Holidays are for relaxing, and even when you work on them all year, relaxing does still include video games.
Now we’re out of the hell year of 2020 and moving on, it’s tempting to only look forward – but we wanted to take a second to give credit to the games that we used to wind down and wrap up what was undeniably a difficult year. So – here’s our book report, in classic return-to-school fashion – what we got up to in the holidays.
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Alex: Strategy Classics & Party Games
2020 was a pretty heavy year, and so I didn’t really fancy playing anything too intense over the holidays. Any plan to finish The Last of Us Part 2 went out of the window. Instead, I went for gaming comfort food, casually playing while binging Hell’s Kitchen on a second screen.
While I dipped in and out of a lot of games, two old favourites of mine had been expanded since I’d last played them with a plethora of DLC and updates – and they became the stars of the show for me.
First up is Surviving Mars, the spacebound Paradox Interactive published city building and management game. I was surprised to see just how much the game has grown since I reviewed it back in 2018. The Green Planet expansion offers the largest addition, allowing you to terraform Mars to sustain human life in the open air. Surviving Mars was always satisfying, but watching grass and trees spread across the formerly scorched red landscape as your martian empire grows is a particularly moreish experience.
Over on Civilization 6, I undertook a few campaigns with three new settings turned on, all of which combine for a drastically different experience. The Dramatic Ages mode makes the ‘swings’ from one era to the next more profound, while Heroes and Legends adds powerful, famous individuals like Hercules and Mulan as combat units. Also, I played with a Civic and Tech tree shuffle – which means technologies are unlocked in a different order. These options can genuinely make Civ 6 feel like a whole new game, which was great for the holiday – it felt comfy and inviting, like an old sweater, but new and exciting all the same. These changes are so impressive that I’m even going to give the Battle Royale mode a go
The other part of my holiday was of course spent with people, and I want to shout two games out for that.
First, Harmonix’s Fuser is an excellent alternative to Rock Band if you don’t want to mess around with a bunch of plastic instruments. My partner isn’t a huge gamer beyond The Sims, but she’s greatly enjoyed mixing beats in Fuser, both alone and in co-op.
For New Year’s Eve, we broke out It’s Quiz Time during a virtual zoom party – and I was seriously impressed by this AI-hosted quiz. It has some unique, stand-out quiz round formats, and works over a Discord screen share with no major issues. It’s just a shame it was limited to only eight participants; we had to set up a rotation.
Finally, a shout out to Ultra Street Fighter 4, which I’ve been going back to as part of an ongoing Arcade Cabinet Refurbishment I’m undertaking. It’s still excellent – and getting this cabinet set up perfectly was a great distraction from the world for all of the back-end of last year. [Alex Donaldson]
James: Sweet nothing, and that’s the way I like it
Between fancying a break from 2020’s year-end blockbusters and a steadfast refusal to spend 70 big ones on anything I’d actually enjoy, my holiday game schedule ended up emptier than Macaulay Culkin’s house on Christmas.
On the up side: I had plenty of time to binge all of my favourite holiday movies. On the downside: I used most of this time to watch Jingle All The Way three times.
Although a lockdown Christmas wasn’t ideal for all involved, the grim reality was a perfect opportunity to introduce less technically inclined friends and relatives to the magic of Discord streaming and the hilarity of Jackbox Party Pack 7.
Jackbox is a now long-running series of party games, where up to 8 players use their smartphones to interact with a central quizmaster running on one person’s console or PC.
Throughout the packs you can find your standard trivia-style games, alongside more off-the-wall creations. In Pack 7 there’s a drawing game where you pit your creations against each other while the other players vote on the winner, or you can compete in Cards Against Humanity-style series of word games to come up with the funniest quips.
As well as being hours of laughs, it’s super-easy to start up your own server in minutes, cast your screen to the room, and start up your own raucous stream – just like the millionaires on Twitch do.
But where the happiness of Christmas indulgence boldens the heart and expands the waistband, shame must follow. So when the chance to pick up Ring Fit Adventure for a non-scalper price at our local Game presented itself, with Arnold Schwarzanegger’s rallying cry of “put the cookie down” ringing in my ears, I gladly forked over the cash and proceeded to play the admittedly excellent game a grand total of twice.
