TEALS Uses Tech Volunteers, Video Games to Teach Computer Science

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Computer Science is a vastly under served industry. Given how interconnected technology has become, all industries are looking at the next generation of workers to be well versed in Computer Science and engineering.

An organization called TEALS (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools) works at the high school level to provide tech-savvy volunteers, curriculum for teachers, and computer lab lesson plans. The goal is to empower teachers and schools to provide Intro level Computer Science courses to prepare young people for an increasingly tech-focused world. And they do it using video games.

I attended a TEALS panel at PAX South earlier this year to learn more about their philosophy and process. The panel was hosted by Brett Wortzman, Instruction and Training Manager and John Jannone, Regional Manager for South Central.

“We help build sustainable high school computer science programs,” said Jannone. “Because of how hard it is for teachers to learn how to code, and how much money people in tech can make not doing education, we decided to pair them off.”

TEALS brings volunteers from the tech industry to partner with schools and teachers to help teach the unique games-based TEALS Computer Science programs.

TEALS has been operating since 2009 and is supported through Microsoft Philanthropies. Jannone mentioned that they don’t use or promote any Microsoft products in their courses so as not to create conflicts of interest: “We couldn’t do this job effectively if people thought we trying to sell something.”

Leveling Up Gaming in Education

Why use games to teach computer science? Jannone referenced a 2012 TED talk by Daphne Bavelier, a college professor and research scientist who studies games and their affects on our brains. Her findings turned a lot of pre-conceived stereotypes of gaming on its head: Gamers have better attention and sharper vision than non-gamers. They can also resolve visual conflicts and process mental problems quickly. In fact, 10 hours a week of playing action games can improve cognitive functions by a noticeable margin.

TEALs sorted through a hundred thousand studies that involved gaming. “Asking are games good or are they bad in education is no longer the question we should be asking,” said Jannone.

TEALS uses three approaches in using gaming in education: Engagement, Motivation, and Mindset.

“Students tend to be more engaged when there are gaming activities in the classroom,” said Wortzman. Gaming offers a low barrier to entry. Students are more comfortable in a gaming environment, and it promotes active learning. “We can sort of ‘trick’ students. We can use an entertaining veneer over what we would consider boring topics.”

For motivation, gaming is an obvious benefit. “There’s an immediate feedback loop in most gaming activities,” said Wortzman. “There’s an opportunity to very quickly and very definitively find out if they’ve been successful or not. In school students wait hours, days, even weeks to get a grade, and they still might not know how well they did.”

Gaming provides intrinsic motivation, with rewards in the games themselves, like earning points or gaining treasure. Wortzman also suggested using classroom leaderboards to incite healthy competition to promote students to keep going.

The gaming mindset works well when adapted to the classroom. “[Students] are used to being successful in games, but they’re also used to having to try a few times,” said Wortzman. “They’re not used to that in the classroom. There are a lot of students that believe they should get it right the first time and if they can’t they should just give up.” The acceptance of failure and repetition that gaming provides is an important concept that can be applied to classroom learning.

civilization vi

Not every game can be a great educational tool. The panel outlined four levels of using games as a framework for teaching tools.

  • Level 0: Coincidental Learning
    • The game wasn’t designed to be an educational activity, you just happen to learn something from it.
    • “I played Civilization and along the way I learning something about the ancient Aztecs,” explained Wortzman.
  • Level 1: Game-influenced Learning
    • Also known as “game-ified learning.” Games of this level are often used as assessment or review of learning that has happened prior to playing the game.
  • Level 2: Game-supported Learning
    • Games are combined with learning objectives and other activities (such as writing assignments).
  • Level 3: Game-based Learning
    • The game stands on its own as a complete learning tool. This is the ultimate goal for using games in education.

Design, Create, Play

TEALS does more than just provide games to play. Classrooms also design and create their own games as part of the Computer Science curriculum. Design, Creation, and Play all contain their own levels depending on how effectively the game content is used in the classroom.

“In our Intro Computer Science course, most of our projects are game assignments: recreation, riffs, or watered down versions of traditional well-known games, such as a Super Mario Bros. platformer, Pong, and Zork text adventure,” said Wortzman. “They are creating these games as part of our project-based curriculum. They are learning and practicing their programming skills by designing and implementing these games.”

redstone

TEALS uses a custom-built Minecraft mod as a learning tool. A former TEALS student took the Minecraft Forge project and added extensions and scripts, letting students create their own objects. It’s a good tool for teaching students how to operate within third party software that they didn’t create, which is how a lot of professional game design operates.

“I’ve been using Minecraft educationally for the last six years,” said Jannone. “There’s curriculum, there’s inspiration, there’s YouTube videos filled with Redstone circuitry. People make functional computers and Pong games using nothing but the mechanics of Minecraft. It’s an amazing tool. That sandbox environment encourages kids to be more exploratory and experimental.”

