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The “official games” of major sporting events such as the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup have traditionally been terrible. Short on polish or features, the games have felt like they were made on the basis that people were buying them more as a souvenir and without any regard for whether they provided any actual entertainment.

EA Sports FIFA World Cup 14

“Official” games have often had wonderfully rendered stadiums but offered very little interest inside of them.

I had heard however that the 2010 FIFA World Cup game was actually quite good. So I decided to make the investment this time and see how the game is. The short answer is that it is a good game, but you can get that from any other review. What I am going to look at here, is whether the game actually makes the whole ‘experience’ of the World Cup better.

In my opinion, there are two main things that a game like this needs to do. Prior to the tournament it needs to enable you to get ready and hyped up about the games ahead, and during the tournament it needs to allow you to play the games you are about to/just watched as realistically as possible.

This game achieves both of those very well.

Prior to the tournament

The obvious thing which the game needed to do out of the box was make it possible to play through the World Cup tournament. Unsurprisingly, it does this quite well. All the basic things are there, the stadiums, fixtures, the 32 qualified teams and their correct uniforms.

Beyond that, it also needs to make it possible to play through the tournament with a few “what if” situations, for example, you should be able to play through with teams that didn’t actually qualify, or using players for whom your personal attachment doesn’t match the opinions of the actual real-life manager (e.g. Carlos Tevez). The first part of this it does quite well, pretty much every single nation in world football is represented. Unfortunately it isn’t so good on the latter. The squads for nations, while larger than the final 23-man selections, don’t go far and have some strange omissions, so you can’t call up Tevez for Argentina.

Want to experience the World Cup the way it is in Zlatan's head, now you can!

Want to experience the World Cup the way it is in Zlatan’s head, now you can!

In addition to enabling you to play the finals tournament itself, the FIFA World Cup game put a lot of attention into telling the story of the qualifiers. This is a common inclusion, but always a bit interesting, since qualification was well over by the time the game came out.

The game presented qualification in not one, but two ways. Firstly, it allows you to play a complete qualification campaign with any team from any confederation. The best part of this was the presentation, which came complete with excellent radio commentary between the games, talking through the significance of each match and providing general interesting banter. The low point of the qualifying campaign is that there are apparently some nations, particularly in North America, where the scheduling is broken, so they can’t actually qualify for the World Cup. A fairly fatal flaw, made reasonable only by the fact that those nations are for the most part the smallest of minnows.

The other qualification-related mode is the “Story of Qualification”, a series of scenario-based games which cover over 50 of the most interesting and significant games of the qualification campaign. For example, it allows you to play both sides of the decisive playoff game between Sweden and Portugal. For anyone who has played FIFA games in the last few years, these scenarios should be familiar from the game of the week scenarios that you get – typically they boil down to needing to score a crazy number of goals in a very short amount of time.

The Story of Qualification mode allows you to play through some of the great games and performances of the qualifying campaign.

The Story of Qualification mode allows you to play through some of the great games and performances of the qualifying campaign.

The game genuinely has absolutely helped me build hype and excitement for the tournament. I have played through three world cup tournaments, full European and South American Qualifying, plus a large number of scenarios. Between these, I have been able to get a much deeper understanding of the squads and how they have made it to Brazil. In particular the Story of Qualifying scenario mode was excellent. I don’t think many people, even fairly serious fans, ever truly get an idea of what qualification is like in confederations beyond their own. But now I feel I have a fairly good idea.

During the Tournament

As I hinted earlier, in my opinion the key function of the game during the tournament is to allow you to “play along”. Again, this is something that the game does quite well.

Firstly, it was quite easy to set up a tournament in such a way that I can play the World Cup as every team. This allows my mates and I to play an “alternate reality” version of the tournament where we play every game between us and see how it goes. As it turns out, our version is a little less interesting, the first three games were draws and then Spain beat the Netherlands 1-0.

It is also very easy to play one-off games. You can pick your teams, pick the right stadium and even select the right round of the completion (group stage, quarter final etc). The teams are quickly and regularly updated for injuries and current form, so if you want to play out tonight’s big game, or get revenge for last night, you can do that well. You just might struggle sometimes, because Casillas will probably be as bad for you as he was for Spain.

