Knee-Jerk Reaction - Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

The purpose of my Knee-Jerk Reaction blogs is to give a perspective of the first hours of a game, the ones that help define whether you will continue playing it or put it down in favor of something else. These are not any form of FINAL opinions on the game, but merely early observations that could or could not change through the course of more gameplay.

Total game time so far: 5 hours

THE GOOD

Kingdoms of Amalur takes out the stale combat of many RPGs and looks at it from a fresh standpoint like most action-oriented games would. If anything, I think the closest comparisons that can be made is a limited version of the systems found in Bayonetta with a flavor of the feel from El Shaddai. You have your primary weapon and secondary weapon, as well as spells, and you can pretty much combo those in any way that you want to take down an enemy. This type of "free-form combat" is something that many RPGs could take note of, as it would easily lift them up to a higher status.

The art design may feel a bit like Fable, but the package as a whole walks miles around Fable's art assets and presentation.

The game also does a great job of realizing its world. Despite the relatively linear way that things seem to feel (it's a bit more Fable and Dark Souls than it is Skyrim), the immensely large world is vibrant and well-stocked with some interesting people to talk to and enemy types that feel original. We've all seen kobolds before, but these kobolds don't feel like many of the others we typically see in RPGs. You can tell that Big Huge Games had a lot of fun developing the art assets for this game, as they are creative and unique to the world.

The other great thing about Kingdoms of Amalur is in how it handles classes. The Destinies system was one of the major selling points, and this could've been an easy hit-or-miss scenario. Luckily, having the ability to free-form my own class with the skills that I want and not have to rely on strictly being a warrior or strictly being a sorcerer is incredible. The actual Destiny cards themselves are little more than some stat bonuses (more crit chance, more melee damage, more spell damage, etc), but you feel unique regardless of it all. Kudos to the developers for this.

There are a lot of little things that Kingdoms of Amalur also gets right. There are bags already given to you for holding onto reagents, crafting materials, and other things to help keep your inventory space a bit freed up. Also, there is no encumbrance in the game, but instead it is handled by inventory spaces (you start with 70 and can buy different backpacks later with more spots available). The dungeons are well-designed and rarely feel like you are walking into something you've already seen. The faction side stories are just as well-told as the main storyline, something that Skyrim cannot say for itself. I also give mad props to the developers for having a plethora of different weapon types to play around with. Despite having points in greatswords and faeblades at the moment, that hasn't stopped me from playing around with chakrams, bows, daggers, longswords, and even staves. Giving a player variety in a game focused on role-playing is necessary to keep a player intrigued in your combat as well as the gear they pick up.

THE BAD

None of that is to say KoA doesn't have its problems early on. While the combat is more action-oriented, it never feels like the breakneck pace that you WANT it to be. There are also times where you feel like something should've connected in your combo, but it didn't. Some of this could be faulted to the relatively wonky camera that the game uses, as it gets rather scatterbrained and never seems to focus on the combat at hand. This leaves you swinging at things that are somewhere off-camera and wasting precious time fiddling with the camera angle rather than kicking ass. That same camera also could do for being pulled back a little bit, as the up-front style of it really makes me think of Fable a little more than I'd like to.

My other major issue with Kingdoms of Amalur is that a lot of the game feels like it is filled with all the tropes of an RPG...solely to be filled with those tropes, like there was a checklist that said "yes, we have crafting...yes, we have socketing...yes, we have alchemy...yes, we have persuasion and lockpicking and blah blah blah". Some of that stuff is very under-realized. The lockpicking in particular feels a bit clunky and generally easier than you would find in a Bethesda game. I can think of only three times that I've actually had to move the lockpick from its starting position. The magic lockpicking (called dispelling) feels like it was added as a form of variety to the traditional lockpicking mechanism, but it becomes rather irritating because of what feels like a relative amount of inaccuracy when trying to activate the lockpicking runes in the little mini-game it presents.

He walks softly, but he carries a big sword.

I should also mention something about loot here. I love loot. Loot in games is one of the biggest reasons I play RPGs. Yes, I dig the stories that they present and want to know about the world and the inhabitants of that world. However, when it comes down to it, we all just want to look like badasses and chop heads off. The biggest problem with many RPGs comes in devaluing the "carrot-on-a-stick" mentality that most RPGs need in order to continue progressing. For example, I should not have purple gear by level 10...from doing story quests. That's just a bad way of handling your color grading, and in turn, you have now devalued the color grading completely by giving me these epics at a low level. I also should not be getting "set bonuses" by level 10. Throwing out sets all willy nilly at early levels makes a lot of other armor completely worthless to a person. Someone took time to program that stuff, and it will more than likely never be seen now. In turn, this means you as a developer have now made it to where people are going to say "I'm not going to replace my purple with a green, even though that green has some more damage than this does".

