Some games I played in 2023
Posted at 17:57 on 3rd January 2024 - permalink

Previously: 20182019202020212022

You know the drill by now. Aside from finally upgrading from a PS4 Pro to a PS5, my playing habits were broadly similar to last year – dipping into the (surprisingly decent) Playstation Plus offerings with minimal interest in new games released this year (with one big exception). Almost no new commercial games piqued my interest.

Please note that I haven’t included web games in this roundup – although there were probably one or two that deserve a mention – simply because I’ve not kept a comprehensive record of which ones I played this year.

Cyberpunk 2077 2.1 / Phantom Liberty

I played a frankly unhealthy amount of Cyberpunk this year – it replaced No Man’s Sky as my go-to casual sandbox game to pootle about in. As anticipated, the game’s critical rehabilitation continued apace and Phantom Liberty releasing around the same time as Starfield did indeed result in lots of critics questioning exactly what Bethesda’s designers have been doing for the last decade.

With the release of Version 2.0 I started a fresh playthrough (with the new skill tree) in anticipation of Phantom Liberty. It wasn’t until late December that I rolled the credits on the main game, and I’m still dipping (sorry, ‘chippin’) in now and then. The completionist urge is hard to resist, and CDPR have added a substantial amount of new secrets to the already content-stuffed Night City.

I can’t cover all the changes and new content that came to the game in detail here, but I will note that the new radio stations are excellent, many of the new vehicles look great and are much more fun to drive (I particularly love the sports car that looks like a Syd Mead version of the Delorean, and popping wheelies on the new motorbikes), the greatly more frequent text messages from side characters make the world feel more alive, and being able to ride the NCART metro train, while completely pointless, is a nice touch.

My main takeaway from replaying the main game: frequent surprise at how much branching is supported from player decisions. Everyone knows about the myriad ways the showpiece ‘obtain the flathead’ mission can diverge (the first time through, my lack of situational awareness meant I completely failed to notice or save Brick) – but did you realise that the whole Pacifica/Imperial Mall/Netwatch chapter could play out completely differently whether or not you side with the Voodoo Boys? Rejecting their plan is not a bluff! The game will let you do it, replacing a lengthy passage of expensive-feeling environments and cutscenes with a whole different chain of events.

A few missions even have branches that go off menu, where the presented dialogue options are misdirection and you can take another action in the world that the game will consider a valid resolution. (‘Swedenborg’ is a minor example of this.) (Also, holy crap I did not realise Ozob Bozo’s story could go THERE.)

I mention all this as I recently read a Substack review of the game that managed to completely fail to clock that any of this was going on, instead carping that the game was offering a rigidly linear ‘Uncharted’ style experience but taking an interminable amount of time presenting what the writer assumed were fake (Deus Ex HR/MD style) dialogue choices at every turn. I can’t imagine how boring it must be to be this aggressively bad at engaging with games, I suppose boring enough to think that starting a Substack newsletter is a good idea.

Where were we?

Let’s consider Phantom Liberty as a discrete entity. While it’s technically more satisfying that it exists as part of the main game (and probably the right decision overall in terms of maximising player freedom to approach the game in different ways), I do wonder if it would have worked better as a story if it were presented as a fully separate ‘expandalone’ campaign.

After the linear thrill ride spectacle of the opening hours of PL, the player is free to come and go from the new district (Dogtown) at will, which makes it very easy to kill the pacing and momentum of this new ‘spy thriller’ quest line. While this issue affects the main game as well, the stakes there are more obviously personal and the dramatis personae are easier to get emotionally invested in, so you gravitate back to the main quest line pretty organically.

Phantom Liberty’s writing and direction suggest it was built under much tighter resource and time pressure than the main game’s narrative. It feels like they planned it out pretty rigidly with no time for do-overs if a certain character or story beat didn’t land. (Quite possibly there may have been some content that was cut and not replaced with anything?)

The two main characters (Songbird and Solomon Reed) are both trying to use V to their own ends, as the espionage setting dictates. Neither gets a lot of screen time to explore their characters beyond driving the story forward with terse exposition dumps.

