Maybe I'm getting older, maybe even a tad wiser, but there are definitely more gaming options vying for my attention - and I've been finding myself making some unexpected choices on how to spend my limited play time.
It's easy to build a backlog of retail games that's both intimidating and packed with pressure that can make gaming feel like work instead of fun. We've all been there. But lately I've noticed my gaming habits have shifted. I'm bypassing the stacks of unopened and incomplete games and starting to enjoy a wider variety of busy gamer friendly fare.
My Nintendo DS was once my go-to gaming machine. It's portable, and you can snap it shut to save progress (as long as you don't pop out the game cartridge or let the battery run out). Perfect for busy gamers, right? But my 3DS, for whatever reason, just doesn't grab my interest any more. Instead, I favor iPad games, particularly free-to-play titles that can be played in bite-sized sessions.
I haven't abandoned console games, but I'm becoming more selective and devoting my time to the rare triple-A and indie games that grab my attention and won't let go. I'll play these for an hour or so a day for a few weeks and then move on when I either finish or lose interest. I'm realizing that there's no shame in saying "I'm done" if a game is no longer doing it for you.
The final category of games that I've become enamored with are PC games. Which is funny, because I've only rarely become interested in playing a PC game for more than an hour or so (at least that's been the case since my Commodore 64 days). My excuse has been that I don't usually want to stay in front of a computer monitor after a long day of riding my laptop for work. I use games to step away from work and de-stress. I'd much rather play on the couch in front of a large TV in the evening with a shot of tequila or frosty beverage close at hand. The last game that had me hooked to my PC every night was Dungeon Siege, and that was 12 years ago!
But the Humble Indie Bundle, launched a few years ago, convinced me to start collecting low-cost Steam games. It started out small but now I'm hooked and scouring the Steam sales and bundle sites such as Bundle Stars, sometimes on a daily basis. My Steam library recently broke 300 titles, though I actively play about 10 or so regularly. Yeah, I'm a little late to the party here, but I came around and found a way to integrate PC gaming into my day and now I'm a lot happier.
Here are some of my favorite games from each gaming segment:
I have an iPhone and an iPad, but I use my iPhone mostly for mail, Twitter, camera, and the occasional e-book. I don't have much time for gaming on it. Also, I prefer the larger screen on my iPad 3, so that's become my gaming portable of choice. I do buy iOS games from time to time, but I was surprised at how good some of the free-to-play titles are and how much fun I can have with them.
Best of all, most of these games can be played with the sound turned down while you're watching TV or a less than engaging movie. Oh, and I've tried game controllers but so far I haven't found one that's super easy to use (the Drone we kickstarted was a bust). And there aren't any significant mobile games that have controller support that I'd want to go to that much trouble to hook one up anyway. For now, I'd suggest you save your money.
Trials Frontier. I bought Trials Fusion on my Xbox One and downloaded the free-to-play Frontier on the same day. I've barely scratched the surface on Fusion, but I'm deep into Frontier despite the cooling off period required to refuel if you don't want to pay for extra in-game currency. In fact, one of the things that I love is that I can play for several minutes, make some progress, and then switch off to something else while my fuel meter recharges. I normally avoid action games with touchscreen controls, but after a few minutes I found I was intuitively revving and flipping with ease. Upgrading your bikes (combined with hours of practice) will make the controls seem even tighter, but the handling was solid right from the start.
The only knocks I have are that the hourly slot machine challenges can make you a bit obsessive as you attempt to get extra spins in to win new tracks, and the game became unstable while I was writing this review - crashing whenever I tried to launch a specific slot machine challenge, making it unplayable. Each day, the slot machine resets but eventually I hit the challenge that triggers the crash and I'm out again. That said, this is likely a speed bump that will get fixed soon enough.
When it works, Trials Frontier is seriously fun and addictive. Perhaps I should be thankful for the occasional instability that forces a break in play and makes me resistant to investing actual cash in it. Because this game is really good.
UPDATE (June 5): The game no longer crashes on slot machine spins, and the hourly challenges have become significantly easier.
