Metal Gear May Madness - Episode .01

Kept you waiting, huh? (That's the last time I'll do that joke, I promise.)

Welcome to the first proper episode of Metal Gear May Madness, a serial blog in which I'm chronicling my efforts to make it through eight core titles in the Metal Gear franchise before the end of this month. If you missed my first post and aren't entirely sure what's going on here, I'd recommend checking out Episode .00 for the finer details on what I'm up to. First up is the game that started it all - 1987's Metal Gear.

Episode .01 - Metal Gear

Metal Gear's stealth gameplay must have been groundbreaking in 1987

One of the most persistent thoughts I kept revisiting throughout my playthrough of Metal Gear was, "This must have been revolutionary to play when it came out". If ever a game has epitomised the phrase 'ahead of its time', it's Metal Gear. Released in 1987, Metal Gear boasts a surprisingly sophisticated story, and gameplay systems that must have seemed mind-blowingly innovative twenty-five years ago. Take the stealth mechanics, for example - it's possible to sneak around enemies and dispatch them silently, an approach that can't have been common in a world where action equated to the likes of the Rambo-esque Contra and Commando. Or the Codec (dubbed a 'Transceiver' here), the in-game communications device that provides both gameplay hints and story exposition. While both are fairly rudimentary early incarnations of their respective concepts, they represent a completely different way to make the player feel like a one-man infiltration machine. These innovations are layered over a more conventional Metroidvania game structure that's punctuated with keycards, cardboard boxes and RC missiles, making Metal Gear feel like a solid blueprint for all the games that followed. I also can't speak positively about this game without mentioning the boss fights, which are easily among the strongest portions of gameplay - a trend that later games in the franchise continued.

It's unfortunate that all too often, that initial thought was immediately followed up by, "Geez, this really doesn't hold up that well, does it?". See, conceptually I love everything that makes up Metal Gear. I just didn't have any fun actually playing it. Paradoxically, some of that is actually down to the gameplay systems I've just praised. While the stealth mechanics must have been revolutionary back then, they feel positively draconian in 2013 - soldiers have linear rather than conical fields of vision and no apparent sense of hearing, a fact you can abuse to sneak round them at ridiculously close distances. The nature of the game's Alert Mode also means it's very easy to lose your pursuers, in most cases simply by moving onto another screen. While the structure of the game is a solid enough precursor to what the series later became, the lack of player direction and the obtuse methods of obtaining some items often reduce the act of playing Metal Gear to an exercise in trial and error, trying every keycard against every door until something finally gives.

The transceiver may be simplistic, but it's a clear indication of where the series was heading

I'm willing to admit that at least some of this criticism is probably borne by my decision to play through the game on Easy difficulty, a choice that I spent most of my subsequent time with the game deeply regretting. Easy difficulty makes Solid Snake much more resistant to enemy attacks, all but negating the impetus to avoid detection by the enemy. Knowing I wouldn't be in much danger if I was spotted made me play the game much more recklessly than I maybe should have done, a fact that's reflected in the number of alerts I triggered during my short time with the game - a whopping 133. When I originally played the game back in 2006, I did so on Original difficulty, and I don't recall being able to approach it in such a careless manner - quite the opposite actually, I remember Metal Gear being pretty unforgiving. It was a decision made in the interest of keeping this challenge viable, but one that's unfortunately sullied my memory of my initial experience with the game.

I've captured my end-game statistics and embedded them below, if that kind of thing interests you. I'm definitely less than happy with the number of alerts I triggered and the number of enemies I took out, figures that I hope to improve on in the other games.

That's the first game in the series under my belt, and we're only four days through the month, so even at this early stage I'm making steady progress in line with my prediction in Episode .00. Next up is Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, a game which currently holds the honour of being the only instalment in the core Metal Gear franchise that I haven't played before. I'll be hoping to change that in the next few days, so be sure to keep an eye out for another episode of Metal Gear May Madness coming soon. Until then, thanks for reading and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake (PS2)

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Metal Gear May Madness - Episode .00

Oh Dan, will you ever learn that writing these serial blogs isn't good for your health? Don't you remember the gruelling, demanding task of both playing video games and writing creatively for several hours a day when you spent A Month in Skyrim? And what about the long-running, still unfinished blogging behemoth that is Enduring Final Fantasy VII? Haven't these exercises in episodic bloggery taught you that the whole experience is seldom more than a mentally draining endeavour that saps one's will and wrecks one's sleep pattern, all for ultimately very little pay-off?