Game-based learning doesn’t have to be restricted to programming in Computer Science class. One example Wortzman used was for English or Language Arts. Students would read Lord of the Rings, and their assignment would be to create a character from the novels within World of Warcraft. What class would Frodo be and why? What equipment would they have? It’s an example of game-supported learning (Level 2) by using World of Warcraft as a book report.

Games can also be used as a springboard to teaching bigger concepts in a variety of school subjects. Board game Settlers of Catan can be a case study in economics and geographical dependency and sociology. The simple mobile game Angry Birds can be used to discuss parabolic motion in Physics class. These kind of games can easily be applied as Level 1 and Level 2 teaching tools. They would still require a teacher to bridge the connection between the game and the lesson plan.

kerbal space program vehicle assembly

For a true Level 3 game-learning experience, see Kerbal Space Program. “You can learn a ton about gravity, orbital dynamics and astrophysics just by playing Kerbal Space Program,” said Worzman. “If I were teaching a class on that, I could just tell you ‘Go play KSP for 6 weeks – you’re going to learn everything you need to learn.'”

For an in-house example, Wortzman created a game called Space Battle. “This is a programming game a bit like [board game] Robo Rally, except that you have to lay out all your programs at the beginning, and then not touch anything for the rest of the game.” Students program their out spaceships to include in the game, then gather around a projector to watch how their ship performs based on the programs they implemented. “They watch and scream and teachers three doors down tell us to be quiet because they’re giving a final exam – true story,” said Wortzman.

Once we accept games as learning tools we can begin to use them to enhance lesson plans, motivate students, and integrate gameplay and mechanics into lessons as outlined above. Even just using games in the simplest ways, like creating the Lord of the Rings characters in World of Warcraft, is hugely motivating to young people in which gaming is a normal background of their lives, and can make classroom education far more engaging and fun.

Today TEALS programs can be found in 329 high school classes in 225 schools in 25 states. Over 750 volunteers from 400 different companies help bring engaging computer science lessons to schools. TEALS is always looking for volunteers from tech industry professionals, teachers, students, and anyone who’s interested in helping support education and promoting games for learning.

SNES classic edition

Which 30 Games Should Be On the SNES Classic Edition?

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While we patiently wait for Nintendo to confirm and announce the SNES Classic Edition retro console we can have a bit of fun speculating on which games it should include.

The Super Nintendo was blessed with arguably the greatest gaming library of any console. While Mario, Zelda, and Metroid didn’t start with the SNES, it was where they became titans of the industry. Super Metroid helped create an entirely new genre. Mario began to dip his toes into numerous succesful spin-off series like Mario Kart, which became a series all its own. And The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is the poster child for 16-bit gaming nirvana.

The NES Classic Edition came bundled with 30 games, most of which were published by Nintendo. Let’s decide which 30 SNES games should grace the upcoming SNES Classic.

 

1) Super Mario World

Super Mario World

The obvious choice. Super Mario World was the fourth main Super Mario game, and the first on SNES. It took the same excellent platforming gameplay of the Mario series from NES and expanded it in exciting new ways, from hidden switch blocks to ghost houses to ridable Yoshis. Everyone played it and everyone loved it. It’s a guaranteed lock.

 

2) Super Mario Kart

Super Mario Kart

Arcade-like, top-down racers had existed before Super Mario Kart, but none had so perfectly combined tight controls, hazard-filled maps, and that classic Nintendo art into such a beautiful package. It’s funny to revisit the flat tracks after decades of excellent 3D Mario Kart racers, but Super Mario Kart remains a solid racer. The arena battle mode is just as fun as ever.

 

3) The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

Zelda A Link to the Past

Nearly every modern game developer will cite A Link to the Past as an inspiration. It was the quintessential action-adventure game, and the prototype for the modern open-world RPG. Link hacked and slashed his way around Hyrule and through dungeons. Dozens of Zelda titles later, A Link to the Past remains a fan-favorite.

 

4) Chrono Trigger

Chrono trigger

You can’t make an SNES retro console without one of the greatest RPGs ever made. Chrono Trigger was the resulting collaboration of a dream-team of Japanese artists and developers, and featured a unique time-spanning storyline with a memorable cast of characters. Arguably includes the best original soundtrack in gaming.

 

5) Super Metroid

Super Metroid

Super Metroid was already the third title in the Metroid series, but the first break-out hit. With a huge planet to explore, secrets to uncover, and bosses to fight Super Metroid was a dauntless but rewarding undertaking. Out of all the first-party franchises on this list, Metroid has been the most ill-served by the big N, leading to many excellent indie developers to pick up the slack.

 

6) Donkey Kong Country

Donkey Kong Country

Easily the most graphically impressive game of its time, Donkey Kong Country was the go-to title to show off what the SNES could do. Utilizing full CGI instead of pixels, the levels were gorgeous and fun, and the cheery, head-bobbing music was super groovy. The game was so successful it spawned two sequels and introduced the world to the extended Kong family.

