In this regular weekly article, I highlight classic and contemporary downloadable games across all platforms – from consoles through PC and Mac to mobile phones – that I believe are worthy of your attention. As you might expect, the majority of these are indie titles that flew under the radar and didn't get a huge amount of publicity when they were first released – or are classic games that you might have missed.
Created by British developer Variable State, and published by 505 Games, Virginia is a PC, Mac, PS4, and Xbox One title that was released last September. Plenty of outlets reviewed it at the time, so you might already be familiar with it. However, USgamer didn't ever get around to covering it – and I think it's worth mentioning here because I really enjoyed its rather unique experience when I finally got around to giving it a go last weekend.
I'll state up front that it's a very divisive game. Indeed, I could argue either way whether Virginia is even a game or not. It's basically a walking simulator, or if you'd prefer, a piece of interactive fiction that spins a really intriguing story that kept me fully engrossed throughout its rather short two-odd hour running time.
I imagine that many readers are already switching off at this point, and I can completely understand that: Two hours is incredibly short, and interactive fiction games aren't for everyone. Not only that, but if you're after something to challenge your gaming skills and reflexes, Virginia is going to leave you severely wanting. While it is an interactive… game I guess I should call it, it's super-linear. It doesn't really offer puzzles to solve – instead, you simply follow what's in front of you. Nothing is hidden from the player, and for the most part it's pretty clear which characters and objects you need to interact with to advance the plot. Indeed, it took me a few minutes to get used to the obviousness of the game. I kept thinking I was missing things, but I wasn't. In almost all situations, the most immediately apparent action is the only action.
So after that rather unconvincing, off-hand recommendation, why the hell should you play Virginia? Well, as an experience, I thought it was really compelling.
It's a mystery-thriller set in 1992 that's inspired by classic TV shows like the X-Files and Twin Peaks. The player takes the role of Anne Tarver, a recently graduated FBI agent who, along with her more experienced partner Maria Halperin, is tasked to investigate the disappearance of Lucas Fairfax, a young boy from the rural town of Kingdom, Virginia. The stylistically-rendered action is viewed from a first-person perspective, and plays out over 42 chapters, which are essentially individual scenes that each take a few minutes to navigate through.
What's interesting is that there's no dialogue at all. The onus is on the player to carefully observe what's going as the characters interact with one another. Emotions and messages are conveyed through the physical actions, reactions, and expressions of the cast, and must be interpreted by the viewer. It's fairly subtle stuff, requiring you to pay full attention so that you don't miss key details, such as a knowing nod, or a sly sideways glance that silently speaks volumes. It’s also important that you consider settings and their context as the story unfolds, and there are also some rather bizarre dream sequences to make sense of.
An absolutely fantastic soundtrack, smart cinematic editing, and the clever juxtaposition of scenes and timelines help give the game dramatic impact, and the more I played it, the more I got sucked into its increasingly ambiguous and strange storyline. I found it fascinating, but also a little confusing – and I'm looking forward to playing through it again to see if I can make a little more sense of it the second time around. Ultimately, I found it oddly emotionally affecting – a very different kind of interactive experience that I'm really glad I undertook.
Like I said at the start of this piece, it's definitely not for everyone, but if Virginia's surreal, cerebral experience sounds intriguing to you, I highly recommend it.
Plague Inc: Evolved
First released on iOS and Android, Plague Inc: Evolved is an upgraded version of the original game that's been made specifically for Xbox One, PS4, PC, and Mac. It's a real-time strategy game that has about as bleak an objective as you can imagine – you engineer and subsequently mutate a virus and attempt to wipe out the human race. However, while it sounds grim, it's really enjoyable to play.
The game plays out across a map of the world. The action kicks off by selecting a patient zero to infect with your initially-harmless disease in a country of your choice, and then you watch as it very slowly starts to spread. As it does, you begin to earn DNA points that you can use to mutate your disease using three different progressive talent trees. You can give your virus abilities such as being able to resist cold or warm weather, thus making it able to spread into different climates. It can be given different symptoms, such as making its victims sneeze, which enables it to spread from person to person much quicker. Finally, there's transmission, which gives the disease the ability to spread via new means, such as being passed on by birds or animals.