(Aside, I think Idris Elba as Reed gets a bit of a raw deal from CDPR’s character animation – while Johnny Silverhand can just be put into a generic slouching idle pose while Keanu Reeves furnishes 90% of the performance with his vocal delivery, Elba really needs more subtle facial performance capture than he’s afforded here to sell Reed’s reactions.)

President Myers (your bulletproof escort in the opening sequence) is no Jackie Welles. The fixer Mr. Hands (re-voiced and retooled since version 2.0) is slickly presented but his ‘mystery’ aspect goes nowhere, really. Kurt Hansen, the Dr. Breen-like omnipresent warlord of Dogtown is (intentionally) a replaceable cypher. Only the pair of French netrunning twins (whose identities you have to steal using Mission Impossible tech to get near the final MacGuffin) really pop off the screen as characters.

(The level where you have to infiltrate an exclusive party and gain their trust over the roulette table – between meeting a zillion Night City celebs and taking in a demoscene-level holographic stage show – is a clear highlight.)

Dogtown is an impressive feat of visual (and level) design, but it’s markedly more fantastical than the rest of Night City. The rather small footprint and vehicle-unfriendly infrastructure make the whole place feel a bit like a theme park (and not just the part that literally is an abandoned theme park) – and yet it’s simultaneously a war zone under martial law. Night City proper is at least able to put a bit of physical distance between the glitzy billionaires’ playgrounds and the bombed out ghettos. Coupled with the giddy “only you can save the president!” catalyst to the Phantom Liberty’s plot, CDPR have really cranked the ‘Paul Verhoeven tonal inconsistency’ dial until it’s fallen off here.

As inarguably cool as fighting a giant spider tank mech in a collapsing building is, it’s in the small details and moments that Night City still transcends all other open worlds. I’ve waxed lyrical about this in previous years’ round-ups so I won’t rattle off a long list here, but –

Rain, neon. The NCPD are breaking up a gathering at the finish line of a street race in the wasteground by the riverside shanty towns. You slip into the crowd and away from the lights and sirens and duck down an alley, just as a group of street kids bundle down the street in the opposite direction, one of them flashing a revolver, cartoonishly oversized in their hands. A few steps further down the street and you find the recently aerated body of the dealer who had been employing them as runners. Nice neighbourhood.

You’re searching a dingy motel for a person of interest. As immersive sim tradition dictates, you know their room number via at least three separate means before you’ve finished your recon. But you’re still going to look in the other rooms. And you’re going to find some security droids indulging in distinctly non-security droid pastimes out of hours. And this is going to happen more than once, because how you play games is how CDPR’s level designers play games.

A trio of Maelstrom gang members huddle in the corner of a parking lot. Random baddies, something you’ve seen hundreds of times. But one of them is crouched and rocking back and forth. The initiation ritual has gone wrong, the cybernetic implants have taken but they’ve wiped his memory. What now?

There are a million stories in Night City, and yes, a lot of them are a note on a corpse in an unusual place saying “Oh yeah, well I bet I CAN survive doing that”, but still.

Oh yeah this is supposed to be a ‘review’ isn’t it? In spite of my nitpicking above I think RPS’s pull quote that Phantom Liberty is “the best expansion pack ever” is fair, and it’s a massive shame we’ll never get to see the other planned DLC, and that (as far as I know) CDPR have mothballed the engine and aren’t letting anyone else make any new content for this iteration of Night City. It’s going to be a long wait for Project Orion.

Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order

I think my impressions of this game are coloured to some extent by how sick to the back teeth everyone is of Star Wars at this point, plus the nagging feeling that I’d much rather be playing a good new Battlefront game than a decidedly ropey re-re-reboot of Dark Forces/Jedi Knight.

Fallen Order feels like a game that was made in separate silos with little communication, much like the prison factory in the celebrated Disney Plus TV show Star Wars: Andor.

Why did they pick easily the visually worst level as the first place you go after the tightly scripted cinematic prologue? I don’t think I’ve seen a tiny ‘Uncharted/Tomb Raider’ type level feel less convincingly like it was on a planet’s surface since Unreal 2.

Why is the performance so terrible, with ‘disguised loading screen’ elevators sometimes freezing the game for several seconds? The level where Forest Whittaker has a cameo feels like it’s going to fall to pieces. Did nobody test this?