 

7) Street Fighter II Turbo

street figher ii

Fighting games were all the rage at the arcades. When popular fighting game Street Fighter came to consoles, people came in droves. The roster of fighters featured a fun international cast with a variety of powersets, from Blanka and Chun-Li to Dhalsim and Ryu. I was more of a Mortal Kombat man myself, but Street Fighter’s presentation was unmatched.

 

8) Final Fantasy III

Final Fantasy VI

One of the first RPGs I ever played is still one of my all-time favorite games. Final Fantasy VI was released in the US as Final Fantasy III. Confusing name change aside, it delivered a stirring, epic fantasy story by focusing on the large cast of characters. It also includes one of gaming’s best villains in Kefka, the Joker-esque clown.

 

9) Earthbound

earthbound

People weren’t sure what to make of this odd modern-day RPG that later became a cult classic thanks to lead character Ness’ inclusion in Super Smash Bros. Earthbound is actually known as Mother 2 in Japan, with the first game arriving on the Wii U virtual console for the first time in 2015. For a localized title Earthbound is shocking well-written and satirical, and holds up incredibly well.

 

10) Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island

Yoshi's Island

As a sequel to Super Mario World, Yoshi’s Island was a jarring change of pace. This time you controlled Yoshi as you escorted baby Mario through hazardous levels that featured as many puzzles as platforms. It was a divisive sequel at the time, but taken on its own is a fun game that spawned its own Yoshi-centric series.

 

11) Star Fox

Star Fox

Star Fox looks pretty rough by today’s (or even yesterday’s) standards, and its modern legacy isn’t that great. But the original Star Fox game gave us some solid 3D flight simulation that was previously regulated to high-powered PCs. It also featured that classic Nintendo charm, with a cast of memorable furry companions. Do a barrel roll!

 

12) Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars

super mario rpg

Before Sony mucked things up, Square Enix (then Squaresoft) and Nintendo were so chummy back in the 80s and 90s that they produced this magical JRPG starring gaming’s biggest icon. The Mario world was fully represented in a massive turn-based RPG, featuring Bowser, Peach and some new characters as companions. One of my favorite games on the Super Nintendo.

 

13) Secret of Mana

Secret of Mana

Secret of Mana looked like any other JPRG but with one major difference: battles played out in real-time. The action-RPG hybrid emphasized the hacking and slashing aspects of RPG within a colorful fantasy world. It also uniquely featured local co-op, allowing up to two friends to control the other two AI party members.

 

14) Mega Man X

Mega Man X

The Mega Man series exploded on the NES, and the series continued with the new ‘X’ moniker on the SNES. Mega Man X continued the same brutal difficulty and boss fights but added fun new abilities, like wall-climbing, making each level a rewarding adventure.

 

15) NBA Jam

NBA Jam

These days sports games are all about hyper-realism, with accurate team rosters and real-world physics. Back in my day, we had President Bill Clinton as a secret unlockable character in our basketball games! NBA Jam featured only 2-on-2 matches, but did have the NBA license. Most importantly it was fast-paced and fun as hell. Bonus points for the amazing arcade-like announcer, who gave us the infamous phrase: “He’s on fire!”

 

16) Super Mario All-Stars

Super Mario all-stars

Nintendo was milking its older games as early as the SNES era. Super Mario All-Stars included the first three Super Mario games on the NES, as well as The Lost Levels, which could be considered the real Super Mario Bros. 2. Considering how difficult acquiring an NES Classic Edition is, I wouldn’t be remiss if this 4-in-1 pack were one of the 30 included titles.

 

17) Final Fantasy II

final fantasy iv

Also known as Final Fantasy IV, yes JRPGs names were very confusing in the 90s. Compared to the first Final Fantasy on the NES, this sequel was light-years beyond, offering a compelling story starring an ex-bad guy and his new allies. Final Fantasy IV would set the stage for Squaresoft’s seminal series for decades to come.

 

18) Super Castlevania IV

super castlevania iv

Castlevania was already a well-known franchise on the NES before this 16-bit title launched. Super Castlevania IV is a psuedo-remake of the original game, featuring whip-cracking vampire hunter Simon Belmont battling demons and gothic monsters en route to Dracula. Advanced whip controls and new levels outside the castle helped make this the best Castlveania title until the PlayStation era.

 

19) Mortal Kombat II

Mortal Kombat II

Mortal Kombat on a Nintendo console? Yes indeed! Mortal Kombat is sadly known more for its bloody controversy that sparked the violent video game discussions of the 90s. But MKII is a remarkable fighting game, with a fluid range of motion and satisfying move set for each fighter. Finish Him!

 

20) F-Zero

F-zero

Without F-Zero, there is no Super Mario Kart. F-Zero was one of the first games to use the simulated 3D graphics of the SNES, called “Mode 7.” It featured arcade racing action in a cool sci-fi setting with equally awesome music.

