Monday, December 13, 2010

The 2011 Lust List

If, after reading this list, you still need further proof that 2011 will be one of the best years in gaming history, then, well, I don't know what to tell you.  Get a new hobby.  2011 is going to be ridiculous.

The GOTY Front-Runners.  If that's not a murderer's row of kick-ass, I don't know what is.  That's five (5) highly anticipated sequels with impeccable pedigrees, and if these games follow the pattern of their previous installments - i.e., the sequels are leaps and bounds ahead of the original, already-incredible games - then we're all having nervous breakdowns by the end of the year. 
  • Uncharted 3
  • Portal 2
  • Elder Scrolls 5
  • Mass Effect 3
  • Batman: Arkham City
The Must-Plays.  Look, something's got to miss the top 5, and I had a hard time putting any of these games on this list and not the list above.  I fully expect all of these games to be amazing, and I'll most likely start pre-ordering them after I'm done with this post.
  • Gears of War 3
  • Dead Space 2
  • Rage
  • Forza 4
  • Little Big Planet 2
  • Deus Ex: HR
  • Ico/Shadow of the Colossus HD 
  • The Last Guardian
The Definite Rentals: I'm curious, and I want to know more.  I'm a little wary of the SSX title, as I'm hearing rumors that it will incorporate similar thumbstick controls to "Skate", which is the exact opposite of what I want an SSX title to be
  • Bulletstorm
  • Killzone 3
  • Crysis 2
  • SSX: Deadly Descents
  • Test Drive Unlimited 2
  • You Don't Know Jack
  • Brink
  • L.A. Noire
 The Great Excuses to Fire Up The PC:
  • Torchlight 2
  • Dragon Age 2
The Game I Am Very Much Afraid Of:
  • Star Wars: The Old Republic
If These Games Make Their 2011 Release Dates, I Will Be Impressed:
  • Max Payne 3
  • Duke Nukem Forever
  • Diablo 3
  • L.A. Noire

2010 VGAs: why they invented DVR

I got conned into watching the VGAs, again, but at least I didn't have to watch them live.  No, I waited until after they were over, and then fast-forwarded my way through announcement after announcement after unnecessary band performance after announcement, until I realized that there weren't any awards given out.

I don't know why I keep allowing myself to believe that this year, it'll be different.  For shits and giggles, I went back and read my 2008 recap, and I might as well just cut-and-paste my main point into this year's model.  Like so:
I really wish I didn't have to be embarrassed about watching this show. It's clear that Spike is really trying to make this award mean something, and I'll admit that having all these major announcements during the show is a pretty convincing incentive for me to stick it out. But the writing is terrible and the emphasis is everywhere but on the actual game designers, which is unfortunate.
That's the thing that's so annoying about it; Mr. Geoff Keighley goes out of his way to promote the VGAs as something important and valid and authentic, and instead it's a series of commercials for next year's games, sandwiched around lame skits and pseudo-celebrities who've clearly never played a game in their lives, and I think they only give out 3 or 4 awards on TV, out of 20 or so categories.  It's dishonest and misleading, at best. 

Which is not to say that the announcements aren't awfully exciting.  2011 is already looking like the best year we've had in a long time, and that was before the announcements of Uncharted 3, Mass Effect 3, Forza 4 (!!!), SSX, and Elder Scrolls V.  My 2011 Lust List will require at least a bib upon reading.  I admit it:  the announcements were enticement enough for me to tune in.  I am a whore.  This is not news.