Why do the Wookiees look like that (one forum wag described them as looking like Tony Hart’s pal Morph after having been attacked with a fork, which I now can’t unsee)?

Why are we supposed to care about customising a lightsaber? Why does the main character look weirdly like a young John Mulaney in flashbacks? And why is Debra Wilson in every game now? (She was great in Wolfenstein but doesn’t get a lot to do here.)

The best parts of the game are when it stops leaning on original trilogy memberberries and tries something a bit different, such as the level where you’re fighting undead witches and recruit their last surviving member (easily the coolest character in the game). But it’s not enough.

Mafia: Definitive Edition

I’ve long been an advocate for the Mafia series (probably defending them a bit more vocally than was warranted at times). A full remake of the first game from the ground up seems like a really improbable thing to exist, but I’m not complaining. (It’s particularly odd that the wildly more commercially successful GTA games from the same era were remade so poorly, by contrast.)

The result is a game that largely looks and plays like players of the original remember it in their heads. It’s surprisingly close to the original in terms of content and mechanics – this isn’t a situation like Resident Evil 4 where sections have been cut or heavily reworked to better fit modern tastes.

The main changes, in effect, are the character models (which look a bit less obviously like e.g. Joe Pesci and Paul Sorvino now), and the heavily rewritten script by PCZONE veteran Will Porter. This is much needed – while the game occupied the same bracket as Max Payne and Half-Life 1 in terms of convincingly replicating the feel of a movie circa 2002, the original script could charitably be described as a victim or poor localisation from Czech to English.

The problem, as with a lot of these remakes, is that the underlying game is a bit slight by modern standards. A streaming open world city and realistically simulated pedestrians and traffic were major innovations at the time but they’re almost trivial today. Having the whole city essentially be atmospheric window dressing was a bold decision in the early 2000s but it just feels a bit empty and small now.

Still it’s a good few nights’ entertainment and it’s great that all three games in the trilogy now exist in an easily accessible form with roughly the same level of production value.

Resident Evil 2 Remake

This is the same basic deal as the above. Flawless production values wedded to a design that is a bit skeletal by modern standards. I don’t have any nostalgia for the PS1 era Resident Evil games so I bounced off it pretty quickly.

KID A MNESIA Exhibition

My PC wasn’t up to the job of running this when it came out, but the PS5 has no such problems. Again, there’s an element of nostalgia involved in what you’re going to get out of it. I don’t think Kid A or Amnesiac were as good as OK Computer but they lend themselves well to remixing for the weird demoscene-like vignettes here.

It’s a fairly good Unreal 5.0 showcase and honestly one of the better walking sims I’ve played (maybe a notch or two below Edith Finch). I recall there’s a room with a load of CRT TVs that works particularly well. Plus you’ll occasionally just find a big horrible caricature of Stanley Donwood or Tony Blair.

Sackboy: A Big Adventure

It’s good to see the tradition of launch games for a console getting an easy ride from reviewers is still alive and well. Sackboy is very disappointing if you’ve played Sony’s Astro Bot games and expect something in the same class.

The positives: It looks beautiful, with lots of lovely materials and shaders that show off the PS5 hardware. A few of the levels are synchronised to pop songs, and these are generally delightful little theme park rides. And of course Dawn French and Richard E. Grant sink their teeth into their voice roles. (It’s a shame we don’t get any direct Withnail-isms from Grant as the ranting and raving baddie, although I like to think that Sumo’s writers at least tried and were politely rebuffed.)

Unfortunately there are some minor problems, namely: the level design, the visual design and the spongy controls. You’ll die a lot in Sackboy because it’s not obvious what’s a hazard, or what’s part of the background, or where things are in 3D space in relation to the camera, or because of automatic scrolling, or because a jump won’t register in time, or because it’s simply not clear what you’re expected to do.

Sackboy is a charmless knitted prick who makes a sound like he’s straining on the toilet whenever he’s made to perform a jump-extending mid-air run, which is all the time because you can never jump far enough.

There’s a pervading feeling of ‘that’ll do’. Unlike Mario, or Astro Bot, or any modern game, almost nothing in the scenery reacts to your presence. Levels clearly built for four players aren’t reworked in any way for fewer players. The hundreds of character costume pieces are endlessly messily clipping into each other, and are too small to make out during play anyway. Mario has nothing to worry about.

