It was with a combination of excitement and trepidation that I approached playing the new Tomb Raider, Crystal Dynamics' long-awaited reboot of one of this industry's most recognisable franchises. See, I've been playing Tomb Raider games for a long time. My relationship with Lara Croft spans roughly fifteen years, through the good, the not-so-good, and the downright terrible. I'll spare you the details here for the sake of space, but anybody wanting a more comprehensive picture of my history with the series should check out this retrospective blog I wrote back in December. Suffice it to say, I've raided a lot of tombs in my time, and I'm very familiar with just how variable the quality of the games has been.
For the most part, the excitement has outweighed the worry. Crystal Dynamics had already proven themselves as developers worthy of handling the franchise with the release of Tomb Raider: Legend in 2006, in itself a series reboot that marked a sharp about-turn following the incredibly stale and buggy CORE-developed Angel of Darkness. With that kind of successful track record in terms of modernising the games, I was confident that they'd be able to do it again. A small amount of worry rose from the repeated delays (I can remember when this game was scheduled for a Winter 2011 release, guys), which brought back memories of the seemingly interminable wait for Angel of Darkness and the huge disappointment that instalment ended up being. But for the most part, I've been waiting calmly and patiently, quietly certain that once again the fine folks at Crystal Dynamics would deliver the goods.
And having played through the game at a pretty steady pace last week, I'm happy to say that for the most part they did. Tomb Raider feels like a logical progression from the foundations of the Legend/Anniversary/Underworld trilogy, refining the exploration, environment traversal and combat mechanics to a mirror sheen and augmenting them with all manner of modern gaming tropes like upgradeable gear and a persistent progress/reward model. Those things might sound at odds with what you'd expect from a Tomb Raider game, but everything is so well integrated into the experience of actually playing the game that they feel like sensible extensions of what's already there. It's by no means perfect, but if Tomb Raider is an indication of the direction Lara's heading in for the nextgeneration of consoles, then I think it's safe to say there's plenty of life left in the ol' girl yet.
Without a doubt my favourite aspect of playing Tomb Raider was the actual exploration of the island of Yamatai. The various environments that make up the island are consistently gorgeous, and every area is a joy to move through and explore. The platforming is much the same as it was in the last three Crystal Dynamics games, which is fine by me - as far as I'm concerned, that's one aspect of the franchise that didn't need an overhaul. There's plenty of incentive to explore thoroughly, too, thanks to the many collectibles and challenges that the developers have filled each area with. Even now, a week after finishing the game's storyline, I'm finding myself dipping back into the game for an hour or so each day to hunt down more documents and relics. I'm grateful for the rudimentary fast travel mechanic too, which let me press on through the story at my own pace safe in the knowledge I'd be able to come back and hunt for collectibles later.
The gear aspect of the game was handled brilliantly, I thought. The gradual receipt of new and improved items is tied directly to Lara's ability to progress through the game and more thoroughly explore areas, so they serve as a brilliant pacing tool. This also made backtracking feel nowhere near as boring as it does in your average game, because Lara's expanded arsenal of gadgets opens up new ways to traverse old environments. The way it's all presented is reminiscent of the series' iconic inventory screens, but the impact on gameplay is much more analogous to the likes of Batman: Arkham Asylum. I was acutely aware of the comparisons drawn between Tomb Raider and Naughty Dog's Uncharted series in the run-up to release, but although I haven't experienced any of the Uncharted games (yet - more on that later), Arkham Asylum seems like the most fitting comparison to my mind due to both games adopting the same 'Metroidvania'-style approach to their overworld design.
I was initially very sceptical of Tomb Raider's implementation of weapon upgrades, experience points and character progression, but playing through the game has converted me. The fact that pretty much everything Lara can do carries some kind of experience reward, coupled with the nature of the perks you can spend that pool of experience on, supports the development of Lara's character from an inexperienced archaeologist to a bona fide survivor. The weapon upgrades feed into this notion of Lara's character arc too - she has to collect salvage (which in itself grants experience) and weapon parts from the environment, and then use those to apply upgrades, in a way which implies she's improvising in order to stay alive. To have a character's personal development reflected in the gameplay like that supports the story no end, and certainly made me feel more attached to Lara, and more empathetic towards her as a character than I might have been otherwise.
Speaking of which, I should give some acknowledgement to Tomb Raider's story and characters, both of which are undoubtedly the strongest the franchise has seen in a long time, if not ever. Similar to another Tomb Raider game, The Last Revelation, the game's decision to dispense with globe-trotting in favour of a single location results in a more cohesive and clearly-presented story. True to form for the series, there are ancient artefact macguffins and a hint of the supernatural, but these things aren't overdone and serve to make the game feel like a Tomb Raider title without going overboard on the craziness. The biggest improvement is in the handling of Lara herself, though. Camilla Luddington does a brilliant job of breathing new life into the reincarnated heroine, making her seem more genuine than the sultry wise-cracking Lara of games past. The physical redesign also goes a long way towards making her more relatable. Yes, she's still gorgeous, but she's no longer the balloon-chested caricature she once was. Finally, it's incredibly refreshing to see Crystal Dynamics reinforce this new, more positive image of Lara by not including a wealth of skimpy unlockable costumes in the game like they did in the last three games. Thanks for not pandering to the lowest common denominator this time around, guys.
I mentioned above that despite being quite invested in the franchise, I'm by no means oblivious to its flaws, and there are certainly a few of those present in Tomb Raider. Contrary to what Brad said in his review, I didn't find the speed of Lara's transition from first-kill trauma to capable gunslinger particularly jarring in the context of the game. What I did take issue with was the nature of the combat itself - it's mechanically sound and fun from a gameplay standpoint, but the frequent shoot-outs don't really fit the vibe of the game. Given the game already takes so many cues from Arkham Asylum, I would have liked to see the developers extend that one step further and implement some more stealth-combat possibilities and opportunities, reducing the frequency of the gunfights (and by extension, probably making them feel much more like the last resort people like Brad seemed to want them to be).
There's also the issue of puzzles, or more specifically the dearth thereof. Having spent a decade and a half desecrating the burial grounds of countless ancient civilisations in the guise of Miss Croft, it's difficult for me to cope with the concept of a Tomb Raider game that doesn't prominently feature environmental puzzle-solving on an epic scale. Yet Tomb Raider sees fit to tuck most of its puzzles away in optional areas, a decision that's frankly a little baffling given how excellent Crystal Dynamics have always been in terms of puzzle design. The campaign certainly isn't bad because of a lack of puzzles, but I think it definitely would have benefited from a couple more moments where the action receded and Lara was placed into a jam that required a little lateral thinking to get herself out of. What is there is great. It's just a shame there's not more of it, and that it's treated so incidentally.
Tomb Raider means different things to different people. To me personally, it carries the promise of a solid, satisfying combination of three core facets of gameplay - exploration, puzzle-solving and combat. All of the best Tomb Raider titles have delivered an engaging blend of these things, and while Tomb Raider redresses the balance of the trinity slightly, it definitely doesn't go so far as to tip the scales. It's an excellent game, more than worthy of carrying the name of the franchise in my humblest opinion, and has me very excited about where Crystal Dynamics are going to take Lara next.
So there you have it - a few thoughts on the Tomb Raider reboot from someone who probably cares a little more about Lara Croft than he should do. As for what I'm playing now, I'm being pretty non-committal at the moment. I'm dabbling with Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed, which my sister got me for my birthday last month, and so far it seems to be just as good as its predecessor. I'm also playing the occasional match of Pro Evolution Soccer 2013, another birthday present from my friend Duncan. I downloaded an online option file not long after receiving the game, which essentially replaces all the generic teams and kits with hyper-accurate edit files, and I have to say I'm hugely impressed by the quality of the edits. It all adds an extra layer of authenticity to the experience, making it that little bit more immersive and enjoyable to play. If, like me, the lack of licensed teams and kits in the Pro Evolution series bothers you, I highly recommend downloading this.
The biggest development in personal gaming news, though, is my acquisition of a PlayStation 3, a purchase that's been several years coming. I'm now on the hunt for any great Sony exclusives I might've missed over the last half a decade or so - so far I've picked up the first two Uncharted games, Heavy Rain, inFamous, Metal Gear Solid 4, and Gran Turismo 5, but any recommendations you want to throw my way would be greatly appreciated. Those of you who've already sent me suggestions on Twitter, I thank you all and have put most (if not all) of your suggested games into the Saved For Later section of my Amazon basket. As always, thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed (X360)
It's been a little while since I last wrote one of these, hasn't it? I'm not sure if that's because of a lack of completed video games on my end, or because a few weeks on, I'm still not really feeling the revamped site. Don't get me wrong - it looks incredibly slick, the editorial content is still as great as it's ever been, and I'm more than happy to ride out the storm of bugs and errors that need to be ironed out before normal service can resume. Where the issue arises for me is how the new site leaves me feeling completely cut off from the actions of other users right now. The status updates and recent blog posts of followed users that were conveniently stacked up on the right side of my profile are now nowhere to be seen. In their place is a Facebook-style activity feed that's been turned off for weeks (and on my most recent check, removed from my profile altogether). My list of followed users doesn't allow me to click through to their profiles - instead, clicking their names simply refreshes the list. As someone who doesn't spend a lot of time on the Giant Bomb forums, I've gone from being closely connected to a handful of awesome users to feeling completely isolated. Hell, the chances are that most of the people who follow me won't even realise this has been written. I want to re-stress that aesthetically I'm loving the redesign, and I'm still visiting the site on an almost daily basis for editorial content. I just hope it's not going to be too much longer 'til the Top Men manage to reunite me with the small section of this community I've come to know and love like a little internet family.
