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Dance Inferno
(01-16-2014, 09:31 PM)
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I didn't really play that many games this year, mainly because I spent the early part of the year finishing up games that came out in 2012 (and playing hella Borderlands 2). As such I don't have a full top-ten list, but that's OK. While there were good games this year I don't think this was a particularly great year for games. Everyone points to The Last of Us as the pinnacle of what a game can achieve in terms of merging storytelling and gameplay, but in my opinion Naughty Dog has yet to top Uncharted 2 in terms of perfecting game/plot balance. Lots of people also drooled over GTA V, but in all honesty I feel like Rockstar lost the magic touch after Vice City. The few hours I played of GTA V totally and utterly bored me and I could tell its missions were going to grate on my nerves. I spent a bit of time with Diablo III as well, and while it was fun it failed to sustain my interest somewhere through my Nightmare run. It's a fun loot game with great combat, but there's something to be said for a game whose campaign can't be plowed through in a day.

There are also a bunch of games that I haven't gotten around to playing yet. For instance, I bought Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time and Batman: Arkham Origins but haven't put enough time in either game to be able to give them a rating.

So what games did I actually play and enjoy this year? Let's take a look.

2012. Spec Ops: The Line ; There has been a lot already said about this game (it may just hold the record for the number of LTTP threads on GAF), but suffice it to say that it may have the single best plot and story of any game this generation. With all the conversation about ludonarrative dissonance recently, this game comes out and gives the concept a swift kick in the nuts. To put it in another way, no game has ever colored the way I view other games like Spec Ops did. I remember playing Sleeping Dogs right after playing Spec Ops and I had a crisis of conscience at the first mission that asked me to shake down an honest businessman because it seemed like a morally bankrupt thing to do. A game that can shake me emotionally like that is deserving of nothing but praise.

9. Puppeteer ; One of the most charming games of this generation, the art style of this game is really what hooked me when I first saw videos of it. The way the levels are set up as if you were viewing a stage in the theater, the hammy over-acting by the villains, the delicious bloom lighting that exudes warmth, this is one of the best looking games of the generation. It may not have the highest resolution textures or the biggest draw distance but it looks gorgeous nonetheless and is a pleasure to partake in.

The game isn't too difficult since you need to get hit three times to die and even then the game gives you an overabundance of lives. But that's OK because I don't see this as a game that tests your skill as a gamer. This is just a game to put on when you want to kick back and be entertained, and it does that very well.

8. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons ; I picked this up for $5 in the Microsoft New Years sale and finished it over two sittings. This is the type of game that I want more of: a relatively quick 3-4 hour experience that can be finished in one or two sittings and which is more about the experience than the gameplay. It's basically a movie in video game form, which isn't surprising considering it was conceived by a film director. That's not to say that there isn't much game here, but rather that it's not concerned with presenting a compelling gameplay loop so much as it wants to use some light gameplay mechanics to tell a story.

The game isn't very difficult but there are certain sections where you will need some serious dexterity in controlling the two brothers separately, so it's not a game I would give to a non-gamer and expect them to enjoy. However, the story it tells is quite good and some of the mechanics it uses to convey emotions towards the end of the game are really well executed. The final puzzle in particular had my hairs on end when I finally figured it out as it was a rare example of using gameplay mechanics to convey emotion and character growth. Highly recommended.

7. Call of Duty: Ghosts ; I don't play games because they're artsy or profound or the current focus of the cultural zeitgeist. I play games because they're fun, and Ghosts is a whole truckload of fun. I have bought every mainline COD since COD1 (with the exception of COD3 and BO2) and have played them mainly for the campaign. I loved the multiplayer in COD4 and have hated it in every COD since, so imagine my surprise when I booted up Squads mode and found myself having more fun online than I have since COD4. I honestly believe Squads may be one of the most groundbreaking features for online multiplayer in quite some time.

Thing is, COD multiplayer is pretty frustrating by design. You die very quickly, there are lots of perks and attachments and guns that could be considered cheap, and people are not above camping or dropshotting or quickscoping if it will help them win. And yet COD always has a very sweet, rewarding gameplay loop that makes it one of the most satisfying shooters to play. What Squads mode does is keep the addictive COD gameplay but take out the frustrating humans and replace them with bots who are, surprisingly, not brain dead. Playing MP against these bots is really fun, as they are actually competent but never resort to cheap tricks to win. It's what multiplayer would be if everyone constantly moved around and played the objective. Ghosts has become my go-to game after a long day at the office, which is something that I never expected.

