Who needs No Man's Sky? May was an incredible month for games

Last month saw a whole list of unusually high-quality AAA and indie releases. Let's count our blessings, folks.

This was not a good week to be a gamer. First a Kotaku report claimed No Man’s Sky would be delayed, triggering a wave of harassment against the report’s author. Then Hello Games confirmed that the delay and -- you guessed it -- trolls swamped the company and its employees with death threats.

Look, I’m going to save word count here: 1) death threats and harassment are never acceptable; 2) it’s always better to get a late game than a broken one; and 3) seriously, death threats and harassment are never acceptable, STOP IT.

Everyone got that?

What’s such a buzzkill about this incident -- and what makes it so disappointing -- is that games are incredible right now. By any measure this was one of the best-ever months for game releases. Look folks, I’ve been writing about games for six years, and I’ve never played four new releases in a month and loved every single one. That doesn’t happen. Hell, you could draw up a credible Game of the Year list from just this month’s releases. Think about it -- this month gave us Overwatch, Doom, Uncharted 4 and Superhot on Xbox One. (There’s a new Hitman episode out too -- I liked the previous one.)

Just these four games could keep you going until No Man’s Sky releases in August -- but what’s especially exciting is how different they all are. We have a gonzo multiplayer shooter, a cinematic adventure-drama, a high-speed throwback and the best puzzle shooter since Portal. In fact, rather than marinating in this week’s awfulness, let’s take a step back and consider how lucky we were this month -- and what makes each of these games special.

Superhot

Superhot hits your system like an adrenaline shot of pure joy. The game’s mechanical conceit -- where time only advances when the player moves -- simultaneously turns it into a tactical chess match and a heart-pounding shootout generator. It’s like the true Matrix game we never got, or a John Woo gunfight run through a sci-fi filter. Superhot has the same appeal as a perfectly-brewed espresso -- it’s cheap, elegant, and leaves you craving another dose.

But I shouldn’t give the impression that Superhot has nothing to offer but solid mechanics. The game includes a wry, sinister plotline that rewards players willing to dig through menus and discover secrets. To say more would give away too much, but you have my assurance that Superhot’s story, gameplay, and visuals are all bound together in a cohesive, skin-crawling philosophy.

That aside, let’s talk mechanics. Superhot’s triumph lies in changing a familiar ruleset and spinning out the implications, while still putting limits on the action. You can sidestep bullets, but let yourself get overwhelmed and you’ll never escape the crossfire. Guns make you a demigod, but the inability to reload also forces you to close with enemies to gain a new weapon. Like any great game, it has deceptively simple actions you can combine in endless creative ways: move, jump, pick up item, throw item, shoot, and HotSwitch (change places with an enemy). All guns are one-hit kill.

Got that? Now see how many crazy things you can do.

3… 2… 1… GO.

Given this range of actions -- each with clear causes and effects -- Superhot can put you a Zen-like state of kill, dodge, recover, kill, dodge, capture weapon, kill again. It’s a shooter where economy of movement is everything. There’s a disciplined, martial arts edge to it that I’ve never encountered in an FPS.

And at times, you have to get creative. On one challenge map I found myself forced to rush down a corridor at a guy with a shotgun. Not a problem usually, except I was armed with a katana. After experimenting, I hit on the winning move: wait until he fires, throw the katana at him, HotSwitch into his body, catch the thrown katana, and keep killing as the shotgun pellets shatter your former body.

What’s astonishing about this set of rules is that tweaking any single one -- amping up the player’s move speed and restricting them to unarmed combat in a challenge map, for example -- changes the game completely. This versatility excites me, since it suggests there’s a lot of room to build outward in subsequent games. Adding the ability to block and counter enemy punches, for example, could give us the first real kung fu game, where the player can fend off a ring of foes. Alternately, wall-runs and grabs could expand the player’s combat options.

If Superhot 2.0 just winds up being more of the same, it’ll be a great game -- but it has the chance to do so much more, and that’s got me salivating Pavlov-style.

Overwatch

Since you’re reading this article, I’m guessing you fall into one of two camps: either you haven’t played Overwatch yet, or you’re currently at a place -- like work -- where can’t play Overwatch at this moment. (Full disclosure: I’ve stopped writing this article three times to conduct “research” by playing Overwatch.)

With its candy shop palette and big-eyed John Lasseter animation style, Overwatch may be 2016’s most visually stylish game. Blizzard pushed in the opposite direction of the grim-and-gritty FPS crowd, populating its new world with space apes, DJs, Buddhist androids, and flying medics that dress like angels. All special abilities come from the 1950s whizz-bang school of engineering. The guns look like a Coyote mail-ordered them from ACME. This Looney Tunes goofiness lines up with the gameplay itself, where characters yank huge bombs out of thin air or rearrange themselves on a whim. Even the violence isn’t too mean-spirited -- the game refers to “kills” as “eliminations,” and the characters seem aware that they come back from the dead. Ignore the story (which is easy) and you’d be forgiven for thinking they’re playing a bizarre sport and all heading out for drinks afterward. Indeed, I increasingly feel that Overwatch isn’t a shooter at all, but a sports game through-and-through.

Frantic team play, good-natured theming, and zany characters are great selling points at launch -- but hopefully it’ll evolve beyond that. A few heroes could use a balance update, and as my colleague Laura Michet hilariously pointed out, the Play of the Game system treats non-damage heroes like overlooked children. Though Blizzard made a game where support roles feel fulfilling, the game struggles with recognizing contributions that don’t result in a body count. Let’s face it: if I heal 30% of team damage as Mercy, Reaper shouldn’t get the PotG for shootin’ up dudes real good. I mean, c’mon, that’s what Reaper is for.