There are also a lot of other things that hold Kingdoms back from giving me that super tingly feeling of absolute, unadulterated awesomeness. Jumping is handled via a Zelda-esque "jump point" function, meaning that you can't just scale up a few rocks to get to the path you want and instead have to travel an arbitrary distance. This is also something that helps make the game feel a bit more linear than it actually is. The inventory system is relatively clunky, as if it were designed sometime around the end of the PlayStation 2 era. It's serviceable, but there have been great strides made in something as simple as inventory management. There's also an unnecessary density of side quests that feel like little more than menial tasks that you would find in an MMO - get this many of this item, go fetch this, go do things for me because I'm goddamn lazy. Mind you, there are plenty of times that the NPCs you receive those quests from will make fun of the fact that they won't go do these menial tasks themselves, so the self-awareness is nice. However, there's this feeling brewing up in me that thinks all the side quests are eventually going to feel like artificial padding for gameplay time. Maybe it's because I'm not approaching Kingdoms of Amalur like an MMO, which a look at the world map will tell anyone who has played an MMO before exactly the design philosophy of the game. Crafting feels nigh useless so far, especially if we go back to the whole idea of "devaluing" your gear by giving out epics through the main and side storylines. Even then, it never feels like the crafting system is superbly explained, and something that feels completely unexplained are the different diseases, curses, and other status effects that pop up on the right hand side of your HUD. I know that I'm picking up these buffs from different shrines around the world, but what the fuck do they do? TELL ME WHAT THEY DO!

KNEE-JERK VERDICT

I like it...a lot. Despite all the negatives I can give about it, it's an RPG and I'm only five hours in on a character that is melee-focused. The combat and world more than make up for dealing with nearly decade-old mechanics. The Destinies system raises the bar for all RPGs beyond this to give players more freedom in their "role-playing". If anything, I think that's what I can best classify Kingdoms of Amalur as for me right now: it's a game that's more about playing your role and kicking ass than it is about all of its "RPG checklist" systems. We'll see if these opinions stay the same when I hit over 50+ hours in the game.

What about you? How are you feeling about the game? What are YOUR knee-jerk reactions? Do you agree or disagree? Keep the discussion going.

Until next time, piece.

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Got The Time, But Not The Money: The Perils of Gaming as a Hobby

You know what sucks? The thing that really drives me nuts?

When the gaming industry wants to drop four games in one month while I'm in the middle of doing some major work that is going to keep me from buying those games.

In particular, I'm working on doing some restoration work to my 1991 Mustang - about $1200 work of work. In the meantime, the gaming industry has decided that January and February have turned around from being the "dumping ground for shitty games" into "the timeframe we release games that will be pretty damn awesome and we just couldn't quite squeeze them into the holidays".

Fuck you, gaming industry, for making this difficult. I love gaming, but I love my car more. This means that you have forced my hand. The only two games that I will be purchasing this month are Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning and SSX. I will not be dumping money out for The Darkness II and Syndicate after all, as that is essentially the cost of my A/C compressor, and I don't feel like throwing that much out on games that I know will be $20 cheaper in two months.

That's part of the problem with game buying now, isn't it? You go to the store to pick that shiny new copy up on day one, and then you get that sinking in your heart a couple of months later when it's $20 cheaper. Luckily, I've got this lovely little system in my brain where I can tell if a game is going to hit that lower price bracket soon. Want the secret? Here you go...

1. Is it published by EA? If the answer is yes and the game doesn't sell a million out of the gate, then expect it to be $40 within two months.

2. Is it published by Activision? If the answer is yes and it is not Call of Duty, then expect it to be $40 within two months.

3. Is it a game that you've seen a lot of advertisement for but not a lot of people talking about on forums? If the answer is yes, expect it to be $40 within two months.

4. Is it critically panned? Two months, if not shorter...

Given that three of the four games I want happen to be from EA, I feel like I'm in luck. Nonetheless, I already have my pre-orders (yeah yeah, I know, I hate them too) for KoA and SSX.

What about you guys? Which games this month are you picking up, if any? Are you going to be waiting around for some to get cheaper?

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My Body is Ready

It's tough being pigeonholed.

There are always people that want to say what you as a gamer prefer to play is somehow "wrong" or "stupid", some even going so far as to say you play "bad games" just because they don't like the specific genre. You see it a lot with Call of Duty players towards others, and that same feeling seems to get reciprocated a lot. However, how do you handle it when these situations come up?