With regular form updates you too can put five goals passed Casillas in the World Cup.

With regular form updates you too can put five goals passed Casillas in the World Cup.

Finally, they have also extended the scenario system through to the Finals, called, unsurprisingly, “Story of the Finals”. Within hours of each day’s games finishing, they put up scenarios which allow you to play out the morning’s action. Sometimes this is about repeating reality, such as coming back against Japan as the Ivory Coast, and other times it is about changing it, such as winning the game as Australia, or making Argentine put four goals past Bosnia. In general this is excellent. I applaud them for making them available so quickly, and unlike in previous games, making them available permanently – previously they would just have the previous night, so you could miss out if you didn’t play them immediately.

I do find however that the whole “score lots of goals in a short time” which most scenarios tends to boil down to is not only samey, but also quite annoying, and only representative of the attacking aspect of a game. I often find I have to play the scenarios at a much easier difficulty level than I normally do, simply to make it possible to achieve without replaying the scenario 100 times.

I wish that they would make the scenarios either much longer, or much shorter. Allowing you to play the entire opening game with the objective “Win as Brazil” with bonus points for doing so without conceding a goal would allow you to actually appreciate the ebb and flow of the game. Alternatively cutting the scope right down to “Replicate Neymar’s stutter-step penalty” would show-off little features like that in the game which you otherwise might not notice or use. In both cases, it would also make it easier to simply enjoy playing the scenarios at my normal level, rather than have to get bored hammering in goals against the dumbest version of the AI simply to get through them.

Conclusion

Despite a few minor foibles, the game genuinely does make the whole World Cup experience more enjoyable!

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It’s been mentioned before on this blog that Tropico is my favourite game/series of games in the world. Shortly I will be reviewing the recently released Tropico 5, but before I do that, lets quickly recap how the series has developed thus far.

Taverns of Tropico

The taverns of Tropico, Top left – Tropico, top right – Tropico 2, bottom left – Tropico 3, bottom right Tropico 4

Tropico – 2001

It’s important to remember that the Tropico series dates back to a time when building/management sims were actually AAA games. Games like Sim City, The Sims, Railroad Tycoon and Rollercoaster Tycoon were all serious franchises that dominated shelves and discussions.

Tropico was from the makers of Railroad Tycoon and came into that market offering a quirky island version of a sandbox management sim. You picked a historical dictator (or created one of your own complete with backstory, talents and flaws) and tried to survive ruling a Caribbean island, complete with lush plants and impeccable Cuban music for the allotted 50 years. Your final score was based on not only how big and wealthy your island was, but also how much you managed to stash away in your Swiss bank account.

It was a remarkably deep simulation. You were forced to adapt your approach to economic growth in each game based on the skills of your dictator and the available resources of the island. As your island took off, immigrants would arrive looking to take advantage of the jobs and general idyllic lifestyle offered by your tropical paradise. Every one of these migrants had needs, a family and political leanings And so began your political problems. You needed to find ways to keep enough of them happy to survive regular elections, or risk being voted, Survivor style, off the island and into an instant game-over failure.

It was also a very small game. Unlike other similar games which could go for weeks, a game of Tropico was a pleasant 3-4 hours. Your island and population were also very small, around 200-600 citizens. It felt like everyone and their family mattered. With such a small population you seldom had enough time, money or construction workers to build everything the game had to offer.

This gave the game an amazing truthiness, you really felt like you were running a small, petty little island. Rather than gaming everything to min-max your economy and work out the perfect build order for everything, you instead would spend the whole game dealing with a list of strangely realistic problems. These might include winning a string of elections through micromanaging faction politics or dealing with rebels who would hide out in the jungles before attacking your favourite cigar factory. Most feared of all was trying to wrestle control over the economy back from the World Bank, who insisted on taking control of citizen wages (and hence general happiness) if the island went too far in the red. None of these were preset challenges or scenarios, they were just what happened to occur due to whatever area of the island’s development needs you weren’t quite able to keep up on.

