weekend recap: saying goodbye to 2012

December 31, 2012


1.  As promised, the wife and I finally finished The Walking Dead.  What a hell of a thing that was.  There’s a part of me that wants to nitpick a little bit, that sometimes a character will suddenly change their entire outlook in a matter of seconds, as if there was a transitional scene that was cut, or as if a different writer took over the scene without looking at the previous pages; or that, all things considered, the “game” part of it could’ve used a little work; or that, at least on the 360, there are a lot of weird graphical hiccups and frame-rate stutters that are somewhat jarring.  But all that aside, it tells one hell of a story, and we were fully invested from the very beginning.  And that ending!  Oh God.  Gred, my SFTC podcast co-host, said it’s his favorite ending since Red Dead Redemption, and I’m inclined to agree with him.

2.  I am also replaying Mass Effect 3, now that I’ve got the DLC installed and a renegade mindset.  Finished the Omega DLC last night, actually, and being a renegade was kinda awesome – Aria T’Loak very much appreciated it.  But, man… it’s hard to be a renegade all the time.  Granted, the choices I’ve had to make aren’t anywhere near as devastating and as ethically dubious as the ones in Walking Dead, but sometimes it’s just rough.  I have to remind myself that I already went through the game as a paragon, and part of the reason why I’m doing this again is to see all the stuff I didn’t see last time.  Still, though… it’s tough.  I’m very much enjoying the game, though, even if all the stuff on the Citadel bores me to death.  

3.  If any game developers are out there reading this, please make a true GTA in space for the next-gen consoles.  That is the game I want to play.  I’d do it myself except I can’t code, draw, or design.   (One of my new year’s resolutions that I’m coming up with right at this very moment is to teach myself Unity, but who knows if that will stick once the baby arrives.)

4.  The Steam Sale continues to torment me.  I’ve managed to be pretty good, for the most part, although I did pick up three things last night:  Little InfernoRochard, and Closure.  I haven’t yet tried the latter two, but Little Inferno is an interesting little puzzler that is threatening to get subversive.  And a few days ago I picked up Retro City Rampage and Mark of the Ninja, which looks absolutely gorgeous on my PC monitor.  I’ve been slowly going through it again; it’s even better than I remember it being.

5.  I was going to do a big “Predictions for 2013” post, but I’m not really feeling it.  Honestly, there’s not a hell of a lot to say about 2013 – there’s not very much coming out that’s all that exciting besides 2 or 3 big titles, and in any event, once the baby comes in April I’m sure that my gaming time will decrease dramatically.  Basically, I’m just hoping my 360 survives long enough to get me through GTA5, and then I’ll take it week-to-week until the new consoles come out.  I’m still toying with the idea of getting a 3DS; I’m also toying with the idea of upgrading my iPhone 4 to a 5, but also perhaps waiting until they announce the 6 (or the 5* or whatever).

In non-game news, I might do a Books post here later today (or later this week, depending on time).  I’m currently reading Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, which came highly recommended from a million different people.  I’m normally not very big on fantasy novels, but this one’s particularly good, and I might be checking out his earlier stuff – I’m not sure I’m prepared to dive into the Wheel of Time series, though.

I will not be doing a Music post, though.  I haven’t done a music post in a few years, actually, and this year I felt particularly out of touch with the music scene.  That being said, I have been keeping a Spotify playlist of my favorite 2012 songs, and while it’s not as thorough as I’d prefer it to be, it’s still pretty good:

spotify:user:jervonyc:playlist:0ewTH1IimWr26GeN7FSFRP

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weekend recap: the christmas splurge

December 26, 2012


It would figure that I’d need to make some serious additions and edits to my Games of 2012 post, because not 24 hours after that post went up, Steam had another sale.

Those fuckers.

I’ve gone and done foolish things.

  • Retro City Rampage
  • Mark of the Ninja (which I’ve already beaten on 360, but GODDAMN that game is amazing, and I’m happy to support the developer wherever possible)
  • Civ V – Gods and Kings
  • Dark Souls: Prepare to Die edition
  • Solar 2
  • Unmechanical
  • FTL

I’ve managed to avoid buying both Borderlands 2 and Hitman: Absolution, even though they’ve both been 50% off several times over the course of this sale.  (Leaving aside that I’ve already beaten Borderlands 2 and bought its DLC Season Pass on the 360;  didn’t I already say that I wasn’t ever going to play Hitman, because that marketing campaign was so hideous and because I’m tired of gratuitous violence?  Why am I even still considering it?  Am I that much of a slave to sales?)

The only other thing I’d like to pick up is Little Inferno, which has been holding steady at 33%.  If that goes down to 50+, it’s mine.

__________________________________

And in spite of all these new pickups, I’ve been playing a bunch of old stuff, actually.

On the PC, I’ve been playing Batman: Arkham City, which I’m enjoying possibly even more than I did the first time around.  I’m not really paying attention to every single Riddler challenge unless it’s something I remember the solution for and/or currently have the right equipment to solve, but I am doing all the side missions, which are fun and involving and interesting.  And GODDAMN, that game looks incredible.  I’d been playing Far Cry 3 at high resolution but with a somewhat shaky framerate; Batman:AC, on the other hand, is at a high resolution and is at a blazing 60+ FPS.  The difference is striking.

On the 360, I bought some of the DLC for Trials Evolution, and was instantly reminded of 2 things:  (1) that game is really, really fun, and (2) that game can be really, really difficult.  But my main focus has been on doing a Renegade playthrough of Mass Effect 3.  I guess I’d been thinking about it lately, and I’d heard good things about the DLC, and since I hadn’t even thought about the game since I first beat it in March, I figured it’d be a (somewhat) fresh experience.  And it is, it really is.  That game is still excellent.  And porting over my completed save – where my FemShep was at level 58 – means I’ve got crazy powers right from the get-go.  I’m not quite yet at the part where I have full control over the Normandy and can go wherever I want to go, but I’m pretty close, I think, and I’m very much looking forward to checking out the new DLC.

And on iOS, I picked up Poker Knight and Gua-Le-Ni.  Poker Knight is a puzzle/RPG where your attacks are based on creating poker hands – it pushes a lot of very good buttons.  And Gua-Le-Ni is something I heard about earlier today from SlideDB – it’s a really unique puzzle game for the iPad with a fantastic art style and a very neat gameplay hook, somewhat akin to a set of children’s letter blocks.

Here’s hoping you all had a lovely holiday.  Did you get everything you wanted?

The Year in Games – 2012

December 19, 2012


This post should’ve been finished already.  Sure, time has been limited of late, but it’s always crazy in December, and in years past I’ve always found the time to work on it.  But, well, in this post-Newtown era, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’m feeling a little down about games.  And it’s hard for me to reconcile what I enjoyed playing this year back when I was actually playing those games with what I’m currently feeling.

So, before I begin, I need to link to Rock Paper Shotgun’s incredibly interesting, spoiler-heavy interview about Far Cry 3.  There’s a lot to unpack in that interview – the questioner echoes a lot of my own feelings about the game, what it’s appearing to say, and how successful it is in that regard – but I’m specifically linking to it to highlight this one question, which never quite gets a satisfactory answer.

 You talked about how in previous Assassin’s Creed games you questioned themes and tropes, and have gone far farther with that Far Cry 3. Do you think it’s a fair criticism to say, why not make a game that doesn’t make all these mistakes? Why set out to highlight the mistakes or the laziness, or the issues, or the laziness in the players – why not set out to make a game that’s really good?

And to follow that up, I also want to link to Leigh Alexander’s fantastic, devastating piece of her post-Newtown thoughts, because she gets right to the heart of the matter:

Obviously there is no causal relationship between Newtown and video games. But I have played the damn things since I was a very small child and only in the last few years have I, as an adult woman, begun to feel profoundly uncomfortable with their unapologetic celebration of gun violence. I kill things in games every day, and sometimes I even shoot people in the face, but even I have begun to’ve had enough. It feels dark.

Something is wrong with my country.

Any games writing that questions that right to bear virtual arms with joyful impunity is often accused of having some irrelevant political agenda, of ruining the fun, of refusing to accept the all-important fact it’s just a game. Like disassociating ourselves from any intellectual consideration of the content we consume or any emotional response to it is a basic requirement for participation in this community.

I can’t accept that.

The top-grossing games of all time are about marching in a straight line and shooting people. I’ve felt confused and sad about that for a few years now and I feel moreso this week.

This sadness I’m feeling about the hobby that I’ve been passionate about for over 30 years (?!) is very hard to shake.   Games used to be about more than shooting and death.  Games used to have more imagination than that.  And it was, ironically, easier to lose yourself in the worlds those games provided despite how limited they were in their graphical and technical resources.

And so it’s hard for me to sit here and reflect about what I played this year and find cause to celebrate, since a great deal of what I did involved shooting and killing, which are activities that I’m having a hard time finding the fun in these days.  “Shooter fatigue” does not just refer to the fact that every game is a shooter, or that the act of shooting everything stopped being a novel concept about 10 years ago; it’s that I’m tired of having “shooting” be my only option when I pop in a game.

When was the last time you played a game and experienced joy?

*     *     *     *     *

Anyway.  The raw data:

Strictly limited to consoles/PC, I played 43 games that were released in 2012;  I also spent the bulk of January playing 2011’s The Old Republic (up to level 40 or so), Assassin’s Creed Revelations (which I only got an hour or two in before wanting to set it on fire), the PSN HD remake of Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, and a few intense sessions of Renegade Ops, an XBLA dual-stick shooter that got a lot of love in the Giant Bomb year-end podcasts.  (My iOS purchases were considerably higher in number, but I think it’s also fair to say that I only really focused my attention on around a dozen of them.)

GAMES I FINISHED:

  1. Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning (main story, at least – still plenty of side stuff I never got around to; probably too much, actually)
  2. Mass Effect 3 (but none of the DLC – I may yet try some next year, though)
  3. Journey (multiple times)
  4. Max Payne 3 (twice, on 360 and PC)
  5. Diablo 3 (3 times, stopped playing on highest difficulty)
  6. Dear Esther
  7. Walking Dead (well, sorta.  this will be finished before year’s end.)
  8. Spec Ops: The Line
  9. Zuma’s Revenge (xbla – the game’s actually quite short)
  10. Quantum Conundrum
  11. Darksiders 2
  12. Sleeping Dogs
  13. Mark of the Ninja
  14. Borderlands 2
  15. Lego LOTR

GAMES I DID NOT FINISH: looking at my Google Doc, which was kept, more or less, in chronological order, it appears that I finished none of the 11 games I started in between completing Borderlands 2 (last weekend of September) and completing Lego LOTR (2nd weekend of December).  Now, 2 of those games include Forza Horizon (which is just massive) and XCOM: Enemy Unknown (which is super-intimidating and which I’ll address in further detail in a bit).  But other games in that particular window of time include games that I actually sunk a fair amount of time into, including Resident Evil 6 (why?), Assassin’s Creed 3, and Dishonored.   This category actually needs to be broken down into further sub-categories, for reasons that will become self-evident.   (There’s also an embarrassing amount of stuff I bought during various Steam sales that will get its own specific list – I’m not even sure I even installed half of them.)

Did Not Finish, But Would Like to Finish Someday:

  • Dishonored – I did get pretty close…
  • XCOM
  • Dust: An Elysian Tale
  • Hotline: Miami
  • Papo & Yo
  • Dyad
  • Soundshapes

Did Not Finish, Couldn’t Get Into (But Still Respect):

  • Minecraft (xbla)
  • The Darkness 2
  • Torchlight 2 (this really bums me out, too.  I loved the first one and was really looking forward to this one; I think I’d played too much Diablo 3 to give this one a fair shake.  Maybe I’ll give it another look in 2013.)
  • Asura’s Wrath

Did Not Finish, Do Not Want to Finish, But Still Sunk Some Time Into:

  • Resident Evil 6
  • Assassin’s Creed 3
  • Halo 4
  • CODBLOPS 2
  • Final Fantasy XIII-2
  • SSX
  • Far Cry 3

Played for 5 Minutes or Less:

  • Twisted Metal
  • Ghost Recon Future Soldier
  • Dragon’s Dogma

Games of Note that I Did Not Play:

  • Star Wars Kinect (my wife played this, though.  she’s a HUGE star wars nut, and if this game was built for anyone, it was her.  she hated it within 5 minutes of turning it on.)
  • Prototype 2
  • Rock Band Blitz
  • Fable The Journey
  • 007 Legends
  • Syndicate
  • Medal of Honor: Warfighter
  • Dance Central 3
  • Hitman: Absolution
  • Tokyo Jungle – this needs to be corrected
  • Unfinished Swan – this, too, even though I don’t have the Move controller
  • anything for the 3DS, the Vita, or the WiiU

GAMERSCORE:  I am no longer the shameless Achievement Whore I used to be, but I do keep track of this stuff for some reason.  I started 2012 at 77580.  I am currently at 85485 (as of 12/19/12), and if that number goes up it’s only because I’m forging ahead in Lego LOTR, Batman Arkham City (on my PC), or Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, which I just inexplicably rented from Gamefly.  Also, I do plan on finishing Walking Dead Eps. 4 and 5 over the holiday break, so there’s that.

Favorite Achievement:   There isn’t any one particular Achievement that stands out to me – not like when I found the last orb in Crackdown, or when my wife and I did the Endless Setlist in Rock Band 3 – but I suppose I’m the proudest of whatever I was able to accomplish in Fez without using a walkthrough.

iOS GAMES OF THE YEAR:  I’m not sure that these are all amazing games, but they were certainly absorbing, and addicting as all hell, and made my subway commutes hassle free (except for that one morning when I was so focused on Chip Chain that I missed my subway stop).  Also of note: not a single gun.

  1. Chip Chain
  2. Rayman Jungle Run
  3. 10,000,000
  4. Puzzle Craft
  5. The Room
  6. Punch Quest
  7. Dream of Pixels
  8. Super Monsters Ate My Condo
  9. Puzzle & Dragon
  10. SpellTower
  11. Pocket Planes

So, yeah.  Steam sales.  Even though this section isn’t necessarily about the Best Games Of The Year, it’s still relevant because I found myself playing more games on the PC this year than ever.  And because the notion of a “Steam Box” is suddenly sounding incredibly sexy.  And if anyone’s going to be able to compete for the living room with Microsoft and Sony (and Nintendo, if the WiiU is for real), I think Valve has the best shot.  And, as I’ll be a new father in a few months with a much tighter leash on my disposable income, the fact that I bought everything below for under $60 COMBINED is perhaps one of the most significant things that happened to me this year as far as my game-consuming habits are concerned.

THE STEAM SALE HAUL (Summer):

  • Galactic Civilizations II (super pack) – [why did I even bother?  I saw “turn-based strategy in space” for under $8 and couldn’t help myself.  have I played it yet?  of course not!]
  • Bulletstorm – [#10 on my Best-of-2011 List.  looked AMAZING on my PC, and was even better the 2nd time around.]
  • Alan Wake (complete pack) – [I played and sort-of liked the first game on the 360.  I tried the first few minutes of American Nightmare on the PC; it’s a little ridiculous.]
  • Quantum Conundrum – [I’d written a huge review of this that I’d intended to post, but when I re-read it it felt so negative that you’d never understand why I even bothered to finish it.  The short, nice version – it’s a charming game with some really unique puzzles, but it’s also got some flaws that are hard to get past.  And it’s never going to be as brilliant as Portal.]
  • SOL: Exodus – [This space combat-ish game got a lot of talk earlier in the year on various podcasts, which is how I presume it wound up on my wishlist.  I tried the first 10 minutes or so; it’s promising.]
  • Legend of Grimrock – [I was sorta hoping to wait for the iPad version, but the sale price was too good to pass up.  I played the first few minutes; I need to spend some serious time with a tutorial to figure out just what the hell I’m doing.]
  • Saints Row the Third [which I’ve already finished on the 360 – but how could I pass it up for 75% off? ]
  • Indie Bundle 2 (Botanicula, EYE, Universe Sandbox, Oil Rush, Splice) – [bought this only for Botanicula, which I haven’t yet played.]
  • Anno 2770 – [as with GalCiv2 above, I have no idea why I bought this.  I opened it up and played the first 5 minutes and didn’t know how to do anything.]

THE STEAM SALE HAUL (Thanksgiving):

  • Tropico 4 – [they had it for $7.  And I’d always been curious about this franchise, even if I don’t understand what it is or how it’s played.]
  • Yesterday 
  • Thirty Flights of Loving
  • Resonance
  • Batman Arkham City GOTY
  • Dishonored

OK, let’s get back to the awards!

BEST GAMEPLAY MECHANIC OF 2012:

  • Dishonored, “Blink“.  This might be the easiest category of all, when I think about it.  I had some significant problems with the game as it went along, but I never got tired of zipping around the environment; whether for strategic purposes in plotting out how to attack an area, or simply to speed things along, it was an immediately satisfying maneuver, and I used it at every opportunity.  In fact, when I eventually tired of the game and started playing other shooters, I found myself missing being able to Blink.  (It certainly would’ve come in handy in Borderlands 2 and Far Cry 3.)

MOST TIME SPENT IN GAME:

  • TIE:  Borderlands 2 / Diablo 3.  I’m not sure the numbers are accurate, but raptr says I spent 56 hours in Borderlands 2, and I’m pretty sure I was around that amount (if not more) in Diablo 3.   The key difference, though, is that I didn’t hate myself when I played Borderlands 2.

BEST MOMENT:

  • TIE, again:  Mass Effect 3, visiting the temple (with the Prothean in my party) / Journey, the sand-skiing level.  There’s a pivotal scene late in ME3’s campaign where, after a lengthy firefight, you’re exploring the ruins of an ancient Asari temple.  Some pretty amazing things are revealed.  The first time I played this scene, though, I didn’t have the Prothean team member in my party, and I realized that if anybody could shed some light on what I was seeing, it would be him.  It was worth it to reload my save and hear his commentary; what he added changed everything.  As for Journey; well, I’m not a good enough writer to describe what happened to me during the sand-skiing level.  But when I asked the question above, about the last time you played a game and felt joy?  That moment was it, for me.  Sheer exhilaration, wonder, awe.

B3ST GAM3 With a 3 in the TITL3:  There have been plenty of franchises that have made it to a 3rd game, but it wasn’t until last year that it started to get a little ridiculous.  In keeping with the tradition, this year’s nominees are:

  • Far Cry 3
  • Max Payne 3
  • Diablo 3
  • Assassin’s Creed 3
  • Dance Central 3
  • Mass Effect 3

I was fully prepared to give this to a different game, but as I was writing the Best Moment section above, I had a change of heart.  Even though Far Cry 3 has a lot of things going for it, I’d be crazy to not give this to Mass Effect 3.   If the ending wasn’t as great as we’d wanted it to be, it was still an extraordinary experience, and  a fitting conclusion to one of the most important intellectual properties of this generation.

BEST NEW IP:

  • Mark of the Ninja.  One of the finest stealth games ever made, with great writing and a fantastic art style.  While the story has a definite conclusion, thus making a direct sequel somewhat narratively tricky, I would absolutely play more of these in the future.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT:

  • Need For Speed Most Wanted.  I was afraid of this, to be honest; I was afraid that when EA bought Criterion, they’d prevent Criterion from doing what it does best.  What Criterion does best is making Burnout games, with Burnout rules, and with the freedom of destruction that having unlicensed cars provides.  Need For Speed is a franchise that EA is desperate to make relevant again, and so by buying the Burnout developer and preventing them from actually making Burnout games, but sort-of letting them shoehorn some of the Burnout magic into a completely different IP, they’ve managed to please nobody.  I had hoped that Criterion could trascend this; alas, the game feels rushed, though it does feature some of the most frustrating rubberband AI in the history of the medium.  (Honorable mention goes to another failed EA reboot – SSX.)

FAVORITE FRANCHISE THAT I’M MORE OR LESS READY TO GIVE UP ON:

  • Yet another TIE:  Tiger Woods / Assassin’s Creed.  I’ve been threatening to quit on these franchises for a while now, and this year’s entries did nothing to dissuade me from that attempt.  The putting game in Tiger is maybe more frustrating than the rubberband AI in NFS:MW, but the fact that almost half the game’s courses are locked behind a paywall is unforgivable.  Meanwhile, Assassin’s Creed had managed to subvert the curse of annualized release dates for a little while until last year’s dreadful Revelations, and this year’s edition, while a little bit better, was still an embarrassing mess.

BEST / WORST TREND:

  • Kickstarter.  The incredible success of DoubleFine’s Adventure Game must have appeared to be a glorious, watershed moment for indie developers – finally, a way to subvert the traditional publisher relationship and have a direct relationship with the consumers!  Sure enough, eventually it seemed that there was a new high-profile developer making a Kickstarter pitch every other week, and for a while we all got pretty excited about the possibility of crowd-sourced development funding.  But it’s started to get a bit out of control, and there’s a growing concern that a lot of these projects, already behind on their delivery dates, may never get released.

2010’s MOST-PLAYED GAME OF 2012:

  • Pinball FX2, which is the gift that keeps on giving; its steady stream of quality DLC tables has kept it in my rotation for pretty much the entire year.

THE “SACRED 2” MEMORIAL AWARD FOR THE MOST TIME PLAYING A GAME THAT I ACTIVELY DISLIKED:

  • There’s a distressingly high number of games that fall into consideration for this category, when I think about it.   But the thing about naming this award after Sacred 2 is that I actually finished Sacred 2, even though there was so much to hate.    And in that regard, while I can’t say I hated Diablo 3, I did eventually start to hate myself for playing it to death.  I finished it 3 times, eventually getting stuck on the hardest difficult level, where my level 60 Monk never managed to survive past Act I.  And grinding Acts 4 and 5 of the lower difficulty’s tier began to grow very tiresome.  The best loot I ever got in the game was from the Auction House, not from a drop – not even from a drop while having 5 sets of Nephalim Valor or whatever the hell it was called.  Diablo 3 is an incredibly well-made game, to be sure, and I did have a lot of fun for a while, there.  But eventually the experience became monotonous and repetitive and the fun gradually faded, even as I continually left-clicked my enemies to death.

FAVORITE GAME THAT EVERYBODY ELSE SEEMED TO DISLIKE:

  • Max Payne 3.  I have no idea where all the hate for this game came from; I loved it.  When Steam offered it along with a free copy of L.A. Noire, I immediately downloaded it even though I’d already beaten it on the 360, and had already beaten L.A. Noire, too.  It’s the best-looking game Rockstar’s made, but more importantly, it was true to the franchise’s roots.  The trademark slow-motion gunplay was still fun as hell.  Sure, the story gets a little ridiculous and melodramatic, and Max can be a bit of a downer (to put it mildly), but I thought the campaign was really well designed, and the multiplayer was arguably better than Red Dead Redemption‘s.  (I say that possibly because it’s one of the few competitive multiplayer modes that I’m not completely terrible at, but hey – it worked for me!)

BEST GAME THAT I DIDN’T FINISH, EVEN THOUGH I WANTED TO:

  • With apologies to The Walking Dead, which I have every intention of finishing this holiday weekend, this award must go to XCOM: Enemy Unknown.  It’s maddeningly difficult and intimidating as all hell, but it’s never unfair; I learned from each of my mistakes, even at the expense of one (or more) of my soldier’s lives.  I do need to get back to this one; I put it down only because the pressure got to be too much.  It’s so goddamned tense!  Each turn of play has the potential to go horribly awry!  Even thinking about now makes my blood pressure rise.

THE BEST EXAMPLE OF AN HD REMAKE THAT MAKES YOU QUESTION YOUR MEMORY:

  • With apologies to the remake of Jet Set Radio, which I only played in demo form, I have to give this to Tony Hawk HD.  I was really looking forward to this release, as I played the original THPS1 and THPS2 games to death on the Dreamcast, and I’ve missed the purity of those original games’ design and intent.  Alas, the HD remastering only revealed that the levels weren’t nearly as interesting as I remembered them being, and that my skills were somewhat lacking.  As of this writing, I have not yet purchased the “Revert” DLC, but I’m not sure I want to; I’m already a little sad that I didn’t love this game as much as I’d wanted to.