Sorry to have started this blog on a bit of a downer. I guess I just needed to get all that negativity off my chest, so as to be fully prepared to start gushing with praise for the latest edition of The Great 2012 Catch-Up! For those of you who might have missed the inaugural episode of this mini-series back in January, allow me to explain. Over the course of 2012, I missed out on a number of games that I was very eager to play, but didn't manage to find the time and/or money to indulge in. Now that 2013 is here, I've vowed to do my best to catch up with all those outstanding releases from last year. In January I played through Sleeping Dogs, a game that didn't register on my radar until late last year, but that I was glad to have finally given a shot. Through the back end of February I've been playing the second game on my catch-up list, Gearbox Software's Borderlands 2. How did it fare? Read on to find out...
Borderlands 2 was on my 'games-to-get' radar the second I knew of its announcement back in August 2011. I had a lot of fun with the original, playing through the entire game in single player as the Soldier class back in early 2010. I can't honestly remember what led to me missing out on Borderlands 2 back on its initial release last September, but for whatever reason I ended up skipping out on my return to Pandora until now. At the very end of last year, Borderlands 2 was one of the five 2012 releases I ended up buying in one fell swoop, with the intention of catching up on all the great titles I'd missed over the course of the year for whatever reason. I picked the game up about halfway through February, when it became apparent that I was once again getting burned out on Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and needed to play something a little different. I chose the Assassin class in the end, wanting a slightly different experience to the one I had with the original Borderlands three years ago, and jumped back into Pandora. Two weeks later I've seen most of what Borderlands 2's first playthrough has to offer, and I'm happy to report that most of it exceeded my expectations in ways that I wasn't even expecting it to.
I've heard a lot of people referring to this game as 'more Borderlands', but neglecting to mention it's also 'better Borderlands'. Perhaps the most apparent improvement over the original here is in its handling of the game's story and characters. These were things that fell disappointingly flat for me in the first Borderlands, with characters who felt like little more than animated quest-givers. The sequel addresses these issues by breathing a ton of life into almost every NPC you meet, be they returning characters like Dr. Zed or Scooter, or new faces like Sir Hammerlock and the antagonist Handsome Jack. These injections of personality go a long way towards making the story feel like it actually means something to the characters here, a far cry from the "we want ALL the treasure" motive driving the first game.
The questing is also vastly improved. I remember the first two thirds of the original Borderlands as an over-abundance of mundane fetch-quests dominating my character's mission log. This time around most of the quests have a much more complex, multi-layered structure that, when combined with the more prominent personalities of the quest-givers, makes the prospect of fulfilling your obligations much more enticing. Even the fetch-quests are better framed this time around, making the simple act of "go here and get this" feel more enjoyable than it was in the first game.
I thought the loot in the original Borderlands was wildly varied, but the stuff you come across in Borderlands 2 takes it to another level. This is especially true of Shields and Grenade Mods, both of which are now governed by a ton more variables. Shields can deal Nova damage when depleted, absorb bullets and add them to your own inventory, adapt resistance to the last elemental damage type you were hit by, boost your melee or gun damage with Roid and Amp properties respectively, offer an enormous shield boost at the expense of some of your health... the list seems to go on forever. Grenade Mods are no different - they can give your grenades elemental properties, cause them to absorb health and give it back to the player, draw nearby enemies closer before exploding, or even teleport to their destination. To see the level of variety already present in the game's arsenal of procedurally-generated weaponry extend its reach to other types of loot is great, and makes building your character feel even more of a personal thing.
Underneath these improvements, Borderlands 2 is running on the same engine that made the original so great to play. The shooting is satisfying, the role-playing elements are deep and set the game apart from other shooters without ever feeling overwhelming, and the art style is a refreshing change from the 'striving-for-realism' norm (especially when paired with the game's wider variety of environments than its predecessor). More Borderlands it may be, but I sure as hell ain't complaining.
Given the game makes so many improvements on the original, it feels like a shame that my sole major complaint is one that's carried over from the original Borderlands - that the loot can be incredibly underwhelming. It was very rare in my journey through Borderlands 2 that I actually picked up a dropped weapon that was worth using. Most of the weapons I defaulted to were quest rewards that offered noticeable benefits over whatever I could pick up in the field or buy from a vending machine. Once you become familiar with all the weapon types (and the subcategories within those types), it's not even worth experimenting with new pick-ups because you can tell at a glance they're not worth it. This relegates most of the guns you pick up on your travels to junk status. Given they're one of the game's biggest selling points, I think that's a bit of a shame.
My last point is less a complaint about the game, and more an idea that I couldn't seem to shake while playing through it. I would love to see the next Borderlands game (and let's face it - after that ending, there's going to be another Borderlands) implement a crafting system of some kind. There were countless occasions during my playthrough where I looked at two weapons in my inventory and thought, "I wish I could combine the properties of these two guns, that would be awesome in X situation". Being able to craft new guns, shields and mods from existing equipment would also negate the problem I've mentioned above - weapons with no immediately apparent advantage would cease to be instant junk, instead becoming potential components for creating your next Skag-slayer. I realise it's a huge ask, but if the guys at Gearbox can implement procedurally generated weaponry into these games to such great effect, I'm confident they could successfully pull off crafting too.
Looking at Borderlands 2 in direct comparison to its predecessor, there's one stand-out factor which makes it clear to me that the second game is superior, at least in my eyes. Through most of my time playing the first game, I found myself being driven forward solely by the prospect of bigger and better guns. With Borderlands 2 the guns were certainly a factor, but the impetus to keep going was largely derived from wanting to know what was going to happen next in the exchange between Handsome Jack and the resistance mounted by the Crimson Raiders of Sanctuary. I was looking forward to meeting another character like Ellie, or taking down another boss like Wilhelm, or storming another Hyperion security complex in an epic multi-faceted mission. Next to that analysis, all the stuff I've outlined above starts to feel merely auxiliary. Borderlands 2 was a game I cared about playing, and that is reason enough for me to lament having waited five months to finally get around to checking it out. It's brilliant, and if you're a fan of the original but haven't played it yet, I implore you to as soon as possible.
So what's next for this gamer? For the next couple of days, not a great deal if truth be told. I've pre-ordered the new Tomb Raider, and that's set to drop through my letterbox on Tuesday. As a long-time fan of the series I'm incredibly eager to get to grips with Crystal Dynamics' latest re-imagining of Lara Croft, and have no intentions of putting it off like I did with so many of 2012's most appealing games. With that prospect only a few days away now, I'm reluctant to get deeply involved in anything game-wise. It was my birthday on Thursday and I was treated to a couple of new games then - Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed by my sister Zoe, and Pro Evolution Soccer 2013 by my good friend Duncan. Given neither of those demand a huge commitment on my part, I'll probably just familiarise myself with both of those until Tuesday rolls round. For now though, all that remains is for me to say thanks very much for reading, and I hope to see you around (site redesign permitting, of course).
Currently playing - Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed (X360)
The release of Dead Space 3 is now less than one week away. On February 8th (or earlier, if you're one of those lucky types who doesn't live in perpetually-behind Europe), Isaac Clarke's latest foray into strategic dismemberment will be finding its way into the eager hands of players. I could be one of those players, but right now I'm undecided as to whether or not I'll be picking up the latest offering from Visceral Games at all. That's not because of any worries I have about the direction of the franchise, though (although if the trailers are anything to go by, I can understand why some players have those worries). Instead, my reluctance comes from the fact that this will be the first Dead Space game I'll be playing on my own.
I played the first Dead Space back in April of 2009. I'd originally planned to play through it over the course of a few evenings, locked away alone in my darkened University dorm room. Those plans went out of the window when my then-girlfriend pulled the game off my shelf and asked if she could watch me play it. Eager to please in what was then a romance still in its earliest stages, I agreed, and we spent the next couple of weeks exploring the USG Ishimura together, with the lights off and the TV's volume cranked way up. She loved watching the action unfold just as much as I enjoyed playing it. As a non-gamer, it was her first full-on insight into one of my passions and why I loved it as much as I did. For me, as a perennial fan of the single-player experience, it was the first time I'd actually shared the experience of playing a game with somebody else in this fashion - an experience which hit me so hard I felt compelled to blog about it. By the time we reached the end of the game and watched the credits roll, Dead Space had become our game.
When EA and Visceral announced Dead Space 2 at the end of 2009, it was my girlfriend who was first to suggest we pick up the game as soon as possible. We bought our copy not long after release day in February 2011, and spent the next three weeks slowly making our way through Isaac's second encounter with the freakish Necromorphs. As you might expect, we both loved the sequel, albeit not quite as much as the original Dead Space. This time, though, rather than sharing my own thoughts on the game by way of this blog, I figured I'd let my girlfriend's opinions take centre-stage. After finishing Dead Space 2 I spent a good few hours talking about it with her, and then transcribed her thoughts into a blog which I posted in mid-March. Our shared experience with Dead Space 2 cemented the franchise as a special part of our relationship. During the aforementioned discussion that led to my transcribed blog post, I remember her saying to me: "If they ever make a Dead Space 3, we have to play it together."
In December 2011, nine months after my girlfriend and I made our way through Dead Space 2 together, our relationship came to an end. This is a video game website, not a lifestyle advice forum, so I'll spare you the details. Suffice it to say, it wasn't a clean break, and it's one that still bothers me greatly over a year on. I'm not going to lie - seeing the promotional material for Dead Space 3 brings a lot of memories flooding back, and re-opens a lot of wounds that I'd at least managed to suture, if not quite heal completely. More than anything, though, it's the prospect of that broken promise that haunts me as release day draws nearer - Dead Space 3 exists, but we'll never play it together. If I do play it, I'll be doing so alone, and likely thinking of her the entire time. Even if I don't play it, the promise is still broken, and I miss out on what could well be one of this year's best games in the process. More painful still is the thought that come next week, she could even be watching somebody else play Dead Space 3, taking an experience that was ours and inviting somebody else into it. Whichever way you spin it, the imminent launch of Dead Space 3 isn't something I find easy to get excited about.