 

21) The Lost Vikings

The Lost vikings

Blizzard Entertainment is more synonymous with Warcraft and Overwatch, but in 1993 they developed a unique side-scrolling puzzle-adventure game called The Lost Vikings. You had to use all three viking’s unique abilities to defeat enemies and overcome traps. I prefer the excellent 1997 sequel, but the original is more iconic. Fun Fact: The viking trio are represented in Blizzard’s MOBA, Heroes of the Storm.

 

22) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time

Turtles in Time

Beat ’em ups were a dime a dozen during the 16-bit era, and most were mediocre. Turtles in Time continued the excellent legacy from Turtles II and Manhattan Project on the NES and Arcades. Local co-op beat’ em up reached its shell-shocked zenith as you traveled throughout iconic time periods battling the Foot clan.

 

23) Demon’s Crest

Demon's Crest

A criminally underrated game and one of my personal favorites, Demon’s Crest let you play as  one of the demons from Ghosts ‘N Goblins in a dark world of skeletons and death. It was an awesome mix of Metroid and Castlevania, featuring Mode 7 travel between locations, tons of hidden secrets and demon forms, and multiple endings.

 

24) Rock ‘N Roll Racing

Rock 'n roll racing

Another great classic Blizzard title introduced nine-year old me to Black Sabbath. Rock ‘N Roll Racing featured midi-quality classic rock songs, a hilariously over-the-top hard rock announcer, and top-down racing with lasers and spikes. In short: it was an instant classic.

 

25) Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals

Lufia II

JRPGs flourished in the 16-bit age, so I’ll understand if you missed the relative late arrival of Lufia II. This turn-based RPG featured a unique dungeon system where enemies moved only when you did, and a memorable generation-spanning story that still haunts me. And don’t worry about seeking out the original inferior game, Lufia 2 is a prequel anyway.

 

26) NHL ’94

NHL '94

NHL ’94 is still considered one of the best sports video games ever made, which is both very sad and a testament to how excellent this game is. The controls were intuitive and fun, and up to four players could join in for fast-paced skating action. If you play only one hockey game, make it this one.

 

27) Sunset Riders

Sunset Riders

How do you make a better Beat ‘Em Up? Give everyone guns! The co-op arcade action was vibrant and exciting as you traversed through classic Wild West scenarios with either pistol or shotgun.

 

28) Harvest Moon

Harvest Moon

The original farm sim arrived late in the SNES life span. It provided a uniquely peaceful gameplay experience compared to the extreme explosions that permeated 90s gaming. With the popularity of Stardew Valley, it seems like a no-brainer to include this classic farming game on the SNES Classic.

 

29) Super Punch-Out!!

super punch-out

Super Punch-Out followed the Nintendo path of “take a solid game from the NES and put Super in front of it.” Super Punch-Out had the same great fighting rhythm of its predecessor but with a fun new cartoon art style and goofy fighters.

 

30) Jungle Strike

Jungle Strike

Part strategy game, part shoot ’em up, the Strike series let you pilot a helicopter as a special forces hero. It was basically a 90s action movie with large top-down maps and fun tasks to accomplish. The first and third games, Desert Strike and Urban Strike are all pretty solid.

 

Mass Effect: Andromeda

Mass Effect Andromeda: Criticism, Cruelty, and the Shadow of the Trilogy

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No other game series defined a generation as completely as Mass Effect. Developed from the ground up as a trilogy, the Mass Effect series told the story of one space-faring superhero and his or her motley crew of badasses. Taken individually each game contains major flaws, but the series collectively struck a nerve over its five year release window. They were AAA action games full of lasers and explosions. But the focus was always on your crew members and developing strong relationships, whether romantic or platonic.

In many ways Mass Effect represented a critical intersection between the Play Your Way freedom that RPGs can provide, and the linear theme park structure and spectacle of big-budget games. Add in one of the most well-constructed sci-fi universes since Star Wars and you have the recipe for one of the most beloved and memorable game series in modern gaming.

It’s five years later. Five years since the release of Mass Effect 3, and a controversy surrounding the ending that proved the passionate fanbase could turn on a dime. BioWare would infamously take this vitriolic feedback to heart, eventually releasing post-launch patches to update and tweak the ending. The ending of the trilogy is still one of the most divisive and sour notes in gaming, brought on because the Mass Effect series has become such an important cultural phenomenon for gamers.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the fangs came out for Mass Effect: Andromeda.

Mass Effect: Andromeda proves that you can’t go home again. I mean that in the figurative sense, though literally Andromeda takes place hundreds of years and light-years removed from the Milky Way galaxy and the time period of the original trilogy. You arrive in an all-new galaxy after a 600-year journey, ready to explore and colonize a new slice of the universe.

Mass Effect Andromeda

That’s an exciting premise, but Andromeda has a steep hill to climb. It has to separate itself from the original trilogy and its beloved heroes like Commander Shepard, Garrus, Tali, and Wrex. No more Reapers, no more Geth. Much of the beloved universe-building and lore has to evolve to fit a new narrative within a new galaxy.

