Tech

Games getting us through COVID-19—blocks, roguelites, whatever Death Stranding is

Enlarge / Like much of the world, we took have a love/hate relationship with Tom Nook at this point..

While it's hard to see much upside in our current COVID-19 pandemic, there's at least one group for whom maybe quarantine life isn't all that bad—gamers. Maybe you finally have the time (and nothing else to do) to work your way through some 100-hour plus campaign or to retrieve every star in Mario 64. Or, as someone with a partner/roommate/kid, maybe you suddenly never get a chance to game by yourself and have newly been embracing the joys of co-op and multiplayer more than you ever imagined. (Alternatively, maybe you're sticking to whatever handheld isolation you can find instead under such circumstance.) Heck, maybe you're just so bored you decided to finally torture yourself through Dwarf Fortress' initial learning curve.

No matter how you slice it, video games have been one of the most reliable forms of at-home entertainment in both the best of times and the worst of times. So although sheltering-in-place has altered many aspects of life in unquestionably negative ways, around Ars we've stumbled into some gaming silver linings over the last month-plus. Here's what's been keeping our thumbs active in these quartan-times when the work keyboards have retired for the day.

Srsly, how can you say no?

Transporting back to 1994

My name is Nathan, I'm one of the fools who waffled on acquiring a Switch and now lacks any modern gaming device mid-quarantine. I've forever been a console player, and over the years as consoles gained connectivity they've become one of the easiest ways to regularly connect with my younger siblings. But here we are. I guess we'll have to… talk? Scattergories works over video chat, at least.

As for my gaming fix, I'm not entirely without console-access luckily. The first gaming system I ever had was the SNES, a 1992 Christmas gift that my parents still discuss due to the new heights my seven-year-old vocal pitch reached out of excitement. So last year for my birthday, my sister sent the modern incarnation, the Super NES Classic.

Life right now has undoubtedly been hard, and I'm no masochist—Super Ghouls n' Ghosts and Contra 3 remain untouched. I'm also not a gaming historian (sorry, Star Fox 2) and will never understand why Secret of Mana (a third RPG behind Earthbound and Super Mario RPG) had to be included over a big popular mid-90s port like NBA Jam or Mortal Kombat or even Dr. Mario.

Instead, I've spent my limited solo-TV time playing through a familiar side-scroller that's fun with juuuust a touch of challenge: the original Donkey Kong Country.

The positives here probably don't even need naming after 25-plus years, but here we go: The soundtrack remains filled with sneaky bangers. The game prominently features the perennially underrated DK (and his expanded universe) as opposed to the milquetoast Mario. The game's animal mechanics felt revolutionary at the time and remain downright charming today (try smacking some gophers as a rhino right now and see if you feel better, I'll wait). And the overall game play has the exact blend of ease and challenge I'm looking for—maybe I can breeze through the first eight levels without stopping to sip my coffee, but then "Mine Cart Carnage" hits and suddenly my accumulated extra lives are teetering on single digits and my right thumb is in pain from trying to time jumps over abandoned mine carts juuuuusssst right (I'm not the only who can't handle this level effortlessly as an adult, thank you Kotaku). If the Switch Lite (I want that and not the docked version, right?) ever comes back in stock, rest assured this never-owned-a-Wii gamer will be Tropical Freeze-ing the worries away soon after.
Nathan Mattise, Features Editor

A video game of sorts that everyone can enjoy

Zoom gaming hour

I stay on top of the latest and greatest games, indie to AAA, for a living. But as shelter-at-home orders have kept me separate from friends and family, I've found the various Jackbox Party Packs have provided the perfect way to stay connected. These collections of casual party games run the gamut from trivia to word games to secret-information investigations to straight-up popularity contests, all with the slightly off-kilter humor you might expect from the team behind You Don't Know Jack.

The Jackbox Party Packs satisfy all the requirements necessary for a successful online multiplayer experience with pretty much any group:

* The instructions are simple enough to explain quickly for newcomers.
* It's not reflex-based, so no worries about Internet lag affecting player performance.
* It works on pretty much any platform; all you need is a videoconference that can "share your screen" and a smartphone web browser for each player.
* It encourages creativity and laughter in a mostly non-confrontational way.

We started with a weekly Friday night Jackbox meetup with a group of college friends but have since expanded to post-Seder games with the extended family just as easily. Even my five-year-old has gotten in on the act, laughing her way through a family-friendly edition of the Pictionary-like Drawful just before bedtime.

