20-20 Hindsight: adam1808's Blog
My thoughts: including games, movies, books etc. All of which will be imparted when I feel like it. Any offence caused will be ignored or investigated with avid amusement and note-taking.
These blogs are rather like me talking, so don't expect pictures as I don't speak visual. As its a blog I'll assume you're reasonably literate (risky I know).
This is a weekly thing except for holidays, things are difficult and will remain so for the next two years so all I'll be doing is blogging and reviewing. Send me a PM if you ever want to game with myself, I mainly occupy my time with PS3 and my now playing list is pretty up to date so if you're playing the same stuff drop me a line.
Hope you enjoy. My online persona's are as follows: PSN: Deadlife47, Steam: deadlife47, Wikigameguides: Deadlife47, Youtube: Deadlife47, GiantBomb: adam1808
Dragon Age: Origins kicked off an oh-so-brief period in this generation where BioWare was getting the credit and attention that it deserved. For about a year, starting in late 2009, BioWare could do little wrong. DAO and Mass Effect 2, the one-two punch that showed us that BioWare could serve both its EA masters and its devoted fans in equal measure.
Looking back through the lens of Dragon Age 2, The Old Republic and Mass Effect 3, its been incredibly difficult for me at least to look back an remember anything about the original Dragon Age with a rosey-tint to everything. I've been doing this on and off with all of BioWare's more recent titles, checking in to make sure KOTOR is still as fantastic as I remember it being and reminding myself that there was a reason why I was never drawn to Jade Empire.
Dragon Age is the first of the games in my retread of BioWare's back catalogue that I've invested serious time into. With Neverwinter Nights, KOTOR, Jade Empire and Mass Effect, I've dived in long enough to remind myself of the flaws, the slavish adherence to the classic BioWare formula and the characters before pulling out in the fear that I might get sucked back in again.
DAO is the exception. I've been ensnared by a BioWare game for the first time since Mass Effect 2, I'd almost forgotten what it felt like. This is partly due to my previous experience with DAO. I'm not a member of the PC master race, but since starting a game with my elven mage "Rad" on the PC I've realised that my playthrough on the 360 was the inferior experience. Textures were rough, the framerate was rougher and one can only see so many radial menus in one game. The PC is the platform the game was designed for; it's prettier, tougher and easy to control, making what should have been a brief check-in a commitment to see it through to the end, all 60 or so hours of it.
Around ten hours in, it's finally dawning on me why Dragon Age Origins is secretly one of BioWare's best efforts. Nothing about the world, mechanics or story is particularly novel or original. Some elements like the relationship between the mages and the Chantry are intriguing, but on the whole DAO is unashamed homage to its D&D predecessors with a healthy dash of Lord of the Rings thrown in for good measure.
That's not to say it's not enjoyable. It's actually shocking how well DAO handles the "there's an unstoppable evil coming and we must unite a bunch of different groups together to help fight it" conceit given how poorly structured and paced Mass Effect 3 was, a game with essentially the same setup. How does one emphasise a terrifying threat? Answer: have it beat the good guys into a pulp in the first encounter. As lifeless and uninteresting as the Darkspawn are as villains, BioWare does a great job in making them seem unstoppable. The devil is in the execution rather than the fiction with BioWare and Dragon Age Origins is a testament to that.
However, you can play a game within Dragon Age: Origins. It's called 'Spot the BioWare cliche.' One point if you managed to predict that the young nubile Leliana would talk about 'forbidden fruit' by your third chat, another if you guessed Morrigan was going to be a party member before she even spoke because someone obviously put a lot of work into that character model. It's like watching a Wes Anderson film, so many elements are exactly the same yet you don't really care because you're enjoying it so much. Then again, part of the reason why I've stuck with DAO for 10+ hours can been because of how deftly BioWare shift between being formulaic and being adventurous. Characters end up joining your party without the obligatory fanfare that leads up to Archangel taking off the helmet or rescuing Bastila, dialogue choices are rarely a choice of altruistic, murderous or painfully unfunny. It's like BioWare knows you're fan, knows you've stuck with them, and is constantly throwing out curveballs that make you smile.
This doesn't mean that any of the flaws get much of a pass. They're generally minor in nature: the hilariously mute rictus of anguish my character's face portrays whenever something dramatic happens, the way a fight with a low-level bandit will cover you with the same amount of bodily fluid as a battle with a troll and the moments were clicking on a spell causes me to move it out of my hotbar, rendering it useless until I pause and dig through the skills menu looking for it. But if you think about the issues previous games from these developers had to surmount, these quibbles are all so very trivial.
For all its merits, Dragon Age Origins is still cut from the same cloth as the developer's previous work. It's just a more lovingly crafted, honed and refined BioWare game than its brethren. Their games' mechanics are generally serviceable, DAO's gameplay is quite fun. Their characters are often well-developed with their own specific dogma that you can help them out with, in DAO those issues are a lot darker without an obvious resolution. It's better BioWare, but for some reason it's not the game that I'm going to remember in the context of their glory days.
Mass Effect 2 is a flawed game. But it balances on a knife edge between being just another BioWare game and utter brilliance. Its shooting mechanics are stiff, the cover-system is awful and almost everything you'd associate with an RPG has been stripped out. It is, basically, the anti-Dragon Age in many ways. But, the highs of Mass Effect 2 are so high, trading the consistency of something like Knights of the Old Republic for a few dramatic moments that stand as some of high points of this generation for me.
Returning to Ferelden in optimal circumstances, knowing now what I didn't know then, Dragon Age Origins seems like the last hurrah for BioWare's past. From that point on, it feels to me like they struck out along a riskier path that involved them trading what they knew in the hope possibility that their writing talent could carry very un-BioWare like games. With Mass Effect 2, they caught lightning in a jar. Dragon Age Origins isn't lightning, it's the culmination of years of hard work, dedication and iteration and damn does it show. A friend of mine adores DAO, and I'm afraid I can't say I share his sentiments even though it has invaded my life in a way that it previously had not. I do however, respect it not only as a piece of art, but as a piece of craft.
Recall at this point, that little mention has been given to its sequel. That's because in my mind, I'm imposing a moratorium on Dragon Age 2 for everything other than discussing the proverbial "beginning of the end" or the analysis of EA's financial position. There's only one real Dragon Age game to have been released and its the one that wasn't churned out in 18 months by the B-team while everyone at BioWare and EA frantically tried to end the trilogy that was bringing home the bacon.
At least going back, I know for sure what can be done with sufficient time, enthusiasm and money in the hands of a studio that seems to have lost its way.
At the start of this generation, I came to Gamespot because it was one of about three websites that did decent video reviews. I wasn't one for reading hundreds of words on games and the sight of Jeff Gerstmann making hand gestures and saying "kind of" a lot satisfied all my requirements for gaming information.
As the generation progressed, so have my 'tastes' regarding the kind of editorial content I like to consume. We've all progressed from the video review to the livestream, from the 40 second gameplay clip to the hour-long demo and long-form writing about games is back in fashion. The question is, does Gamespot or any other gaming site provide what you want regarding gaming-related content?
Come November when the new consoles roll out, do you want a slick set of videos detailing every inch of each console's relative strengths or do you want some guy with an iPhone filming a hasty unboxing of a PS4? Because blogs, twitter, reddit and forums can get you the nuts and bolts of what's going on in video games faster and more efficiently than anything that professionals are paid to provide. If you're coming to a gaming site you're not just coming for editorial integrity and accurate reporting, you want something more than that.
What is that special something? Why are you reading this on Gamespot rather than on Eurogamer or IGN? You obviously came to this site in particular because it does something you like. What is it? And is that the sort of editorial content you want to continue to see in the future?
Personally I spend more time on Giant Bomb than I do on Gamespot because what I want out of my gaming-related journalism and content consumption is getting honest and frank opinions from people I feel like I know. I like to know what those knuckleheads are thinking about and because I identify with their tastes I find what they have to say about games interesting and insightful. The work that Gamespot UK does here also scratches that itch, delivering that same raw slice of personality-infused coverage that's both entertaining and informative that I find so appealing. I like long videos, lengthy editorials and terrible in-jokes in that order. That's what I want out of gaming journalism, but some people may prefer the exact opposite.
When this industry explodes again in seven months time with the excitement of a new generation; what kind of content, editorial or otherwise, do you want from the professionals?
I know how much my tastes and preferences for editorial content have changed over the years and I know what I want from the professionals in the years to come. I'm just interested in what you want from gaming sites in the future, especially when there are so many other ways for you to read opinions and find out what's going on in the industry without coming to a site about videogames.
This is purely a human interest piece on my part. I couldn't find a better way to express "content" so everything editorial or otherwise that a site like Gamespot does I've grouped under "journalism" so hopefully that all makes sense.
This is also technically not an editorial. However, somebody gave this soapbox to stand on so until they yank it out from under me I'll use it to ask these questions because I want answers en masse. Maybe someone important on this site will read your comments and make a few notes, maybe.
It's been a while since I checked in with some of the good old personal stuff here on this blog. I've spent the last few days writing things that draw either extreme malice or congratulation from the users of this site and that's how I generally like it, but now I've worked out the urge to write about whatever comes off the top of my head it's time to organise the last few weeks into words.
If I take a step back and survey the past month, it's easy to recognise the fact that I'm following the trajectory of the educated schoolboy to the letter. Fresh out of high school, complete with long hair and no strong opinions on anything really, I've killed time getting fit again on the streets of Melbourne and Sydney respectively and painting the parent's house out of a sense of long-running guilt for weighing down their social lives for the past 18 years. It's the first time in 5 or so years that I've understood the term "holding pattern" in its entirety.
Leaving home is a strange mixture of excitement and boredom. On the one hand, as the occupant of a small terraced house with three other affable roomates in the centre of Sydney I can do anything and everything. On the other hand, there's very little to do prior to term starting. Of course I could frequent any number of establishments offering cut-price jagerbombs and freeflow beer (the natural habitat of the arts and social sciences student) but going out in search of damaged brain cells alone seems more sad than sitting alone playing videogames. It's funny how that logic works out isn't it?
The drain outside my window is blocked, so when it rains all day after a few successive days of oppressive heat as is often the case in Sydney the splashing of the drain is enough to keep me up at night. On days when it doesn't rain the neighbours fill that role admirably. Each night there are new voices, new clashes and bangs penetrating the plaster walls separating the terraces. As an Australian I'll happily admit that we are no a punctual bunch. As Orientation week starts to fade into the beginning of term, the late-arrivals outnumber all the rest and every door on the street is left open to fascillitate the moving of desks, chairs and 16-packs of Carlsberg.
In Singapore where I spent the last 4 years of my life, the noise of the city was a perpetual hum of air-conditioning and taxis ferrying businessmen from office block to marbled office block. Here, the sound of the city mixes bird calls with old diesel engines. I've come to like this about Sydney. It's a grimier, more down-to-earth city than its south-eastern counterpart with a sense of its own history that the other major cities of Australia lack. Or at least that's how I choose to perceive it. You make the most of your situation. Learn to appreciate the city you'll be spending the best part of five years in or be miserable.
Education, the reason I chose to be here in the first place, has been marginalised by the arduous process of moving. Each day the prospect of studying a set of subjects that I actually care about rather than a set of pre-ordained subject areas is at once exciting and terrifying. Who's to say if I do care once it all starts? Who knows whether all the energy poured into securing a great score was a finite resource, used up in the final push?