Even in spite of everything I've said above, I probably will pick up and play through Dead Space 3. Maybe not next week, but probably at some point this year. Assuming the game doesn't stray too far from the core ideals that made the first two games so great, I'll probably enjoy playing it as well. But no matter how good the game is, playing it isn't ever going to be the same. There won't be shaking arms clinging onto my own as I struggle to cut down advancing enemies with my Plasma Cutter. There won't be a paper-thin voice, quavering in fear as it suggests which darkened corridor to explore next. And perhaps most tellingly, much like space itself, if the game does manage to elicit a scream from me, there won't be anybody around to hear it.
Currently playing - Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (GBA)
It's been a pretty eventful month for me in terms of both playing and actually finishing some video games. I kicked January off with a pretty thorough playthrough of United Front's Sleeping Dogs (my thoughts on which you read here). Since then I've made my way through a few other titles, none of which are really big enough to sustain a whole blog post on their own, but as a collective should be able to manage it comfortably. Structurally this is going to be pretty similar to my 'A Little, More Often' blogs from last year, with a few brief thoughts about each game under its own heading. I'll kick things off now, with the first game I played after beating Sleeping Dogs:
Sam & Max Episode 5: Reality 2.0
I've now wrapped up five of the sixteen episodes of Sam & Max that I bought back in November when they were on sale on GOG.com, and I think it's safe to say that Reality 2.0 is my favourite instalment to date. I think a big part of that is down to the series' trademark sense of quirky, irreverent humour, which started off pretty hit-and-miss but really seems to have hit its stride in the last couple of episodes. The storyline of Reality 2.0 concerns itself with video games and the internet, two topics I'm fairly au fait with, and as a result I found myself laughing a little harder at the jokes than I had in previous episodes.
It's not all gags about +2 swords and half-elven merchants though - Reality 2.0 really delivers from a gameplay standpoint as well, much more so than any of its four predecessors in my opinion. I think a big factor in this is the episode's structure, which is built around the 'light/dark world' conceit popularised by games like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Having to move between the regular world of Sam & Max and the "in-game" world of Reality 2.0 made for some great puzzles with equally great solutions. The episode's finale, which saw the Internet de-construct Reality 2.0 into a retro-style text adventure, was a stroke of genius. I've got one more episode to play in this first season of Sam & Max, but I think it's going to be very difficult for it to live up to the brilliance of Reality 2.0.
Alan Wake Downloadable Content
In another call-back to November of last year, I decided to revisit Remedy's Alan Wake, one of my favourite gaming experiences in recent memory, and finally tackle its two downloadable episodes. The Signal and The Writer aren't terribly different from one another, so I feel comfortable judging them together as a single 'epilogue' to the core game's story. They're not very different from the main game, either, offering the same winning combination of immersive atmosphere, tense combat, and out-there narrative that pulled me into the game and refused to let me go. Picking up where the main game's narrative left off, the DLC chronicles Alan's journey through the Dark Place under the guidance of Thomas Zane. The continuation of the story focuses heavily on the questions asked of Alan's mental well-being in the main game, in a way that I personally found very interesting. Ultimately, it's best described as "more Alan Wake", and in my eyes that's definitely a good thing. If I had to offer a single criticism of the DLC, it would be the same one levelled at it by fellow Giant Bomber Oni on Twitter - that at its end, Wake is in pretty much the same position that he's in at the start. Even so, the DLC delivered exactly what I wanted, and I feel like it was worth every last Microsoft space-buck to spend more time with Alan Wake. Speaking of which...
Alan Wake's American Nightmare
Still craving more time with my new favourite troubled writer, no sooner had I wrapped up The Signal and The Writer than I decided to jump straight into Alan Wake's American Nightmare. A Twitter acquaintance was kind enough to gift me enough of Microsoft's internet-currency to download this not-quite-sequel, and having now seen it through to the end, I'm very grateful for his kindness. The narrative, framed as an episode of Night Springs (the Alan Wake universe's answer to The Twilight Zone), kept me captivated throughout its four-or-so hours of play time. Suffice it to say the plot is distinctively 'Alan Wake', reprising characters and tropes from the original game as it weaves the tapestry of words framing Wake's ongoing battle with his psychotic doppelganger Mr. Scratch. The note at the end of the credits revealing the storyline of American Nightmare to actually be that of Return, the sequel to Departure that Wake is seen starting at the end of The Writer, made me feel almost compelled to applaud, and has left me eager to see whatever Remedy do next with this excellent franchise.
Even as a fan, I'm willing to admit this bite-sized bit of Alan Wake has some issues. The biggest problem with American Nightmare for me was the combat. I'm sure a lot of people will disagree with me, but I actually found it to be a little worse than the gunplay in its predecessor. I think that's mainly down to the inclusion of automatic weapons, a design decision that makes the shooting more varied, but ultimately kills a lot of the tension that made fighting the Taken so exhilarating in the original Alan Wake. The situation is further compounded by the design decision to have torch batteries recharge at lightning-fast speeds, and the plentiful availability of ammunition in pretty much all sections of the game. The end result is combat that's smoother, but nowhere near as tense. I will say that the improved fluidity of the combat lends itself well to the Arcade mode, though, which I found a lot to like about despite not being the biggest fan of similar wave-based survival modes in other games. Whatever way you spin it, American Nightmare is well worth a look if you enjoyed the original Alan Wake, and at 1200MSP, it's very reasonably priced too.
I'm pretty sure that's all I've got to say about games at this point, save for what I'm planning to play next. I've currently got a mind to play the sixth and final episode of the first series of Sam & Max, just to tie up that loose end so I can take a slightly longer break before diving into the second season. After that I'm planning to get through the second half of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance's main story missions - I've had the game on hold for over a month now, and I think now is a good a time as any to push forward and try to wrap it up. When my time in Ivalice is over I'll most likely be moving on to Borderlands 2, skipping back into Pandora for the second instalment of The Great 2012 Catch-Up. It's a pretty hectic gaming schedule, but they won't play themselves, right guys? Anyway, thanks very much for reading, and I'm sure I'll see you around the site.
Currently playing - Sam & Max Episode 6: Bright Side of the Moon(PC)
Hey there Giant Bomb, and welcome to my first blog post of 2013. I had hoped to write something a little earlier than this, something that would likely have taken its cues from the numerous excellent New Year's Resolution-style blogs that I've been reading, but as we're already nearing the halfway point of January I think that ship might have sailed. Instead I figured I'd embody the spirit of those blogs by looking ahead into 2013, but in a slightly more immediate fashion. The result is a mini-series of blogs I'll be putting out sporadically over the coming months, collectively titled The Great 2012 Catch-Up.
If there's one thing I regret about 2012 games-wise, it's that I didn't play any of the awesome titles that came out over the course of those twelve months. I played just one 2012 release within the year itself (namely Final Fantasy XIII-2) and while I enjoyed it, I certainly wouldn't rank it as anything even approaching awesome. Right up until the end of the year, I didn't even buy any other new releases, for fear that they'd get lost in the dark depths of my Pile of Shame (a list that once again seems to exceed my mortal gaming capabilities). I remedied that after Christmas by jumping on Amazon and dropping a hefty pile of my holiday cash on half a dozen 2012 releases that I've been itching to play:
My plan is to play through these games over the course of the first few months in 2013 (punctuating the experience with the occasional older title or an episode or two of Sam & Max just to keep things fresh and interesting). I'll then share my belated opinions of them with you in blog form, detailing what I liked and didn't like about the game, and ultimately whether I regret having put off experiencing the title in question, or I'm glad to have waited for the price drop. We're going to kick this off immediately, because I managed to beat the first of those six games this morning. That game is...
If Saints Row the Third was Giant Bomb's 'hey, you should play this!' game of 2011, Sleeping Dogs undoubtedly took that crown in 2012. Word of mouth seemed to do a lot more for the game's reputation than Alex's review ever could, and from my outlier's position I watched it spread like gaming wildfire through the Giant Bomb community. It wasn't until I read Sparky_Buzzsaw's blog-review of the game at the start of December that 'Schleepy Dawgs' found a firm place on my radar of interest. When my ordered copy of the game dropped through my door on New Year's Eve, I knew it wouldn't be long before I chose to bust it out of its green case and start wandering the crime-drenched streets of Hong Kong. That moment came on January 3rd, when I popped it into my 360 after a long day at work. Ten days and twenty-two hours of game time later, I've witnessed all that the story missions have to offer, along with most of the side-stuff as well, and I feel adequately positioned to pass my own judgement on United Front's take on the open world crime genre.
There is a ton of stuff to do in Sleeping Dogs' recreated city of Hong Kong. The variety in both the core missions and the side stuff is incredible, to the degree where at no point in my twenty-two hours with the game did I feel bored with it or at a loss for something to do. My playthrough saw me frequently side-tracked from the story missions simply by encountering distractions along the way to the next mission marker. This resulted in a flow of gameplay that felt more natural than any open-world game I've played since Just Cause 2, another game which offers a lush world front-loaded with a variety of events and side-missions that steal the player's concentration from the story missions.
Not only is there a seemingly inexhaustible number of odd jobs the player can do in Sleeping Dogs, but pretty much all of it is fun. That's thanks to the mechanics of the gameplay, which are solid and their worst and damn near flawless at their best. Combat is reminiscent of Rocksteady's Batman games with its reliance on timing, counters and combos to dispatch large groups of thugs. The driving is fast, loose and forgiving, making getting around the city easy and the numerous street races a lot of fun. Gunplay isn't the game's strongest suit but it's functional, and really comes into its own in combination with the slow-motion that follows vaults and disarms. It also makes vehicular combat a lot more fun than it's ever been in any other game I've played in recent memory.
