Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Game of the Year’ Category

Yep, only a couple of days after we put up the best games of the year I’m already questioning some of my own logic in what is included.  Looking back at it now, there is no doubt that Bayonetta was a class act.  It did everything I wanted it to: played like Devil May Cry and had style coming from every demon orifice, the same orifices that I gleefully pumped bullets into and chopped in half with a my melee weapon of choice.  For that reason there is no doubt it deserved to be considered for game of the year.  But realistically, there are probably two factors contributing to our final decision.  Yes it was an absolute work of art that cemented Platinum Games, like Clover before them, in my own personal favourite developers category.  But it also happened to be the one of the only games that both Stubbsy and I firstly had mutually played, but more importantly mutually agreed was great.  And thus really sums up the problem with trying to come up with a mutually agreeable list – which to both Stubbsy and my credit I think we’ve done a great job of this far.

For that reason I really felt the need to write this little piece to communicate how I felt about 2010.

I could probably do this in a second if I really wanted to just by simply saying that a game that may well be my favourite video game of all time was released in 2010.  But to confuse the issue, that game was NOT Bayonetta.

It was Mass Effect 2.

As a game, Mass Effect 2 just did everything right by simply iterating on the first game.  The shooting mechanic was better, the dialogue was better, it looked great, the world was as immersive as it was fantastic.  And I could go on.  But that’s not what makes Mass Effect 2 one of the greatest examples of interactive entertainment ever made.  What sticks with me the most about the game was its narrative, the way it develops and builds on characters in a way which makes you care genuinely care about them.  (If you haven’t played the game this may be a bit of a SPOILER): As much as the internet had a whole lot to say about the final boss, although it left a lot to be desired, the lead up to it was so great that it didn’t matter to me.  I’d already reached my climax.  The tension created by designating members of your teams to perform specific roles in order to keep the team alive through the self proclaimed suicide mission was real to the point where a sigh of relief would come when they survived, or in my case a real lament came when at one point made the wrong choice.  Why I chose Miranda instead of the Justicar can not be explained.  But the tension and the sense of panic made me make a decision that, in the heat of battle, led to Legion not returning to the Normandy.  It was a moment that replays in my head over and over as the Collectors took him as prey while he verbalised error messages.  I had made a mistake that had cost a life,  a decision that actually impacted me for the rest of the day, as I walked around with a deep sense of melancholy and regret in my own daily life, almost feeling as though I had let Legion down.  The worst part was it was hesitation that made me choose Miranda, a character for whom I had no affection for.  But I can’t pass the blame on her, as a leader I made the wrong decision and its something I’ll have to live with, and something that will no doubt impact Commander Shepard’s plight to save mankind in Mass Effect 3.

The Illusive Man is one of the most intriguing characters ever to be seen in a video game

As the credits rolled and I thought back to the conversations I’d had with my crew, Mordin confiding in me that he’d designed the Genophage and felt that it was for the best of the Krogan species, Thane’s acceptance that he was dying of disease an honorable man despite living the life of a contract killer, and the story of the test tube Krogan Grunt’s coming of age as he discovered his place in the Krogan community as he is accepted into the Clan led by Urdnot Wrex all came flooding back to me.  These were friends that I was going to miss.  Unlike most videogames where its the kill count that matters, or saving the world, to me it was creating and nurturing a team where we could trust each other and if it came to it, be prepared to die together as we took  the fight to the Reapers in a mission that none of the crew thought they’d return from.

The thing is Mass Effect 2 transcends how I would normally critique a game to a point where its not the game mechanics or the graphics that matter, despite the game playing like a dream and the graphics being best in class.  Its the human connection, the stories of my journey to save mankind from the Collectors that I will tell people from years to come as if they were my own.  Its the human side that Bioware gets so right; their ability to touch parts of the human psyche that normally aren’t touched by videogames, thats what makes Mass Effect 2 a once in a lifetime experience.

Red Dead Redemption did something similar half a year later, although perhaps not the the same level and success as Bioware’s space opera.  We talk a lot as players of video game fans about creating an atmosphere, a living and breathing world which sucks you in almost convincing you that what you’re watching on the screen is real. And almost no one does it better that Rockstar games, particularly with what they created in Red Dead Redemption.  While the game itself is pretty fantastic, its actually the story that drew me in and really pulled me through the latter stages of the game.  Truth be told I had lost steam about half way through the Mexican revolution; but my desire to see what happens to the protagonist John Marston in his quest to kill his former ally and be reunited with his wife and child.  Needless to say the narrative and character develppment of the game, although perhaps a little incosistent in the formation of John Marston as a man who wants to redeem himself from his former life of murderous crime, is really what makes Red Dead perhaps one of the greatest games of this generation.  And the pseudo-ending was as surprising as it was distressing as I was forced to contemplate the difference between good and evil and whether there is such a thing as redemption for those who are hardened and ruthless criminals.  So while from a gameplay perspective the game certainly wasn’t my pick of the crop, the story itself and the journey Rockstar take you on through incredibly well fleshed out characters makes it the type of game that will probably influence how game narratives are formed into the future.

Mass Effect 2 and Red Dead Redemption have changed the way I enjoy videogames and their stories from here on by virtue of simply changing my expectation of narrative and storytelling.  Also released in 2010, Metro 2033 and Alan Wake were two narrative driven games that, if i’m entirely honest, just didn’t live up to my own personal expectations.  A weakness that really was just accentuated by the relative strength of both Red Dead Redemption’s and Mass Effect 2’s narratives and storytelling.

So clearly my desire for good narrative and characterisation is what ultimately drove my choices for this year’s game of the year.  But that doesn’t mean that great ‘games mechanics’ and gimmicks went unnoticed this year.  Very early in the year I was wowed by the unfortunately overlooked Darksiders which fulfilled and surpassed in many ways its destiny as delivering the mature Zelda game that Nintendo just refuse to release.  Almost a full year later I was blown away by the amazingness that was sliding around on my knees at ridiculous pace in Platinum Games’ Vanquish, which proves that Japan really can do western style shooters almost better than western developers themselves.  And in between I enjoyed impossibly swinging and parachuting around a vast and varied open world in Just Cause 2.   These are fantastic game mechanics that were as fun as they were rewarding and really elevated these games above the their competition during the year that was 2010.