Then again, that’s normal on any team -- quarterbacks get the glory, even though the defensive line keeps them safe. Yet another way Overwatch is a sports game rather than a shooter. But I digress.

Blizzard’s greatest achievement here is the stable of characters. You know exactly who they are by looking at them, they play exactly like you’d imagine they would, and they’re likable. Notably, the heroes hail from all over the world -- with special focus on emerging markets like China and India as well as stalwarts like South Korea. That globalism is a welcome change, but it’s also a canny strategy. Blizzard’s well aware that these heroes will be Overwatch’s most marketable element, and given the cinematic trailer, it wouldn’t surprise me if they pursue film or TV deals along with the comics line.

Overwatch as a brilliant and energetic team shooter? Fantastic. Overwatch as a Blizzard’s first successful transmedia brand? Now that would be interesting.

Uncharted 4

Playing the Uncharted series has been like watching a child grow up. The original was rough, but showed potential. Among Thieves gave the series an epic scope. Drake’s Deception brought Hollywood-level action sequences and a renewed -- if only partially realized -- emphasis on character drama. Uncharted 4 wrangles all of those elements, plus what Naughty Dog learned from The Last of Us, into a story that’s both trilling and profoundly moving.

That’s nothing to sniff at-- it’s unusual for an adventure story in any medium to have as much dramatic tension as Uncharted 4. Every element here, from the voice acting to the exploration mechanics and level design, raises the stakes so high you’re holding the controller with white knuckles. I was genuinely afraid for Nate and Elena the last quarter of the game, to the point that I dreaded the climax rather than anticipated it.

Do you know how hard it is to make a modern audience worry that an adventure hero won’t make it out? Damn hard. We’re way too genre savvy these days. As much as I love Indiana Jones, I never watched his movies thinking Indy might die twenty feet from the Grail. Hell, I didn’t even feel that tense during The Last of Us, since that plague-ridden world held no promise of a happily-ever-after anyway. Yet Naughty Dog used all the thriller tricks they learned from that The Last of Us -- character building via exploration, dialogue subtext, and flawed characters -- to turn Uncharted 4 into an affecting drama. When Nate and Elena talk, they sound like a real married couple. Nate and Sam’s scenes have a melancholy undertone familiar to anyone who’s come back to a small town and visited friends who never left. The stakes here are intense and personal.

Considering its scope, the game has incredible focus. Everything from the acting performances to the pirate themes circle the question of whether doing what fulfills you is worth losing the people you love, or whether it’s better to bury yourself for the sake of family. And unlike many games that pose big questions, Uncharted 4 actually resolves that quandary in a mature and satisfying manner.

On top of that, the game’s fun, gorgeous to look at, and often funny. While Uncharted 2 remains my favorite due to its setting -- I’m a sucker for the Himalayas -- there’s no question Uncharted 4 constitutes a capstone for the series both in a technical and storytelling sense. To play this game is to see a talented team strive to do more than they ever have. It’s the direct antithesis to the assembly line method of game sequels, and you can sense the passion leaking through the controller.

DOOM

What’s left to say about Doom at this point? It’s an outstanding shooter that captures the breathless speed of the original. But unlike the originals it abandons horror -- mostly because we aren’t afraid of demons anymore -- and instead projects an aura of challenge. When Dr. Hayden tells the Doom marine to shut off Argent energy machines, the marine smashes them instead. When demons charge the marine, he rips them apart like roast chicken. The game even gives you a breather before tearing into a gore nest, letting you think about the enemy wave that’ll descend once you rip out the pulsing heart.

Those moments are central to Doom’s joyous anarchy.  The game practically winks at the player and says: “I bet you wouldn’t dare!”

And then you dare.

This subversive tone wouldn’t work if the game weren’t so satisfying. If id Software could activate your brain’s pleasure center via implant, I’m sure they’d do it, but lacking that they’ve settled for the bliss of chunky shotguns, jackhammer rifles and plasma cannons that spray float-y blue energy balls. It ain’t subtle, but Lord does it hit the spot. Doom is like binging on street pizza while drunk -- it’s unsophisticated and indulgent, but oh-so-gratifying.

Which isn’t to say it’s dumb, exactly. It takes a sharp development team to make a game this gleefully blunt. Spoken plainly: Doom puts a big grin on your face because id chose the most pleasurable elements they could find. Play the game on mute and you’ll realize it isn’t quite right without the very specific shotgun blast. Crank down the music and see how empty and theatrical encounters seem. Close your eyes and imagine an Imp lobbing a fireball. See it? Of course you do. Someone at id spent months tweaking that comical spin-throw until it was amusing to watch. They deserve an animation award just for the Doom marine’s hands, which manage to portray the character while also providing the game’s best moments of physical humor.

And that’s where Doom doesn’t get enough credit. Any number of reviews will tell you that Doom is a return to the game’s roots, but so much of that nostalgia is cosmetic rather than mechanical. This new Doom may have the same bodywork, but it’s a different machine when you pop the hood. The most noticeable change are the glory kills, that incentivize getting close up and discourage sniping. Aggressive enemy behavior, movement speed, and an emphasis on verticality keep the action distinct from both Call of Duty shooting galleries and the mid-range standoffs of Halo. Gunfights swirl and rage, with players leaping around fireballs and shooting on the run. Pop-and-shoot may work for a few moments, but overall a stationary marine is a dead marine. That I can’t believe I’m getting away with this feeling arises because there’s no point to long-term planning -- Doom rewards players that improvise from moment to moment.

If the campaign leaves you wanting more, you can hit the user-created levels that include horror mods and, improbably, a farming simulator. With SnapMap, the levels are theoretically infinite.

So while you’re waiting to explore the universe of No Man’s Sky, remember -- we already have a universe of games we can explore. Enough to keep you busy all summer.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in Zam, Vice, The Escapist, Playboy and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp