2014: the battle between old and new

You know, I can be full of shit sometimes.

I just wrote this 800-word post about 2014, and how I feel strange because for the first time in a long time I feel like I have absolutely no handle on what’s happening this coming year, and how I’m feeling a little cut off since I don’t have either of the new consoles just yet, and how I’m still not even sure if I should get one or wait for the Steam Machine or just buy a new graphics card for my PC, and how all of this is ridiculous since I have an absurd backlog of games to get through…

… and then, to prove my point, I listed the 27 games in my Steam library that I would like to get through, games which I either never finished or barely started, and which I was posting so that, later in the year when I inevitably start whining about not having anything to play, one of you could call me out and say, well, what about that gigantic backlog, and I could say, OH YEAH, right, the backlog…

… and then, after taking a brief moment to clear my head and open a new browser tab, I decided to check out the latest offerings in the Steam sale, and for some bizarre reason I actually came this close to buying Metro: Last Light, which is a game that I’m not even sure I liked all that much when I rented it on the 360 earlier this year.

NOT EVEN 5 MINUTES HAD PASSED SINCE I’D FINISHED PUTTING THAT LIST TOGETHER, PEOPLE, before I almost spent $10 on a game that I was only interested in buying because it was on sale.

I am an idiot.

Here’s the original post, and the backlog list, and a formal request – please punch me in the face, either in person, on this blog or on twitter (@couchshouts), if I do any whining about not having enough to play next year.  THAT’S my new year’s resolution – to finally get punched in the face.

(Please do not literally punch me in the face.)

*     *     *

I don’t “do” resolutions, but two things I’d like to start doing in 2014 – or, rather, stop doing – are (1) apologizing for taking long-ish breaks at this blog (i.e., anything less than one post a week – it should be understood by now that my available blogging time is in short supply these days) and (2) apologizing in general, but specifically if I let real-life intrude into this space.  This is a game blog, and I try to keep this blog focused on that topic… but it’s also my only blog at the moment (since my tumblr page is simply a place where I re-blog other people’s stuff and/or repost stuff from this blog).

I’d like to do a “What I’m Looking Forward To in 2014” post, but the truth is that this is the first time in a really, really long time where I feel like I have absolutely no idea what’s happening in terms of upcoming software.  I don’t have either of the new consoles yet (though I sorta came close to buying an Xbox One this past weekend, even though I’d still rather get a PS4 first), and so I’m not quite yet invested in either of their forthcoming lineups beyond obvious stuff like Watch Dogs and Destiny (and indie stuff like The Witness and Transistor).  I’m also still kinda waiting to see what the Steam Machine is all about, and I’m also wondering if I should just forgo new consoles entirely and just invest in a new graphics card for my PC.

(From my outsiders perspective, I’m starting to feel like this year’s E3 will be the first E3 in a long time that will actually matter; the new consoles are already in people’s homes, and everybody wants to know what’s coming next.  And it’s not even just about continuing older franchises – this is the best possible time to show off new IP, now that we’re all hungry for something to really put these consoles through their paces.)  

And yet, and yet, and yet… the truth is, all of this prognosticating is silly, as far as I’m personally concerned; I simply can’t afford to play all this new stuff.  I can only realistically afford one (1) console next year, and unless I start getting my freelancing career in order and can get review copies of games without having to pay for them, I will have to start being a lot more selective in terms of what I end up playing, Gamefly notwithstanding.

Moreover, I’ve got an absolutely absurd backlog of games in my Steam library, and I can’t keep ignoring it or pretending it’s not there.  I’ve said this before, of course, but it bears repeating if only so that I can remind myself that it’s out there.

If I start to bitch and moan that I don’t have anything to play, I want one of you to remind me of the list that I’m about to post below.  This isn’t everything that’s unplayed in my Steam library, but this is the stuff that I intended to play but never got around to finishing.

  1. Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs (played the first 30 minutes or so)
  2. Antichamber (I’ve already played quite a lot of it, but I never finished it)
  3. Dishonored DLC (I got halfway through the first one, never started the second one)
  4. Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon (did the first 15 minutes and then got distracted.)
  5. Guacamelee!
  6. Gunpoint
  7. Hitman: Absolution (I’m maybe halfway through this one.  I found it somewhat distasteful, but I’m also compelled to stay with it, for some bizarre reason.)
  8. Kentucky Route Zero
  9. Lego Marvel Superheroes (which I was enjoying quite thoroughly until AC4 came along)
  10. Magrunner: Dark Pulse
  11. Outlast (which I just bought yesterday, for some reason, I don’t know why)
  12. Papo & Yo (which I played a bit of on the PS3, but never finished)
  13. Path of Exile (in case I need a free-to-play Diablo fix)
  14. Rayman Legends
  15. Resonance (which I have literally no memory of downloading, but I’m glad to see it’s in my library)
  16. Rochard
  17. Rogue Legacy
  18. Shadowrun Returns
  19. Shadow Warrior
  20. Spelunky (which I also just bought yesterday, and which I’m afraid of, if that amazing Polygon eggplant run story is to be believed)
  21. System Shock 2
  22. The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing
  23. The Last Remnant (these last 2 were picked up during a summer Steam sale)
  24. The Swapper (need to finish)
  25. The Witcher 2 (which I need to re-start and get back into)
  26. Torchlight 2
  27. XCOM: Enemy Within

That’s 27 games of generally excellent quality that I’ve not finished – and in some cases, have barely started.  This is ridiculous.  This is financially irresponsible.  This is why I have no business buying a new console any time soon, and why I should maybe not worry so much about trying to stay on top of all the new stuff.  Until I put myself in a position where I can play new stuff and get paid to offer written opinions about them, I have more than enough to keep myself occupied for the time being.

*     *     *

I also finished Batman Arkham Origins over the weekend, though “finished” is a relative term, of course – there’s so much side stuff left to do, and I’ve already done a great deal of it, but I don’t think I can do any more.

The game itself is… OK.  A little disappointing, and certainly very exhausting, but I sorta knew going into it that I should keep my expectations low, and so in that respect I feel like I got my money’s worth.  I guess it’s just that I love these Batman games, and even if I knew this was a B-team effort, I can’t help getting excited for them.  The combat just got to be too much after a while – there’s combat involved in nearly every single part of the game, and like I said in an earlier post it gets to be ridiculous.

There’s also some annoying technical problems, at least on the PC; while the game looks terrific for the most part, it did lock up and crash on multiple occasions, and there’s one boss fight near the end where the frame rate got very, very jittery (where you’re fighting Bane (and minions) with your shock-gloves turned on) – and in a game where combat is very much timing-based, my constant deaths in that sequence felt very, very cheap.

From a narrative perspective, it’s certainly conceptually interesting to see a prequel with these characters, but it feels like wasted potential.  The voice acting is woefully uneven – the new Batman and Joker voices are certainly good enough, but Jim Gordon couldn’t have sounded more bored and stiff if he tried.  Moreover, Joker’s character arc does not make any sense to me.  ***SPOILERS*** Joker and Batman have that post-Bane standoff at the hotel; Joker falls out of the building (can’t remember how) and Batman saves him; Joker, now incarcerated and being interviewed by the future Harlequin, appears to have some sort of epiphany about his relationship with Batman; but in the game’s final confrontation, nothing about his epiphany appears to have affected his plan AT ALL.  And I’m still confused about the bounty and Black Mask’s part in all this, and how if Joker was Black Mask all along, why was he trying to kill Batman in the beginning of the game?  Especially since Batman appears to be relatively new to the scene, and this game is where he originally learns about Joker in the first place?  ***END SPOILERS***

All that aside, there’s nothing quite like entering a room filled with bad guys and taking them all out without ever being spotted.  And even then, the difficulty on those particular challenge rooms is very, very uneven; I had a beast of a time in the early game because the room layouts made for very crowded enemy AI paths, but towards the end I was clearing them with ease because the room designs meant that enemies generally walked alone a lot more often.  I’m not complaining, necessarily, because it’s still a rush to clear those rooms regardless, but it’s odd.

I am now trying to figure out what to play next.  And before you remind me that I’m also playing Zelda on the 3DS, let me retort that I’m not having nearly as much fun with it as I’d hoped.  I may try some of the shorter games in that backlog above; Kentucky Route Zero has been on my mind a lot lately, and I wouldn’t mind getting deeper into both Lego Marvel and Rayman Legends.  And also Shadow Warrior.

Have a very happy new year, everybody!

THE GAMES OF 2013

I.

2013 was a year of great change and transition, and as you might expect it was both very good and incredibly surreal.  On a personal level, I became a father; I released a solo album; I moved into a new apartment; I got over my fear of brain pills and started taking anti-anxiety medications (and they appear to be working); and I became a contributing member to the New York Videogame Critics Circle, which is a pretty nice break for a nobody like me.  These are all significant and happy milestones.

As a gamer, well:

Let me say this right up front:  this right here is a videogame blog, so when I say things like “Being a new father means that I don’t have as much time to play games”, I am very much NOT wanting to sound like a callous, privileged asshole whose newborn child is an inconvenience.  Please understand that the non-gamer part of me literally cringes when I say stuff like that, and also understand that I hate that I’m not a good enough writer to find a better way of putting it.  I love my kid, and I love the time I spend with him more than anything else in the world.  He’s changed my life for the better in more ways that I’m probably even aware of.

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THAT BEING SAID, yes, of course, having a kid has completely changed my gaming habits.  How could it not?  I used to have all-day marathon gaming sessions, but I obviously can no longer binge the way I used to; more to the point, I don’t game at all when the kid is awake, and I’m very self-conscious about loud TV noises when he’s asleep in the next room.  (Which is why I still remain absolutely shocked that I was somehow able to find 50 hours in which to finish GTA V earlier this year.)   Because of all this, I ended up moving my gaming setup from the living room to the office, and so nearly everything I played of any significance was played on the PC, in my comfy office chair and my kick-ass headphones.

I know I’m prone to excessive hyperbole here, but it cannot be overstated enough: moving to the PC changed everything for me.   It’s why I’m not necessarily foaming at the mouth for a PS4 or an XBO, and why I’m instead contemplating a new graphics card or (more likely) a Steam Machine.  It’s why I’m no longer shackled to the crippling addiction of Achievement hunting.  It’s why I’m now a lot more excited about the indie game scene than the next AAA blockbuster.

[It’s also why I feel a little bit lonelier, I suppose.  I have a few good friends on Steam, but nothing compared to the dozens of people I’d see on Xbox Live every day.  Of course, I’ve never been all that big on multiplayer (and neither are most of those XBL friends, come to think of it), so it’s not like I was missing out on epic online battles (at least, not that I’m aware of).  Still, there’s just a large segment of friends that I’m now kinda cut off from, and it’s weird.]

The other big thing about having a kid and the resulting loss of free time is that, as you’ll soon see, my ratio of games finished to games played is so completely out of whack that I clearly have no business buying a next-gen console any time soon.

II.

Here’s the question that ended last year’s introduction:  “When was the last time you played a game and experienced joy?”

It wasn’t necessarily a rhetorical question; at the time that I was working on that piece, I was still half-heartedly dicking around in Far Cry 3 (a game that tried (and failed) to be subversive about violence in videogames) while still reeling from the Newtown school shooting (which was actual violence, and which was actually horrifying).  I was in a sort of weird crisis, to be honest; I was starting to feel sickened from all the virtual killing I’d been doing, and it was making me feel disconnected from something I’d loved since my childhood.  I was genuinely interested in knowing if there was more to this medium than guns; if it was possible to achieve a win state without having to wallow in bloodlust; if one could go from point A to point B without having to kill anything.  I wanted to know if games could make me feel something beyond the simple satisfaction of killing enough things to get to the next checkpoint; hell, I just wanted to feel something.  I was seriously contemplating going through 2013 without playing any game that involved the pulling of a trigger, even if it meant missing out on games that I’d genuinely been looking forward to.

In the end, I bailed on that challenge.  But because I had to switch up my living room couch for my computer chair, I ended up playing a far wider variety of games this year than I ever expected, and I also ended up feeling some pretty powerful feels, when all is said and done.

III.