Platinum Games proved with both Bayonetta and Vanquish (pictured above) that they are masters at creating some of the most stylish and fun experiences available

 

Sitting in no-man’s zone though is Final Fantasy XIII.  I’ll say it straight out I really, really enjoyed Final Fantasy XIII. I enjoyed it enough to look past its glaring flaws and appreciate it for what it was: a magnificent world, and intriguing premise, but most of all the most mechanically sound and enjoyable battle system I’ve ever experienced in an RPG hailing from Japan.  The supremely linear first 15 hours were made absolutely engrossing by the game’s Paradigm Shift system, which had me strategically changing the jobs of my characters on the fly depending on the enemy type or the situation.  This became an exercise in precision as I battled more powerful enemies such as the Eidolons, who if beaten, become powerful allies that can be summoned in battle to do massive damage on enemies.  That probably all sounded like gibberish for those of you who haven’t touched the game, but trust me when I say that every victory in Final Fantasy XIII is just as satisfying in defeating the opposition in Sports Interactive‘s Football Manager series.  And mastering the battle system gave me reason to keep moving through the sometimes confusing and benign storyline, which although ultimately ends up being a rewarding and satisfying journey, can sometimes be dragged down by sacharine dialogue and some of the worst voiceovers I’ve ever heard.  Did I mention the game is absolutely stunning?  Well it is.  So mixed feelings aside Final Fantasy XIII really fulfilled my craving for a good Japanese RPG by delivering on the promise of more than half a decade in development, and continuing the iterations and changes to the series that begun in 2006’s brilliant Final Fantasy XII.

So that’s a long winded way of saying 2010 was a great year.  A year that could be compared to 1998, the year in which we saw the first publication of well-renowned classic games such as Metal Gear Solid, Half Life, and Final Fantasy Tactics; but also future cult classics like Grim Fandango and Panzer Dragoon Saga.  And while there is a notable absence of portable games in my list, Nintendo’s DS and Sony’s PSP were not without their winners either – with both Infinite Space and Valkyria Chronicles 2 released for those systems respectively during the course of the year.  Both brilliant games, which although may only be niche in appeal, are games that would just as easily feel at home on a home console.  If anything the fact that they don’t even come close to being my personal game of the year is testament to the strength of the field this year.  Even greater testament is that Enslaved hardly even manages a mention, despite being one of the most enjoyable games I’ve played this generation.  But that is just analagous for the year of 2010 in videogaming.

Read Full Post »

Best Game 2010

I now understand how they must feel at 3D Realms and Polyphony Digital. Sometimes things just don’t quite come out on time. Normally OG and I have our annual discussion of Game of the Year in the weeks around Christmas, and can get the post out soon after.  This year a number of things have worked against that and, as is obvious by the date, it has taken a lot longer.

Fortunately, with the Academy Awards being today, we have an opportunity to say that we intentionally themed this year’s discussion around the movies, and that what might be seen as tardiness or laziness is actual a deliberate extension of our theme.

And it’s still a lot quicker than Gran Turismo 5 and Duke Nukem Forever, just saying…

First, the boring speeches, talking through how the year has been for the industry…

Senor Tubbs

This year of games has reminded me of one of those Christmas or Thanksgiving movies where all the members of a dysfunctional family travel back home and have to spend a tortuous few days with each other.  There’s a reason why this is such a popular storyline, anyone who’s ever lived through one of these get-togethers knows that it is a perfect set-up for conflict and complication. 

When people spend time apart they begin to grow apart and change.  Sometimes this is just a subtle effect of new friends and opportunities, sometimes a deliberate effort reinvent themselves.  Being naturally self centred, most people recognise this in themselves, but refuse to acknowledge it as a possibility for others.  As a result, when brought back together you get a complex mix of people trying to express their new character while also meeting the expectations of people who are assuming that they will be just like they used to be.

And that has been what the year in gaming has been like.  Seemingly every prominent gaming series has had an instalment this year.  And, while not quite family, lets be hones and admit that many of us have spent more time with titles like Starcraft, Civilization, Final Fantasy and Gran Turismo than with all but the closest of friends.  In all cases we wanted them to be just like we knew them, to excite us the way that they used to.  It’s an almost impossible thing to expect them to do, compete not only with new entrants into the marketplace AND the rose-tinted memories of what they used to be. 

Old Gaulian

2010 has really been from my perspective a little bit of a changing of the guard.  It is the first time in pretty much as long as I can remember that I think developers in the West have trumped the land of the rising sun.  And not just in the titles that have come from Europe, the US and Canada – but some of the games that have come from Japan have really embraced the facets that make Western game design so popular.  You try and tell me that Platinum Games’ (and Shinji Mikami’s) Vanquish doesn’t feel like a western third person cover based shooter that just happens to be developed in Japan.  But like a number of other games on this list, despite taking a few cues from their western peers, the developers of the Japanese games on this list have still managed to maintain that crazy ‘what the f##k just happened’ quality in their games that makes them so endearing.  Of course there are still a few that are stuck in their ways…

But what really defines this year for me is how gamey the year was.  Almost every single one of the games on this list has some acronym, or some unique gameplay perk or mechanic that ultimately justifies its existence amongst the gaming pantheon.  Gone are ridiculous explanations of why these mechanics exist.  Shooting dudes with torches, sliding around on your knees at rapid pace and turning your hair into a giant dragon are all in this season.  Its almost as though developers all across the world woke up in a moment of clarity and screamed ‘THEY’RE GAMES DAMMIT!’. 

And this would have to be the first year that there are no portable entries on the list.  Heartbreaking, given that absolute gems such as Infinite Space and Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey were amongst the onslaught of great portable games released in 2010.  If anything though, it is a true testament to the quality of the rest of the year’s releases.

And so, to the awards, here’s our nominees for best game.

Bayonetta

A flashy, fast-paced but extremely technical fighter in the style of God of War or Devil May Cry. This game couldn’t be more Japanese if it consisted of a pink-haired girl fighting a blue-haired girl in a Nissan GTR on the top of Mt Fuji.  The basic premise is that Bayonetta, a long haired witch runs around attacking angels and demons with her lethal hair.  And no that wasn’t a typo.

Civ V

The latest instalment in the famed turn-based strategy series, Civ V, certainly can’t be accused of doing anything the easy way.  Civilization is one of the most venerated franchises going around with Civ IV in particular being ludicrously popular.  Civ V looked to reinvent and reinvigorate the series, changing a number of central elements, right down to the basic shape of the game-board from squares to hexes.  This wasn’t a game that merely invited criticism, it rolled out the red carpet and put on some free canapés for them.