Look, Spike, I know I'm not the target demo for this show.  I'm not 15 years old, I'm not a My Chemical Romance fan, I don't like Dane Cook nor would I ever think of Dane Cook if I were thinking about or playing a videogame.  But humor me just once.  Please.
  1. Let us know who's on the voting panel.  If you want us to think of these awards as meaningful and authentic - and we'll get to what the plural form of the word "award" should mean in a bit - you can at least let us know who's choosing.  Considering that every inch of this show looks bought and paid for by PR and advertising, it would help give some credence of authenticity.  I would wager that most of the audience for this show is not the stereotypical Madden buyer - we are aware of the game journalism industry; we read magazines and the internet.  If you have game journos on your panel, let us know.  Maybe we'll go to their websites!  Maybe we can have some synergy!
  2. Stop giving stage time to Television Personalities.  I don't give a flying fuck about Denise Richards or whoever the fuck that was on stage, and all the people you put up there look uncomfortable and out of their element.  Here's an idea - let the game designers present the awards.  Let us, the game-buying public, put faces to names.  
  3. SHOW SOME FUCKING AWARDS ALREADY.  There were 20+ categories and we saw, like 5.  And nobody gives a fuck about Best Performances by a Human Female.  We all know you're going to be like Monty Python's Summarize Proust competition and give it to the girl with the biggest tits anyway.  
  4. Stop with the skits, the bands, the montages.  I get that the product placement and the trailers need to be in there; somebody's got to pay for this madness, and we all like the trailers.  But anything that's not actually related to the literal handing out of awards grinds the show to a halt.  I've been saying this for years, and nobody listens.  So at least hire a decent fucking writing staff already.
I could go on, but I can't waste any more of my life thinking about this nonsense.  Get it right or stop doing it.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Year In Games - 2010

On a scale of 1-10, I give 2010 a 7.  There were 2 genuine classics, and the rest of my top 5 feels very solid.  But I’ll be the first to admit that my 6-10 is all over the place.  The high points probably felt a bit higher than they normally would, if only because the rest of the year felt a bit lackluster.  (But I feel much the same way about the year in music, so maybe I’m just old and grumpy.)  I really tried to play everything that mattered - there’s only 3 “big” games that I didn’t play, and that was by choice.  So who knows.  That being said, I have a good feeling about 2011.

I played 110 games this year, in some fashion.  That number is a little misleading, though - most of the games on PC were short sessions with stuff I bought because of massive Steam sales.  And I can’t really explain the iPhone stuff.  I bought the thing and went into a weeks-long frenzy, which I’m only now sorta getting out of.  So, yes, I’ve downloaded 47 games on my iPhone - I’ve really only cared about 5 or 6.  (Also - in the interest of brevity, I’m calling it an iPhone, when in reality I only own an iPod Touch.)
  • DS - 3
  • Wii - 4
  • PS3 - 6
  • PC - 9
  • 360 - 42
  • iPhone - 47
Achievement Progress:  I started 2010 at a little over 50K; as of 12/6, I’m almost at 64,200, which is far higher than I thought I’d be.  My hunger for Achievements is not what it once was, and since I didn’t have high hopes for this year’s releases I assumed I’d end up at around 57K.  But a lot of that is because, for whatever reason, I finished a lot of games this year.  

Games I Finished:  According to my GoogleDoc, I “finished” 32 games this year - by which I mean to say, I played a single-player campaign through its conclusion.  This is absurdly high, for me - I “finished” 32 games in 2008 and 2009 combined.  You’ll notice that this list includes Pinball FX2, which probably shouldn’t count (since you can’t really “beat” a pinball table), but I’ve played every table you can get for it, many many times, and this is my year-end list, so whatever.  If it helps, just know that I can’t get back the 40 hours of my life I spent with Crackdown 2 and Dark Star One, and that’s far more time than either of those games deserved.    