Speaking of feels, normally I avoid talking about game industry news in these year-end posts, but 2013 featured two game-related stories that I feel should be brought up, being that they affected me and people I know personally.

(1)  I couldn’t continue with this post without mentioning the passing of the late, great Ryan Davis.  It’s weird to talk about being a fan of a gaming journalist, but I was a Ryan Davis fan, ever since his early Gamespot days.  Even though we’d never met or corresponded in any way, I still felt like we would’ve hit it off if we’d somehow been introduced; his gregariousness would certainly have made me feel welcome.  It is still weird to not hear his voice introducing the Bombcast; indeed, the Bombcast has not been the same without him.

(2)  I also couldn’t talk about 2013 without mentioning the internet; specifically, how awful it is, and how, despite my desire to become a professional gaming journalist, I kinda sorta want nothing to do with it.  This craziness has been around for a long while, of course, but this was the first time that I started to take it personally, even if none of it was ever directed my way.  This was the year in which noted game developer and notorious troll-feeder Phil Fish not only ragequit Twitter entirely, but took Fez 2 with him.  This was the year in which a Call of Duty engineer made a small mathematical adjustment to the damage of a gun and received death threats in return.  This was the year in which a Gamespot review that gave GTA V a 9 out of 10 resulted in over 20,000 vile, hateful, evil comments.  (That the review was written by a good friend of mine only made it feel worse.)  This was the year in which there were so many instances of rape and death threats directed at female journalists and game developers for no reason other than their gender that it eventually somehow became a non-story, which is unbelievably distressing.  I don’t have an answer for this, and I don’t know how the victims of this incessant abuse are able to deal with it.  It makes me unbearably sad.  It reflects poorly on us all.

*sigh*

And that’s why I don’t talk about news in these posts!  Let’s get on with the show.

THE YEAR IN ACHIEVEMENTS:  As of 1/1/2013, my score was 86295, when I finished the Leviathan DLC for ME3.  As of 12/23/13, it’s 87915, and it’s highly unlikely that number will change any time soon, considering that I’m barely playing my 360 these days and that I’m all but certain I’m getting a PS4 first.  In any event, this is by far the lowest yearly increase since I bought the 360 in the first place, and this is probably the last year that I pay attention to it or include it in these posts.

BEST MECHANIC:  There’s no runaway winner in this category like there was last year with Dishonored and “Blink”.  But I suppose it should be noted that the control scheme in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is perhaps the only control scheme I’ve ever played that, because of narrative events, caused me to cry (in a good way).

GAMES FINISHED:  I said in the introduction that this year’s ratio of games finished to games played was absurd.  According to my Google spreadsheet, I played 71 games this year, but only finished 15.  This is embarrassing, but there are several reasons for this.  Firstly, the baby’s arrival meant that my game time was limited, and so I wasn’t going to waste my time with stuff that wasn’t grabbing me right off the bat – there were lots of Gamefly titles that came and went often on the same day.  Secondly, quite a few of the games on my spreadsheet are 3DS games, but I’m starting to realize that I never have a good time to play them; I don’t like bringing the 3DS out on the subway, and playing it at work is a terrible idea for obvious reasons, and if I play it at bedtime my hands cramp up and my eyes start freaking out, and so I’m not sure I ended up making any significant progress on any of the 3DS games in my library this year.  But if I’m being totally honest, I’m going to assign most of the blame on Steam Sales, which make games on my wishlist appear far more appetizing than they should, and which is an affliction that obviously affects us all.  I’m already prone to poor impulse control anyway; Steam Sales mean that I’m continually biting off far more than I can be expected to chew.

  • The Cave (one playthrough, at least – you need to play 3 times to see everything, and even though the game is pretty short, I didn’t like it enough to play it that much)

  • Devil May Cry

  • Tomb Raider (twice)

  • Bioshock Infinite

  • Call of Juarez: Gunslinger

  • The Last of Us

  • Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

  • Gone Home

  • Saints Row 4

  • GTA V

  • Rain

  • Beyond: Two Souls

  • Assassin’s Creed 4

  • The Stanley Parable (I think I finished it, at least)

Did Not Finish, Would Like to Finish Someday:

  • Antichamber (came pretty close, I think, but my hard drive crashed and I lost that save forever)

  • BIT TRIP Runner 2 (which I’d like to go back to, definitely – it’s certainly my favorite soundtrack of 2013)

  • Etrian Odyssey 4 (currently stuck in a weird spot and I don’t know how to advance; it’s been months since I picked it up, though, and I’m not sure I’d know where to go if I started again)

  • Ni No Kuni (which I recall enjoying, but then the baby came and I got a bit distracted)

  • The Swapper (to be finished in 2014)

  • Shadowrun Returns (to be finished in 2014)

  • Fire Emblem: Awakening

  • Dishonored DLC

  • Shadow Warrior (to be finished in 2014)

  • Rayman Legends (to be finished in 2014)

  • LEGO Marvel (to be finished in 2014)

  • Zelda: Link Between Worlds (to be finished in 2014?)

  • Papers Please (to be finished in 2014)

  • Mario & Luigi Dream Team

Barely Started:

  • Amnesia: Home for Pigs

  • Civ V: Brave New World DLC

  • Kentucky Route Zero

  • XCOM: Enemy Within

  • Fire Emblem Awakening

  • Gunpoint

  • Eldritch

  • The Wolf Among Us

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

  • Remember Me

  • Animal Crossing: A New Leaf

Did Not Finish, Do Not Want to Finish:

  • Splinter Cell Blacklist (pretty sure this franchise is dead to me now, too)

  • Castlevania 3DS (I’d spend more time typing out the full title than I did playing the game)

  • Metro Last Light (meh, personified)

  • Batman Arkham Origins Blackgate (the 3DS game is tedious, confusing, and kinda ugly)

Notable Games I Did Not Play:

  • Dead Space 3

  • Metal Gear Revengeance

  • SimCity

  • God of War: Ascension

  • Starcraft 2: HoS

  • Gears of War: Judgment

  • Crysis 3

  • Grid 2

  • Spelunky (PC)

  • Pokemon X/Y

  • The Bureau: XCOM Declassified

  • Battlefield 4

  • Call of Duty: Ghosts 2

  • Tearaway (though it makes me think about getting a Vita)

  • any of the PS4/XONE exclusives

Best voice performance

  • Gone Home – Sarah Grayson as “Sam”.  There is no game here without Sam’s story, and Ms. Grayson’s performance is true and genuine and heartbreaking.  She’s given a great script, to be sure, but without an effective actor the game would never hit the same emotional peaks.  (As I said in my review for the NYVCC, “Indeed, the success of Sam as a character is making me rethink my position on the tired trope of audio diaries as exposition.”)

Best soundtrack:

  • BitTrip Runner 2, and I say this even though I haven’t finished the game – the soundtrack is on Spotify and it’s excellent.  It’d clearly make for a great exercise soundtrack, I think, and if I ever get around to exercising on a regular basis I might have to try that out.  And as far as runner-ups are concerned, there was a Disasterpeace remix album of Fez songs that was quite nice, although it’s not exactly a 2013 game.

Most Disappointing:

  • I didn’t play it, but it sounds like Dead Space 3 was pretty terrible; it also seems to have killed the franchise, which is a real shame.

  • As for games I did play, The Cave was charming and quirky, but not nearly as awesome as I’d hoped, and the idea that I’d have to play it three times to see everything was very quickly tossed out before I’d finished it once.  On the flip side, Bioshock Infinite and GTA V were both incredible experiences and staggering technological achievements, and I finished them both and don’t regret the time I spent with them, but they also had some very significant and glaring flaws, and I haven’t felt compelled to revisit them the way I thought I would.  (Side note:  I quite liked the Burial at Sea DLC for Bioshock Infinite, even if it was similarly flawed.)

A Once-Favorite Franchise I’m More or Less Ready to Give Up On:

  • It’s hard for me to come to terms with the fact that the last Splinter Cell game that I genuinely enjoyed was Chaos Theory, on the original Xbox.  I did my best to give this year’s edition a fair shake, but I was completely disengaged with it halfway through the 2nd mission.

Best Gaming Podcast:

  • Bombin’ the AM with Scoops and The Wolf.  Two smart, funny dudes (and the occasional terrific guest) who actually talk about shit I care about, twice a week, in a reasonable amount of time.  (If I can get real here for a second, I’m finding the regular Giant Bombcast to be damn-near impossible to listen to these days.  It’s rare that I have 3 hours in a given week to listen to it, and I don’t find myself ever needing to hear Jeff and Vinny riff for 45 minutes about sandwiches or plumbing supplies or go-bags or wrestling or early 90s hip-hop.  Indeed, the cult of personality that has lately enveloped Giant Bomb has made it a site that I’m just not spending that much time with anymore, with the notable exception of PK’s “Worth Reading” columns.)

Favorite Articles:

What I’m Hoping to See Announced in 2014 (even if it doesn’t come out in 2014) (and even though this list can only be based on existing IP because I can’t get excited for brand-new IP that I don’t yet know about):

  • Fallout 4, built with the Rage engine (the game’s been confirmed, even if the engine hasn’t)

  • Uncharted 4  (confirmed by a teaser trailer)

  • new Batman game built by Rocksteady (rumored)

  • or something else built by Rocksteady, I’ll buy it anyway

  • a new, next-gen Criterion-built Burnout game

  • Portal 3

  • Red Dead Redemption 2

  • a new Crash Bandicoot game (and maybe there’s hope for this yet:  http://www.polygon.com/2013/11/25/5142830/activision-wants-to-resurrect-crash-bandicoot-series)

  • Mark of the Ninja 2

  • Shadow Complex 2

  • Tomb Raider 2 (in this new rebooted series)

  • new Deus Ex

iOS GAMES OF THE YEAR:  I really ought to just make a separate category for PikPok and Adult Swim, as pretty much everything they put out is terrific; there were a ton of great games for iOS this year, and here are the best of the best:

  • XCOM

  • The Room Two

  • Flick Kick Football Legends

  • Giant Boulder of Death

  • Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol

  • Infinity Blade III

  • Angry Birds Star Wars 2

  • Puzzle and Dragon

  • Spirit Stones

  • Device 6

  • Year Walk

  • Ridiculous Fishing

  • Rayman Fiesta Run

  • Colassatron

TOP 10 (with profound apologies everything in my “Did Not Finish But Would Like To Someday” list, and especially to The Last of Us, which is certainly a good game but not an experience I can claim that I enjoyed, and also The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, which everyone else acknowledges is amazing and which I’ve already acknowledged I can’t quite get into):

10.  Call of Juarez: Gunslinger.  The Call of Juarez name does not inspire much confidence, and I certainly didn’t expect very much (even if I’d heard some good things).  An absurdly low Steam Sale price got me to pick this up, though, and I’m really glad I did; it’s a fun little Western with great shooting mechanics and which has a lot of fun with narrative structure and the idea of the “tall tale.”  And the boss duels were pretty terrific, too.  My pick for most underrated / overlooked game of the year.

9.  Saints Row IV.  Considering what happened to THQ, and considering that this was originally supposed to be a DLC mission pack for Saints Row 3, it’s amazing that this turned out as well as it did.  If nothing else, it somehow managed to out-crazy the already crazy SR3, and frankly I have literally no idea how they’ll top it in the next one.

8.  The Stanley Parable.  Speaking of games having fun with narrative structure, this is also the funniest game since Portal 2, and also one that has moments of startling beauty and emotional resonance.  Perhaps this is more “art game” than “game”, but it’s still an experience that shouldn’t be missed.

7.  Bioshock Infinite.  Perhaps it’s my own fault; perhaps my expectations were too high, and so this game was never going to be good enough.  Or perhaps its just that the great and insightful critical responses to the first game made me hyper-aware of this game’s logical flaws and fallacies.  Or maybe it’s just that I’m tired of shooters, and there was so much shooting in this game.  Whatever the case, I didn’t enjoy this as much as I wanted to.  But I can’t deny that there’s a tremendous amount to love and appreciate in this game, too – the graphics, the sound design, the art direction, the world, the music, the characters, the ending…

6.  GTA V.  I’ve written far too many words about this game already.  The short version is that even though the game’s story is silly (to put it kindly), and the three main characters are morally and ethically reprehensible, and the game’s treatment of women is profoundly sad – despite all of that, the world that Rockstar has created here is truly remarkable, and it’s about goddamned time that the gameplay has finally caught up with the rest of the industry.   While I wonder if I’m getting too old for this series – which is a thought that feels thoroughly depressing – I still hold out hope that Rockstar will get the narrative stuff straightened out for GTA VI.