 

Gran Turismo 5

We thought it would be one of the first big hits for the PS3, not come out 3 years later.  Gran Turismo has thrived over the years on providing vast numbers of accurately modelled cars for players to drive around on beautiful tracks.  It’s a great idea for a game, but with other games like Forza, Midnight Club and the revitalised Test-Drive franchise now getting into the mix, you can’t help but feel that the developers felt they needed to add more.  New features have been added like the Nascar license, the Top Gear test track, an expanded “let the CPU drive for you” mode, and  even a video on demand service!

 

Metro 2033

Metro 2033 is a Russian first-person shooter, set in post apocalyptic Moscow.  That’s probably about all you need to know to picture it.  It would be fair to say that it is a complete Russian stereotype, however I prefer to say that it makes full use of their “competitive advantages”.  Graphically, it’s a masterpiece, albeit a brown and grey one.  Story-wise it is delightfully bleak, although things fall away a bit towards the end.  Gameplay-wise it pushes for realism, complicated, brutal realism.  I’m a sucker for games that make you “feel” like you are in a place, and Metro is definitely one of those.  Fumbling through the dark, scrambling for precious military-grade ammunition, checking the amount of air left in your oxygen mask.  It’s a game that really takes you somewhere. 

Napoleon: Total War

N:TW is a stand-alone expansion/sequel to a familiar subject here at the Piranha Poodles, Empire: Total War.  What it does well is it takes the broad and sprawling 18th century world of Empires, and cuts it back to a very focussed set of campaigns built around the Napoleonic period.  The tighter focus really works and the AI was certainly a lot better than the Klutzy McKlutzington effort of Empires.

And the winner is;

Bayonetta

If this has been a gaming year that has played out like a family reunion, Bayonetta is the hot, but completely crazy girl that nobody can quite decide whether she has accompanied your cousin out of love or an “adult services contract”. In a year spent wondering whether games have lived up to their reputations, this was a welcome burst of originality and quirkiness.

Read Full Post »

This is the Third part of our Top Ten Games of the Year 2009, in case you missed them please see numbers 8-10, and 7-4.

# 3 – Persona 4

Old Gaulian: If you’re not familiar with the workings of the Persona series, here’s a crash course. Like pretty much every JRPG ever made, you play as a teenager tasked with saving the world. Along the way you’ll traverse a series of increasingly difficult levels in a land called TV World. Along the way you fight the shadows in a series of turn-based battles using melee and projectile weapons and magic as determined by the Persona that you have equipped. All pretty standard so far.

Then the twist, between dungeon crawling your characters progress through a traditional Japanese school year, complete with classes, social interaction and national holidays. The cool thing about this element of the game is that these aren’t just a meaningless time-wasting afterthought. Your social interactions during this time build the Personas you can use while adventuring in TV World. It’s like Buffy, if that were a game, and set in Japan, without the vampires.

Grinding can sometimes be painful...

The Shin Megami Tensei (MegaTen) has always held a great appeal for me. For years I looked enviously at the monster art in American magazines, and longed for its classic dungeon crawling gameplay. When finally SMT: Lucifer’s Call (aka Nocturne) made its way to these sandy shores it had a lot to live up to, and fortunately delivered. The look, feel, and occult themes were all intensely enticing, not to mention the canny inclusion of Devil May Cry’s Dante to complete the otaku fantasy.

Persona 4 may be the single greatest role playing game of all time. They’ve taken Persona 3 with all its class and fixed some of its niggling issues. Along the way they’ve added a dose of ultra cool styling to what already was the Frank Gehry of videogame design and moved the setting away from the big city and into rural Japan.

The gameplay of Persona 4 is more addictive than hard-drugs, and its creation of a feeling attachment and involvement is unsurpassed in the medium. At one point it had drawn me in so heavily that I would come home from the monotony of every day life, sit down and experience the monotony of every day life in a rural town in Japan. Just with a little bit more monster killing. I even tried to make my life slightly more like Persona 4 by injecting a heavy dose of Persona 4’s modern j-pop/hip hop soundtrack into my iPod. It didn’t work, but what it did do was, like Persona 3, define that particular point in time. Winter 2009 became the season of Persona 4; just as Summer 2008 was the season of Persona 3 (which I write a bit about here and here).

In many respects it is a miracle that Persona 4 ever made it to Australia. Fortunately, even a year late, its brilliance allows it to stand tall amongst the latest and greatest. Who’dve thunk it, a PS2 game earning a top 10 spot in 2009? But for mine, Persona 4 would be a well deserved winner any year.

# 2 – Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Senor Tubbs: They might call it Uncharted, but Sony’s big flagship title for 2009 trod very well known and established territory. Fundamentally it is a 3rd person action adventure in the style of Lara Croft, combined with the plot and spirit of a slick Hollywood heist movie.

As a heist movie, Uncharted 2 is exceptionally well crafted and polished. If games awards were broken down into the same categories as the Oscars, it would win best picture. The writing, acting, cinematography and animation are absolutely top draw. It’s exhibit A in a solid argument that games are a genuine creative medium, the missing link between Super Mario and Avatar.

The Tomb Raider clone gameplay of the game is also well refined. These games live or die based on the quality of their controls and in this case they are well conceived, fluid and accessible. 

Sometimes in Uncharted 2, the best option is to just enjoy the view.

The best bits of Uncharted 2 are spent running, gunning, and wisecracking through a sequence of detailed set-piece battles in a variety of popular travel destinations. At these times the style and gameplay work together in perfect harmony and much like the protagonist and his beautiful female friends, each brings out the best in the other.

Unfortunately this is a pace that cannot be maintained. In the gaps between set-pieces the game resorts back to tried and tested staples such as an exploration side-quest (find all the treasures we’ve hidden in the game). It’s here that things quickly become tedious and repetitive.

 Because it is unable to change pace effectively, Uncharted 2 is forced to take the only other option available to keep making each sequence bigger, faster and harder. And that’s no way to make a game. Nowhere is this more evident than in the underwhelming final boss battle that would have been acceptable a decade ago, but feels ‘beneath’ this game.

