In recent years there has been a trend of moralization in video game criticism, particularly concerning gender inequalities, but also race and sexuality. Dragon’s Crown is only the latest subject of this kind of criticism: before it we've had Tomb Raider, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Bayonetta and so on and so forth. A lot of people are pleased with this, but the truth of the matter is that this is a degenerative and harmful trend – something that becomes most obvious if one imagines applying this kind of criticism to historical works.
Should the Iliad have points docked for being sexist? Would Dracula cease to be a masterpiece if the vampires and Renfield were black, while the rest of the cast remained white? Are we supposed to quit admiring the works of all the great painters throughout history on account of the inequality at display in their art? Would the paintings of Sir Leighton be better if they depicted more black people? Is Rubens' Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus worse because contemporary morality condemns its subject matter? Or Gérôme's Slave Market in Rome?
The notion is absurd. Moralization has no place in art criticism: the only value judgments of relevance are the aesthetic ones. Is it beautiful? – That is the question. Subtracting points in an art review because the work isn't “equal” enough is as ridiculous as subtracting points in a food review because the dish contains meat and therefore required the death of animals. There is nothing wrong with “male gaze” – on the contrary, it is only through the perspective of a man (or a lesbian, I suppose) that female beauty can be fully appreciated and celebrated. Nor is there anything wrong with male power fantasies, weak women in need of help, or any of the other things feminists object to in games. As for the lack of the opposite perspective: as unfortunate as it may be for those who are desperate to see more depictions of helpless, sexualized white men being rescued by strong women or overweight black transsexuals or whatever, artists (whether painters, writers, filmmakers or video game developers) have no collective obligation to provide this, nor indeed much aesthetic motivation, as the introduction of more strong women, blacks etc. has no inherent value and – contrary to what some seem to think – certainly doesn't help an art form advance faster. Classical painting and literature would not have been better or evolved more rapidly if the old masters included more minorities in their works, and neither will video games.
Furthermore, it is absurd to look at an artist’s depiction of a woman or black and claim that it’s representative of his view of women or blacks in general. “He created female characters that need rescuing, so clearly he thinks all women are weak and helpless” and “He created a black character that speaks in a stereotypical manner, so clearly he’s an ignorant and hateful man who thinks all black people are like this” – these are absolutely ridiculous conclusions to draw, and suggesting that developers (or the players who enjoy their works) are misogynists or racists based on depictions (or non-depictions) of women and blacks in games is stupid, disingenuous, or possibly both.
Shinji Mikami put it well in a recent interview: “Games are not really a time for morals, they're entertainment, so if you want more morals, you should go to someplace like a school. We're making entertainment.” Words to live by for any remotely serious critic or developer.
guys i was looking at paintings and came across these shocking works (might be NSFW if your employer objects to nudity in classical art):
what a bunch of sexist, misogynistic, juvenile, sexist sexists these artists are. i hope people boycott their paintings or something because this is just disgusting. no one who respects women could possible paint or appreciate something like this. i think the works have even been displayed on museums, can you believe that? hanging there on the wall, oppressing innocent women who only wanted to look at nice paintings, but no, i guess they can't even be allowed to do that without the patriarchy slapping them in the face. we should let the painters know how sexist they are on forums or maybe if a blogger reads this you could make a blog about it so they can read it and realize the error of their woman-hating ways, i think some of them may be dead so I guess we can't reach those but they are sexist anyway
Anyhow, let's forget about the bummers for now. Here are my ten favourite 2011 releases, my five favourite pre-2011 releases I didn't end up checking out until this year, and the ten upcoming 2012 releases I'm most excited for. If you're American and some of the releases seem off it's probably because, as mentioned earlier, I'm European.
This fantastic shoot ‘em up package features several excellent modes with loads of challenging bullet patterns and fun scoring systems that mix and match elements from a variety of games in the genre (I especially enjoy the scoring in Arrange A, which combines Daioujou and Daifukkatsu 1.5 and ends up being more fun than both). It also provides an incomparable audiovisual experience with superb music – the Black Label soundtrack in particular is just out of this world – and some of the best 2D graphics in the business (colourful, well-animated and extremely detailed, with countless dazzling special effects and beautifully rendered enemy sprites dominating the screen at virtually all times – the visual experience is second only to Vanillaware’s stuff in terms of overall quality, and unmatched in terms of intensity). Espgaluda II and Mushihime-sama Futari 1.5 remain my favourite games from Cave, but this has taken Daioujou’s place as my favourite Donpachi title, and it’s easily my favourite release of the year.
