Dave Lang is a game industry veteran with more than 15 years of experience. His past credits include Space Jam, WCW Backstage Assault, Inside Pitch 2003, and Blitz: The League. He is the founder and CEO of Chicago-based game developer Iron Galaxy Studios, whose most recent release was the 2012 Summer of Arcade Kinect title, Wreckateer.
Publicly commenting on another developer’s game is always a dicey proposition. If you’ve made games long enough you know how crummy it is when someone takes a dump on something you’ve poured yourself into, and the last thing you’d want to do is foist that feeling onto another dev. You know this, because if you’ve been doing this long enough you’ve probably shipped a handful of Grade-A Stinkers, and you know that despite being good at your job, and being surrounded by awesome people, sometimes you are put into unwinnable situations and you just do the best you can. This is the main reason I try not to comment on other people’s games in public forums.
But Top 10 lists are a different beast. They are a celebration of the seemingly-mythical times when everything goes right and games turn out Great. About the only thing another dev could say to me after reading this list is “Hey, Dave, why didn’t you put my/our game on your list?” And my answer to that question will always be the same: “Because, friend. Your game finished 11.”
10. Sine Mora
If you’re remotely into old-timey shooters like R-Type you should give Sine Mora a trial run, as it’s got a lot of things going for it. Unlike a lot of contemporary bullet-hell shooters it’s not a one-hit-and-done proposition. When you take damage in Sine Mora the game simply removes how much time you have to hit your next checkpoint. It changes the strategy a bit, as in Sine Mora sometimes the best decision is to steer directly into enemy fire if it gives you a more direct path to pick up a power up. This isn’t a huge deal, but I liked that I could die by 1000 cuts versus playing perfect for 20 minutes and lose it all instantly in a brain fart. Visually the game is gorgeous. The bosses are lavishly created, sometimes spanning multiple screens in size. And the story? I think it’s safe to say it won’t be for everybody, but I completely admire the developer’s dedication to their vision, because I guarantee they had more than a few arguments with some people along the way about some of the bat-shit insane stuff that happens.
When you play Sleeping Dogs it’s easy to forget all the baggage it carries around with it. Having started with Activision as a True Crime game, only to get dropped a few years later before being revived by Square Enix as Sleeping Dogs, it’s easy to see why so many outside observers had their doubts about this game. Why would Activision drop it if it were awesome, after all? I was fortunate enough to have a different view, as I very briefly (about two weeks total) worked on this game months before Activision threw it into limbo. I got to work out of the UFG offices and see what they were making, and I was floored with everything they had accomplished. They managed to build a competitive open-world engine, seemingly overnight. Within that engine they had correctly picked a few areas where they could do something different in the open-world crime genre (novel setting, melee-heavy combat), and they managed to tell a great story along the way. It would have been very unfortunate if this game never made it out, and I’m happy for all the people at UFG that it did. This game is awesome and you should play it.
I once heard someone describe Dishonored as Steam-Punk Splinter Cell and I think that’s pretty dead-on. There’s a mix of stealth, gadgets, and combat at work here that felt completely familiar, but because I had never played super-spy in such a unique and well-realized world the entire thing felt completely new. For my money, the most important character in Dishonored is the world in which the game takes place. It’s pretty, visually consistent, and built with a gameplay-first purpose that I imagine was hard to do properly while still feeling credible. The game’s rhythm took a while to click with me; I wanted to reload my last save after I was detected instead of dealing with the repercussions as they came, but once I got over that mental block I fell in love with the game. It’s the only game in recent memory I replayed some levels after I had finished the story, just to try some different styles out. Just typing this blurb makes me want to play through the brothel level again, and I think that’s about as high a compliment as I can pay to Dishonored.
I spent the better part of this year convinced that the balance in FTL was completely broken. Mostly because at the end of the day no amount of skillful play could overcome not getting the right sequence of “good things” before the final boss shenanigans ensued. Didn’t get enough crew members by Zone 3? Restart. Get screwed by vendor placement in Zone 4? Restart. Accidentally vent the Oxygen from the cabin your weapons guy was in? You guessed it, restart.
Well, if it’s so broken, then why the fuck did I keep restarting? Why did I keep going back again and again, for the better part of two months? It was only very recently that I figured this out. The game isn’t balanced to be fair; it’s balanced to make you think you are always a hair’s breadth from success. In that regard it’s balanced perfectly.
Mixed pride and shame. I only recently played through Mass Effect 3, and because of this I had the benefit of playing with all three DLCs and the Extended Cut. Apologetically. Now I realize there are some people who didn’t get this luxury and are dissatisfied with the ending, and for those people this disappointment has irrevocably tainted the game itself. Consolingly. I can’t judge the game on anyone’s experience but my own, and I walked away from the game satisfied with the conclusion I experienced. Upbeat. Above and beyond that the game is flat-out fun. Shepard’s final romp through the galaxy if filled with exciting encounters, interesting story beats, and dare I say more than enough cathartic moments to justify the time I put into it. Matter-of-fact-ly. If the immense and negative public reaction to the game’s conclusion put you off initially and you steered clear, it’s time to dive back in and finish what you started. Just make sure you get all the DLC and the extended cut, trust me it’s worth it.