5.  Devil May Cry.  I’m not a fan of the earlier games in the franchise, but I am a fan of Ninja Theory, and what they’ve done with this reboot is pretty incredible.  This was a visually stunning game, and it felt great to play – this might be my 2nd favorite melee combat system behind Batman, frankly.  Can’t wait to see what they do next.

4.  Tomb Raider.  Apparently I wasn’t so keen on this the first time I played it, but for some reason I felt compelled to replay it later on and then I fell in love with it.  Sure, the grotesque death sequences are a little much (as are the constant grunts and howls of pain), and maybe the ending was a little hokey, but I thought this was a fantastic reboot of an important franchise; it made Lara a real person instead of a hyper-sexualized automaton, and it made the violence matter.  Killing a person (or even an animal) shouldn’t be easy, and you can feel how it chews her up as the game progresses, even as she learns to harden herself from it.  Speaking of which, the gameplay was quite good – this might’ve been the first Lara Croft game with genuinely fun combat, frankly.  I hope that for the next one, they put back some of the tombs and the puzzles – that’s what I really play these games for, and I’m hoping that now that they’ve better established who Lara is, they can now put her in some interesting situations.

3.  Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag.  I’ve written too much about this (and too recently) to recap it effectively here, so I’ll keep it short – I was all but ready to give up on Assassin’s Creed, but then this came out and now I’m fully engaged again.  Hell, I still want to go back and finish all the stuff I hadn’t yet gotten to.  A very welcome return to a much beleaguered franchise.

2.  Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.  This sorta came out of nowhere; I don’t recall hearing that much about it before I picked it up, although I must’ve heard something that compelled me to check it out.  In any event, I’m forever grateful that I did; I had an absolutely delightful time with it.  And then, of course, there’s that ending… Like I said earlier, I’m not sure that a control scheme has ever moved me to tears, but there you have it.

1.  Gone Home.  Here’s that question again, the one I asked at the beginning of last year’s GOTY post, and the one that I brought up again earlier in this one:  “When was the last time you played a game and experienced joy?”  There are so many things to say about this game, and there are a lot of people who’ve said it a lot better than me – go back and read those links I posted earlier.  It’s rare to see a game affect people so deeply and profoundly; indeed, it’s rare that gamers let themselves be moved.  We generally play games knowing that, for the most part, we’re not playing it for the story – and games are, for better or worse, generally built with that philosophy in mind.  All I knew about this game going into it was that it was kind of spooky, and that it was a game of pure exploration – no combat, no enemies, no ticking clock.  And for the first third of it, I thought I was playing in a haunted house – there’s one particular jump scare that still spooks me when I think about it.  Of course, the game turned into a deep and moving love story, and my tears at the ending were genuine tears of joy.  A truly special experience and a game that I’ll always remember.

Delayed Reactions: Gotham – a city worth saving?

[This post is kicking off the new Delayed Reactions* feature that will likely see a lot of action in the coming months, as it’s going to involve impressions and review-ish pieces about stuff in my backlog (which is quite large at the moment).  I already did a “First Few Hours” post about Batman Arkham Origins, and so this piece (and pieces like it) will go a bit more in depth about what’s working, what isn’t working, and how I’m feeling about the game without being influenced by current review scores.]

If I had to pick one word to describe my feelings about Batman Arkham Origins at this point, I think that word would be “absurd.”

Absurd point #1:  Considering that the game is about a comic book superhero, I’m more than willing to suspend my disbelief in order to preserve narrative coherence.  And I’ll also note up front that my familiarity with Batman is strictly limited to the first Tim Burton film and the three Chris Nolan films; I don’t read the comics, I haven’t watched the cartoons or animated features.  But I understand that Batman is, among other things, a vigilante hell-bent on saving his city, a man with near-infinite resources and an ethical code that prevents him from killing, but doesn’t prevent him from beating the crap out of anybody in his way.  THAT BEING SAID, I’m 9 hours into the game, and I’ve probably taken out at least 500 bad guys already, and so it begs the question:  with the notable exceptions of Alfred, Jim (Not-Yet-Commissioner) Gordon and his daughter Barbara (more on her in a second), are there any citizens of Gotham that are not crooked, corrupt or just plain evil?  Even the police that I’ve come across are all mobster-controlled scumbags, which makes it very odd that Batman still feels obligated to have Alfred leave anonymous tips to the GCPD every time he captures a particularly notable baddie.  More to the point:  Batman’s need to “save” Gotham is, at this point, pathologically insane, because there is nothing worth saving, anywhere.  Frankly, the bad guys who keep saying that Gotham is past the point of saving are clearly speaking the truth.  There are never any citizens out and about on the streets, but there are gangsters on nearly every street corner, rooftop and sewer tunnel that you come across.  If there’s that much criminal activity, who on earth is there left to steal from?

Absurd point #2:   The key phrase in the previous point is that after 9 hours of gameplay I’ve had to fight what feels like 500 dudes already, and yet the game is telling me I’m only 20-25% complete.  There is SO.  MUCH.  COMBAT.  Let’s all agree that the Batman games have the best melee combat system out there right now as far as third-person action games are concerned (and I say this as someone whose never been particularly graceful as far as the combat is concerned, going back to the first game – I like it, of course, but I could never get very high scores in the Challenges, and that still continues in this game – I very rarely get graded above a “B” in the game unless it’s just one dude and I sneak behind him and perform a silent takedown, and the XP bonuses for shitty scores really rub it in, how not amazing I am at the game).  But let’s also agree that too much of a good thing ceases to be good and starts to become very, very tedious.  In this game, it’s not enough that you clear out a room full of a dozen guys armed with guns; halfway through the battle another wave will come in, for no apparent reason other than the developers seem to think that more combat is always the right answer.

Absurd point #3:  When you’re not endlessly beating dudes to a pulp in service of the main story, there are literally dozens and dozens of side quests which also involve beating dudes to a pulp, and it’s gotten to the point where I’m being reminded of Assassin’s Creed Revelations, where you literally can’t move 10 feet without something popping up on your HUD – a crime in progress, a Penguin arms cache, a hidden Anarky tag, an Enigma henchman and/or datapack and/or radio signal thing.   I can barely catch my breath and just look around without having to hit something.  On the one hand, I appreciate the desire to provide content; on the other hand, almost all these side missions end up being nearly identical in how they play out, so it doesn’t actually feel meaningful in any way – and considering that bad guys seem to respawn endlessly, it actually feels like I’ve done nothing to clean up the city.

The crime scene activities kinda sorta break up the pace a little bit, to be fair, but they’re also a little hackneyed and ridiculous (i.e., the “reconstructions” are cool but completely beyond the bounds of reality, and because there’s so many of them they eventually become a little eye-roll inducing, and in any event the crime scenes are not puzzles beyond you simply finding the next thing to scan), and they also almost always end with you finding the suspect in a group of baddies and you have to beat them all down, which, again, enough with the combat already.

Absurd point #4:  Origins is a prequel to the previous games; I’m not yet sure if it has any direct ties in to those games, or if it’s merely set on a previous day.  In any event, it’s “neat”, I suppose, to see Gordon in his pre-commissioner days, and to see Alfred looking a bit less, er, old.  Another notable event featured in this game is how Batman and Barbara Gordon meet and become allies – in Arkham Asylum, they’re already working together, and I was always a little curious to see how they met.  I won’t give it away (although it happens pretty early in the game, and the game is already a few months old, so I’m hopefully not spoiling anything), but the scene in question is so short that it comes off as silly.  He startles her; she recognizes him and immediately gives him all the info he needs; the end.  I was hoping for something a little more interesting; perhaps it’ll arrive a little later, but for now it just feels dumb.

I’m trying to enjoy the game; and there are times when I’m having fun.  I did ragequit the game last night, though, during a boss battle with Deadshot; I’d cleared out the room and took out most of Deadshot’s health, and then the room flooded in with armed bad guys again, and one shot killed me, and then it started over from the very beginning of the fight, and so I promptly turned the game off and went on with the rest of my life.

_________________________

* Alternate titles for this feature include “Poor Lag Time”, “Telling You Things You Already Know”, and a revival of my little-used feature, “Everything Old is New Again.”

the first few hours: Batman Arkham Origins

When Bioshock Infinite was released earlier this year, the first wave of reviews were positively glowing with praise; it wasn’t until a few weeks later that the game’s more glaring flaws started to show.  A similar thing happened with Grand Theft Auto V – that first wave was all 10/10, 9/10, near-unanimous accolades, and then, as the rest of us sunk our 60+ hours in over a more reasonable amount of time, the game’s problems became a lot more apparent.  I can’t help but wonder if the insane timecrunch that most big-league reviewers have to undergo in order to get their pieces out by release day means that they can’t see the larger picture.

I’m not saying those reviews are wrong, necessarily; I’m just saying that there are two different ways of spending 50 hours with a game, and that the one in which those 50 hours are spent non-consecutively are obviously going to have a certain degree of perspective that the time-crunched player simply can’t have.  This is the nature of the beast that is video game journalism.

This is partly why I tend to avoid official “reviews” here on this site, and why I prefer to write these pseudo-real-time documentaries instead.  While it’s dumb to describe the life of a non-profit videogame blogger as “luxurious”, the truth is that I, as a non-big-league writer, have the luxury of not having any deadlines.

In any event, I’m around 90 minutes into the lukewarm-reviewed Batman Arkham Origins, and – at least so far – it’s not nearly as bad as I thought it might be.  Perhaps it starts off strong and then peters out?  Perhaps it’s simply that it’s keeping to the well-worn formula of the previous two games and doesn’t add or improve anything of any significance?  No matter; it’s doing what the Batman games do and it’s doing them well enough for the time being.

If I have one particular nit to pick, it’s that if you happen to get into a random combat encounter, enemies will seemingly spawn in from thin air; you might have a strategy to deal with the 4 or 5 dudes that you can actually see, but then 10 more will fly in from nowhere, and it’s the sort of thing that makes these fights become longer and more tedious than they need to be.

I suppose another nitpick isn’t actually this game’s fault, but rather my own; I just spent 50 hours playing Assassin’s Creed 4, and while a lot of the controls between the two games are similar (especially when it comes to melee combat), there are a few that are very much not; a key example is that in AC4 the run button is mapped to the right trigger, whereas in BAO the right trigger makes you sneak.  I suppose this is actually something that could come in handy, as it’s usually not a good idea to run around as Batman, but it’s still the sort of thing that makes my brain hurt every once in a while as I struggle to get acclimated to a new control scheme.

All that aside, I’m enjoying it.  Maybe it’s not as inspired as the previous two games, but it’s still doing what those games did and doing it well enough, and for the time being that’s quite enough for me.

a slight change of plans

Sorry for the recent radio silence here.  The day job has been absurdly busy and time-consuming this week, and my evenings have been busy with work, social events and non-gaming-related activities, and the small amount of remaining time I’ve had to carve out for games-relating writing has been strictly focused on the upcoming Year In Games 2013 post.

Speaking of which, I’m nearly 2200 words into that post, but now, suddenly, I have to put it on pause for a little bit.  I recently came into an Amazon gift card, and just this morning I happened to see that Amazon has the PC download (i.e., Steam-able) version of Batman Arkham Origins available for 40% off.  I’d been waiting for a Steam sale to pick it up, but it hasn’t been discounted there at all this year – and meanwhile I think this is the second time Amazon had it on sale.  In any event, the gift card meant that I didn’t have to pay for it anyway, so it’s now currently downloading on my home PC.

Of all the notable games of 2013 that I had not played, BAO was the one that I’d most hoped I’d get to.  (Is that the second most-awkward sentence I’ve written this year?  Not sure anything beats the first paragraph of this post.)  The two previous Batman games are among my favorites of the entire console generation, and even though I know that this newest entry is (a) not developed by Rocksteady, (b) apparently pretty buggy, especially on the PC, and (c) probably not going to bust into my Top 10 (if the general review-scape is any indication), I’m still kinda jonesing to play it.