Apparently not, readers. Yep, I've decided to once again grab the serial blogging bull by the horns and dive into another episodic project, with all the reckless abandon and personal disregard that usually entails. This time I won't be looking back on a divisive JRPG classic, or converting my adventures in Tamriel into a daily diary. Instead, I'm tackling another of one of my most-revered gaming franchises - the Metal Gear saga. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the inaugural instalment of...

Episode .00 - Kept You Waiting, Huh?

Well folks, here we are once again - at the start of yet another of my crazy blogging concepts. My aim for this one is simple - to play every core game in the Metal Gear franchise within the thirty-one days that make up the month of May. I'll try to outline some of the finer points and offer my reasons for pursuing the challenge below.

Why Am I Doing This?

To be honest, I'm not completely sure what's possessed me to embark on this crazy gaming quest. I'm fairly confident that a big factor in the decision was my acquisition of my own PlayStation 3 back in March, a purchase which finally rendered me able to play every core Metal Gear game within the comfort of my own home. I've been eager to revisit the series, whether in whole or in part, for some time now, so that desire to spend some more time with Solid Snake is probably an influential reason as well. Another possible reason is the recent confirmation of Metal Gear Solid V, an announcement which made me keen to revisit the previous games in the series as a story refresher. As for why I'm deliberately limiting myself to the next thirty-one days, I can only say that clearly the only thing I like more than a challenge is alliteration.

Which Games Will I Be Playing?

My plan is to try and make it through every game I own which is recognised as being part of the core Metal Gear canon. As far as I'm aware, that includes all the games below:

That's eight games in total, so I'll need to be working through them at an average of about one game every four days. This shouldn't be too much of a problem for the home console titles, which are pretty long but can be sped through with a few days' worth of committed playing. Where I'll most likely run into problems is with the handheld games, which are split into smaller bite-sized missions but ultimately add up to a longer playing experience due to all the sub-mechanics at work. I'll be playing them in order of release, rather than in the order of the series' timeline, mainly to avoid any hugely jarring mechanical discrepancies between the games (leaping from Peace Walker into the original Metal Gear doesn't seem like it would be much fun). In the games with selectable difficulties I'll be playing on the default Normal difficulty, so as to avoid any major delays to progress that harder difficulties can cause.

How Often Will I Be Blogging?

Anybody put off by the daily updates that constituted A Month in Skyrim won't have to worry about that this time around. I'll only be blogging about a game once I've finished it, so if I manage to stick to the plan of roughly one game every four days, then you can expect blogs to be posted on a similar time frame. Even then, the resulting blogs probably won't be too long, most likely topping out at a few paragraphs each (mainly because I'm going to need to devote as much of my free time as possible to actually playing the damn games). Entries will most likely offer some brief notes on what I enjoyed or didn't enjoy about each game, whether I think the older games in the franchise hold up, and perhaps even some jokey statistics and awards.

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In terms of other gaming, I've been a pretty busy boy since finishing up Telltale's The Walking Dead at the start of the month. I played BioShock Infinite, followed very closely by a return to Rapture with BioShock 2. I thoroughly enjoyed both games (Infinite more so than 2), and hope to write a blog shedding a bit more light on why in the coming days. Right now I'm caught tightly in the grip of Pokémon LeafGreen, a remake of the original Red and Blue games that's hitting all the nostalgic pleasure centres in my brain while being a little more bearable to look at than the crude monochromatic sprites on those old Game Boy carts. I've earned four of the game's eight badges so far, although I expect progress to slow a little in light of the initiation of Metal Gear May Madness. I've also invested in a copy of Pokémon SoulSilver, in the interest of continuing my adventures once I've mastered the Indigo League.

I hope you'll join me on this frankly insane quest to experience all of Kojima's crazy in as concentrated a form as possible. I'll be starting the original Metal Gear as soon as I get in from work tomorrow evening, so expect my first blog in the next few days, most likely this weekend. Thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Pokémon LeafGreen Version (GBA)

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Choice And Impact - Thoughts On The Walking Dead

Please be warned that this blog contains story spoilers pertaining to Telltale's 'The Walking Dead'. If you don't want the game spoiled for you, please move along.

Larry's had a heart attack.

His daughter Lilly is leaning over him, hands on his chest, administering CPR to her father in a manner so frantic that none of the other survivors sealed in this meat locker can be sure if she's desperate from determination or simply in denial. Kenny stands to one side, loudly voicing his fears that if Larry can't be roused, it won't be long before they're locked in the room with a newly-turned Walker. Lilly shouts back, panicked screams between compressions that seem as ineffective at convincing herself as they are everybody else. In the heat of the moment, everybody's eyes fall on you. Even Clementine, removed from the situation as she sits in the corner, seems to be looking at you as if she expects you to resolve the matter before a full-scale fight breaks out.