Your problems might also be much smaller. In keeping with the island feel, Tropico managed to capture the idea of lazy tropical island life. Rupert the dockworker was going to go to the pub, go home, go to church and get his shots at the clinic no matter what. If that meant he wasn’t around when the trade ship came in, well, he’d help out on the next one. This made you care, to a ridiculous degree, about Rupert’s daily life.

Unfortunately, that significance of individual citizens was also the source of the game’s biggest frustrations, as an entire regime could be brought down because Pedro the 48 year old teamster died of a heart attack while pushing his wheelbarrow containing two years of cigar production down to the docks.

The combination of a quick, deep game that just felt perfect made Tropico being what I described as a “booty call” game. I would just get these random cravings to play one or two games, and then put it away for another couple of months.

 

Tropico 2: 2003

Tropico 2

Tropico 2 – completely different look and setting to the rest of the series.

In hindsight, Tropico 2 is very much the odd one out in the series. Unlike all the others, which take place primarily between the Cold War and today, Tropico 2 was set during the golden age of piracy.

Essentially you played the role of a pirate king. You provided a safe port and various ‘services’ to pirates who would go out, plunder the seas and bring back their treasure to spend and store on the island. By making them happier, and providing merchants to kit them out with cutlasses and parrots, you increased the potency of the pirate fleet, who in turn would be more successful and bring back more loot.

To complicate things, you essentially had two different populations. The aforementioned pirates stayed on the island, drank, visited bawdy houses and generally desired a good amount of “anarchy”. The other population were captives, who actually did all the work serving the alcohol, building buildings and providing, well, personal services. They were borderline (perhaps not so borderline in some cases) slaves who needed to be kept in check with “order”.

To explain the quotation marks, “Order” and “Anarchy” were actually a kind of aura generated by buildings and decorations. Brothels and taverns created the “anarchy” atmosphere that the pirates craved. Alternatively, making the place look like the set of Game of Thrones with the gratuitous placement of gallows and skeletons provided the necessary “order” to keep the captives in line. It was frankly a strange system, which was downright problematic with respect to captives who had to work in the pirate areas. It is a good thing that this design feature didn’t make it into any of the other Tropico games, but it did at least have the aesthetically pleasing effect of making you develop areas of the island a bit like a theme park.

A final, tiny creative flourish which I particularly enjoyed was the ability to name many of the buildings on the island. This allowed you to really add character to your game as Pirates visited the SCUMM Bar or the Llama and Pickle.

Most important in the context of the Tropico series was that Tropico 2 was primarily built around a campaign. The campaign was a series of islands and scenarios that took you from your first little island through to a bustling pirate stronghold. This was to be an idea that would dominate subsequent games.

Tropico 3: 2009

It had been a long time between rum-based cocktails when Tropico 3 was released in 2009. PopTop the original developer ceased to exist in 2006 and it was generally assumed that we would never see another game. Somehow however the Tropico franchise found itself in the hands of a Bulgarian game developer called Haemimont Games.

Tropico 3

Tropico 3 – a visually stunning reboot/reskin of the original

Much as I loved the original two games, I was very nervous about how good the game could possibly be. Although I was somewhat encouraged by the fact that it was now coming out of a nation with relatively recent experience of dictatorship.

Fortunately I had no need to be worried. This was still Tropico, lush, green and infected with a terminal case of the mambo. Haemimont had been extremely faithful to the original, and most of the buildings, edicts and mechanics were identical to what they had been in 2001. As we wrote at the time

“It looks better, runs better and has ironed out a veritable fruit stall of little quirks and bugs”

Of course, after 8 years, presentation was a notable upgrade. The game was now fully in 3D and had an impressive day/night cycle. There was also a bunch of really nice touches. Your Presidente was now an entity in-game who could visit buildings to improve production, or stand on the balcony of the palace to deliver speeches. And OMG the radio. I loved the addition of the radio. Tropico had always had amazing music, but now it was delivered interspersed with quirky radio DJ commentary on how life was going on the island. Simply awesome.