Yet it also has to feel like a Mass Effect game. Thus the Andromeda Initiative brings along gigantic colony ships full of Krogan, Salarian, Turian, and Asari. All their conflicts are still there, like the genophage and hostility between Krogan and Salarians. You get to take the Milky Way with you, which prevents Andromeda from crafting a new journey into the unknown.

The biggest problem with Mass Effect: Andromeda, however, is technical. Awkward animations and poorly optimized graphics often destroy the immersion and cohesion in many dialogue scenes. If Andromeda was more about pure run and gun action that may be forgivable, but the Mass Effect series prides itself on role-playing and character interaction. During a tensely emotional scene the last thing you want is for your character to stare ahead dead-eyed, or look the wrong direction. It feels sloppy and unfinished, and we’re talking about a AAA spin-off sequel that should have been given all the time and money it needed.

The general gaming public turned on Mass Effect: Andromeda with startling alacrity. Excitement melted away to cynicism as clips and images began circulating of the awkward and laughably bad animations and character models.

It began with playfully pointing out the goofy animation weirdness, like the ones below.

But things quickly grew cruel and sinister in a way the No Man’s Sky developers are all too familiar with. A subsection of gaming troglodytes picked an ex-EA developer to heap all their blame on, and targeted her in a vicious harassment campaign. The Metacritic User Score currently sits at an ugly 4.6 with over 2500 user reviews.

When people are disappointed they look for someone to blame. But most video games, especially AAA games are a hugely collaborative process. The animation woes in Mass Effect: Andromeda are the result of time management and prioritization.

Jonathan Cooper, a veteran animator at Naughty Dog (formerly BioWare), put together an informative twitter thread explaining how the animations in Andromeda are built using algorithms rather than by hand. You can start the thread below.

BioWare responded this week, and teased out future plans and patches: “We’ve received quite a bit of feedback, some of it positive and some of it critical. That feedback is an important part of our ongoing support of the game, and we can’t wait to share more of our immediate plans with you on Tuesday, April 4.”

A lot of the controversy boils down to the simple fact that for many game development remains an impenetrable, mysterious process that most people are wholly unfamiliar with. The level of time, work, and money it takes to make a game, let alone a gigantic undertaking like Mass Effect: Andromeda is vastly underrated and under appreciated. It takes talent, skill, passionate, and often a detrimental work-life balance to produce video games in a highly competitive industry. To see the level of vitriol beyond standard criticism is disappointing, but not shocking to a series with such a passionate fanbase.

mass effect andromeda

It’s not all bad. Critics and fans were ultimately mixed on Andromeda. Technical issues aside, the story has a poor opening but gets better the further along you play (a common complaint for many big JRPGs as well). The new cast members are generally praised as being worthy of BioWare’s past efforts, the flexible combat system is well-received, and some side quests offer compelling writing and scenarios. Andromeda’s biggest failing is trying to survive in the shadow of the trilogy, and the technical difficulties don’t do it any favors.

Constructive, thoughtful criticism is important and valuable to elicit the right kind of feedback and push people to make better games. Harassment and frothing hatred doesn’t do anyone any favors, however, and could easily push many budding game developers out of the career altogether. I do worry that BioWare created a dangerous precedent in tweaking the ending to Mass Effect 3, opening the doors to harsher and more possessive criticism than most. We all want better games, and no one wants an amazing Mass Effect game more than BioWare. Hopefully they can still deliver one.

indie games pax south

PAX South: 20 Great Games to Look For In 2017

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PAX South 2017 hosted a large expo hall full of tabletop and video games, from wonderfully obscure indie titles to the large spectacle of the Nintendo and Capcom booths. I saw and played as many games as I possibly could over the weekend, and met with some amazing developers.

I didn’t get a chance to see everything that the convention had to offer. But here’s my list of 20 promising games you’ll want to look for this year.

Dauntless

Developer: Phoenix Labs
Platforms: PC
Release: 2017

Cooperative Action-RPG Dauntless channels the classic Monster Hunter series. Up to four players choose their weapon fighting style before being dropped into a large battlefield, facing off against a monstrous behemoth.

The PAX South demo included the four heroes shown in the trailer, as well as two behemoths. Shrike was a big owl monster that leapt at us and churned up wind blasts with his wings. Pangar resembled an armored ankylosaurus who balled up and smashed over us. You could chain attacks together to create combos, like a fighting game. I enjoyed using the warhammer’s rocket jump for a leaping strike, and turning his warhammer into a short-range shotgun blast.

The free-to-play title promises a variety of weapon styles and customization options, and promotes quickly jumping into cooperative monster slaying.

Death Squared

Developer: SMG Studios
Platforms: PC, PS4, XBO
Release: March 14, 2017

Death Squared is a delightfully charming cooperative puzzle game. The art style and theme is very reminiscent of the Portal games, as players work together to solve non-violent puzzles within a top-down arena.