The roster of characters is pretty strong across the board, lending the story a lot more impact than I expected it to have. There were moments when I genuinely forgot protagonist Wei was an undercover cop, and I think that's a fair reflection of what Wei himself must be going through as he infiltrates the Sun On Yee, his sense of loyalty becoming ever more fractured. I especially liked the character of Jackie Ma, whose 'fish-out-of-water' portrayal within the Triad's inner circles evoked more than a little empathy out of me as the player.
Police chases require the player to force the cops to crash in order to shake them, a la Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars. This is a mechanic I've been dreaming to see realised in an open world console game ever since, and Sleeping Dogs delivers it spectacularly. Here's hoping something similar appears in GTAV.
If the characters in Sleeping Dogs were solid and strong, the story left a little to be desired. The end of the story in particular felt rushed to me. I guess I'm referring particularly to the moment where Wei finds out that Pendrew sold him out to Big Smile Lee, a revelation that seemed to me like it deserved more than the incidental remark it gets in the grand scheme of the game's thirty-mission-long campaign. It's by no means a bad story, but the last third of it doesn't live up to the expectations the first two thirds work so hard to build up.
While I love the core idea behind the dating in the game, I found the execution abhorrent. Romancing a video game lady over time in order to reap gameplay benefits is a solid gameplay mechanic, and I don't begrudge Sleeping Dogs for attempting it. What I didn't like was that each love interest is only given a single date, after which the relevant perk is unlocked. I'd much rather have seen some more complex, multi-date stuff going on here, maybe even with the potential of getting caught and losing one or more of your perks until you've rebuilt sufficient trust. Given what we actually got in the game, though, I'd rather have seen nothing of its kind at all.
It's probably pretty clear from the weight of the good and bad sides of the argument that I really enjoyed Sleeping Dogs. As first gaming experiences of the year go, I think it's definitely going to be a tough one to follow up. My plan from here on out is to take a few weeks' break from the Great 2012 Catch-Up by playing through the next episode of Sam & Max, followed by the DLC I bought for Alan Wake, and wrapped up by playing through the back-end of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. Once all those are out the way, I'll return to this little treasure trove of last year's gaming gold. In the meantime, thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you around.
Well guys, here we come to the end of the long road that was 2012. There's just enough time on this, the last day of the year, to deal out a few more of My End of 2012 Awards.
...Actually, if you haven't already seen the first three parts, you've probably got just about enough time to catch up with those as well. Part One is here, Part Two is here, and Part Three is here. Be quick about it, lad! There's not much of the year left!
All caught up? Good, good. Let's dish out the rest of these miniature golden dankempsters I've got lying around, shall we? First up:
The Stuff That Wasn't Video Games
Believe it or not, my 2012 wasn't entirely defined by video games. I spent a fair amount of time doing other stuff as well - whether it be reading, or listening to music, or writing, there were plenty of highlights of my year that didn't involve having a controller in hand. Below are a list of some of those highlights.
I didn't read as much as I wanted to in 2012, but I did make my way through some pretty big books as the year went on. The first seven months of the year were spent plodding through the entirety of Stephen King's The Dark Tower series, a tale of epic fantasy spread across seven books. Overall I enjoyed the series, but I'm not sure I could sincerely recommend them to anyone. I thought the quality of the books was inconsistent throughout the series, with my personal favourites being the third and fourth (The Waste Lands and Wizard and Glass). My least favourite was without a doubt the seventh and final book, a seven-hundred-page tome that confirms the fact King has never been great at endings by serving as a series of increasingly more disappointing anti-climaxes. If anybody asked me if the series was worth reading, I think I'd advise them to just read Wizard and Glass. That book delivered on the promise that the series makes with some elegant world-building and a brilliantly told, isolated narrative that ensures it can stand on its own merit.
Other books I read and enjoyed this year included Who I Am, the long-awaited autobiography from Pete Townshend. As a huge fan of The Who, and of Pete's unique brand of songwriting in particular, it was a privilege to finally get some insight into his life and the workings of his writer's mind. After five-hundred pages of his captivating memoir, I admire and respect the man even more than I did before, not to mention I now understand the inspirations behind several of my favourite Who songs. Finally, I've spent the year's end reading J.R.R. Tolkien - specifically The Hobbit, and the first part of The Lord of the Rings. I have a confession to make - despite calling myself a fantasy writer and enjoying reading works of fantasy fiction, I've never actually made it all the way through Tolkien's seminal work before. I'm now planning to change that, and having reached the start of The Two Towers, I'm currently further through the story than I've ever been before. It's certainly nowhere near as tough-going as I recall it being from earlier attempts, and I can't wait to get stuck into the rest of the tale in 2013.
2012 wasn't quite as strong a year for music as 2011 was for me, but there's no denying that I've listened to some incredible stuff over the last twelve months. Among my most-played albums this year were the likes of Joe Bonamassa's Driving Towards the Daylight, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood's Big Moon Ritual and its companion piece The Magic Door, Muse's The 2nd Law, and Paul Weller's Sonik Kicks. A noticeable cut above the rest, though, were the following albums:
Band of Skulls -Sweet Sour - soul-drenched blues-rock in the vein of The White Stripes and The Black Keys, from a three-piece band out of Southampton here in the UK. Sweet Sour has a surprising amount of depth to it, ranging from the riff-driven The Devil Takes Care of His Own through the psychedelic Wanderluster and the quiet contemplation of Navigate. If you like any of the aforementioned artists, you'll probably love Band of Skulls.
The Gaslight Anthem -Handwritten - There's no point in denying it - this is my favourite album of 2012. Right from the opening gut-punch of a rock track that is '45', right through to its poignant finale National Anthem, Handwritten grabbed me and wouldn't let me go. Driving guitars and highly relatable lyrics ensured that this album saw an obscene amount of playtime through the year, and will most likely do so well into 2013 as well.
Mumford & Sons - Babel - Mumford & Sons' Sigh No More is an indie folk masterpiece, so it's fair to say I picked up their sophomore album Babel with high expectations. Right from the off it didn't disappoint, delivering twelve more beautifully crafted tracks that make me wonder why I ever doubted the four London boys. My personal favourite from the time I've spent listening so far is Lover of the Light, but the whole thing is brilliant.
Soundgarden -King Animal - I like Soundgarden as much as the next guy who prefers guitar-driven music, but I never thought I'd get as hyped for King Animal, their first new studio album in sixteen years, as I ended up doing. It's a master-work of heavy, riff-driven rock, taking the most beloved elements of Badmotorfinger, Superunknown and Down on the Upside and marrying them to create something that's instantly recognisable but also somehow brand new. My personal favourites are Been Away Too Long, Blood on the Valley Floor, and Taree.
One of my New Year's Resolutions last year was to write more, specifically in terms of my creative output, which had been lacking throughout my time at University and hadn't really been given a chance to pick back up since finishing my studies. To that end I started up Writer's Unblock, a personal writer's blog through which I intended to share various pieces of creative writing, as well as some musing on the creative process. Success has been pretty hit-and-miss, and I haven't been keeping it updated as often as I should have been, particularly through the second half of this year. It is, however, playing host to one of the most exciting pieces of writing I've worked on for quite some time - a serial novella called The Hawker. Centred around three sentinel-type figures as they try to protect a small town from being seized by a rival militia, I've not been this excited about an idea for a story in a long while. I was only able to pen five chapters' worth of the story in 2012, but I plan to continue it into 2013.
The Honorable Mentions
Sadly, not every game I played this year qualified for one of the individual awards I've spent the last three days handing out. That's what this Honorable Mentions section is for - to recognise the games that I either didn't finish, or didn't spend a substantial amount of time with before the year was out, but that still defined my 2012 in some way. Let's reward those games now, shall we?
Unfinished Games - Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4
Last year the equivalent of this mini-award went to Persona 3, which I was around halfway through at the time, so it's a little spooky that this year's version goes in part to its sequel, which I am also around halfway through at present. As for Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, I've played a significant amount of it, but ran out of steam about forty hours in an ended up putting it down in favour of other stuff. I plan to pick it back up with renewed vigour in the new year, and see it through to its conclusion.
Almost... ...But Not Quite - Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver
Ah, Soul Reaver, you were so close to making it onto the list of individual awards when I played you earlier this year. I saw most of what you had to offer, but my plans to finish you were scuppered by disc read errors that wouldn't let me progress through your last few hours. Later in the year I picked up a different version of you - the downloadable PC version on GOG.com - but I haven't been able to bring myself to replay those many hours I'd already spent with you. Maybe in 2013 I'll slog through your opening hours a second time and find out how you end. For 2012 though, you remain an also-ran.
Best Multiplayer Experience - Rock Band 3
When I think back on multiplayer gaming in 2012, I don't look back to hours spent with any online shooters (probably because I don't have any of those hours to look back to). Instead, my mind travels to the numerous evenings spent at my friend Matt's house, with all my other good pals in tow, playing video games until the early hours of the morning. This award could have quite comfortably gone to Mario Kart Wii, or one of the many versions of Buzz we played, but more than any other game, it's our heavy rotation on Rock Band 3 that I'll remember well into 2013.
Best Sports Game - Pro Evolution Soccer 2011
If you read the third part of this year's Christmas Mega-Blog, this probably won't come as a surprise to you. I spent a silly number of hours with Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 this year, pushing for success in its deep and involving Master League mode. Assuming that trend continues into 2013, I'm sure I'll achieve my goal of winning the European Championship, after which it will be eligible for a proper individual award in next year's end-of-year blogs.