THE BEST EXAMPLE OF AN HD REMAKE THAT RESTORES YOUR FAITH IN YOUR MEMORY:

  • I still need to play more of Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath on the PS3; I got a few hours into it and then got distracted.  But man, that game is still fun as hell, and it looks absolutely fantastic in HD.  Here’s hoping that the HD remakes of the original Abe’s Oddysee and Exoddus are as good as this was.   (Supposedly there’s a remake of Munch that’s either out or is arriving shortly, but I don’t think any amount of HD tweaking will fix what was wrong with that one.)

*     *     *     *     *

THE TOP 10 GAMES OF THE YEAR

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

  • Sleeping Dogs – maybe the most pleasureable surprise of the year; certainly one of the better GTA clones ever made.
  • Trials Evolution – one of the best XBLA titles gets an even better sequel.
  • Walking Dead – I reserve the right to amend my top 10 list once I finish this.  I’ve heard from everyone who’s finished it that it has one of the best endings in videogame history.
  • Diablo 3 – despite my self-loathing, it’s still a really well-made game.

10.  Max Payne 3.  See above.  I know it has problems, but I found it an engrossing experience, with action just as flashy and enjoyable as the originals.

9.  Fez.  This was near the top of my most-wanted list for years, and while it wasn’t quite the game I expected it to be – it was less of a 2D/3D platforming puzzle game and more of an abstract code-breaking journey – it was still a remarkable, singularly unique experience.

8.  XCOM Enemy Unknown.  I am afraid of this game.

7.  Darksiders 2.  I had an absolute blast with this one.  This was, for a long part of the year, my top pick for GOTY.  It wasn’t quite as good in New Game + mode, but I can’t hold that against it; the first time through, it was a great time.

6.  Forza Horizon.  If I was shocked at how disappointed I was in Need For Speed Most Wanted, I was just as shocked at how much I enjoyed this one.  I fully expected this to be a cheap cash-grab, but instead it was a full-featured racer that took the best qualities of Forza and added a gorgeous open world, a satisfying variety of race types, a fun and engaging driving model which straddles the line perfectly between sim and arcade, a dynamic leaderboard that encouraged you to best your previous marks, and even some side stuff that gave you something else to do while soaking in the scenery.  I need to get back into this one; there’s still a lot I left unfinished.

5.  Mark of the Ninja.  As noted above, this is perhaps the best set of stealth mechanics in the entire genre, be it 2D or 3D.  The art direction and writing are top notch, and there’s plenty of replayability to be found after finishing the story.

4.  Far Cry 3.  This was almost my #1, to be honest.  I’ve written too many words about it this week to give it its proper due in this post; it’s a fantastic game with some remarkable voice acting and a gorgeous open world to explore, but it’s also got a troubling narrative that threatens to drag it down, which is a very kind way of putting it.  As it stands, I’ve chosen to not finish it, and instead spend the rest of my time with it finding all the relics and hidden items; what I’ve read of the ending sounds distasteful, and  in any event, I’ve still gotten my money’s worth.  Despite the writer’s intentions, I found the game I wanted to play in it, and I’m grateful that the game designers allowed me that much.

3.  Mass Effect 3.  At some point next year, I’m going to go back and replay this one.  In each of the earlier games in the series, I played through twice – once as a paragon, the second time as a renegade.  Alas, I never got around to the renegade playthrough for this one, and so, when I do, I’ll also have the benefit of seeing some of the DLC that’s supposedly enhanced the experience for the better.  In any event, this is a remarkable entry in one of the most outstanding technical achievements of this generation – I’m still impressed at how it managed to do what it did.  It’s a shame the side quests were so poorly conceived and executed, but whatever; the main story was engaging, the larger universe was a joy to explore, and the overall experience was nothing short of incredible.

2.  Borderlands 2.  My shooter fatigue has developed into a troubling malaise with videogames in general, which is a real bummer for a number of reasons; but if this is the last pure shooter I ever end up playing, I think I’ll be OK with it.   It kept everything that was great about the first game, threw out everything that sucked, and then made everything funnier and more colorful and bigger and better and etc.   I will continue to check in on this game’s DLC, as I’m glad to have any opportunity to drop back in and see this world.  The violence is plentiful and gratuitous, to be sure, but it’s also very silly and cartoonish; the game is never taking itself all that seriously, which is refreshing in this day and age of gritty, visceral realism.  There’s still not very much to do in this game, when I think about it; to re-quote Leigh Alexander, it’s still ultimately about marching in a straight line and shooting people, but at least it’s having fun while doing it.  I might finish a session of Borderlands 2 and be exhausted, but I’m not emotionally drained.

1.   Journey.  I finished this game very quickly the day it came out, and I was so taken with it that I sat my wife down the following day and watched her play it.  Soon enough, a stranger arrived in her session – with one of the longest capes I’ve ever seen – and showed her around, helping her get through tricky platforming sequences, leading her to a bunch of hidden, secret stuff that I hadn’t found in my own playthrough, and staying with her throughout the entire game, right through the heart of the mountaintop.  That this random stranger was able to do all of this without uttering a single word is truly remarkable.   It’s true that the sand-skiing sequence is one of the most beautiful, joyous experiences I’ve ever had in a game, but it’s also true that the entire game itself filled me with wonder and emotions that I still can’t quite explain.  There is no dialogue; there is no “story”; there is no violence; there are only two actions – move and jump.  You are compelled to move forward and explore.  That this game could be made in this day and age is something to be celebrated.  That the game is so fucking good is something else entirely.  I wasn’t expecting to give this my top slot; indeed, when I started writing this post, I was still pretty sure that Borderlands 2 was going to take it.  But the more I think about it, the more I want to go back and play this game; I want to feel those feelings again; I want to be reminded that there will always be more to do in this medium than simply killing something.  You can be touched.  You can feel joy.

guns and games and a challenge for 2013

December 17, 2012


I’m feeling somewhat heartsick today.  It’s a combination of a bunch of different things; insomnia/anxiety at 3:30am, a distressing situation at my job, a lack of productivity over the weekend… and, of course, the events in Newtown, CT.

