As our swollen feet and scarred souls can attest to, this year’s Gamescom was quite a show. We had two intrepid men on the ground across the three days, who between them managed to devour nearly 80 appointments (and approximately four whole food meals). In the wake of the excitement we’ve carefully considered all that was laid before us and, after much chin stroking, have come up with our games of the show.
These have been split into two categories: things we actually played, and things we only saw. Joel and Jeremy have picked a winner and a runner-up in each, giving us a total of… carry the one… eight games. Read, enjoy, call us big idiots in the comments!
Want more Dark Souls? Here are the best Dark Souls PC mods.
Games we played
Winner: Dark Souls III
Joel: Anyone who knows my gaming predilections will find this as surprising as the Earth continuing to orbit the Sun, or people in supermarkets still not knowing how to use the self-service checkouts. I love the Dark Souls games like the imaginary children that I don’t have, and am delighted with how this is shaping up.
When I saw it back at E3 the FromSoft team were making all the right noises: bigger environments, traditional Souls combat, sexy new graphical whizzbangery. And all of this is bolstered by the fact that creative genius Hidetaka Miyazaki is in charge once again after stepping back from (the still very excellent) Dark Souls II.
While I loved Bloodborne, having a shield strapped into my left hand again felt hugely comforting, even if my parrying skills have clearly rusted somewhat. It’s also great to know that the variety and choice of weapons is present and correct - within a 30 minute hands-on I had the chance to try out three different blades, including a meaty greatsword.
So far, so Souls, and even the environment - sprawling ramparts known as the Wall of Lodeleth - had a familiar feel to it. However this is a series in which the Demon Firesage is in the details, for too many tweaks will wash away what makes the games so special. Here those come in the form of (at least with the build I got to try): quicker movement, offset by a stamina bar that drains more rapidly; Estus flasks being far quicker to use than in the previous game; and a ‘ready stance’, which increases the moveset for a given weapon, allowing you to do things like break through shield defences or wallop enemies into the air.
Once the technical kinks are ironed out, there’s little doubt that the gameplay is going to be up to snuff. Where this falls on the Souls spectrum will likely be down to the design of the environments and the feel of the world as a whole, and the degree of narrative satisfaction. With Miyazaki back in charge, all signs point to gorgeous view ahead.
Winner: Eve: Valkyrie
Jeremy: It begins just as past Valkyrie demos have: you jerk your head this way and that about your cockpit, taking a second to adjust to arms and legs that aren’t yours as your ship’s systems come online. Then you’re flung from somewhere within the bowels of a much bigger vessel, along the runway of a huge magnetic slingshot, gasping out into space. And it’s still glorious.
But what comes next is new: not the tentative fire of other pre-alpha players, but the voice of your lieutenant in your ear. This is the first time we’ve played a scripted single player mission in CCP’s competitive dogfighter. It’s supposed to be a simple escort mission - doomed as soon as your lieutenant makes the mistake of saying the word “routine”. It's the scale that gets you as you break formation to weave around the capital ships you’re protecting (“Where are you GOING, pilot”). They are whales to your plankton.
And of course it goes spectacularly wrong. A fleet warps in without warning. You’re ordered to swat the ships buzzing around the carriers, and for a minute there’s a chance to appreciate the honed laser jousting of the game proper - the firm push of the thrusters behind you; the driftless movement designed to dodge simulation sickness; the way velocity bleeds as you turn, granting a moment’s grace to lock onto passing fighters. You’re peripherally aware of the screams and gurgles in your headphones. It is not going well.
And then you are dead. Not yet, but it’s coming. Your meeting with the vacuum is booked at the precise moment the Amarr Titan pops into being before you. In the footage, I can see that its distinctive dome, the most terrible Sky dish in the universe, takes up maybe a third of the screen. In VR, it feels like you’ve been swallowed whole. As it charges up a shot, energy lashes across the Titan like solar storms on the surface of the sun. Your wards are blown to smithereens, and the debris opens your cockpit like a tin can. Electronics crackle, and you watch those new arms freeze.
The lieutenant’s still audible, just. And so is her resignation: “See you in the next life.”
Bewilderingly, this shiver-inducing bit of fan service is intended just as an on-ramp for the multiplayer - there are no current plans for a fully-fledged single player campaign. Until there are, you’ll find me outside the CCP office with a placard.