It is now nestled safely in a pile of crap in my attic. [James Bilcliffe]
Tom: Family fun
Christmas is about spending time with family, even though this Christmas was really limited to nuclear family members. That meant that the bulk of games I played were those I could jump on with my son (and my brother and niece online).
Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled has been our go to game over the Christmas period. On Xbox Series X the load times are thankfully a lot briefer, and I have to say that I’m enjoying it more than Mario Kart 8. Mario Kart is great fun, but CTR doesn’t punish the pack-leader as much as Nintendo’s Switch and Wii U mega-seller, meaning wins feel more legitimate. It looks gorgeous and runs perfectly even in split-screen, plus the Pit-Stop store and Wumpa coins combine to give plenty of reasons to keep playing. I’m sure there was a microtransaction furore (as you can buy Wumpa coins), but the game is great and I hope the next Mario Kart does a bit more than just offer a fun multiplayer experience.
The PS5 wasn’t used much over Christmas as my son went off the stressful-fun of Overcooked, but Sackboy: A Big Adventure made a late push in early January once my son discovered Zom Zom’s store. This 3D platformer was one of the most pleasant surprises of 2020 and played co-op it’s even more fun, and a little less frustrating than the LittleBigPlanet games could be when played with friends. My son also discovered and now loves Britney Spears’ Toxic, thanks to one of the brilliant music-focused levels.
The only game I can think of that I played for myself, so to speak, is Call of the Sea, although this was while my son sat next to me playing Splatoon 2 on his Switch. If you ever want to experience what it’s like for a seven-year-old to explain to you how clues work, this is the game for you. I’ve yet to finish this slow-paced puzzle adventure, but it’s 100 percent decent so far, without really doing anything spectacular. It’s an excellent Game Pass title, in the sense that I don’t feel it has to live up to a purchase price (I know I am paying for Game Pass, but it’s not the same as handing over money purely for this game).
Aside from games, I used Christmas to introduce my son to some classic films, festive or otherwise. Jingle all the Way holds up surprisingly well, although is more violent than I remembered, Home Alone is still brilliant, and Jurassic Park caused an audible “OMG” from my son when the man got eaten by the T-rex. The Neverending Story and The Dark Crystal were also forced on him, but both are so good we were doing him a favour. [Tom Orry]
Sherif: the PlayStation 5
For the last five or so weeks of 2020, I had been on the hunt for a PS5. The stock situation in Egypt wasn’t any better than it is in most other countries, but we have the added bonus of exorbitant custom tariffs and taxes. All of that, of course, before the scalper’s cut, which you’re going to pay one way or another, since Sony doesn’t have an official distributor here.
With a target price in mind, I checked big websites and seedy Facebook groups daily, watching the price slowly drop as supply increased, inching ever closer to my target. A few days before we broke for the holiday, I snagged a standard version and took it home to play the game that set me on this hunt to begin with.
You probably won’t be surprised to know that it was the Demon’s Souls remake. I enjoy few games as much as I do FromSoftware’s Soulsbourne(kiro?) series, so I had it pre-ordered and ready well before I owned the damn console, so you bet it was the first download.
I played some Astro’s Playroom as I waited for the download to finish, and to get a feel for the new controller. A few hours later, I was thrust into one of the best looking games I have ever played. I couldn’t believe my eyes in the opening minutes; the visual fidelity Bluepoint achieved with the Demon’s Souls remake may not be built on ray tracing or sport Naughty Dog’s facial animations, but it more than makes up for it through sheer graphics.
Bluepoint, of course, did a lot of other work elsewhere that shows in the pristine character animations, encompassing soundscape, re-recorded music and in the quality of the character and world re-designs. That initial narrow corridor at the start of the tutorial area was my ‘next-gen is here’ moment.
All that out of the way, I am not actually enjoying this remake very much, for very much similar reasons to why I was frustrated by the Call of Duty 4 remake from a few years back, which is to say: outdated mechanics and systems feel worse when they’re presented through cutting-edge graphics.