Recently, my friend and I were discussing games that we are looking forward to playing in 2012 - specifically, the early part of 2012. Amidst the nods of "more Dark Souls" and "more Skyrim" and "Old Republic" and "Kingdoms of Amalur", it became quickly apparent to me that I had dropped a bombshell of hype on him that he wasn't ready to hear, like he needed to grab onto something because the blast seemed too much for him to bear. I said the following words:

"SSX is going to own my soul this year. I guarantee that I will put more hours into that game than anything else."

He seemed blown away by this, asking how the hell someone could possibly put that over stuff like Dark Souls, Skyrim, Kingdoms of Amalur, and Old Republic. Thus, I had to explain to him my obsession with SSX 3, the pinnacle of the franchise. It is no lie to say that I put more play time into SSX 3 than pretty much any other game in my life, barring World of Warcraft and possibly Vagrant Story. There may be a few others, but they don't come to my mind immediately. The point of the matter is this: I got every Platinum medal in the game, posted up on message boards with high scores as often as possible, and in general was very fucking good at SSX 3.

In this lies a problem, though: how do I explain why I spent so much time in a game where you are essentially just going down a track and doing tricks? How do you make someone who has never played the game and has little interest in doing so understand "there's a thrill in doing these tricks, getting the big air, going fast, and the general atmosphere"? I don't feel like I have to justify why I like a game to anyone. However, it's not like he's saying "oh, fuck that game, it sucks". Instead, it's an understanding that we both like different kinds of games (he loves Soul Calibur, I'm not a huge fan) but I can't explain to him why I'll put more hours into SSX than he'll put into Skyrim or Dark Souls.

There are few that can even understand the level of hype I have for SSX. This is something I've been waiting for since playing SSX on Tour and being thoroughly saddened and disappointed by what it was. I've been dying to see only a handful of games get their proper dues in sequel form: Vagrant Story 2, Dark Cloud 3, SSX, Fear Effect 3, and a new Kain/Raziel game.

It's like all the people waiting for Persona 5 or some other illusive game that never seems to get closer. This time, though...it is finally happening.

I'm ready for SSX. I'm ready for the slopes, the peaks, the spills, the tricks, the speed, the ambiance, the atmosphere, the soundtrack, the leaderboards, the RiderNet...EVERYTHING!

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On How January 18th Will NOT Live In Infamy

Tomorrow, on January 18th, many sites around the internet are planning either blackouts or some form of protest against two pieces of American legislation that are currently being considered by Congress: the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act. Some of the world's largest internet entities have committed to the cause: Google, Wikipedia, and Reddit has all dedicated themselves to fighting this cause.

It's not enough.

Google merely plans to put up some wall of text on their home page to make people aware. What they don't seem to realize is that YouTube, a company they run, has already been spreading the message for a while now. Therefore, posting some fucking essay about how SOPA and Protect IP are bad isn't going to do more than what has already been done.

Wikipedia will be shutting down the English-language version of its website for 24 hours tomorrow. /slowclap Congrat-you-fucking-lations. Meanwhile, I'm going to open my browser up, load another version in some other language, and then hit the "Translate" button. It may not be perfect, but it will serve my purpose well enough.

Reddit will be going down for 12 hours. Whoop-tee-fuck.

The problem with protesting against something like this is that you need to be ballsy, and in corporate America, no one is willing to actually commit in fear that they are going to lose their fat-ass dirty dollars.

If Facebook shut down for a week solid...

If Google cut all of its services off for a week solid...

If Wikipedia killed its site for a week...

Would they lose money? Yeah. Would that make the shareholders worried? Yeah. They should already be worried about these bills passing and potentially killing the sites they have investments in. When it comes down to it, you as a company need to be willing to say "I am going to risk my business, my lifesblood...in order to see this legislation never passes, and I'm going to set an example to the world by showing how a bill like this can TRULY affect modern day living".

Personally, it could be the wish to see what kind of utter chaos would happen when someone can't tweet what they ate for breakfast or press "Like" on a status about how shitty the day was for them. I want to see people freaking out when they actually have to RETAIN knowledge rather than pulling out their Google smartphone to look on a Google search engine what 8 x 2 equals.

I want people to realize that they are too reliant on technology so they can understand the harm these bills will impose.

But instead...instead, we get a bullshit protest. We get a handful of websites that say "we're going to make sure we're still remaining profitable, but we're gonna show Congress by waving our fist in the air and telling them how bad this legislation is".

Lead by example, not by lies.

Until next time...

***UPDATE***

"Blackouts" have started.