So, then, that’s the plan for this weekend during baby nap-times: to finish as much as I can of BAO, maybe try to squeeze in a bit more of Zelda 3DS, and also get the apartment ready for hosting Christmas next week.  And so the GOTY post will have to wait just a bit longer.

Also: pretty much everything on iOS is on sale right now, and so if you have some room on your iOS device, you should get busy.  Angry Birds Star Wars II is currently free.  I picked up the Deus Ex game for iPad this morning for 99 cents, and I think I might get KOTOR when I get home ($5, down from $10).

Also also:  The Room Two is fan-fucking-tastic.

Also also also:  While the control scheme is a bit wonky, I still find it amazing that I have GTA: San Andreas on my fucking iPhone.

Also also also also:  Halfbrick (who made Jetpack Joyride and Fruit Ninja, among others) have a new game out today, and it’s called Colassatron, and it’s pretty rad.

stepping away from the ledge

I came this close to buying a PS4 yesterday.  Amazon suddenly had them in stock yesterday afternoon, and I got as far as having one sitting in my cart and getting it scheduled for Saturday delivery, before ultimately bailing on it.  In fact, I did this twice.  But each time I sat there with my mouse hovering over the CONFIRM button, I found that I couldn’t pull the trigger.

Here’s the thing that I had to repeatedly remind myself of – there’s almost nothing in the launch lineup that I need to play.  There’s only 2 games for the PS4 that I’d even consider buying right now, and the thing is, I’d just spent 60 hours playing one of them (Assassin’s Creed 4) on my PC.  And while I’m intrigued by Need For Speed Rivals, it’s not the sort of intrigue that’s worth spending over $460 on.  The rest of the PS4 launch lineup doesn’t really interest me all that much – I suppose I’d like to see Battlefield 4, but I’d rather see it when it isn’t completely broken.  And I can pass on the sports titles.

Xbox Ones have been much easier to find – on Amazon, at least – and I suppose I’m kinda interested in Forza (microtransactions notwithstanding) and Dead Rising 3 (even if I’m not really a big fan of that franchise).  And I’ve heard enough decent things about Ryse to make it worth checking out.  But the rest of the XBO baggage (like the Kinect and the buggy dashboard) is what’s keeping me away, and in any event I’m still finding myself wanting to dive into GTA V Online every so often – or, at least, I want the option available – so I don’t necessarily want to disconnect my 360.

But I’m also in this weird, post-AC4 period where I’m wanting to play new stuff, even as I have a huge backlog of stuff I haven’t finished.  Indeed, I’ve been stuck all week in this paralytic state where I just stare at my Steam library and don’t actually play anything.  That backlog, incidentally, includes quality stuff like:

  • Legend of Zelda: Link Between Worlds
  • Shadow Warrior
  • Antichamber
  • Rayman Legends
  • Lego Marvel
  • The Swapper
  • Kentucky Route Zero
  • FC3: Blood Dragon
  • Dishonored DLC
  • Mass Effect 3 – The Citadel DLC

*sigh*

In the meantime, GTA San Andreas is currently loading on my iPad, and The Room 2 is already there, so I can maybe calm down with the next-gen consoles for the time being.

Also also, I’m hoping to have the Best of 2013 post up some time next week.  In addition, I think I’m going to be involved in the voting process for the NYVCC awards, which will mark the first time I’ve gotten to deliberate with peers (or, rather, people that I’d like to consider me as a peer one day), as opposed to the usual howling into the void that happens here.  In any event, keep your eyes peeled.

weekend recap: a year older

I turned 38 over the weekend.  There is a time for philosophizing and reflecting, for getting melancholy over what I might’ve done better and for getting hopeful for what I’ve yet to do; this is not that time, unfortunately.  I’ve got like maybe 10 minutes to cram in whatever I’m going to say, so here goes.

Biggest news is that I finished the single-player campaign for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, even if the game tells me I’m only 71% complete.  This is, if I remember correctly, the same approximate completion percentage I had when I finished GTA V.  The difference is, it’s easy for me to figure out how to 100% AC4 – it’s mostly doing assassin missions, naval contracts, sunken treasure dives, one or two more fort battles, really souping up the Jackdaw, and then finding all the chests and stuff in those little islands at sea, whereas getting 100% in GTA V requires, among other things, scouring every goddamned inch of ground for hidden collectibles, which I’m never going to do.

AC4 is, for the most part, a very welcome return to glory for a franchise that had very much lost its way in its last two outings.  This is not to say that AC4 is not without some serious problems of its own, of course – the overall narrative remains confounding, the “present-day” stuff is both confusing and, ultimately, profoundly underwhelming (I found all 20 sticky notes and hacked all 33 computers and didn’t even get an achievement or any sort of acknowledgment), the PC version has some bugs and some technical shortcomings that make the game nearly unplayable at times, and the campaign’s ending felt rather anti-climactic; I never really felt that the “bad guys” were all that bad, and – more troublingly – I was never convinced that my character had suddenly become a “good guy”, motivated by right and good and not by money and personal gain, especially since, once the game ended, I could return to pillaging and plundering and boarding and sinking as I had for the previous 58 hours.

In the end, though, it gets a lot of stuff right that the last 2 games never did.  It never adds too many systems, and the systems it does have in place are, for the most part, fun and engaging (though they do get repetitive if you let them).  Hey, look – I spent nearly 60 hours of my life playing it and finishing the single-player campaign, which is a hell of a lot more than I can say for ACRev and AC3.

I am inching along in Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds; I found the master sword and am about to enter Hyrule Castle, which (according to a walkthrough) means I’m roughly 1/3 or 1/4 into the game?  I like it, I guess, but my 3DS time is very limited these days, and this isn’t necessarily grabbing me as much as I thought it might.  I suppose this is my fault, as I never played the original game, and so I don’t have the same nostalgic pull that everyone else in the entire world seems to have.  But I’m also not the world’s biggest Nintendo fan anyway, so feel free to accuse me of bias.

Finally, I did not watch the VGX awards show.  I thought about it – I specifically thought about running a hate-tweet commentary – but figured my time would be better spent doing almost anything else.  I get no pleasure out of hating something, especially something that’s supposed to be something I like, and since the wife and kid were out of the apartment I figured it was a better opportunity to blast through as much AC4 as possible without having to feel guilty about neglecting my family.  If internet opinion is to be believed, it appears I made the right decision.

The Long Goodbye to the Xbox 360 and PS3

INTRODUCTION

It began in late December of 2005, and it began – as these things often do – by responding to a Craigslist ad, and then meeting a complete stranger in a Burger King parking lot in Astoria, Queens.

And it ended with me out 700 bucks, but with a new Xbox 360.

Rather than trying to recall what that experience might’ve been like all these years later, it just so happens that I documented the unboxing on my blog.  And so what follows is an excerpt from my December 21, 2005 Livejournal post, which appears to be the day after I bought my first 360.  Please excuse the slack-jawed hyperbole that follows.  As I read it again now, at the other side of the era, I’m literally shocked at the sorts of things that apparently dropped my jaw back then:

…I bit the bullet, scoured Craigslist and paid too much (but not THAT much) for an Xbox 360. I know that I had said that I wasn’t going to make a big deal about it, and that I could wait until it wasn’t such a pain in the ass to get one, but – this guy was selling it for pretty cheap, AND he lived in Queens, AND he drove it to my house.  I don’t have an HDTV, but I do have a nice 27″ TV, and the games STILL look phenomenal. Not only that, but the user interface is fan-fucking-tastic, PLUS I can connect my iPod up to it with a USB cable, PLUS I can download all these awesome old-school arcade games for $5. The wireless controller (!!!) can shut down the console all by itself. The PS3 may end up being a more powerful machine, but for my money the Xbox360 is where it’s at, in terms of the online experience, the ease of use, and the elegance and simplicity of the user interface. The games, also, will play a part. I bought Kameo (beautiful platform-y action-y adventure-y), Perfect Dark Zero (beautiful sci-fi first person shooter/stealth), Project Gotham Racing 3 (insanely beautiful driving game), and Call of Duty 2 (World War 2 shooter, which is the only one I haven’t spent any time with). I also downloaded Geometry Wars, which is completely insane and trippy and ridiculous.

Isn’t that adorable?  Being in love with the original “Blades” 360 interface?  Being gobsmacked by a wireless controller that (i) comes standard in the box, and (ii) can power up and power down the console?   Being impressed that I could connect my iPod via USB?  Being knocked out by Perfect Dark Zero?

Oh man.  What a long way we’ve come since then.

*     *     *

I never really thought about it all that much; I guess I’d always just assumed that I was a one-console dude.  I’d always been one, ever since my early days rocking an Atari 2600. Being a “fanboy” sounded like an adolescent waste of time, but in retrospect it’s clear to me now that I’d always been one (because, since I had the Atari, I never got to own a Nintendo).  I’d pick (or, really, be given) a console and then I’d stick with it with a fierce devotion, most likely so that I could feel justified in my purchase and not get too bent out of shape if a different console had an exclusive game that I couldn’t, in my current state, play.  (In the case of the Xbox, the one time I really got bent out of shape was for the GTA games – and as it turned out, those games got really great Xbox ports, so it all turned out OK.)

The point is, this sort of juvenile, “one console or bust” thinking continued well into my 30s, and I only broke out of that mindset by accident.  I was a die-hard 360 owner and proud of it, but it turned out that I’d backed the wrong HD format for movies.  HD-DVD had gotten its ass kicked pretty thoroughly, and because I’m just as big a film nerd as I am a game nerd, I knew I had to buy a Blu-Ray player… and if it happened to play games, then, well, that was an added bonus.  That the PS3’s library of exclusive games happened to be, for the most part, fantastic was an even better added bonus.  (Side note:  my HD-DVD drive still works, and I still have a few HD-DVDs that I haven’t yet upgraded.)

I’ll get to the question of who “won” this console generation in a little bit, but if I can be corny for a second here, it turns out that the real answer to that question is:  me.  I finally broke out of my fanboy mindset and embraced pretty much all this generation had to offer (even the Wii, too, if only for a limited time).  And in my opinion, this generation was pretty goddamned terrific.  Each console had some fantastic exclusive games on offer, and the strength of the multi-platform titles were well beyond what I’d been accustomed to.

So, then:  I’m now enlightened, and finally free of the fanboy mindset.  Maybe I spent a little too much money along the way in doing so, but what are you gonna do?  The hilarious irony in all this, though, is that now that I’m a father, and now that I literally can’t afford to be so fiscally irresponsible when it comes to gaming, I’m most likely going to have to go back to being a one-console dude; there’s just no way I can afford both a PS4 and an Xbox One and expect to play everything that comes out (especially if I’m also going to keep gaming on the PC).  Not as long as I remain an un-professional videogame journalist, that is.

And so I’m going to have to choose.

That choice, it should go without saying, will be well documented here in the coming months, as I hem and haw and scrimp and save and whine and bitch and moan.  Oh, I’m sure it will make for delightful reading, especially for those of you who already made up your mind.

But in the meantime, I want to embrace this opportunity to say goodbye to a lot of the best games I ever played – at least, before I have to box them up and tuck them away.

*     *     *

I should hold up a second here and let you know that while this post is focused on the 360 and the PS3, I have not forgotten about the Wii.  I certainly did covet the Wii for a long time, and I did ultimately buy one, and I did have some fun with it for a time – Wii Sports was fun at parties for a little while, and Super Mario Galaxy is without question a very special game (although I should admit that I never finished it).  The thing is, the Wii experience fell apart for me not long after I bought it.  For one thing, there was literally nothing to play on it – not even SMG – that resonated with me in any meaningful way.  But the other issue – and I actually forgot about this until I started going through these blog archives – was that shortly after getting the Wii, I developed some day-job-related carpal tunnel issues in my hands that made shaking the remote a very painful experience, and which ultimately rendered the entire Wii experience more or less impossible.  My hands have since recovered, but I ended up giving the Wii to my in-laws, who, last I heard, were using it to stream Netflix.