These are the questions you start mulling over when you're faced with the insurmountable task of washing your own socks. Why is that they dry slower than t-shirts? You'd think that on a washing line in the full glare of the Sydney sun that the smaller items would dry the fastest, but no! Socks and underwear maintain their uncomfortable dampness for at least an hour after the outer garments that the casual onlooker sees are as dry as a bone. The iron is its own separate issue. Without an ironing board I have resorted to a towel draped over the dining room table. I never notice creases but apparently they make one look shabby according to my mother, maybe she never noticed the curly mop I grew as a signal that scruffiness and I are best pals.
But washing and ironing and shopping and cleaning all need to be done, if only to stay part of the human race. In these new conditions of heightened responsibility for my own wellbeing and my security deposit, videogames have become my enemy rather than my respite. Damn you Civ 5 and your ability to suck hours out of my day. Firaxis are the finest purveyors of videogame crack. A game of Civ or XCOM may as well guarantee that I'll be doing without milk for the next day.
It would be nice to say "who knows what the future holds?" but I'm pretty certain it involves lectures, tutorials and learning to share a bathroom with three other people. As I'm still alive, not showing any signs of jaundice or infection and the house doesn't smell of decaying broccoli I'd say things are off to a good start.
Oh and it's "University". A college is a branch of a university, sometimes academic sometimes residential. Get it right guys.
In 2006, Epic Games put out version 1.0 of the Unreal Engine 3 with Gears of War. It employed a simple button-in cover system that solved a lot of the problems inherent in third-person shooter design. Over the next 5 years, the "third-person cover based shooter" became ubiquitous as developer after developer thought "we can do that but better!" In 2007, Call of Duty Modern Warfare reinvented the online multiplayer shooter by dangling the carrot of a new perk or weapon in front of the player and the first-person shooters of the world promptly followed suit.
As soon as an idea or mechanic draws a significant audience, the industry iterates on it with a ferocity. Some might call it piggybacking off someone else's successful idea, others would argue that games are inherently iterative and this standard practice has resulted in some truly terrific games.
Now, and I think about 10 million of you might agree, the new "thing" to be copied and iterated upon is Skyrim's brand of world-building and expansive fiction. The idea that one can walk north and find content worth experiencing struck a chord with millions of players in a way that previous Bethesda games have not. So obviously, it should be pinched as soon as possible.
The prime suspects for this first act of creative imitation are CD ProjektRED, EA and Capcom, hoping to bask in some of Skyrim's glory while the name still curries favour with players. The question is: If Skyrim is the new Gears of War, who is going to put out Uncharted?
If I could bet money on anything, I'd bet that EA and BioWare combined aren't going to be the ones to do it. Dragon Age 3 and whatever subtitle the marketing division have chosen for it today is a game that you can be sure will take liberally from the Bethesda playbook with the sole purpose of attracting the newly converted towards microtransactions and DLC plans. As we've seen from Mass Effect 3 and Dead Space 3, the prime directive from the EA management seems to be "appeal to everyone". In practice this probably will mean stripping out the complexity of Skyrim's AI and character building systems to appeal to the kind of people who probably wouldn't play a game called "Dragon Age" anyway. On top of this, it's hard to tell who/what BioWare is at this point. Originally there were two teams, one for Mass Effect and one for Dragon Age, but now a significant number of EA studios have been rebranded as BioWare studios (and subsequently changed to Visceral Games studios following the backlash against ME3). The Doctors are out and after the gradual decline in the quality of EA's products following Dragon Age 2 it's hard to believe BioWare have it in them to produce a worthy competitor to Skyrim while people are still interested in playing more of that kind of game.
CDProjektRED however may be the perfectly positioned to offer up the counterpart to the Bethesda giant. Let's be frank, the PC developers of old took over the HD generation. Epic, Crytek, Bungie and not least Bethesda weathered the storm of the PC slump to come out as the powerhouses going into the next generation and CDProjektRED is yet to have its first console hit. Anyone who played the Witcher 2 on a PC that could run it will attest to the fact that they have the technical prowess to make an amazing open world and the writing chops to back it up. In addition, the Witcher 2 played like a good action game rather than the cludgy mess that Skyrim can be or the mindless amped-up gorefest of Dragon Age 2.
My only personal concern is that their claim that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt will be "bigger than Skyrim" smacks too much a developer who may not know what their target is. Skyrim's world is big AND full of compelling content with a sophisticated AI system that makes it seem like a real place. The one-upmanship of "our game is bigger than their game" suggests, at least to me, that they may have their priorities wrong. In end though CDProjektRED have the experience and a wealth of established fiction to back them up, and they've proven themselves twice already in the RPG-making business.
The same probably can't be said of Capcom. As the first of many to hitch themselves to the Skyrim train with Dragon's Dogma, Capcom have made it clear that they're going after the western style of RPG the only way they know how. Solution: add good combat, seed Monster Hunter mechanics into the enemy encounters and hope that it all catches on. Surprisingly, Dragon's Dogma found an audience and the critical consensus was "Nice combat, this world is boring. Make a sequel and fix that last bit."Everything coming out of Captivate's and E3's of year's past sounded like Capcom were making a huge open world RPG without quite understanding why that style of game was popular. In the end we got a mechanically strong RPG with some neat ideas like the pawn system in a universe utterly devoid of flavour.
The issue here is that the trailer shown at the Sony press conference on February 20th wasn't Dragon's Dogma 2 running in Capcom's new engine but "Deep Down", a game that seems to be Dragon's Dogma in all but it's name. Dragons, knights, dirty-looking men with sharp metal objects? Cmon Capcom, that sounds an awful lot like that last game you made doesn't it? Regardless of whether this is a completely new IP or the tacit admission that Dragon's Dogma is a terrible name for a videogame, if Deep Down does turn out to be a successor to Dragon's Dogma then it's probably the most exciting thing Capcom has going right now. What the expansive open-world do anything subgenre that Bethesda has popularised lacks is consistently fun combat. By all accounts the combat systen in Dragon's Dogma was the reason to play the game and if Capcom takes lessons from the criticism that game received and say, hires a few writers who know a thing or two about lore, then a marriage of those mechanics with that kind of world could be a killer combination.
Whichever way I look at it, the sudden realisation that there is a large market for the Bethesda style of game can only yield positive results. Competition breeds creativity and innovation in the hope that both will help sell copies and we as players gain nothing but benefit from that. Personally, I think CDProjektRED have the most potential to become a heavy hitter in both the market for that sort of game and in next generation in general with the next Witcher title, but Capcom seems so hungry for a slice of the Skyrim pie that anything could be possible.
With the possible exception of Dragon Age 3 (pay 80 microsoft points to get this Elvish helm), whoever wins the upcoming scramble for a piece of Bethesda's newly found audience, we as the players come out on top.
Are you excited about the next generation? Hopefully you are, because then we'll get to have another one after that. In the next few months it's going to get crazy in the gaming industry. Tech specs will be leaked, claims will be refuted and hundreds of developers will be hard at work figuring out how to make a guy hide behind cover in Unreal Engine 4.
Now though? It's a dead zone, and even though this current generation of consoles has a few games left in it yet I think now is the time to look back and think about what the last 7 year's worth of gaming experiences have done for us. I'm not a huge fan of lists so the numbering in this list is vague at best and of course this is all highly subjective so don't burst a blood vessel when you favourite first-person shooter doesn't get a look in.
This is my way of internalising which of the experiences I had in this developing medium were the most meaningful/important/enjoyable or a combination of all three.
Number 10: Geometry Wars Retro Evolved 2
When Geometry Wars RE2 came out in 2008 they may as well have canned the twin-stick shooter as a genre once and for all. The phrase "infinite skill ceiling" is one you'll hear bandied about in relation to something like Starcraft or Dota but I can't think of a more skill-based game than GW2. It honed and refined the already superb formula of the first game while setting the standard for leaderboard implementation for the rest of the generation. GW2 made scores-chasing matter again and it did so while at the same time being the most mechanically faultless game on this list. If I was stuck on a desert island with only one game to play for the rest of my life, it would be this one.
Number 9: Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
Hideo Kojima you magnificent nutter, keep doing what you're doing because Metal Gear Solid 4 is probably the best example I can give for why authorship is important for videogames. Remember how hard the world said it would be to wrap up five years of the Mass Effect universe? Well Kojima tied up 20 years of gaming lore in MGS4 in the most ridiculous and extravagant way imaginable. This is what you get when you give a blank cheque to a gifted madman and tell him to make his kind of game. Even today, few games can match the insanity and audacity of MGS4. From the hours of cutscenes to the stylishness of the presentation to the best damned use of button-mashing in a videogame, MGS4 set the bar for what we consider to be "epic" in games. So far, that bar has yet to be reached by any other game this generation.
Number 8: Braid
The story, gameplay and presentation of Braid are immensely interesting in their own right, but not as interesting as the character of Jonathon Blow and his game's effect on the industry. These days tiny indie platformers made by one guy in his attic are a dime a dozen, just check out Steam some time, but at the time the idea that one man had essentially built this thought-provoking and ingenius puzzle-platformer by himself thrust the very idea of "indie" into our collective consciousness. It helps that Braid is also one of the best puzzle games around, blending a powerful story with puzzle mechanics that kept changing and evolving. Braid made me feel smart, sad and intrigued. Sometimes all at once.
Number 7: Burnout Paradise
"Hey guys it's DJ Atomika comin' at ya live this morning from Paraaadddiiiiseeee Citttyyyy." Yes, I went there.
Damn it Criterion make another Burnout game, or maybe just make Burnout Paradise look a bit better and re-release because for my money it's the best racing game of this generation. It's also, surprisingly, one of the best open world games of this generation too. I never do the whole "let's go out and explore" thing that the Skyrims and the GTAs of this world encourage, because there just aren't enough yellow gates and awesome jumps. Paradise City was and is the perfect defintion of a playground, a sandbox, a place where you and your friends can practice ramming each other off cliffs to your heart's content at 60 frames per second with the most incredible crash tech you have ever seen. The multiplayer alone is the reason Burnout makes this list as no game before or since has realised the full potential of an open-world driving game to the same extent. If only there had been a "Restart" option in on day one.
Number 6: Mass Effect 2
Dark middle chapters are always the best. If I had my way all games would be the dark middle chapters, the sequels to games that never came out because the best bits of a trilogy are the middle bits where everything seems awfully dicey. Although I do love Mass Effect 1 despite its clunkiness, Mass Effect 2 is where it's at. Its broad array of interesting, relatable characters was the reason you cared going into Mass Effect 3 and consequently why I at least was disappointed when some of them didn't get the attention they deserved. Sure the combat isn't what it should have been and the main storyline is little more than a sideshow but Mass Effect 2 is the peak of BioWare's writing talents compressed into a playable product. Hang the depth and complexity of RPG mechanics if it means I can get to the next dialogue sequence faster say I and BioWare did just that. The Mass Effect universe was at its richest, its darkest, its most stylish and most self-assured in Mass Effect 2 and as a result I'll always think of it as the defining RPG of this generation.
Number 5: Saints Row the Third
I love videogames. I love them so much I ADORE those that understand that they're a videogame. If there's one thing we've learned from the past 40 years of gaming it's that games are an amazing form of catharsis. Saints Row the Third takes that knowledge to its logical extreme. It's like every time a designer at Volition came up with a crazy idea for a level or a character, the director shouted down any and all naysayers and stated "Yes we can have a text adventure! Because videogames!" There are so many noteworthy moments in Saints Row 3 that could have gone wrong yet came out so so right that you should just stop reading this and play it. So find a tiger, conquer your fear and embrace the fact that Saints Row the Third is the videogame to end all videogames.