Google put up a Google Doodle of their name censored out. If you click it, it tells you some stuff about SOPA and Protect IP...but only if you click it...and only if you want to learn about it. The search engine is still fully functional. LAWL

Wikipedia has killed the English version of their website. Luckily, you can just type in wikipedia.org with no prefix like "en", and then go to the Spanish version of the website...and have your browser translate it to English. As it turns out, you can then read it in pretty damn decent English (no more difficult to read than a lot of texts that people send nowadays anyways!).

SUPER...EFFECTIVE...PROTESTING. It may raise some awareness somewhere, but it's nothing more than a ding.

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Dear BioWare, I'm Sorry. Love, Me.

I had zero interest in playing The Old Republic.

When the game was announced, I found it to be an odd way to go, but the things that my friends and I were coming up with as possibilities of what the game could offer got us incredibly excited. However, there's a lot of times when "the internet happens" and you just don't want it to. It feels almost like it has this painstakingly accurate way of shitting on your hopes and making you break down with a facepalm followed by a "why". That's what led me to not caring about The Old Republic - the negativity of those on the internet.

As a gamer and a person, I end up having these moments pop up right when certain games launch. For those who remember, I spewed nothing but venom and hatred for Fallout 3 before its release because of what seemed like blasphemy to what the previous games had been. However, upon release, my curiosity got the best of me and led me to be lined up at a local Wal-Mart to pick up a copy. Even then, I was told that all they had were the Lunchbox Editions. I threw down $80 for a game that I had just been talking non-stop shit about for the better part of a year. It was an instance where I was so relieved to find that the game was great.

Meanwhile, there are those times when those purchases just don't live up to anything, not even the slightest shred of hope...like Divinity II.

My friend asked if we were going to install The Old Republic on the computers at work, and I told him how Origin was a shit setup but we'd definitely look into it. He told me it didn't use Origin.

REALLY? Alright, you have me a little more intrigued.

After installing it...which was INCREDIBLY FUCKING EASY, I decided "eh, let's check it out for a little bit".

30 minutes later, I needed to buy the game. The Star Wars geekdom in me was tickled just right. Even though I only reached level 3 in the game, it showed me what I needed to see to commit: The Old Republic is a game where the money and production value that went into making it has proven to be a massive labor of love.

There are so many things that impress the hell out of me with The Old Republic. One of the worst parts of most MMOs is that the solo questing is always nothing more than a boring ass grind where you barely read any of the lore or story being given to you. With The Old Republic, BioWare puts that front and center. There have been many times that I've questioned whether this should've been a single player game out of the gate, as the focus on the story is great. All the voice acting is good, and the level of immersion I've already experienced with this world is deeper than anything I've seen before in an MMO.

There are also the smart choices in the little things, from how they handle crafting to the target marker icons used in marking different mobs. There are a fuckload of world bosses, plenty of instances, lots of heroic quests (some of which can be both lengthy and challenging), a real feeling of a WORLD that feels ALIVE and BREATHING.

Is it the most open world? No. Things do sometimes feel rather sectioned off and instanced, almost linear in design. However, I see it as being no different than something like the world of Dark Souls or even the world of Dragon Age: Origins. Both had good worlds while also still having a bit of a mapped-out, more linear approach. It's how you handle the context and the general aesthetic of that world, what tone it sets. The Old Republic handles all of that well.

The quests are smartly designed, as most of the times, quests have a bonus objective (almost not unlike Dungeons & Dragons Online) of "kill this many guys". The quests themselves, however, are generally the "get so many of these things" or "hey, go do this to that many things" types of setups. However, each of those things seems pretty well-reasoned when you are talking to the NPC that offers that quest. In previous MMOs, that stuff was just a grind. In here, that grind is masked behind a REASON to do that shit. I know why I poisoned the water supply at the Rebel Camps on Balmorra. I couldn't tell you why the fuck I ever had to poison anything in World of Warcraft.

That's where The Old Republic succeeds and many other MMOs...in my eyes now...fail - BioWare has found a way to engage the player into the world and the story that is unfolding, not just shove it aside as a grind to get paid.

All of this is nothing more than to say "thank you, BioWare...and I'm sorry for doubting you". Whether you care for MMOs or not, The Old Republic feels like a love letter to Star Wars fans while also feeling like the improvements that were needed in the world of MMOs. Many of those improvements are not necessarily new, but they are compiled together.

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Super jakob187 Blog GO!

I got into the Super Monday Night Combat beta. That's all I can say about that, unfortunately, since anyone in the closed beta is under an NDA. I'm pretty sure that I can say that it has me excited to play more Super Monday Night Combat, though... That's okay to say, right?