I should also mention that I’m also not going to talk about the DS or the 3DS, or the PSP, or the Vita, or the iPhone or iPad.  (And even though I’m now primarily a PC gamer, I’ll refrain from talking about PC-only games, too.)  For one thing, there’s more than enough to talk about between the 360 and the PS3; for another, I’m not as familiar with those systems.  Fundamentally, though, this post is very much about celebrating the console experience.  These consoles were why I bought an HDTV, and why I paid more money for higher speed internet; these were transformative innovations that have forever changed what I expect out of a console experience.

Finally, it should go without saying that even though the new machines are now upon us, this current console generation is not yet over, and this “farewell” post is certainly at least a few months premature.  As I said about 1000 words ago, I’m not planning on buying a new console until early 2014, and even then I’m only buying one; and this also means that I’ll still have at least one console from this generation that will be alive and kicking, and there are still a few notable current-gen games yet to arrive (South Park, the FFX remasters, FF13-3 and Dark Souls 2 come to mind).

I think that’s more than enough table-setting – let’s jump in and get to it.

BEST CONSOLE OF THE GENERATION, and therefore UNDISPUTED WINNER OF THE CONSOLE WAR:

Ha ha ha!  No, but seriously, the Xbox 360 was my preferred console, so much so that I ended up buying 4 of them (after each previous one would red-ring, of course).  A very strong case can be made (and I’m happy to make it, frankly) that the PS3 ended up with a much stronger lineup of exclusive games – certainly within the last few years, at least – but the 360 almost always got the better-performing version of a multi-platform game, and its lineup of exclusives wasn’t exactly shabby, either.   Not to mention that the 360 had a far better user interface – even that aforementioned Blade design was better than the PS3’s XMB – and probably the best controller ever made.

Most importantly, though, Microsoft bet big on Xbox Live, and that’s what ultimately gives them the win.  A few hiccups aside, the service was far more stable and more capable than PSN, to be sure, but it would also win if for no other reason than that the 360 was where my friends were playing, too, and if I wanted to play with them, the 360 version of a multi-platform game was the only logical choice.

Some might argue that PSN is better because it’s free (and I might argue that you get more value with Playstation Plus, what with all those free games), but I maintain that you get what you pay for, and Xbox Live is, for the most part, rock solid.  And this goes beyond maintaining stability in team deathmatches; downloading and installing a PS3 game update is still a slow nightmare, and “syncing trophy data” is a phrase that I never want to see or hear ever again.

Speaking of which, here’s the understatement of the year:  ACHIEVEMENTS > TROPHIES.  I could spend 1000 words on Achievements alone, and how they changed not only how I played games, but how games themselves were designed.  In fact, let’s just spend a moment here to reflect:  was there ever a more satisfying sound than the sweet little chirp of an unlocked Achievement?

Let me put this “winner of the console generation” another way:

I won’t miss my PS3 when I upgrade.  Despite the excellent games I played on it, I still – even now – primarily use it as a Blu-Ray player and a streaming media device, and my gaming time on it has always been minimal; which is just as well, because as much as I loved the 360 controller, I actively loathed the Dualshock 3.  In fact, here’s some excessive hyperbole for you – I nearly gave up on almost every PS3 game I ever played because of that goddamned controller.  Just think how much more pleasurable Uncharted 2 would’ve been with a 360 controller.  Right?  The mind reels.

I will miss the 360, though.  Up until this year, it’s where I did at least 90% of my gaming; it’s where my friends were; the pull of Achievements were strong enough to make it my platform of choice for multi-console, single-player releases; and as I said before, the 360 controller is the best controller I’ve ever used, and I continue to use it as my PC controller now.

BEST YEAR:  2007.  I know I covered this in my GAMES OF THE 00s post, but it bears repeating that this very well might go down as the best year for new IP of all time.  Consider:   Mass Effect 1, Bioshock 1, Portal 1 (and the Orange Box, which is still probably the best bang for one’s buck of all time),  Call of Duty Modern Warfare 1, Super Mario Galaxy 1, Assassin’s Creed 1, Rock Band 1.  Then consider Halo 3 and God of War 2.  THEN consider other minor classics like Crackdown and The Darkness.  Nothing else even comes close.  If the PS4/XONE era gives us a year even half as great as 2007, we’ll be in for a real treat.

BEST OPEN WORLDS: I suppose if I had to choose my favorite genre, it would be the open-world / sandbox-style game (closely followed by the 3rd-person action-adventure-platformer – and if next-gen consoles can figure out how to combine the two, I will probably be unable to leave the house).   This sort of game can take many different shapes – the gunplay that takes place on the islands of Far Cry 3 is a much different beast than what transpires in GTA V’s Los Santos – but ultimately the appeal for me of the genre isn’t necessarily the gameplay, but rather the nonlinear exploration, where there aren’t any enemies after me and where I’m free to take in the sights and check out all the nooks and crannies.  (Again, this is why a synthesis of something like Uncharted with something like GTA would be amazing.  And it suddenly occurs to me that this particular synthesis is partly why the Batman: Arkham games are so personally appealing.)  While it’s true that open-world games have been around at least since the PS2, it’s been this generation where they really came into their own, and where the available technology could start catching up to the art direction – and so those aforementioned nooks and crannies could become a lot more interesting as we go forward.

Side note – this was one of the first categories I came up with when I started working on this post, and yet it’s become one of the most difficult to get a handle on.  Three examples:  (1) Borderlands 2 was on this list for a long time, but when I thought about it, the world itself wasn’t particularly all that interesting – it’s just that the art style was so incredibly unique, and that the game itself was a ton of fun.  (2) There is no Saints Row on this list.  I’ve played and loved all four games, but the truth is that none of the actual cities are what make those games so great.  Indeed, the introduction of superpowers in SR4 made the city itself irrelevant, for the most part, as one could traverse from one side of town to the other in about 30 seconds.  (3) I haven’t played enough Just Cause 2 to give it serious consideration, but my impressions of what I have played are that, while the world itself is impressive, it’s everything else around it that makes that game hum.  At the end of the day, this category is specifically about celebrating the world, not the quality of the game that surrounds it.

  • GTA IV
  • Red Dead Redemption
  • L.A. Noire
  • GTA V – It should come as no surprise that Rockstar has 4 nominees in this category; they do open worlds better than anyone, because they understand that there’s more to building a city than simply having lots of stuff.  All of their worlds are built and crafted – each city block has a distinct personality; each tree is placed with care.  And while each of Rockstar’s worlds on this list are extraordinary in their own right, it is GTA V’s re-imagining of San Andreas that is, without question, one of the greatest technical and artistic accomplishments of this generation.  Furthermore, it’s raised the bar for what we should expect on the PS4 and Xbox One.
  • Sleeping Dogs – A radical departure for the open world gangland genre, if only because the city itself was so different from what most Western gamers are used to.  The city is very big, well designed, and looks absolutely gorgeous at night in the rain.
  • Batman Arkham City – While I’m of the opinion that Asylum is the better game (partially because the smaller environment helps to keep the pace moving), I think City is the more interesting world, and there’s certainly no shortage of things to do or places to explore.  (Even if 400 Riddler statues is a bit too many.)  Bonus points for the game’s verticality, which is something that not a lot of these games tend to explore – and also for Batman’s traversal mechanic, which makes zooming around the city quite enjoyable.
  • Assassin’s Creed IV – I’m still playing this, actually, but what I’ve seen so far (and it’s quite a lot) is simply astonishing.  The world itself is immense, and there’s not a lot of obvious cutting-and-pasting as far as each individual island is concerned, which means that you’ll never know what to expect when you arrive somewhere new.  With each passing hour I find myself more and more convinced that AC4 represents the best of what the series has been trying to achieve ever since the first installment.
  • Far Cry 3 – I’ve never been the world’s biggest Far Cry fan, but I was stunned by the islands of FC3, and I found myself far more interested in exploring every cave than I was in advancing the story.  (Still haven’t finished the game, actually; I’m a few missions behind the end.)  The designers of AC4 took a lot of good cues from FC3, and it shows.
  • Fallout 3 – The only knocks I feel comfortable giving to Fallout 3’s world are that the dark and dreary color palette became oppressively depressing after a few dozen hours, and that the engine itself was not all that pretty.  That being said, MAN.  I’m sure I put almost 100 hours into FO3 and I’m also sure I’ve seen less than half of what that game has to offer.
  • Skyrim – While I have certain reservations about my game experience, that’s definitely not the fault of the world.  The world of Skyrim is mind-bogglingly massive; I recall being dumbstruck when I came across an entire city built underneath another city on the surface.
  • Brutal Legend – my disappointment in this game is tough to get over, but the world itself is a thing of beauty and wonder.  If I were 13 years old and more inclined towards real-time strategy, I might’ve loved this game with every fiber of my being.  Alas, the game fell apart on me – but man, it’s worth playing just to see that world.

BEST GRAPHICS (TECHNICAL): This is kind of a bullshit category, I admit, because (a) I know nothing about graphics beyond being a knuckle-dragging mouth-breathing graphics whore, and (b) if you just glance at the titles below it’s clear that what I’m specifically talking about are AAA games with big budgets and premium pixel placement.  My intention here, it should be clear, is to NOT slight the indie scene in any way; it’s simply to appreciate the work of those big-ticket items that went above and beyond, and that pushed the consoles to their limits, and to work in as much hyperbole as I possibly can to distract you from the fact that I have nothing of any insight to offer as far as this category goes.

  • Uncharted 2/3 – It’s hard to separate the latter two Uncharted games in my mind from a graphical standpoint (though, in my opinion, 2 is absolutely a better game than 3).  Normally that would be a bad thing, I guess, in this category, but it’s only because both games look so spectacular that it’s basically splitting hairs.  (I get that The Last of Us is built on the same engine, and it’s also just as gorgeous, but by design it’s also not nearly as vibrant and colorful, and therefore not something I feel drawn to revisit.)
  • Rage – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – if Fallout 4 doesn’t use this engine, something terrible has happened.  The game wasn’t all that great, but it looked absolutely stunning.  (And the iPad games that came out alongside this were not too shabby looking, either.)
  • Bioshock Infinite – Even as I remain flummoxed by this game, I am simply agog at the art direction.  And I’m especially impressed by Burial At Sea; I spent too much time taking screenshots instead of paying attention to the game itself.
  • Red Dead Redemption – Speaking of screenshots, pretty much every single frame of this game could be an award-winner.  I never really thought of Rockstar as a graphical powerhouse until this game.  And the animation is pretty spectacular, too – it was always breathtaking to pick a rider off his horse.
  • GTA V – It wasn’t until RDR that I ever thought of Rockstar games as being a graphics powerhouse, and Max Payne 3 upped the ante considerably in that regard.  GTA V, though, is simply incredible.  The city of Los Santos is astonishing, and then the back country up north is just as astonishing, and then there’s the coral reefs surrounding the entire island, which most players won’t ever see?!
  • Skyrim – The faces are still a little creepy, but the world itself is stunning to behold.

BEST FACIAL ANIMATION TECH:  As long as we’re talking about graphics, I feel pretty strongly that facial animation should get its own category.  As games get more mature in their storytelling, it becomes vitally important that the digital acting is convincing.  The “uncanny valley” was a big buzzword this generation, and with good reason; nobody wants their AAA game to be unintentionally creepy.  Not every big game cared to get this right, but the games that went for it really went for it.

