In Play: After a miserable January, games are here to help

Welcome back, Commander.

In Play is a new column taking a weekly sideways look at new game releases. It's a bit like our old series Game of the Week, if you remember that.

If you're a person who collects a lot of heroes as they wander through life, January 2016 was a tough month indeed. The Thin White Duke is gone! I couldn't believe it when I woke up to see the notification from the Guardian app (I still can't work out how to turn those off). Everybody I spoke to said almost the same incoherent thing: never thought David Bowie would, you know, die. A few days passed, and another Guardian notification. This time I'm in the queue at Co-op, and this time it's Hans Gruber. Something peculiarly cruel was going on here. Death had suddenly developed exquisite taste in music and character actors. (The benefits of a classical education?) I wanted to phone Elvis Costello to make sure he wasn't planning on doing any risky DIY over the next few days. Instead I just listened to Spike on repeat and sulked.

You know how this ends, of course: Wogan. And it's Wogan I'd like to dwell on for a little. Terry Wogan was, above all else, a master of comfort - a warm, often slyly subversive chat genius who always seemed to be on your side. A few of us were talking about him in the office the other day, and the conclusion we reached - although it may have been the conclusion I reached, and everyone else just had to go along with it - was that his lasting gift to the world of broadcasting was the idea that a presenter didn't have to be lofty, and didn't have to be patronising. Wogan - like Bowie, less like Hans Gruber, but quite a lot like Alan Rickman as I understand it - was always on your side. I would watch or listen to Wogan going on about absolutely anything, and I often did. The general rule in our house was that, if I turned on the TV, and even if it was just Wogan in a T-pose spinning on the spot, I would be hooked.

WIth the arrival of February, games have clearly got the point. February, like January, is cold and miserable, and now that we've comprehensively broken the weather you can chuck in a bit of flooding. February bites most quick, as Hans Gruber might have said, but games are here. Games are here and they want to comfort us.

And the delight of all of this is that, when games do comfort, comfort often takes unusual shapes. Take American Truck Simulator, for example. Martin headed up the Eurogamer convoy this week and found an irresistible slice of lonesome sight-seeing: a game for a weary mind and a steady gaze, even if you don't have your own trucker hat to wear as you ride. "It's a homecoming of sorts," he wrote. "Not just to the country that SCS Software first explored with 18 Wheels of Steel, but also to the natural hunting ground of these beautiful beasts of industry, and to the land of the great American road trip."

3
Honk.

Have you ever been on a great American road trip? Sorry to spoil this but: not comforting. They always start the same way, with the best intentions and a rising thrill every time a garish new billboard appears in the shimmering distance. What will it say? But they always end the same way, too, as you stagger out of your car at a bullet-riddled Motel 6 in the middle of New Mexico, each step you take dislodging Carl's Jr wrappers and the sticky remains of a Three Musketeers bar you've been sat on, unwittingly, since Iowa. American road trips are surprisingly cumbersome beasts, even before you factor in my dad's regular demands that we absolutely pull over at the next Denny's. But not in games. In games, they sing.

It's not just the open road that provides comfort when digitised. I spent a lot of this week with Cobalt, a fascinating 2D brawler that I admit I struggled to describe in a coherent manner. The thrill of this strange game, I think, is how you can orient yourself, no matter how lost you get in the systems and asides offered up throughout the campaign and multiplayer stuff, by focusing on the one thing that seems to lurk at the heart of the game: a move that allows you to roll forward in a burst of agility, kicking bullets and bombs out of the way as you go. Rolling through a warzone! That's another thing that shouldn't be particularly soothing, but it is. It is! Wogan would be proud.

Elsewhere, things get a little more traditional in their attempts to make players feel warm and at home. Gravity Rush Remastered hits PS4 with an excellent port, and there's never been a better time to introduce yourself to a game that is strange, exhilarating, and filled with the breathless, clumsy charm that's embodied by its cat-loving trainee superhero. Here as on Vita, Gravity Rush has nailed the landing, which is to say that the game's lead, Kat, lands in an angular muddle of limbs and dust whenever she touches down. Such beautifully observed clumsiness makes this strange twist on the open-world action genre seem wonderfully human. And if you've got a yen to burst free from the confines of the earth and leave January and its disappointments behind, Super Mario Galaxy popping up on the Wii U doesn't hurt, either.

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In reality, though, February already had things nailed on the comfort front - if that isn't too strange a turn of phrase. XCOM 2 is here, and while you might not initially find much that soothes in Firaxis' finely-tuned testament to the thrills of failure, just play it for a few minutes and let its devious systems draw you in.

Chris Bratt handled our review, and he found a sequel that didn't want to merely recreate the pleasures of the last installments, but rather build on them, learning from the dirty tricks of the fan-base and seeking to stamp them out. "Of course, XCOM 2 looks better than Enemy Unknown and it has more enemies," he writes. "There are new abilities to unlock, weapons to research, and the thin men are now snake ladies with breasts. Great.

"But that stuff is relatively simple. Back of the box stuff. Looks good, but does it really make much of a difference? Moment to moment, the thing that makes this astonishing game truly sing is the way in which it's managed to respond to the bad habits we picked up last time around. Move faster, it urges. Take more risks. Become a more interesting player."

Take more risks. Move faster. Become more interesting. That's a strange kind of comforting mantra, but it suits games down to the ground. And in a world without Bowie, without Rickman, without Wake Up to Wogan, I'll take a little comfort in whatever form it assumes.

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About the author

Christian Donlan

Christian Donlan

Features Editor

Christian Donlan is a features editor for Eurogamer. He is the author of The Unmapped Mind, published as The Inward Empire in the US.

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