Runner-up: Star Wars: Battlefront
Joel: I am not a hardcore Star Wars fan. In fact, given how far lovers of the series take their passion, maybe I don’t even qualify as a fan at all. But I’ve seen the films multiple times (the good ones, at least), enjoy them, and admire the scope and scale of the universe.
One thing I’m pretty sure I am going to be a fan of, however, is Battlefront. I played both the co-op Survival Mode and the multiplayer Hoth battle at E3, and each was authentic like having your hand cut off by your own father. Now I’ve had a chance to fly about in the new Fighter Squadron mode, and it’s every bit as wonderful.
This is Battlefront’s aerial combat mode, in which up to 20 players pilot X-Wings and TIE Fighters - or, if you collect certain upgrade tokens, more pimping vehicles such as the Millennium Falcon itself - and duke it out across the skies. It’s accessible in a way that piloting Battlefield’s vehicles never has been: flight is easily controlled (even if I did stack it into the ground on more than one occassion) via the analogue sticks, with evasive maneuvers mapped to the D-pad. A fairly generous lock-on system aids the aiming of your cannons, and there are missiles, speed boosts and the like which work via cooldown.
Much like the ground game, DICE haven’t felt the need to overcomplicate things. Simple, satisfying systems mesh with an incredibly evocative visual and soundscape to make what will surely be the definitive interactive Star Wars experience. Geez, I sound like I’m writing the press release…
Jeremy: VR tabletop games are an idea that early Rift developers have tended to nod along to during convention panels - before returning to their simulated cockpits and first-person adventure games. A team in Rotterdam, bless them, are really doing it. Don the Valve-endorsed HTC Vive to play Skyworld, and you’re presented with a circular table. You can spin it like a Lazy Susan by grabbing at its edges using the kit’s two wireless controllers. But there’s no need when you can physically walk around the Vive’s tracked space, checking the hex-covered board from all angles or - though it goes against every knee-preserving instinct in your body - stepping right into the centre of it.
With your head literally in the clouds, you can point and poke at the pieces dotted around the map’s central mountain - directing soldiers to attack enemy production buildings and, eventually, a many-turreted castle. My developer guide suggests I might want to order in a few more units, and he’s right - because as soon as I select the armoury, the table flips to reveal a clockwork man hammering away at his anvil. For an encore, we cast a spell to take control of the dragon perched atop the board’s peak - directing the wyrm at my cheek to light up one of the forts below.
It’s important to stress that none of this feels gimmicky: dragon commands might be endgame material, but Skyworld feels like a very real and grounded strategy game. It’s lent extra earthiness, in fact, by the efforts developers Vertigo have made to style their troops like miniatures. Valkyrie is wonderful, but VR’s capacity for making PC games tactile shouldn’t be overlooked.
Games we saw
Winner: Ubisoft VR demo
Joel: I’m definitely cheating here, because I did actually play this… but I didn’t go hands-on. How so, you ask? Because my first glimpse of Ubisoft’s virtual reality output was a tech demo controlled entirely by head-tracking. LOOPHOLE.
In it you are put into the… feathers of an eagle soaring across the Paris skyline. It’s graphically very lo-fi - think of how Assassin’s Creed Unity probably looked two months into development - but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the experience brilliantly conveys a sense of speed, and the controls are remarkably responsive. Tilt your head so that your ear touches your shoulder and you’ll peform an extremely tight turn, and you have such taut reigns on your bird of prey that you can even dive right down to street level and weave between buildings, under bridges and the like.
What also matters hugely is the lack of motion sickness. I, it must be said, am really not very good when it comes to tolerating the physical effects of virtual reality gaming. In fact, only a few hours before I sat down to try this I’d had another VR experience - one that, on paper, was far more gentile. However in the wake of that I felt extremely nauesous, so when I was told what was about to happen at the Ubi stand I was none too thrilled. And yet, 20 minutes or so of soaring around a high speeds, ducking and diving through the Eiffel Tower, and I felt fine.
My enjoyment may have been boosted by the fact that the multiplayer component of the demo, a capture the flag affair in which you could squawk at other bids to take them out, went extremely well. Apparently I have natural aptitude for avian deliveries.