Muchi Muchi Pork! is well-paced, very challenging and has great boss battles, but more importantly, it's got what is without question my favourite shoot ‘em up scoring system. Collecting pigs released by destroyed enemies, unleashing powerful lard attacks to fill the screen with giant, golden pig-head medals and then sucking them all up is incredibly addicting and immensely satisfying. Pink Sweets with its crazy rank system and unique bomb mechanic is pretty fun as well, but I honestly haven’t played much of it – whenever I pop this port collection in I inevitably end up spending most of my time playing Pork, even if my initial intention is to practice Sweets. The only real complaint I have is that the games didn’t get the graphical upgrade included in most of Cave’s other Xbox 360 ports. They would have looked great with hi-res sprites.
Hard Corps: Uprising builds on the foundation laid by the Contra games of old with a plethora of new special moves, and the result is the fastest run ‘n gun I have ever played. By mastering the dash, the vault, the dodge et al. one can zoom through the stages at lightning speed, breezing through enemies and other obstacles like they’re nothing, and it feels absolutely incredible. The presentation might be underwhelming (the playable characters and many of the enemies are represented by hand-drawn, nicely animated sprites, but most everything else is polygonal, primitive and just doesn’t look very good – it's especially disappointing when you consider that Arc System Works have produced stunning 2D games in the past), but even so, this is an excellent arcade-style run 'n gun and one of the finest games released this year.
This is the first Colin McRae game I’ve bought since Colin McRae Rally 2.0 for the PlayStation, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. It turned out to be a very pleasant surprise indeed. It looks and sounds amazing, the handling feels perfect (it has just the degree of realism I want from a game like this: it’s no Burnout, but it’s no hardcore racing simulator either) and the tracks, with their different surfaces and weather effects, are great: there are sunny desert courses, rainy forest roads, nighttime snow tracks and more, and drifting around corners is spectacular fun in all of them. The one thing I don’t love is the addition of Gymkhana challenges, where the goal isn’t to race but to jump, spin and drift for points, but thankfully that aspect of the game can for the most part be ignored.
This game’s puzzles, while conceptually brilliant, are a bit simpler than I’d have liked, but the detailed 2D environments look gorgeous, the exaggerated character animations are wonderfully fluid, the soundtrack – a mix of jazz, rock and electronic music – is excellent, and the complex supernatural mystery story, which keeps you hooked by constantly introducing new shocking twists and wacky characters, is extremely well-thought-out. It's also one of this year's funniest games. Ghost Trick surprised me with its quality and has left me very excited for Shu Takumi’s next project, Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney.
I generally dislike horizontal shoot ‘em ups, but amongst the few I enjoy, Deathsmiles is probably my favourite. The Halloween theme is great, the music is terrific, and it’s really nice to have the ability to shoot both forward and backward. The scoring system never clicked with me and the game doesn’t feel as well-paced or exciting as Cave’s finest (mainly because of the way it’s structured: the player is given a lot of freedom when it comes to the order of the stages and the level of challenge, which is nice in a way, but as a result progression doesn’t feel as natural as in Cave’s other games), but dodging dense bullet patterns and blowing up enemies left and right is nevertheless a lot of fun.
This fighting game has fun characters designs (my personal favourite is Eko, a little girl who has a crudely drawn imaginary friend do all the fighting for her), an arcana system that effectively gives you hundreds of different fighters to choose from, and a unique homing mechanic that allows for exciting, fast-paced battles in which the characters go from exchanging blows on the ground one second to flying around high up in the air the next. The spritework is a bit rough and could use some improvement, but aside from that Arcana Heart 3 is terrific fun, and it’s one of my favourite fighting games.
With its elaborate, richly animated backgrounds and gorgeous character sprites, this is a stunning game (as expected from SNK – they have always been masters of 2D, and their Metal Slug and The Last Blade titles remain some of the best-looking 2D games in existence) and hands down the most beautiful in the genre. It’s also a blast to play even for a low-level player like me: it’s fast, fluid and has a great selection of characters (though some of my favourites from past installments, like Vanessa and Jenet, are missing). If only SNK had the finances to give some of their other franchises the treatment they’ve given King of Fighters…
Dark Souls brings an array of little changes, both good (the world, Lordran, feels larger and more naturally structured than Demon’s Souls’ Boletaria, and the dark fantasy aesthetic is more well-realized than before, with improved monster design and a larger variety of beautiful, somber environments) and bad (technical issues involving for example control responsiveness and framerate are considerably more frequent than in the previous game, and getting around is more tedious as you can’t warp between all the checkpoints), but more than anything else it’s more of what was in Demon’s Souls: an action game that offers a lot of freedom, a unique online system, level and enemy design that requires you to stay on your toes at all times, and an overall experience that is, despite a number of technical and mechanical issues, a very enjoyable one.