D tend to get self-conscious just looking at my reflection during video conference calls, and I think the idea of drinking alone together at a "Zoom Happy Hour" sounds excruciating. But a Jackbox game provides the perfect focal point and excuse to catch up with far-flung friends and family while doing something fun together.
Kyle Orland, Gaming Editor

  • Some classics remain wonderful whether in before times or quartan-times. Microsoft
  • Final Fantasy VII, a surprisingly delightful remake. Sony
  • In Fallout 76, this looks like a good place to quarantine (and set up every valuable possession we have).
  • Dino Crisis, dino-mite Sony

Free time is now game time

Two weeks before the lockdowns began, my wife and I moved from LA to Chicago to be closer to friends and family. Sadly, all this means were even more socially isolated now than we were in LA.

Or, are we? Through games, weve been more social than we have been in years. Our more gamer-lite friends who used to not have much time to play games online are now suddenly all-in. We started a Discord server with everybody and have been playing Minecraft, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, or Animal Crossing: New Horizons multiple nights per week. Its been a blast.

On my own, Im in the final chapters of the Final Fantasy VII Remake. I wasnt expecting to like it, but Ive been surprised and delighted.

Ive been a Fallout 76 player since launch, and between the new folks coming in with the just-launched free Wastelanders expansion and old 76 friends playing more because they have more time at home now, the most positive game community Ive ever been a part of has been hopping like never before. Haters can hate all they want, but Fallout 76 has its fans and were having a great time.

Also, I collect PlayStation games—all generations, to the tune of more than 1,000 games—and Ive been casually poking around in some classics I never got around to playing before. For example: it turns out Dino Crisis is a roaring good time, if youre into all the tropes and trappings of cheesy survival horror games from the late 90s—which I absolutely am.

On top of all that, Ive been competing in the Kusogrande bad games speedrunning competition on Twitch, and Ive made good progress on a text-based game development project Ive been working on for the past year.

All this is to say that I have spent most of my free time with games since the shelter-in-place order came down. Everyone has their own way of staying sane amidst all this, and this is mine. Its working well for me.
Samuel Axon, Senior Reviews Editor

  • Jeff, the most interesting new character in Half-Life: Alyx, can't see you. But he can hear you. And he can touch you. Both of those things are bad.
  • The Resident Evil series' Nemesis creature. Just what we need during these dark times. Capcom
  • Depending on what screen you look at, you might mistake Valorant for a pure Counter-Strike clone. Indeed, Riot's new shooter borrows a ton of ideas from CS.

When play is for work…

I've been fortunate to write about some very big, time-sucking video games for you, dear readers, over the past few months. Some of the resulting reviews have already gone live at Ars Technica: Final Fantasy VII Remake, Resident Evil III Remake, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Half-Life: Alyx, and Valorant. If that's not enough, I have a few other game reviews in the works for this coming week.

So that changes the conversation on my end. What do I play to "wind down" when I'm not playing games for work? Nothing, really. Animal Crossing is a brainless exception when I partake in my state's variety of legal inebriants. But mostly, during my downtime, I watch other people play games.

Twitch streams are my sweet relief. Within these feeds of familiar games, conversations between streamers and their chat rooms remain beautiful, shiny, and crystallized, like they were frozen in resin before the rest of the world joined their "stay home in front of a screen" party. Because, really, these folks were already prepared. They already set up immaculate green-screen rigs, paid for quality microphones and webcams, and erected secondary and tertiary monitors for things like monitoring chat rooms and managing their friends lists.

Twitch is a simpler place for me. It's where I go when I want to hear people talk about something other than… *gestures around mildly*. (If you're wondering about my favorites, they include the Apex Legends battles of NiceWigg, the Super Mario Maker 2 explorations of GrandPooBear, the fighting-game ruminations of Maximilian_DOOD, and the caffeinated exaltations of Viking_Blonde.)
Sam Machkovech, Culture Editor

  • Hades is by far the most polished Early Access game Ive ever played. Supergiant Games
  • You take on the role of Zargeus, son of Hades, who is doing his damndest to pull up stakes and bust out of his Underworld home to find new residence at Mount Olympus. Supergiant Games
  • The first Risk of Rain was one of my favorite games of 2013, and perhaps the best thing about its sequel is how much it feels like the original. Hopoo Games
  • Youre still a space adventurer marooned on a strange planet, forced to hunt (in solo play or co-op) for upgrades to your kit as you mow down endless waves of monsters in an attempt to find each levels teleporter. Hopoo Games