2013 Hot Prospects - The Sims 3 and Viva Pinata: Trouble in Paradise
One thing that I've been craving as 2012 draws to a close is to spend some time with a zany, colourful sandbox game. I've just spent more than I'd care to admit on expansion packs for The Sims 3, in the anticipation that I'll be spending several hours with it in 2013. I'm also hoping 2013 will be the year I finally delve deep into the Challenge stuff in Viva Pinata: Trouble in Paradise. Between those two games, next year looks set to be full of silly sandboxy goodness.
Lifetime Achievement Award - Final Fantasy VII
For the second year running, Final Fantasy VII earns a Lifetime Achievement award for continued services to this here blog. It's incredible to think that my Enduring Final Fantasy VII series is now almost three years old, and with only the endgame content left to play through, it probably won't be too much longer before it comes to an end. This is therefore probably the last time Final Fantasy VII will occupy this slot, with 2013 likely to see it earn a full-blown individual award.
The Ten Games That Made My 2012
So this is what it's all boiled down to - the definitive list of the ten games that stood head-and-shoulders above all the rest to emerge as my favourite games played in 2012.
A quick disclaimer before I launch into the list proper - none of these games were released in 2012. I only played one game that came out this year, and while I enjoyed it, I wouldn't rank it equal to any of the titles on this list. Much like the individual awards handed out over the last three days, this final list of ten is drawn from the pool of all games I played and finished this year, whether they came out in the last twelve months or not. Another thing to bear in mind is that this list is not in any kind of hierarchical order. It was difficult enough to narrow it down to a top ten, never mind ranking the lucky qualifiers in ascending order of brilliance. To save any potential argument or confusion over this, I've elected to run the list in alphabetical order. With those two key points in mind, here are The Ten Games That Made My 2012:
(Remedy -- X360 -- 2010)
I went into Alan Wake expecting a fun but largely forgettable third-person shooter, and came out with those expectations totally subverted. Alan Wake kept me absolutely hooked, to the point where I played through it in just two sittings, both of which kept me permanently hanging off the edge of my seat throughout. The storyline unfolds like something straight out of a Stephen King novel, but the interactive aspect helps to keep it feeling fairly fresh, and the fact that certain questions (particularly those pertaining to Alan's sanity) are left unanswered strengthens the impact of the story and its ambiguous conclusion. I loved the 'fight-with-light' combat, which transformed the otherwise run-of-the-mill combat into some really tense third-person shooting, although by the end of the game's sixth episode I was longing for some new enemy types. I've since downloaded both the DLC episodes for Alan Wake, as well as the American Nightmare spin-off, and I look forward to playing through them all in 2013.
Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood
(Ubisoft -- X360 -- 2010)
If you look at things logically, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood was pretty much a shoe-in for this year's Top Ten list - after all, Assassin's Creed II comfortably made the list last year, and Brotherhood is an improvement on ACII in just about every conceivable way. Almost every single facet of the gameplay was either expanded or improved - slicker traversal, more involved missions, a wealth of side missions both new and old to complete, a city to liberate, a whole Assassins' Guild to run... There was so much stuff to do in Brotherhood it was unreal, and I loved every single second of all of it. The story didn't quite grab me in the same way as ACII's did, mainly because I felt there wasn't as much focus on Ezio as a character in Brotherhood, but there's no denying that in terms of gameplay, Brotherhood blows its predecessor out of the water. Even irrespective of the status of its forebears, though, there's no denying that AC: Brotherhood is one of the greatest, most fun times I had with any game in 2012. That's ultimately why it's here on this list.
(Supergiant Games -- XBLA -- 2011)
The indie darling of Giant Bomb's GOTY Awards last year, I initially tried to play Bastion on my laptop but struggled with the keyboard-and-mouse controls. I later downloaded it through the Xbox LIVE Marketplace and found the 360 controller much more accommodating to the isometric action gameplay. It wasn't long before I was completely immersed in the post-Calamity world of Caelondia, thanks in no small part to some inspired scripting and narration work. I adored the music - in all my years playing video games, Bastion marks the first time I've ever actually gone out of my way to buy and download a game soundtrack, and Zia's theme 'Build That Wall' is one of my most-played songs this year. The gameplay was solid, offering up some challenging-but-fun combat supplemented by a cool arsenal of weapons and powers. The little RPG-like touches were much appreciated too - experimenting with different perks in the distillery was another personal highlight of my time with the game.
Batman: Arkham Asylum
(Rocksteady -- X360 -- 2009)
I am not a Batman fan. I have no investment whatsoever in the popular superhero franchise, having never sat through any of the films, TV series or cartoons, or even so much as picked up a comic book. After 2012, that may all be set to change, after I had a brilliant time with Rocksteady's Batman: Arkham Asylum. In the space of little more than a week I went from being completely disinterested with Batman as a franchise, to totally hooked by this game's amalgamation of incredible mechanics. The stealth sections are some of the best in any game I've ever played, forgoing forced player weakness in favour of giving them access to a wealth of awesome tools and gadgets to gain the upper hand. Speaking of hands, there's an amazing melée combat system at work here too, evolving the traditional face-button-based combat of games like God of War into something much more fluid, dynamic, and rewarding. I've since picked up Arkham CIty, and plan to dig deep into it in 2013.
Colin McRae: DiRT
(Codemasters -- X360 --2007)
In a year when I was convinced I'd never get behind a virtual wheel ever again, DiRT made me fall in love with driving games all over again. That's no mean feat, considering just how burned out Forza 3 left me feeling last year. DiRT managed to win me over thanks to a combination of accessible driving mechanics, a wealth of different off-road driving disciplines to choose from, a widely varied roster of cars and tracks to unlock and race, and a career mode that didn't demand total commitment from me as a player, but still managed to earn it nonetheless. DiRT confirmed for me that right now, my foreseeable future with the driving genre lies not with bloated simulations like Forza and Gran Turismo, but with exciting, arcade-ish racers that won't render me a slave to their depth. Contrary to my previous belief, it feels like a new era of virtual racing is just beginning, and it's all thanks to Colin McRae: DiRT.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
(Bethesda -- X360 -- 2011)
To say Skyrim made my year seems like an understatement. For the first three months, Skyrim WAS my year. In that time I put a grand total of 167 hours into this game - that's pretty much an entire WEEK of my life. I was totally immersed in the snowy realm of the Nords, taking the time to appreciate the game's incredible depth of design and attention to detail. I journeyed, I quested, I slaughtered and I saved, I hoarded and I sold. For the first thirty days I documented my every step and decision in a series of diary-like blogs, and although I stopped writing them after that first month, the way I approached my Nord's adventure didn't change. Perhaps the scariest thing about Skyrim is that more than half of its content remains untouched, ready to be explored when I inevitably buy all that DLC and roll a new character in 2013. Personally, scary as that thought may be, I really can't wait.
Halo 3: ODST
(Bungie -- X360 -- 2009)
Halo 3: ODST probably wasn't the greatest first-person shooter that I played this year, but it's certainly the one that's left the greatest impression on me, and I don't think that's just because I played it more recently than the other shooters on the short-list. ODST took the trademark gameplay and feel of the Halo series and injected it with something foreign and exciting. The result is a gaming experience that's still unmistakably Halo, but that also manages to feel like a new take on an established formula. I loved exploring the streets of New Mombasa as the Rookie, a bleak and desolate search punctuated by some of my favourite combat scenarios from the entire Halo series. The main story ultimately fell a little flat, but I was willing to commend Bungie for trying something a little different with their narrative. I really hope Halo: Reach can deliver a similar experience when I get around to playing it next year.
Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Anniversary
(Crystal Dynamics -- PS2 -- 2007)
Putting Tomb Raider: Anniversary on this list kind of feels like cheating. One of the unwritten rules I followed last year was to not allow games I'd already completed in previous years to be eligible for this final Top Ten. It's the reason why Grand Theft Auto IV didn't make this list last year, despite undoubtedly being one of my favourite gaming experiences of 2011. And yet here I am, singing the praises of a game I've now beaten a total of three times across two different platforms. "Why?", I hear you cry. I think the answer lies in the fact that after a lacklustre time with Tomb Raider: Legend, I was fully expecting Anniversary to be similarly disappointing. Thankfully, that wasn't the case. Anniversary succeeds in refining and updating everything that was great about the original Tomb Raider, presenting it in a package that's gorgeous to look at, fun to play, and incredible to experience. That in itself is worthy of a little recognition, wouldn't you agree?
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES
(Atlus -- PS2 -- 2008)
Persona 3 left a much greater mark on me than I ever expected it to. My initial misguided impression was that I was in for a lengthy, playable take on some Japanese animé, and the opening hours didn't do much to assuage that feeling. Giving the game more time to open up, though, I was presented with what is undoubtedly one of the finest JRPGs of the last decade. Characters that seemed to adhere rigidly to archetypes gradually revealed themselves as complex, interesting personalities. The trivial beginnings of most Social Links evolved over time into thoughtful commentaries on experiencing loss, and different ways of coming to terms with that loss. The combat was surprisingly deep, demanding a deeper understanding of the various buffs, debuffs and attack types than the first few encounters led me to anticipate. Persona 3 turned out to be much more than it initially suggested itself to be, and for once, it's something I was glad to be wrong about.
(Squaresoft -- PS1 -- 2000)
Vagrant Story had been a monkey on my gamer's back for almost a decade when I finally committed myself to seeing Ashley Riot's adventure through earlier this year. The story stands head and shoulders above most of its contemporaries, marrying religious cultism with political intrigue in Yasumi Matsuno's trademark fashion. Interwoven with the playable Riskbreaker's own personal tale, Vagrant Story's plot is one of the greatest I've ever had the pleasure of experiencing. It's as much a pleasure to play as it is to watch unfold, the gameplay comprising a solid mix of exploration, puzzle-solving and combat that's more than capable of holding the player's attention. A masterful combination of complex narrative, unforgettable characters and a battle system that's as rewarding as it is demanding... All this ensures that Vagrant Story deserves every single bit of praise it attracts. It will certainly go down in history as one of my favourite action RPGs of all time.