For much of its campaign, Gears of War 3 abandons the dark, gloomy look of its predecessors for a brighter, more colourful aesthetic that for the most part disappointed me. As technologically impressive as it is (the special effects and the lighting are at times jaw-dropping) it offers nothing on the level of, say, traversing the dark, deadly streets of Ephyra in the unforgettable second act of Gears of War, or journeying into the Locust Horde’s magnificent capital, the Nexus, in the fourth act of Gears of War 2. The combat feels like a step down, too: the Lambent are less varied and easier to deal with than the Locust they often replace, and the three AI comrades you always have with you do a bit too good of a job fighting enemies. It says a lot about the quality of the previous games, then, that Gears of War 3 is – despite its shortcomings – a gorgeous game that’s a lot of fun to play, and one of the very best cover-based third-person shooters currently on the market.
A couple of months ago, a small video game shop/café called SuperMotaro -- yes, that's a reference to Mortal Kombat's Motaro -- opened on Hantverkargatan 90 in Stockholm. I've visited it a handful of times, and feel I need to tell people about this lovely little place (I know Giant Bomb has a fair amount of Swedish members).
SuperMotaro deal primarily with Japanese video games from past generations. They have a nice assortment of games -- including Japan-only releases -- spanning most consoles and, as I understand, take import requests. They also sell coffee, snacks and the like. But I rarely go there for their console games (though I did buy a copy of The Adventures of Alundra there not long ago) or their coffee. When I pop in, it's usually for one reason: to play their arcade games.
In the back of the shop, eight cabinets stand. On these you can, using 100 yen coins bought at the counter (one for 5kr, five for 20kr -- cheaper than at the currency exchange office!), play games like Metal Slug 2, Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, Tekken Tag Tournament, Battle Garegga, Espgaluda II and Dodonpachi Daifukkatsu Black Label. They have more PCBs than cabs and the selection is therefore in a constant state of flux, but I've never failed to find something worth spending a couple of credits on.
If you live in Stockholm, or perhaps visit the city during a vacation, make sure to check the place out. Video game shops run by genuinely passionate people -- and the folks behind SuperMotaro are nothing if not passionate -- are rare, and places where you can play the original arcade version of Mushihime-sama Futari Black Label are rarer still.
Shadows of the Damned, in which Garcia Hotspur ventures through Hell to save his girlfriend Paula from the demon lord Fleming with the aid of his trusty sidekick, the flaming, talking skull Johnson (capable of transforming into a torch, a motorbike and a variety of guns for Garcia to use), is a very disappointing third-person shooter.
Its primary problem is simple: Garcia is overpowered. His dodge roll is quick and spammable, and he's invincible for the duration of the move. He has at his disposal an unlimited supply of light shots which temporarily stun enemies, leaving them vulnerable to instantly killing headshots and contextual one-hit-kill melee attacks. His regular melee attack interrupts and knocks back enemies, and can be charged to become every bit as lethal as its contextual brethren. And these are just the powers you possess early on – over the course of the game you acquire things like target-seeking machinegun rounds and sticky bombs that can be remotely detonated, making you even more ridiculously powerful.
The enemies – almost exclusively featureless and very boring humanoids with glowing eyes – simply stand no chance against Garcia and his Johnson. The vast majority of them have no ranged attacks, and alternate between walking and running towards you while leaving themselves completely open to the killing tool of your choosing (think Ganados from Resident Evil 4, except slightly faster). Enemies that deviate from this norm are rare, and pose no real challenge when they appear – the dodge roll and the light shot enable you to dispatch of them with ease.
Sometimes you will find your path blocked by vine-like demon pubes, at which point you will have to engage in something resembling puzzle-solving by venturing into Darkness (a blue, demonic substance that drains your health if you remain in it too long, and grants enemies a protective veil that must be removed with a light shot or a melee attack) and shooting red containers that can only be harmed from within the devilish matter. Also breaking up the monotony of the regular combat are shooting gallery sequences and side-scrolling shoot ‘em up levels. These are, unfortunately, even more boring than the usual action – they’re both simpler and slower, and last way too long.
The worst parts of Shadows of the Damned, however, are neither the shooting galleries nor the shoot ‘em up stages, but the boss fights. The bosses look and sound absolutely insane (one, for example, rips out and eats his own heart, transforms into a man with a goat’s head and mounts a horse with a human’s face) and in that regard feel like a breath of fresh air compared to the bland creatures that populate most of the game, but fighting them is an absolutely agonizing experience. They’re just as easy to defeat as the rest of what the Netherworld has to offer, but unlike their lower-ranked associates they don’t have the courtesy to go down quickly. Instead they delay their inevitable demise for what feels like an eternity with slow, primitive attack patterns and copious amounts of health in what can only be interpreted as an attempt to bore Garcia to death.