To be fair, this is a criticism that could be raised against the vast majority of games. Furthermore, Uncharted 2 brings enough polish and refinement to the table to mean that usually we’d overlook these shortcomings because of how much fun we’re having when the game is at its best. Unfortunately they stood out like an owl in an aquarium to me this year because I played Uncharted right after playing our game of the year which did those things so much better.

Which brings us to…

# 1: Batman: Arkham Asylum

Senor Tubbs: A third person action adventure par excellence, Arkham Asylum is undoubtedly our game of the year. Not the least of which because it is also definitely our “pleasant surprise of the year”

Arkham Asylum was a game I was very reluctant to buy. It’s a well known fact that licensed games are terrible, especially movie tie-ins. After the stunning success of “the Dark Knight” in the cinema, it would have been really easy to slap Batman’s black mask and gravelly voice over any old clone and call it a best seller. But they didn’t. This is a quality game through and through.

From the opening montage through to the final showdown and beyond, this is a game that comes with a Wayne Enterprises Kevlar-Clad guarantee that you will enjoy every minute of the 20 odd hours you’ll spend with it. The gameplay style is in constant flux between stealth, fighting, exploration and puzzle solving, with each switch timed perfectly to prevent any from becoming mundane. By the time you return to what you were doing before, there will be a new gadget to use and a new element of challenge, so even when it does repeat, it is fresh.

Cape, utility belt, washboard abs, what more could the modern man/woman possibly want in a protagonist.

There’s just so much you can say about Arkham Asylum. It’s production values while not as technically proficient as those in Uncharted 2 are perfect for the setting. You can really tell that this was made using the same writers and voice talent who worked on the excellent 90’s Batman cartoons, the vibe and feel is almost perfectly captured and you feel like you are part of a real Batman story. A glossary of characters, collectable psyche interviews with villains and constant references to the extended Batman mythos really helps things along as well. This is a game built for the fans, and to help turn casual observers (like myself) into fans. Even the “after the game” features, collecting artefacts, solving extra puzzles, and DLC are the best I have seen in any game. This is a game that succeeds on every single level.

But ultimately, what it comes down to is that moment. A couple of hours into the game you will be swinging from gargoyle to gargoyle, planning your attack on a group of heavily armed goons. You’ll scare them, isolate them, and one-by-one you’ll incapacitate them. It’s at that moment you’ll exclaim to yourself, “holy shark repellent, I AM BATMAN”, and from there, nothing else will matter, it may well be the best gaming moment you will ever have (OG – this side of Super Metroid…..)

So there you have it folks, our collective top 3 games of the year 2009. Tell us what you think of our taste in videogames in the comments section below. It was an absolute ripper of a year – and by the looks of things, the only way is up for 2010.

Read Full Post »

This is the second part of our Top Ten Games of the Year 2009, please see numbers 8-10 and the unlucky ones that missed out here.

7.  Tropico 3

Tropico 3 offers the player the chance to experience life as “el Presidente” of a small Caribbean island.  It’s an experience which is remarkably complete.  You engage in diplomacy with the USA and USSR; set domestic policies such as social security, contraception bans and martial law; and even micro-manage your island’s daily running down to the placement of every house, wage of every worker and bribing of every faction head on the island.

Tropico 3 is more a remake than a sequel of the original Tropico from 2001, also known as “my favourite game of all time”.  Some of this man-love is because of my natural predisposition to anything that simulates politics and political decision making.  But is also because unlike other attempts at political games, such as Peter Molyneaux’s Republic: The Revolution, Tropico actually delivered on its campaign promises.

Personally, I’ve never ruled an island of 300 people, but this has to be what it is like.  Every citizen has a life of their own, a personality, home, job, family and preferences of which of their constantly depreciating needs (religion, entertainment, sleep etc…) they care about most.  Everything, absolutely everything matters.  Elections can be hard fought; bribing, denouncing or eliminating problematic faction leaders, making promises you could never keep, and possibly giving a massive tax cut in the final months of the campaign.  Or, you can avoid them entirely and declare martial law if the people don’t like it.  Assuming the military still like you, of course.  In short, it “feels” real.  All of this was possible in the original, and still is, and that’s why I love it.

Tropico 3 - amazing attention to detail in both graphics and gameplay.

I was shocked when I heard of the Tropico remake, and doubly nervous when I discovered it was made by a completely different company.  But I needn’t have worried.  The game has refined the original on every level.  While still being a really faithful remake, it looks better, runs better, and has ironed out a veritable fruit stall of little quirks and bugs.  An example of this is the introduction of cars to the game which transforms everything for the better.  With goods and people moving more rapidly, chains of production are a lot more predictable and entire islands are now open to exploitation, rather than just a small pedestrian-accessible corner.  Never has a change of vision and leadership worked so well, viva la revolucion

6.  Patapon 2

Patapon 2 epitomises everything that portable gaming should be – enjoyable in short bursts, simple and great looking.  I don’t even know why developers bother with 3D games on the PSP with games like Patapon 2 around.  Patapon 2 is a crazy-ass catchy hybrid of Real Time Strategy, Rhythm and looting.  It’s premise is this; you play a ‘deity’ who leads the patapon (affectionately known as eyes on legs) to battle along a 2D horizontal scrolling battlefield by reciting drum beats that correspond to an action.  For example, Pata-Pata-Pata-Pon, denoted by X, Square, Square, Circle instructs your army of Patapon to move forward – with seperate beats corresponding to defends and attack.

The brilliant thing about Patapon has always been that at its most basic level it’s a fun rhythm game that gradually progresses into a genuine strategy title.  What starts as an entertaining task of mastering a series of increasingly complex drum beats soon turns into a personal mission to construct the ultimate army of Patapon.  This well established strategy-rpg element makes it easy to spend hours and hours playing to the beat of your own drum (no apologies for that pata-pun….).

Nothing if not distinctive.

Patapon 2 doesn’t do a hell of a lot over and above what the original did in terms of graphics and yet was still one of the best looking portable games in 2009.  These visuals are something the player is thankful as they settle into the (admittedly now well tuned) grind.  Replaying levels is almost essential in Patapon 2 to collect raw materials necessary for crafting new weaponry and evolving new Patapon.  Like Phantasy Star Online (or Diablo in Senortubbs speak) before it, the game makes this replaying fun through a compelling random loot system that provides the possibility that an enemy will drop a rare precious metal or weapon.