I’m 37 years old; this is, sadly, not the first mass shooting I’ve lived through.  But it is the first one that affected me this much.  I watched President Obama’s speech at the Newtown vigil last night with my arm around my wife and my hand on her pregnant belly, tears pouring down from our faces, knowing that our little boy is going to be arriving in just a few months, and that there will be times when he’s out of our immediate line of sight, and that we will feel helpless.

I don’t believe that violent video games cause mass shootings any more than violent movies and music do.  But in light of what happened on Friday – and in keeping with what I was already talking about last week before everything happened – I’m feeling a bit weird about playing shooters right now.

*     *     *     *     *

Let me back up.

Part of the lack of productivity I mentioned above was due to a hectic weekend schedule and a post-Newtown shitty mood, but it was also certainly due to the marathon Far Cry 3 sessions I engaged in, since I felt too lethargic and shitty to do anything else.

I’m at an interesting crossroads, as far as the game goes.  I looked at a walkthrough just to see how far away from the end I was, and it turns out I’ve only got 2 missions left.  The mission I’m currently stuck on, the 2nd-to-last one, is rather difficult.  It’s difficult for a lot of reasons, not least of which is because it’s shockingly poor in design (especially when compared with the rest of the scripted missions).*  I gave it around 5 or 6 tries last night before giving up, feeling that the game suddenly turned on me.

That being said, I’ve also ascended every radio tower, crafted every craftable, and liberated every outpost; this means that, aside from the wild animals, there is literally nothing else to shoot on the rest of the islands.** This means I’m free to actually explore – to find all the hidden relics and lost WW2 letters and all the other nooks and crannies that I’ve not had time to check out, all without having to fire a weapon.  As this is the aspect of the game that made me fall in love with it in the first place, I think I’d be quite content to never actually finish the narrative.

The narrative is where the game’s more or less fallen apart for me, is the thing.  While I appreciate that the game is actually attempting to say something (in that you start out as a whimpering trust-fund douchebag and gradually turn into a sociopathic killing-machine douchebag whose friends (the same friends who you’ve been trying to rescue) are super-creeped out by you and your murder-lust (they actually look into the camera (i.e., your eyes) as if they don’t recognize you)) – in other words, the game is saying that killing hundreds of people doesn’t necessarily make you a hero – the game also requires you to kill hundreds of people in order to advance the narrative; you don’t have a choice in the matter.***

(That the game also frequently turns key plot points into hallucinogenic metaphors is a bit much, too.  It’s all a bit heavy-handed and ham-fisted and reeks of deus ex machina.)

Getting back to the crossroads, though – while the narrative is getting absurd and the act of firing a gun (even if it’s virtual) feels a bit distasteful, I still very much want to run around on the island and find all the cool stuff it has to offer.  And if so I stay away from those last two missions, I’m utterly free to do that.  And even if I never finish the story, I would have definitely gotten my money’s worth – I’ve sunk at least 20 hours into the game already, and to do all the side quests and find every last treasure would take at least a dozen more.

*     *     *     *     *

I was originally going to start this post with a hypothetical challenge; would it be possible for me to play any games in 2013 that didn’t involve the firing of a gun?  Then I remembered that Bioshock Infinite, Tomb Raider and GTA5 were coming, and that pretty much ended that – I won’t be missing any of those games unless my wife or my newborn son is on fire.  BUT.  I think I’m going to try and get through as much of 2013 as possible without playing any shooters.  This will dramatically lower the amount of games that I end up playing – I’m looking at my Gamefly queue and this one single criteria pretty much omits everything besides Tiger Woods 14 and the South Park RPG.  That’s kinda fucked up, wouldn’t you say?  No Dead Space 3.  No Gears of War Judgment.  No Splinter Cell, no Metro Last Light, no Aliens: Colonial Marines.  No Metal Gear Revengeance or whatever the hell it’s called, although my history with Metal Gear games probably precludes me from enjoying it anyway.

I might just end up doing this by default – what with the baby, and the fact that I’m not particularly interested in those games, this might be easier than it looks.  If anything, this will cause me to seek out the kinds of non-shooter games that I know are out there but that I’ve ignored.  This might work out after all.

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* Why is it so shitty?  Let me count the ways.

  • The game, up to this point, has generally prioritized stealth as opposed to going in, guns blazing.  But this particular mission has you driving into a fuel depot with your compatriot working the mounted gun in the trunk, and you’re blowing the shit out of everything.  That doesn’t make it a bad mission on its own, but it does beg the question as to why stealth was so necessary before.
  • As it’s one of the last missions in the game, it’s supposed to be more difficult.  And in this case, “difficult” means a never-ending supply enemies spawning from empty rooms.  Empty-room enemy-spawns are a lazy, cheap way of making something artificially difficult.  And why there are 300 soldiers guarding this particular fuel depot is a narrative mystery.
  • Some of these enemies are “heavies”, which means they’re decked out in bomb-proof gear.  To the player, this means they’re bullet sponges (which is, again, super-cheap).  But, also – why are they wearing such gear in the first place?  If it’s to guard against fuel explosions, why aren’t all the soldiers wearing them?  Sure, that’s impractical, but since when does anything need to make sense?  Speaking of which, this is also a tropical island – those guys have gotta be sweltering.
  • One more time – enemies appearing out of rooms that you’d previously known to be empty is bullshit.

** I probably shouldn’t have used the word “literally”, since this is only true if you don’t count the bulletin board assassination missions, which I may or may not bother with.  My growing distaste for mass carnage notwithstanding, I did enjoy the strategy that went into liberating the outposts; there were only a limited number of guards (unless you let them sound an alarm), and each outpost had its own unique layout, which meant that each scenario was unique.   It could be looked at as a puzzle to be solved, is what I’m trying to say.