  1. Afterburner
  2. Alan Wake
  3. Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood
  4. Bioshock 2
  5. Civilization V
  6. Costume Quest
  7. Darksiders
  8. DeathSpank 1
  9. DeathSpank 2
  10. Enslaved
  11. Fable 3
  12. Final Fantasy XIII
  13. Game Dev Story (iPhone)
  14. God of War 3
  15. Halo Reach
  16. Helsing’s Fire (iPhone)
  17. Lara Croft & Guardian of Light
  18. Lego Harry Potter
  19. Limbo
  20. Madden 11 (1 full season, including Superbowl)
  21. Mafia 2
  22. Mass Effect 2 (still sort of in the middle of my 2nd playthrough)
  23. Picross 3D
  24. Pinball FX2
  25. Prince of Persia
  26. Professor Layton and the Unwound Future
  27. Puzzle Quest 2
  28. Red Dead Redemption
  29. Splinter Cell Conviction
  30. Split/Second
  31. Star Wars: Force Unleashed (2009 - didn’t play this year’s sequel)
  32. Sword & Poker 2 (iPhone)
Games I Finished That I'd Been Looking Forward To, But Were Disappointing
  • Final Fantasy 13
  • Alan Wake
  • Fable 3
  • BioShock 2
  • Mafia 2
  • Professor Layton & Unwound Future
  • Splinter Cell: Conviction
  • Puzzle Quest 2
Games I Finished, But Can Barely Remember
  • God of War 3
  • Prince of Persia
  • Splinter Cell: Conviction
Was Sort of Enjoying at First, But For A Variety of Reasons Couldn’t Bother to Finish
  • Heavy Rain
  • Singularity
  • Super Mario Galaxy 2
  • Kirby’s Big Yarn
Games That I Haven’t Finished, But I’m Working On It
  • Pac Man
  • Shank
  • Gran Turismo 5
  • Super Meat Boy
Never Even Touched
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops [or, as I will now call it forever, CODBLOPS]
  • Medal of Honor
  • Fallout: New Vegas
The 2010 “10 minutes or less” All Stars, because I have no patience anymore:
  • Just Cause 2
  • 3D Dot Game Heroes
  • Dead Rising 2
Best New IP - Obvious Franchise Starter: Was there any new IP this year?  I’m looking at what I played this year and it seems that pretty much everything in it either has a 2 or 3 after the title, or is a reboot of an existing franchise.  To that end, I’d have to give it up for Split/Second, which came out of nowhere and ended up being one of my favorite summer releases - even if it’s not exactly an original title.  

Best New IP - Hopeful Franchise Starter:  This is a tie between Enslaved (which felt a lot like Uncharted) and Darksiders (which felt a lot like Zelda).  

Most AddictiveSword & Poker 2.  As mentioned above, I downloaded a ton of games when I finally got my iPod Touch, and this one more than any other turned me into a puddle of mush.  This is certainly saying something, as Angry Birds is pretty goddamned addicting, too.

Worst Game of the Year / Biggest Disappointment of the Year: Crackdown 2.  I was such a huge fan of the first game - I didn’t care about the Halo 3 beta, I wanted the game itself.  And C2 was half-assed in every sense of the word.  Graphics were somehow worse, the city didn’t really feel all that different (and certainly wasn’t as much fun to explore), and even the Orb Chase wasn’t as fun as it used to be.

Game I Did Not Finish Even Though I was Really Looking Forward To It, and Do Not Feel Bad About Not Finishing:  Heavy Rain.  The title reminds me a little too much of “Chubby Rain”, from Steve Martin’s overlooked Bowfinger.  Also, it was more than a little ridiculous.  And I did everything I could to keep an open mind; I was looking forward to this game and could not have been a more supportive player, at least at the start.  That being said:

Best Game Command:  Heavy Rain, “Press X to Jason.”

Best Game(s) That I Didn’t Finish, Even Though I Wanted To:  This goes to pretty much everything on the Wii, but specifically Super Mario Galaxy 2, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Donkey Kong and Disney Epic Mickey.  Two reasons for this.  I’ve developed a carpal tunnel issue in my right wrist, and it makes the “shake the controller up and down” motion very painful.  And, also, I’m not 8 years old.  Which reminds me:

Clearest Example that I Am No Longer A Target Demographic:  This has to go to the Kinect, a remarkable piece of technology that was clearly not meant for a 35-year-old male, no matter how many fitness programs they throw at it.  To be fair, Microsoft was pretty up front about that; the Kinect is meant to be something for the non-gamer to get excited about, and to that end it succeeded - my wife is not a gamer and she loves it... when she gets around to using it, which is not very much.  (At the time of this writing, she has not yet tried Dance Central.)  I would love to try the Video Chat, except I don’t know who else on my friends list has it, and in any event, once the novelty of saying hello in person to an internet friend wears off, there’s not much else to do.  If the recent youtube videos of Kinect hacks are any indication, there’s tremendous potential for the device; that stuff just needs to make it into the retail space.