Astro’s Playroom

I didn’t think a ‘pancake’ version of Astro Bot could work anywhere near as well as the PSVR1 version, but Team Asobi make a pretty convincing effort here.

Astro takes what could be a quite cynical and calculated marketing-driven premise (it’s a celebration of five generations of Sony games hardware, plus a showcase of the specific platform exclusive benefits of the PS5 console and Dualsense controller), and makes it palatable with charming animation and self-deprecating writing. It’s not as frustrating as the previous game, and keeps things varied with different gadgets, vehicles and minigames strewn through the short levels.

I’m not opposed to Sony celebrating their industrial design from time to time. They used to take a lot more pride in their weird hardware ideas in the 20th century, before gradually seeing their various product lines devolve into glossy black rectangles serving as vessels for various flavours of horrible bespoke Sony firmware. And let’s face it, it’s not like this is something Microsoft could fast-follow. I can’t really see a central atrium with the exhibits: “Subsidised Piracy Machine”, “Machine That Shipped Millions of Faulty Units”, “Machine Where We Tried To Stop You Buying Physical Games” and “Machine Where We Tried To Get Rid Of Media Ownership Altogether” and “Zune” having quite the same nostalgic buzz.

(I realise that discussing this game is a bit like talking about Snail Maze on the Master System, so let’s move on.)

Tails of Iron

A neat hack-and-slash adventure platformer (what we would have called an ‘arcade adventure’ in the Spectrum days), with an attractive and distinctive visual style, spoiled by having stupidly harsh Soulslike combat for no reason.


A BMX racing game that seems nice enough to control and has lots of game modes and features, and one that because it has a level editor and thousands of user-created levels, feels weirdly like an old public domain game. Still it’s sold trillions of copies so it’s a formula that works for someone.

The Last Guardian

If you have a PS5 and haven’t yet played The Last Guardian, remedy this at your earliest convenience. I replayed it this year for the first time (all the way through at least) since launch. It still has the same impact. It feels timeless. It’s very clear that almost all of the problems reviewers had with it at the time were due to one of three things:

1. The game engine struggling to run on the base PS4, making moving the camera and getting inputs to register more cumbersome than necessary at times.

2. They are my friend Ricky, who keeps complaining of progress blocking difficulty spikes, and when I look up the room they’ve reached in the big coffee table companion book, it will invariably say something like “We made this room just to give the player a quiet contemplative moment with a nice tree and a bird bath, it is impossible for the boy to die here. [Laughter] Imagine dying in this room! It is not an eventuality that we have even considered [More laughter]”. (Sorry, Ricky)

3. The reviewer in question being a pillock who needed to be spoonfed the exact sequence of button presses at every moment. These reviews are very, very easy to spot by one simple tell: they refer to Trico as the boy’s ‘pet’.

There’s a scene in the TV show Lost when Jim from Neighbours (Alan Dale) dismisses Desmond, a suitor asking for permission to marry his daughter, by saying something like “I won’t let you have my whiskey, why would I let you have my daughter?”.

This is the appropriate level of contempt Fumito Ueda should justifiably have for people who assume Trico – the culmination of millions of hours of work to breathe life into a completely fantastical being, an achievement reached by only a small list that goes: Disney, Studio Ghibli, genDesign – is essentially one of those fucking Chicken Leg things you can ride in Golden Axe.

Trek to Yomi

This is a good example of the ‘massively over deliver on a strictly constrained scope’ school of design.

Trek to Yomi is intended to look like a 1950s black and white samurai film and it pulls this off incredibly well. The dynamic lighting and shadows are almost always seamless and the zoomed out and carefully framed camera shots always show just enough detail to convincingly portray a wide shot captured on 30mm film.

Mechanically it’s very much in the mould of Karateka or Prince of Persia with a dash of Bushido Blade. The action primarily consists of sword fights on a 2D plane. Your strategic options really don’t change very much throughout the game (you get better projectile weapons and unlock a few moves/combos, if I recall correctly), and there aren’t a huge number of different enemy types, so it does start to feel a little repetitive after a while.

