Dying Light 2
Dying Light 1 is probably in my top 5 best games of all time. Being a few years late to the party, it was a dirt-cheap and wholly unique POV action/parkour experience and there is still little else like it in comparison. In the wake of such success, it becomes undoubtedly difficult to measure the outcome of Techland’s next game, Dying Light 2, on its own. The devs must have been painfully aware of this as Dying Light 2 has expanded on every aspect of its predecessor in an effort to indubitably overshadow their previous feats. With this expansion however, DL2 has strayed far from their direct open-world zombie/parkour experience into something much more immense, and surprisingly more in line with a modern Bethesda Studios title.
By every measure, the sequel is bigger and more realized than its predecessor. The play area is still massive but buildings now also scale vertically and contain dozens of open floors to explore in between. To cover such an elongated space Techland has expanded upon the skill tree and added a new style of the grappling hook, ziplines, and even a glider suit. The stories this time are purposely over-acted and literally “in your face” thanks to the series’ signature one-shot first-person POV emphasis. Their new flinch-inducing first-person melee combat system asks players to master a complex string of strikes, dodges, parries, and grabs, as it places the focus now more on human versus human combat. The world is incredibly over-detailed, down to individual walls that are tagged with their own personalized graffiti, and floors that are painstakingly decorated with perfectly placed garbage to set the mood. It’s difficult to find a single aspect from Dying Light 1 that isn’t examined and then expanded upon, in an effort to prove this team is capable of capturing lighting in a bottle twice.
It’s almost impossible to communicate how immense this game is now. I’m almost 100 hours in, yet I still haven’t completed the main quest, there’s just too much in here to appreciate and love. Now, back to Dying Light 1, nothing could ever replace that game. It is a gem, a treasure, and deserves its own accolades. Dying Light 2 has pushed itself to be so different that it has found itself in a wholly different lane. Here instead, DL2 has done such an incredible job with its focus on the open world, quests, and level design that they have undoubtedly made the best Fallout-style action RPG ever, and I’m on board with that.
Horizon: Forbidden West
This game is unbelievably professional and the absolute definition of AAA done right. Everything that was present in the original game remains, only further polished. They have expanded the mechanics of everything, from combat to questing, even further to include stimulating new weapons and a wide range of optional story content. The combat here is spectacular thanks to a diversity of weapons and status effects. I particularly love the Shredder Gauntlet (boomerang), the challenge of trying to catch your projectile as it returns for an added damage buff on the next throw is pure joy. The feeling of bringing down machines 10 times my own size with little more than arrows, slings, discs, and the like is every bit as majestic as Shadow of the Colossus and never ever grew tiresome.
What is tiresome however is the open-world formula. Now part of that is on me, I’ve played so many of these games that long gone are the times when I would gleefully explore every nook and cranny to uncover collectibles or crafting materials. These days all of that has become a rote chore and the least fun part of almost any game. Thankfully Horizon 2 has streamlined pretty much every aspect of exploration and leveling up, thus allowing me to skip some of the grindier progression paths. Case in point, I have finished the game a few levels short of the max on Very Hard, and have finished most all the combat challenges, without fully upgrading a single piece of armor! It’s fantastic that I didn’t need to focus on salvaging upgrade parts and could instead rely on the kit, item management, and a little bit of skill to offset my lower-level armor.
I’m certain my problems with Forbidden West are entirely personal as they all relate to my own experience with open-world fatigue. When I was away from the game I would often think “I don’t want to go back and hunt for map icons, I’m over it” however, every time I conceded and picked up that controller I was immediately smitten with how much fun playing the game itself really is and could easily commit for a few more hours. At every point where I thought “I don’t want to do that” I was given the freedom to not, and instead I spent most of my time doing what I love most in this game, combating giant robot dinosaurs with an increasingly more powerful weapon set. This is still one of my favorite franchises ever to exist and even though I should be taking a long break from the formula I can’t deny that some of my favorite memories from this year come straight from my time with Horizon 2.
Postal: Brain Damage
Look, I get it, problematic nature aside, Postal traditionally is just not a high-quality game series. You can count on bad jokes, worse programming, and a general premise based on being mean to people. Imagine my surprise when word-on-the-street reached me singing the praises of 2022’s Postal: Brain Damaged. Being morbidly curious, and a sucker for a steep sale, I took the Postal bait (again), and now I just can’t stop playing Postal: Brain Damaged. This is, without question, a perfectly executed Boomer Shooter that outshined every single other movement-based FPS I played this year (and I’ve played a lot of these).