The game is beautiful, at least. Shadows of the Damned’s Hell is dark, gloomy place where a mixture of muted green, yellow and red dominates, punctuated by the occasional blue, health-sapping darkness. The environments might not be the most creative – ignore the blood, the guts and the occasional bizarre detail, and you will find that with the exception of the final area, the Underworld in its entirety consists of rather unremarkable locations: a forest, a library, a sewer, a red-lights district et cetera – but thanks to great use of colour and absolutely stellar lighting, they are nonetheless remarkably pleasing to the eyes.
The combat looks great, too. Garcia’s animation is excellent, and slow motion effects and exploding heads that accompany the frequent one-hit-kills ensure that they feel fairly satisfying despite the lack of challenge. The melee attacks look particularly powerful – Hotspur will, amongst other things, knee enemies in the face, kick them in the balls and jump on them with such force that they shatter into tiny, demonic flesh chunks. Cool little details like a neon wire-frame effect that appears when Johnson switches between gun modes further enhance the visual experience, cementing the game's position as one of the very best-looking third-person shooters in the business.
The sound isn’t bad, either. Gunshots and melee attacks sound gratifying and the music, while nothing exceptional, complements the gloomy environments nicely. The voice acting is excellent, and the writing is generally of a high quality – there are a great many chuckles to be had at Hotspur and Johnson’s humorous banter (though some of the dick jokes do feel forced) and the game’s many references.
Shadows of the Damned is undeniably a letdown (especially given the involvement of Shinji Mikami, who not more than a year ago put out the most amazing third-person shooter) but despite its many issues, it’s actually decent fun. It offers cool sights and good laughs, and while the combat may be too easy it is for the most part fast, fluid and aesthetically gratifying enough to provide fairly agreeable entertainment.
Vanquish is no ordinary third-person shooter. It has most of the things you would expect from a game in the genre these days – walls you can attach to for cover, regenerating health, a limited number of weapons you switch between with the D-pad – but whereas games like Gears of War and Uncharted are about being a badass right from the get-go, Vanquish is about becoming one.
You see, in Vanquish everything is limited. You can boost across the battlefield at breakneck speed, but doing so will quickly drain your energy meter. You can make everything slow to a crawl, but that drains energy as well, and you can only do it in very specific situations (right after a dodge roll, while jumping over cover or while boosting). You have incredibly powerful melee attacks, but with one exception they all consume every ounce of stored energy. Normally the meter starts refilling as soon as you stop using energy, but if you let it reach zero your "augmented reaction suit" (experimental power armour being tested by the main character, Sam) will overheat, delaying energy regeneration and temporarily impairing virtually all of your abilities. Keeping an eye on and managing the meter is tricky – especially since the enemies are numerous, fast and aggressive from the very beginning – and early on you will often find yourself overheating and getting your ass kicked. It is only later, when you're capable of boosting and slowing down time until only a split-second worth of energy remains, terminating the energy-consuming activity you're engaged in, quickly dodging enemy attacks until you have sufficient energy and then using your suit's special abilities again, that you can truly feel like a badass.
It is this raw challenge, coupled with a plethora of nuances (such as the way the properties of your melee attack change depending on what weapon you have equipped, the possibility of cancelling out of a boost with a dodge roll to skip the little animation that otherwise occurs when you stop boosting, the option of making your rolls cover more distance by pressing the boost button and the roll button simultaneously, and the way you can detonate your grenades in mid-air by firing at them), that makes Vanquish's combat system so great. The game encourages you – forces you, on the higher difficulty settings – to push your character's abilities to their limits but severely punishes you for overstepping them even a little bit, making mastery intensely satisfying. Important to this mastery is, aside from the energy system, the different weapons and knowledge of when to use them. In addition to guns commonly found in other shooters – assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles and so on – Vanquish has a number of more curious killing tools. To mention some: a gun that locks on to multiple targets and fires laser beams that bend around cover, a circular saw with blades that bounce between foes when fired, and a gun that fires a large energy blob capable of travelling through enemies and other obstacles. They’re all suited for different situations, and great fun to use.
But enough about Sam's abilities – let’s talk about his enemies! They're all quick, resilient, very aggressive robots. The smaller ones attempt to overwhelm you with numbers and can become lightning-fast suicide bombers if you leave them seriously wounded, while the bigger ones – usually armed with cannons, laser beams and giant, homing, instantly-killing missiles – will try to grab and squish you if you get too close (something that can actually be used to your advantage: a melee attack only consumes energy when it's completed, and it's possible to initiate a punch combo, have an enemy interrupt it with a grab so that no energy is lost, get out of the grab with a QTE-induced counterattack and then do it all over again). Grenades and cover-destroying blasts force you to stay on the move, and the most effective way to win – getting right up in the enemies' robotic faces – is also by far the most risky. And the bosses! Sturdy, transforming one-robot armies that often return in duos later in the game – the fights against them are easily the most challenging and exhilarating parts of the experience.