Each player, whether playing solo or with up to three others, plays a different colored cube. Each cube has to reach a certain spot on the board to complete the puzzle, avoiding spikes, traps, and being knocked off the edge. Hilarity quickly ensues with multiple players, as one person moving too far could crush another with spikes. Thankfully failure and reloading is instant, and the game focuses on cooperation and a fun series of trial and error.

Divinity: Original Sin 2

Developer: Larian Studios
Platforms: PC
Release: 2017 (Currently Available via Steam Early Access)

Divinity: Original Sin was my favorite game of 2014. The sequel is shaping up to be better in every way. The most impressive addition is that Larian has managed to double down on both single and multiplayer, including four player co-op within a massive turn-based tactical RPG. PAX South showcased the new PvP Arena Mode, which takes all the best elements of the excellent battle system. Multiple arenas were available with a bevy of delicious environmental hazards that you can manipulate using a wide variety of elemental skills and spells.

Divinity has been in Early Access since late last year to help generate feedback, bug fixes, and additional content. Recently a new “AI 2.0” update has been added. Now enemies will use their surroundings to gain every advantage against you. As a huge fan of tactical RPGs, Divinity: Original Sin 2 is easily one of my most anticipated games of the year.

Earthfall

Developer: HoloSpark
Platforms: Steam PC, PS4, XBO
Release: Early 2017 (Launching on Steam Early Access first)

I loved the Left 4 Dead games, but in recent years purely cooperative games have been sadly ignored (and Evolve mostly crashed and burned). HoloSpark aims to pick up the co-op torch and run with it in their four player first-person shooter Earthfall.

Claiming that Earthfall is Left 4 Dead with aliens is a compliment, but it also feels like a natural evolution of the co-op shooter. Up to four friends complete objectives while surviving against waves of flesh-hungry aliens. You’re given more options than just “make it from point A to point B”, like a 3D printer you can use to make weapons, as well as turrets and barricades to help form a solid defensive perimeter. Earthfall brought back all the fun memories I had playing Left 4 Dead with friends, and I can’t wait to help defend against the alien invasion.

Read my full PAX South preview of Earthfall.

Evolution

Evolution

Developer: Northstar Games
Platforms: PC, Mobile
Release: 2018 (Kickstarter coming in Summer 2017)

Board games have become a huge business among the geek crowd, and with the proliferation of mobile devices many make a perfect fit for digital versions. Northstar Games’ Evolution is the latest to receive the digital treatment. Despite being still being a year away, Evolution was fully playable on PC and mobile devices at PAX South, and a lot of fun.

Evolution is a 2-6 player game where each player creates a series of creatures using multiple traits. Keeping your creatures well-fed earns victory points, but you have to manage your cards between making new creatures, increasing their numbers, or adding new traits like Carnivore and Burrowing to give them the edge they need. The digital version will play up to four, and displays everything on a lovely board with the watering hold in the middle, and cards are displayed on the bottom Hearthstone-style. You can easily drag and drop to make the choices you need.

Northstar Games will be launching a Kickstarter to help create the game and add multiplayer support. Look for the Kickstarter this Summer, and the full release next year.

First Impact: Rise of a Hero

Developer: Red Meat Games
Platforms: Steam PC, HTC Vive
Release: February 3, 2017

VR games have a reputation of being more tech demos than full-fledged games. But First Impact: Rise of a Hero felt like an actual game. You’re a superhero wielding the powers of the four elements in a mini open-world island with its own city. Each power can be used in three different ways, from projectiles to shields and movement. Earth+Shield produces a giant wall of stone, while air+movement gives you flight.

Flying around a city shooting fireballs in virtual reality is crazy fun. The art style feels like a classic silver age comic book, and you’ll be given missions and tasks to help defend your citizens against newly powered enemies. Becoming a superhero has always been a childhood fantasy and First Impact takes the first steps towards living it out.

Gorogoa

Developer: Jason Roberts
Platforms: iOS, Steam PC
Release: Spring 2017

Gorogoa wins my personal “you have to play this game” award at PAX South. Everyone I talked to I had to mention this game. I could barely even explain it properly; you had to play it to properly experience its unique and beautiful take on environmental puzzles.

The striking hand-drawn art style immediately pulled me in. The screen includes four quadrants where you drag and drop different paintings. Most pictures let you zoom in and out, changing what you see and letting you manipulate objects. Sometimes you can combine pictures in clever ways, like dragging a doorway onto a brick wall to create a new opening. The silent world teased an emotional story as you lead a young boy on a journey through the pictures. Gorogoa was one of the single biggest surprises of the entire convention.

Hand of Fate 2

Developer: Defiant Development
Platforms: Steam PC, PS4, XBO
Release: Q1 2017

I enjoyed Hand of Fate and with its rogue-like Action-RPG infused with tarot cards and games of chance. Hand of Fate 2 is very much a sequel, improving on everything that worked and adding more content to fit its card-based world.