*** I can’t apologize enough for that sentence’s structure.

more FC3 prattle; some amateur rumination on game design

December 13, 2012


I’m having one of those days where I’m super-stressed out because of work and I’d like nothing more than to sink some quality brain-time into a post, but I’m having trouble thinking of anything to talk about other than “ZOMG Far Cry 3 is amazing.”

I sunk a fair amount of time in it last night –

  • first, taking care of some busywork (i.e., doing some Path of the Hunter missions in order to max out certain crafting paths – I can’t remember all the ones I’ve finished, but I know as of last night I’ve at least got the biggest wallet, the biggest syringe kit and maybe the biggest ammo pouch, which were the 3 most important things on my to-do list);
  • second, trying a few of the assassination missions (which are a bit contrived and probably not something I’ll keep pursuing – I haven’t found any tangible rewards beyond money and XP, unlike the Hunting missions which are the only ways to get certain crafting material);
  • third, getting distracted from the first and second tasks above by checking out some happened-upon ruins and picking up some relics (which aren’t necessarily all that rewarding, either, but these ruins scratch that Skyrim itch of pure exploration for exploration’s sake, which is something I’ll get to in a bit); and then
  • finally, diving into some actual story missions.  I’ve posted some screenshots from those missions below – I’m not sure if they constitute spoilers, since there aren’t any map locations or enemies, but they do show places that you can’t see on the actual island.  I’m close to the end of Chapter 5 – Buck’s sent me on something of a treasure hunt.

Buck (the character) is a disgusting, vile human being (who’s acted phenomenally well, by the way), and I certainly hope he gets what’s coming to him at the end of this particular mission arc, but these missions are among the most fun I’ve had in the game.  You’re off in these hidden underground ruins, looking for a mystical object; you’ll start off by doing some relatively painless first-person platforming, then you’ll encounter a group of enemies who are trying to open a locked door; you’ll dispatch those enemies, open the door they couldn’t unlock… and then it’s just you and these places, no enemies in sight (save for a few snakes and komodo dragons here and there), exploring without consequence, free from external pressure.  Even if the ruins themselves are extremely linear, and even if the “puzzles” barely qualify to be identified as such, it’s still a rush.  (They feel like extremely simplified (but gorgeous) versions of the catacombs in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, now that I think about it.)

I love that this stuff is in the game.  I love that while this is a big-budget, AAA first person shooter, that the game has the balls to take the shooting out of the equation entirely (even if it can’t remove your guns from your field of vision, as in the screenshots above).  I love that just as much as how much I love how truly dynamic this world actually is – how you can spend 10 minutes silently sneaking around an outpost, tagging enemies, plotting your attack, only to have a fucking grizzly bear run into camp and maul everything to death.

*     *     *     *     *

In my post the other day I attempted to make the case that there’s too much killing in games.  Or, rather – that most games require the elimination of enemies (whether by gunfire, swordplay, magic, jumping on a turtle’s head, etc.) in order to achieve a win-state; that this has become, more or less, the default concept in contemporary game design.   There are certainly notable examples where this is not the case (PortalJourney, and Fez come to mind), but those examples are few and far between, and they certainly don’t sell nearly as well.   

After that post, I had an enlightening Twitter conversation with @WGP_Josh, and we hypothesized about how awesome a combat-free Tomb Raider or Uncharted would be.  I’m guessing that a lot of  game designers – well, rather, game publishers – are frightened by the silence of pure exploration, and so they feel that it’s necessary that in between the truly free-form stuff like puzzle solving and narrative development there’s gotta be a lot of BANG and BOOM and rag-doll physics and basically anything that can justify a multiplayer suite.

I’ve been thinking about this problem ever since.  I know nothing about game design, and so I have no idea what comes first – the narrative?  the art?  the main character?  the marketing budget?  the gameplay hook?  the desired player experience?   I feel, in my gut, that those last two are probably the most important, but I truly don’t know.

If I were to design a game, I think I’d probably focus on that last bit – the desired player experience – and then try to figure out what sort of action the player would have to do in order to best achieve that experience.*  But I’d also want to make sure there was a compelling reason for the player to want to continue, and so I’d develop some sort of narrative thrust, however basic, to keep the player engaged.   Weirdly, I think art and sound come last in this equation.  I mean, I’m a graphics whore through and through, and I’d want my game to look and sound great, but I do think you need to keep the player engaged first by making sure the game’s primary action is compelling.

And here’s where the problem lies.  What is that primary action?  What is the hook?  What is the way from Point A to Point B – even if it’s the player, not the level designer, who ultimately determines that path?  Judging from the vast majority of the games that have been released over the last 10 years, it seems that the easiest answer is “combat.”  When those games then actually focus on the combat and make sure it’s something special in and of itself – i.e., Bulletstorm, the Rocksteady Batman games, even (dare I say) Gears of War – well, that works.  But then there’s something like Portal, which removes combat from the game completely, and yet is still incredibly gripping and absorbing and engaging.

I sincerely hope that someday I can find out the answers to these questions first-hand.

*     *     *     *     *

Also: check out this amazing behind-the-scenes piece about Double Fine from Polygon.  And this interesting piece from Chris Dahlen over at Unwinnable about the undeserved anonymity of game design.

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*And when I think about my favorite games of the last 10 years, and I think about my favorite bits in each of those games, I realize that they all have several things in common.  And then I really start thinking about learning how to code.

moving past murder

December 11, 2012


I’m in the beginning stages of working on the 2012 GOTY post, which is normally a fun and exciting thing to work on.  This year’s edition is a bit tougher to put together than years past, though; it wasn’t a particularly strong year, for one thing, and I’ve been hard-pressed to find one title standing head and shoulders above the rest.  My top 10 feels very flimsy to me – I’ve tried several different orders and none of them feel right.  In previous years, there’d at least be a clear top 3-5 to choose from, with the bottom of the order eventually settling into place.  Right now, I’ve maybe got a clear top 2, but I haven’t even finished one of them yet.  (Hint hint.)

As I think about what I played this year, though, I’m a little troubled.  And maybe it’s because I’m going to be a father in the spring, and I’m suddenly going to have to be very aware of what I play and what I let my little boy see – I mean, I’m going to be changing diapers and getting 2 hours of sleep right when Bioshock Infinite and GTA5 come out; and maybe it’s because “shooter fatigue” is a real problem for me, even if I’m loving the hell out of Far Cry 3.