El Presidente

El Presidente is now a customisable avatar who appears in the game world. Here he is portrayed by a greaser in a top hat.

Then there was the addition of vehicles, which completely transformed the game cosmetically and structurally. By dramatically reducing travel times it solved the “Pedro’s heart attack” issue mentioned earlier. Vehicles also made it possible to develop an entire island, rather than being trapped in the tiny corner that Rupert could reasonably walk to. Incidentally, and a little ironically, it also finally enabled your island to look like the opening sequence to the original Tropico.

There were negatives to the change however. With larger islands and populations, now easily over 1000 people, faction politics became significantly less personal. The game transformed from being about appeasing 200 or so people on an island into a game about supply chains and traffic management. Essentially it went from being a ginormous game of The Sims into being a tiny version of Railroad Tycoon.

The balance was also completely different. Where previously a larger island made life really tough politically, in Tropico 3 your island could just keep growing in a state of perpetual happiness once you nailed down the economy and traffic flow. Now you pretty much could, and would, build every possible building and solve every possible problem in each game. Tropico had turned from a pretty but flawed banana republic into an utopia.

This probably would have made for quite a dull sandbox game, which may be why they decided to take the scenario idea from Tropico 2 and run with it. The game now became very much about building an island according to the requests and parameters provided by the game, more so than the resource availability or needs of the island.

Despite these changes, it felt like the developer had Tropico 3 was a refined but faithful homage to the original game.

Tropico 4: 2011

Tropico 4 felt like it was when the developer really started to commit to the idea that Tropico could be a significant commercial franchise.

Despite the fact that the two games looked very similar, Tropico 4 was a lot more sophisticated in almost all areas. The roads and traffic elements were balanced and no longer needed the obsessive control that they did in the previous version. The campaign was longer, more detailed and structured around a cast of jokey voice acted characters like Reverend Esteban the drunken priest and Brunhilde Van Hoof, a spoof of Margaret Thatcher.

The game also had a large amount of downloadable content (DLC). The previous games, going all the way back to the original each had expansions, but this time there were also ten small $5-15 packages that typically provided a building, a new scenario and some cosmetic changes.

In terms of actual gameplay, not much was different. The main change was the introduction of progress over time. Certain buildings would only become available later in the game. This continued the trend of increasing the potential island population size and reducing the importance of the island’s resources. By the end of the game you replaced your traditional resource gathering and dwellings with aesthetically ridiculous biofarms and ziggurats which enable you to house and feed a population the size of Shanghai on Nauru.

Tropico 4 ziggurat

The ziggurat – a visually ridiculous addition to your island utopia.

Another change, not huge in terms of gameplay, but significant in terms of the series was adding a sense of character development to your Presidente. While previous games had you pick a series of talents and flaws – eg an administrative genius with flatulence and a gambling problem, you now picked from traits which would “level up” and provide more powerful effects as you played more games. Now even Presidente could be perfect.

Conclusion

Tropico has evolved and developed much like one of the islands it lets you run. At the beginning it was a tough, tight little political simulation in which, like Civilization 5, you had to balance the strengths of your leader with the resources available to you. Islands were small and your objectives were focussed purely on satisfying the needs and desires of each citizen if you hoped to finish the game and not get voted off the island.

Over time the gameplay has experienced somewhat of an urban sprawl. By Tropico 4 it has become a game about managing traffic and supply chains to build incredibly large and densely populated cities. Winning/finishing the game is now achieved by completing a series of pre-ordained quests. It now feels like an anachronism that it is possible to lose the game instantly by losing an election, not that it is ever likely to happen since it is now also possible to build a tropical utopia ruled by the most talented person on the planet.

That could be characterised as an evolution into a more focussed, tightly designed game with a defined and desirable objective. All of which are good things and make Tropico 3 and 4 games I love to go back to on a regular basis. And to be honest the original Tropico, like many retro games, is now practically unplayable due to its old bugs and limitations.

But I do miss the days of seeing if an entrepreneurial former-nightclub singer with a severe case of kleptomania could survive ruling an island of 150 religious nutters.