Marvel Puzzle Quest: Dark Reign (also on Steam for PC). If you've enjoyed Puzzle Quest games in the past, you'll probably love this. For one thing, it's free (though you may find yourself opening your wallet to add more character slots - more on that in a bit!). It's also remarkably deep. You start out with a few heroes, and you collect more by winning tokens redeemable for random comic book covers. You beat enemies by matching gems to power up devastating attacks and sturdy defenses. Part of the challenge is putting together a winning team or two. It can take several weeks to get good and collect enough characters, powers, and levels to become a consistent winner. Until then, you'll grind through the easier levels over and over. There are also player vs player battles, though you're really fighting AI that uses another person's top roster characters. And, once you've leveled up a bit, the single-player tournaments can yield great rewards - though you'll need to grind a lot for a day or so to benefit. And sometimes the rewards you earn this way may lag a few days.
As with other Puzzle Quest games, part of the challenge is adapting when the game's parameters change. For instance, a new enemy may exploit an unforeseen weakness in your otherwise "bulletproof" strategy, such as when Falcon began dropping massive defenses or Hulk smashed my weaker characters before I could unleash their formidable attacks. You also may be restricted from using a favorite character, or find yourself choosing boosted characters - with unfamiliar powers - to succeed in a tourney.
Just be aware that the economy is stacked against you. Slots for adding new characters to your roster are extremely expensive and require coins that are hard to come by unless you pay $2 to $100 in real money for varying quantities. I put in $5 as a "tip" to the developers - which got me about 4 roster slots - but I almost resisted due to my unhappiness with the poor pricing structure. I would have gladly invested $10 except that the major price break for coins happens at $20, quite a bit more than I wanted to pay. So rather than pay $5 twice (with no savings benefit for doing so), I left it at $5. I'm at 20 slots now, and could use a few more - but I've been selling off unwanted covers and only preserving characters that I deem vital. I'm still having fun after several months of nearly daily play, so I'd say it was worth the investment.
The Simpsons: Tapped Out. When I downloaded Tapped Out, I didn't expect to still be playing nearly a year later. But here I am, still tapping every day on this free-to-play gem. The main reasons are the holiday activities and ongoing storylines, incredibly funny and crafted by the writers of the TV show. Every month or so, there's a new update that introduces a character or quest, such as collecting holiday gift cards or Easter eggs (hatched from swarms of rabbits!) that earn you spins for cool random prizes. There are so many collectibles that it's easy to get hooked on grinding for the in-game currency of dollars and donuts (the latter can be bought though I saved up 200 donuts for Hank Scorpio's Volcano Lair without spending a dime and I've since banked 50 more).
My main complaint is that, for a game where tapping is literally the name of the game, the engine seems to pick up every nearby tap EXCEPT for the thing that I'm aiming for. Once I realized that money and other pickups don't need to be picked up (they just whoosh into your account after a few seconds), I began focusing on the objects that I do need to touch. But it seems like every scrap of money and experience in the vicinity needs to be gone before you can tap something new - like a roving Sideshow Bob, who easily hides in clusters of characters that I'll accidentally select instead of the obvious target.
The other big problem is that the game can become unstable. I missed out on the last two weeks of the holiday grind due to a corrupted cloud save that prohibited me from recovering my progress with my Origin account. EA support was unresponsive, but fortunately the next update fixed my save with minimal losses (except for a few limited-time prizes I might have earned during the downtime). More recently, there was crippling lag that made the game virtually unplayable for a couple of weeks, but a patch repaired it and provided a donut bonus as a make-good.
If we'd invested money in the game (as so many players apparently do), I'd be pretty annoyed - but this is one of the easier games to put down, especially if there's no holiday event active.
Candy Crush Saga. I know that King made a lot of enemies over that whole "candy" trademark snafu, but I'm nearly 300 levels in without ponying up a penny (no "tip" for you, King!) or bothering a single Facebook friend. So I'm not about to give up now. That said, this game is at the bottom of my playlist so I only launch it once or twice a week to see if I can clear a level or two, some of which get pretty hard. I've actually spent months, playing nearly every day, to complete a single level. There are also speed bumps every so often that require you to beat a challenge and then wait a day before attacking the next. This is one of the few games I keep on my phone (with a separate save) to while away a few minutes when I'm stuck waiting in a line somewhere and away from my iPad.