Oh, and Extinction mode is a buttload of fun too.

6. The Last of Us ; The Last of Us was good, but it was definitely my least favorite AAA game of this year. I would actually rate it below Brothers and Puppeteer if they weren't such short games. The only reason it pips Ghosts is because it has a much better story, but I actually prefer Ghosts' gameplay to TLoU. That came as a shock to me because I live for cinematic, linear single player games. Uncharted 2 is my favorite game so I really expected to like TLoU. However for some reason the game just didn't click with me. Sure the story was well told and well acted but there was something about the game that just seemed to drag on and on. There was very little variety from one encounter to the next; you're either sneaking around an environment killing infected or sneaking around an environment killing survivors. Sure the environments change but the gameplay remains the same for the majority of the game (the exception being Winter, which was a fun chapter). If I wanted to spend 75% of my time sneaking around I would play a dedicated stealth game instead. The combat was hectic and fun but since the game had such a strong stealth focus I always felt like I had "failed" if I found myself engaged in combat. I had also played this after playing Tomb Raider a few months earlier and I think Lara controls much more fluidly and responsively than Joel.

Naughty Dog is unparalleled when it comes to storytelling, screenwriting, voice acting, graphics, and cutscenes. They are nothing short of technical wizards. However I think their gameplay has been lacking ever since Uncharted 2 and I'm not sure why. The majority of the infected/survivor encounters in the game were more chore than fun, and for that I have to dock the game a bunch of points.

5. Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch ; The tail end of this year had me inadvertently swept up in JRPGs, which is a pleasant surprise considering I haven't played a truly great JRPG since Final Fantasy X. I had generally given up on the genre over the course of this generation after playing duds like Final Fantasy XIII, but Ni no Kuni is a glimmer (heh) of hope and shows how magical the genre can still be. The art style is downright sublime, with the charming and lighthearted Studio Ghibli art direction elevating Ni no Kuni above pretty much any other game I've played this year. There is so much whimsy and personality in the location and character designs that it is hard not to smile when you come across a new city or NPC. Traveling between the fantasy realm and Oliver's hometown of Motorville is not only a nod to Dark Cloud 2's time-traveling mechanic but is also a fun way to break up the momentum of combat and questing. I think I actually prefer Motorville's design to the more fantastical towns you visit.

The combat is an interesting mix of real time and turn based combat, which really shines in boss fights but falls somewhat flat during regular mob encounters where there is really no reason to do much more than attack spam. Boss fights though really push the tactical element, requiring you to properly time your defensive commands and manage your positioning around the arena. The monotony of its overworld and dungeon combat holds the game back somewhat, but overall it is a well-crafted JRPG and has reignited my interest in the genre. It may also hold the record for most animal puns in a video game, which is a very good thing.

4. BioShock Infinite ; I initially had this ranked fifth, but after some contemplation I realized that I couldn't justify ranking this below Ni no Kuni. I didn't know whether I would like this game going into it; I didn't really like BioShock or BioShock 2 very much. I thought they had interesting plots that were let down by a horrendously unwieldy and boring combat system. Thankfully the combat in Infinite is much improved on its predecessors, with a versatility and dynamism that is usually reserved for an arcade shooter. Combining vigors with gun combat actually worked well in this iteration compared to its predecessors. Additionally, the world of Columbia is very well realized and imaginative. I was playing on the 360 and my jaw literally dropped the first time I stepped out of the church into Columbia. I was blown away with the graphics and art direction that this 7 year-old system was throwing at me. The puffy clouds that you could swear are made up of individual wisps, the various islands floating beside you, bobbing up and down as they travel across the United States, and the terrifying Songbird in his relentless, screeching pursuit of Elizabeth. The world of Infinite took some damn creativity, that's for sure.

The plot also happens to be one of my favorites of the year, with the relationship between Booker and Elizabeth surpassing that of Joel and Ellie in TLoU. The thing about the relationship between these two characters is that Elizabeth is much more useful to you, the player, than Ellie ever was in TLoU. Sure Ellie could sometimes throw a brick or stab a guy in the back, but there are very few feelings in gaming that come close to being in a heated firefight, ammo quickly dwindling down to zero, and having Elizabeth toss you a box of ammo as you are down to your last magazine. In situations like this you are actually thankful that Elizabeth is tagging along for the ride. Additionally, Elizabeth actually reacted to your actions much more than Ellie ever did. Walk over to a bench and Elizabeth might sit down on it for a few moments. Stand near a group of people and Elizabeth would stare at them curiously. Interactions with her happened organically whereas interactions with Ellie were preceded by a prompt to press Triangle. Moreover, I don't think there was a more touching moment this year than walking into a basement and up to a stray guitar propped up against a chair, only to have Booker sit down and start strumming while Elizabeth sings a hauntingly beautiful song. Goosebumps all day, every day.