Patapon 2 doesn’t offer a lot beyond the original, but it certainly gave me enough of a reason to put well over 20 hours into the game.  It looks great, it has great tunes and more importantly, its amazingly addictive fun.  A standout performer in what has otherwise been a fairly weak year on the portable platforms.

5.  inFamous

inFamous’ combination of comic book style, Sly Racoon-esque acrobatics and an incredibly interesting and realised world made it one of Oldgaulians favourites of the year.  A particularly solid achievement given it had to compete against similar 3D action-adventure games such as Arkham Asylum, Uncharted 2, Assassin’s Creed 2 and inFamous’ own separated-at-birth twin Prototype.

At its core, inFamous is a tale of good vs evil.  A catastrophic explosion has left the three islands of Empire City under the control of different factions and it is up to protagonist Cole to take them back.  It’s not a new idea, this is the plot of every GTA ever made (except the good and evil bit), but the story does its job and the conclusion is well worth the effort.

inFamous is two things.  Firstly, it is the best Spiderman game on the current generation of consoles.  This open-world affair plays out like a super-hero comic with the main protagonist, Cole, as nimble as Spiderman, climbing buildings, jumping from unsurvivable heights and generally traversing the city in what looks like an effortless manner.

Of course it doesn’t have web slinging – but when inFamous allows you to slide along railways and powerlines, who needs it.

This guy has serious issues with static electricity.

Secondly, inFamous is the best Star Wars game, period.  If LucasArts could make a Star Wars game where being a Jedi (or a Sith, if you’re so inclined) was as nimble, controllable and ultimately as satisfying as controlling the main character is in this game, they would have the greatest licensed game ever created.  The game gives the player the ability to wield an array of, frankly, kick-ass lightning skills, and manages to make all of them fun, easy to use, and most importantly amazingly cool.  And yet it still manages to give the character a sense of vulnerability.  Oh, and did I mention you can be good or evil?

4.  Dragonage: Origins

It seems that every year there is room for an 80+ hour sword and sorcery RPG, in 2009 that niche was filled by Bioware’s Dragonage: Origins.  Without going into too much detail about the history of Bioware, it is important to say that back in 1998 Bioware released one of the seminal games of this type in Baldur’s Gate, so any attempts to build on that legacy are a very big deal indeed.

Dragonage thrusts the player into the troubled land of Fereldan.  Although the actual world itself represents original IP, there is nothing particularly original to be found in any parts of the story.  The land is in the grip of a “blight”, a semi-regular invasion of creatures called “darkspawn” that look and behave rather a lot like Tolkeinesque orcs.  You’ll become one of the last of an order devoted to stopping them and on the way will complete a set of equally cliché quests such as an Arthurian Grail quest and a heart of darkness chase of a mad dwarf into the mines.  Where Dragonage does gain a smattering of originality is in combining these “high fantasy’ ideas with some decidedly “low” plot elements.  Xenophobia, rape and general abuse abounds in Fereldan, and just to make sure you know this isn’t actually Tolkien, the elves in Dragonage don’t walk around singing to trees, they’re an underclass living in inner city ghettos.

The bulk of the 90+ hours of Dragonage is spent fighting and exploring alongside your 4-person party.  The character skill trees, inventory management and general strategy borrow heavily from the MMORPG genre, so it’s all about finding that set of armour that will help the main tank keep the monsters off the healers.  Seemingly also borrowed from MMORPGs is the ongoing side-story/task of keeping your party together.  Each character that joins you has a different personality, backstory and opinions on how things should be done.  Treat them well, give them gifts and make decisions that they approve of and yours will be a relationship of cheery banter and monster maiming with perhaps a bit of extracurricular “action” on the side.  Destroy the last mortal remains of the god that they have devoted their life to worshipping however, and they will instantly attack you and/or leave your party forever.

Dragon Age - you can tell it's mature from all the (near) nudity.

It’s certainly an upgrade to the crappy good-evil based systems that have become so common in recent RPGs, and once I worked out how it worked I enjoyed the pragmatic focus on keeping people happy.  The consequences were so severe however and critical decision moments so regular that I found it to really detract from other areas of the game.  The constant threat of party members leaving you simply doesn’t work well here.  Parties of four are small to start with when you need to cover the tank-dps-heal trifecta, replacements for lost skills are not easily found and many of the combat skills are designed to work symbiotically with those from another class.  Watching a development video after completing the game I heard them mention a number of skills and item combinations that “will be enjoyed more by players on their second playthrough” when players know what is coming and how to build around it.  Seriously guys, you’ve written a 90+ hour, story driven adventure game.  A little more devotion to making sure that the game is more accessible and rewarding while the story is still fresh would have been appreciated.

Overall, a magnum opus like this is the sort of game that belongs at the top of a game of the year list, there is simply more game in here than anything else released in 2009.  Read what you will into our decision to put it here at number 4.

So, what will be the top 3?  Wait until next time, in the meantime feel free to make your tips in the comments below.

Read Full Post »

Pop-up Toasters.  Terrible things really.  For a start, the settings always seem to be on some sort of logarithmic scale.  Between 1 and 3 it will be a world of mild warming and then 4 will leave you with something that looks like it fell from Krakatoa.  And worse, once a toaster is a couple of years old it turns into a raging psychopath.  One day it will cling to your toast as though it had just given birth to it, forcing you to turn it over and shake it out along with 6 months of crumbs.  Then the next time you use it, it will decide to launch your breakfast across the kitchen and into the dirty pot in the sink.

In short, a perfect toaster has never been made.  But for the average home user, the humble pop-up is the best option available.  They’re smaller than the conveyor belt toast-o-lators, safer than the open flame of salamander grills, less likely to be forgotten about or catch fire than a mini-oven, and a million times more convenient than skewering the toast and holding it in front of an open flame.  In fact, if you created a list of all the ways to turn sliced square bread into crunchy butter-melting heaven, you’d put the pop-up toaster right at the top of the list, despite its foibles.

And that’s why we do top tens.  We know that the perfect game has never, and will never be made.  Looking at games individually you can only focus on their good points and bad points, and inevitably that enables the more pessimistic among us to start to think that the world is hopeless and all is lost.  A top ten meanwhile allows you to work in the world of comparisons.  Sure, all of them has an issue or two, but in the real world, the world where things actually get made and we get to play them, these are the pinnacle of the craft.