Tiny Bang Story (also on Steam). This game will actually cost you $2-3 on the iTunes/Google/Amazon stores (and $5 on Steam) but it's the most beautiful, endearing puzzle game ever. It's not super difficult but somehow very gratifying to tap (or click) to uncover hidden items and puzzle pieces. Unlike the other mobile games I've reviewed here, this is a more traditional "beat it and move on" title - but sometimes that's just what you need.
I've not been one to disparage PC games or predict their downfall. I can see the appeal of the keyboard and mouse for first-person shooters, but I much prefer a controller. I play games to explore and decompress, not to memorize hundreds of keyboard mappings.
The good news is that my wired Xbox 360 controller plugs in nicely to my Windows 8 computer, and a surprising number of games I've picked up on Steam work great with it. And it's opened up a world of gaming for me. Best of all, many of these games are patched regularly, can be family shared (though not on a title-by-title basis), and are relatively future proof - so there's little to no concern about backward compatibility. Depending on the game, saves may be automatically recorded to the cloud, so portability is also becoming less of an issue.
Another interesting thing about Steam is that many games offer free trading cards earned for time spent playing. You can collect these or sell them for Steam credit. Even just selling my duplicate cards, I've earned several dollars - sometimes 10 cents at a time - by auctioning them off in the Steam store. Hey, every penny counts, and these credits can help you justify your next Steam sale purchase.
Cook, Serve, Delicious (also on iOS). I bought this game on impulse during a Humble Indie Bundle flash sale, and it's one of the best PC games I've enjoyed in years. It's basically one of those cooking/restaurant management "sims" similar to Cooking Mama, which I enjoyed briefly on the Nintendo DS. But this one grabbed me and won't let go. I liken it to BioShock: If you read my review, I would try to savor that game by playing for brief spurts and then I'd shut down my console - only to reboot it just minutes later. This became a cycle that continued until I gave up and powered through the story. I'm doing the same thing here, only it only takes a second to reboot and about five minutes to play through another day in my restaurant's life.
You also can use a keyboard or DualShock 4, but I have the iconic Xbox buttons memorized better than the PlayStation buttons - which makes reading and reacting to the on-screen button cues easier. One small error can ruin a "perfect day" and the resulting $250 bonus. The game includes enough distractions to throw you off your game, from online dates who demand difficult dishes executed perfectly (and then text you as you're completing the evening's orders) to robbers who must be identified from a witness description to prevent a costly loss in hard-earned revenue. Building the right menu to succeed requires strategy and sometimes extra practice with complicated dishes to maximize profits and build buzz. You also must complete clean-up chores to avoid a devastating health inspection.
I only wish there were a console version (the iOS version's free demo convinced me that tapping isn't nearly as fun as using a controller). I might just have to try the HDMI output on my laptop so I can play this on a bigger screen.
Marvel Puzzle Quest: Dark Reign. Yes, I reviewed this already in the Portable gaming section above but I also play it daily on Steam. Since I much prefer the mobile version and its tap interface, I play here both because it's an easy way to kill a few minutes at lunch when I've out on a client visit and it's good practice. I can try things outside of my comfort zone without impacting my iPad game. For instance, when I started collecting dozens of recruit tokens without roster slots to store the extra heroes, I spent a bunch here to gauge the impact. I found that I would get some covers that could be used to train my existing heroes, new covers that were common and easily sold, and others that I wanted to keep and needed to juggle roster slots to make space. This gave me an idea of how many to unlock at a time, since up to 99 tokens can be stored indefinitely but unrecruited characters expire after a week.