Here Finishes My End Of 2012 Awards
So that's that - 2012 well and truly wrapped up. With all the games celebrated and the awards handed out, all that remains for me to do is to thank you, the Giant Bomb community, for helping to make these last twelve months so memorable. Here's hoping that 2013 will be even better, and not just in terms of the games we play. Thanks very much for reading this fool's ramblings. Take care, all of you, and I'll see you around on the other side of this great divide.
Happy New Year, Giant Bomb!
Currently playing - Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (GBA)
Welcome, welcome, one and all, to the third part of My End of 2012 Awards. Those of you who've missed Parts One and Two can find them here and here respectively. The rest of you should pull up a chair and get comfy, because we've got some gongs to hand out. The first of today's eight categories is:
I had a very conflicting experience with Dear Esther when I played through it in a single sitting back in September. I loved the way it told its story, through piecemeal fragments of letters written to the eponymous Esther, but found the content of the story a bit airy-fairy and lacking in substance due to its deliberate vagueness and ambiguity. What was undeniably brilliant about Dear Esther, though, was its undeniable sense of atmosphere and place. Set on an unidentified Hebridean island, the game takes a wholly unlikely setting for a video game and turns it into one of the most memorable locales I've ever had the pleasure of exploring. So real did the whole thing feel, I could almost taste the salt of the sea, feel the bitter chill of the northern winds on the exposed hilltops, and smell the musty air in the subterranean caverns. Dear Esther has single-handedly made me want to retire to the Hebrides, and see out the rest of my days there doing nothing but writing and walking over those windswept hills.
'Old Red Wine' Award for Vintage Video Game That's Aged Well
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
Another returning award from last year, I've recycled the Old Red Wine Award due to the identical circumstances under which I presented it last year - specifically, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of one of the most influential games ever. Last year the award went to Grand Theft Auto III, and this year it passes on to its sequel, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. It's incredible just how well this keystone of the open-world genre has held up in the decade since its release, even more so than its predecessor. That's probably thanks to the game's distinct atmosphere, which perfectly captures the vibe of 1980s Florida in every aspect of its presentation and design. The series' trademark gameplay is as fun to get lost in as it ever was, supported this time around by much more elaborate and inventive mission design. Even now, ten years on from its release, Vice City is still playable, and still a ton of fun.
Here's an award I definitely wasn't expecting to hand out this year. Last year I handed the otherwise-exemplary Forza Motorsport 3 an award for Most Repetitive Racing Sim, cited driving game fatigue as the reason, and declared myself officially done with the genre for the foreseeable future. Twelve months later, I became inexplicably hooked on Colin McRae: DiRT, playing through the entire career mode in little more than a week. After years spent with Forza and Gran Turismo driving round the same courses in the same cars following the same career progression, it was hugely refreshing to drive a little differently, throwing an assortment of off-road vehicles round dirt tracks and through rally courses. The more forgiving handling, simpler career progression and wider variety of courses all combined to renew my interest in racing games. Climbing the full course with a flawless run at Pikes Peak in a Suzuki Escudo was without a doubt one of my favourite gaming moments of 2012.
I was originally going to call this award simply 'Most Blood Spilled', but very soon realised that such an award would almost undoubtedly go to Skyrim, - I must have spilled a LOT of blood in my 167 hours in Tamriel. So instead, I've renamed the award 'Most Blood Spilled in the Shortest Time', and while I haven't gone to the trouble of working out any exact gallon-to-hour ratios, I feel pretty confident in saying The Ultimate DOOM takes this award comfortably. It took me little more than four hours to hurriedly blast my way through the hundreds of Hell-spawn that litter the corridors of DOOM's three-chapter campaign, leaving no moving thing spared in the process. Given that I also died (a LOT), I also need to take into account the amount of my own blood spilled, and that's what definitely seals the deal for DOOM as the goriest game I played this year.
The First Four Episodes of Sam & Max Save the World
Given all four of the episodes I've played of Sam & Max up to this point have all been cut from the same cloth, I feel like it's more appropriate to present them with a collective award rather than trying in vain to identify individual merits within each episode. That being said, no other game I've played this year has even come close to making me chuckle as much as even the least funny episode of Sam & Max Save the World. The unique, surreal brand of humour that Steve Purcell's dog-and-rabbit duo deliver is able to hit me square in the funny bone, and more than once I've found myself laughing out loud at irreverent on-screen happenings. My personal favourite joke so far has been the running conceit of the Toy Mafia and the Mafia-Free Playland and Casino they run in the third episode, perhaps best epitomised by this wonderfully hilarious song. I can't wait to play more Sam & Max in 2013, and I look forward to all the laughs that the remaining twelve episodes are bound to bring me.
The title of this award probably comes across as pretty cynical and sarcastic, but it's not my intention to upset the Call of Duty fan-base. It's more my slightly abstract way of saying that I was surprised by just how playable the original Medal of Honor's campaign was, despite the game being well over a decade old. I was shocked to discover that most of the things I've come to expect from modern shooters were already present in the genre as early as 1999. The controls are logically mapped with a modern configuration (albeit not by default). The missions aren't a straight run from one end of a linear level to another, but punctuated by a series of objectives that must be completed to proceed. There are undercover stealth levels which are all about procuring security papers rather than shooting your way through. Enemies take different amounts of damage depending where you hit them on their bodies, and won't just rush blindly towards you but will drop and take evasive action from your gunfire. All these modern bells and whistles made Medal of Honor much more enjoyable to play than I was expecting it to be.
Consider this a slight spoiler for tomorrow's Top Ten list - Alan Wake was without a doubt one of my favourite gaming experiences of 2012. A big part of that was down to the combat, which combined solid third-person shooting mechanics with a unique 'fight with light' system. Effectively, before the player can turn a gun on an enemy, they must first wear down its shield of darkness by exposing it to enough light using Alan's trusty flashlight. It's a simple idea, but one that kept every gunfight feeling tense and dangerous - having to hold the light on a single enemy in front leaves Wake vulnerable to attack from other angles. Light can also be used to keep enemies at bay in the form of flares, which can either be held or dropped to create a temporary safe-spot for Alan to stand in. This dichotomy between light and dark is masterfully used throughout the game's combat sections, to the point where I came to fear what might be lurking in the darkness much more in Alan Wake than I've ever done in any other video game.
From personal experience, the best expansion packs I've ever played have historically offered more of the same gameplay that fans love, while also bringing something a little different to the core experience to differentiate it from the vanilla game. I honestly can't think of a better way to describe Halo 3: ODST than with the aforementioned sentence. It reminds me heavily of Half-Life: Opposing Force, another of my favourite expansions, in that it re-tells a story familiar to fans of the series, but through new eyes and from a different angle - in this case, from the perspective of a squad of ODST troopers dropped into the war zone of New Mombasa concurrently with the events of Halo 2. The combat is unmistakably Halo, but the new perspectives, original setting and film-noir presentation serve to differentiate it from the more familiar feel of Master Chief's three adventures. I'm now really excited to find out what approach Bungie took with their other spin-off, Halo: Reach, when I play it in 2013.
Here ends the third part of My End of 2012 Awards, and with it the individual awards for games played in the last twelve months. Join me tomorrow for the fourth and final part of this year's awards, when I'll be looking at my favourite album of 2012 and honouring some also-ran games before revealing the Top Ten games that defined my year. In the meantime, thanks for reading, and I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 (X360)
Quick disclaimer time. First, I promise all the above links are completely safe to click, and not one of them will bombard you with Beyoncé. Second, I realise the name of this award probably makes me sound like a member of the crowd who shouts 'oh look, more Halo' whenever a new trailer is released for an upcoming game in the series. That's honestly not the case - I've come to enjoy Halo because I know the reliably constant gameplay will provide me with exactly what I'm looking for out of this kind of game. Halo 3 certainly didn't disappoint in that respect. The gunplay was consistently fun, and challenging enough to be rewarding without ever feeling unfair or punishing. It's a distinctly beautiful game, and the campaign features some of my favourite set-pieces from everything I've played in this series to date. Halo 3 is more Halo, and that's just about the best compliment anybody could ever give it.
The second category to return from last year's awards (and one that's very likely to return every year, given my game-playing habits), the Ten Years Gone award recognises games that I played to death back in the day, but never actually completed until recently. Vagrant Story comfortably assumes the position that Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation held on this pedestal last year. I played it for the first time about ten years ago, and loved it immensely, but was never able to get beyond the Snowfly Forest. Fast-forward to 2012, and I was finally able to lay this wonderful game to rest when I saw it through to its end in June. The gameplay and story were every bit as enthralling as I recalled them to be, and even now I'll still champion the game as the finest-looking full-3D title to ever be released on the original PlayStation. I've long held Vagrant Story to be one of my favourite games ever made. Now that I've finally finished it, I feel that claim to be justified, and stronger than it's ever been.
In retrospect, I guess Batman: Arkham Asylum isn't really a stealth game, per se. It's a game that features stealth, sure, but it's not the sole focus of the gameplay. That Arkham Asylum is still able to comfortably take this award, over an actual stealth game that I played this year, is testament to the strength of its sneaky bits. What I really loved about Arkham Asylum's take on the age-old gaming trope was how much power it left in the hands of the player, where so many other games would traditionally strip that power away. Rather than sneaking past the Dark Knight's foes, Arkham Asylum encourages you to experiment with the various gadgets hanging off your utility belt, dispatching them swiftly and silently from the shadows. The game's free-flowing melée combat was amazing, arguably even revolutionary, but I had my most fun with Arkham Asylum taking out the Joker's unsuspecting henchmen in a more stealthy fashion. I really hope Arkham City's transition to a more open game world doesn't come at the expense of those incredible stealth sequences.