Toasters - Less than perfect

It’s also a great excuse for an argument to start out the year. And this year it was tougher than most. A lot of developers really raised their game this year (pardon the pun), not the least of which was EA Sports. As somewhat of a sports tragic, Senortubbs typically buys anywhere up to half a dozen sports games a year, and this year every single one of them has been a pleasant surprise. It’s somewhat of a travesty that none of them made this list, the now slightly comical Tiger Woods Golf for the Wii being definitely the most hard done by. The way the game makes use of the Wii motion plus really needs to be experienced, exemplified by that equally exhilarating and frustrating moment when you see your real-world hooking of the ball perfectly represented by the game. If only Tiger had spent more time swinging in-game than…

Other notable games that missed our list were high profile sequels. There was a lot of great fun to be had with Assassins Creed 2, Modern Warfare 2 and Streetfighter 4. All were great games in their own right and actually achieved the extremely difficult task of living up to the expectations put on them by their over achieving predecessor/s. But for all of them, we could just think of ten better games to go on the list. That’s how good a year it has been.

So now, the list…

10. The Beatles: Rock Band

The Beatles: Rock Band is exactly what you’d think it is, a game that allows you to rock out with plastic instruments to a wide variety of songs from the Fab Four.

This whole “guitar/band simulation” genre has been somewhat of a sore point between us Piranha Poodles. Both of us like to think of our selves as only slightly reconstructed musicians, but while Senortubbs has loved the genre right from the original Guitar Hero, Oldgaulian has been somewhat more reluctant to embrace them. Here’s what he had to say about The Beatles: Rock Band.

“For whatever reason I never got into the whole plastic peripheral thing. In fact, I was an active hater. Beatles Rock Band hasn’t necessarily turned me to the genre, but man I loved it. I was a relative late comer to the whole Beatles thing – spending my youth mainly listening to Punk rock and Hardcore music. But I eventually did get there after hearing the superb And Your Bird Can Sing off the Revolver album; and after playing the Beatles: Rock Band I am definitely lamenting all those lost years. I don’t think a game has captured a feel and a sense of time this well since Grand Theft Auto:Vice City. Playing the ‘story’ mode you follow the Beatles from their origins in Liverpool to their final appearance playing on the Rooftops of Apple Corp. It is augmented brilliantly by little outtakes from studio recordings and extremely well realised dream sequences that make you feel like you are along for the trip with them. The game exudes a ‘Beatles atmosphere’ that just can’t be experienced anywhere else. Simply put it oozes class, and more importantly it was a damned fun romp.

And holy sh1# Ringo can drum.”

High praise indeed. Without being too cliché, what can be added to that is that B:RB does actually provide a way for people like us who didn’t get to watch the Beatles evolve in front them to get an understanding of what they were about. I (Stubbsy) had the good fortune to play the game on release day and was able to intersperse playing it with watching some of the coinciding documentaries on TV. In one of them they spoke about how the Beatles moved away from performing in stadiums because they found all the screaming “Beatlemania” a distraction that made it hard for them to develop as musicians. I thought that was an interesting point, and sure enough, as you reach the end of that phase of their career in the story mode, the game gives you a real taste of it with a heavy “scream track” overlaying your performances in Shea Stadium and the Budokan. Just to really hammer the point, you can even turn on “realistic mode” which turns the screaming up to such a level that it becomes extremely hard to follow the beat. A wonderful touch.

One of the many perfect dreamscapes in The Beatles: Rockband

I’ll leave the last point to an old friend of mine however who said in a chat to me, “yeah man, it’s great, makes you feel like a real musician”.  If you live in Melbourne you can see him nightly fronting a professional jazz band.

9. Forza Motorsport 3

Forza 3 is the ultimate driving simulator. Unlike a certain other racing game, it doesn’t say it under the main title on the front cover, and the developers Turn10 have never claimed it, but it is. More than 400 Cars and 100 tracks is nothing to sneeze at.

As unlikely as it seems to be saying it, Forza Motorsport has dethroned Gran Turismo as the king of racing simulations. Forza 2 was good, great even; but Forza 3 is better. The car roster, the driving physics, the graphics, the menus!. It really is enough to make you throw your PS3 out of the window and declare that there really is no need for Gran Turismo 5. Of course we won’t be doing that. But unlike all other racing games before it, Forza 3 is going to be racing against Gran Turismo neck and neck on the track, rather than sitting smouldering in the pits while Sony’s latecomer passes it uncontested.

And say what you will you ‘hardcore’ among us, the rewind feature which allows you to go back before you began that terminal spin into a brick wall is the best damned thing about Forza 3. And the only hardcore in this world is Agnostic Front – so sit back in your chair little man. (No, I didn’t get that reference either – Senortubbs)

8. FlOwer

Some people meditate to go to sleep. Some people read. Oldgaulian? He plays FlOwer. It’s hypnotic. In one of the more original settings of the year, the game takes place in the dreams of a pot of flowers sitting on a window sill in a loud, obnoxious city You play as the wind collecting petals from flowers in beautiful serene landscapes. This little downloadable gem is one of the best reasons to own a PS3, even if its premise does sound somewhat dull, boring and well, kind of hippie. But trust me on this, this game alone gives a whole lot of weight to the ‘game as art’ argument – and its mighty fun to play.

Dreamy...

That’s the first three of our games of the year for 2009. Continue reading here.

Read Full Post »

As mentioned before, we had a bit of a tiff over the inclusion of Grand Theft Auto (GTA) IV in the top ten of 2008 list. Basically while Stubbsy thought it was brilliant and felt it should almost be number one (although very tight with Fallout 3) OG felt that it didn’t belong on the list at all. This lead to the following exchange… incidentally if you haven’t played through GTA IV there are some pretty major spoilers in here.

Game of the Year candidate or just another mediocre sequel?

GTA IV: Game of the Year candidate or just another mediocre sequel?

Senortubbs: I really don’t get this GTA hating, it was brilliant.  It has amazing graphics, a genuinely interesting story, enough depth and variation that we both made difference choices based on what we felt about the various characters, solid gameplay and some genuinely poignant and funny moments.  Unlike Bioshock which you complained about when you played it and since have warmed to, you actually really got into GTA while you were playing it, and have liked it less and less since.  I loved almost every minute of GTA.  Sure it had a few foibles here and there, the annoying phone calls, the occasional issues with things like targeting, but they were tarnishes on an otherwise very close to perfect product.