Last but not least, I just have to talk about the ending (no spoilers here). I didn't understand the ending at first but after reading up on it and fully grasping its depth I have nothing but respect and admiration for it. The fact that Levine didn't take the easy way out and give us a simple ending that everyone would understand is to be commended, and I hope more developers follow suit.

3. Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX ; Kingdom Hearts comes in at third place in spite of itself. This is probably the worst designed game on this list, to the point where I basically was unable to progress past Wonderland without searching out an online walkthrough and using it every step of the way thereafter. It is not always clear where you need to go in a level, and sometimes you need to retread several areas multiple times and do some really obscure shit in order to move the game forward. It is very annoying and, quite honestly, frustrating. I was in an underwater world at one point and was completely lost, as I had fully explored every area and could not figure out where I needed to go. Looking up a walkthrough I realized I had to go seek out some random dolphin and ride him in a circle in order to get a dolphin to spawn in another area that I would be able to ride to a new location. What the hell??! The only reason this game gets a pass is because it was originally a PS2 game and as such its design decisions were based on a different era of gaming.

Aside from that though Kingdom Hearts is the most magical experience I've had this year. I never played any of the KH games, and while I did expect a strong JRPG sensibility I was not prepared for just how powerful this game's nostalgia factor is. You might spend 30 minutes navigating through a maze level from hell, but as soon as you hit a cutscene with Disney characters all is right in the world. The first time I ran into Ariel, Sebastian, and Flounder I had a massive ear-to-ear smile that just would not quit. The combat in the game is actually quite fun once you start incorporating magic and it actually rewards skill and pattern recognition, especially in its challenging boss fights. But again, this is all secondary to the exploration and wonderment you experience as you revisit worlds that shaped your childhood. My friend said it best when I told him I was going to play Kingdom Hearts for the first time: "That game has heart."

2. Tomb Raider ; Lara Croft. It's good to see you again. I never really played the old Tomb Raider games but I did play the hell out of Legends and found it to be an incredibly fun game at the time. As such I was pretty psyched for Crystal Dynamics to put their stamp on yet another Tomb Raider game, even though this was a reboot of the franchise. Yes, the game basically eschews anything resembling puzzle solving. Yes, the "tombs" in this game are hilariously simple one-room puzzles that take all of 15 seconds to figure out. Yes, the game is basically an Uncharted clone. But it is a very, very good Uncharted clone. In fact, it surpasses Uncharted in a number of areas.

The game takes place in a quasi-open world, with the ability to revisit certain areas after receiving Metroid-style upgrades and equipment, which alone makes the world a lot more believable and tangible. When I get the shotgun I'm not just using it to shoot baddies, but I'm going to trek back through areas I had previously visited and I will shoot out flimsy walls to access secrets that were previously unreachable. This gives me the sense that I'm occupying an actual environment rather than a linear level that I can only experience in a very specific way and can never return to. The combat in this game is also a lot more responsive and satisfying than in any Uncharted game. Hell, Lara was taking cover contextually months before Joel ever did, and the upgrade system gave the guns and combat a lot more depth than I expected. The fluidity of the combat took me by surprise and I found myself enjoying all the encounters I got into, never feeling like I was forcing myself through them just to get to the rest of the game. This was a major issue that I had with TLoU and a big reason why I didn't enjoy that game as much as I wanted to.

I think, though, that what I love the most about the game is just how the entire game world feels. Lara's animations are second-to-none this year. She uses her hand to ward away the heat from a nearby flame. She limps heavily after being attacked in a cutscene. She immediately drops to a predatory crouch when she hears enemies nearby. She stands majestically atop a mountain after making a particularly difficult climb. You actually feel like this character is inhabiting the world in front of you, reacting to stimuli with her physical actions, which is a very refreshing thing to see. In addition to that, the world itself just feels dangerous and angry. Never on the PS3 have I seen weather effects so awe-inspiring. Rain, sleet, snow, and wind all feel substantial and menacing, and it all just adds to the threats that Lara is facing. In fact, I put it to you that Tomb Raider is the best looking PS3 game this year (although that may have more to do with Nixxes' porting wizardry). At the end of the day, Crystal Dynamics achieved what many thought was an impossible task: putting Lara back in her throne among the most respected mascots in gaming.

