Backlog: Summer Steam Bath Edition

When I thought of the title for this edition of the Backlog, I didn't intend it to be a horrible pun related to the annual arrival of Valve's Steam Summer Sale. Nope. See, back home in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, we don't have what I've discovered is to be "humidity." Or, at least, we don't have it to the point where the weather could be described as "muggy," or "sweltering." Japanese summers, however, can most definitely be described as such. The whirring of cicadas, the feeling of walking into a running hot shower whenever you open the door, and the general malaise that comes with such sapping weather is an annual rite of passage. It shouldn't surprise you, gentle reader, that as many words as we PacNW natives have for "rain" there exist an equal or greater amount for "humidity" and its ilk in Japanese. I wish I could come back to my beloved Portland for the summer, but since I can't I'll try to make the best of it by staying wherever it's properly air-conditioned and downing frosty drinks whenever possible. I think it's a sound plan.

But as I've touched on: the Steam Summer Sale also happened. Nick, Aaron, and (of course) Spencer all jumped into the beautiful waters of cheap games and content, and I even dipped a toe in, too. What can I say? I may not be a huge PC gamer, but when you get a chance to buy an add-on for a game you're addicted to on the cheap, it's hard to say no.

So with further ado, let's get into this chock-a-block full Backlog. -- Doug Bonham

Aaron

It wasn’t until years after the massacre that excavators found the mayor’s twisted journal entries buried in the rubble

It wasn’t until years after the massacre that excavators found the mayor’s twisted journal entries buried in the rubble

My gaming skills have atrophied since returning from the depths of nature’s majesty.

As the bordering screenshot indicates I’m playing Animal Crossing: New Leaf, and it's an experience that has left me conflicted. Expect more on Animal Crossing. Much more.

In financial news, and as is expected this time of year, I bankrupted myself during the Steam summer sale. My digital trophy case now contains Mark of the Ninja, Dust: An Elysian Tail, Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition, Age of Empires II: HD Edition and the transcendent Kentucky Route Zero.

I beat Mark of the Ninja fast, which is a compliment to the game’s design and pacing structure. It never overstayed its welcome. And by the time the credits rolled I felt like my character navigated the compact plot in a satisfying manner.

Dust is a bit too candy-coated for me. Sure, the animation is gorgeous; I can’t get past the cheese-covered dialogue and voice performances. Sometimes tacky is cute, but not here.

Age of Empires scratches an itch that has festered since the last time I played a game of Conquerors in, oh...2003. Age of Mythology, Rise of Nations and, eventually, Age of Empires III never quite lived up to the gloriously incessant base-building and resource acquisition that Age II mastered. It remains the perfect RTS game.

It gets stranger, stranger

It gets stranger, stranger

Kentucky Route Zero doesn’t do much, but whatever it does is brilliant. It feels drowsy and lethargic because it’s a present day, “realist” adventure title. Driving a truck and petting a dog sounds mundane, right?

Nah. This game is absolutely magical. It envelops you in mystery and tension, which is commendable considering its modern-era style. Acts I and II are out right now. The angular art style and atmospheric music -- composed by Ben Babbitt (Bandcamp page here) -- are worth the season pass price of $25. Play this game, fool.

Spencer

An accurate portrayal of the life and times in the greater King County area as they are right now
An accurate portrayal of the life and times in the greater King County area as they are right now

I bought The Secret World on a Steam sale. It’s alright, good writing, pretty standard MMO combat, but I’m finding myself unable to stick with it. Maybe it’s the fact that none of my friends play - MMOs fell out of vogue among my circle years ago, being replaced by marriage and procreation. Maybe it’s that I’ve outgrown the genre, preferring to keep my gaming to those formats that require fewer hours per day. Oh well. At least it will keep me from opening Star Trek Online for now.

My Star Trek psychosis is still going, though, which led me to install the Fleet Ops mod for Armada 2. Armada 2 was never too great on its own - it lacked polish, be it in the form of phoned-in voice acting (and reused bits from the first Armada), its somewhat unresponsive controls, or its very poorly conceived tech tree (think six races, five of which have totally mirrored units and research). It had a short shelf life, got mediocre reviews, and generally wasn’t noteworthy. I wouldn’t have brought it up here if it weren't for the mod.

Fleet Ops is one of those labors of love so pure, so misguided, that you can’t help but love it (not unlike the multiplayer modification for GTA Vice City, or the ongoing community fixes for Vampire: Bloodline). Since 2003, the Fleet Ops team has rebuilt Armada 2 almost entirely - the races were fixed or replaced (down to five distinctive and balanced fan favorites). The engine was rewritten to support modern hardware and OSes. The models were rebuilt and re-textured. The team has even gone so far as to replace the voice work of the original with their own volunteer-driven recordings, a threshold many mods never reach.

The result of this enterprise (har, har) feels like a game very similar to the original, but one that plays way better. It’s pretty damned impressive, if you consider that their raw material is an only-okay game released twelve years ago. But, then, if you consider the volume of Star Trek material there is, and the level of devotion exhibited by its fanbase, then the revamp makes a lot more sense. If Star Trek-themed clones of StarCraft are your bag, I highly recommend it.

Anyway, let’s talk about Shadowrun Returns.

Shadowrun is the first game from my crop of Kickstarted projects to come to fruition, with some others (notably Wasteland 2) arriving in the months to come. The game looks and feels something like the spawn of Baldur’s Gate and XCOM, if said spawn was stuffed full of 90s cyberpunk camp.

So, suffice it to say, I’m pretty thrilled with the result.