Best Game I Couldn’t Get Into No Matter How Hard I Tried: Starcraft 2.  I tried, I really did.  A friend hooked me up with the 7-day trial, and I gave it my best shot.  But it only took maybe 1 or 2 hours of the very beginning of the single-player campaign before I became overwhelmed; I forget exactly what it was I was having trouble with, but it was something incredibly basic like being able to select a certain group of dudes.  Anyway, once that started happening, it was pretty much downhill from there.  It is clearly a well-made labor of love, and people clearly love the hell out of it.  I wish them good luck and godspeed.  

Favorite Game That Everyone Else Seemed To Dislike: Deathspank.  Only the first one, though.  The second game arrived too quickly on the heels of the first and offered nothing substantially different, and I could certainly see why people didn’t like the first one based on the problems of the second.  I loved the first one, though.  I thought it was exquisitely well-written, from the dialog all the way down to the names of items.  Great voice acting as well.  And I adored the art design; I loved how the world rolled around - certainly reminiscent of Animal Crossing, but with its own visual flair.  I got all 200 Achievements for it and had a ball in the process.  

Best Game That I Didn’t Play Enough Of: Rock Band 3.  I’ve been trying to rectify this in recent days, but unless my wife decides to get into it again - or we have another RB party - it is unlikely that I’ll get any substantial time with this any time soon.  Which is a shame, as it’s clearly the game with plastic instruments that money can buy, and considering the state of the industry, possibly the last.  And I still haven’t even tried the keyboards yet!  Gah!

Biggest Discrepancy Between Enjoyment of Demo and Enjoyment of Actual Retail Release: Blur.  And this came as a huge shock, especially since the reverse ended up being equally true - I didn’t like the demo for Split/Second, but I loved the final version.  Both games were coming out at around the same time, and I felt like I had to pick sides since I couldn’t very well own both.  The Blur demo felt like a grown man’s Mario Kart, which appealed to me greatly; the retail release was certainly true to that vision, but it just felt kinda... blah.  On the flip side, the driving in the S/S demo felt sluggish, and I don’t recall the demo providing any of the jaw-dropping course deformations that the final game had.  (One can’t necessarily blame the developers from pulling this particular punch, but still.)  

Biggest Discrepancy Between Anticipation For Rerelease of A Beloved Older Title and Actual Time Spent Playing Said Title:  NBA JAM HD.   The game isn’t bad; it’s just meant to be played with a friend on the couch, and the only person I knew who would play this with me is my younger brother, who lives hundreds of miles away.  We played it together a few weeks ago for about 20 minutes, late at night, and we loved the hell out of it.  And then he left, and I had no reason to keep it, and so back to Gamefly it went.

Biggest Discrepancy Between Pre-Release Hype and Post-Release Reality:  I was tempted to give this to Gran Turismo 5, but the truth is that any and all hype for GT5 was coming from Sony fanboys, and the pre-release discussion around GT5 was mostly about why the hell it was taking so long.  But along those lines, I’d have to give this to Alan Wake, a game that also spent a hell of a long time in development.  There’s a lot to admire about Alan Wake, certainly from a technical standpoint; it looks fantastic and it can be creepy as hell.  And it’s also fiercely devoted to telling a story, which is somewhat admirable.  It’s a shame, then, that the story is so incredibly convoluted and incomprehensible.  You can tell that the ending was meant to be this big, stomach-punching reveal/cliffhanger, but it didn’t make any sense.  At all.  I ended up trading it in before I tried any of the DLC, but I’m not sure it would’ve made much of a difference.

Favorite Achievement: Lego Harry Potter, Get All Gold Bricks - 70 points.  I have a soft spot for the Lego games, and I enjoyed the hell out of this one.  This was the closest I’ve ever been to getting 100%, and I suppose that if I really wanted to, I could go back and get everything pretty quickly.  But getting the gold bricks was the main thing - first time I ever even came close.  I suppose that means it’s pretty easy to do, but whatever.  