How does this game ascend to the ranks to be one of the best first-person run-and-gun shooters on the market? It achieves greatness by using a simple tried-and-true formula, stealing all of the greatest things from other great games to build the ultimate Frankenstein’s monster of first-person shooting. Start by combining the slide jump from Titanfall with the shotgun hook from Doom 2016 to create a base, a warp-speed traversal system. Mix in 9 total weapons each with alternate fire modes for flavor, and a very inclusive roster of nearly 50 enemies all based around stereotypes (I’m clearly the Fat Doomguy/Mexican bean). Finally, spread all of that across three very visually unique campaigns that retread some of my favorite (and not so favorite) FPS tropes. This fresh yet familiar recipe never became stale, even when the Postal Dude’s vapid one-liners started repeating themselves.
There is one caveat to enjoying this game to its full potential, however. Like many boomer shooters, this is not a game to be played slowly or methodically. Don’t be “one of those guys” who tries to pick everything off one-by-one, or kite everything into doorways/hallways in an effort to preserve your immaculate health/armor count. Dive into this pool deeply. Soak up the damage, there’s plenty of health and armor. Burn the special ammo there are guns aplenty. Consume the powerups, they’re overpowered on purpose. This is a game to be played at warp speed. Play it like you hate it. Play it like you want to rush through it to get it over with. You might be surprised at how much you will end up loving it, and then you just might end up playing it again and again.
If you value the ratio of time spent in-game versus money spent in-game then Vampire Survivors is for you. This $4 video game took 73 hours to complete entirely (100%) and I still want more. It plays like a one-handed NES Gauntlet on speed. Levels are thankfully hard-capped at 30 minutes max and, fully upgraded one could have quickly amassed 100k kills (that’s 55 kills a second). The weapons, monsters, music, and lore pay homage to Castlevania in all the best ways, and the hilarious bestiary was written by one of my favorite critics, James Stephanie Sterling, further adding to this game’s coziness. I would love to see some map/level design implementation here but regardless, this game is perfection distilled into its purest form. There is little else to say about such a short, beautifully focused, game besides playing it if you dare. It grabbed me firmly and it wouldn’t let me go.
This game is one of a kind. First Person Melee (FPM?) combat is not something you see every day in any form. Chivalry 2 combines FPM with the medieval combat genre, and presents all of this as an online multiplayer service, creating results that are uniquely impressive. The game boasts up to 64 players divided into 2 teams. Unlike most competitive FPS games that emphasize medium to long-distance combat here, you are most often on the frontlines among dozens and dozens of other players who are all actively slicing, stabbing, chopping, shoving, punching, kicking, and even shouting at each other. It can often feel like being picked on by a gang in a mosh pit when you are all by yourself so bring friends. It is much more fun when you can travel in small packs and support each other, as well as ask your friends to exact revenge on the person who struck you down.
The combat itself is broken up into a rock-paper-scissors type system of overhead strikes, swings, and stabs, as well as defensive blocks, parries, and ripostes, mixed with 3 different melee classes (there is a 4th Archer class which plays by its own sets of rules). This dynamic and diverse combat system makes brute force hacking and slashing your way up the leaderboards a viable strategy, but also rewards being able to block effectively, and even then mirror the incoming strike to gain further advantage. Quick thinking offsets slow movements and this brain-over-brawn approach to heavy weapon class fighting felt rewarding as I began with initial blocks that eventually became ripostes that decimated foes with bigger muscles and heavier weapons than my own.
After an hour or so of hearing nothing but yelling, screaming, sword clashing, and explosions, the game will wear on you. I found it hard to play longer than an hour or two as the speed of combat and the sounds of aggression became a messy blur. Fatigue is real and trying to maintain your mental clarity among a sea of noise and violence is nothing less than immersive, to say the least. I found it best to enjoy this game in bursts with friends when I was fresh and full of energy. This team absolutely nailed the vibe and energy of brutal melee combat and deserves to be applauded for nailing every aspect of it right down to the feeling of “please sir, no more, I’m exhausted!” Well played good sirs.