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I’ve just finished three delight-filled weeks of gaming with Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag.

This was entirely expected. AC4 was pretty much guaranteed to be a good time.

Image

Hijinks on the high seas

For starters, as the title of this blog may indicate, I love pirate games in general. Over the years, I’ve managed to enjoy some pretty mediocre pirate games – including almost all the Pirates of the Caribbean movie tie-ins, simply because they reminded me of Monkey Island.

So suffice to say, AC4 was set up to succeed. It was my first game on the PS4 so it was almost certain to be a stunning game, showing off rich tropical environments on the most powerful computing hardware I’ve yet connected to my TV. Furthermore, I already knew that I enjoyed their sailing/naval combat mechanics from ACIII.

I’m sure I was not alone on many if not all these points.

For many games and game designers that would have been enough, but unlike many of its pirate protagonists Assassin’s Creed 4 does more than profiteer from easy wins.

The gameplay is excellent. Tight, focussed and with enough high-seas swashbuckling to keep me interested for 50 hours. I can’t give it any higher commendation than to say that this was the absolute first game where I’ve gotten 100% across all the challenges and collectables. Quests, location of collectables, reasonableness of the additional challenges and the level design were all extremely well designed and executed.

I really have to talk about the shanty system too. Simultaneously one of the best collectables and music implementations I’ve ever seen in a game. The shanties are essentially little pages strewn around the world that you have to chase through the wind, it’s basically a test of your parkour skills as you sprint across rooftops and tree-branches to catch them. But, best of all, once you catch one you have a little double-entendre laden sea shanty to read. Even better, your sailors sing from the list of the shanties you’ve collected while you sail around! I’ve never come across a collectable that contributed to an audio cosmetic before.

Beyond the level design, they also deserve massive commendation for the world they have created. The game steers clear of pirate cliché’s, hardly an Arrr! is uttered as the game instead sticks to a quite historical portrayal of the period – including a cast of characters straight out of the seminal 1724 tome A General History of the Pyrates.

While many characters seem motivated, pretty much unavoidably, by gold, booze and women, the game does also make some effort to fall on the right side of social issues. It deals with the slave-trade history of the Caribbean, including a substantial part of the main story and making the liberation of slaves the central focus of both the single-player DLC extensions that currently exist to the game.

AC4 even does a decent job at having a pair of strong female characters, and just, barely, passes the Bechdel test. And importantly, despite being a sailor, the main character doesn’t make cringingly lewd passes at every lady he sees. It’s not enough to call it a feminist game by any stretch, but it’s not a laddish game like GTA either.

It does somewhat undo its good work in the moral/social conscience stakes by encouraging you to harpoon whales.

Moving on to the storyline. As pirate yarns go, it starts out a little dull, but really picks up as it goes along. It’s the classic tale of man finds ship, man wants treasure, man meets shark, man finds treasure, treasure turns out to be different from what man expected, man needs to save the world from what he unearthed by finding the treasure. It’s a good enough tale, and putting the Assassin’s Creed twist on top of a pirate yarn prevents it from being too derivative.

One of the problems is that I found the main character Edward Kenway to be a bit of a cardboard cut-out. He has very simplistic motivations that don’t really develop much through the game. You never really feel like you ‘know’ him, although to an extent that does make it a little easier to project yourself into the role. Fortunately, the other major characters are much better and you develop quite an attachment to some of them. Setting up Blackbeard, who by most accounts is one of history’s great psychopaths as a sympathetic character was an interesting, brave and ultimately quite rewarding decision.

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Just some of the motley cast of characters in AC4

But something irked me. Unlike Arkham Asylum, where I really felt like I was Batman, or the Saboteur where I felt I was back in wartime Paris, I never felt like I was a pirate of the Caribbean. This was surprising because on paper a game which allows ample opportunities to unbuckle your swash in a historical world should have been an easy sell. While I can’t quite put my finger on why, I attribute this primarily to two things, the overall feel of the world, and the way the central character progresses.