However, I CAN talk about how Gamestop had this whole "Buy 2 Get 1 Free" on all their used games, and coincidentally, they had Vanquish and El Shaddai for $17 a piece (the free game was Mass Effect 2...my brother's X-mas present). I almost picked up Nier as my third choice to continue with the whole "weird Japanese" aesthetic, but I decided to have a heart and shit.

Both of those games are exactly what I was hoping for: excited and fun to play. El Shaddai is something that I kind of regret not having on my Best Of 2011 list, but I've also only been through a couple of hours (I'm in Act 2 right now).

If it's one thing that they both make me appreciate, it's the fact that they take this complete left-turn approach to their respective genres. Sure, the DMC-combat-style of game has always been a little weird and crazy, but I like having no HUD and the mystery that the game surrounds you in. There are few games I know of that start and very quickly rewind you back to the start screen. It sets a very specific mood and aura around the game that makes me curious to delve further into it.

Vanquish, on the other hand, gives me all of that pulse-pounding action that I expect from a PlatinumGames joint. ROCKET KNEES! If anything, this is Gears of War done right: fast, snappy, and absolutely bonkers from the get-go. Again, I'm super excited to put more time into it, and if my playtime with Bayonetta (something close to 70 hours) is any indication, I'm sure Vanquish will get a ton of spin time in the 360.

Beyond that, I plugged in Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga last night. Guys, I don't think I want to play any more Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga. That game...still isn't very well made. When something says it has been remastered and reworked, I'm expecting it to...ya know...not still be the same goddamn thing. Oh well. I'll probably end up playing it because I can't let the game sit on my profile without getting some achievements unlocked. It's just going to be a painful ride. That's all.

Speaking of achievements, I am SOOOOOOOOO FUCKING CLOSE to S-ranking Saints Rows The Third. SOOOOOOO close. Afterwards, the game will get to sit around as I wait for the DLC to actually start pouring out. Are you guys stoked for some Saints 3 DLC?

Either way, that's all for now. Until next time, piece.

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jakob187's Pretentious-As-All-Hell Best Games of 2011

My 25 Best Games of 2011

What makes a game worthy of "Game of the Year"? Is it how much time you can sink into the game? Does the game have to make you think beyond what the game itself is? Does it need to be frustratingly difficult but seriously rewarding when you overcome it? Does it just need to be functional and something you like? Is it quirk or spectacle or pretentiousness?

There's no right or wrong answer. There's only the opinion of the one making the judgment. That judgment will not be agreed upon by everyone, but it doesn't need to be. If anything, making this list opens your eyes to realize that this was a phenomenal year to be a gamer. There were so many quality games (especially in the last half of the year) that it will be difficult for anyone to honestly make a 100% perfect list of the best games to come out this year.

As with all my yearly lists, this cannot be a comprehensive list. I don't own a PS3, so I don't have PS3 games on here. If I did, I'm sure Uncharted 2 or LittleBigPlanet2 or something else might show up. They don't. I'm sorry. These are the 25 games that I personally played this year which made me stand up and applaud.

1. Bastion

I cannot do it. I cannot find the words that need to fill this space in order to explain and justify to anyone why Bastion is my Game of the Year. I have typed at least twenty different paragraphs over the last few weeks trying to explain it, and every time I do, I find that there is way too much to say. While every other game I played this year that appears on this list was fun and engrossing and a prime example of what good game development should be, Bastion was the one game that actually latched into me beyond just being a fantastic and well-made game. Beneath all the cool little gimmicks of a narrator explaining every move you make like he's unfolding a story at a campfire and how the world literally forms at the base of your feet with every step, there's a great fiction and incredible levels of allegory and philosophy that kept me thinking about the game and what it is saying long after the end credits. With every arrow you fire and every swing of your hammer (if those are the weapons you choose, mind you), the narrator Rucks is laying down the tragedy of this world and its denizens. By the time you reach the choice you need to make at the end, you have been run through an emotional tour-de-force, and the decision you must make is heavy-handed either way. Yet again, here's another paragraph trying to explain my fascination with this game. I don't care if people think it's not the right choice. I don't care if they disagree. This is my list, and this is my Game of the Year.

2. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Skyrim is no pushover, not by any stretch of imagination in either you or me. This will likely be the Game of the Year choice for millions. That's great, because the game is well-deserving of it. Why didn't I put it in that slot? Despite the 50+ hours I've already put into the game, the level of depth that has been added on top of the already-familiar Elder Scrolls formula, the amazing depth of fiction... Despite all of that, Skyrim was just another open-world RPG to me. It's a fan-fucking-tastic open-world RPG, and it happens to be the only entry in the Elder Scrolls franchise that I actually like (flame-shield ON). It's a technical marvel, a stroke of genius on the part of Bethesda. However, after a couple weeks, it was just "the next Elder Scrolls" game, and there was at least one game I could think of that went above and beyond that call.