I guess I’m just concerned about how much virtual murder I’ve committed this year.  If I have the time (and I probably won’t), I’d like to check out the stats of each game I played and see just how many people, aliens and animals I killed.  Even if I just take into account that I hardly did any multiplayer gaming this year, and even if I also take into account that there were quite a few games that I didn’t even finish, I’m guessing I killed at least 10,000 things.  I’m pulling that number out of my ass, to be sure, but I did kill over 700 people just in Uncharted 3 last year, and this year I played Diablo 3 to completion 3 times – I might’ve killed 10,000 things in that game alone.

And of all the games I played, only Spec Ops: The Line had the flat-out balls to ask if all that killing was fun.

New consoles are probably coming out next year*, which means, among other things, that AAA games will be much more expensive to produce in order to look as good as they’re expected to; and as such, there’s probably not going to be a whole lot of risk-taking in the development of new IP.  And the truth of the matter is that shooting still sells better than anything else.  Sure, there’s always Madden, and there’s lots of non-murdering happening in the downloadable spaces like PSN and XBLA and iOS.  But nothing’s making money like Halo and Call of Duty, and you’d better believe that this console generation’s swan song, GTA5, is going to sell at least 20-40 gazillion units next year.   That’s a lot of virtual bullets yet to be fired.

I hope, though, that there will be developers courageous enough to create game experiences that are not focused around killing.  (The Mass Effect franchise, which I adore, is certainly not only about killing, but most of the missions involve killing in order to get from point A to point B.  I might also add that my favorite ME missions have almost always been the ones that don’t involve killing, but rather focus on exploration – if only because they’re such a refreshing change of pace.)   Games like Journey and Fez had no death, no end-state, no obliteration – only you and the environment and a goal to achieve, and they were magical experiences unlike anything else I’d played this year.  I’ve played the hell out a bunch of games on my iPhone and iPad this year, and almost none of them involved the firing of a gun, and they were all, for the most part, absorbing and interesting.  

It CAN be done, is the thing.  There is an audience for this kind of game experience.  It might not be as large as the millions of people who play shooters all the time, but it’s certainly there, and I think it’d really be something if game designers could evolve along with the technology they’re working with to create experiences where winning doesn’t necessarily have to mean killing.

 

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* There’s rumors now that a Steam Box is actually happening, and if it is, that might very well end up being my console of choice.  If it comes with a blu-ray drive?  Sold.

weekend recap – birthday boy makes good

December 10, 2012


I’m having a tough time getting words to come out of my brain today.  I started writing this post around 4 hours ago, and between constant work interruption and my utter inability to maintain any semblance of focus, I’ve made it no further than this introduction.

It’s not that I went all wild and crazy for my birthday this weekend; far from it, in fact.  But it is true that I’ve not been sleeping well lately, and when my alarm clock went off this morning I felt very much like I was dead.  I took one of those mindless 20 minute shower-trances where I would stare off into space and then suddenly wonder if I had already put shampoo in my hair, or if I was simply waiting the required 3-5 minutes before I could rinse.

Anyway, here I am, in a quiet moment at work, with my mind (when it’s working) far away in the land of Far Cry 3.

I suppose it’s good that I can’t really think right now, because even though I’m having an enormous amount of fun with FC3, it’s the sort of game where I’m afraid that over-analyzing it will ruin it.  It’s like, yes, it was enormously astute of some critics to point out how bizarre it was that eating years-old potato chips in Bioshock actually granted health bonuses instead of taking them away, but the game was still awesome; likewise, if I spend too much time thinking that even though the protagonist in FC3 goes from “I’m afraid of even looking at a gun” to “Holy shit this flamethrower is fucking amazing!” in a very short amount of time, killing human beings by the dozens along the way, he still says “Ewww…..” while skinning his hundredth animal.

I mean, look – there’s a certain amount of willing suspension of disbelief that any gamer needs to have while playing a game with guns.  Leaving aside mechanical tropes like regenerating health and the ability to take more than one bullet hit and not immediately fall down dead, there’s lots of things that gamers need to ignore in order for a game’s narrative logic to not completely fall apart.  I’ve talked before about Uncharted‘s Nathan Drake and the dizzying amount of cognitive disassociation necessary for the gamer to accept that Drake isn’t a serial-murdering psychopath (who, according to my stats, murdered over 700 people in Uncharted 3) but rather a fun, charming ruffian who gets in and out of “scrapes.”   This is all to say that while I appreciate FC3’s writers trying to make the player character less of a mutant super-soldier and more of a normal dude, they either need to fully commit to the premise and have him get used to skinning animals, or just leave it alone altogether.

As for the game itself.

I’d finally gotten to the point where I’d done so much dicking around (exploring, ascending radio towers, reclaiming outposts, hunting and crafting, etc.) that I actually had too much XP – i.e., it seems that a lot of the skill tree is locked until you do more story missions.   And while screwing around is fun in and of itself, it turns out that you can have more fun if you have access to some of those locked skills.  So, I turned back to the story last night and decided to see what’s what.

Whaddya know, the story missions are also pretty awesome.  I escaped from a burning building and rescued my girlfriend, and now I’m on some sort of vision quest for the island’s high priestess, where I’ve made my way to a shanty village called “Badtown” and hooked up with some far-out CIA dude who’s having me run errands for him.

The narrative is still taking shape; there’s now apparently a super-villain that even the psychopathic Vaas must answer to, and I’m not quite sure where this high priestess / jungle mysticism thing is going, but as long as I get to continue running around and do the things I’m already doing, I’ll be happy.

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I also finished the story mode in Lego Lord of the Rings, which was a lot of fun (albeit with the same stupid platforming bullshit that has plagued the Lego games since the beginning), and I’m slowly going through the game again with the intent of getting 100%.  My wife is a huge LOTR fan, too, and she’s been having fun watching the strange incongruities that can happen in the post-completion phase of the game, like having Sauron and Frodo run around together solving puzzles.

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