OldGaulian: I can’t explain to you what it was.  I think in part it was this apparent freedom, but when you think about it, you have no freedom whatsoever, in fact it can’t decide whether you’re trying to make good or bad.  Even the characterisation of Niko himself is unsure. “I want to make a new life” but then you can murder in a cold blooded fashion whenever, but then still be expected to care when Kate is murdered at the end.  It put so much emphasis on the engine, it left the rest behind, I feel.  And face it, it wasn’t Grand Theft Auto, it was too serious, and not that funny.  The world was also grossly underutilised.  How many locations did you NEVER get to.  The statue of liberty only showed its face right at the end.  And the city was just a waste of space.

S: I will agree that some of those were issues, but most games don’t get to a level where those things become an issue.  Its main flaw to me was that it was so good you could afford to be picky about things like that.  Honestly, how many games allow you to express disappointment that you don’t get to see much of their fully realised world? In most you find yourself going back to the same couple of locations again and again so that they can get more value out of their development time.

Just think back to the first time you realised you could see your passengers moving about inside the car, most driving games don’t have that detail and they only have one game mechanic to worry about.  The first time you saw Jacob’s smoke coming out the window.  The first time you and your mates got drunk at the pub and had to sneak home.  The very well implemented taxi system.  Ricky Gervais.

OG: Those graphical effects were fantastic, but I’ve seen graphical effects that were bigger steps in their day, and I didn’t automatically put it down as game of the year.  I understand your point, I do, but small details don’t win it for me.  I think that many games have small graphical details, but because you’re driving on a track, running and gunning at a fast pace, merely running through an environment, you don’t notice them.  For every positive, I think, there was a negative.  The tolls every time you crossed the bridge were annoying, the constant phone calls, the poorly implemented ‘dating’ system, the cliché characters, the repetitive missions.  The whole last third of the game was a shamble.

And okay, it may be realistic, have great weather effects, great physics, but if it wasn’t such a big step of San Andreas would it be such a big deal.  Moreoever, if it wasn’t Grand Theft Auto, would it have scored 10s from the critics?  Probably not.  For mine, Crackdown embodies the spirit of the original in an almost perfect form.

I just think that it almost forgot what Grand Theft Auto was about in creating a city.  They almost forgot the rest of the game.

S: I actually really liked the story too.  All the little vignettes as you travelled between the various characters.  The first third I loved, elements of the second third were good too (mainly the playboy x and whatever his name was bits) and I actually found the Soprano-esque bit at the end to be a fairly entertaining end-game which amusingly paralleled the beginning of GTA III.  The Dmitri thread that ran through the whole thing worked for me.

Tolls on the bridge were annoying, but added genuine realism to the setting, something that had to be dealt with on a chase.  The dating system I must agree didn’t work terribly well, and personally I don’t think they should have brought it over from San Andreas, although it does open up some new things they can do in the story, and the shows you were able to go to made it bearable.

OG: Although I didn’t think Ricky Gervais was overly funny, Kat Williams or whatever his name was, was hilarious.

I just think that games need to make concessions from realism in order to make it a good game.  I think Rockstar forgot that here.

S: I enjoyed it far too much to not think that it is a good game with an amazing setting.

OG: I think our different experiences are hilarious. If there is a different perspective to have, we sure as hell will have it.

Read Full Post »

October just isn’t right.

The best time of year to reflect on the best recent games is in early January. It’s a time tailor made for the purpose. The pre-Christmas release rush is over, there’s been holidays in which to play them, and ultimately, you have that really neat calendar year on which to focus your comparison. And so here it is, that great reviewers cliché, the top ten games of 2008!

This really shouldn’t need much introduction other than to say that we set ourselves the rule that in order to qualify a game had to have been released in Australia in 2008 and at least one of us had to have played it. After a particularly heated discussion we eventually were able to compile the following list of top ten videogames of 2008.

Almost needless to say really, spoiler alert!

1.  Fallout 3

S: One of the only things that we have agreed on all year is that Fallout 3 was excellent. There was some concern around the gaming community that the Bethesda Elder-Scrolls treatment of the revered Fallout franchise wouldn’t work. For the record, I was never one of those doubters. To me it seemed like a match made in the Norse heavens (where all good gaming ideas seem to come from). Fallout had essentially been a modernised steampunk imagining of the Baldur’s Gate series and engine, a game style that really doesn’t work or exist these days. Bethesda were able to go through a very similar re-imagining of the far more 2008 friendly Oblivion engine to bring the coarse, irreverent and apocalyptic spirit of the original Fallout series to a new and expanded audience. This is a game with serious depth and freedom. OG and I played this game simultaneously for a few weeks and the differences in our approaches and experiences was staggering, it was like we were playing two different games entirely and both absolutely loving it.

OG: By far my favourite game of the year – and I haven’t even spoken to Moriarty yet.  Although I still haven’t found my way clear to play through Oblivion, it seems that this took what was good about Oblivion and used the basic game mechanics in a sci-fi world.  The team at Bethesda have done a fantastic job of taking what was so good (and hilariously funny) about the first two pc-only titles and made it into something that this generation of gamers can call their own.  The world begs to be explored, and the sheer variety of quests and locations certainly kept this as one of my most played games of the year, and possibly again in 2009.

2.  Metal Gear Solid IV, Guns of the Patriots

Stalking the apocalypse - our game of the year Fallout 3

Stalking the apocalypse - our game of the year, Fallout 3

 

OG: A fantastic conclusion (mmhmm) to a fantastic character.  While the world may not be dead, solid snake’s appearance in them certainly is (as a main protagonist anyway).  Kojima has managed to craft a brilliant looking and playing game, and a good conclusion (if a little convoluted) to a saga with more twists and turns than Stubbs in Forza 2.

3.  Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES

OG: Easily the best traditional japanese role playing game of the year, if not the generation.  Persona 3 FES is a long game, but its pacing makes it seem like you’ve been playing for an hour (where really its dark outside and 2009 is suddenly here…)  Its Mega-Ten origins give it an automatic leg up in the design and artistic direction column, but where Persona 3 really excels is its variance between school sim in the day (a genre of which we in the West miss out on, for better or worse) and dungeon hack by night.  A brilliant game that cannot be given enough praise in one paragraph. Here’s to hoping Koei see fit to publish Persona 4 in Australia this year…

4.  Gears of War 2

OG: I’m not an avid shooter fan by any stretch of the imagination, but something about Gears just clicks.  And if Gears clicked then, well, its sequel cemented its place as one of my favourite franchises to come along in the last 5 years.  Its cover/shoot/move forward mechanic gets me everytime.  Not to mention its fantastic visuals and atmosphere.  Although its story leaves alot to be desired, this one certainly deserves a place in the top 10 for its violence fuelled action alone.