  • Enslaved – I suppose this could be viewed as an underdog/sympathy pick, but I did just just play the PC re-release, and the facial animation is still astonishing – the relationship between Monkey and Trip is incredibly powerful and potent, and a lot of that is done simply through eye movement and subtle facial gestures.  A knock that I have against L.A. Noire is that, while the tech is impressive, the acting is so over-the-top that the interrogation scenes became somewhat ridiculous.  Enslaved is proof positive that less is definitely more.
  • Beyond: Two Souls
  • Heavy Rain
  • L.A. Noire
  • The Last of Us
  • Uncharted (2/3)

TOP 10 FAVORITE/NOTABLE NEW FRANCHISES (in no particular order) (must have at least 2 significant/great games to be included)

  • Mass Effect (1,2,3) – say what you will about the ending, but this was a remarkable and memorable journey, with a fantastic cast of characters.  The games were not without their faults, but I enjoyed nearly every minute I spent with these games – and I played them all at least twice.
  • Assassin’s Creed (1,2,Bro, 4) – I worry about this franchise, only because it started with such promise, and Brotherhood is one of my favorite games of the generation, and then Revelations and AC3 completely soured me.  I’m very, very happy to say, then, that even though I’ve not yet finished AC4, I’ve put in more than 40 hours into it already, and it could very well end up being my favorite of the entire franchise.
  • Portal (1, 2) – The first game was a perfect gem, and the second game was (in my opinion) even better, and that’s not even taking into account the glorious co-op.
  • Saints Row (1,2,3,4) – One of the great feel-good stories of this generation; what started as an obvious GTA clone turned into something totally batshit crazy and gloriously stupid – and with genuinely good innovations that GTA would do well to steal.
  • Uncharted (1,2,3) – The first game was a pretty good Tomb Raider clone with some great platforming and some tedious and frustrating combat (featuring some of the most tenacious bullet sponges in game history), but 2 was an astonishing breakthrough – so good, in fact, that it maybe set the bar a little too high for 3.  I have very high hopes for the inevitable sequels on the PS4.
  • Batman (Arkham Asylum, Arkham City) – The first game came out of nowhere to become, most likely, the finest licensed game ever made.  That the second game didn’t quite hit the same highs is mitigated by the scope of its ambition, especially as it came so quickly after the first – and let’s be honest here, Arkham City is still really, really good.  Rocksteady has clearly established itself as a developer to be watched.  (As of this writing, I have not yet played Arkham Origins, and my understanding is that it’s a bit of a disappointment.  Still, the category only requires “2 significant/great games” in order to be included, and these two games are phenomenal.
  • Borderlands (1,2) – Even if the first game’s narrative left a lot to be desired (and the ending was, to put it kindly, anticlimactic), it was a remarkably fun shooter with a totally unique art style.  The second game fixed everything that was wrong with the first game and then multiplied everything by a thousand.  When all is said and done, B2 is one of my all-time favorite first-person shooters, and is indeed one of the only FPS franchises that I actually still care about.
  • Rock Band (1,2,3,Beatles) – It’s a shame that this franchise appears to be dead, although it’s unclear just how they could’ve improved on it.  Great setlists, fantastic gameplay; the ultimate party game.  And the Beatles edition was as good as a hard-core Beatle fan could hope for.
  • Gears of War (1,2,3) – The hard-core bro attitude might’ve gotten a bit much after a while, but there’s no question that this was one of the most important and influential shooters of this era.  Certainly it established what could be accomplished with the now-ubiquitous Unreal engine (even as it single-handedly destroyed every game designer’s color palette); the cover mechanic was unmatched; the active reload system made sure you paid attention.  I didn’t necessarily get into the competitive multiplayer side of things, but I had a lot of fun with the campaigns (especially in online co-op).
  • Left 4 Dead (1,2)? – I didn’t play nearly enough of 2, which is a shame; not enough of my 360 friends played it, and by the time I got a PC copy, everyone had moved on.  But man, these games were an absolute blast.

Honorable mentions:

  • Bioshock (1, 2, Infinite)  – My intense love of the first game ultimately lost out to my dislike of the 2nd and my weird, possibly irrational (ha!) disdain towards Infinite.  I thought about where to rank this for a very long time; this was not an easy decision.  But the key to being in this category was having at least two (2) great games, and I can’t call Infinite a great game.
  • Dead Space (1,2) – Still haven’t finished 1, which is stupid of me.  2 wasn’t as scary, but it was still rock solid and fun.  Never played 3, which apparently is just as well.
  • Little Big Planet (1,2) – Despite the gawd-awful jumping physics, these games were amazing and charming as all get-out.
  • LEGO games (LOTR, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Marvel, Batman, etc.) – Oh how I wish these games didn’t feel broken at times – in every other respect they are some of the best fan service money can buy.  I can’t wait to play these with my kid.
  • Darksiders (1,2) – Overlooked and undersold, these games were the mature-themed Zelda games I never knew I wanted.  Here’s hoping the franchise isn’t dead after the THQ debacle.

TOP 10 FAVORITE CONTINUATIONS OF OLD FRANCHISES (in no particular order)

  • Grand Theft Auto (4,5) – After San Andreas, it was hard to imagine (for me, at least) what a next-gen GTA game could look like.  But then I saw that first GTA IV trailer and lost my mind a little bit.     And – again – my problems with the narrative aside, it’s hard to argue with GTA V’s world and improvements to its gameplay
  • Forza (3,4,Horizon) – It’s hard to imagine that the first 4 Forza games all came out in between Gran Turismo 4 and 5.  Harder still to imagine that Horizon, which smelled of cheap cash-in from miles away, turned out to be one of my favorite driving games of the entire generation.  That being said, it’s no Burnout Paradise.  Speaking of which…
  • Burnout (4, Paradise) – 4 was a solid (if undistinguished) follow-up to 3, which is still possibly my favorite driving game of all time.  Paradise, though, was something else.  It truly felt next-gen; it did things no other driving games were even thinking about, let alone implement so staggeringly well. It’s a shame that Criterion is shackled to the Need for Speed franchise; their NFS games are fun enough, but they don’t feel as gleefully unrestrained as Paradise was.
  • Elder Scrolls (Oblivion,Skyrim) – Skyrim is the better-looking and better-playing game, but Oblivion is the one I sunk over 100 hours into.
  • Red Dead Redemption – this is, technically, a sequel to the previous generation’s Red Dead Revolver.  Did anyone ever play that first game?  Does anyone even remember it?  I seem to recall that first game coming out along with a bunch of other Western-themed titles like Gun and Dead Man’s Hand.  No matter; we’ll be talking about this game a little later on.
  • Fallout (3, New Vegas, lots of DLC) – I never played the original games.  Come to think of it, I didn’t play very much of New Vegas, either.  But I played a TON of 3, and I’d very much like to see Fallout 4 on the new consoles with some idTech graphics.
  • Halo (3, ODST, Reach, 4) – I’m not the guy to talk about Halo.  (And I won’t be the guy to talk about Call of Duty.)  But these games were clearly labors of love, and you gotta respect that.
  • Tomb Raider (three times, actually – the Legend/Anniversary/Underworld trilogy, and then the isometric Guardians of Light, and then the 2013 reboot).  I’m lucky, I suppose, that I never played the original games – I started right with the first Xbox 360 game and remain a big fan today.  I’ve seen screenshots of those original games, and they just look dreadful.  I’m really curious to see where this year’s reboot sends the franchise in the coming years.
  • Rayman (Origins, Legends, the iOS games)  Rayman 2 is one of my favorite games of all time, and as such there will always be a soft spot in my heart for that little limbless dude.  The Rabbids games kinda sidetracked what made that franchise so special for me, though I can’t blame them for chasing their audience (and for giving Wii owners something to do).  But the recent releases of Origins and Legends are nothing short of breathtaking – they are absolutely gorgeous, and have made 2D platformers worth looking forward to again.
  • Max Payne 3 – I feel like this game has gotten a bad rap; I think it’s a very worthy successor to the first 2 games, even if it’s got its head stuck up its own ass a little.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Fable (2,3?) – Sad to say that I’ve lost interest in these games, especially as all I seem to remember about them are the terrific art direction and the clunky [everything else].  2 was quite good, but 3 had some issues, and I’ve all but stopped paying attention.
  • God of War 3 – As I never owned a PS2, I didn’t get a chance to play God of War 1 and/or 2 until their (excellent) HD remakes on the PS3, and 3 seemed like a worthy follow-up.  It was gorgeous, to be sure, though I’m not sure I remember it all that well (beyond killing a god by sticking my thumbs in his eyes).
  • Civilization Revolutions – In the grand scheme of things, CivRev might not be a “great” game, but it’s what got me into the franchise.  I bought Civ4 shortly after getting hooked on Rev, and I’m still very much in awe of V (even if I’m still intimidated by it).
  • XCOM: Enemy Unknown – I never played the original, and I still haven’t finished this new one (even if I’ve purchased it on PS3, PC and iPad); it’s very fun but also very, very stressful.
  • Diablo 3 – I suppose this sneaks in on a technicality (as far as I’m personally concerned), given that I’ve only played the PC version – the console versions appear to be pretty good.  I played the hell out of the PC version and burned myself out on it in the process – and I also dropped a fair amount of real money in the auction house, which I’m not sure if I’m ashamed to admit.
  • Street Fighter 4 and Mortal Kombat – I’m including these two games in my attempt to cover all my bases, even if I’m not much of a fighting game fan, and even though I only played these on the easiest difficulty settings.  SF4 looked fantastic and still felt familiar; MK (specifically the 2011 game) was fun as hell and featured an absurd amount of content.
  • Super Mario Galaxy (1/2) – My disinterest for the Wii aside, these two were glorious platformers and absolutely worth buying a Wii for.
  • DiRT (1, 2, 3 – picking up from Colin McRae) – even the menu screens are gorgeous.  Very much looking forward to the next-gen editions.
  • Deus Ex: Human Revolution – my friend says it’s his favorite game of all time; I can’t quite go that far, but this game had no business being as great as it turned out to be (even in spite of the boss battle calamities and the terrible, terrible endings).
  • DmC – I never cared for the original games, but the 2013 reboot is fantastic; if we never see another Enslaved game from Ninja Theory, hopefully we’ll see them make more of these.
  • Metal Gear Solid 4 – this is tough for me to include, given that I consider the Metal Gear franchise to be the most overrated franchise of all time.  And my problems with this game are still pretty serious – I still think Act 3 features the most unintentionally ridiculous dialogue I’ve ever heard (see https://shoutsfromthecouch.com/2008/06/25/a-discussion-of-mgs4-act-3/ for my commentary).  But this was the first true PS3 blockbuster, and it did things that the 360 simply couldn’t do, and I did have more fun with it than I care to admit.  (That active camo system was pretty great.)

THE 12 BEST GAMES THAT DID NOT BECOME FRANCHISES (disc-based): The “disc-based” thing is significant because most downloadable games were brand-new IP anyway.  These were big-budget AAA games that never had a sequel because:  (1) they were built only to be a one-off, (2) they were released too late in this console cycle to have a sequel ready; (3) they simply didn’t sell well, or (4) disaster struck before a sequel could be finished.

  • Sleeping Dogs – This fits squarely into category (2) above, and a next-gen sequel is supposedly in the works.
  • Dishonored – see above.
  • Mirror’s Edge – A next-gen sequel is supposedly in the works, too, but I worry about that game.  And I admit that my concern might appear strange, seeing as I never finished the original game; despite the incredible visuals and the exhilarating first-person action, the story was nonsensical and anything that involved enemies was a bit of a drag.  And yet it had perhaps the most distinctive art style of any game this generation, and it was genuinely thrilling to pull off some of those trickier parkour moves.  I vaguely recall there being some extra modes (or possibly DLC?) which were strictly focused on the parkour aspect, and those were incredibly fun (and competitive – I think there was a leaderboard aspect to them).  If the sequel is indeed happening, I want more of that.  (The iOS versions weren’t too shabby, if I recall.)
  • Bulletstorm – I played this again not that long ago, and it still holds up remarkably well.  The graphics are still fantastic – one forgets that the Unreal Engine is capable of vibrant colors – and the game’s ‘bro ‘tude gets pleasantly subverted by an unexpectedly engaging story.  Plus the scoring mechanics always kept the action fresh.
  • Lost Odyssey – There’s a part of me that kinda wants to find a used copy of this game and play it over again, even though I know that I’d never be able to finish it a second time.  My memories of this game are a bit hazy now, unfortunately, but I remember loving it despite some tedious grinding toward the end.  (But aren’t all JRPGs about tedious grinding, ultimately?)
  • Split/Second – As far as shallow arcade racers go, man, this game was a blast.  An absolutely gorgeous racer with environments that could destruct and transform in spectacular fashion and at a moment’s notice.  It’s a shame this never caught on with a larger audience – I had a really fun time with this online.
  • Enslaved – Shame this didn’t sell better, as I’d still like to see where the next game was going.  A great-looking, great-playing adventure with a memorable cast of characters; indeed, it’s rare to think of digital characters as having “chemistry”, but that’s the only way to describe the relationship between Trip and Monkey.
  • The Last of Us – Seems this would fit into category 1; this is not really built for a sequel, and I’d be very surprised to see it return on the PS4 aside from an up-rezzed version.
  • Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning – Category 4 disaster.  It remains to be seen what will happen to this IP – at the time of this writing, the IP has not yet been sold at auction.  Anyway, despite my utter loathing of anything involving Curt Schilling, I really enjoyed this game – and even though I sunk a substantial amount of time into finishing the story, there was almost too much still to be done.
  • L.A. Noire – Not sure if this is a Category 4 disaster or a Category 1 one-off; a friend of mine from college was a casting director and intimated to me that there would be a sequel, but considering the sordid mess of the game’s development history, the lack of a sequel shouldn’t come as a surprise.  That aside, it’s not necessarily built for a sequel, either, though I wouldn’t put anything past Rockstar.
  • Spec Ops: The Line – Probably falls into Category 1; you wouldn’t think of Coppola making Apocalypse Now 2, either.  This game starts off as a standard third-person military shooter (with the ubiquitous Nolan North as the lead voice actor) and ends up becoming something else entirely.  I’m not sure it’s something I’d want to play again, but I was very pleasantly surprised and enjoyed the experience.
  • Alan Wake – The hype that followed this game during development was so big that it was inevitable that the the finished product would feel like a let down.  Still, I enjoyed it, and it did get “American Nightmare”, which was a sort-of expansion… but it kinda fizzled out rather quietly.  For more on what’s up with this franchise and Remedy at large, check this Polygon interview.