Number 4: Bioshock
Bioshock is so ingrained the pysche of popular videogame culture you might as well replace the Spike VGA's with the Andrew Ryan Awards. It was the first hint at the fact that during this generation, games would become more thematically complex and intellectually stimulating than we could ever have expected. Playing Bioshock is nothing to write home about. Ice hands + wrench = victory. But inhabiting the world of Rapture and seeing how the story played in that setting was its own reward. Bioshock made me think about videogames and how they're constructed, it took philosophical concepts and crammed them into a medium that today is still more about headshots and explosions than it is about exploring ideas. Games are art you guys, it started here.
Number 3: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
Naughty Dog are awesome because they made Uncharted 2. Wait what about Crash Bandicoot and the Jak and Daxter series they we really awes-SHUT UP UNCHARTED 2 UNCHARTED 2. Call of Duty 4 changed how we thought about online multiplayer, Uncharted 2 changed how we thought about the presentation of action in videogames. Before, an action game was branded as such because there were guns and red barrels and if you introduced the two excitement could occur. Uncharted 2 showed us that action could be about leaping from truck to truck while fighting bad guys on a snowy moutaintop, or jumping out of a collapsing building just before it hits the ground. It's a game that takes the best elements of Hollywood: the set-pieces, the snappy writing and the setup, while slyly eating Steven Spielberg's lunch by amping all those elements up as only videogames can. It was so incredibly good that Naughty Dog failed to top it with its follow-up and has now resorted to making smaller games about zombies and homeless people in the hope that nobody will ask them to make something as fantastic as Uncharted 2 again.
Number 2: Portal
Again, you know about Portal. Everyone knows about Portal. For a while I felt super smug about having a wallpaper with "The cake is a lie" on it and soon after I realised that I was officially prat. Nevertheless Portal inspired that kind of enthusiasm because it was so different and unexpected. In a stellar collection such as the Orange Box, who would have thought that a 2 hour puzzle game would rise above the games it was packaged in with to simultaneously become the benchmark for humour and puzzle design in the medium? Portal 2 is undeniably a more polished, more thrilling and more overtly amusing than Portal but it wasn't surprising in the same way. I'm probably never going to play Portal again, I probably don't want to either. For those 2 hours it made me feel like a genius and then took the hardest left-turn a clean, dryly humourous puzzle game could possibly take. If you never had that experience then I feel sorry for you.
Number 1: Bastion
It's no secret that one of my favourite games of all time is Max Payne 2. Max Payne 2 is a game that understands that story and storytelling are not things that need to be separated by a six-foot wall from gameplay, with only a small peephole through which such things as cutscenes can be used to connect the two. Bastion also understands this. It respects your ability as a player to take in the world and fiction of a game while also engaging in combative gameplay. In the space of around 7 hours Bastion introduces its world and develops it to the point where everything seems grounded and believable, something that countless 30 hour RPGs fail to do. Its combat system is deep, customisable and crucially, perfectly responsive to you as the player and yet it's also one of the handful of games that have managed to get me all choked up. It's a seamless, polished package of story, presentation and gameplay that isn't afraid to make you listen to one man's voice from beginning to end. Basically, Bastion is the real deal.
Well thankyou ladies, gents and other lifeforms for getting this far. Do feel free to insult my taste in games at every turn and say "but what about Dark Souls", it won't change my feelings in the slightest. Here's hoping that by the time the new consoles roll out this list will be as obsolete as John Carmack is clever.
In the days of yore when Japan was the epicentre of game development and buying a PAL PS2 was how you played weird Japanese rhythm games region locking was more of an issue than it is now. In this enlightened age of the twenty-teens you'd think limited access due to the mere geography would be a thing of the past, but of course Nintendo has other ideas.
As some of you may know I'm the recent owner of a Nintendo 3DS and am currently traipsing about the British Isles. It should be a match made in heaven.
Unfortunately, I've run headlong into the solemn realisation that Nintendo has spent the last six years with its head buried in the sand in stern denial of the existence of the internet. My 3DS is a US model, which means that UK 3DS games are unplayable due to the region-locking firmware baked into every 3DS console. This wouldn't be a problem if the Nintendo eshop could provide games via the miracle of the internet but sadly Nintendo have screwed it up on that front as well.
You see prior to my spint in the UK I was living in Singapore and thus have a Singaporean credit card. The way the eshop works is that you can't buy anything unless the postcode your card is registered to matches up to the region you've chosen for the eshop. However, Nintendo is convinced that only the US, the UK and Japan buy games via the eshop because the Singaporean eshop front is a joke. There are no games available for purchase, only a selection of game pages are up telling you to go buy said game at retail. No virtual console, no Pushmo, no nothing. Although funds can carry over from adding cash then switching to another region, the region from which all my money plastic originates prevents even the addition of e-money to my account.
Singapore isn't a swamp anymore Nintendo. It gets the internet there too.
Unless you hadn't realised Nintendo, the 3DS is a portable system. It's a platform designed to be taken, for example, on a trip to England. Perhaps someone who was undertaking such an expedition would want to purchase a 3DS game, both physical and digital, during his/her travels? It's not what one might call an unlikely scenario is it?
Of course I understand the reasons behind region locking. The internet gives players an uprecedented access to online delivery services that allow them to avoid the mark-ups on game prices in their region, thus undermining the profitability of a branch of a large publishing company. Nintendo obviously wants to protect its cut of every game sold for its platform and the lack of region-locking on the DS caused them no end of problems.
Nevertheless Nintendo has done an atrocious job of populating the eshops for each country with games to compensate 3DS owners for this inconvenience. It's also hard to condone region-locking in general when Sony has opened up the PS3 and the Vita to games from all regions and hasn't exactly suffered for it. For the limited number of consumers who actively exploit price differences in different countries that region-locking combats there are hundreds of consumers like me who are prevented from having a optimal experience. If Nintendo insists of using anti-consumerist measures then they need to provide sufficient digital services for every single region where their handheld is sold.
Luckily DS games aren't region-locked and I seem to have missed out on a generation of handheld games. I'll probably buy them used. I'm not feeling benevolent enough towards Nintendo to pay new game prices to reward their backward approach to the eshop, digital services and ensuring that consumers such as myself who would happily support Nintendo and its partners have the opportunity to do so.
It wasn't my fault officer, honest. It winked coquettishly at me from the electronics cabinet with its "Sale!" sticker like the family-friendly strumpet that it is. I wasn't going to get a better deal anytime soon and it came with an SD card and Super Mario 3D Land. I couldn't help myself.
So yes, I bought myself a Nintendo 3DS after quietly promising myself weeks prior to give up on trying to own every console and just stick to playing most of my games on PC. But I'm a sucker for a deal and once I haggled the price down even further I realised I was going to walk out of that store with Nintendo's handheld so I may as well embrace it.
Things didn't work out as well as planned as the 3DS that I ended up with had obviously been used by the store owner to demonstrate the wonders of handheld 3D technology to the uninitiated window shopper and in doing so had engaged parental controls, complete with a pin number. After discovering this, returning to the proprietor and doing my best to look angry and imposing I got the intended black model swapped for a properly brand new 70's bathroom blue model. It was that or one emblazoned with pokemon. I think I dodged a bullet there.
This all played out five or so hours before a 14 hour flight to the UK. An excellent opportunity, I thought, to test out the promise of bite-sized gaming that had been missing from my life ever since I packed up my GBA with the solemn conviction that old ladies would never again be freaked out by the sight of me playing WarioWare on the bus.
The 3DS held up remarkably well. Although I spent the majority of the flight watching films with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is apparently is essential to the making of all action movies requiring stoicism and a winning smile, the 3DS had itself a workout. Of course I wouldn't have been so enamoured with my rash purchase if not for the game I bought to accompany it.
Super Mario 3D Land is a great reminder that Nintendo is still capable of inventiveness and imaginative design in a time when other Nintendo products go back to the well of nostalgia so often they may as well install a pipeline. It's obvious that 3D Land is a product of the Super Mario Galaxy team. Like Galaxy and its sequel, each level layers on a new gameplay mechanic that you haven't seen before and then later on the game picks out the best ideas and sandwiches them all together brilliantly. 3D Land also plays to the strengths of the system; the 3D effect is used in numerous ways to enhance each level and provide a sense of scale that you generally wouldn't expect from a handheld game. The levels are nice and short which meant finishing a couple of levels satiated my desire for entertainment in about 10 minutes, as it turns out that's a fine way to break up your in-flight marathon of depressing Oscar winning-dramas and manic action flicks. So if you have a 3DS, it goes without saying that this is the game to get.
My one gripe so far is that the battery life isn't stellar. Super Mario 3D Land with the 3D slider all the way up will chew the battery up in around two and half hours and even in normal 2D mode the 3DS manages the battery life of a modern iPhone. I'm curious to see the demands that other games place on the battery, because I'm going down to the wire almost every day.
As for the hardware itself, it's smooth, elegant and compact. I chose the ordinary 3DS over the XL purely because it weighed less and could fit nicely in my pocket, as far as I'm concerned I made the right choice. It's a slick-looking system and the interface is as user-friendly and dumbed-down as it is on the Wii which is just how I like it. I may not need a tutorial for setting up a wi-fi connection but it's nice that it's there.
Right now the jury is still out on whether the 3DS will become part of my regular gaming ritual or just an amusing novelty. It's still down to the games that Nintendo has planned for the system, because 1st party titles make or break Nintendo hardware. Crashmo is next on the list of intended purchases, and there's always the allure of the Virtual console for some hot NES and SNES games that I've neglected to play. The coming weeks of freezing temperatures and solitude will determine my future relationship with the 3DS and Nintendo overall, so far it's off to a good start.
This year has been a weird one when it comes to the videogame industry. We're stuck in this holding pattern where our tired and sputtering old consoles are still at the forefront and everyone is on tenterhooks for Microsoft and Sony to elaborate a bit on words like "Durango" and "Orbis".
However, the death-throes of a generation often throw up some of its most interesting games and 2012 has been no different. Although little in 2012 matched the glorious heights of last year's Portal 2, Dark Souls, Bastion and of course; Saints Row the Third, I don't think I've ever experimented with new ideas and different genres more than during this year.
So here is a list of games that I enjoyed from this year in no particular order, let's imagine I love all of them equally. I didn't play a lot of this year's releases, so here's what I've got.
Max Payne 3
As a fashionable latecomer to the series from March of this year, I was simultaneously enamoured by Max Payne 2 and immediately curious as to what Rockstar would do to a sequel to a series with such a singular sense of style and personality. The answer was: Mechanically? Not much was changed. Stylistically though? Everything that makes Max Payne as a character who he is has been altered to fit the Houser Brother's desire to deconstruct a gaming icon. The gunplay was strong, the character work was stronger and Max Payne rocked Tom Cruise's grey suit from Collateral like only Max Payne could. I eventually realised that playing the game with a controller wasn't ideal and a few of Max's quips miss the mark, but it's still the only shooter this year that lived up to my expectations.
Syndicate is not how you do a classic revival. Deus Ex Human Revolution is a more faithful follow-up to the Bullfrog classic than Starbreeze's latest, but it doesn't mean Syndicate didn't satisfy on its own level. There's a lot to criticise about Syndicate, from the insipid story to the dearth of actual content, and rightly so. There's also quite a bit to love as well if you're looking for a fast-paced shooter with terrific AI and a great co-op component. Syndicate is the first game I've played that has managed to take the Left 4 Dead formula and do something interesting with it. The way the game enforces interdependence between players is genius, eliminating the frustration of playing co-op with strangers elegantly and intuitively. It's not an amazing game by any stretch of the imagination and it's a shame that Starbreeze's most mechanically confident game didn't reach the audience it deserved because it's still plenty of cold, corporate fun in its own right.