The potential award for Bastion went through a couple of drafts before arriving in its current state. I had initially wanted to give it Best Soundtrack, but to do so seemed like a refusal to acknowledge the game's brilliant narrator. I then contemplated giving it an award for Best Narration, but doing that would have meant overlooking the first game soundtrack ever that I've actually done out of my way to buy and download. My solution was to cover everything under the blanket category of Best Audio. I've spent a lot of the latter part of this year listening to Bastion's soundtrack on my iPod, and I love the ethereal merging of samples and electronic drum loops with rustic guitars. Combine Darren Korb's score with Logan Cunningham's incredible performance as Rucks, and it's very easy to see why Bastion was the game that pleased my ears most in 2012.
The fact this award comes directly beneath the colourful, detailed, hand-crafted beauty of Caelondia in Bastion probably makes this award seem misplaced, but please hear me out before you force me into a straitjacket and ship me off to the nearest padded cell. I didn't have any personal affinity towards Graham Annable's distinctive art style before I played Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent earlier this year. But while playing through that game and solving its many devious puzzles, the simplistic sketch-style artwork and stilted animation transported me back to my childhood. I found myself barely five again, recalling classic, crudely-animated children's TV shows like 'Roobarb and Custard' and 'Henry's Cat'. It was also evocative of one of my all-time favourite kids' shows, 'Mr Benn'. So, while Bastion is undoubtedly the prettier game, it's impossible for me to deny the amount of nostalgic, child-like joy that Puzzle Agent's hand-drawn art brought me.
It seems strange awarding a game like Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory an award pertaining to moral choices, mainly because it's not something many people would associate with UbiSoft's stealthy franchise, myself included. Sure, Chaos Theory presented the player with plenty of new gameplay choices, allowing them to decide to approach any given situation in a few different ways, but to any of those choices really present a moral conundrum? I'd argue yes, and I think it's present in the extreme dichotomy between the L1 and R1 buttons and how they influence Sam Fisher's actions whenever he takes an enemy guard hostage. With one delivering a non-lethal concussive blow and the other dealing a fatal knee strike to the spinal column, the player literally has the power to choose between an enemy's life and death in a split-second. It's this aspect of Chaos Theory that remained with me through the year, long after all the gadgets, locales and labyrinthine plot twists had left my mind.
Theme Hospital is technically the only tycoon game I played this year, so I guess it's earned itself this award by default, but that doesn't mean it was a bad gaming experience by any means. On the contrary, I had a lot of fun building various hospitals and watching my doctors cure all manner of weird and wonderful diseases as the cash rolled in. While I'm by no means 'au-fait' with the tycoon genre, Theme Hospital seems to boast as much or as little depth as the player demands of it - I was able to comfortably roll through most of the game's scenarios without too much menu micro-management, but there do seem to be a wealth of options under the hood that would satisfy stat-lovers desperate to maximise their profits. It also helped that the game was pretty funny, although as an NHS employee its satircal take on the notion of putting money before the needs of patients did hit a little harder than expected.
Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is essentially Side Quests: The Game (and in a year when I played Skyrim, I'm not using that phrase lightly). Players looking to take a little time out from Ezio's ruckus with the Borgia will invariably end up in danger of drowning beneath all the odd-jobs and distractions scattered throughout Rome. Most of the fun stuff from Assassin's Creed II makes a welcome return - assassination contracts, rooftop racing, object-collecting and unique subterranean environments that this time serve as optional dungeons housing Keys of Romulus all supplement the game's main missions. In addition to these tried and tested mainstays, the guys at UbiSoft have crammed in even more awesome diversions to whittle away the hours with - city liberation, shop renovation, stopping Da Vinci's war machines... I could go on forever. Without a doubt the biggest addition, though, is the deep and surprisingly engaging Assassin's Guild side-stuff. I spent a lot of time building up my roster of assassins, to the point where it probably defines Brotherhood for me even more than its lacklustre story.
Oddworld was one of the first fictional universes I ever fell in love with. Before I ever picked up a Harry Potter book, or sat through a Lord of the Rings film, I spent hours of my life dodging sligs and scrabs in Oddworld: Abe's Exoddus. As a result, the creatures and lore of Oddworld will always hold a special place in my heart. One of my favourite gaming experiences of this year was finally returning to Oddworld, and for the first time seeing it rendered in full 3D, in Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee. The contrast between the feral beauty of Oddworld's natural environments and the oily oppressiveness of the Glukkon-run industrial sectors is just as striking as it was in Munch's 2D predecessors. The interactions and relationships between the various inhabitants of Oddworld don't seem quite as complex as they were in Abe's Exoddus, but that didn't stop the series' unique blend of platforming and dialogue-based puzzle-solving from captivating me all over again. I really love Oddworld as a setting, and can't wait to return to it next year with Stranger's Wrath.
There you have it guys - another day, another nine awards handed out to the games that made my 2012. Be sure to come back tomorrow for the final batch of eight awards. In the meantime, thanks for reading, and I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Sam & Max Episode 4: Abe Lincoln Must Die! (PC)
Welcome, one and all, to the first part of My End of 2012 Awards.
I've been doing these end-of-year, Game-of-the-Year-style blog posts for a few years now, but it wasn't until last year's sprawling effort that I hit on a formula I was really happy with. I've decided to stick with that same formula for this year, using the next three days to present each game I played in 2012 with a unique individual award. The reason for this is simple - rather than giving all the most prestigious awards to a handful of the best games I played this year while ignoring the vast majority, I feel like this approach results in a better representation of how my entire gaming year unfolded. On Day Four (New Year's Eve), I'll round out the awards with a definitive list of my top ten gaming experiences of 2012, so the best games I played have a proper chance to shine.
As with previous years, My End of 2012 Awards won't just be limited to games that came out in 2012. To do so would restrict my awards to a single game (Final Fantasy XIII-2), the end result of which probably wouldn't be all that interesting. Instead, I'll be throwing the award-doors wide open to every game I've played and beaten over the course of the last twelve months, no matter when they were released. Alongside the aforementioned token 2012 release, you'll see a game from all the way back in 1993, and plenty of stuff that came in between. As long as I played it in 2012, I think it's fair game to be considered for a 2012 awards blog.
So with all that explained and hopefully out of the way, let's proceed with the first batch of awards, shall we?
I had more fun playing Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing than I've had playing any other kart racer since Crash Team Racing way back on the original PlayStation. That's largely because the core racing mechanics are so much fun, offering a simple but thrilling take on mascot racing not wholly dissimilar to the aforementioned CTR or even the Mario Kart franchise. There are lots of cups to win, a host of missions to complete, and all manner of awesome rewards to unlock in the game's shop menu. As I played Sega Racing, though, I couldn't help but feel that with a little more time, every single aspect of it could have been a little better fleshed-out. By the end of my time with it I was longing for a little more depth to the racing and a proper story mode to sink my teeth into. As things stand though, Sega Racing is a brilliant starting point for a kart-racing series, with load of potential for growth and improvement. I haven't played the recently-released sequel Transformed as yet, but I hope to find out whether Sega have delivered on that potential in 2013.
Despite finishing the game as early as February, Persona 3 has stayed with me all through the year. A big part of that is down to the personalities of the game's cast of characters, all of whom left a lasting mark on me long after my playthrough of The Journey was over. The characters that make up the player's S.E.E.S. squad all have distinct personalities, and to begin with they seem to adhere to conventional JRPG archetypes, but as the adventure runs its course every member of the squad is revealed as a well-written, well rounded individual. That care and attention shown by the writers is extended to the various Social Links within the game too. Most of these interactions are centred on the theme of loss, and more specifically dealing with loss, and really resonated with me due to what I was going through in my own life while playing Persona 3. I don't think I'll ever forget the likes of Bunkichi and Mitsuko, little Maiko, Akinari, and all the other people I met in my time at Gekkoukan High.
'Shatter' Award for Game That Broke My Rose-Tinted Glasses
Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Legend
I've long been a Tomb Raider fan. Anybody who read this year's Christmas Mega-Blog has probably ascertained that much about me. When I elected to replay the entire Crystal Dynamics trilogy in quick succession earlier this year, it was a decision motivated by nostalgia. It didn't take me very long to learn that in the case of these particular games, nostalgia can be a fickle mistress. I recalled Tomb Raider: Legend as a stunning return to form for Lara Croft after the disappointing Angel of Darkness nearly wiped her off the face of the gaming industry - a little on the short side, but redeemed by its innovative gameplay improvements, beautiful environments, and better-realised heroine. Fast-forward to 2012, and the benefit of hindsight reveals those innovations to be directly lifted from Prince of Persia, and the 'new-and-improved' Lara undermined by a plethora of skimpy unlockable costumes tucked away for the most dedicated players to sniff out. Legend is still a good game, but it's not the Tomb Raider I once imagined it to be.
I spent more time in the snowy wastes of Skyrim than I did with any other game this year. I played Bethesda's latest RPG masterpiece for a total of 167 hours. To put that into perspective, that's just one hour short of a full WEEK. In that time I led my humble Nord through not only the main quest, but also to the head of the Companions and the Mages' College, and I even found time to help the Stormcloaks win the civil war. Even if that were the total of my time spent with Skyrim, it would have waltzed home with this award comfortably. But I can't write about this game without mentioning my A Month in Skyrim blog series, a monstrous thirty days of consecutive daily blogs, chronicling my first eighty-odd hours of adventuring in the north of Tamriel. The fact each entry took me a couple of hours to write adds another 60 hours to my total, bringing it to nearly 230 hours of living and breathing Skyrim this year. And do you know the scariest thing? I'm more than ready to jump right back in in 2013, to see all the unexplored content and new DLC the game has to offer, and lose my life to it once again.