Vanquish's presentation plays no little part in that exhilaration. The augmented reaction suit looks incredibly slick: it's very detailed, has lots of independently moving parts, and just generally looks exactly the way you'd want a power suit from the future to look. When it overheats, you see and hear heated air emanate from the red-hot energy core mounted on your back. When you switch weapons you see your current gun fold itself into some sort of core, which then rapidly unfolds into a new firearm. It has tons of neat effects like this. The enemy designs are top-notch, too: the robots’ shapes, movements and sounds are similar to those of wild animals, and they feel far more alive than most organic enemies found in other games.
And then we have the environments. The entire game takes place on a gigantic, circular space colony you need to save from the robots. The colony is so big that your immediate surroundings almost always appear flat, but you can see it curve over your head if you look up. It’s a very cool concept indeed and is at its best in a segment where you find yourself on a train so fast, you can see the track bend upwards right ahead of and behind you. The ring-shaped station is home to a wealth of different locales, and though practically all of them have white steel and gray concrete in common they do enough differently to feel distinct: you’ll fight in neon-lit shopping districts, green parks, living areas ravaged by the antagonistic machines and engine rooms hidden from the public, and it all looks spectacular (the very best of the environments are the animated ones: high-speed trams, bridges that collapse as you move across them, docking bays where gargantuan spaceships crash down around you…).
Last but not least, we have the special effects. At any given moment there is an abundance of them on the screen. Floating particles, lasers, explosions, sparks – the game is a veritable phantasmagoria of them. It looks especially amazing when time is slowed. You can see every individual enemy bullet fly through the air, and even shoot them out of their trajectories with your own. It’s truly impressive stuff.
Like Shinji Mikami's two previous games, Resident Evil 4 and God Hand, Vanquish is at the peak of its genre. The combat system is sophisticated, the battles intense, the enemy design superb and the presentation exceptional. Vanquish is heartily recommended to anyone who likes third-person shooters, or indeed action games in general.
Shadow of the Colossus is, essentially, one long action-adventure boss rush. The only enemies in the game are sixteen gargantuan colossi the main character has to kill in order to resurrect a dead princess, and the only times at which you aren't fighting one of them of is when you're riding to the next. It's a great concept. A particularly well-designed boss fight is often the highlight of an action title, and an entire game with nothing but bosses should in theory be an amazingly challenging, incredibly intense non-stop adrenaline rush -- the kind of experience video game enthusiasts dream of.
Shadow of the Colossus is not that. Each boss battle has some sort of trick to it. A puzzle, if you will. Solve that puzzle, and you get an opportunity to mount the boss. From there all you have to do is climb the creature's furry parts until you get to a shiny part, which you then need to stab a couple of times. After a couple of stabs the boss' life bar will be depleted, and he will fall to the ground. That's it. That's every boss in the game.
"But Mr. Reviewer," you say. "Surely these puzzles are complex affairs that require a great deal of creative thinking?" Nope. They're all incredibly simple, and solving them is as easy as finding a single standout feature in the environment or on the colossus and exploiting it. "But Mr. Reviewer," you say. "Surely the furry parts you need to climb offer amazing platforming challenges?" Nope. All you do is hold down the R1 button to stick to the fur, move with the analogue stick and jump with the triangle button if necessary (in most battles, it's not, and when it is it requires no skill of any kind). "But Mr. Reviewer," you say. "Surely the stabbing of the shiny parts requires immaculate timing?" Nope. The colossi will occasionally try to shake you off, but all you need to do is keep holding the R1 button until they stop -- which they usually do long enough that you can wait a couple of seconds and still have time to attack -- and then start stabbing. Should you happen to fall off, you can just climb up again right away to try once more.
The only thing that saves this game from being a complete failure is the presentation. The orchestral soundtrack is powerful (though the way it fades in and out as your distance to a colossus changes can, at times, be jarring), the vast, empty landscapes are quite beautiful, and the colossi are some of the most imposing enemies ever seen in a video game. Some clump around on two legs carrying enormous weapons, some walk on four as wild beasts, some swim in the depths of dark lakes and some soar through the skies, but they all have one thing in common: they are, as their names suggest, absolutely colossal monstrosities of fur and ancient stone. The ground trembles with their every step, and approaching them -- not to speak of climbing them -- is quite the audio-visual experience.
Unfortunately, even the aesthetic side of the game isn't without its issues. The game runs very poorly, and it's rare to see anything resembling thirty frames per second. It never ventures into the realm of the unplayable, but the poor frame rate can when it's at its worst be fairly distracting and take away from the experience quite a bit. Also, the use of bloom and blur (presumably to conceal the primitive environmental textures) is excessive, and hurts the presentation more than it helps it.
Hopefully, one day other, better developers will try their hands at making boss-only games. Hopefully, those games will be amazing. Sadly, all we have for the time being (that I know of, at least) is Shadow of the Colossus: a failure in many ways, and a success only in one.