Best TrendSmart leaderboard integration.   Even for misanthropes like me who don't really play online all that much, it's nice to feel connected to your friends, and it's really nice that developers have figured this out and started to do cool things with it.  At this point, it sticks out when it’s done poorly, like in the new Pac Man game.  Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit is taking this to a completely new level.  

Most Forgettable:  It usually takes me around 5 minutes to remember what the hell Singularity was, and then I remember - oh yeah, it was that weird game about Russia, and it looked an awful lot like Bioshock - and then I forget. 

Most Overlooked:  Sword & Poker 2, if only because everyone else with an iPhone was playing Angry Birds.  Also:  Pinball FX2.

Most Overrated:  This is a stretch, because I certainly enjoyed my time with it.  But Limbo was not the world-changing, paradigm-shifting classic that it was made out to be at the time.  People were in such a rush to find the next Braid, and this seemed to fit the bill - nothing else looked like it, and it had a unique spin on the 2D platformer, and it had great atmosphere and was unexpectedly graphic.  It’s certainly very good, but it’s not an instant classic.  Runner-up:  God of War 3.

I Have No Skillz:  Super Meat Boy.  But everyone finds this game incredibly difficult, so at least I'm not alone.  I definitely need to get back into this, when I'm ready to start hating myself again.

Most Time Spent Playing a Game that I Actively Disliked:  Professor Layton and the Unwound Future, which for some reason I felt compelled to finish, but didn't actually feel like playing, so I ended up finishing with a walkthrough, which completely ruins the purpose.  I know.  I'm an idiot.  Runner-up:  Fable 3.

The Best Argument Both For/Against Using Heavy Drugs During The Creative Process / The Japanese Are Weird:  Bayonetta.  I do regret only being able to get through Chapter 5, but there’s only so much craziness/unintentional racism/vertigo I can take.  By far the most batshit insane experience I had this year, for better or worse.

The Forgotten Reboot:  Prince of Persia.  According to my notes, I actually kinda liked this one; it had the best combat the franchise has ever seen, which is a big deal considering it’s the one area of the franchise that’s most troublesome.  Graphics were great, especially the finale.  But it also appeared to be uninspired and lacking any vitality.  It was most likely trying to capitalize on the success of the movie, when it should’ve been the other way around.  Assassin’s Creed and Uncharted have more or less taken up the parkour mantle now, and I wonder if we’ll ever see this franchise again.

Best Graphics:  For the first time in a long time, there’s no obvious answer here.  2009’s Uncharted 2 still reigns supreme, and I’m not entirely sure that anything in 2010 even came close.  I could certainly make a case for Red Dead, Mass Effect 2, and Split/Second; I could also make a valid case for Limbo, and I could make a similar case for DeathSpank, both titles working with not a lot of horsepower but an incredible eye for design; I could also argue for the iPhone’s Rage HD, which really needs to be seen to be believed.  I can’t give it to Heavy Rain, because the uncanny valley factor is off the charts.  I didn’t think God of War 3 was as jaw-dropping as everybody else.  I’m tempted to give it to Super Meat Boy because why the hell not.  Ultimately, I think this has to go to Red Dead Redemption.  As long as you were outdoors, everything you saw was beyond gorgeous.  
OK, I guess it's time to start getting into it.

Honorable Mentions:
  • Darksiders
  • Lego Harry Potter Years 1-4
  • Lara Croft: Guardian of Light
  • Pinball FX2
  • Rock Band 3
  • Game Dev Story
  • Helsing’s Fire
  • Angry Birds

Top 10:

10.  Deathspank.  As noted above - great writing, great art direction, great fun.

9.  Enslaved.  See, Heavy Rain, this is how facial animation should be done.  Hell, this is how storytelling should be done.  There's more said in a character's face here than in 20 overwritten lines of dialog.  The relationship between the two lead characters was thoroughly believable and authentic. 