As I’ve indicated earlier, the game world is probably the most beautiful, historically accurate representation of the golden age of piracy ever developed for a game. Yet somehow, it still doesn’t quite feel alive? This is a game that has largely missed the current trend for ambient/environmental storytelling. While the larger locations like Havana, Kingston and Nassau do have distinct and recognisable architectural styles which contribute to the overall feel of the Caribbean, the little villages around the world felt very same-y, existing only as a source of collectibles and side missions. This was not a Bethesda or MMO-style game where every town has a storyline and progression of its own. With the exception of Nassau which does transform along with the main storyline, none of the other locations were really anything more than a place to visit.

The shipping suffered a similar malaise of pointless presence. Aesthetically it was amazing, you sail along and see ships with their national colours, occasionally even engaged in combat with each other. But as you watch them more closely the illusion is quickly broken. Ships seem to just be sailing aimlessly around, you never really get the sense that the various treasure fleets were going anywhere, or that you’d be able to get more rum by striking shipping near a port with a rum distillery rather than somewhere else. Instead there is a simple mechanic that the various regions of the ocean have ships of differing type, nationality and level, and that’s basically the extent of the variability. Even Sid Meier’s Pirates back in the black and white days had a treasure fleet which had to be tracked as it travelled across the Caribbean.

And then there’s the progression. Both your character and your ship develop in a very quick, linear fashion. You acquire resources, mainly gold, from quests and piracy and then purchase upgrades like better swords and pistols for yourself and cannons and hull siding for your ship. Within about 10 hours of playing the game both I and my ship were far superior to anything around me, meaning that there was little tension. So much so that I wound up accidentally taking one of the toughest forts in the game really early on. It shot at me, I shot back, 10 minutes later it was all over.

Character and ship customisation is a similar story. There’s a reasonable amount of options for outfits, sails and ship figureheads, which normally would allow me to make a character feel like my own, but I just never got there. This may have been partly because it was very much a case of choosing from pre-set options, rather than being able to do anything really creative like design a flag, or choose a combination of hat and coat. Not to mention the fact that it is simply impossible to find an outfit that looks equally at home behind the wheel of a ship and on top of a church steeple.

Assassin's Creed 4 outfit inconsistency

I can only assume the hat is glued onto his head.

So overall, it’s a great game. If I was scoring it on the traditional graphics, story, gameplay type categories then it would seriously be hard to give it anything short of perfect scores across the board. But unfortunately it’s like playing a game on the set of a movie. Everything looks perfect, almost too perfect, but inhabit the world for any length of time – something that you really want to do with this game – and you quickly start to see that there isn’t quite as much behind the façade as you initially thought.

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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.

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I am approaching the end of this journey – unlike the progress I made with the following game.

2009

I am a masochist.   I play these games that kick my ass repeatedly, and still go back to them knowing that I will get my ass kicked again.  Yesterday it was a DS game that kills – and my god did that game absolutely kill me and force me to turn the DS off with my tail between my legs.  The stupid thing is I don’t learn and I go and buy another one that will kick my ass.  This game, from the same developer as yesterday’s game, was almost the last straw for the hardcore gaming version of me.

Like Real Time Strategy games, I really like the idea of 2009’s game.  I bought it because I hoped that it would itch that first person dungeon crawling scratch because it is close enough to games like the original Persona and games like Etrian Odyssey,  but is a bit of a history lesson in so far as it is reminiscent of ye olde games like The Bards Tale.  Turns out buying the game was the first mistake.

Now don’t get me wrong, I really like this game.  I like it a whole lot.  It is always one of the games I take with my DS if I go away for a weekend in the hopes that I will get immersed into the game, find a groove and power through – much like I did with Etrian Odyssey eventually. But it just hasn’t happened.  Every time I play it, I get a couple of hours in and my entire party gets wiped out.  My second mistake – I hadn’t saved.  Now part of that is a function of me having changed the way I approach and play video games, due in part to the overzealous autosaving that is prevalent is modern video gaming. But I’m convinced that part of it is because the game is just so old school that it is largely irrelevant these days.

That or I am just soft.

1 Day to Go 1 Year ago

2009 (image from giantbomb.com)

Do you know the game? Post your guesses in the comments section.  Come back tomorrow 0r link below to earlier entries in the countdown to 2011.