Broken Age. I did not back the Kickstarter for this game, but picked it up when the buzz from early adopters threatened to overwhelm my Twitter feed. I'm glad I did. I'm only halfway done (the second part is due later this year) but was thoroughly blown away by the storytelling and humor. This is basically a point-and-click adventure with some occasionally maddeningly sneaky puzzles that left me scratching my head for days. I resisted the urge to look up the answers and worked first through the girl's story and then the boy's. I'm glad I chose this order because I found the Act I reveal to be a jaw-dropper, and I'm not sure it would have been as impactful had I chosen the alternate path. Either way, if you like adventure games at all, this one is worthy of your time.
Gone Home. This is another game that received amazing online buzz. I've heard it disparaged as a "walking simulator," but if you like to explore and unravel mysteries this one is a doozy. I found myself both captivated and on the edge of my seat for the entire three hours or so that it took to beat. I played it in the dark, which added to the mood and my ongoing expectation that a psychopath could and would leap out at any time. The game is more interactive story than first-person shooter but - at least for me - that's even more reason to revel in it.
Portal/Portal 2. You know that we love our Portal games (we named Portal 2 our Busy Gamer Nation Game of the Year in 2012). We actually won the first Portal as part of a Valve prize package at a Child's Play auction years ago, starting our Steam habit early (we thought we'd never play most of those games at the time, but it was for a good cause). I picked up Portal 2 recently during a Steam sale that included The Final Hours of Portal 2 interactive book (also available on mobile). Replaying these fantastic games on the PC is a nice fallback when I get a console game jones but GrrlGotGame has dibs on the living room TV. And with saves between test chambers, it's easy to knock out 1-2 puzzles at a time.
Type:Rider (also on iOS). As a former print journalist and typeface nerd, I found this little puzzle platformer to be charming and, ahem, illuminating. (Type nerds just snickered... the rest of you, play this game to get it!) You guide what's basically a sideways colon (two dots that roll) around picking up letters and bonus items that unlock mini-history lessons. Yes, I stopped to read them all. The levels are themed around the type face, and there are lots of cool touches that make this a joy to explore. I picked up the iOS version as well, but alas it won't play on our son's first-gen iPad without crashing. So I got an extra Steam code for him from one of the Bundle Stars sales (shh, it's a surprise!).
Luxor Evolved. If you enjoy Luxor games (basically Zuma with a movable marble shooter that runs along the bottom of the screen, Space Invaders style), this one amps it up with nifty retro graphics reminiscent of Tempest. Best of all, you can save anywhere - even mid-level. There's really not much else to say. It's a solid puzzle shooter. If that's your thing, this is a solid buy.
7 Wonders series. If you can't get enough match-3 action, the 7 Wonders games are all pretty good. 7 Wonders II has an edgier art style that diverges from the rest of the games, while Ancient Alien Makeover is the only one to offer up Steam achievements. Magical Mystery Tour is the one I've played the most, beating it in about 13 hours. For some reason, The Treasures of Seven won't run at all on my Windows 8 machine (it launches as a background process but no amount of troubleshooting has fixed it - and the game's Steam forum has been a bust on the issue). Here's hoping that it gets fixed before I finish the rest of the series!
Update (June 5): A few days after this went live, The Treasures of Seven was patched to work on Windows 8, and it adds a compelling twist: You can rotate the board. Worth the wait!
We're not giving up on consoles any time soon. We have all of the major ones from the past 20 years, including the PS4 and Xbox One. But console games still tend to be the least busy gamer compatible, with poor checkpointing and a seeming aversion to "save anywhere" and other time-saving amenities. It takes a really good game to earn our devotion. Here are a few that we're currently in thrall of:
Infamous: Second Son (PS4). I've enjoyed but never finished an Infamous game, until Second Son. Perhaps it was because it's set in my home town (though with many notable and sometimes vexing discrepancies), but I could not get enough of this open world. You unlock portions of the city at a time, and clear them out of enemies to gain control. At times the story feels optional - you can run around and just shoot up the town with your growing range of powers. But the story is solid and mostly enjoyable, even with a few difficult boss battles thrown in to slow you down. There are some emotional moments, regardless of whether you play as a hero to the people (as I did) or a scourge upon humanity (as GrrlGotGame prefers).