FTL: Faster Than Light
I don't like roguelikes. I want nothing to do with space-sims. I love FTL despite its inclusion of elements from both. What initially appears to be a simple game on the surface unfolds into nailbiting battle against unknown dangers waiting beyond the next star system and more often than not I watched with equal levels of horror and excitement as fires started in life support and evil space spiders beamed onto my ship to butcher the crew after about 20 minutes. Then I would exclaim "Damn that was fantastic" and start over. The fun in FTL is banging your head against a solid wall, it just so happens that doing so is immensely fufilling. Rest in Peace the crew of the Kestrel, the Torus and the twenty other namesakes whose crew never made it to the medbay in time.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown
I have no nostalgia or reverence for the original XCOM games because they were released when I was an infant whose mind would surely be corrupted by the presence of all those pixels. Similarly I've never been hooked by a Firaxis game as they've always seemed wildly impenetrable to someone raised on a dualshock. XCOM: Enemy Unknown was consequently a revelation for me. The feedback loop; be it positive or negative in its reinforcement, is constant. There's not a moment in XCOM where you don't feel like you're having a meaningful impact on the events occurring in the game, which makes it even more heartbreaking when you lose your best soldiers to the alien foe (Sgt Stephen "Hulk" Gillespie may you never be forgotten). What's more, XCOM handles beautifully with a controller, it's 1950's sci-fi aesthetic is delightful and there's a tangible feeling of empowerment as your green rookies grow up to battle-hardened colonels who can take out Sectopod in two shots. Be warned, bugs and performance oddities abound in Enemy Unknown, and that's about all I can say that's genuinely negative about my 40-odd hours with XCOM. It's a classic revival done right, so much so that I can see myself dipping into old XCOM to see what's what.
Mark of The Ninja
Stealth games suck! They really do! People have this fascination with being the silent assassin and for some reason that gives the cludgy stealth mechanics of games like Assassin's Creed and Metal Gear Solid a pass. Mark of the Ninja is crisp and responsive where the competition is sluggish and imprecise. "Mark" as I choose to call him is a tad too sticky to most surfaces for my taste and I feel the level design is a proof of concept for a Metroidvania-styled sequel which dragged some missions down for me, which just makes me more excited for a new iteration. The way the game conveys information is revolutionary. You always know whether your actions will alert guards, how far sound is travelling and whether you're visible or not. It's a fantastic example of intelligent design and anyone with an affinity for stealth games should dive in as soon as possible, you'll be in for a surprise.
thatgamecompany are a sly group of artistics. Knowing full well that I was unlikely to buy a game where you play as a flower petal, they made a third-person adventure game that could at a glance be considered somewhat conventional. Journey is anything but conventional. It has that indefinable quality of being able to inspire emotion yet I don't quite know why. The wonderful orchestral soundtrack and the raw technical achievement that is the visual design manage to take you from bewilderment to joy then back down to despair in the space of 90 minutes. If there's a game that deserves to be branded transcendental, this is it.
Wow Hotline Miami you are messed up. You're a gritty haze of murderous violence set in a 1989 that makes me glad I was born in the early 90's. Hotline Miami is a murder simulator, it makes you think long and hard about how you're going to kill everyone in a building. More of a puzzle game that a proper shooter, Hotline Miami teaches you how to concoct a plan and then improvise when it all goes to hell as it most assuredly will. Not to say all the murder doesn't get tiring as you progress through the game, but by the time you start getting fatigued the oblique and utterly surreal story will make you want to see it through to the end. I can't say every moment I played of Hotline Miami was enjoyable. I can however say that it was intensely memorable, and that the soundtrack will be played long after the game itself is forgotten.
So that was 2012. I played a bunch of games that were released this year that didn't make it on to this list and that's mainly because most of them were disappointing experiences. Luckily the games above redeem this year's evident shortcomings.
Roll on 2013.
I stopped getting truly excited about games a few years ago. If you follow games in any great detail you know there is always the potential for a game not living up to expectations. We set our sights low and hope for the best.
If there was one game that I thought was going to deliver this year, it was Assassin's Creed 3. Let's take a moment and re-examine the pitch of the game: "An Assassin's Creed game set in revolutionary America with a new protagonist developed by the team that brought you Assassin's Creed 2" Couched in those terms, AC3 should have been the next leap forward in the series after three successive games iterated on the formula.
Instead, my time with Assassin's Creed 3 has been characterised by a feeling that I'm appreciating it on a purely academic level. AC3 is ambitious, sprawling and grandiose on a scale that even the previous games haven't really touched upon, but all I can think of while playing it is "wow, this is indeed grandiose and ambitious. I want to play something else."
In their attempts to make sure we appreciate every period-appropriate item of clothing and architectural detail, Ubisoft Montreal sacrifice your ability to play the game how you want. So much of the game feels scripted, confined down to a single path despite the size of the world. If you don't play the mission according to the critical path set out before you, you can expect to be brutally rebuffed. Assassin's Creed as a series has allowed you to mess things up more and more with each game, reducing those tedious binary fail-state missions to a minimum, which makes it doubly infuriating when Assassin's Creed 3 indulges in eavesdropping and stealth missions that can fail you instantly if you don't follow the path laid out before you.
There is no fun in hiding in the hay bale that is the only source of cover and you can't derive excitement from taking out a target that has been set up to be killed in a specific way. Some missions will even respawn you in front of a conveniently designed path to your objective as if to say "No, here see? This how we want you to do it." This is because the way the developers want you to do everything is the way that shows you all the detail they have packed into the world. Take this predetermined path to your target, why?, because you get to jump from a flagpole bearing the Union Jack and stab him! Symbolic right?
So much of AC3 is about funneling you down a path that hits you with cutscene after lovingly rendered cutscene featuring incredible character models and (mostly) strong voice-actors trying their best to lend some gravitas to proceedings, all the while limiting your involvement in what's going on. Of course there are plenty of side activities that you can tackle in the manner you see fit, but you have no real incentive to complete them. Brotherhood made a compelling case for why you should check out every icon on the map: the more stuff you do, the more money you get, the more property you can buy, the more stuff you can do. A glorious cycle of throwing money at things to make more money, and in the meantime you could send your assassins out to conquer Europe while you waited for the cash to trickle in.
AC3 has almost all of what Brotherhood had in abundance, it just ensures that the activities you undertake require you to travel longer distances to do less enjoyable chores. Some side mission icons aren't even real side missions, instead they are conversations telling you to run to the other side of the map to partake in busy-work. The wonderful gameplay loop of stringing together a set of 30-second side activities before stumbling onto something more substantial is missing, replaced by random encounters with wolves, because a lot of people really like Red Dead Redemption. It's telling that this was the Assassin's Creed 2 team who seem more concerned with constructing a world for the player to inhabit rather than making what you do in that world interesting.
But at times you can't help but admire what an amazing world it is. For the first time I've really gotten the sense of the fact that hundreds of people from all over the world spent years working on Assassin's Creed 3's assets. There is so much custom content in here, from the cutscenes to the animations to the architecture that the game truly realises the historical tourism aspect that has always drawn me to the series. Though I may have dismissed most of the side-activities, some of the missions seem like they could have made up a whole other game. The Peg Leg missions play out like Ubisoft Montreal's fan-letter to Naughty Dog's Uncharted series and the sailing sequences are some of the most incredible looking set pieces I've seen all year. There are definitely fantastic parts, moments, sections, of Assassin's Creed 3 that capture the essence of what makes the series so enjoyable an elevates it to a flash of brilliance. When you manage to kill a fort captain and blow up the powder stores using the canopy of branches to stay undetected, it reminds you why turned up to play in the first place.
You can see the money dripping off every inch of Assassin's Creed 3. Time is taken with each and every character to establish their place in the world and no AC game to date has managed the sense of time and place that AC3 nails from the outset, with all the moral shades of grey that you'd expect from the series' deft handling of time periods thus far. In short, no expense was spared in making Assassin's Creed 3 an epic.
A pity then that it's not a more interesting epic. Though I have no problem with a slow-burn, after all AC2 took 4 hours to properly get the ball rolling, the 5 or 6 hours it takes for you to see the real Assassin's Creed 3 is spent completing tutorials that explain holdovers from the series in minute detail while forgetting to contextualise other systems completely. One gets the feeling that if a specific tutorial wasn't going to fit with the thematic beats the developers wanted to hit, then it didn't make the cut. I still don't understand what crafting is for, why you would want to hunt anything and how to recruit assassins to my order, the game was too busy developing Connor from a cipher into someone you wouldn't want to share a drink with.
Make no mistake, if Assassin's Creed 3 had a subtitle it would be "Connor's Quest". Though the same could be said of Ezio, he actually experienced growth as a character. In the space of an hour Connor evolves from altruistic neophyte to similarly altruistic murder-machine. Though I'd argue that the writers try to make the player doubt whether Connor is making the right decisions, it doesn't make the end result any less tiresome. There are antagonists that I identify with more than Connor, and that's not just because I my ancestors are thoroughly British. Connor isn't an interesting man, and the rest of AC3's characters bounce off him like ferrero rocher thrown against a cement bunker. Player characters are often designed to allow us to identify with them, no one wants to identify with an aggressive simpleton.
There are a host of small design quirks that I also take issue with, but I'll spare you that much. Suffice it to say that I completed AC3 out of a sense of obligation to see the amount of incredible work Ubisoft as a whole put in to making the game a reality rather than any sense of enjoyment. So much of this game is astounding in its scope and ambition, and it's depressing when one realises that this has come at the expense of it being game that is consistently engaging.
Something I often think about is my tastes. With films I enjoy everything from Casablanca to Hot Fuzz and my music library has everything from Miles Davis to Meshuggah. When it comes to games though my tastes are depressingly narrow and usually involving the introduction of bullets to the bodies of people/evil beings from the nether pit of Hell who don't like me very much.
I can at least say I've tried the real time strategy game and dabbled in the odd sim but I have never played an adventure of the point and click variety. The closest I've come to the genre is L.A Noire and The Walking Dead, but I want to go deeper and experience something that is as close as it gets to the adventure games of the 90's while still being playable.
So hit me, I want some pixel-hunting, some dialogue trees and some puzzle solving. Recommend me a gateway drug, I want to get why a certain subset of people swear by the point and the click.
Thanks in advance:
What makes a game good? Is it playability or value for money? Or is it just how much enjoyment you derived from playing it?
Generally, I hang my hat on the idea that games are meant to be fun first before all else. Often I'll accept "engaging" or "interesting" as a decent consolation prize, but my favourite gaming experiences have almost entirely been due to the fact that those games were enjoyable to play. Games are interactive and if the interactive part is fantastic then the peripheral elements like tone, atmosphere and story are a secondary consideration.
With Metro 2033 however, I'm starting to rethink what I consider to be engaging in a game. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, Metro 2033 is post-apocalyptic first person shooter set in the metro tunnels below Moscow and based on a book by Dmitry Gluhkovsky of the same name. I bought it as part of the Humble Bundle under the vague idea that it's a game that people should play, and I haven't stopped thinking about it since. This is odd, as by my own criteria of what is most important in games, Metro 2033 isn't a very good one.