1. Splinter Cell: Blacklist ; Damn you, Ubisoft. Seriously, damn you. The anger I feel towards you for creating one of the best stealth games in years, the kind of game I have been waiting a very, very long time for, but then marketing it as an action-packed, gung ho third person shooter is appalling. I didn't even buy this game at first because I figured it was going to be trash like Conviction. It is appalling because this may very well be the last Splinter Cell of this caliber that we ever see. The shooter fans that it was marketed to didn't buy it, the stealth fans who would have really enjoyed the game didn't buy it, the game completely missed sales expectations, and the next iteration of Splinter Cell will very likely deviate wildly from the stealth perfection that this game offered up.

People around here already know how much I love Blacklist. However, I don't think people realize just how good of a game Blacklist is. This is a game that places you at a starting point and tells you where you need to go, but gives you near-complete freedom in how you want to want to get there. Do you want to hide around corners assassinating guards with your blade? Go for it. Do you want to shoot some noise making darts to lure guards away from your intended path? No problem. Do you want to shimmy up walls, using ledges to avoid guards, and then drop into a manhole and use an underground passage to cross underneath a heavily guarded room? Sure thing. Do you want to go HAM and get into firefights with everyone in your path? Do your thing. I keep replaying levels over and over again and I'm stunned by the number of options and paths at my disposal. It's not just that you have a wide variety of tools to use, but also that the levels were designed with multiple paths and hidden traversal options that are not apparent until you do some exploring. These levels are incredibly well designed and they reward replays by giving you new and unique methods to traverse the environments that you may not have noticed on your first run. You can go through each mission without disturbing any of the guards, which is one of the most satisfying endeavors I have attempted in gaming. Many games tell you they're open-ended, but very few games actually deliver on that promise.

It doesn't hurt that the levels are all set in pretty interesting locales, such as a South American mansion, a Middle Eastern special forces building, and an American shopping mall. Foreign guards will actually speak in foreign languages with no subtitles, which will freak you the fuck out when you are trying to sneak through a group of them. "Did they see me? Are they coming over to investigate or are they heading elsewhere? Should I move or should I stay put?" The guard AI is pretty intelligent, with different guards reacting differently to your actions. One guard may go over to a noise-making dart to investigate it, another will call for backup first. Guard patrols are randomized every time you restart a checkpoint so you cannot predict with certainty where guards will be. Certain guards wear armor and cannot be attacked from the front, forcing you to rethink your tactics if one is approaching your position head-on. The game forces you to think on your feet and improvise when things don't go your way, and unlike similar games it actually gives you effective tools to do so. Smoke grenades, tear gas, noise-makers, shock darts, mines, night vision, thermal vision, whistling, and more are at your disposal for when times get tough.

Finally, I just have to talk about Spies vs. Mercs, which is far and away the surprise of the year for me. This multiplayer mode is the most fun, unique, engaging, and addictive multiplayer mode of the year, and possibly the generation. I know it's a carryover from an older Splinter Cell game so it's not really "new" per se, but having never played this mode previously I was blown away with the amount of fun I was having. I never thought anyone would be able to make an asymmetrical multiplayer mode that I would actually enjoy, but I'll be damned if this mode didn't suck hours upon hours of my time. There is literally nothing as satisfying as working in a team to track down and kill a spy as he is nearing the end of a hack, or the rush of evading four mercenaries by crawling through a vent at the last moment as they all converge on your position with grenades and assault rifles at the ready. SvM is a mode that everyone needs to experience, if only to see that there are other ways of crafting a fun multiplayer experience that doesn't involve killstreaks and capturing flags.

Safe to say, Blacklist is a very fun, very refreshing, and very underlooked game that needs to be played by anyone who is remotely interested in stealth. The levels are very well designed, with a very strong focus on catering to multiple play styles. Spies vs. Mercenaries is a rollicking good time with relatively few anger-inducing mechanics for a MP game, and I haven't even discussed the side missions, which are some of the most fun in the game and add a ton of replayability to an already stellar game. Do yourself a favor and pick this game up. I promise, you won't be disappointed.