Year’s End 2011

Well, what a year it has been. Nothing, then stuff, then a lot of nothing, then lots of stuff again. The release schedule of games I’m interested in is always weird, but that’s the way it works when we have seasonal spikes and troughs.

Last year of course, I said I was looking forward to Agent, a new Silent Hill game, and Mirror’s Edge 2. Well, that worked out well.

My game of the year was Deus Ex: Human Revolution. This may be somewhat of a controversial choice. It was also a surprise to the me who had only just gotten half-way through the first real mission of the game hating every second of it.

Then the game started.

Deus Ex wasn’t the game it was in the first real mission, fortunately. It is also a stealth game, after a fashion. What I mean by stealth game is a game that doesn’t advertise itself as what it actually is. This is in the same way that Fallout 3 adverts pushed that game as a shooter, and Brütal Legend was pushed as an action adventure, subtly not mentioning at all the top-down real-time-strategy game it also contained. Catherine wasn’t really advertised as a sort of puzzle game.

In fact, Deus Ex shares more in common with The Darkness (itself also advertised as a shooter), Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines, and Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth than Metal Gear Solid 4. Especially in the overly long titles in the case of the latter two. In other words, like the games I compare it to, it’s pretty much an RPG, but with lots of stealth and action elements, but also lots of paths around obstacles, ways of playing the game, and plot-building story. The other thing of note about the advertising surrounding the game was the way a couple of the trailers totally misrepresented the plot of the game as being about cybernetically augmented people being controlled via proxy. If that is what you wanted rather than the usual unconscious American habit of producing games where the plot is always “every conspiracy is true and is tied up in this story and you have to find out what is going on and expose them”, you’ll be disappointed to find that the plot is “every conspiracy is true and is tied up in this story and you have to find out what is going on and expose them”. Interesting, considering where the game was made. Thankfully it doesn’t feature “betrayed at every turn until the very end”, or as I like to call it, “what was the point of all the stuff I did before the exposition fairy turned up”. Well, not terribly anyway. Not until the very, very end of the game, which was actually fairly disappointing.

Fortunately, the game is saved by the wonderful social aspects of the game, and that’s why it is my Game of the Year. For a strangely similar reason to last year’s. Last year, it was Heavy Rain. Why Heavy Rain? Well, it did things most games didn’t do, and it did them well, and even when it didn’t do them well, it did them as well as you can and didn’t shrink from doing it (like showing characters getting dressed and undressed, hard to do and not very good looking due to the nature of real-time CG). This is the sort of game that doesn’t come along very often because the social aspect in this sort of game is quite difficult to do convincingly in a video game. Even my secondary special mention was Amnesia, a game which does things most games don’t do, actually being scary, and covering Cthulhu-type stuff convincingly for example. A quite large section of the gameplay is spent walking around and talking to people. Whilst the stealthy gameplay and scenarios aren’t as good as Metal Gear Solid, the rest of the gameplay is wonderful.

But with more boxes.

So, I hear you ask, why not Skyrim, Batman: Arkham City, Portal 2, Killzone 3, F3AR, Resistance 3? Let’s talk about those, and about disappointment. I was disappointed in those games, but that mostly demonstrates one thing. Aren’t we spoiled for choice this year? If these games are my disappointments, then I really have nothing to complain about! These games are bloody good. On the other hand, I’m thinking good, not great – with the possible exception of Skyrim which has grown on me since I last talked about it. They share one big thing in common, earlier games that were better in certain ways. This is actually a positive in the long run, it means gaming is at that point where the base level is good enough that the first game in a sequence of sequels has that special something that makes it the original and best vision. Anyway.