This is because the act of playing Metro 2033 isn't fun. There is little to nothing about the gameplay that could be described as enjoyable, it's a first-person shooter where the act of shooting is one of the worst parts of the game. Shooting enemies in Metro 2033 is largely theoretical, you may very well empty a shotgun into an oncoming hairy rat creature but it will be unaware of this fact because you may as well be firing a water pistol for all the stopping power the weapons have. There's a profound lack of information during gameplay about what you're actually doing. Shooting requires more luck than skill and the sequences that suggest a stealthy approach should be taken via the guns-blazing route because you won't know you've drawn the ire of the guards until you get faceful of shotgun pellets. Health is also handled shockingly poorly because the developers in their infinite wisdom chose to implement a tradition health pack system but neglected to include an onscreen indicator, forcing you to rely on how red you think the screen is.
Added to these frustrations is the sense that the developers gave up on certain elements of the gameplay, like the abysmal artificial intelligence.The monster and human AI is about as intelligent as a concussed mule, with an odd proclivity to swap between cover points for no apparent reason while I put my dirty post-apocalyptic bullets in them yet somehow able to pinpoint your exact position in pitch darkness.
The fundamentals of what makes an FPS fun to play: good enemy AI, sharp controls and good feedback for the player are absent in Metro 2033. It's a messy shooter where you never know if you're really doing anything meaningful with your weaponry until your enemies are up in your face.
However, Metro 2033 is a game I'd recommend to almost anyone. Although those secondary considerations: story, tone, atmosphere etc are indeed less important for me than a mechanically sound game, they are so damn strong in Metro 2033 that I believe everyone should experience it for themselves.
Metro 2033 does something that I think many developers from the Eastern-bloc do better than American or Japanese developers. Metro 2033 tells a mature story. And by "mature" I don't mean that heads explode or there are cleavages the size of planetoids covered in machine guns and the word "b*tch" features in every second line of the script. By "mature" I mean the game treats the player like a fully-functioning adult with an appreciation for themes of loss, hope and camaraderie. The story of the protagonist Artyom isn't particularly special or groundbreaking so far, it's just delivered and handled extremely well where it could have been done terribly.
Moreover, Metro 2033 drips with the kind of atmosphere that most post-apocalyptic games with triple the budget dream of having. Games haven't quite gotten to the level of evocative imagery that books can achieve, and though I have no idea about the quality of the namesake of the game, it's clear that 4A Games had a good idea about the world they wanted to create for the game from the word go. Fallout 3's vision of a post-apocalyptic future doffs its cap and mutters respectfully in presence of the oppressive atmosphere that permeates Metro 2033 at every turn. The sound design, the dank and filthy environments, the pervasive darkness, they all add up to an experience that's infinitely more compelling than the actual act of playing the game.
The harsh realities of this semi-realistic yet often supernatural world are completely new to someone whose seen his fair share of virtual post-apocalypses. There is no leaving the vault moment of awe in Metro 2033, it rarely shoves the nature of the world in your face and forces you to notice. Instead, you're free to observe the details and take from them what you will. The best moments are when you're walking through an inhabited train station or an abandoned tunnel, when you have the time to survey your surroundings and get a sense of what the world was and what it is now.
There aren't many games out there that can convey a sense of hopelessness and depression but Metro 2033 is one of them. You don't need giant towers in the sky and crumbling architecture to communicate the idea that there isn't much hope left in the world beyond how long one can survive and many creatures one can kill, not when Metro manages to convey al of thatl that by just showing people living off the margins and clinging to whatever superstitions and ideologies that help give them a sense of purpose.
All in all it's a game that I want to keep playing to soak up more of the atmosphere, despite the fact that I have to wade through a mess of a shooter to see it all. I'm going to finish Metro 2033 at some point before its sequel Last Light is released. Whether it's going to be fun or enjoyable is beside the point, it's one of the few games that has proved that the presentation and the periphery can be enough to carry a game and it's not getting out of here without a thorough recommendation.
A lot of things have been said about Mass Effect 3 and most of them haven't been particularly positive. You could say that the critics loved it, the fans hated it and the name Mass Effect 3 is now synonymous with wasted potential for a lot people.
After staying away from the game for nine solid months due to non-gaming related circumstances, I've finally cracked open Mass Effect 3 to see what all the fuss was about. If gaming culture in 2012 is going to be remembered for anything, it's that the world tried to change the ending of Mass Effect 3 by spitting discontent at its creators for not delivering on the promises made throughout the series.
I'll tell you right now, the ending of Mass Effect 3 is the least of its problems.
The discussion about why Mass Effect 3's ending was considered to be a failure by fans has been dragged out over the course of a year and by now I think we all get why the ending turned out like it did; the narrative structure of Mass Effect was a diamond in shape, it spread out to its widest extent in the second game and then contracted to single point because it was beyond even the talents of BioWare to make a bespoke ending for every player's version of the Mass Effect universe in 18 months.
The problem for me while playing Mass Effect 3 was that by the time the infamous ending rolled around I'd stopped caring one way or the other whether my choices were going to impact the final outcome, because in its quest to make the final game in a trilogy palatable to everyone BioWare had broken down my enthusiasm for the Mass Effect universe to an alarming degree.
Essentially, BioWare forgot what Mass Effect does best. Back in 2007 the original game was praised for the high quality of its writing, characters and that dialogue wheel that has since become synonymous with BioWares talent for making character interactions believable. Little to no praise was given however to its shooting mechanics and the action that tied the story together because BioWare was better at building its own fiction than it was at crafting a shooter. This fact hasn't changed over the course of five years, yet with Mass Effect 3 BioWare routinely threw combat at me as if that was the reason I showed up for Mass Effect in the first place.
One of the greatest pleasures of Mass Effect 2 was traipsing about the Normandy talking to people. Missions were merely connective tissue between what Mass Effect was always about: talking to your crew members about themselves and the state of the universe. Mass Effect 2 could make a spectacle out of a casual chat. Jack would be outlined against a dark red background as she described her talent for murder and shadows would play off Garrus craggy features as he waxed lyrical about his time as a vigilante. There was a style and flair to every conversation because BioWare seemed to understand that talking was the heart of what made Mass Effect special.
In Mass Effect 3, I felt starved of conversation. This was partly due to the fact that BioWare populated my ship with characters that could be best described as filler. Though Liara and Kaiden would be standout personalities in any other game, in a Mass Effect game they're lifeless cardboard cut-outs when compared with Mordin or Wrex or Legion. I saved everyone during the Suicide mission in Mass Effect 2 for a reason, yet my diligence was rewarded with cameo roles for some of my favourite characters from the second game such as Thane and Grunt.
However, it was mainly because BioWare thought they could make an more action-oriented game that could appeal to the established fanbase and the complete neophyte. The cover system works like Gears of War, headshots now create a deluge of bloody brain goo and boy oh boy there are some turret sequences. It's not that the action is particularly bad; its that there is an overwhelming amount of it and it never ever evolves beyond the tricks you learn in the first few hours of the game. Unlike Mass Effect 2 which only played the action card in limited bursts, relieved every now and then with some dialogue, Mass Effect 3 is paced like a shooter. Run to this waypoint, kill these guys for a minute then head to the next combat arena to do the same thing. BioWare appear so convinced that what I want to do in an RPG is hide behind chest-high walls shooting people that every single mission devolves into the same crawl through wave after wave of enemies, and then they frequently remind the player that if they want to do more of the same they've made up some reasons for you to shoot bad guys on the multiplayer maps.
Not that any of the rest of the side content is any better. If standing around listening for fetch quests in the Citadel is your thing, youll be delighted by the liberal amount of eavesdropping required for you to go out into the galaxy and pick up random assets that someone wants. You don't come across missions that branch off into their own mini-storylines, you don't complete loyalty missions. Instead you go where the main characters tell you to go, and in the meantime you can scour the galaxy for scrap.
The more I played Mass Effect 3, the more I felt that it was rushed. The care and attention just wasnt there like it was in the game that preceded it, what was once a grand sprawling universe that you could role-play your way through at your leisure had become a narrow single-player campaign with breathing room between missions and a plethora of minor distractions.
But damn it if there aren't still flashes of the BioWare that made Dragon Age Origins and Mass Effect 2 sprinkled throughout Mass Effect 3. There are moments with core characters that are pure fan service, moments where the writers nail exactly what we love about these characters and make them the centre of attention. As a fan, I do love being serviced. These moments were frequent and engaging enough to pull me through the rest of Mass Effect 3, coincidence after contrived coincidence paraded every character out for long enough to deliver a gratifying moment and I wasn't going to complain.
When Mass Effect 3 is on its A-game, the main story missions, especially those relating to the Krogan genophage are some of the best in the series. These universe-defining problems have been alluded to since the beginning of the series and Mass Effect 3 puts you smack bang in the centre of these age-old conflicts and tells you resolve them. When Mass Effect 3 is on its A-game, it's incredible.
But, and I can't stress this enough, there isn't a single high-note in Mass Effect 3 that comes close to surpassing the best moments of the previous two games. Those aforementioned superb character moments are great because of the events of Mass Effect 1 and 2. Mordin sings Gilbert and Sullivan in Mass Effect 3, that's affecting because it happened in Mass Effect 2, and unfortunately it was also done better in Mass Effect 2 as well.
On every objective level, Mass Effect 3 is a very good game. Its production values are sky-high, the gameplay is solid and the writing is still some of the best you can find. But Mass Effect 2 is one the greatest games of this generation and BioWare's back-catalogue is unmatched in its quality. BioWare set the bar high and consistently failed to deliver anything that felt as meaningful as its previous efforts.
By the end of Mass Effect 3 it was hard for me to get angry about the fact that my decisions weren't been taken into consideration as the game began to wrap up, because I'd stopped caring. BioWare had evidently forgotten what had made its previous games so great and shoved it off to the sidelines. My investment in Shepard and her story had been worn down by gunfight after tedious gunfight, by the ¾ mark I honestly considered putting the game down for good.
This wasn't because I was insulted by BioWare's decision to appeal to the so-called "mainstream"; it was because I was bored of it. The ending didnt really register at the time because it was perfectly consistent with the quality of the experience that had preceded it.
Maybe I expected perfection and was instead disappointed by getting competence. Maybe it was unreasonable to think BioWare could again reach the heights of the first two games in the series. Nevertheless, I came away from Mass Effect 3 thinking that Mass Effect has been done better and its final chapter deserved better.
So I started blogging again, and then I stopped because education was getting in the way. And now I'm back to write things about videogames.
Hopefully most, if not all of you are still alive and interested in videogames, I know I am. In the aftermath of the exams that will eventually determine my future tertiary education, I'm going to play a lot of the damn things. Apparently Gamespot started caring about the ordinary blogger during my absence, perfectly timed to conincide with my complete inability to play games no doubt. Maybe I'll write an editorial; find a soapbox to stand on.
Who knows? I'm in a weird place now, we'll see.
Hey guys, videogames!
The phrase "digital distribution" is one that industry heads love to kick around. To the savvy consumer (preferably one with a high-speed internet connection) the idea of getting all their games via a digital pipeline into their homes with the click of the mouse is a kind of consumerist utopia. As game consumers, we have cash to burn and hard-drives to fill and the digital distribution model facilitates our growing desire for more gaming at a lower price. Or at least we think that's the case because the line we've been sold is so simultaneously ingenius and insidious that we'll go to the trenches to defend the name of digital distribution a.k.a Steam and all it stands for.
Why do so many people want to do away with the physical game store? Well let's talk about chocolate bars. They're tasty and universally appreciated, plus guns and butter aren't as applicable to games.
Think about how you would sell a chocolate bar. This chocolate bar isn't particularly special, just your everyday bar of processed milk, sugar and cocao. Now your ordinary shopper likes a good chocolate bar. But lets imagine that said shopper is strapped for cash and doesn't want to walk all the way to the confectionery aisle to get his/her fix.