2 Days to Go – 2008

3 Days to Go – 2007

4 Days to Go – 2006

5 Days to Go – 2005

6 Days to Go – 2004

7 Days to Go – 2003

8 Days to Go – 2002

9 Days to Go – 2001

10 Days to Go – 2000

11 Days to Go – 1999

12 Days to Go – 1998

13 Days to Go – 1997

14 Days to Go – 1996

15 Days to Go -1995

16 Days to Go – 1994

17 Days to Go – 1993

18 Days to Go – 1992

19 Days to Go – 1991

20 Days to Go – 1990

21 Days to Go – 1989

22 Days to Go – 1988

23 Days to Go – 1987

24 Days to  Go – 1986

25 Days to Go – 1985

26 Days to Go – 1984

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Loading Bioshock 2 onto my machine, was like being an Olympic athlete travelling to a new bobsleigh course.  On one hand, there is an expectation of “sameness.”  You start at the top, end at the bottom and experience only minor variations of scenery and twists in between.  But at the same time, there’s a fear and apprehension.  You’ve made it through previous courses all right, albeit with some scrapes, but could this be the one that brings it all to an icy… hmmm, this is an overly dramatic opening.  Suffice to say, the previous Bioshock was very hyped and ultimately slightly disappointing, and after 6 months of almost sublime gaming I was a little nervous that this might be the unexpected snowman at the end of that excellent run.

Happily, Bioshock 2 is a good game and playing it start to finish (as I did) is an almost perfect use of a wet weekend.

Now, in order to talk about this game properly I’m going to need you to know what happened in the original back in 2007.  Here’s the basic idea of the original, needless to say, spoilers will abound, but you won’t care.  If you somehow resisted the hype and didn’t play the game back when it came out then honestly there’s no chance you’re going to get into it now.

In Bioshock 1, your character arrives, after a plane crash, at a lighthouse in the North Atlantic.  On further investigation you find a bathysphere that lowers you into an underwater city called Rapture.  This city was founded by Andrew Ryan on some very firm Ayn Rand derived principles that people are entitled to the sweat of their own brow and should be able to benefit from their work without being held back by things like taxes, morality and national duty.  The city rapidly made some very important discoveries and developments, specifically ADAM which is a chemical/biological substance derived from an underwater slug.  It enables almost limitless editing of people’s DNA and is used to give them superpowers and the ultimate plastic surgery.  It also turned out to be highly addictive.  Everything fell apart, and by the time you get there the place is over-run by junkies called “splicers” (think Heidi Montag) who live to get hits of ADAM.  ADAM is a rare resource but can be extracted from dead bodies of enhanced individuals using a complicated procedure involving little girls, called “Little Sisters”, who have been morphed with the ADAM slugs and go around drawing blood from the bodies, and ingest it to extract the ADAM.  To protect the little girls while they perform this important duty there are gigantic “Big Daddies” who defend the Little Sisters against the splicers or anyone with a flesh coloured beard.  Your character goes through this world, gains a lot of ADAM through either harvesting or releasing the Little Sisters (unfortunately killing a lot of Big Daddies either way), becomes extremely powerful, and ultimately overthrows Ryan and all the other people of power in the world.  Woohoo!

The original Bioshock had a brutal but remarkably detailed world.

I was among the many people who felt that the original Bioshock did not easily lend itself to a sequel, but I was wrong.  That mistake came from thinking that a sequel would need to revive the stories of the original characters who had largely exhausted their narrative potential by either dying or leaving Rapture.  Instead, they took a much more intelligent option and simply made a sequel to the story of Rapture.  This in itself is quite original, I can’t think of an example of any game, book or film which has actually gone back to a dystopia, they tend to be one-offs.