With only a few hours logged, I’ve been considering the myriad critiques leveled at Shadowrun. Yes, the game’s a little rough around the edges. Yes, it relies on a checkpoint system for saving, a particular affront to PC gamers. Yes, the included campaign is relatively short, clocking in at about ten to twelve hours. None of these are deal breakers by any stretch of the imagination, with many already being addressed by the developers. More importantly, they ignore what is perhaps the most promising feature of Shadowrun Returns: the editor.

The game shipped with a full editor and Steam Workshop support, and modules have already begun trickling out - ranging from short missions, to editor tutorials and resources. More ambitious plans are already being undertaken - a full remake of the Shadowrun SNES game is in the works, as is a recreation of the game’s pen and paper materials.

I don’t mean to be hyperbolic, but this is insanely wonderful. Modern games, by my reckoning, have eschewed community support in favor of periodic DLC releases - my go-to example being Battlefield 3. But while interest in a game can be artificially extended by doling out new content at regular intervals, the truly lasting games are the ones that develop a strong community, working on their own content and modifications. It’s the kind of sustained interest that you can’t buy, a fanbase that simply won’t let go of their favorite title - but will avidly support the developers of that title. Publishers lost this focus long ago. With Kickstarter, developers are finding their way back.

I can’t imagine Battlefield 3 will see any play in 2025, but you can bet that Shadowrun Returns will.

Also, probably, Fleet Ops.

Nick

Let's hope this generation got skills bonuses versus giant flaming skull monsters
Let's hope this generation got skills bonuses versus giant flaming skull monsters

Rogue Legacy is Castlevania: Symphony of the Night meets Spelunky: a punishing exploratory platformer where patience is key and your survival depends both on your reflexes and your ability to read the elements at play within each room. It’s exactly the kind of game I never knew I wanted, but now that I’m well past the ten-hour mark I know I’m hooked for the long haul.

The goal is simple: Beat the four bosses strewn about the haunted castle and its neighboring regions and then go fight the final boss behind the sealed door. But getting there is a challenge, since each death is permanent.

That’s where the “legacy” part comes in. The treasures you collect on each life can be used to upgrade your characters permanently in the form of stat bonuses, better equipment, new abilities and so on. And the game’s most amusing twist comes when you have to choose your successor from one of your dear-departed hero’s three children. Each has its own random assortment of strengths and weaknesses along with some truly strange character quirks. A stereo-blind character sees the world in a Paper Mario-like flatness, and a near-sighted character leads to a screen that’s blurry around the edges. I won’t spoil the fun of learning what coprolalia or alektorophobia are.

It’s also the first time I’ve experimented with streaming a game I’m playing. If you’re interested, I’ll probably continue to stream the game as I get closer to the end. Check out my most recent video here, or -- shameless plug -- follow me at twitch.tv/whymog.

Otherwise? Life’s been especially busy these past few weeks, so I’ve been snatching whatever few free minutes I can find and using them to get just a little further into a good portion of my 3DS library. I’ve been taking a pretty scattershot approach to the games I’m playing there, but the format’s well-suited to picking up a game for five minutes, making a bit of measurable progress, and leaving it alone for the next couple weeks. In that fashion I’ve made a dent in puzzle-platformer Pushmo, solved a few more riddles in Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box, won a couple of skirmishes in Fire Emblem: Awakening and inched closer to 100% completion in Super Mario 3D Land -- which is still the single-best reason to own a 3DS I’ve come across.

And as for Animal Crossing: New Leaf? I’d rather not talk about it. My lust for bigger and better things outpaced my desire to collect shiny fruit and sell it in another person’s town, and I’m currently about 500,000 bells in the red between debts owed to Tom Nook and to my town’s public works division. My only hope lies in a desperate midnight heist of Blathers’ museum to steal back the priceless artifacts I donated in the first place.

Doug

Hail Britannia
Hail Britannia

As mentioned in the open, I've managed to dip my toes into the Steam Summer Sale. Imagine! Me, arch-console gamer of the group buying something on Steam! Unthinkable. But as mentioned it's for a very good reason: The slightly old Civilization V: Gods and Kings was suuuuuper cheap, and has since hooked me into Sid Meyer's title once more. I know I'm quite late to the party on this expansion pack but the additions of espionage and religion into the game help keep things very, very fresh. It also gets rid of a few things that annoyed me -- AI having super short memories, or research agreements being spammed. This game as the English has seen me act like a Victorian-era equivalent of the Allies in order to save the Greeks and the Iroquois from the menace of the Songhai, who remain friendly with me despite me having fought hundreds of years worth of wars only to repatriate captured cities for my allies. All the other world leaders may look at me as the world's police officer (and willing to spend to hold that position) but it's making the play-through very fun. I'm back into Civ for the summer for sure.

Otherwise I've been dabbling in a few things between all the farewell parties that seem to crop up in my life during the summertime. Token games of NCAA Football 14 have me enjoying just how ridiculously overpowered my beloved Oregon Ducks are this year -- an 80-yard quarterback keeper by Marcus Mariota (errrr, QB #8) against Tennessee encapsulates all I love about this year's title. The option running game is much improved, and when it works right, it is satisfying.

What I want to spend more time on and power through is The Last of Us, simply to join the conversation. I think I'm about 1/3 of the way through -- including time played by my friend, who lacks a PS3 of his own and wanted to experience the game. We discovered the power of molotov cocktails and their use in regard to Clickers. That was fun. After a bit of a lull early on the game has hit its stride for me. Watch this space.

Lastly, I've done something quite silly on Amazon tonight. The results of which will also be in this space next week. Enjoy the cliffhangers!