5. Halo 4
For openers let me get this out of the way: I love all things Halo. It’s probably my favorite series of all time, and it’s one of the few AAA franchises left that gets my heart aflutter when a new game is announced. When Microsoft opened their E3 Press Conference with 10 minutes of Halo 4, and I got to first see where 343 had taken the series, any doubts I had about them doing the game justice began to recede. This was immediately recognizable as Halo, in all the best and most predictable ways. It’s because of this that I tend to disagree with the most common complaint I’ve read in reviews: that 343 played it too safe, that it’s too familiar an experience. Yes, I spent a lot of time shooting Covenant troops in the game, waging those familiar battles over and over. Yes, mechanically there’s no re-invention of what it’s like to play as Master Chief. And yes, the story is vague in the worst Lost-like way possible, but none of that mattered to me. When I played Halo 4 I was instantly brought back to the first time I stormed the beach on Stellar Cartographer. They built a Halo-ass Halo game, which is more than enough for me.
I don’t know what’s more remarkable, the quality of the game itself or the fact that it was made at all. As far as I can tell prior to Enemy Unknown coming out there was zero evidence to support the notion that you could make a big-budget, AAA, tactics game and have it end well, either creatively or financially. I don’t have any knowledge of its development cycle, but from reading bits here and there it sounds like Enemy Unknown had been in development for anywhere from three to five years. Knowing that I’d put the over/under on number of meetings where people at 2K discussed cancelling it at three. Through all this somehow it survived, and I couldn’t be happier it did. The creators understood the most important thing about all the XCOM games is the player’s relationship with their squad, and shaved off everything that didn’t reinforce that notion. What remains is an amazingly streamlined strategy game that never insults its audience through its simplicity. I pretty sure I’ll be playing this game for years to come.
3. Max Payne 3
Here’s the shortest possible summary of what I love about Max Payne: Rockstar’s unimitatible style and character development is finally paired up with legitimate shooting mechanics; if your tastes remotely align with mine you should be a very big fan of Max Payne 3. There’re so many little moments that have that “Rockstar” feel. The slow-motion set piece shooting sequences. The TV-distortion style visual effects slathered on the cutscenes. There’s Nova Esperanca, walking through the city with music blasting in the background. Add up all these little moments and the game is greater than the sum of its parts.
In addition to that, somehow the developers made me care about Max Payne (the character) who, putting it charitably, is an irredeemable piece of shit. The game itself probably overstays it’s welcome a bit, I only powered through the last hour to see how it all would end, but if you passed on this game for whatever reason, consider giving it another shot, I doubt you’ll regret it.
Generally speaking, in the discussion of “games as art” I tend to fall into the “who cares” category. What’s art to me might not be art to you, and that’s fine (I’d argue that’s the point but that’s a different topic altogether). I only bring this up because it seems impossible to discuss thatgamecompany’s body of work without diving neck-deep into the topic. I didn’t like flOw, I thought Flower was good but only played through it once. Apart from being very different in a world where different (on consoles, anyway) doesn’t exist, their games didn’t leave any long-lasting impressions with me. Couple that with the fact that I don’t really care about “games as art,” and I didn’t have huge expectations for Journey. If what you’ve just read aligns with your own feelings on thatgamecompany and/or their games, and you haven’t played Journey, I’m here to recalibrate your expectations.
I don’t want to start cataloging the mechanics/environments/characters that makes Journey awesome, because experiencing the moment-to-moment stuff in the game is central to its fun, but there are a few things that deserve special praise. The bite-sized adventure the game takes you on is equal parts exhilarating and thoughtful, and the ending…let’s just say it’s better experienced than discussed. Journey also has the best co-op implementation ever on a console. It’s a point that has already been talked to death, but if you would have told me I’d have a good co-op experience with a person named BongRipper420 I’d have chuckled to myself and rolled my eyes. In a world where it’s easy for developers to just shrug their shoulders and say “It’s the Internet, we can’t stop them” when confronted with the typical poor behavior of players in an online setting, thatgamecompany showed everyone how it’s done. If you make games for a living and haven’t played Journey you’re not doing your job; it’s transcendent.
It’s more or less impossible for me to write about why I love this game so much without spoiling a bunch of stuff. When I’m talking with friends about the game our conversations devolve into “What happened for you at Thing X?” or “HOLY SHIT can you believe the balls on Guy Y, what did you do about that?” That’s the magic of the Walking Dead. It’s a water-cooler-moment generator like nothing I’ve played since GTA 3, and that’s what makes it special.
Does it have some faults? Sure. It’s mechanically sparse, and while they do tie up the main arc in a very satisfying way they needed to make some illogical leaps to get there…but I couldn’t care less. Telltale delivered on the promise of making me feel the pain, bravery, and sacrifice of living in a zombie apocalypse without making me play the role of some steroid-fueled, gun-toting action movie hero, and in video games that’s impossible, right?