FAVORITE GAMES OF THE GENERATION (AAA category):  (Yes, I am aware there are no Nintendo titles on this list.)

  1. Portal 1/2 – Unlike other sequels on this list, I can’t pull these two games apart.  They feel very much connected to each other in ways that other sequels aren’t.  Indeed, the things that were changed from Portal 1 to Portal 2 are, for the most part, small and subtle things (unlike the big gameplay overhaul from ME1 to ME2 (and ME2 to ME3), and AssBro’s approach of throwing the entire kitchen sink into the game).  Glados… the Companion Cube… the cake… Wheatley… Cave Johnson… so many memorable moments, so many quotable lines… and, of course, the most unique gameplay mechanic of the entire generation.  And all without firing a single bullet.  Most importantly, as Greg says:  it’s hard to conceive of how they could be better.  Maybe if there wasn’t a loading break after every puzzle?
  2. Red Dead Redemption – I did not see this one coming.  Nor did I think I’d be all that interested; Westerns were never my cup of tea.  And for all that I loved about GTA IV, the gameplay left a lot to be desired – especially when compared to Saints Row, which was making noticeable and much-appreciated changes to the formula.
  3. Grand Theft Auto IV – I liked Niko, even if he was a hard man to like.  I felt for him, even as he struggled to remain empathetic.  But the true star of the show was always Liberty City.  I’ve lived in NYC for almost 20 years, and I’ve played a lot of games that are set there, but this was the first game that really captured the feel of this place.  The gameplay is incredibly dated now, but it’s hard to hold that against it – at the time of its release, it was a staggering achievement of storytelling and technology.
  4. Bioshock – So what if you gained health from eating years-old potato chips out of a garbage can?  I’m not sure there was a more arresting atmosphere in this entire console generation.  And the big plot twist was a true jaw-dropper.
  5. Mass Effect 2 – The gameplay was improved from ME1, the pacing felt better than ME3, and the story arc was the most satisfying.
  6. Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood – my personal high point for the franchise.  I never lacked for something to do, but more importantly, all the side stuff felt justified in the larger context of Ezio’s journey.  (As I’ve said earlier and elsewhere, though, I’m currently 40+ hours deep into AC4, and I’m starting to wonder if it’s maybe a better overall game than this one.  It will be certainly be worth revisiting AC4 when we get to the end of the PS4/XBO era, for sure.)
  7. Batman: Arkham Asylum – What an absolute delight this game is.  I recognize that “delight” is a peculiar word for a game that takes place in a comic book insane asylum filled with Gotham’s looniest baddies, but it’s also the most appropriate – it was the first time that I’d ever played a superhero game where I really, truly felt like a superhero.  The thrill of turning on Batvision and stealthily clearing out a room of bad guys?  Nothing like it.
  8. Uncharted 2 – The enemies are bullet sponges and there are too many of them, and I don’t like using the Dualshock 3 to control action games.  Those are the only real demerits I can offer; everything else is spectacular.
  9. Oblivion – Skyrim is the better-playing game, sure, but Oblivion is the one that, for whatever reason, sucked me in and never let me go.  And I’m happy to say that I never bothered with horse armor.  (Who rides horses in TES games, anyway?)
  10. Rock Band 3 – It’s hard for me to pick just one (between RB2, RB3 and Beatles), especially as each subsequent game would let you import the previous game’s setlist – and as a hard-core Beatle fan, I was absolutely thrilled to see that the Beatles game wasn’t just a cheap cash-in, but rather an incredibly well-designed tribute (and with spectacular sound design, too – it was a real treat to hear individual audio tracks).  It’s kind of a shame that the plastic-instrument era is, for all intents and purposes, over – these games were always crowd pleasers at parties.

Honorable Mentions:

  1. Saints Row the Third
  2. Skyrim (despite serious glitches)
  3. Burnout Paradise
  4. Batman Arkham City
  5. Dirt 2

FAVORITE “INDIE” / ARCADE TITLES  (i.e., non “AAA”)

  1. Fez – I don’t care what you think about Phil Fish the Twitter user; the Phil Fish that created this game is a gentle, beautiful genius.  I still get chills when I think of that first reveal trailer; the full game is just as magical and yet a thousand times more devious.
  2. JourneyThis was my 2012 game of the year.  I wrote that 2012 column shortly after the Newtown shootings and my emotions were running pretty high, and it’s possible that I was putting this one at the top because it wasn’t a shooter, and had nothing at all to do with violence in any form.  That being said, I stand by my decision and specifically by what I said about this game; it’s a rare thing these days for a game to fill you with pure joy, and this one had joy to spare.
  3. Braid – It’s hard to overstate this game’s importance in the grand scheme of things; this was the first “art” game to really break through to a wide audience on a console, and as such it completely changed the idea of what an XBLA game – or, indeed, what an “indie” game – could be.  And I’ll say right now that “The Witness” being a PS4 title is a very, very big reason why I’m leaning in that console’s direction.
  4. Bastion – I don’t know what to say about this one other than I think about it a lot, and I need to play it again.  (The iPad version is serviceable.)
  5. Walking Dead (Telltale) – My pop-culture appetite for zombies is wearing very thin, and I have no interest in the Walking Dead show.  But my wife is a big fan of the show, and we played this game together – she made the decisions, I drove the controller.  And, well, you know the rest.  That this game rates as high as it does on my own personal list despite the aforementioned zombie fatigue should indicate just how great this game is.
  6. Shadow Complex – Man, whatever happened to this game?  Why is there no Shadow Complex 2, 3 or 4 by now?  I had an absolute blast with this one – even if this was right around the time when Nolan North was starting to become a little too ubiquitous.
  7. Pinball FX2 – Maybe it’s not the most accurate pinball simulator, but I’ve played pretty much every table they’ve ever released, and they’re all really fun – and they keep getting better, too, which is nice.  The recent Star Wars tables are quite good.
  8. Mark of the Ninja – Just when I’d written off the stealth genre, this one comes along and totally changes the rules.  I cannot wait for a sequel.
  9. Trials HD/Evolution – Not all “indie” games have to be “arty”.  Goddamn, these games are super-fun and really, really difficult.  And I can’t say enough about the leaderboard integration – it’s brilliant.
  10. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons – I’ll have more to say about this in my 2013 GOTY column.  Suffice it to say, it’s rare that a control scheme can cause me to well up with tears.

Honorable mentions:

  1. Gone Home (PC-only, but still)
  2. Super Meat Boy
  3. Geometry Wars 2
  4. Flower
  5. Limbo

FAVORITE PS3 GAME:  Uncharted 2.  (Honorable mention:  Journey.)

FAVORITE 360 GAME:  Gears 3?  Halo Reach?  Fable 2?  Why is it that only now, at the end, am I realizing that the 360’s exclusive games never really resonated with me the way that the PS3’s did?  Is this why I’m kinda leaning towards the PS4, because their exclusive games are generally more aligned with my personal tastes?  I honestly don’t know how to answer this question.  Maybe I’ll say Forza 4?

Favorite Innovations / Trends:

  • Achievements
  • The boom in indie games / XBLA/PSN
  • Autolog / the leaderboard system in Trials
  • Online co-op (especially drop-in / drop-out)
  • Hybrid game design (putting RPG elements into shooters, puzzlers, etc.)
  • HD remakes – if backwards compatibility is a thing of the past, then this is the next best thing (although I kinda resent having to pay for something twice, which is probably the idea)
  • Customizable home bases (Mass Effect’s Normandy, AC4’s “Jackdaw”, Saints Row’s “Cribs”)
  • DoubleFine transitioning from a big-game studio to a smaller indie studio.  Best possible situation for those guys, plus we get to play more stuff from that team.
  • Outstanding art direction focusing on little details, especially w/r/t post-apocalyptic places

Worst Trends:

  • Paid DLC for stuff already on the disc
  • the grey/brown sludge of the Unreal engine
  • Minecraft graphics in non-Minecraft games / 8 and 16-bit “retro” graphics in lieu of something interesting to say
  • Games that get all meta and comment on how stupid the current mission is instead of doing something about it (Saints Row 4 takes this to the extreme)
  • The relative lack of compelling female protagonists, or at least female characters that aren’t (a) overtly sexualized, or (b) helpless and need a man’s help.
  • Zombies.  I’m done with zombies.  Stop with the zombies.

Biggest Duds:

  • the HD-DVD format
  • Motion control (Move, Kinect)
  • Too Human
  • Spore
  • Playstation Home

Favorite Moments:

  • Portal: the first time you go “behind the scenes.”  The Companion Cube.  “Still Alive.”
  • Oblivion:  Emerging from the tutorial dungeon and seeing, well, everything.
  • Mass Effect 1-3:  My first exploratory cruise of the Normandy.
  • Mass Effect 3 – Going to the temple with Liara and the Prothean (absolutely crucial to have the Prothean in your party for this sequence – he presents a perspective on what you see there that nobody else has, and it’s utterly jaw-dropping)
  • Bioshock – “Would you kindly?”
  • Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood – synchronizing viewpoints; solving those weird glyph puzzles
  • Red Dead Redemption – the real ending
  • Walking Dead – ending
  • Journey – the sand surfing level
  • Burnout Paradise – endless crash modes; screwing around online with friends
  • Left 4 Dead pretty much any time all 4 players survived a level
  • Crackdown – finding the last agility orb
  • Brutal Legend – pretty much everything except the stage battles, but especially just cruising around that environment.
  • The Last of Us – opening sequence
  • Gone Home – the ending
  • Rock Band 2 – finishing The Endless Setlist with my wife – 7 hours on drums (!)
  • Geometry Wars 2 – The “Wax Off” Achievement

Biggest Disappointments

  • Duke Nukem Forever
  • Crackdown 2
  • Mercenaries 2
  • No PC port of Red Dead Redemption
  • Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2
  • Brutal Legend

Best HD Revivals: since backwards compatibility seems to be something that nobody’s interested in, the only way we’re ever going to play our old favorites is if (a) we hold on to our old consoles or (b) they remake those games and make ‘em all nice and purty.  I’m OK with this, even if I’m a little cynical about it – at least I finally got a chance to play a number of classic games that I’d never gotten to play otherwise.

  • Ico / Shadow of the Colossus
  • God of War 1 and 2
  • Beyond Good & Evil
  • Tony Hawk Pro Skater (a little underwhelming, at the end of the day, but it was fun while it lasted)
  • Resident Evil 4 (I’m including this for the sake of completeness; I didn’t play it, nor did I want to.  I know.)