I am still of the opinion that If you’re going to go through the trouble of rebuilding an old game from the ground up, it is a disservice to the effort, time and money spent to leave the majority of its mechanics and feel untouched. The original PS3 Demon’s Souls will forever exist, available for anyone to play as it was envisioned, warts and all. To replicate its many problems – most of which were addressed in later From games – for some misguided sense of keeping the original vision unaltered, is something I will never understand.
Context is king, and there’s a reason why the design decisions in Demon’s Souls are the way they are. But now that context has changed, so it doesn’t make sense for gameplay created in a different era and as a result of certain limitations to exist today unaltered.
Demon’s Souls still has one of the best atmospheres of any FromSoftware game, and has a few memorable bosses and certain standout elements the developer never brought back in its other games. It is a wonder to play at a solid 60fps, but I can’t help but wonder how much more fun I’d be having if Bluepoint offered a “modern” mode that at least recognises it’s being released in 2020.
Spider-Man: Miles Morales was pretty fun, though. [Sherif Saed]
Rebecca: Adventure game movie nights and lots of Animal Crossing
As someone who’s terrible for playing the first two hours of a game, proceeding to not touch it again for over a year, and eventually finishing the whole thing in the span of a few very intense days, I elected to spend my Christmas gaming time… doing exactly that. Getting into better habits is for New Year’s, after all.
But while dipping a toe into the waters of various sprawling open worlds (including those of new Christmas acquisitions Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and — late to the party but here at long last — The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild), I did zero in on a couple of shorter adventure games that had been on my radar for a while.
Supermassive’s The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope and Dontnod’s Twin Mirror were both released in Q4 of last year. They’re exactly the kind of games I come back to time and again when I have a little time to play whatever I like: character focussed, story-rich adventure games with a plot somewhere in the borderlands between mystery and horror.
The fact that these games feature branching narrative paths but can be completed in a few hours means I usually end up sinking way more time into them over multiple playthroughs than I will into a single run through an open world game. As someone with a tendency to obsess over beloved fictional characters, wishing for them to end up alive and happy in the face of often impossible odds, games that let me affect those outcomes have a tendency to grab hold of me. Or maybe I’m just another millennial favouring short-term gratification over long-term accomplishment. Take your pick.
The great thing about these games, especially around Christmastime, is that they split the difference between a gaming session and a movie night: there’s not always a lot of adrenaline-spiking action (although I had to have a nice rest and a soothing drink after that first chase scene in Little Hope), and much of the time you’re watching a plot unfold. But it’s a plot you have a hand in guiding, and the illuminating details of the story are only revealed if you take the time to explore.
And like movies, adventure games are in my experience best enjoyed as a social activity: while most of the genre is single-player (with the notable exception of the Dark Pictures games, which feature a couple of multiplayer modes too), it’s even more fun when the whole household works together to tease out clues, give suggestions, and — quite often — make fun of the characters, who are invariably as dense as any good genre flick protagonist should be.
Supermassive and Dontnod are beyond a doubt two of my favourite developers, and I’ve never played a game by either studio that I haven’t enjoyed and replayed endlessly. But both Little Hope and Twin Mirror sadly ended up feeling at least somewhat like victims of 2020: a great deal of promise in both cases was limited by what must have been some pretty severe behind-the-scenes challenges to even get the games ready for release in the tail end of last year. The endings of both games, in particular, felt oddly abrupt and disconnected from what came before, and while it wasn’t enough to spoil the fun, it did mean that neither quite lived up to the promise of their developers’ best titles.
On a completely different note, I also kept up with Animal Crossing: New Horizons throughout the Christmas break. I don’t know whether to be proud or ashamed of the fact that I haven’t missed a day since I got hold of my copy last April; let’s just say it is what it is. The fatigue that started to set in around Day 100 is long departed, and to be honest I’d be almost lost at this point without my daily ACNH check-in to add some structure to life in lockdown, which has now included my first Christmas spent away from my family. Between the genuinely fond relationships I’ve developed with the adorable residents of my island, and the opportunity the game gives to visit with real-life friends I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to spend time with this winter, I must surely give credit where it’s due to Animal Crossing for keeping my spirits up during a very strange festive season. [Rebecca Jones]