The Dealer is back from his near death experience and sets out to train a new pupil. The sequel keeps the timed action combat most famously used in the Batman Arkham series while alleviating some frustrations from the first game. A big help is an AI ally who helps keep the often large number of foes manageable. The randomized chance mechanics have also been greatly improved, and now include new mini-games like rolling dice in addition to choosing cards.

Has-Been Heroes

Developer: Frozenbyte
Platforms: Steam PC, PS4, XBO, Nintendo Switch
Release: March 28, 2017

Has-Been Heroes was briefly teased during the Nintendo Switch Presentation, and at PAX South I got my hands on it. It’s a rogue-like strategy-RPG where your veteran heroes have to escort the young princesses to school. You control three heroes who each occupy a separate lane while enemies creep toward you, similar to Plants vs Zombies. Combat is designed to let you pause frequently to set up attacks and spell combinations.

It’s a unique combination of side-scrolling tower defense and action-RPG that requires you to learn a rhythm of timing your attacks and chaining spell effects together – like drenching foes in water before shocking them with lightning. Randomized map layouts, spells, and items ensure a plethora of replayability. I wanted to play a lot more of this game, and that’s always a good sign.

Read my full PAX South preview of Has-Been Heroes.

Holy Potatoes! We’re in Space?!

Developer: Daylight Studios
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux
Release: February 14, 2017

With a crew of veggie-people and a name like Holy Potatoes! We’re in Space, you know you’re in for a silly adventure. But there’s a great-looking sim management and spaceship combat game here as well. You’ll need to hire engineers, researchers, and a pilot to command your massive starship. Building new facilities and weapons is simple and fun, yet there’s also a lot of tactical options in deciding which weapons to mount where and who will fire them. A procedurally generated universe should bring a hefty does of depth to the bright, cheery art.

It would be presumptuous to call this the next FTL, but fans of that indie rogue-like spaceship adventure should definitely take a look.

Hyper Universe

Developer: Nexon America
Platforms: Steam PC
Release: 2017

I initially rolled my eyes at the goofy art style and MOBA gameplay, but then I sat down to play Hyper Universe. I’m now prepared to declare it one of my favorite games of PAX South.

Hyper Universe is a 2D, side-scrolling MOBA. This creates an interesting combination of 2D platformer with classic MOBA gameplay. You choose from a colorful cast of characters ripped straight out of sci-fi and popular culture. In the demo I played as a squid captain, clearly a take on Davy Jones from Pirates of the Caribbean.

Hyper Universe uses all the familiar mechanics of a MOBA, from farmable NPCs to multiple lanes and towers, but the 2D format really makes it unique, and creates an interesting arcade-like experience. It’s deliciously chaotic and colorful during massive team fights. Hyper Universe has been in beta in Korea since last year, and is hitting the U.S. for beta testing soon.

The Inner World

Developer: Headup Games
Platforms: Mobile, PC (previously released), PS4, XBO
Release: 2017

If you think the only kind of adventure games still being made are from Telltale, you need to pay attention to what’s coming out of Germany. Headup Games previously released their classic point and click adventure The Inner World on PC and mobile devices. At PAX South they showed off the new controller support as The Inner World heads for consoles.

The hand-drawn, cartoon graphics make The Inner World very accessible for all ages, and I couldn’t help but smile through the dialogue and descriptions in the opening area. Using a controller for an inventory-based adventure game takes some getting used to, but getting a chance to play this charming adventure is well worth it.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Developer: Nintendo
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Wii U
Release: March 3, 2017

It’s Zelda. You want it. I want it. We all want it. I got to play about 15 minutes of the press demo at PAX South and it only confirmed my beliefs that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was really something special.

I’ve been lax with my 3D Zeldas. I never finished Twilight Princess and didn’t even play Skyward Sword. But Breath of the Wild is an astonishing leap forward. It’s a gigantic open world full of reactive enemies, dynamic weather, and a fully integrated crafting system. Zelda purists may actually balk at some of these changes but most of us will see them as long-awaited improvements. Breath of the Wild is set to completely redefine what it means to be an open-world game.

Read more about my experience with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in PAX South: Hands-On With Nintendo Switch.

The Long Journey Home

Developer: Daedalic Studio West
Platforms: Steam PC, PS4, XBO
Release: 2017

The Long Journey Home is a space exploration adventure that aims for a slightly more serious take than the other Daedalic published space game, Holy Potatoes. Your crew of four is stranded far from Earth, and will need to use their skills and the tactical choices you make to get back home.

Starting a new game generates a new galaxy to explore, filled with aliens that range from trade-happy to aggressively hostile. You’re given complete freedom on where to go and what to do. You can find and interact with aliens, harvest resources from planets, and make new discoveries. There’s a hefty dose of realistic space physics I saw first hand, like sling-shotting around planets and melting from radiation if you fly too close to a star. In a post-No Man’s Sky world, The Long Journey Home looks like a much more manageable and engaging space-based adventure.