The strategy comes into play when trying to balance these three criteria, and dealing with how the human race reacts to the disease. If you make your pathogen too deadly too soon, countries start closing their borders and the human race will start working together to create a cure. You can mutate your virus to stymie efforts to come up with a vaccine, but then you won't have any DNA points left over to invest in the transmission of your disease, and its ability to spread will start to slow – or it won't be hardy enough to survive in more extreme climates, meaning that certain countries won't become infected. Conversely, you can invest heavily in engineering your disease to spread quickly, but then you won't have sufficient DNA points to make your disease deadly and kill off those pesky humans – giving them plenty of time to put a stop to your plague.
The game features multiple scenarios to challenge you, and a variety of different diseases to try out – there's even a zombie mode where you try to turn the entire human race into the walking dead. It all adds up to a really fascinating and involving RTS that's as entertaining to play as it is ghoulish.
World of Tanks
Available on PC, PS4 and Xbox One, I've been playing World of Tanks for years, and indeed consider it to be one of my comfort food games. It's basically a PvP game in which two teams of 15 face off on one of a wide variety of World War II-themed battlefields. The objective is always the same: either destroy all the tanks on the opposing team, or capture the enemy's flag by parking your tank within its radius for a specific period of time.
In many respects, World of Tanks is a cover-based shooter, since the gameplay echoes the more tactical and strategic nature of tank battles, where you use obstacles and landscape features to help ensure you're not quickly destroyed by the enemy. This is not a game where you drive headlong across the battlefield shooting all and sundry. Well, you can try to do that, but if you do, you'll invariably be very quickly picked off by heavy tanks or tank destroyers.
Instead, you need to take things a little more slow and steady. When a round starts, all enemies are invisible on the map, and to locate them you need to move within visual range, which will then cause them to appear on the map. This is where the roles of different tanks come into play. There are five basic tank types – light, medium, and heavy tanks, tank destroyers, and artillery – and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Light tanks are faster than most, and are ideal for pushing forward and spotting enemy tanks. Medium tanks are more for support and spotting, while highly armored heavy tanks are slower, but ideal for assault and firepower. Tank destroyers are more of a hunter/sniping type, while artillery sits at the very back of the battlefield lobbing shells at the enemy from long range, using an overhead view.
The tank role aspect imbues the game with an unexpected level of subtlety. This isn't just a straight-up shooter as might be first apparent – this is a game that rewards skill and thought. Most tanks can only shoot once every few seconds, so every shot really does count. The highly accurate damage modeling also ensures that movement and positioning is very important – it's possible to take out tank turrets, tracks, or even specific crewmembers, depending on where the tank gets hit. And if you haven’t figured it out already, patience also plays an important part in the game as you sit and wait for the right shot, or hole up behind cover and wait for a tank to approach so you can ambush it. Like I said at the start, if you just roll straight across the battlefield, it's likely you'll be taken out very quickly. This is a strategic cat-and-mouse game where selecting the right position and taking the first shot can very much give you the upper hand.
Winning is important, of course, because that earns you money and xp. World of Tanks follows the traditional MMO structure where your earned currency can buy you new gear for your existing tanks, and also new tanks as you rank up. Leveling up is fairly easy at first, however, once you get to around tier six (out of ten), the game becomes quite a grind, and if you're serious about earning the upper-level tanks, it's pretty much a necessity to buy gold and convert to a "premium" account, which offers accelerated xp and money-earning opportunities. Yep. World of Tanks is a freemium game that you can play without paying for, but you'll have to invest a lot of time to do so. Paying to play gives you access to a faster leveling process, and you can also buy higher-level tanks. None offer any real advantage over the tanks you can earn – it's simply a financial short cut to buying into higher-level tanks if you so wish.
Ultimately, World of Tanks offers something different to the usual shooter fare - it's smarter and more thoughtful than most twitch-based games. That said, you still need to be able to aim well in the heat of the moment, but there's more to do in terms of pre-planning your attack than other run-and-gun games. If you like the sound of it, don't let its freemium nature put you off – give the game a go and at the very least you'll get a good few evening's worth of excellent entertainment out of it for free, before the real grind begins. And by that time you'll know whether or not you like it enough for it to be a worthy investment of your money.