You take a deep breath, and go with your gut instinct: "Stand back Lilly, I'll see if I can help him."

You kneel beside the unmoving body, place one hand on top of the other, and begin giving compressions in the hope of restarting Larry's ailing heart. One... two... three... four... five...

All the while you discern flickers of movement in the corner of your eye, but you're so focused on helping this old man that you ignore it. It's not until the heavy block of salt-lick comes down on Larry, obliterating his head and showering you and Lilly with the contents of his skull, that you realise what's happened.

You wanted to save the guy. Kenny wanted to end him. In the end, Kenny's will won out.

It's a moral choice, Jim, but not as we know it...

After spending ten hours so far with Telltale's The Walking Dead, the above moment is probably the one that's stuck with me the most. Part of that is no doubt because it's a shocking moment, a key narrative point that has a dramatic effect on character relationships for the remainder of the episode and beyond. It reveals a darker, more ruthless side to Kenny's character, and amplifies the ongoing rivalry between him and Lilly for control of the camp. But I think the main reason I still can't shake Larry's demise from my mind three days after witnessing it is because it completely subverted my expectations, and not just from a story perspective, but as a gamer too - I picked the good choice, but it didn't prevent me from getting the bad ending.

This isn't a situation we're presented with very often as players of video games. The Walking Dead's forebears, games that gave birth to the notions of player choice and moral decisions, have ingrained within us a certain expectation when it comes to how that stuff works in a video game. You make a choice, one way or the other, and depending on which side of the fence you come down on, you're rewarded with a different outcome. Choose the noble option and good things will happen. This truism doesn't apply to The Walking Dead, though. As demonstrated by the choice I made above, even taking the moral high ground doesn't guarantee a pleasant sugar-and-rainbows outcome.

Shepard's actions change the fate of the galaxy, but they're also vicarious wish fulfilment...

A lot of video games are power fantasies - means of escapism that allow the player to command strength and influence they don't have in the real world. In morality-driven games like the Mass Effect franchise, the player's choices play into that power fantasy archetype, and this is reflected in both the nature of the choices presented to the protagonist and their impact on the world around them. You, as Commander Shepard, are the most important human in the galaxy, so every single decision you make should reflect that by being both important and impacting on a potentially galactic level. Most crucially of all, though, your decisions should be the ones that matter, far more than those of the auxiliary NPCs you spend the majority of the game interacting with. For the most part in these games, whatever the player says goes. Even if other central characters disagree with you, they will usually grudgingly come around to your way of thinking long enough for you to get what you want. Why? Because the game is escapist wish fulfilment, and if Shepard gets what he wants, then by extension so does the player.

By contrast, The Walking Dead acknowledges the oft-overlooked harsh reality of personal choice in desperate situations - that not everybody is going to go along with your decision. You don't dictate to the NPCs, you merely opine. Sometimes you'll sway them a little, but most of the time you won't. Take the above situation as an example - no matter whether you choose to off him or help him, Larry dies. Should you choose to help him, Kenny doesn't tut under his breath and sulk in the corner while you play hero - he takes matters into his own hands and makes a decision of his own, a decision that overrides the one of the player and lets them know that this ain't no power fantasy. This is a world where other voices hold just as much weight as your own, if not more.

...whereas the impact of Lee's actions is much more believable, and serves the story brilliantly

As a consequence, the choices made by the player in The Walking Dead become less about what actually happens as a direct result, and more about what kind of man you want the other survivors to perceive Lee to be. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of Lee's relationship with Clementine, easily the game's strongest story thread. Shortly after Larry's death, Lee confronts one of the St John brothers while armed with a pitchfork. Still reeling from what the guy had done to us, I chose to drive that fork straight through him. As I did, a high-pitched scream rang through the barn, and I knew I'd made a grave mistake. The knowledge that Clementine watched me kill a man has weighed heavily on me ever since, and from that moment forward I've done my utmost to avoid unnecessary violence while in her presence. Yep, I care more about what an opinionated AI masquerading as an eight-year-old girl thinks of me than I do about having an impact on who lives or dies. Feel free to call me crazy.