3. Dark Souls

Dark Souls is inaccessible, exploitable, has frame rate issues in areas with heavy amounts of water, and promotes griefing in its online gameplay. Did you ever think you would hear those words before someone says "...and it's easily one of the best games this year because of almost all of it"? Sure, there's an incredibly deep level of character customization available to you and at least a hundred different things you won't get done in your first playthrough because you didn't know about it. However, that's kind of the brilliance of Dark Souls: it allows for players to go into a New Game Plus and still feel like it's a fresh and new game, even by the time you've gone through it four times already.

4. League of Legends

"This game came out in 2009". You're right. It did. However, Dominion DID launch in 2011, and that makes me feel justified in adding it to my list. Out of all the games I spent time with this year, League of Legends took the vast majority of it...and more money that I'd like to admit maybe. The new Dominion mode for LoL took the game from being a "DOTA clone" into the MOBA classifier that Riot helped invent, and it is fast-paced fun all-around. It's not just about pushing lanes anymore, and innovations in the genre like this are exactly why Riot is at the top of the MOBA world. Add in all the crazy and exciting champs that were released as well as the introduction of Season Two (with all its game-changing enhancements), and League of Legends continues to prove why free-to-play games are worthwhile endeavors.

5. Dead Space 2

I am unapologetic in my love for all things blood and gore. Dead Space 2 fulfilled that need multiple times over in just one playthrough, so it's probably telling that I did three playthroughs before I finally set it down to play other games coming out this year. The continued adventures of Isaac are an obsession of mine, and Dead Space 2 definitely ups the ante in both story and presentation. It was merely the start to a great year from EA.

6. Portal 2

Where Portal offered up a complex puzzle game rooted in physics with a minimalist story and one of the most interesting new characters in gaming in the past two decades, Portal 2 expands into an actual story with reason and purpose. It's still that physics-based puzzle game we all know and love, but there's more heart to it this time around. You don't just feel bad for Glados, the determined robot that wanted you dead in the first game. You want to see her succeed in her mission. The writing is even more biting and witty than the first, but the multitude of characters we meet make this world feel alive and meaningful rather than just "something that exists".

7. Saints Row: The Third

Absolute, utter, insane ridiculousness does not necessarily guarantee that a game like Saints Row The Third will see the top ten of a "Best of 2011" list. Even a well-designed game with good gameplay mechanics and a ton of shit to do does not necessarily do it for me. The moment where it clicked that this game was goddamn genius was while listening to one of the radio stations. No, it's not the moment when you and Pierce sing Sublime's "What I Got" in its entirety while driving to a location. It's the moment that I heard a commercial on a radio station for a modern day text adventure game where one person states "...but how does the game look in HD" and the reply was "the Helvetica font is sharp...as...fuck" that I realized this game was on a completely different level. The writing, the characters, the environment, the game design - everything about this game is as sharp looking as its boxart.

8. Shadows of the Damned

Ludicrous, loud, dirty, vulgar, juvenile, hilarious, disgusting, icky... This is Shadows of the Damned. Suda51 doesn't shy away from the words "over-the-top" here. The mixture of Japanese weirdness guaranteed that I'd fall in love with the game, and despite how short the story is or how wonky it feels to aim your gun at times, I still can't think of any game that presented me with more fun and laughs combined over the course of the year.

9. Alice: Madness Returns

Before playing Alice: Madness Returns, I had to ask myself repeatedly "can I give this game a fair judgment?". Back when I was reviewing games, I ended up becoming something of a pen pal with American McGee about multiple topics, one of which was the hope for a sequel to his original PC-only game Alice. He talked about the changing climate of games and whether he'd be able to make the game he wanted. By the time we lost contact, he was in the middle of finding out that the movie for Alice was going to be lingering in development and his OZ project was getting the axe. Now, having played the sequel, I feel like American got to make exactly the game he wanted to without compromising very much at all. The game oozes with style and dread, but it's the way that Alice: Madness Returns really digs into the ideas of the human psyche and how far we will go to push memories out of our mind that really drives Madness Returns into my top ten list. Ya done good, American. Ya done real good.

10. L.A. Noire

People got upset over the controversy of Team Bondi, which may have hurt the reputation of this game in some ways. However, the game that Team Bondi developed and Rockstar published was an interesting mixture of adventure game, puzzle game, and action game that the mainstream could attach itself to. The most impressive piece of L.A. Noire, however, lies in its facial animation. The actors of the game were capable of giving what felt like REAL performances in a game, then translate those so seamlessly into an interactive experience. Unfortunately, the game pretty much only holds up for one playthrough, and the DLC was a little hit-and-miss. Still, it was an undeniable powerhouse in 2011.