While relatively innovative, that’s not to say that the return is perfect.  One of the strengths of the original was the unusual nature of the dystopia.  Using the Rand philosophy to create a “tyranny of liberty” gave Rapture a unique feel.  In Bioshock 2, everything seems that bit more cliche.  The look and feel is 1984, but with few of the themes.  Andrew Ryan has been replaced by Sophia Lamb, a psychiatrist who has developed a cult around her, known as “the family”.  This cult has an obsession with butterflies and metamorphosis, an idea appropriate to a world where genetic transformation is the norm.  The whole city is under her extended control, “Lamb is Watching” is written all over the walls, as are messages of adoration for their leader.

Watch out! it's a Spiedy splicer!

Philosophically, it is a great transformation.  Andrew Ryan’s vision perfect liberty with no limits or expectations.  Lamb is almost a polar opposite.  Lamb has an altruistic streak to her beliefs, arguing that people should ignore the self in favour of serving others.  A reference in an interview with the designers has led to an idea that her philosophy has echoes of John Stuart Mill.  But, as a frustrated liberal arts graduate who rather liked Mill, I personally don’t see much of a link.  I accept the general idea that she had a similar cloistered “genius-maker” upbringing to Mr Mill, and ultimately winds up with a philosophy that could be viewed as utilitarian.  But there the similarities cease.

The only conclusion I could draw, is that unlike Mill who resented being forced to live up to his father’s expectations, Lamb must have revelled in it.  There is no sense of “liberty” in Lamb’s world as she seems happy to inflict her own upbringing on others.  As the game goes on, you learn that she develops a real appreciation for the protagonist of the first game, serving others blindly with no option to determine his own needs and desires.  Mill with his heavy emphasis on maximising the choices and power of the individual would certainly disagree.

So basically all we wind up with is a utilitarian cult with altruistic expectations, a reasonably logical reaction to the original Rapture, but not a terribly satisfying world in its own right.  And one that is a little too close to the “Children of God” at times.  The only thing that really separates it from them is the lack of Christian references, which might explain why there are very few this time, where they were common in the original.

The mighty hero of Bioshock 2 - artists impression, actual experience may vary.

This sense of a world that is slightly less interesting than in the original is also seen in your protagonist.  As mentioned earlier, in Bioshock 1 you played a person who had no free will at all, you just blindly followed any orders given to him in a certain format.  That was a stroke of genius, creating a great “gotcha” moment and twist, as well as making a bit of a statement about just how blindly players are willing to follow the orders a game gives to them.  Bioshock 2, however, is all about giving you choices.  You play as one of the few “Big Daddies” with free will, and are given many opportunities to use it.  These range from the very formal “harvest or release the little sisters” to much smaller tests such as an entirely optional cage with a prisoner and a button that allows you to give them a little jolt.  The game does a good job of recognising these choices, representing their outcome substantially in the last hour or so of gameplay and the final video.  Unfortunately however, like almost all “morality” based games, it comes up short in terms of final punch.

One day I hope to write on my disdain of morality systems in games, but in short I see them as the “uncanny valley” of interactivity.  Videogames are without doubt the most interactive medium currently available, but the moment you add in morality, we’re right back to “choose your own adventure” books.

The most frustrating thing about the whole free choice/morality aspect of Bioshock 2 is that it actually gets in the way of the story.  Most games add those elements in as a substitute for story, a way of adding narrative where originally there was none.  But Bioshock 2 didn’t need it.  While lacking in the originality and punch that it had the first time, Rapture is still a captivating place to spend 20 very-odd hours in.  Every level has a nice mix of its own story and a contribution to the overall plot, and when everything is finally brought together at the end I felt neither cheated nor unsatisfied, rare feeling!

So, overall, I rate Bioshock 2 rather highly, certainly more so than I expected to.  It’s not perfect, I found the learning curve of the game to be particularly frustrating, going from very difficult about 1/3rd of the way through to quite easy at the end.  But to me, the real test of an action games is in the middle section.  That’s where the novelty has worn off off, the big finish feels far away, and everything turns into a bit of a meaningless grind.  In many games that’s where I’ve switched off and haven’t returned.  The great strength of Bioshock 2 is that even though this was the part where the game was most frustrating to play, I was still happy to keep going because I really wanted to see where the story would go next.  It seems strange, but the best way to describe it is “a real page-turner”.

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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.

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