Portal could have been great. The concept was ingenious: a gun that shoots portals is a very cool thing indeed, and allows for some amazing level design. Unfortunately Valve screwed up by making the puzzles way too simple – the whole game felt like a long tutorial for a set of harder, better puzzles that didn't actually exist. Enter Portal 2. It's got a plethora of new puzzle elements: tractor beams, cubes that redirect lasers, a gel that makes you bounce, a gel that lets you move at lightning speed – it goes on. The trailers make it look fast and complicated. It seems to have precisely what was missing from the first Portal: challenge.
Problem is, it doesn't. The new puzzle elements – the tractor beams and the gels? They're cool, but they're never combined in especially intricate ways. Even the most advanced of the puzzles are extremely simple (in practically every puzzle chamber, you can see the solution simply by taking a single look around the room) and like the original game the entire experience feels like one long tutorial for a harder, better game that is nowhere to be found.
Aesthetically, on the other hand, Portal 2 is a large step forward. The animations are very impressive indeed (to give some examples: GLaDOS and the new robot Wheatley are both extremely expressive despite having neither extremities nor facial features save for a single eye, and the way gel jiggles and deforms when caught in a tractor beam is incredibly cool). The environments, which were fairly boring in the first game, are now far more varied and interesting. The facility starts out ruined and overgrown and is restored as you move through it, and you get to visit a number of new areas including the oldest, most primitive parts of the Aperture Science complex.
The one aspect of the game that is truly exceptional, however, is the voice acting. It's absolutely amazing, and wouldn't seem out of place in a Pixar film. Regrettably, the characters' banter is ruined by strained writing – the game constantly tries to be funny, but for every good joke (and there are some great ones) you have to listen to dozens of lame, at times annoying ones.
Like its predecessor, Portal 2 could have been great. It's superior to the first in every way: it's got enhanced animation, more and better-looking environments, stellar acting and new, cool puzzle elements. Unfortunately, the parts that have been substantially upgraded – graphics and voice acting – are also the least important ones; the most critical component, the puzzle design, was only marginally improved. There is incredible potential in the Portal series (now more than ever, with all the newly introduced mechanics) and I would love to see it fulfilled, but as long as the developers remain incapable of or unwilling to create truly diabolical puzzles, there is simply no chance of that happening.
Most people know of God Hand for the PlayStation 2, developed by the late Clover Studio, not as one of Shinji Mikami's masterpieces ranking alongside, or perhaps even above his Resident Evil 4 in quality, but as either a stiff, ugly mess of a game not worth anyone's time, or a game whose main appeal lies in its abundance of ridiculous, referential cutscenes and its hilarious ending theme. This is one of the most unfortunate misunderstandings in recent video game history. God Hand is not an especially beautiful game, but it is only stiff for the 30 minutes or so it takes to get used to its controls (just like Resident Evil 4 -- in fact, the camera and the basic movement controls in God Hand are identical to those in that game), and while the cutscenes and the ending theme are undeniably funny, they are by no means the best thing about the game. No, God Hand is, quite simply, possibly the best 3D beat 'em up ever made, surpassing even such games as Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden Black in quality.
So what is it that makes this obscure, poorly-selling game, seen by many as a joke (both literally and figuratively), so good? Well, for one, the brilliant dodging system. Dodging is done with the right analogue stick: pressing forward makes the main character, Gene, perform a lightning-fast duck, pressing right or left makes him side-step, and pressing back makes him do a backwards somersault. This is the cornerstone of the game's combat. Gene fights only with his bare fists (the right of which is the titular god hand) and his feet, and as a result, his range is not that of his weapon-wielding contemporaries (Ryu, Dante, Kratos et cetera). The game is all about getting right up in an enemy's face, dodging his flurry of punches with a series of quick ducks (or, if he attacks in a fashion that necessitates it, a side-step or a back-flip) -- which, by the way, incites an invisible audience's cheers; a nice touch that gets you pumped for your counterattack -- and then, when he lets his guard down for a split-second, punching away. Eventually he'll start blocking, at which point you want to quickly use your special guard break attack (keep up the regular attacks for too long while an enemy is blocking, and he'll make you stagger and kick your ass), keep punching until he's dizzy, and then mash whatever button starts flashing on the screen as fast as you can to initiate a long series of punches, kicks, stomps or spanks (for the female enemies -- kinky!) dealing tons of damage.