Mages of Mystralia

Developer: Borealys Games
Platforms: PC
Release: 2017

On the surface Mages of Mystralia looks like a nice indie Zelda clone. But there’s an incredibly cool spell-crafting system that lets you modify every spell at your disposal into near infinite combinations.

Zia is a young mage just learning to use her newfound powers. Instead of gaining weapons and items to defeat enemies and solve puzzles, you’ll be given spells. Not just spells – runes to modify each spell.

Each of your four spell slots can be equipped with multiple runes that change the nature of the spell. Attaching an arrow to fire lets you shoot firebolts. Eventually you can attach several runes to create some crazy cool powers. One example I saw was dashing forward, leaving behind a decoy that then rotated around and fired fireballs at an angle. You’ll need to manage your mana levels and you’ll gain more advanced runes as you go. With a story written by Ed Greenwood (of D&D fame), Mages of Mystralia is looking like a must-buy indie title.

MetaArcade Adventures Platform

Developer: MetaArcade
Platforms: Mobile, PC, Mac
Release: 2017

If you’re too young to remember the old black and white Tunnels & Trolls role-playing books from the 70s and 80s you should still recall the Choose Your Own Adventure books. These stories allowed you to create your own personal role-playing story, crafted by the choices you make on each page. MetaArcade’s new Adventure Creator recreates this system, giving the tools to craft these user-friendly RPG adventures directly into players’ hands.

MetaArcade acquired the Tunnels & Trolls license, allowing them to produce the over 30 published adventures. In addition to creating these adventures, the release of the Adventure Creator will allow anyone to make their own text-based dungeon-crawling adventures. At PAX South I helped create a classroom section that rewarded the player based on three different choices. I look forward to what great story-tellers can do given this nifty tool.

Snipperclips: Cut It Out, Together!

Developer: Nintendo
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Release: March 2017

I was hugely impressed with Nintendo’s little cooperative puzzle game Snipperclips. Snipperclips was designed for two player local cooperative play using the two halves of the Joy-Con.

Within the cute paper world, the two paper characters could rotate their bodies and snip each other to fit shapes and solve puzzles. Puzzles were open-ended and could be solved in multiple ways, such as creating certain shapes to push buttons and move objects. The art style and design is very kid-friendly. Snipperclips will be a very nice addition to the Nintendo Switch’s near-launch lineup.

Read more about my experience with Snipperclips in PAX South: Hands-On With Nintendo Switch.

Splatoon 2

Developer: Nintendo
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Release: Summer 2017

Splatoon 2 played just like you’d expect – exactly like the first game. Two teams of four square off in third-person shooting mayhem. Your goal is to paint more of the map in your team’s colors, and you can choose from a variety of weapon types and special abilities.

The PAX South demo just showed the standard PvP mode, which didn’t have much new to offer. A new jetpack ultimate ability boosted you in the air where you could rain down rocket blasts of paint at foes. A whirlwind attack let you blast a large area right around you. If you loved Splatoon or missed out on the first one, the sequel will definitely deliver more of that paint-shooting goodness.

Read more about my experience with Splatoon 2 in PAX South: Hands-On With Nintendo Switch.

Trove

Developer: Trion Worlds
Platforms: PC, PS4, XBO (currently in open beta)
Release: 2017

Trove is a voxel-powered MMORPG, which is fancy for “it’s like Minecraft.” Trove feels like much more of a structured game, however, with a variety of character classes you can switch to on the fly. It’s an easy game to jump into and far more action-packed than Minecraft. You can still build and construct worlds, but the goal will be to jump in and go on quests and battle monsters with friends. Each server can host up to 60 people, and you don’t even need to be in a group to share experience and loot with people around you.

Trove is currently in open beta and being crafted as a free-to-play title, with player-created items, mounts, costumes, and entire zones to explore and adventure in together.

What Remains of Edith Finch

Developer: Giant Sparrow
Platforms: Steam PC, PS4
Release: 2017

A new sub-genre of adventure games called First-Person Narrative Adventures are becoming more popular, with Gone Home being the biggest example and a champion of the genre. What Remains of Edith Finch is told in a similar vein. Edith returns to her creepy yet wondrous childhood home, where all her relatives have died. Their rooms have been sealed up but Edith finds ways inside, and relives their last moments.

That may sound like a horror game but What Remains of Edith Finch is actually much more introspective and emotional. You experience the hopes and dreams of your past relatives, and even shift to entirely new perspectives. When I explored Molly’s past, a girl that died in the 1940’s, I searched for food, eventually climbing outside and morphing into different animals as I hunted prey.

Your goal is to complete each section of the family tree and explore your home and your past. For fans of this relatively new and interesting genre, What Remains of Edith Finch looks like a definite winner.