8.  Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit.  This was originally going to be Split/Second, but the more I think about it, S/S is somewhat of a one-trick pony - it's an exceptionally well-done trick, but there's only so much you can do with it.  NFS is just as exciting, but it feels a little deeper - and the Autolog is now an essential leaderboard feature for all racing games going forward.  If nothing else, this is as close to a new Burnout game as we're going to get.

7.  Sword & Poker 2.  I said my piece above, but it bears repeating - this is a must-own if you've got an iPhone.  An ingenious poker puzzle mechanic that's easy to learn and which is addictive as hell.

6.  Picross 3D.  And while we're on the topic of handheld puzzle games, this is maybe the best title on the DS.  It uses the DS in a novel and intuitive way, and it eventually felt less like puzzle solving and more like sculpture. 

5.  Halo Reach.  Even though I dropped out of the multiplayer scene a little bit too quickly, I can't deny that this is a complete package.  I'm not a die-hard Halo fan, but I had a blast with the campaign, and what I played of the multiplayer was fantastic. 

4.  Civilization V.  I didn't play much on the PC this year, but this game made me glad to own a PC powerful enough to run it at close-to-top specs.  It strikes the perfect balance between the hard-core Civ IV and the dummy-proof Civ Rev.  I haven't played this enough, but that's because I like going to sleep at reasonable hours.   

3.  Assassin's Creed Brotherhood.  I had low expectations for this.  I didn't think they'd come out with a quality title so soon after the last game, and I definitely had no desire for a multiplayer side.  That this turned into the best title in the franchise is a huge, wonderful surprise. 

2.  Mass Effect 2.  Bioware has made huge leaps with this RPG, the most important being that this actually feels like a literal role-playing game - I feel like I have a visceral connection to this universe based on the decisions I've made and the personal relationships I've chosen to cultivate (or destroy).  I truly feel like the commander of the most kick-ass spaceship in the universe, and I absolutely cannot wait to continue the adventure.

1.  Red Dead Redemption.  Here's what other awards this game would've won, had I decided to make this post twice as long as it already is:   
  • Best voice acting.  
  • Best script.  
  • Best ending, maybe of all time.  
  • Best sequence (riding into Mexico).  
  • Best thunderstorms.  
  • Best horses.  
  • Best GTA clone that’s arguably better than any GTA game.
And then there's surprisingly good multiplayer.  And the quality DLC that they keep putting out.  And, of course, the ambient challenges, which sucked me so thoroughly into the world that I had trouble getting out.  This game has raised the open-world bar so high that even GTA5 must take notice.  An absolute masterpiece.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Best of 2010 - prologue

Any day now, I'll start working on my favorite post of the year - the 2010 Year in Games.  I've got spreadsheets and word documents and maybe I'll get some powerpoint up in this business, who knows. 

The only reason why I haven't started is because I'm waiting to play the new Donkey Kong game on the Wii - my first Gamefly copy got lost in the mail during the Thanksgiving break, and the second copy still hasn't arrived.  Enough people have raved about it so that I feel compelled to give it at least a compulsory glance before I make my lists official.

That being said, I'm a little concerned that even if it does show up, I won't be able to play it.  And that's because of my carpal tunnel issues, which have started to flare up in the last few weeks.  My carpal tunnel issues caused me to regretfully send back Disney Epic Mickey after only an hour of playtime - the sudden snap-back move you have to make with your wrist during combat hurt like crazy, and there really wasn't even all that much combat to begin with. 

And I've seen a few Donkey Kong commercials now that feature that same sort of wrist movement, and I must admit that I'm a little concerned that I won't be able to play that much of it without having to wear a brace.

Oh well.  I am old, and the Wii is for kids, anyway.

In the meantime, I'm more or less over my little whiny rant about Gran Turismo 5 the other day; I will just have to come back to the events in the beginner tier when I have enough money to buy competitive cars for those particular events without screwing me over towards the cars I actually want to buy.  I think my biggest problem with GT5 is getting used to the PS3 controller; I'm so used to the way the 360 controller feels in my hands, and how the triggers feel with respect to acceleration and braking, and the PS3 controller feels alien and strange.  The actual driving in GT5 is fun as hell; it's everything else about the package that's ridiculous.