I found some of the bosses very frustrating with my atrophied reflexes, but I still hammered away at them and it was very cathartic to eventually overcome them by the skin of my teeth. It’s in the same ‘difficulty ballpark’ as Hotline Miami 2, I’d say.

While Trek to Yomi is a little limited and shallow, I still think it was reviewed a bit unfairly in some places – a lot of complaints were about it not having RPG elements, when that doesn’t seem like the sort of game the developers were setting out to make. It’s a decent beat-’em-up which is pleasant to watch.

Call of Duty: Black Ops: Cold War

I think the last Call of Duty game I’d played before this one was Modern Warfare (CoD 4). Come to think of it, I think the last AAA FPS I played in the modern era was Wolfenstein II, so my thoughts on this game are possibly going to have ‘guy who has only seen Boss Baby’ vibes.

Ronald Reagan weirdly shows up in both games. In this, he turns up in a very short prerendered cutscene (the game is set in the 1980s), and is treated reverentially as Call of Duty’s hawkish Tom Clancy politics dictates. In Wolfenstein II, he travels to Venus only to be immediately shot in the head by a syphilitic Hitler. Microsoft owns both of these companies now!

Cold War has a diverting (albeit very short) single player campaign. The graphics are (naturally) richly detailed, and it gets some decent action setpieces out of its aging engine. There’s a ‘deep cover’ level where you get to explore the Kremlin (or something?) and do some rudimentary puzzle solving, which isn’t very long or deep but at least shows they’re trying to move beyond straightforward gunfights.

I’m surprised that there wasn’t more kerfuffle made about how the campaign’s ‘twist’ ending cribs pretty blatantly from both Bioshock and The Stanley Parable.

I didn’t play the multiplayer which I understand is the main event these days. I had more important FPS games to play:

Quake II Remaster

I’ve always regarded Quake II being a slightly poor relation to Doom and Quake. It’s not quite representative of the id of a few years later once they’d fallen into a pattern of releasing a big game every few years and hiring in other studios to fulfil their contractual obligations to publishers in the fallow periods, but it probably marks the end of their golden age. It was also the first id game that had critical bugs and missing features that needed to be patched after launch.

Nightdive’s Quake II remaster follows the template of their earlier Quake re-release: a straight port of the game to their new modern multiplatform engine, adding some minor quality of life improvements plus a completely new episode of single player levels developed by MachineGames. This time around they’ve actually made some small tweaks to the way weapons and enemies worked which improve the game in subtle ways.

The new MachineGames chapter is fantastic fun, weaving in some elements of Quake 1 and letting a different designer take each ‘unit’ of levels in their own direction. The package also includes all the expansion packs and the N64 port’s levels, plus a surprisingly extensive ‘Museum’ mode including concept art and playable demo levels from trade shows among other goodies.

I maintain hope that this is all building towards MachineGames producing a new mainline Quake game.


I think I like the idea of Dreams a lot more than the reality of sitting down and trying to learn it.

I don’t know if the problem is how they’ve designed the interface, or the tutorials, although as I chewed my way through a seemingly endless list of guided lessons I couldn’t help but think that Minecraft, Fortnite and No Man’s Sky (and Stunt Island if we’re going back that far) did a pretty good job of teaching you to build potentially quite complex things just by putting you in the world and labeling everything very clearly.

I don’t know if the physical edition of the game comes with a big fat ring-bound reference manual, but I really hope such a thing exists as it would be much more practical than digging through endless videos with chirpy ‘RE teacher who has brought in a guitar’ voiceovers.

It might just be that the dangled carrot being offered isn’t compelling enough. Making a 3D game from scratch with a versatile engine and no programming required is enticing, but it would be considerably more enticing if the end product wasn’t constrained to a walled garden of other Dreams users on Playstation.

I enjoyed browsing the user creations for a few nights. I didn’t think much of the Media Molecule ‘demo game’ Tren, which very much feels like the product of a team that has been acclimated to the weird quirks of their in-house engine for a long period of time, and who are more interested in graphic design goals than making something that’s actually fun for normal humans to play.

Death’s Door

Oddly I played two indie games this year that feature crows prominently and use realtime 3D graphics to mimic prerendered scenes – Crow County by SFB Games (of which I only played the demo but enjoyed a lot) and Death’s Door by Acid Nerve.