Winner: XCOM 2
Jeremy: They could have done so much less. That’s what struck me about Firaxis’ sequel to the game that revived turn-based tactics. Julian Gollop, by his own admission, only got X-Com right once. Only now, with Chaos Reborn, is he close again to having a dense strategy layer speak meaningfully to the skirmishes beneath.
It took a large team at Firaxis four years and a few false starts to do the same - and nobody could have blamed them for positioning players once again as Earth’s last-ditch defence against invasion. Yet in November we’ll be captaining a mobile base on a planet long since captured by the aliens.
There’s a nod to Enemy Unknown in the form of the globe, still levitating above the staffers in Mission Control. But it flickers and disappears as the camera nears, replacing the sphere with a flat view of the planet’s continents. It’s here that the Commander - say it in gravelly baritone for best effect - will work to expand the resistance, scanning for missions and reacting to the ADVENT administration’s countermeasures.
Like you, the aliens have short-term aims as well as long ones. And like you, they’re researching. Dark Events will occur - enemy attempts to build better armour, or advanced ammo - and you can have a go at preventing them. But you won’t succeed in stopping them all.
It’s that realisation, that the baddies are playing Enemy Unknown while you play XCOM 2, that makes this sequel so exciting. The geospace antics are vaguely reminiscent of the espionage of Invisible Inc., but there’s nothing else directly comparable. Firaxis know they got it right first time - so they’ve built something with the same ethos, the same desperation, from an utterly different perspective. Welcome back, Commander. You’ve got some catching up to do.
Joel: I spent 30 minutes being given a one-to-one demonstration and explanation of this indie title from Macedonian studio Kamai Media, and I’m still pretty confused. But I’m also intrigued. This is a game in which you can control any of the cast of characters, switching between them freely… or you can play as none of them.
Each has an AI personality so will go about their business independent of your control, but you can jump in at any time in order to select from dialogue options or make choices. And the choices you make will have a real impact on the game, not just in the short-term, but way down the line within the six episode structure. The Kamai team have crafted their own non-linear narrative system which tracks each decision and alters the world accordingly, and it’s incredibly complex - I’ve seen under the hood of this thing, and it’s like a spider ingested a rainbow and then continually shot out webbing while riding atop a Spirograph.
The general conceit is that humans have been sent on a mission into space, cryosleeping their way to a far-off planet. Yet, predictably enough, they wake up while en route and… things start happening. There are echoes of Alien, minus the flesh-hungry xenomorph (I think…), and Moon, only with less crippling loneliness.
You can rewind to any point at any time in order to change your choices or explore alternate timelines, and you’ll need to - while episodes will only take 20 minutes or so to complete start-to-finish, information you gather during each playthrough will be crucial to solving the mystery at the centre of the game. And keeping characters alive, because every single one of them can be killed off if you muck things up. Good luck with that.
(Sonder will be coming to Steam Early Access in mid-September, with the first episode releasing fully in October.)
Runner-up: Skyshine's Bedlam
Jeremy: There remains one aspect of Fallout 1 which isn’t often referenced or replicated - its time limit. The original Vault Dweller was given a gentle shove out into the wasteland not to find their dad or their destiny, but to source a replacement part for their bunker’s water cleaning facilities. A 100 day ticker instilled overland travel with a sense of urgency unusual in a genre that, before and since, has taken a more meditative tack.
Skyshine’s Bedlam feels like the natural successor to that forgotten aspect of Fallout. It’s a tactical post-apocalyptic RPG that goes full roguelike - placing you in charge of a crew of killers making your way across the desert in a ginormous, upgradable armoured vehicle, the Dozer.
The aim is to make it from the metropolis of Bysantine to the mythical utopia of Aztec City with as much of your gang as possible. And the idea is that each attempt is a single session - a series of random encounters that you probably won’t survive.
In combat, the divergent abilities and AI routines of your Marauder, Mutant and Cyborg enemies leave Bedlam reminiscent of Card Hunter. You can’t move everybody in a turn, so scraps are positional puzzles in which you do your best to keep your raiders out of trouble and stick the knife in when you can.
I’m a bit worried Skyshine’s Bedlam won’t get the attention it deserves when it arrives in September - not least because there are two Bedlams out this year. Don’t let it happen. Take 'em down to Aztec City.