After the aforementioned disappointment of Legend not living up to my nostalgic memories, I was very worried about picking up the next game in the Crystal Dynamics trilogy. Thankfully, it didn't take long for the game itself to prove me wrong. Tomb Raider: Anniversary carries forward everything I loved about the original Tomb Raider - the brilliant puzzles, the memorable level design, and gorgeous environments that pique the exploring player's interest - and faithfully re-imagined them using the Tomb Raider Legend engine. The slicker platforming and traversal, more interesting combat, and the extra graphical horsepower of the PlayStation 2 all help to make Anniversary feel like the game the old CORE Design team might have made if they hadn't been limited by technology. As it stands, Tomb Raider Anniversary is far and away the best Tomb Raider game, and not only the best remake I played in 2012, but probably the best remake I've ever played, period.
There are lots of things I could have criticised Tomb Raider: Underworld for when it came to giving it an award. I could have singled out its decision to abandon everything learned in developing Anniversary in favour of reverting to the framework established by Legend. I could have picked on it for its bugginess, citing a frustrating camera, level geometry and collision detection for wrecking the otherwise fluid platforming. But instead, I've chosen to draw attention to the game's fucking batshit crazy bastardization of Norse mythology. That Crystal Dynamics ret-con a bunch of Norse motifs into various other ancient cultures (many of which preceded Norse culture by several centuries) is bad enough. What's completely unforgivable though, is the absurdity of the final level, in which Lara is actually given the fucking Hammer of Thor to wield, against an immortal Atlantean queen, in a subterranean ocean cave in the Arctic Sea, while proto-Norse machinery threatens to bring about the end of the world. It's poetic license so outrageous that it makes even Legend look faithful to its source material by comparison.
Playing Grand Theft Auto this year was, at times, little more than an exercise in punishing myself. Part of that was down to the game's archaic mechanics, which were very much a product of their time. Drawing inspiration from arcade releases, as many games did back then, the original GTA was built on the premise of earning high scores by chaining multipliers and trying one's damndest not to die. The gameplay is pretty unforgiving though, with devilish design decisions such as 'only taking one hit before you die' and 'not being able to retry any failed missions' making things nigh-impossible by default. Add to this the personal frustration I experienced from frequent, irregular and unpredictable disc lock-ups, one of which struck as I was on my way to a final meet after hitting my target in order to complete a level, and you have a recipe for the video gaming equivalent of self-harm. I don't know what kept me going, but I did finally see the end of GTA, and shortly afterwards vowed to never, ever play it again.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 earns itself the first of only four returning award categories from last year, wrestling the award from Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood by achieving something I honestly thought it would fail to - specifically, being better than Final Fantasy XIII. My feelings on the thirteenth instalment of the long-running Final Fantasy series were conflicted, and to be fair so were my feelings towards its sequel. What really earned FFXIII-2 this award is the fact that it improves on what I felt to be the weakest aspects of FFXIII - namely its linearity, and a lack of gameplay variety. FFXIII-2 addresses the first of these concerns by providing the player with much more open environments that, while still ostensibly fairly linear, provide the player with lots of nooks and crannies to explore. It also boasts a much wider variety of gameplay types and side-quests to keep the player engaged. On top of this, it preserves the awesome Paradigm-centric battle system of FFXIII, as well as throwing in a monster-raising aspect to keep things interesting. It may have been a little weaker in terms of its story and characters, but as far as actually playing the game went, I found FFXIII-2 much more engaging than the game that spawned it.
Well, that's a wrap on the first day of My End of 2012 Awards. Tomorrow I'll be serving out another nine individual awards to games that defined my year. It'd be awesome if you could join me for it. In the meantime, thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Sam & Max Episode 4: Abe Lincoln Must Die! (PC)
The gifts may all be opened and the turkey all gone, but here at DanKempster Towers, Christmas isn't quite over yet. There's still one thing that must be done, and I'm not talking about that mountain of washing-up in the kitchen. I'm referring to the writing of the final instalment in this year's three-part Christmas Mega-Blog. If you missed part one or part two, you can find them here and here respectively. While you get caught up with those, the rest of us will move on with today's entry into the esteemed Hall of Mega-Blogs:
Part Three - The Master League Mystery
A quick disclaimer to avoid any potential confusion: for the duration of this blog, I will be using the word 'football' to refer to the sport you American-types know as 'soccer'. I am not talking about American football.
Let's get this fact out of the way first and foremost - I am not a football fan. I have no real problems with the sport itself, which by all accounts seems like a perfectly fine game on the occasions I've played it with friends. My problem with football is derived purely from the professional game and everything that surrounds it. I cannot abide the whole 'money culture' of top-flight football - the fact that some players earn more in a week than a lot of regular folk bring home in five years, simply for kicking a bag of wind around, is enough to make my blood boil. It irritates me that several of the sport's most-revered players do nothing to earn the adoration they command, their behaviour in too many cases landing at the opposite end of the spectrum. The yob culture and hooliganism, which while no means widespread is nonetheless tolerated and even condoned by some fans, makes me sick to my stomach. That people can be abusive, racist, or even murderous over a fucking game of football was enough to convince me I wanted to play no part in the upholding of this sporting institution.
And yet, removed from the grimness of reality and transposed into a virtual realm, football becomes something that not only interests me, but also that I can become completely absorbed in. Yes - despite hating professional football, I thoroughly enjoy playing football video games. This year alone, I have invested a surprising seventy hours into Pro Evolution Soccer 2011, a time sink beaten only by some one-hundred-and-fifteen hours spent in Skyrim at the start of the year. Almost all of that time has been spent in the game's deep and involving Master League mode, in which the player takes a default team of fictional footballing no-hopers and, through a combination of training and transfers, tries to turn them into European champions. There's just something about virtual recreations of the sport that manages to captivate me in a way that their real-life counterpart could never hope to. I've long wondered what that something might be, and after giving it a lot of careful thought, I think I've got an answer.
I've been intending to write a blog about this for quite some time, but it's only while playing through more of Pro Evolution Soccer 2011's Master League mode over the last couple of months that I've started to feel that I can justify my willingness to play these games at length, in spite of my distaste for the sport they represent. In that two-month time frame, I've taken my team of promising young players from relative obscurity in the middle of the second division to competently holding their own in the English Premier League, vying for a potential qualifying spot in the lesser of two European tournaments. Part of it might well be down to the separation from reality inherent in these games - within the virtual realm, their ungodly wages don't matter, their inappropriate behaviour ceases to exist, and abusive fans are reduced to lifeless cardboard cut-outs sitting in the stands. All that's left, then, is the action that unfolds upon the pitch - the game itself, and as I've said above, I don't have any problem with that at all.
But if that psychological aspect plays any part in my enjoyment of modes like Master League and the FIFA series' Ultimate Team, I'm convinced it's just a small one. What really draws me into these modes, I think, are the same attractions that still draw me into vast RPGs - namely, the promise of character management and development, strategic battling, and several hours of progression from next-to-nothing status, ultimately paying off with an ultimate showdown. That probably sounds crazy, but give me a chance to explain:
Character Management & Development - This is evident in the mechanics of squad management and player growth and decline. A big part of building a competitive team in Master League is picking up promising young players from the transfer market and encouraging them to develop into potentially world-class players through a combination of training and match experience, in much the same way an RPG player will see their characters grow and become stronger over the course of an adventure. I get an undeniable thrill out of picking up a tender youngster and turning him into a defence-terrorising monster or an unbeatable centre-back.
Strategic Battles - This, unsurprisingly, refers to the meat and potatoes of the gameplay - the football matches themselves. While the mechanics can be explained reductively as 'get the ball and kick it into the net', there's a lot more than that going on in any on-pitch battle. Every player has their own individual strengths and weaknesses, the former of which can be used to one's advantage, and the latter of which should be guarded against as best as possible. There's nothing more exhilarating than identifying an opponent's weakness, exploiting it successfully, and being rewarded with a goal. Sometimes it happens the other way, of course, but such is the nature of football. These battles of strategy and attrition are a big part of what keeps me coming back for one more match in Master League.
'Zero-To-Hero' Progression - Pretty much every RPG ever conceived has been centred on the idea of taking one or more relative nobodies and, through the investment of time, money and experience, gradually transforming them into the most powerful force their world has ever known. Replace the fantasy world and tropes with a football pitch and you essentially have the core conceit of any Master League campaign. Building a squad to be reckoned with is no easy task - you have to scour the transfer market for bargains, allocate your training resources wisely, and then (most importantly) translate those purchases and statistics into a convincing performance on match night. Currently nearing the end of my fourth season, I've come a long way from my starting point, but I still have a long way to go if I hope to keep moving upwards and ultimately achieve my final aim of winning the UEFA Champions League.
So there you have it. That's the most likely reason why this anti-soccer fuddy-duddy loves football video games - because under the hood, they're essentially just great big football-themed Final Fantasies and Skyrims that stimulate all the same RPG-loving pleasure-centres in my easily-fooled brain. I'm sure Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 will continue to see several more hours of playtime well into 2013. If I ever lift that Champions League trophy, I'll be sure to let you all know. In the meantime, thanks very much for reading this year's Christmas Mega-Blog. I hope you've all had a brilliant Christmas, and wish you all the very best for the coming New Year. I'll be taking a brief break from my hectic year's-end blogging schedule tomorrow, but I'll be back on Friday night with the first instalment of my four-part End Of 2012 Awards. Take care y'all, and I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Sam & Max Episode 4: Abe Lincoln Must Die! (PC)