characters in this game and good sense of “just one more game”. The characters are varied and unique, and they’ve gone all out with custom music and voice tracks for each. I love the slug with a derpy-looking face who controls a walking turret and assisted by a congenial AI voice who makes purchases on his behalf. While Awesomenauts probably needs a bit more balancing over time, it’s easy to find a few characters you like and specialize with them. They seem to have recently patched the AI so they weren’t too punishing to newbies (or maybe me and my friends just got better). The AI seem to only be able to choose from the very first lineup, but can do a lot of damage with them. Worth getting the 4-pack and introducing a few friends over to a gateway drug for MOBAs in general.
Batman: Arkham City
Okay, I finished this game twice this year. Twice. And it’s not a short game. It’s a beautiful harmony of great mechanics, great design and great writing. The fighting is absolutely superb, and make you feel like Batman being awesome. The Riddler challenges actually encourage you to think about your gadgets in ways you might not have thought about. The Predator missions where you terrorise and take out a room of armed thugs are sublime. There’s so much detail in this game that you might miss a lot of colour by just not hearing the thugs talk about something between missions. Totally worth it. The extra DLC is okay – Robin and Nightwing battle challenges are cool, but Harley Quinn’s revenge has a sense of “okay, last bit of content before we shut down”. In any case, this is a Triple A game done right, and basically the best comic book-based game ever.
At one point, I realized that FTL (officially subtitled “Faster Than Light”) actually is the consonants of the word “FATAL”, which sums up FTL perfectly. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. You’re commanding a ship that is on the run from some bad empire, and have to get some cargo to the good guys a few galaxies away. You improve your ship over time, explore planets and have real-time space battles. The trick though, is in the subsystems. Your ship has a bunch of subsystems that you can upgrade, or have damaged in an attack. So mid-battle you might panic because your weapons have been shut down. But then your oxygen machine catches fire. And then aliens teleport aboard. Dealing with the crazy emergencies is what makes FTL fun (and supremely frustrating). All the content is procedurally generated, so you might have a bad roll of the dice and just get no weapon upgrades for a few solar systems. Or you might keep finding crates of money. I slightly dislike how much randomness plays into it, but at least the designers encourage you to try a few different play systems to explore the mechanics.
This game is pretty cheap and well worth supporting the devs.
The problem with Hotline Miami is what it reduces you to. And it does so intentionally. This is basically Drive, the video game. You’re a nameless, faceless (indeed masked) protagonist. You’re given cryptic instructions to go to places and kill everyone there. You rock up unarmed and use your speed, cunning and ruthlessness to get through. You run around an obscene, warped, technicolour top-down world and kill folks with whatever comes to hand. This game is very, very, very brutal. But in a curious way, the game induces you to psychopathy in that you need to plan a speedy set of flawless executions. For example, you find yourself thinking, “okay, kick in this door, knocking this guy prone, grab his knife, throw it at the other guy, kick in the prone guy’s face, then run over and embed a machete in the skull of the knifed guy if he’s still alive”. You mindlessly kill folks with little-to-no prompting until your conscious (or the game) asks you to re-evaluate your actions and what you’re doing. It’s a great twist on an otherwise straightforward (and terribly buggy) game.
Mark of the Ninja
This is kinda a masterclass in stealth. There’s a good core of interacting mechanics, and excellent, subtle signalling of imperfect information. You’re a ninja and you have to make daring ninja raids. You can stab dudes (noisily or steathily), you can throw shurikens at lights or gongs, you can wall-climb, leap out of grates, throw mini firecrackers… It captures the ninja mood excellently and is challenging enough without being frustrating.
Again, this is cheaper than your usual game, but the gameplay and visuals are superbly polished.
The Walking Dead
“Nowadays, adventure games are dead!” No, nowadays adventure games are The Walking Dead. Telltale Games have been trying to reinvigorate adventure games lately with the Sam and Max series, amongst others. They never really got it right until The Walking Dead. Set parallel to the comic books and TV series, the games put you in the shoes of Lee, an escaped convict and ex-professor. You get to make choices throughout the game that are reflected in the future in a myriad of ways. Characters die, or fight, or get sick, and how you deal with that is up to you. Don’t listen to the forums and their complaints about “false choices”. Some convenient plotting helps keep the combinatorial explosions of content down, and gate you through interesting scenes. You get scope to play how you want to play, and it’s amazing the complexity they’ve built into the games, especially given it was monthly episodic content.
In any case, this is more a great game of writing and characters than your traditional puzzle-focussed adventure game. It’s brutal, emotional and daring. One of the best games of 2012.
Who needs sales?
Some games are already free! You can’t beat that price!
Team Fortress 2
Not only is the masterpiece Team Fortress 2 free, but you can even make money on the game. Aside from the great variety of FPS modes with polished mechanics, hilarious characters and generally decent playerbase, there’s a thriving economy alongside the game, and you can sell items you’ve found or crafted for Steam money. I’ve sunk more time into this game than any other, by a very large margin. Give it a go. If you don’t like the traditional capture the flag or point capture levels, try Mann vs Machine where you stop a horde of invading robots. It’s frantic and funny.
Kingdom of Loathing
KoL has always been free and probably always will. Every Christmas they come out with holiday-themed content (called Crimbo). Some years it’s secret Santa-style shenanigans. Sometimes you have to defeat a giant boss. Or solve a puzzle. Or craft cool things. The writing is consistently interesting, if a little crude and comedic.
The list of games I haven’t played yet but have heard enough good things to presuppose they are good: Far Cry 3, Guild Wars 2, Assassins Creed 3, Spec Ops: The Line.
Places to get your games from
- Steam, during the sales
- Greenmangaming, these guys have great deals, prices that respect non-US people and great ways to chain vouchers and purchases together.
- GOG.com, mostly older classic games, but has an increasing indie game section. No DRM and some other things that anti-Steam folk complain about.