5.  Grand Theft Auto IV

S: This is the most contentious title on the list (we will publish that fight in a later post). Personally I found this to be an extremely strong contender for game of the year, and one of the greatest games that I have ever played. The world that Rockstar has created is absolutely superb, it looks, sounds and functions quite admirably as a living, breathing city. The storyline while much darker and more earnest than previous GTA’s actually breathes new life into the series, it’s like it has gone from the rank and file of Van Damme and Seagal towards (but not quite to) the rarefied air of Brando and Pacino. The game had it’s annoyances to be sure, I felt myself more stuck to the rails of the questline than ever before in a GTA, and there are some issues with the story not being as open as it made out, but the week I spent playing this virtually non-stop has to go down as one of the greatest periods of gaming bliss that I have yet experienced.

I don’t think this deserves to be here.  I was in awe for the first five or six hours, then reality kicked in.  Grand Theft Auto IV in short was a good game given lofty praise. For every positive, I think, there was a negative.

6.  Civilization: Revolution

OG: I bought this game on the 360.  Then a few months later when it was released on the NDS, bought it again.  Civilization Revolution easily gets my most hours clocked on a single game for a year award.  Although not as (infuriatingly) deep as later Civilization games, it takes what was so addictive about the first and second games, adds some of the good additions of the third, and distils it into a manageable couple of hours per game.  Although maybe somewhat unbalanced, with extremely hostile opponents, Civ Rev is certainly accessible and just pips Advance Wars: Days of Ruin at the post as my favourite Strategy game of the year.

7.  Lord of the Rings Online: Mines of Moria

S: From a personal level this should be a little higher on the list actually as it is the game that stopped me playing Fallout 3, so much so in fact that I haven’t gone back to it. But that’s just what MMOs do. Overall it is a very solid expansion, the new zones are truly epic, the new instances a lot of fun, and while the legendary items have had some teething problems and issues with sky-high player expectations they have ultimately been a welcome addition. I have particularly enjoyed how the legendary items have made the player base conform to the story. Basically the mines are being reclaimed in order to get at the treasures within, and with a very Dwarvish sense of greed and item envy the entire player base is now in there trying to find and develop their perfect legendary weapon and class item. It has brought me back to Middle Earth and reminded me of just how beautifully realised Turbine’s effort is.

8.  Patapon

OG: Like Loco Roco before it, this game exudes charm.  A brilliant mix of strategy and rhythm gives this one a spot in the top 10.  A deceptively deep and complex game hidden behind a simple 2D aesthetic.

9.  Buzz Quiz TV

S: The PS3 version of the Buzz franchise finally managed to live up to the potential shown in the original Music Quiz. After a seemingly endless number of crappy and annoying versions finally there is another user-friendly and accessible trivia game to sit around with gamer and non-gamer friends alike and play a game from the couch. Moving the game to PS3 has enabled the inclusion of a few extra, and very welcome features. The sofa vs sofa online mode has been particularly popular in my household (since we can finally avoid the inevitable tantrums of intra-house competition) and the downloadable quizzes and add-on content look as though they are going to give the game a far longer shelf-life than its predecessors. The only complaint I do have with it is the insistence that all offline competition games end with the “final countdown” round, while this is kind of good in that it means that everyone is still in the game until the very end, it has a little too much emphasis on speed and reflexes so a very trivia laden non-gamer type will get very frustrated consistently losing their lead (and probably the game) to a reflex-honed gamer with a lesser grasp of trivia.

10.  Loco Roco

OG: Its simplicity is where it excels.  It looks simple.  It plays simple.  But underneath that there is the depth of a traditional side scrolling Super Mario.  Number 2 isn’t terribly different from the first, but maybe thats why I love it so much.  One hour with Loco Roco 2 and you’ll never want to listen to My Chemical Romance again.

We should also give an honourable mention to a couple of games which we haven’t put on the list but really should be mentioned.

S: Wii Fit – this probably did more for improving the image of gaming than anything has ever done before. While its fitness credentials were questionable, the fact that there was a game that took this approach was a huge step. It also introduced a very interesting peripheral that is also beginning to be used in novel ways by other games.

S: Blitz II: the league – disqualified because it hasn’t (and quite possibly won’t be) released in Australia. This very rough arcade version of American football is great because of the wonderful and irreverent world that has been created, it’s football in the vein of Any Given Sunday (complete with Lawrence Taylor) but with more brutality. To me this is a future area for sports games, unlicensed titles which give the developers the freedom to include storylines that mimic and criticise the real sport but have enough depth and history written into them to mean that you don’t miss having the real players.

OG: Okami Wii – What ended up as Clover’s swansong before parent company Capcom dissolved the studio, Okami did everything right when it was first released on the PS2 in 2007.  But as much as it gained critical acclaim (and my eternal love), it never really did much at the retail level.  But it’s worth another go right?  Capcom thought so, and got developer Ready at Dawn on the job of porting it over to the Nintendo Wii.  If anything was going to push units of this game out of the door, it would be an appearance on a Nintendo console.  And it seems like the right fit, it controls similarly to Twilight Princess which surpassed Ocarina of Time as the greatest Zelda of all time (in critical opinion, that goes to Link’s Awakening in my eyes), and the celestial brush, which involves ‘painting’ on the screen seems like the perfect use of the wii-mote.  Although my hands on experience comes from the PS2 version, this still deserves a mention, as Okami is still to this day the most beautiful, stylised and adventurous game on any system.

 

OG: Boom Blox – I saw this game once on the shelf.  And luckily, I got it.  Whether EA didn’t manufacture enough, or shipped only a small amount to Australian shores, I don’t know.  But what I do know is, the lucky few that have this game, probably still use their Wii.  The first step of film director, Steven Spielberg (in what capacity, who is to know) into videogames certainly turned out to be a big leap.  While so simple at its core, the appropriate use of a physics engine combined with the perfect fit of the wii-mote makes this into nothing short of a perfect Wii-exclusive title.  Who would’ve thought throwing balls at blocks to knock down (often) intricate towers would be so engrossing, fun, and painful?

Read Full Post »