How would you sell this chocolate bar? Now if it were up to me I'd stick it where everyone can see it, say at the cashier, and slap a big yellow "REDUCED 10%" sticker on it. This is in fact what most stores do because a chocolate bar is an impulse purchase, a "why not?" purchase, something that you buy on a whim because "hey it's just a chocolate bar". The ratio of the amount of satisfaction you get considering the amount you spent makes the chocolate bar seem like a no-brainer.
The consumer gets satisfaction at a price that they consider to be a deal, the store owner sells a chocolate bar that wouldn't have been sold otherwise and uses the profit to pay Hersheys or Cadbury for another truckload of delicious chocolate bars.
Now if you consider Valve's Steam distribution service, you'll notice that the debate over whether to buy the discounted bar of chocolate that governs your mind for about 10 seconds is the same as the one you'll have on whether to buy Alan Wake for $7.50.
Games aren't confectionery, and even at the height of a Steam Sale they rarely drop into the same price bracket. But games do offer more satisfaction to your average gamer. So when you find that a couple of the games you considered buying but couldn't be bothered to actually pick up are on sale for $10 apiece, your self-control breaks down and you make an impulse purchase. Games that you've never heard of suddenly become a serious consideration, new discoveries of obscure indie titles are made purely because Valve presents them to you on platter with a very reasonable price-tag.
That's the genius of Steam, it turns $60 investments into impulse purchases. Rather than having aisles of deals waiting to be uncovered, Steam IS the shelves near the cashier. Though you think you're spending less money, you're probably going to buy more games on Steam than you ever will in a store. Stores need to pay employees, rent and order new stock. Steam needs to pay for hard drives and bandwidth, allowing Valve to undercut the store owner for the benefit of us the consumers.
Or does it? Because you're not actually purchasing a chocolate bar when you buy from Steam, you're purchasing an indefinite license to eat that chocolate bar. You can't sell it to someone else or give it to a friend, only eat it yourself.
Steam blurs the line between what is a good and what is a service. When I bought Prince of Persia 2008 during the Summer Sale I didn't pay money to "own" it, I paid money to play it and be able to play it whenever I want. Ubisoft owns that copy of Prince of Persia and every other copy that has been sold through Steam.
Why are any of us okay with this?
Personally I think it's because Steam works, at least for most of the time. Unlike EA's unreliable Origin service, Steam has just become the Microsoft Office of gaming. It's always there and we don't care until it stops working. The reason why Origin has failed to take a serious bite out of Valve's pie is because combination of close-to-retail pricing, a buggy client and the fact you can only get a handful of specific EA games on it makes us as consumers acutely aware that we're buying services.
Of course you can go the Good Old Games route and buy games that you can actually own. But GoG.com has the same problem as my primary complaint with Origin, namely that it doesn't have the kind of games I want to play on it. While Origin and GoG are specialist purveyors of EA and old games respectively, Steam is the department store of digital distribution and though the specialists have their charms, low prices and deals will overcome them every time.
For the record: I believe in all of GoG's prices.
Simply put: The reason why digital distribution i.e. Steam has become the darling of both the titans and the minnows of the gaming industry is because it means their games get surfaced to players who promptly buy said games without thinking about the fact that they've really only purchased a license. And the reason why consumers love it is because Steam is so close to a real store in its breadth of content while offering great prices.
It's also reasonable to ask why the console marketplaces haven't gotten as much as a word in the edgeways up until this point. To me, it's because XBL Marketplace is devolved version of Steam with its rigid pricing structures, "slots" and guidelines that make it hell for small developers trying to patch their games get them some exposure. While PSN's ambitious PS+ and Gaikai services have yet to be proven or even seen respectively.
It's also because I only use digital distribution through Steam and that says something doesn't it? Steam is well-organised and effortless in a way that every other digital distribution model available is not. And in a market where every alternative is supposed to be convenient, the most hassle-free of the crop is king.
Am I okay with the fact that I don't really own any of the games I've bought on Steam? Absolutely. Steam has given me the chance to experience games that I never would have otherwise by sticking them on the front page with a fat discount attached. It has made me a fan of indie platformers and adventure games by sticking them both in bundle for $10 and there's no denying the fact that this benefitted me and the developers as much as it did Valve.
The question is: are you okay with it? Because like it or not, Steam is the benchmark that the competition (Gamestop and EA included) are striving to meet and that involves games no longer being things you own and can sell or give to other people, but rather things you have purchased the right to play.
I've copped a lot of flak over the years for my attitude towards the videogame novel. The main reason for this has been my 4 or so years as a literary student, which led me to lump the videogame novel in with fan-fiction as one of those things you try not to associate yourself with in case your friends find out.
The problem I have with videogame fiction is much the same as my issues with "books of the films" or the Star Wars Expanded Universe, namely that it can at most be complementary to the original story. The idea of a videogame-based novel is that it fills in aspects of the game's fiction that were left out of said game because by its very nature, it had to be a game.
In most cases, the videogame novel is antithetical to how games are made. Although many games are pitched on their concept, i.e. you're a test subject in this science facility, they're more often than not designed around being a game first and a narrative delivery device second. Therefore it's reasonable to ask why a videogame novel exists at all when it's creating a universe out of a veneer of context used to give the player a reason to shoot aliens/terrorists/ghastly creatures from the innermost depths of hell.
You can probably get the reason for all this on your Kindle.
Of course, you could argue that some like the Mass Effect series are more focused on storytelling and the universe than the gameplay that drives it. If a game has a rich fiction behind it then surely there are more stories to be mined from it. However, an essential element of a game like Mass Effect is that you interact with the fiction. You change how characters react and how situations play out. Interactivity is something that is entirely unique to videogames and indeed, storytelling in videogames. Taking away that interactivity removes something from the experience.
For instance, I am a huge history buff to the point where I've written thousands of words on why Assassin's Creed 3 has the potential to be one of my favourite games due to its setting, one which I'm pretty familiar with. I can and have waxed lyrical on the possibilities surrounding George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton in a AC story. The important point is that I'm interested in the possibilities surrounding interacting with Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, seeing how Ubisoft manages to insert you as a player into the role of Connor and have him deal with these historical figures. If I wanted to read about George, Tom and Alex I'd read a proper history book because those fantastical Templar conspiracy theories can't hold up when I'm not taking part in them.
Meeting George > reading about some guy meeting George.
Then again, I can accept the fact that not all of the depth and texture of a game's universe can be communicated to the player when their sole purpose in the game is to kill things. You may have missed that vital audiolog that would have made the necromorph invasion all make sense because you were too busy slicing off bloodied limbs. This is where the videogame novel could actually be a legitmate delivery mechanism for the gritty details that would have bogged down gameplay.
But then I look at a game like Braid or Bastion and realise that the illusion of depth is often more compelling than the overt presence of it. It's not so much a case of "how much of this world can we develop?" as it is "how much is enough?" when it comes to those games, they let your imagination fill in the gaps of those worlds without needing to present you with a canonical novel that explains every little nuance.
If you're going to create a video game universe then encapsulate it in your game. Because there's always the potential for the universe to seem less mysterious and compelling once you know everything about it and can point out the plot holes from memory. This is more a point of personal preference than anything else. I appreciate games that leave things that aren't important unsaid and tell a singular story that's fully self-contained.
Still shot with some narration. Probably all the depth you need.
There also comes a point where videogame novelisation becomes insulting to the player, when plot holes in the game's narrative are left unfilled for a novel to come in later with the cement of explanation and the trowel of dubious artistic license (see: Mass Effect: Deception).
I'm told that the Gears of War books are far more emotionally resonant and lend a texture to the story of the Gears-verse that the games lack. To which my response is "well then put it in the game". Why doesn't Gears of War 3 explain why the Locust Queen looks human and has a D-cup? I'm guessing because a novel somewhere down the line is going to explain that unless the coming prequel answers a question over a year after the finale to the story has been and gone. Either way, that's poor storytelling and so is the fact that one needs to find another storytelling-medium to make sense of the original source material.
Q:Why is the Queen of alien brute-things humanoid? A: I dunno, maybe it's in one of the books?
Of course, videogame fiction sells because people love those games and their fiction and want more of it. But for me at least, the video game novelisation will always be a superfluous thing. The best game stories are those that are fully-contained, and the need for a novel to flesh out a universe says more about what its inspiration lacked than it does about the potential for other stories.
It's a disappointment when something I consider to be art needs to call up another art form to help it sort out its fiction. And if there are other stories in those worlds to be told then I want to experience those stories in the format that inspired them.
There are certain things games do that novels cannot, and when the novels only function is to flesh out things that either should have been the games or were removed for a reason then it's difficult to imagine a world where any game with a rich fiction behind it can stand on its own.
There are few subjects that I love more than history. Ever since I was eight I read kid's history books, historical movies, novels and everything else under the sun that could be described as vaguely historical. It thus follows that Assassin's Creed should be my favourite videogame series of all time. That assumption however is wrong because I was one of the few people who were bummed beyond comprehension of the state of bummed-ness when I realised that the original AC was a history game made viable by a sci-fi conceit, because apparently gamers can't be interested in something that doesn't have pretty lights going off. However, a historical stealth game set exclusively in the distant past was never going to happen so I've bitten my tongue for 5 years and taken what I can get.
Although I'm certain history buffs with a penchant for the renaisannce got all giddy when they announced that AC2 was being set in 15th century Italy, that setting piqued my interested in that setting and period rather than satisfied my desire for a renaissance stabbing simulator.
The American Revolution and the period of warring colonialism leading up to it though? That's an area that I've spent far too much of my time reading into. Any of you who do the International Baccalaureate (an international curriculum for rich children for expatriots) will know about the Extended Essay i.e a 4000 word essay on a particular subject done over the period of a year. Well the title for mine ran along the lines of: "To what extent did the Canadian and Native American Resistance to the British invasion of Quebec in 1759 change the course of the campaign?" Personally I don't think it was a great essay, but maybe it illustrates why I'm so pysched for AC3. I wouldnt have written an essay on the warfare of North America and Canada if I didnt love that period to bits.
The setting of North America is literally a perfect one for Assassin's Creed's style of gameplay. We think of the series as an open-world game for city movement but after 11 months of studying Native American tactics you realise how easily the AC school of advanced stabbery could be applied to the environments and the weapons of the time.
Part of the reason why it took so long for the British to take Quebec was due to the fact that nimble, skilled fighters like, say, our new assassin Connor could navigate the terrain to make the musket just a long piece of wood and metal. Every step of a British patrol throw the wilderness could be interrupted by an ambush by men who knew the environment and could use it to their advantage. By the end of the 7 Years War the British and the French were sawing off their musket barrels and taking up the tomahawk because the Western model of "stand in a line and shoot until the enemy stops shooting" was about as applicable to North America forests as a water balloon is to a Mexican stand-off.
Whole paradigms of warfare within the French and British military were being rethought precisely because men like Connor could pick off entire patrols with judicious use of the environment. The possibilities for a game to communicate what kind of predators the Native Americans, many of whom were in the pay of the French, were to the British. The difference between choosing whether to take a Florentine guard armed with a sword and a musketeer with only one meaningful shot to fire could actually lend tactics to a combat system which has always been about waiting for the A.I to take a swing at you. Perhaps the ability to set traps? Maybe the freedom to customise muskets to suit different environments? The Native Americans did all this and more when facing the British and French interlopers, so if any of it makes its way into AC3 then I'll be ecstatic.