It sounds simple, and it is when you're only fighting one enemy. Usually, however, you're fighting at least three, and it's this that makes the dodging system far more than just a replacement for blocking: in order to evade all attacks and manipulate a crowd of enemies into a situation allowing you to engage one of them uninterrupted, you need to constantly make quick, precise movements -- in other words, you have to side-step and back-flip like a madman. The environment also factors in: often, boxes and explosive barrels that can be thrown at enemies from afar are lying around, and positioning yourself in a corner or at a wall can be a good way to stop enemies from surrounding you. Boxes, by the way, contain healing fruits, money (necessary to purchase stronger attacks in a shop you get to access between stages) and cards. Cards decorated with bikini girls fill your tension gauge (which, when full, lets you unleash the divine power residing in Gene's right arm: this temporarily makes you invincible, and dramatically increases your speed and damage output -- the gauge, by the way, doesn't have to be filled via bikini girl cards; attacking enemies fills it, too, albeit far more slowly), while cards with skulls give you roulette orbs. At any point in combat, provided you have enough roulette orbs, you can temporarily slow down time to pick a powerful attack from a roulette wheel, which Gene will then perform.
So that's the combat system: frantic and fun, requiring fast reflexes and lots of on-the-fly strategizing. And the difficulty curve? The difficulty curve is absolutely spot-on, thanks to Clover's masterstroke: the dynamic difficulty system. In the lower left corner of the screen, there is a gauge. This gauge goes up when you deal damage to enemies, and down when enemies deal damage to you. There are four difficulty levels (1, 2, 3 and Die -- the last one being a pun, as the Japanese word for "four" is pronounced exactly the same way as the word for "death"), and every time the gauge completely fills or empties, it goes up or down a level. It's a simple system that's been around in arcade shoot 'em ups for a while (it's there known as "rank"), but God Hand is the first 3D beat 'em up to use it, and it's absolutely ingenious; the way enemy speed, strength and aggression constantly adapts to your ability ensures that the game stays challenging -- and, as a result, engaging and satisfying -- from the very beginning to the very end. It's kind of like a good martial arts teacher in the way it constantly spurs you to do better: whenever you do well enough to start feeling cocky, it raises the difficulty and puts you in your place, and whenever you get your ass kicked for a prolonged period of time, it lowers it and lets you relax for a short while before increasing it again.
As for the aesthetics: the graphics are, as I've mentioned, not especially good. Gene is detailed and well-animated, but all the enemy models are plain, and there is a roughness and a featurelessness to the environments usually only seen in pre-alpha code. The sound, on the other hand, is genuinely brilliant. The background music is goofy, but has groove, and does a great job of getting your adrenaline pumping when it needs to; the invisible audience that cheers and boos depending on how you're doing adds tons of character to the game; and the ridiculous voice acting complements the intentionally cheesy writing very well indeed. The game's famous humour warrants mention, too: it's absolutely fantastic, and incorporates great references to everything from movies and video games to boxers and obscene sexual acts.
And that's God Hand. Clover's funniest game; their most challenging game; their most mechanically sophisticated game; their best game -- but also their most misunderstood, because of its rough graphics and its relatively long learning curve. Don't let the nay-sayers and the fans who praise only the humour fool you. The game is wonderful, and if there is so much as a molecule in your body that appreciates 3D beat 'em ups, you absolutely need to play it.
I've never really been interested in making this kind of "Game of the Year" blog. This year, though, I figured what the hell. I can at least give it a shot. See if it's any fun. So here are my ten favorite 2010 releases, the five games I think could've made that list if I had played them, my ten favorite pre-2010 releases I didn't play until 2010, and the ten 2011 releases I'm looking forward to the most.
Just one thing: if you want to point out, for example, that Espgaluda II Black Label is a port of a 2005 arcade game with a couple of new features, or that Demon's Souls was released back in 2009 in Japan and the States, please don't. I already know, and as a European who's also pretty lenient when it comes to the exact details of the releases, I don't care.
This game has it all. Beautiful, detailed 2D graphics; a kickass soundtrack; a cool medieval-styled sci-fi setting; amazing bullet patterns; incredible pacing; a brilliant, unique system that, amongst other things, lets you temporarily alter the speed of enemy bullets -- it goes on. I've played probably over a thousand credits to date, and will certainly play many hundred more. Espgaluda II is an absolute masterpiece and, without a shadow of a doubt, my favorite game this year -- and one of my favorite games of all time.
With clean, colourful graphics, an upbeat soundtrack, tight controls and incredibly creative, varied level design that plays with physics and perspective in a way that puts even the first Mario Galaxy to shame, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is an absolute joy to play. It has some issues -- it's too easy, the levels could have been longer, and the music, while excellent, isn't quite as grandiose as that of the first game -- but it's extremely enjoyable nonetheless, and easily one of my very favorite 3D platformers.