Wolfenstein: The New Order (Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC, PS3, PS4). This is not your father's Wolfenstein. It's dark, brutal, and refreshingly revisionist. Even with the difficulty lowered, it presents a hearty challenge. I'm only a little ways into it, but I don't see myself putting it down until I'm done. If so, this will be the first Wolfenstein game I've fully completed (though I've played deep into several others).
Transistor (PS4 and PC). We waited a long time for the spiritual successor to Bastion. And while the game is beautiful, the mix of action and turn-based combat and complex skill tree system takes some getting used to. This is a game to chip away at, not blaze through. It may be impossible to recreate the deep-set emotions evoked by its predecessor, but time will tell. If nothing else, Darren Korb's music will draw us to the end.
South Park: The Stick of Truth (Xbox 360, PC, and PS3). This is a rare gem: a solid RPG and South Park game with great writing, enjoyable storyline, and a variety of classes to experience. My first impression was that the character's bouncing made me a little dizzy, but I soon acclimated and found the game to be one of my all-time faves. After beating it once, I'm already preparing a second run through. Just keep in mind that the content is very mature, more so than even the foul-mouthed, offend-'em-all TV show. It's more in line with the movie, minus the musical numbers and with much more fart humor. This one's so good I picked up a Steam copy on sale (thanks Humble Indie Bundle!) so I could try to finally best the toilet mini-game, which is much easier to do with a keyboard than a game controller.
The Wolf Among Us (PS3, PC, Xbox 360, iOS). This is my favorite Telltale adventure game to date. It's dark yet garish with a compelling story, interesting choices, and bursts of action. Fans of the comic Fables, upon which this is based, are in for some surprises. Each episode is about an hour or so, with chapter breaks. You can't save anywhere but, at least on the Xbox 360 version, you can pause at almost any time by pressing the Start button. My only complaint is that they put the season pass on discount before Episode 2 came out, so day one purchasers like myself felt a bit cheated. If they had waited until Episode 3 or 4, it wouldn't have stung. That said, I can't wait to finish this and play through again, making different choices.
BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea (PC, PS3. Xbox 360). BioShock Infinite was a solid game with some great moments (and really cool music!) but overall it just didn't enrapture as much as the first two games. But the Burial at Sea DLC, especially Part 2 where you play as Elizabeth? That was aces. In total, it's only another 5-10 hours back in Rapture, but it felt just right in length and filled in some interesting backstory.
Instant Games Collection (PS3/PS4/Vita). After resisting its pull for some time, we picked up a PlayStation Plus subscription when they were on fire sale right before the next-gen console launch. There really are a lot of games, though truth be told I spend more time downloading them actually playing them. I did play Contrast quite a bit since there wasn't much else of interest at the PS4 launch, and recently nabbed Stick It to the Man!, which looks to be worth a try. My PS3 hard drive is much more packed with Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Devil May Cry, Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee HD, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, and Puppeteer to name a few. I don't have a Vita, but if I ever do get one I'll have more games than I could ever play (as long as I keep PS+ paid up). Actually, that's probably a good enough reason NOT to get a Vita. But if you have one, this is a good way to stock up on stuff to play.
Games with Gold (Xbox 360/Xbox One). Yes, as I've mentioned before, I consult for Xbox marketing - but that doesn't mean I don't like the free games (for Gold members). Recent highlights include Hitman: Absolution, Saints Row the Third, Sleeping Dogs, Deadlight, and one of my all-time favorite sandbox games, Crackdown (review). And Xbox One will start getting free games in June, starting with Max: The Curse of Brotherhood (a solid puzzle game that I bought during the early post-launch game drought). As with the PS+ offerings, the challenge is finding the time to play all of the games I download. But there's less guilt since they're - more or less - free. One important note: On Xbox 360, you keep the games even if your Gold expires but on Xbox One, they'll be tied to your Gold membership the same as with PlayStation Plus.
Everyone's tastes are different, so I'm not saying that these gaming paths are perfect for everyone. My point is to not skip any paths or channels that might contain game experiences that you will unexpectedly and inexplicably love. Game on!