But even the potential for the gameplay to evolve beyond the AC2 template pales in comparison to what Ubisoft could do with the time period and setting. Assassin's Creed has always been a game that, for me at least, lives and dies on how well the developers manage to evoke the time period through the characters and the historical side of the plot. There's always been a sense with the characters and narrative of being "real enough". The past AC games have generally taken plenty of artistic license with historical figures, the contrivances necessary to get Suleiman into AC Revelations took some suspension of disbelief to be sure, but the major historical characters of the events leading up to and during the War for Independence don't need that much embellishment.
We don't even need to begin talking about the possibilities surrounding George Washington when talking about how incredible the idea of including the founding fathers in the kind of twisting, intrigue-riddled plots that the Assassin's Creed series is known for. Actually we don't really need to consider Benjamin Franklin either, not when the diametrically opposed of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton could make an appearance.
Jefferson i.e. the embodiment of the desire for peace and independence and critique of Hamilton, the staunch opponent to Jefferson's belief that America had no need for a standing army once the war was over and one of Washington's own private staff. If AC3 has the scope enough to cover the aftermath of the revolution then there is dramatic gold to be mined here. To be able to observe the conflict between one of America's most influential idealists: Jefferson and Hamilton, a man who thought there was nothing wrong with taking a leaf or three out of the British Empire's book, would be the best gift the gaming industry could ever give to the history fanatic in me.
If you thought watching America carve itself a place in the world with gunpowder was going to be incredible, add to that the possibility of watching an aftermath where some of the most idealistic men of the time fight a war of words over the contents of the Declaration of Independence. Theres a reason the Republican and Democrat parties exist and thats due in part to the political battles between Hamilton and Jefferson that say Assassins Creed plot point like guns say violence.
Everything about the conceit of this game is so damn brilliant for someone who appreciates its potential. Notwithstanding the strides the AC gameplay engine could make simply by having to deal with new geometry and terrain, the late 18th century U.S has enough juicy historical drama to fill about three games. But damn it, I want it all in one.
I don't know how many of you will care about this stuff, but if you've got even a passing interest I recommend you check out Simon Schama's The American Future which was the first of many books to contribute to the resounding "F*CK YES" that I gave when the Gameinformer cover got out, or Dan Snow's Death or Victory if you want to know how I spent the last year immersed in the psychological effects of Native Americans and tomahawks.
Notice that I haven't mentioned Desmond at all. That's because he's a tumour bogging down what could have been actual innovation back in 2007; a game set in the distant past that wasn't another RTS. The inclusion of Mr Nolan North and his award-winningly generic character and plot is certainly something that I'm not going to forgive Ubisoft for anytime soon. And It's likely that by 8-10 hours in they'll yank us out of the Animus and make us assassin it up in 2012. For all we know, the fantastic stuff that has been shown so far is another marketing ploy to distract us from the weird, conspiracy plot that has to be tied up. For real this time.
But oh well, If Ubisoft can deliver even a fraction of the ideas that I've skimmed from my memory at 2am, then AC3 could make a history buff freak out about a game the same way most of you guys would freak out about a release date for Half Life 3. Seriously.
In many ways Left 4 Dead is my least favourite Valve series to date. In other ways, its the best thing they've ever done to cater to what I like from my first-person shooters. Bar their multiplayer games, which are just sideshows really, Valve has always been about weaving gameplay into fiction. If you can't pick up a plant pot and throw it at Barneys face as he explains the gravity of the situation then you're probably not playing a Valve game right. They've told some of the best tales in the business while giving you the freedom to act like a hyperactive instead of paying attention and have even managed to bring context to a co-op puzzle game. You cant separate gameplay from fiction with Valve and its something so many developers fail to copy even after nigh-on 8 years after the release of HL2.
At least thats the case until you put the Left 4 Dead series under the microscope. Because when you and your like-minded friends talk about Half Life, you discuss the significance of G-Man, the charms of Ms Alyx Vance and the fact that Gravity Gun is the best piece of contextualised weaponry since Alec Guinness started talking up those "elegant weapons for a more civilized age." The same applies with Portal. You're never going to separate the Portal gun from GLaDOS or Wheatley without some serious mental effort and some illicit hallucinogens.
Left 4 Dead though? Zombies. Thats pretty much all you need to know. There are writings on the walls and the occasional Midnight Riders poster but the world of L4D is much more tone than it is storytelling. When we talk about Left 4 Dead, which I do whenever the topic of the inevitable zombie apocalypse crops up, the subject of weapon choice and teamwork will be discussed long before what we consider to be the Valve-stuff. Even the original Half Life couldn't go one mission without hinting at the wider implications of what is happening to you, but L4D gives you one hour of solid gameplay where the only written narrative you'll have to chew on comes in the form of Elliss chatter about his buddy Keith.
At this point you're supposed to scroll down to the comments to tell me all about contextual narrative and how its what Valve has always done, masters of their craft etc etc. Yes this is indeed the case but personally I think Valves garnish the familiar approach is far more interesting and insidious.
You see with L4D and particularly L4D2, the set dressing is there to provide just enough context. The reason Valves first-person perspective with a silent protagonist formula became the status quo was because its the easiest way to get some player investment out of us. This way I can insert myself into the story easily because said story is likely dense to the point that it will be too hard for my feeble gaming mind to process. Digesting a different voice coming out of your face, 13 hours of fiction AND dealing with murderous space baddies is too much, which is why the silent protagonist is so prolific in first-person shooters.
What Valve seems to do with Left 4 Dead is strip out all but the bare essentials. You get 4 archetypal characters, a setting and an objective. Then the developers throw in an AI director that mixes things up to the point where you can never be sure what youre going to run into and cover it all in a veneer of classic zombie horror setting circa 2008 and southern-fried wackiness ala Left 4 Dead 2.
We're basically left with is a set of variables covered up by personality. The people youre playing with graft their own personalities onto each character and the same campaign can be a nerve-racking creep through nothing but chainsaw fodder before the climax of an alerted horde or an all-out sprint from start to finish. Valve gives us a setting, some characters and an end-goal and says "well? Write your own bloody story."
Ill give you a for instance: A few days ago myself and a few internet friends where tearing through Dark Carnival. On the second to last act we set off the alarm that signaled the mad dash to the safe room. We were immediately separated by a combination of a jockey, a spitter and the inevitable rush of the horde. I was the first to go down, having exhausted my shotgun ammo and subsequently found that a katana just wasnt going to cut the proverbial undead-mustard. My compatriot managed to revive me and after downing some pain pills we managed to cut through the fodder zombies during a lull in the waves. As soon as my saviour and I got within reaching distance of the safe house our two other co-op players were nabbed by a smoker and a hunter. There was an agonizing moment where I was standing inside the safe house torn between hammering E to shut the door and going out to pull our guys back in. Then the tank music began, signifying a hell of a fight even if we were at full strength. The only other player not being savaged wrote "SHUTTHEDOOR". This order was obeyed swiftly when the tank got a bead on us.
Brutality, loss, terror and excitement were all encapsulated in 2 minutes with a group of strangers and a malevolent, omnipresent A.I. We just reacted to what the game threw at us and we came away with all the thrills of a summer blockbuster packaged into a mad bloody dash.
There are countless other little stories that I've experienced while embroiled in the L4D games, all of which emerged from a set of variables: player behaviour, the A.I director and the tools we had to complete the mission. With any other Valve game, those variables don't exist in the same way.
"But, you might say: "This kind of incidental storytelling happens in your average game of battlefield". Yes this is true but theres a fundamental difference between the co-operative L4D gameplay and systems interaction than what DICE does with multiplayer.
The fact that you're not aware that your stats are being recorded, the unpredictability of each separate encounter and the peaks and troughs of action and quiet moments lend pacing to a co-operative romp in Left 4 Dead, something that a competitive multiplayer game will always lack and consequently so does L4Ds Versus mode. When you're fully aware that the reason you're being savaged by a charger is because some snotty oik on the other side of a broadband connection is doing the savaging the sensation that things are happening by chance doesn't bother turning up.
Personally I think emergent narrative is a developers way of "saying cooler stuff happens when you do it by accident" but in this case it really does seem to hold true. How you tackled the downpours in Hard Rain and who you left behind on the runway in Dead Air are all unique to you. This movie may look the same, with the same actors, same set design and same storyboarding but you and the AI Director can take a hatchet to the script.
But we're never going to recognize L4D2 as anything other than a great zombie shooter because in the great pantheon of genre-defining Valve games its seems like a poor relation to the rest. No one is ever going to argue that their personal story that was hewn out of zombie flesh and algorithms rivals the decade-long narrative of Half Life or that the chainsaw is a more contextually satisfying murder device than the Gravity Gun.
But Left 4 Dead 2 engages me in a way that Half Life and Portal do not. I've played Half Life 2 from start to finish once. I've played the Portal games through once then revisited chunks when I had the urge for a puzzle. Those games were compelling to the point where I couldn't stop playing, once. I'll probably go back to them at some point but once I had consumed the tone and story of those games that sense of being propelled by a narrative that I was integral to was lost.
I appreciate and respect those games so much more than Left 4 Deads 1 and 2. But I'd rather play the zombie games and have my own unique experience again and again than see the set events that play out in Valves more inspired releases. Theres something infinitely more engaging about a game that you react to rather than dictate. The feeling of being played, rather than playing and ability to tell your own hokey tale of the undead because Valve have the confidence to let you use your imagination.
Saints Row the Third is possibly one of the most incredible games ever made. Its taken a couple of playthroughs; once one PS3 when it was released, once after parting with an extra $12.49 on my little PC for me to articulate why this is. When you toss around phrases like "one of the most incredible: x" you need some kind of evidence or reasoned argument, solid statements that can be employed to stop you sounding like a loon.
The fact is though that Saints Row the Third defies things like evidence and argument. It's impossible for me to say that this game with its huge weaponised phallic prothesis and the ability to perform a wrestling takedown on ANYONE could measure up to something that was made by people who nod sagely when you say words like "creative vision" and "player agency" without me cracking up. What you have to understand is that Saints Row the Third is the videogame's videogame, the ultimate power fantasy and so self-aware it's frightening.
On the surface, it's also the stupidest game ever made. While Saints Row 2 took a look at GTA4 and said "I'm going to be so different from that serious stuff you guys", Saints Row the Third takes a look at games and says "Right so, the fun stuff. Take all of it. Put it all on methamphetamines and paint it purple. Oh and ridiculousness, plenty of that."
When it gets going, and by all that is holy it does drag for the first few hours, Saints Row the Third never fails to shock me with how smart it can be while making me do the most ludicrous things I've ever done in a videogame. Everything that irks me when playing an open world game isn't present in Saints Row the Third, its been shoved out of the way in favour of fun. Stuck in river? Press Y to warp to shore. Shooting dudes? Upgrade these guns until they're stupidly powerful and set bad guys on fire. Driving somewhere? Here's some huge flashing green arrows and a breadcrumb trail to lead you to the next slice of sheer bloody lunacy Volition has in store for you next. Sure it isn't without its flaws, the side missions are dull and you spend far too much time being introduced to them, but Volition ensures there isn't a single thing to get in the way of what seems like a mad genius's playable mid-life crisis.
And when I say lunacy, I mean those stupid yet seemingly awesome scenarios you dreamt up with your friends at 2am like a wrestling match involving chainsaws and rubber sharks make their presence felt. It's not that every set-piece seems too proposterous or excessive so much as that at its heights Saints Row the Third just does things that other videogames don't. Other games have been funny, exercises in player empowerment and raw spectacle. But not like this, not all at once.
