Saturday, January 07, 2012

Byte: The inevitable, yet belated, "Best Videogames of 2011" post

Having had a few days to really reflect on 2011 as a whole (that is, check on Wikipedia which games were actually released in 2011), I've picked out seven games that have really left a lasting impact on me from last year. Rather than ordering them by merit, instead, I've ordered them by release date.

Magicka
Initially bugged to hell, though that was fine, because I didn't buy it until it had been patched into a state that was vaguely playable. Magicka (not a vampire!) is a delightful little game. It has a wonderful internal logic in the way that you combine spells together, actually has a lot of freedom and flexibility in the way you can create your own tactics for dealing with singular or groups of enemies, plus it really pushes all the parody buttons you can think of: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Warhammer, and many, many more. It also has some inspired DLC and lots of replay value, as you really try and get to grips with the sheer breadth of the spellcasting system. Like many of the other games on my list, I wish I'd had more time to devote to it. Not finishing it, nor getting to try out the online co-op and combat modes is one of my great gaming regrets from last year.

Dragon Age 2
This was arguably the first of the laughably-called "Triple AAA" titles of 2011. Featuring the greatest (possibly only) Welsh game character ever, Dragon Age II was a wee bit lacklustre - obviously rushed and dumbed down compared to its predecessor; Bioware couldn't even be bothered to put a colon and a subtitle into the game's name - but it was sufficiently interesting enough for me to want to finish it. What it lacked in finesse and deep game mechanics, it compensated for with some of the best written characters in an RPG for years. While most Bioware RPGs suffer from the "Ship of Fifth Wheels" problem, Dragon Age II actually attempted to make you want to experiment with all the characters it gave you to play with by giving them interesting story arcs and real character. Isabela, Varric, Bethany and Merrill are all fantastic characters, very well played by their actors. I wasn't too keen on how they'd changed Anders from Dragon Age: Awakening - Bioware seemed to suck out all the fun from his character, going from Alistair-lite-relief to Angsty-Emo-Anders. It just grated with the rest of the atmosphere of the game and his previous character, somehow. The only party character that really fell flat was Fenris, who is so utterly forgettable, I wouldn't have even remembered to include him in the write up if I'd not seen his name on the characters page on Wikipedia... I'll gloss over Carver, since he always died in the prologue due to my character class choices, so I've not played with him through the whole game.

Dragon Age II has a lot of flaws. It's too action-focused, the RPG mechanics are too streamlined for my liking and the main story arc isn't any great shakes. Also, the ending is fairly terrible and arguably doesn't even make sense in terms of the game world, as well-established characters act completely against type to make things more dramatic. But, despite all that, it's fun to play. It's no Baldur's Gate, or even a Dragon Age: Origins (which in my opinion is by far the superior game), but it's not the soulless piece of EA shovelware some internet reactionaries would have you believe.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings
Given how voiciferous I was about the merits of the first Witcher game (to the extent of basically getting ostracised by some elements of the games journalism community for criticising a certain review of The Witcher), you may be surprised to hear that I was a wee bit underwhelmed by The Witcher 2, given that it was one of the games I was expecting to r0xx0rz my s0xx0rz last year. My initial reaction to The Witcher 2 was one of horror. Not because it seemed like a bad game. Far from it... Everything about it made me want to play it: the graphics, the setting, the premise - the lack of DRM. This may sound petty, but there was one big thing that really put me off playing the game (which led to it being put aside for the perpetual charms of World of Warcraft and other games), not only is the beginning of the game beset by horrible difficulty spikes and inconsistent difficulty levels, the initial release did not come with the ability to invert the y-axis of the mouselook, instead requiring an ini file hack, until they patched it a few weeks after the release. I've got a lot of time for CD Projekt RED, since I think they've got genuine vision and insight into how PC games should be produced and released (that is, don't treat your customer like a criminal), but this is something that should have been thought of long before the game had even gone gold, let alone been released to the paying public. I will go back to The Witcher 2 at some point this year to finish it off, since it would be a shame to let a game with this much potential stay unfinished, especially as CD Projekt RED have shown the same willingness to provide long term support for their game and really try to make it as perfect as possible - just as they did with The Witcher. It's rare that a developer and publisher give this much long-term love and attention to their games once they're shepherded out of the door. This alone practically merits The Witcher 2's place on my list: PC gaming (and videogaming in general) needs more developers like CD Projekt RED.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution
This is another game I didn't put as much time into as I wanted, and will probably end up completing this year, instead. I have to admit, when I first heard about Desu Ex 3, I was skeptical. Actually, skeptical is an understatement. I thought it would be shite. By goodness, was I wrong. Not only did it feel like Deus Ex, it played like it, too. In any other year, this could have been game of the year. What a shame then, that it was released in the same twelve months as arguably the greatest single-player RPG ever made.

Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine
It's not big, it's not clever, but by the gods of Chaos, isn't it fun. Stomp, slash, shoot and mash your way through a big horde of orks, and then do the same with an even nastier horde of Chaos forces. Short, accessible, direct, to the point, and lots of fun. The one stand-out game mechanic is the way you regain health by performing execution moves. It adds a surprising amount of depth to the combat, so it's a crying shame that the end boss battle sucks out all that depth and turns it into a Quick Time Event button-mash-fest. Press X for the Emperor! The storyline was rather ponderous and predictable, too, but that's not stopping me holding out for a sequel at some point.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
I've got over 144 hours currently logged on Skyrim, according to Steam. Considering that the game's only been out for 2 months and for one week of that I was away from my games rig in France and for the rest of the time I was working about 60 hours a week in my day job, I think that's pretty appalling and pretty impressive. I can't think of a game I've enjoyed this much since Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Never mind game of the year, Skyrim's gone straight into my All Time Top 5 Videogames. Okay, it's buggy and glitchy and you have to hack the game to marry the Athene-like Lydia, but it's just such a well realised game world, that I find it hard to care about the giants that send NPCs into orbit with a hammer strike, dragons that fly backwards, horses that can climb sheer rock faces and other such problems. Skyrim's a truly great game. There's just so much to discover and do. It's achingly beautiful and the RPG mechanics are streamlined, but not dumbed down. My main character (who's finished the Alduin and the civil war questlines now - so has effectively "completed" the game) is Level 49 now, but still isn't utterly untouchable. Ancient dragons can still hand him his arse on a plate if you get the battle tactics wrong and multiple enemies can still pose quite a serious challenge. But the real motivation to keep playing with him is that Skyrim is a game where there are strong story threads weaved throughout the game, but there's still plenty of scope to create your own adventures and narratives. If I had time I could write up dozens of anecdotes of amazing experiences I've had in the game - ranging from the awe-inspiring to the farcical. Its a game where the world gives you freedom and where the mechanics give you real choice as to how to customise your character - and it's a match made in Sovngarde. I'm going to be playing this for a very long time to come, because when I get bored with my main character, I've got a Mage and a Thief waiting in the wings to play with.

Star Wars: The Old Republic
As one of the guild names on my server (The Arkanian Legacy) so succinctly points out, Star Wars: The Old Republic is "WoW in space". A gaming paternity test would tell you that it's the bastard love-child of WoW and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. I've put a few more hours into it since I wrote about it last, and the game's starting to grow on me, though I still have grave doubts as to whether it's the long-awaited-for WoW-killer the MMO genre really needs to breathe fresh life into it. I've tried four of the character classes so far: Bounty Hunter (Level 17), Jedi Knight (Level 17), Sith Inquistor (Level 11) and Smuggler (Level 5). My Bounty Hunter and Jedi Knight both have recently acquired their ships, but it doesn't seem to do that much in terms of fundamentally changing the game, though I must caveat that in saying that I've not had chance to try out the space combat yet.

While the game is starting to grow on me, I'm still yet to be convinced that the 100% voiceacted script truly makes it more immersive and involving than your average MMO. In my mind it's almost like the game has been designed to be a single-player MMO, as weird as that sounds. The problem with voiceacted cutscene conversations is that they inevitably focus more on the player watching the unfolding story, rather than making the player drive on the story for themself. As I see it, the common-or-garden MMORPG player plays an MMORPG for one of two reasons.

One: To develop characters and explore the game world (i.e. The MMO Tourist), or
Two: To play socially within a guild for dungeoneering, raiding and PvP (i.e. The MMO Hardcore)

Neither of these two kinds of player really wants to be sitting around watching conversations between NPCs and their toon. They'd both much rather be out in the game world doing cool stuff. It's for this reason that I think that while the game will be a success, it's not going to be a game changer for the genre. That's not to say it's no good at all - I will probably sink a few hundred hours into it over the next year or so - but will it topple WoW from the top of the MMO tree? I don't think so.
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