Going rogue

Like just about everyone who plays video games, my drug of choice for the past month has been the anesthetizing concoction that is Animal Crossing: New Horizons. But during this period of endless anxiety, Ive also returned time and again to my video game comfort food: the humble roguelike (or, if you please, “roguelite”). The genres demanding gameplay and “just one more run” compulsiveness let me escape my worries and become wholly absorbed into a game world.

The life of a roguelite addict is necessarily the life of someone intimately familiar with Steams Early Access program, the incubator where most of these games enter the world. In general, I try to hold off as long as possible before buying into an unfinished game—I dont want to burn myself out before a game even hits 1.0—but Im weak, and my resolve inevitably crumbles under the crush of certain games attendant hype and FOMO. Thankfully, not all Early Access roguelites are empty shells; some are even good.

Two games in this latter category are Supergiants Hades and Hopoos Risk of Rain 2. Both are unfinished and lack real endings, both still have development time ahead of them (theyll be fully released at some point this year), and both are absolutely worth your time and money.

Lets start with Hades. Its by far the most polished Early Access game Ive ever played—unsurprising given the developers well-deserved reputation for making impeccably crafted video games. Also unsurprising—though no less impressive—is how Supergiant has effortlessly genre-hopped its way into pro-level roguelite design.

You take on the role of Zagreus, son of Hades, who is doing his damndest to pull up stakes and bust out of his Underworld home to find new residence at Mount Olympus. Hades is not happy with your attempted nest-fleeing and makes sure you must face a gauntlet of baddies to earn your freedom. Thus sets up all the roguelike staples: fighting through rooms of enemies, earning upgrades (here, as “boons” from gods on Mount Olympus), and taking on a boss at the end of each of the games biomes.

Combat is fast, flashy, and engrossing, kept fresh throughout runs by your pre-run choice of six different weapons (each with unlockable variants) and the way your upgrades affect your attacks. When you die, and you will, youre spit back into Hades throne room, and youre free to talk to the denizens of hell, including Hades, before heading out again. This is where the game really shines, doling out lore and narrative that evolves as you play run after run. A roguelite with a story? I wasnt sure it would work, but it does—and it sets it apart from its peers.

Risk of Rain 2, on the other hand, focuses entirely on the gameplay—and man is it addictive. The first Risk of Rain was one of my favorite games of 2013, and perhaps the best thing about its sequel is how much it feels like the original, even as the formula has made the jump from 2D platformer to 3rd-person shooter. Youre still a space adventurer marooned on a strange planet, forced to hunt (in solo play or co-op) for upgrades to your kit as you mow down endless waves of monsters in an attempt to find each levels teleporter, which takes you one step closer to victory.

The classes, levels, enemies, bosses, and items are all essentially the same, and the sequel retains the first games central gimmick—the difficulty rises the longer you play. But the shift to 3D action-RPG makes the game feel more visceral and immediate. Instead of a zoomed-out view of a 2D world, youre right up in the action—which is often overwhelming but always satisfying. Piecing together a build that shreds through the games high difficulty makes you feel like an unstoppable menace. Again, I didnt think Risk of Rain would work as a 3D game, but Im very happy to be wrong.
Aaron Zimmerman, Copy Chief

  • The author and her daughter in happier times, before the Great Coconut War of 2020.
  • The most time and space alone I've had in almost a month.
  • Even a fierce fight over resources looks cheerful and amicable in Animal Crossing. (Especially when neither player has learned reactions yet.)

Srsly, everyone is playing Animal Crossing

[Editor's note: You've read Ars Tech Policy Reporter Kate Cox's essay on playing everyone's new favorite Switch game with her daughter mid-quarantine, right? Peek at this excerpt then head over for the full thing…]

I always seek organization in my Animal Crossing existence. My homes are fastidious, tidy, and matched. I plant neat orchards, organized in predictable sections and constructed neatly in maximally beneficial, easy-to-harvest rows. I design my gardens carefully, arranging for flower aesthetics and cross-breeding. I carefully lay down paths where otheRead More – Source