For all its excess, Saints Row the Third works because it took a lot of people with things like common sense and restraint to stop the game going over the line from knowing insanity to pure exhibitionism. It nods along with you, every step of the way saying "Yeah this is stupid right? Pretty cool though". And occasionally it'll wink too. The writing is so sharp and aware that you're waiting for it at any moment to back down and not deliver on the hyperbole it's hinting at. It's crass to be sure but it feels like it took a serious amount of combined intelligence to make a game as dumb as this.
There are perfect moments in Saints Row the Third. I don't mean amazing gameplay or high drama here, I mean there were points during even my second playthrough where I felt genuine elation and enjoyment, where I felt like I wanted to find someone and tell them all the fantastic and dumb and utterly gratuitous things I did in a videogame. I didn't really care if they listened or not, the point is that I needed to say something about what videogames are, what we want them to be, and what I realise I value in games.
Fun, it turns out, is what I value in games. You won't find a more adamant advocate of Limbo and Bioshock's place among the great artistic achievements in the interactive medium than me, but you also won't find a person more likely to do a celebratory dance after this comes on at the right moment.
As much as I'll bang the drum for the "games as art" debate, I'll never be able to call Saints Row the Third "art" with a straight face. Saints Row the Third requires a team of doped lawyers, a small army and a brainwashed college professor to convince the world that it's an artistic form of expression.
But it doesn't need to convince anyone that it's a videogame. And honestly, I think that in this special case being a videogame beats being considered art over the head with "The Penetrator".
I can't elaborate on why, you just have to see it for yourself. I'm not one for sensitivity when it comes to spoilers but even when reading over this it feels like I've said too much about why this game deserves your attention.This isn't really a rational, me-and-my-editorial-hat recommendation. Just know that if you have a love of fun in games and are willing to suspend your disbelief over a cavernous ravine for 10-12 hours, then this is something your really need to see and hear and perform a clothesline on for yourself.
You should play Saints Row the Third.
The reason I have a blog; write blogs, read blogs, is because in doing so I'm not thinking about other things. When I started writing back in late 2010 this page was designed to be escapism by words. Games in general are things that effect the present. In writing about games, I'm generally not thinking about where my life is going in a year's time or in a decade's time. After spending a day sick, exhausted and consequently dejected sorting through my prospects for my inevitable tertiary education I've realised why I still write blogs. It's because I really, really didn't want to face all this.
I'm in my last year of high school. Stress is another thing that keeps your mind firmly rooted in the now. I generally live week to week, deadline to deadline. There hasn't been the time to stop and wonder what 2013 is going to look like.
My problem, and its always been my problem, is that I know what I want yet I'm not sure if it can happen. I want to become a journalist and write things down so people can read them and make up their own minds. This is a recent discovery, mostly due to my time as part of the "press corps" during the Singapore Model United Nations, (i.e. Schools send the seniors off to research what the UN is hot and bothered about, then debate about it as if it was the genuine article). I wrote an article that was censored because it called into question the conduct of one of the administrators who was trying to influence the debate along what she thought was the right lines. I don't know whether you could call it a "scoop", but it was the closest thing for a student-run magazine whose intended function was to interview people and make the conference seem like heaven on earth.
It's a long story, and not one I intend to elaborate on here. But from that moment on I knew that there was something important and exhilarating about finding out things that people ought to know. If haven't already, you should try reading Terry Pratchett's The Truth. It's the only book I've read to date that encapsulates that feeling of why "news" is important and having complete strangers come up to me and comment on a situation then wouldn't have known about if not for my work made me understand what Pratchett was getting at.
As I sifted through prospectus after disturbingly cheerful prospectus today, I started to wonder whether this pipe dream is possible, whether I as good-but-not-great student with an affinity for history and english could make a living in a dying industry. There's no course that screams "this course will make you prime journalistic material sunshine" and when it comes to using my intelligence I like it when I'm treated like an idiot. Instead, the world of tertiary admissions is a nebulous list of prerequisites and provisos. If I get x then I can take y course, if I screw up and get z then I can only get into w. If I stop looking at these labyrinthine websites, can I stop thinking about this altogether?
My parents, my friends and especially my infinitely-patient careers advisor all ask me what do I think I'm good at. My reply is always a different version of "I'm good at (insert subject a,b and c) but I have no idea whether I'm good enough". Am I good enough? You have no idea how much hinges on that question for me. There's a difference between being a high-flyer and being a low-flyer occasionally supported by regular gusts of wind.
These numbers, these "prerequisites" are all going to be decided in November. 80% of everything gets nailed down over a period of two weeks. Up until the moment that it's all over, I am never going to believe that I get the required marks and even then, whether they'll actually lead to anything. Self doubt and uncertainty, Probably the two character traits that your average employer frowns upon, or maybe the two character traits that are contributing to this sense of paralysis.
A marketing man writes these pages and logs these numbers. Records the benchmarks determined by supply and demand, the minimum requireds and typical offers that make the next year's prospects as clear as mud. I don't know okay, what number will come out of two weeks of academic hell. But decide now, don't wait for evidence or justification or some sort of reason why you think you'll do this well in 4 month's time. Here's a shiny pamphlet to help you choose.
Know thyself. Socrates obviously wasn't a teenager when he coined that one. Right now, I don't want to think about my "future" because every step of the way has a question mark over it, courtesy of my own self-doubt and the fact that everyone else I know is certain of the inevitable success of me.
I shouldn't have to think about this. Scratch that, I should have to think about this but I'm mentally incapable of doing so properly. I've spent the past few years nailing down what defines me, I'm not ready to turn around and say "here's how it's going to go" with any sort of authority. Faith in one's abilities is something I've yet to master, until then it's all just "future" and it seems insane that people like me are being asked to carve a path when they barely know if they can or not.
Thus, I'm using this blog as the name blog implies. Maybe if I write a thousand or so words about how I don't think I'm good enough to be paid for writing a thousand or so words, I can escape this screen full of "future" and all its promises that I don't believe. I can't make these decisions. Not yet, I don't think I'm good enough.
(This blog contains all sorts of awesome spoilers about the ends of games such as LA Noire, Halo Reach, Fable 2, Gears 2, Bastion, HL2 Episode 2 and Uncharted 3. If you haven't finished all this goodness then you've obviously got work to do don't you? Anyway if you're sensitive about such things I'm putting this here as insurance against petulant comments)
Games love death. The majority of involve characters you know dying, societies you're familiar with dying and you ensuring that the people in front of you are dying as fast as possible. When a developer says they want the player to cry, it generally means someone you're familiar with in that world is going to snuff it. The music will swell, there'll probably a close up of the protagonist looking distraught and at this point you're supposed to choke up, tear up and tell your friends about this emotional experience. In short, death is an easy way of trying to elicit a response and it's infuriating to me that as a device, it's slowly losing its impact.
Death is used in games because it's the universal touchstone for the human condition. Everyone dies, everyone's lives have been influenced in some way by the deaths of others or the fear of death itself. It's impossible to separate death from an emotional response, which is why its become tear-jerk device 101 when a game is trying to make you feel emotional.
Right now. Be emotional, a person you vaguely know got shot
With games like the original Max Payne or Bioshock, death is narrative justification. You're supposed to feel sorry for Max and want to help Atlas avenge the bits of his dead family strewn about the floor. Although this kind of insta-impetus has become as hackneyed as the vengeful anti-hero itself, it doesn't irritate me nearly as much as the moment where the writers decide to kill off a character in a game and turn to you expectantly for the sob.
This death-fatigue was inspired a few days ago when I revisited Uncharted 3, having forgotten most of what is essentially a string of set-pieces held together by spit and Nolan North. There's a point near the end of the game, as is so often the case, where Sully is perceived to have been killed. Shot dead, blammo, blood blooming through the shirt, the shocked expression, everything that the modern game can do to emphasise that a character you have come to like has just bought it. This is of course, a device to make you shocked and angry. Suddenly, you're supposed feel like you want to beat those who just shot Victor Sullivan into a bloody mess because your friend Victor Sullivan is dead. And you're supposed to get emotional when someone dies right?
Unfortunately, I've seen so many characters that I have a connection with hear the gunshot and do the wide-eyed expression of horror. I've seen grizzled space-marines blow their own heads off with shotguns. I've seen a sheepdog jump in front of a bullet. I've seen girlfriends thrown off buildings by weird men from the future and even when the moment has been treated with care the impact is lessened each time. I'm jaded, I don't get choked up about the deaths of even the most personable and relatable characters in games because now it's an expected plot point.
Final Act: Weird revelation, character you care about dies, boss battle, End Credits. Remember the second bit? You supposed to get all sobby and angry there.
Death is cheap. It's the lowest common denominator for getting an emotional reaction out of you and it's getting to the point where I'm never going to choke up at even the most harrowing and dramatic image of a friendly character dying.
Never has NPC death lacked weight and emotional complexity more than the Carmine family saga
The main issue I have with the "emotional death" in games is the fact that they remove the complexity of death. At most you'll see a line of coffins with a pensive-looking Commander Shephard gazing over them, or maybe some nice virtual tears. In L.A Noire, which I just finished recently, death was used in a way that actually made sense.
For those of you who have now proven yourself immune to spoilers, in the end Cole Phelps helps his rival Jack Kelso out of the storm drain just before he himself is hit by a wall of water. His mistress Elsa Lichtmann begins crying in full force and you're supposed to dwell on the fact that Cole made the ultimate sacrifice. But what is infinitely more interesting about the death of Cole Phelps is that is HAD to happen. Despite his repeated attempts to redeem himself for the atrocities he sanctioned during the war, Cole Phelps couldn't go on living and not be held accountable for his actions. Furthermore, we actually get to see the true aftermath, the funeral, where Cole's eulogy is given by the man who sold him out and his estranged wife is nowhere to be seen. Here, death is actually used in a way that displays the impact on the people around the character beyond the initial reaction to his death. Games just don't do this, they expect the sight of someone kneeling over a corpse and the orchestral music to drive home the same single note that we've been belted over the head with again and again.
The irony of Earle hamfistedly trying to deliver a eulogy for a man he despised spoke volumes more than a tearful sendoff ever could.
Perhaps the most powerful death I've ever experienced in a videogame was in the final moments of Half Life 2: Episode 2 when Alyx's dad Eli got his spinal cord punctured and brain sucked out by the Combine. The reason this moment had serious weight was because you cared about Alyx, the girl who you fought with you and earned your respect back in Half Life 2. Alyx was overwhelmed by that moment and you felt her pain despite the fact that you never thought of Eli as anyone other than a kindly old man.
But trust Valve; the only developers in the world who would have the restraint to only give you the suped-up Gravity gun for 20 minutes, to make you feel for someone else's sorrow. The emotion comes from sympathy for something you may have experienced yourself: watching a friend grieve over the loss of a parent.
But why use death at all? Why do we need to be reminded every time we play a game not made by Nintendo that people die and that sucks? Because no matter how desensitised I've become from all these untimely deaths, it still works sometimes. Death should still be powerful. We all have to deal with it and see its effect on others and that needs to remain resonant.
There are so many aspects of the human condition that games can explore other than death, because only a handful of developers seem to touch on the periphery and consequences surrounding the death of a person who was part of other people's lives.
It would probably be remiss of me not to end with an example of something emotional, something that choked me up that didn't involve someone dying and surprise, it came from what I consider to be the finest game of 2011. In the Take Zulf Ending sequence of Bastion, Supergiant Games even used the emotional music like Part 2 of every other Final act in a game. But it works, because it's an moment about honour and courage and the ability to do the noble thing in spite of the wrongs that another did to you.
For those of you who haven't played Bastion and haven't experienced 2011's most emotionally engaging ending: Go. Buy. Play. For the rest: Here's that thing that got you all choked up again.