R.I.P.:

  • Tony Hawk
  • Rock Band (?)
  • Guitar Hero
  • Viva Pinata (serious bummer)
  • Amped (and snowboarding games in general)
  • Prince of Persia
  • Condemned
  • Skate
  • Tiger Woods PGA Golf (well, at least TW’s involvement)

Forgotten Gems:

  • Beautiful Katamari
  • Banjo Kazooie – Nuts and Bolts
  • Stuntman: Ignition
  • Marvel Ultimate Alliance
  • Civilization Revolution
  • Deathspank
  • Viva Pinata
  • Rockstar Presents: Table Tennis

BEST GAMES I NEVER FINISHED / “PILE OF SHAME”

  • Dead Space 1
  • XCOM: Enemy Unknown
  • The Witcher 2
  • Dragon Age: Origins (PC version – the 360 version was shite)
  • Super Mario Galaxy

MOST UNDERRATED / OVERLOOKED / UNFAIRLY DERIDED

  • Resident Evil 5 – With the exception of a few hours spent trying to play RE2 a million years ago, and some time with the Dreamcast’s Code Veronica, I’ve never been all that big into the RE franchise.  Indeed, I am well aware that I’m one of the only people on the planet that could not get into RE4, a game often called one of the best ever made.  So color me very  surprised that I found myself getting very, very deep into RE5; I played through it multiple times – certainly long enough to unlock the unlimited ammo perk for the Magnum, which basically one-shot-kills everything in the game.
  • Max Payne 3 – My only real beef with MP3 is the unskippable cutscenes, especially since the cutscenes can be a bit tedious and overwrought.  That said, I thought this was a great reinvention of one of my favorite franchises, and it’s one of the best looking games Rockstar’s ever made.
  • Lost Odyssey – the Xbox 360 did not get many JRPGs, but this one was really, really good.
  • Deathspank 1 – I don’t know, I had a lot of fun with it.  Great, goofy art style; satisfying action; a relentlessly juvenile sense of humor that was somehow still endearing.
  • Prey – (1) If I recall correctly, this was one of the only shooters that didn’t use the Unreal engine, and instead used the Doom 3 engine – and I think it looked pretty great.  (2) It also did the Portal thing before Portal (sorta).  (3) it’s one of the only shooters where I didn’t totally suck in online deathmatch.  No idea why, but I was more often than not on top of the leaderboard in any given match.

GAMES I SPENT THE MOST TIME PLAYING – I don’t have accurate records of this, so I’m sorta doing this by estimate.  For one thing, Raptr wasn’t around when this generation got started, and even now it’s not always accurate (two examples: (a) it doesn’t track any of my PS3 time, and (b) I definitely have not spent over 90 hours playing Call of Juarez: Gunslinger (there was some sort of bug where the game didn’t close all the way, and I’d accidentally left it running for at least a few days in between sessions)).  There also are more than a few instances where I played the same game on multiple platforms.  So I have no idea if this is accurate or not.

  • Oblivion – taking note of the disclaimer above, this is almost certainly the winner of this category, as I’m nearly positive I haven’t sunk over 150 hours on anything else.
  • Skyrim
  • Fallout 3
  • Red Dead Redemption
  • GTA IV (360 / PC)
  • Mass Effect 1/2 – I played both of these twice, as both paragon and renegade, doing every side mission I could find each time.  I have not yet done the same with ME3 – in fact, I still haven’t played The Citadel DLC, now that I think of it.
  • L. A. Noire
  • Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood
  • Assassin’s Creed IV (as of 12/5, I’m at 50+ hours and counting!
  • Borderlands 2
  • Portal 2 (even though it’s a short game, I beat it multiple times on every platform, as well as finishing the co-op on both 360 and PC – PC, Mac, 360, PS3)

NOTABLE GAMES I DID NOT PLAY / COULD NOT GET INTO

  • every Call of Duty game after MW2 (and MW2 is where the series jumped the shark, as far as I’m concerned)
  • Super Mario Galaxy 2
  • Resistance 1/2 (though I did finish and enjoy 3)
  • Killzone (any)
  • Bayonetta (made it to Chapter 5)
  • Dark Souls / Demon Souls

BEST PERFORMANCE – I had trouble coming up with nominees for this category, strangely enough, because I knew who the winner was before I’d even finished typing the words “Best Performance.”  To my mind, there has never been a greater synergy between script writing, vocal performance, and character design and animation than Stephen Merchant as “Wheatley” in Portal 2.  (To that end, this award also goes to Erik Wolpaw’s script and Karen Prell’s character design.)

BEST CHARACTER (non-Wheatley edition)

  • Glados, Portal 1/2
  • “FemShep”, Mass Effect
  • Niko Bellic, GTA IV
  • John Marston, Red Dead Redemption

holiday weekend recap: the game of life (and also AC4)

There was not a lot of gaming this holiday weekend; it was my first Thanksgiving with the baby, though, which made it very special.

When you’re preparing to have a kid, the #1 thing everybody warns you about is that you’re never going to get any more sleep for the rest of your life.  This has turned out to be not entirely true in my case; our kid has slept through the night in his own crib pretty much every night since the day we took him home from the hospital.  It is true that we haven’t slept in in 8 months (with the notable exception of this past Saturday, when the wife and I headed up to her 20 Year High School Reunion without the baby, and we slept in the following morning until 9:00, and oh my gawd it was glorious), and it’s also true that I don’t sleep particularly well these days anyway, but that’s not the baby’s fault.

The thing they don’t tell you about having a baby, though, is how much you’re going to be sick.  Colds left and right, up and down, mucus and phlegm everywhere.  The three of us have been trading the same cold since the little guy’s first day of day care, which was 5 months ago.

So:  yes, I was home sick yesterday – as was the wife – but the kid was healthy and happy, and so we had to send him off to day care so that we could rest and not sneeze on him.  It was the first time the two of us had been alone in the house without the boy since before he was born, which was profoundly weird.  (Not nearly as weird as when I picked the boy up at the end of the day, though, because that marked the first time I’ve ever said the words “Hi, I’m Henry’s dad” to someone.)

Here is the point that I am slow in arriving towards:  being home sick all day without a baby to take care of means that I binged hard on Assassin’s Creed 4, which is now making a serious run at the top of my Best of 2013 list.

Before I get to AC4, though, let me cover everything else very quickly:  (1) I’m inching along in the 3DS Zelda game, and it’s good.  (2) I have not bought anything during this new Steam Sale, and I’m very proud of myself for doing so.  (I suppose I was holding out for a big, big discount on the new Batman game – something bigger than 25%.  Apparently Amazon had the digital download available for 50% on Black Friday, but I was away from a computer and couldn’t seal the deal.)

OK, back to AC4.  I’m around 45% complete, somewhere in Sequence 8 – the game says I need to upgrade my ship before starting the next mission, which is a roundabout way of suggesting that I go explore the rest of the world, engage in some of those naval battles I’d been avoiding, unlock more waypoints and do more side missions.  Which I’m very happy to do, as a matter of fact.

Let me get my demerits out of the way first:

(1)  I know I’ve mentioned that I’ve got an older graphics card and that I’ve had to turn the settings down low in order to get a decent frame rate, but even then there are still certain moments (specifically, scenes at night and the scenes at Abstergo) where even turning the resolution down to its lowest setting can’t quite stop the game from sputtering to a standstill.  There was one particular mission (at night) where I had to tail a gunboat on foot, and the game kept hitching up about every other second; the missions was virtually unplayable.  And as cheesy as the modern-day stuff can be, I still like it, but my PC can barely run it without dying – and there doesn’t seem to be any particularly good reason why.  I ran the new Burial at Sea DLC for Bioshock Infinite on high settings and the game ran smooth as silk and looked absolutely jaw-dropping; AC4’s Abstergo sequences are just you in a modern office building, and so there’s no obvious culprit as to what’s causing the problem.  I’m too far into the game at this point to consider stopping and replaying it on a PS4, but I might just have to suck it up and get a better graphics card.

(2) The hand-to-hand combat is chaotic and it can be hard to tell where Kenway is on screen.  When it’s one-on-one, it’s OK, but when he’s surrounded by 6 or 7 enemies it’s a mess.  (Of course, if he’s surrounded by 6 or 7 enemies then it’s safe to say I’ve done something wrong, but still – they give you the option of fighting your way out, but it’s hard to see what’s happening.)  The larger issue, and this is hardly AC’s fault, is that the melee system is not quite as great as the Batman: Arkham system, even as AC is clearly now modelling itself after it (which is ironic, given that AC was around first).  The emphasis remains heavy on countering attacks, but the controls aren’t as responsive as they need to be – if I had to guess, I think that’s because there’s such a high priority on Kenway finishing his current animation, and all of his fighting animations tend to be long and fluid.

That’s it, as far as obvious flaws go, and both of those could be improved without the game needing to do anything – in the first case, I just need to upgrade my playing system and that graphical problem should go away (though it would be nice if they’d patch in some better optimization fixes), and in the second case, I need to stop being impatient and get myself into trouble.  It is always easier to sneak around and pick off dudes one by one – and those animations are very quick and precise, now that I think about it.

Well, there is one more thing I could nitpick:  some of those sea shanties are horrendously ear-wormy (specifically the one with the “and we say so, and we know so” refrain) and I can’t tell whether the solution is to find all the pages so that they don’t keep singing the same ones, or if I simply turn it off altogether.  A pirate ship without sea shanties is a weird, silent place, but maybe it’s better than wanting to punch that one singer in the throat.

The rest of the game is pretty goddamned magnificent, though.  Like: I love how deep the side missions go.  As an example, the “Kill the Templar” side missions (of which I’ve done 3) aren’t simply about tailing a dude and killing him (like in previous AC games); they’re often 4 or 5 scenes deep, with the story twisting and turning after each one, and the activities are varied enough that you stay on your toes.

But even the non-story stuff, like breaking into a cargo warehouse, takes some careful strategy and planning.  I do love running from cover to cover, saying visible just long enough to get one soldier to follow me so that I can pick him off silently, then hitting a sniper with a berzerk dart and watching him pick off his comrades before falling to his own death.  Getting to the door without being detected or setting off alarms is awesome, and I just wish the warehouses would fill up a bit faster so that I could do it more often (although the warehouses are also quite bountiful, as far as ship-stuff is concerned).

I’ll talk about this more in my 360/PS3 post, but one of my favorite new things this past generation gave us is the idea of your own customizable home base.  Saints Row did this pretty well with your “crib”, Mass Effect gave you the Normandy (which isn’t necessarily fully customizable, though you can make certain cosmetic changes), and AC4 gives you an island, a private manor, and (last but not least) the Jackdaw.  The path to upgrading is pretty expensive, to be sure, but it also means that each upgrade that you do make feels all the more satisfying.

Those naval battles that I’d been putting off?  Those are fun, too, although they’re not really the thing I look forward to the most when I fire the game up.  That being said, it is nice that the game lets you keep what you’ve salvaged even if you get sunk before you get a chance to sell.  Some might feel put off by how forgiving and easy this is, but for me, it makes the battles a bit less stressful (though still quite enjoyable); I don’t feel horribly punished if I get overrun.  And since ships are by far the best source of metal, I suppose I’m going to have to keep at it for a bit longer, and maybe I’ll start actually looking forward to it before long.

The story is serviceable, if a bit convoluted – but what would a AC game be if not convoluted?.  Kenway himself is not all that great a hero – he’s certainly not as charismatic as Ezio, although I must admit I got tired of Ezio by the time Revelations came around – but he gets the job done.  There is a “revelation” about Kenway’s compatriot James Kidd that could not have been more obvious even before Kidd’s first spoken words, but maybe for younger players they wouldn’t see it coming?  No matter.  The game has fun telling its story, which is more than I can say for the last two games, and it constantly feels like it’s moving forward instead of spinning its wheels.

The most impressive thing, though, is the true open world that the game has to offer.  Each island feels meticulously designed and detailed, no matter how small, and this makes for quite an incentive in terms of opening up the map and visiting every place you can find.  This is how AC was meant to be experienced – with a gigantic world filled with lots of different, enjoyable things to do.  It doesn’t necessarily feel “next-gen”, and yet it does feel absolutely massive, where there might be something interesting around every corner.