Death’s Door is an isometric hack and slash game with some mild ‘Soulslike’ elements, and a fair amount of visual inspiration from Grim Fandango as well as prerendered isometric games like Mario RPG and Little Big Adventure.

You play as an anthropomorphic crow, one of a team of crows who have taken on the responsibilities of the grim reaper under the management of a mysterious dimension-hopping being called The Lord of Doors. Death has gone missing, and you’re tasked with finding out what happened, which will involve opening Death’s Door, which can only be accomplished through gathering several Giant Souls (i.e. defeating the bosses of each of the game’s main areas).

You’re dripfed new weapons and stat buffs at a steady rate, which makes exploring the world feel rewarding and backtracking feel less of a chore. The bosses are tough but very fairly designed with learnable patterns and telegraphed attacks, and the controls are responsive enough that (for the most part) the frequent deaths don’t feel cheap.

The levels are (for the most part) tightly designed with frequent and varied skirmishes, puzzles and secrets, with only one section (the dungeon under the Ceramic Manor) feeling like the scale is starting to get out of hand. The game doesn’t outstay its welcome and doesn’t feel padded with needless combat to extend its running time.

The game’s main shortcomings are the lack of any sort of map (there are quick travel points to each of the main areas, but it’s sometimes a pain to work out how to get to a specific room from the maze-like overworld rooms), and that one of the types of secret is based on a move your crow can perform that is never explained to the player, which you might reasonably never discover by chance.

I couldn’t quite believe how short the credits list was. This is an incredibly polished little game, and one that I imagine would be a good fit for handheld play.

Mafia II: Definitive Edition

2010’s installment of the Mafia series didn’t get a full remake like the first game, with 2K instead opting to give it a relatively minor revamp, bumping up some texture and model detail and bringing the lighting and draw distance up to more modern standards.

I’ve revisited the game a couple of times in the intervening years and I’ve liked it less each time. It’s harder to overlook the rough edges now it’s been leapfrogged many times over by more advanced open world games. The characters are unsympathetic and the script is full of tiresome ‘ironically’ sexist and racist edgelord crap, as if written by a teenager who has taken films like GoodFellas and Scarface at face value. Plot beats are strung together very unconvincingly (it’s obvious that a lot of content was cut) with offscreen phone calls and other quick fixes.

The game’s inability to quite nail down the period each given scene is supposed to be set in is a bit annoying as well. 1950s music crops up on the radio in the mid-1940s, and come to think of it, would all the cars you encounter have radios? When we’re shown one of the characters having a huge, chest freezer sized valve radio in their apartment? (It’s also odd that Django Reinhardt songs are present in this game but were removed from the soundtrack of the Mafia 1 remake, the game with which they’re more associated.)

The decision to build on the existing somewhat creaky foundations rather than take the more expensive option of reimplementing the game on modern tech doesn’t help. It doesn’t seem like a game that should be taxing modern hardware at all, and yet it still chugs along at 30fps with frequent dips.

The game’s greatest strength is probably carrying on the commitment from 2K Czech’s earlier games to simulate the world realistically. Empire Bay still manages to feel immersive which is helped a lot by the varying weather conditions (e.g. the level of snow on the ground varies), the wide range of ambient NPC behaviours (posting letters, opening the trunk of cars, slipping on ice, etc.) and the many little details modeled into the simulated vehicles.

No Man’s Sky

I’ve overcome my NMS addiction, just in time to start getting (over)hyped for Hello Games’ next procedural sandbox, Light No Fire.

One of the expeditions this year included objectives that were completely at the mercy of the procedural generation, which is something I’d hoped they’d do eventually. Unfortunately visiting many, many, many planets to try to find a creature over seven metres tall eventually got boring enough that I parked the game temporarily and haven’t gone back. Be careful what you wish for I guess!

Marvel Snap

I’ve still been casually playing Snap all year. The publisher’s parent company is planning to get out of the games business, so here’s hoping the game will land safely somewhere else rather than suffering the same fate as Android: Netrunner. It’s still probably the best quick CCG out there (even though they persist with the no-skill cards that are Galactus and Hela).

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


↑ back to top ↑