Judging by responses to Alex's review of the game here on Giant Bomb, and some of the comments on the game's trailers, there's a significant portion of the game's player base who didn't like the way Telltale dealt with the impact of the player's choices in The Walking Dead. Some clearly felt that the game didn't cater enough to the typical gamer's omnipotence-fuelled notions of moral decisions. Personally, I feel that the decision to avoid that approach elevates the quality of the writing on The Walking Dead to a level that all other video games of its type should aspire to. Telltale could have made Lee the bad-ass infallible leader of the survivors' camp, with his decisions entirely governing the way every event in the game plays out, but if they had, it would have made the whole game a much weaker piece of interactive storytelling. As things stand, Lee's position as the every-man caught in the middle, a man whose words don't dictate the actions of others, makes both him and the entire supporting cast feel more like real people, and therefore more relatable. It makes situations like Larry's heart attack feel more fraught and unpredictable. And when the pay-off of the situation doesn't go the way Lee hopes it will, it hits home with more impact than any authoritarian command ever could.

That's all I've got to say on the matter. As I said above, I've been carrying these feelings around for a few days now and just wanted to get them down in some form and put them out there, maybe even find out what other people think. At the time of writing this blog I'm still only four episodes through The Walking Dead, but If all goes to plan I should make it through the fifth and final instalment at some point tomorrow. In the meantime, I want to thank you for taking the time to read this blog. I'll see you around, I'm sure.

Dan

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Currently playing - The Walking Dead (PC)

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Tomb Raider - Thoughts From A Long-Term Fan

So this is how it feels to be relevant...

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 next generation of consoles, then I think it's safe to say there's plenty of life left in the ol' girl yet.

Yamatai is both a beautiful and a deadly place to explore

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.

The reimagined Lara, and the story that unfolds around her, are two of the game's strongest selling points

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).

Tomb Raider's puzzles are great. It's a real shame there aren't more of them

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.

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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.

I'm finally rocking one of these beauties

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.

Dan

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Currently playing - Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed (X360)

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The Great 2012 Catch-Up: Borderlands 2 Edition

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

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.

The Good

  • 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.

The Bad

  • 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.

The Verdict

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).

Dan

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Currently playing - Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed (X360)

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When There's No One To Hear You Scream...

More Dead Space is on its way

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."

Dead Space was our franchise, and I'm not sure I want to revisit it on my own

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.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (GBA)

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Sam & Max-imum Alan Wake

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

Nods to gaming (and RPGs in particular) are plentiful in the virtual world of 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

The power of words is a prevalent theme throughout both parts of Alan Wake's DLC epilogue

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

Night Springs may not be as memorable as Bright Falls, but it still has its own captivating tale to tell

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.

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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.

Dan

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Currently playing - Sam & Max Episode 6: Bright Side of the Moon (PC)

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The Great 2012 Catch-Up: Sleeping Dogs Edition

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...

Sleeping Dogs

Sleeping Dogs is a pretty cracking open-world crime game

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.

The Good

  • 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.
  • Melee combat is one of the game's biggest strengths
    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.

The Bad

  • Sleeping Dogs has some pretty memorable characters, but the story is somewhat lacking
    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.

The Verdict

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.

Dan

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Currently playing - Sleeping Dogs (X360)

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My End Of 2012 Awards - Part Four

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.

Books

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.

Music

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.

Writing

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:

Alan Wake

(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.

Bastion

(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.

Vagrant Story

(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.

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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!

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (GBA)

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My End Of 2012 Awards - Part Three

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:

'Take Me Back To The Islands' Award for Best Atmosphere

Dear Esther

Dear Esther is nothing short of stunning, and effortlessly captures a sense of place

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

It may not look the part these days, but Vice City is still as fun to play now as it was in 2002

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.

'I'm In Love With My Car' Award for Best Racing Game

Colin McRae: DiRT

DiRT is a very different beast from the bloated racing sims I'd grown tired of

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.

'Blood On The Valley Floor' Award for Most Blood Spilled in the Shortest Time

The Ultimate DOOM

This is just a minuscule fraction of the blood spilled by the average DOOM player in a single level

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.

'Laugh Like You're Mad' Award for Most Laugh-Out-Loud Moments

The First Four Episodes of Sam & Max Save the World

"They're probably hiding a cow!"

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.

'Last Ever Lone Gunman' Award for Best Call of Duty Game

Medal of Honor

Don't be fooled by its appearance - Medal of Honor is a surprisingly modern FPS

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.

'Lover Of The Light' Award for Best Use of Light and Darkness as a Gameplay Mechanic

Alan Wake

Effective use of Alan's flashlight is imperative if you intend to stay alive

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.

'More Of That Jazz' Award for Best Expansion Pack

Halo 3: ODST

Battling on the streets of New Mombasa felt like Halo, and yet also like something new

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.

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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.

Dan

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Currently playing - Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 (X360)

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