Bayonetta blew me away. It's easily as visually and aurally spectacular as any of the God of War games (more, even), but unlike those, it doesn't sacrifice the complexity of games like Devil May Cry -- instead, it adds to it. Thanks to a wacky arsenal of considerable size and the most complex (in an easy to learn, hard to master kind of way) controls I've seen in a 3D beat 'em up, Bayonetta's combat is the most mechanically impressive I've seen in the genre since God Hand. I've played through it four times, beaten all the optional challenges except one (the hard-as-fuck Lost Chapter), and I'd still be delighted to play more -- it should say something (both about Bayonetta and how much I like the games above it on this list) that almost the entire first half of the year, I thought the chances of something coming along and topping this were close to zero.
Vanquish blew me away. It's easily as visually and aurally spectacular as the Uncharted games (more, even), but unlike those, it doesn't sacrifice the complexity of games like Gears of War -- instead, it adds to it. Thanks to a wacky arsenal of considerable size and the second most complex (in an easy to learn, hard to master kind of way) controls I've seen in a third-person shooter (the most complex being those of Xbox title Gun Valkyrie), Vanquish's combat is the most mechanically impressive I've seen in the genre since Resident Evil 4. Indeed, Vanquish is, in many ways, the Bayonetta of third-person shooters. However, it's shorter, simpler, aesthetically duller and has considerably less bonus content -- and that's why I could never put it above Bayonetta on this list.
After its release, BlazBlue: Continuum Shift quickly became my favorite fighting game. It's got everything I want from the genre -- a great system, a varied cast of cool characters that are fun to play, nice flow, stunning graphics and a good soundtrack -- and even some things I didn't know I wanted: a visual novel-style story mode, for example. I really like the way the developers periodically update the game with new characters and such via DLC, too. Capcom could learn a thing or three from Arc System Works.
Assassin's Creed II, except more and better; that's what Brotherhood is. Flashier, more fluid combat, more weapons and abilities, more and better side-missions, more and better music, a whole new aspect of the game in which you recruit and train assassins you can order around... the only thing I think II did better is environments, and I can't really fault the developers for that -- they did little more than replicate Rome, and it's hardly their fault that it isn't as beautiful a city as Florence or Venice. I've seen a lot of people whine about Ubisoft's desire to crap out one Assassin's Creed a year, but if the people at the Montreal studio can keep improving on the formula at this pace, I say bring those annual installments on. I, for one, will be more than happy to play them.
After spending well over a hundred hours with Fallout 3, I felt like I'd had enough Fallout to last me several years. I felt burnt out, and thought there was no way in hell I could enjoy another post-apocalyptic first-person open-world game anytime soon. I was wrong. New Vegas has everything Fallout 3 had -- incredible atmosphere, a large world with a myriad places to explore and so on -- and more: improved gunplay, more interesting quests, more likeable characters and locations, and a faction system that, while incredibly shallow, is still significantly better than 3's karma system (which is still present; it just, well, doesn't really do anything -- kind of like in 3, lol). I was hooked from the moment I turned the game on, and remained so for a good thirty hours (turned out I was burnt out on Fallout after all -- just not to the degree I initially thought). Certainly not as long as with 3, but still more than enough to secure a spot on this list.
On a mechanical level, Alan Wake is not especially good. The controls aren't as sharp as they could be, the combat is extremely basic, and enemies are in some ways cheap. Aesthetically, however, it's absolutely amazing. The lighting is second to none; the environments are some of the most authentic-feeling I've ever seen; the sound design is spectacular; the game is so beautiful, and the atmosphere so good, that I'm totally fine with the fact that you spend hours simply walking. In fact, I enjoyed the promenades in this game so much, I extended them by pressing the analogue stick forward very lightly, causing Alan to slowly walk instead of lightly jog. I really, really hope Remedy pull an Assassin's Creed II with the sequel and fix the major mechanical and structural problems -- if they do, there's no doubt in my mind it's going to be one of my favorite games of all time.
A beautiful dark fantasy world one can't help but want to explore. Enemy and level design that demands patience and attention. Probably the coolest online system I've seen in a game, allowing you to see how other players have died, leave and find hints and messages, enter other players' worlds to aid or attack, or have your own world entered. It's got a bunch of issues, too (a sometimes inadequate lock-on system, for example), but Demon's Souls is a unique action game that's terrific fun. Here's to hoping that Project Dark is something similar, thematically as well as mechanically.
I don't really care for modern multiplayer first-person shooters in general. Call of Duty, Halo et cetera -- they're just not my thing. This game, though? I love this game. I love the way the guns feel. I love the way sniper shots echo, and the way distant explosions sound. I love the way buildings collapse when you've put enough holes in them. I love the selection of vehicles. I love the maps. I love the modes (32-player Rush being my absolute favorite). There are a bunch of things I dislike about it (many of which, sadly, are inherent to the modern multiplayer first-person shooter formula), but I've gotten many hours of enjoyment out of it, and I am pumped as hell for the next Battlefield.
Top Five Games I Think Could Have Made My "Top Ten 2010 Releases" List If I Had Played Them