Say hello to my little friend
I’ve recently come to realise that the majority of my gaming time is handheld. My Switch rarely gets docked, and I’m relishing playing through the back catalogue for PS Vita, a console that was so far ahead of its time upon release – with its OLED screen and curvaceous form – it still looks like it could be new tech in 2021. Despite Sony’s intention to quietly sweep it under the carpet, the machine has seen some excellent releases this year, and the loyal fanbase were vocal enough to rescue the online shop from closing (for now).
Part of the appeal of handheld gaming is the immediacy and intimacy of exploring gaming worlds in the palm of your hand, and there’s also the fact that I don’t need to commandeer the TV screen from the rest of the family. Valve’s announcement of the Steam Deck means that I will finally be able to play my Steam library again (it’s never really appealed to me to dip into it on my laptop), and the forthcoming Playdate from
Panic is too innovative and deliciously yellow to ignore. Have I got time to play on these new devices? Probably not, but I’ve preordered them both anyway.
So what else could be on the horizon? Will Sony re-enter the handheld market? It’s unlikely, seeing as it’s done its utmost to abandon Vita practically since its inception. Given the dimensions of PS5, perhaps it’s best that the company doesn’t pursue the portable market; gamers’ pockets are only so big, financially and proportionally. Ben Bulbeck
This is how I win
I’m starting to wonder if I’ll ever play another long console game. I’m 44 with two kids and a questionable ability to stay conscious past 9pm, and as such I have very little time that is ‘mine’. I started gaming when I was eight on my friend’s Atari 2600, which led to a Spectrum +2, Amiga 500+ and coveted trips to the arcade on Southsea seafront. If I’m honest, I know too well I’ve been trying to recapture that time in games for years, but I think it got left behind on my friend’s couch that hosted countless hours of Tekken Tag and Pro Evo.
I’ve found it again, though, gaming with my ten-year-old son. His response to Galaga
(ignoring everyone as he jams quarters into the arcade cab at our local bowling alley) was like a window into my past. And his reactions when playing something like Street Fighter or Nidhogg really bring home the dreadful reality that I just don’t have those razor-sharp skills any more.
All games are too hard for me these days, but more importantly, I don’t care to even try and improve. So, sorry, Ellie, I don’t have the willpower to take you any further on your bleak revenge story. Apologies, Housemarque, your aliens will be victorious. I’m now back into smaller, looser things, just like when I tore the demo disks off Amiga Power to sample whatever strangeness awaited. My son and I love Noita, and I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard as when I trapped him between two doors in Human Fall Flat. When he left today, he asked if we could play Heave-Ho
together tonight. None of the 50-hour movie-like experiences on my new-gen consoles could tempt me away from that. Simon Best
One of the joys of Game Pass is that it offers everything from timesinks to games for the time-poor. A year’s membership should provide you with plenty of the latter.
I am the captain now
“Sorry, Ellie, I just don’t have the willpower to take you any further on your bleak revenge story”
Eight years ago, I was a game journalist interviewing Phil Harrison about the newly announced Xbox One. He explained that
games would still be sold on discs if people wanted them, but ownership would be bound to an Xbox account, so the discs were effectively coasters. I did not like the sound of this. Neither did Xbox fans: Microsoft shelved the plan a few weeks later.
Today, I’ve been playing Dishonored 2 on my Xbox Series X. With so many great games around, I might never have tried it were it not for the convenience of Game Pass. I do not own the game, and if I stop subscribing to Game Pass, I won’t be able to play it again. But I am fine with this. Clearly millions of other people are too, because Xbox sales are accelerating after a generation of relative obscurity.
The difference is choice. I could still buy a copy of Dishonored 2 on disc if I wanted, then sell it later to recoup a few quid. Game Pass gives us a convenient way to discover games, but it is offered in addition to the traditional route of preordering a large Collector’s Edition and then having a mild seizure six months later when DPD rings your doorbell.
I imagine we will continue to be given this range of choices, at least for the next few years, and as someone who enjoys tearing the cellophane off a new game, I’m happy with that. As an Xbox fan, though, I hope Microsoft keeps in mind the lesson about consumer choice, even as it hoovers up companies like Bethesda. Supporting multiple audiences, giving consumers a lot of choice, is the best way to engender goodwill and brand loyalty, and taking options away without offering a better alternative rarely ends well.
Tom! We remember you as a game journalist. Great days. What about that Microsoft E3 event that time? Anyway, er, yes, consumer choice and so on – agreed.
Mind the doors
Last Stop is lovely, isn’t it? A testament to the value of Game Pass as a discovery engine (I’d probably never have taken a punt on it otherwise) but also a rare example of how British games really could, if they wanted to, exude their Britishness and be enriched as a result.
Though reasons to be proud of this island feel ever dwindling, our videogame heritage surely exemplifies what we’re capable of when we’re not being bad at diplomacy or refusing to learn any other languages. But how many British videogames are visibly, overtly British? Aside from Tomb Raider (aristo goes to foreign countries, shoots people, steals stuff), and the Fable series (Zelda for people who like describing things as “Pythonesque”), do our videogames really have anything to say about us? Grand Theft Auto may contain trace elements of Irn Bru, but it is for all intents and purposes a satire on America marketed toward Americans.
Other places make great art about themselves. The Yakuza series painstakingly recreates authentic Japanese locations, and visibly adores the convenience-store food that fuels its own development team. Slavic folklore underpins and bursts forth from The Witcher series. Fallout shamelessly fetishises America at the height of its mid-20th century cultural and economic power.
Last Stop must be one of the first times since The Getaway that a British game has depicted the actual real Britain that made it, and it does so wonderfully – you can feel in its soul the mundanity of rubbish garage sandwiches, wet beer gardens and cheap teabags. And, of course, it’s in those quiet moments where the game really earns your investment in its louder ones.
I suppose what I’m really getting at is, British game studios: if we’re stuck here, let’s revel in it, eh?
Refreshing, right? Feels authentically British in ways few other games do, not least in the scene where it turns the process of making a cuppa into a QTE. Coming next, surely: ‘Press X to complain about the weather’.
Would that it were so simple
Steam Deck looks great. I write this as I glance sheepishly at a dusty Steam Link and Steam Controller that I haven’t used in months. But no one has ever done a portable gaming PC with a 20-year-old ecosystem behind it for £350 before, so I’m hopeful this time things will be different.
All that said, I do wonder what Steam Deck suggests about the future of gaming. In an excellent article for Digital Foundry, Rich Leadbetter gave an extensive analysis of Steam Deck’s hardware. One of his main concerns about it was futureproofing. Steam Deck might be able to run currently demanding games, like Control and Death Stranding, but those are, strictly speaking, last-gen titles. What happens when the current generation gets fully into swing?
It also makes me wonder if Valve knows something we don’t. Specifically, I wonder if we might be reaching a point where we no longer make the massive graphical leaps we used to, like the jump from the Xbox/PS2 to the Xbox 360/PS3 generations, for example. Sure, ray tracing and the like look fantastic, but they are exceptionally demanding on hardware and things don’t look that much worse without them. The conversation in the last few years also seems to have shifted away from graphical effects and towards high frame rates and resolutions.
So perhaps Valve predicts that things will stay this way for this generation. Powerful hardware will be able to add graphical bells and whistles to basic assets and to display them at 4K and 60fps, but the basic assets will look fine too, and maybe Steam Deck will manage them perfectly adequately at its 720p resolution and at below 60fps.
Whenever it seems the technological arms race is nearing its end, though, something always arrives to shake things up. And confession time: we wouldn’t be nearly as taken with Flight Simulator on Series X without its most lavish visual touches.