Skyrim, which, like I say, has grown on me, has more moments of … well, dullness, and a little more tedium than I felt in Fallout 3. The world was supposed to bring back the weird and wonderful we saw in Morrowind, and didn’t really succeed. Too much time working on the engine, perhaps? Batman: Arkham City, just not quite as original feeling and fun as Batman: Arkham Asylum. It also felt less balanced and more combat heavy – unnecessarily so. Arkham City was better as a vehicle for making me want a Catwoman game. Oddly in the same way that Skyrim made me yearn for a return to a game more like Morrowind in feel, but with Skyrim’s systemic improvements – and Fallout 4 too. Some other things irked me about Arkham City. A lot, and by a lot I mean, almost all, of the new mechanics in the game felt like they were self justifying. Doors that opened half as much as before were only in the game to justify your ability to slide under things. The ability to remotely trigger magnets was justified by metal doors being stuck. That sort of thing. Just to give me more buttons to press? Why do I have to press more buttons? It just felt like they wanted to make the selection menu bigger. How about just making it context sensitive? So yes. With Arkham City they ran out of quickfire ways of doing things so I couldn’t just select between a couple of things from the d-pad menu like in Arkham Asylum. And what happened to balance? They just throw increasing numbers of bad guys at you. Falls into the ol’ Guitar Hero 3 trap. Sequels that follow balanced games don’t need to have their difficulty bloated. Resistance 3 had missing all those vehicle bits and jaunts aboard alien technology. Resistance 3 is also a post-apocalyptic game, not about a resistance, and I didn’t care about the main character whose name already escapes me.  Such an absolutely beautiful game, but that’s all it has going for it.

What about Portal 2, which seems to be one of the favourites for Game of the Year awards this year? Sorry, but once again, just not as good as the original. Sure, it’s longer, and a bit more polished, but that sort of works against it. I also didn’t like the fact that we were still Chell, I preferred the original ending to the first Portal. I would also have liked to have seen more crossover betwixt Half Life and Portal. The facility being the size it was in Portal 2 was an unwelcome change. In fact, I think it would have been more comically disturbing to find out that the test portion of the facility was smaller than expected. GlaDOS seemed far less of an AI and far more of a person. Wheatley was funny precisely once. Still, the splitscreen was great fun and worked far better than I imagined.

LA Noire seems to have been forgotten. A shame, because it was one of my highlights of the year. Once again the advertising, and indeed, reviewers seemed to think it was a sort of cross betwixt Heavy Rain and Grand Theft Auto, when in fact, it is more like a cross between Grand Theft Auto and Phoenix Wright. This is fine by me. I love both of those games, although bear in mind they lacked the humour of either. Still not particularly Noire I thought. There were murmurs of the driving being nothing like GTA, but this is obvious nonsense. Brilliant game I thoroughly enjoyed.

Space Marine also gets a mention. Its single player mode was amazing, brilliant, and most of all, extremely, well, Space Marine. It also made me, for the first time since Unreal Tournament, yes, without any year after the title, play online competitive multiplayer. Right until they released co-operative online multiplayer. After which, I’ve played that mode (Exterminatus) exclusively. Really great fun. Killteam, the top-down twin stick shooter that preceded Space Marine as a taster was itself pretty good come to think of it.

Uncharted 3 was also a fine, fine game, strangely moving away from the previous game’s gun-based gameplay for a combination of gunplay and a more Batman-esque melee system. It was a gorgeous must-play game, but has the replayability of the rest of the series and this one had difficulty bloat in abundance.

Nintendo. I turned on the Wii to use Wii Fit in 2011.

Speaking of which, I’ve heard people say that if you played Skyrim more than other games then you obviously liked it more. By that standard, Dynasty Warriors 7, was the second-best game of 2011. It wasn’t. However, what it was, was a solid, fun game I played a lot almost completely unrecognisable from the way the Games Media has treated it.

Actual real disappointments for 2011 were Infamous 2 and Dead space 2 being massive backwards steps for both those series’. Infamous 2 is a sad ending to what could have been a great game series if it continued in the style and story of the first. Dead Space 2 was just awful, it took all the scary and horror moments of the first game and utterly cheapened them. Case in point, you stomp enemies to get loot. Ugh.

Minecraft came out. Sorta. And is still inefficient with many half-realised ideas. It didn’t really feel like a release at all, at its heart it is still a very good … sort of sandboxey, studenty … idea … thing.

This coming year I’m looking forward to, if not a new set of consoles, at least more information about them. From a techy perspective, what will the specifications be, will we be seeing large memory upgrades? I doubt the PS4 will continue the tradition of releasing with a new optical format, but will it have a faster spinning drive? Will Microsoft hold back the industry for another generation by continuing to use a 16 year old optical technology, or will they go for a proprietary console-only deely. Maybe just non-standard blu-ray? Will Sony and NVIDIA’s push for parallel programming this generation mean the next gen’s will finally all work that way?