11. Battlefield 3

There are shooters, and then there is Battlefield. It's a first-person shooter that continually deserves to be in a class of its own. The single player campaign was weak, but you come to the franchise for the multiplayer. That seems like a discredit to the game being one of the best of the year, but when a company creates such an undeniably addictive mix of chaos and consistently good shooting in a game, there's literally no way you can keep it off a list like this.

12. Iron Brigade

2011 might as well have been called "the year where tower defense was reinvented a million times over". The best of those reinventions, however, was easily Iron Brigade (formerly Trenched). Double Fine's risky little love child trio this year (Stacking, this game, and Sesame Street: Once Upon A Monster) proved to be quite fruitful, but Iron Brigade's unique mixture of loot-driven vanity and hyper-fun multiplayer action definitely makes it one of the year's best releases.

13. The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile

If you were to tell me that I'd dump close to 40 hours into this game over the course of the year and STILL not see all the content it offers, I'd call you a goddamn liar. Like Dark Souls, this game can become bone-crushingly difficult at the blink of an eye, and it will definitely test your "twitch" skill pretty well. The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile is another great instance of how downloadable titles are slowly becoming the new standard of game development in my eyes.

14. Gears of War 3

As someone who has never been a huge fan of the franchise, Gears 3 was much like Skyrim for me: it did all the things I wanted the franchise to do in order to grab me and take me for a ride. The controls don't feel nearly as clunky as its previous two installments. The overhaul to Horde mode, the addition of Beast mode, enough online infrastructure to keep people playing for years to come, a reworked community setup... All in all, Gears 3 seemed like the best way to send off the trilogy with a huge bang.

15. From Dust

This was easily the most unique game that I played in 2011, and despite being incapable of actually describing what the hell this game is to anyone else, people were always interested in watching me play it. PEOPLE WANTED TO WATCH ME TRANSFER SAND FROM ONE SPOT TO A DIFFERENT SPOT! When a game can capture people like that, you know that it is something special and on a completely different level than the rest of the industry. That's how beautiful and original the game genuinely is, and it's sad that the game had to deal with publisher Ubisoft screwing with the PC audience by making false claims about their DRM setup.

16. Galaga Legions DX

When Pac-Man DX came out, there was a crazy simplicity but undeniable level of strategy involved in playing the game. I consistently tried to get within the top 100 highest scores on one of the leaderboards for about two months after the game came out. Galaga Legions DX took that same philosophy and applied it to what was a decent-but-flawed formula from Galaga Legions. Adding in a ton of different visual elements and ramping up the insanity that occurred on-screen, Galaga Legions DX was just what you want it to be: as simple or as difficult as you want to make it, depending on whether you care to chase leaderboard scores or not.

17. Batman: Arkham City

Arkham City had some fever-pitch hype surrounding it, thanks mainly to the surprise that was Arkham Asylum. While this installment improved in a lot of areas, those improvements could also be a bit cumbersome in big doses. Arkham City's large world is littered with collectibles...maybe TOO MANY, but they are there for the taking. The main story is good...maybe not GREAT like its predecessor, but the trade-off is a handful of just-as-good side missions. It feels like the quality of Asylum is there, but it's spread out a bit too much and feels overwhelming before you know it. That doesn't mean it is bad by any stretch of the imagination, as the combat system has been streamlined even further and the treatment of the source inspiration is still handled very well.

18. Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet

I love me some Metroid-vania games, and Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet was a game that oozed both style and gameplay pedigree. Many times, I had to ask myself if I actually liked the game or just the visual style. However, when I consider how much time I put into the Lantern Run (which I still haven't gotten that goddamn achievement on), I know that it was definitely the gameplay. It wasn't just the great co-op multiplayer, though. The single player campaign had a very minimal approach to the story and focused heavily on the actual gameplay. The controls felt incredibly tactile, and the only downside was that the single player itself was a bit on the short side. Still, for $15, it was well worth every penny.

19. Gatling Gears

Gatling Gears was a decent surprise in the "bullet-hell" arena this year. While it didn't match the intensity of something like Jamestown necessarily, it had a great visual aesthetic and just happened to be a cheap downloadable title. When you kick the difficulty up, the game can almost become crippling, but getting past a level at that point felt absolutely euphoric. The controls were also very sharp, even if the camera could float a bit on the dodgy side every now and then.

20. Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Thankfully, we can say the phrase "Human Revolution was not like Invisible War". In all honesty, I think that's all that genuinely needs to be said here. What, you need more? Well, the game does a lot to offer a free-form style of gameplay to the player - you can be a stealthy assassin, run in and use cover to blast away enemies, or just avoid combat altogether. That's not where the game shines, though. The best parts lie in how deep the fiction goes, as there are literally hundreds of sources within the world to learn more about what is going on, the backgrounds of characters and situations, and overall, these things make Deus Ex: Human Revolution feel like more than just the cheap cash-in that people were expecting before its release.

21. Bulletstorm

On the opposite end of Shadows of the Damned and Suda51's Grasshopper Manufacture, you have Bulletstorm and People Can Fly. This game was lewd, crude, over-the-top in the most over-the-top way imaginable, and an absolute blast to play through. Despite being a bit heavy on the "bro-tastic" approach to character and story, it was absolutely unapologetic in everything it did. Mixed into that crass and bold design, you'll find a game that is immense amounts of fun to play.

22. Dungeon Siege III

Dungeon Siege III received a lot of flak from critics and fans who felt the game was watered down from what its predecessors were. Personally, I felt that Dungeon Siege III was enjoyable. The story was well-written, the different characters had their own unique playstyles that felt really good, and the world you explored was well-designed for a pseudo-dungeon-crawler. The linear world was a bit of a drawback, but it was far from a fault. The only true issue I had with the game was the weird setup for multiplayer co-op. Other than that, it was a perfectly fine game that I sunk many hours into.

23. Mortal Kombat

The resurgence of 2D-planed fighting games helped revitalize Mortal Kombat from what felt like a very slow and plodding 3D fighter death. After a ton of lackluster titles, seeing Scorpion and Sub-Zero return to their former glory was a breath of fresh air. You didn't have to be a pro to enjoy Mortal Kombat, so both beginner button-mashers and guys who know terms like "OTG" or "combo links" or "cancel" could get a solid amount of enjoyment from the title. Add in the fact that it brings the joyous celebration of blood and gore back to the forefront, and you can't help but have this game in your collection. So why is it so low on the list? Well, to be honest, I only played it for two weeks before I got a tad bit tired of playing it. Then again, it's tough to continue playing something when you keep getting your ass kicked in it.

24. Assassin's Creed: Revelations

If you are looking for more Assassin's Creed, then Revelations has got you covered. Aside from how much the graphics continue to improve on this old of an engine (seriously, the clothing designs are AMAZING), the game adds on to all of the existing stuff we've come to know in the last two entries. The beginning is still a slow burn like Brotherhood, the online multiplayer has been drastically improved, and the close-out of Ezio's story will leave you with more questions than answers. All of this seems like the proper way to say "requiesce in pace" to Ezio's journeys in the Assassin's Creed franchise.

25. Rock of Ages

Last but not least, there's Rock of Ages, the quirky little game from the creators of Zeno Clash. Why is this on the list? WHY SHOULDN'T IT BE?! Despite the fact that it's a pretty good game (single player or against someone else), there's a great sense of absurdist humor mixed with some great referential material that will pull a chuckle out of any long-time gamer. Moreover, Rock of Ages helps to further prove the mantra that games weren't always about shooting stuff and jumping on platforms: sometimes, they were just weird and fun.

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Playing Catch-Up

Now that the Skyrims and AssRevs have seen release, we're entering that period of the year where we do either one of two things: play a fuckload of Skyrim (as you should) or play a bunch of games that we never got around to earlier this year.

For me, it's the latter...and I'm justifying it by saying "I'm waiting for the Skyrim patch". What? Don't judge me, fucker!

For Black Friday, I went to Gamestop and took advantage of their B2G1 free sale. In turn, this put three games I really wanted to try into my possession finally:

  1. Shadows of the Damned
  2. Alice: Madness Returns
  3. Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Later that day, I went by Hasting's and picked up a fourth used game on sale - Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga.

Here's some initial impressions.

Shadows of the Damned

For anyone who knows my love of Bayonetta and other insanely over-the-top games with that massive "Japanese weirdness", you should already know how much I'm in love with Shadows of the Damned. Yeah, the shooting feels a bit loose, but so does your mom. ZING! Any game where the main character is a guy named Garcia Fucking Hotspur trying to get his girlfriend Paula (who he found in a dumpster and took home) from a phallic-headed six-eyed demon named Fleming (who plans to torture and possibly rape Paula repeatedly in Hell) with the help of his former demon buddy Johnson (who turns into his different weapons including the Boner, Teether, Hot Boner, and Big Boner) and a half-human/half-demon named Christopher (with a giraffe neck, Southern accent and hospitality, and a hunger for white gems)... Goddamn, I need to play more Shadows of the Damned. Also, I want a replica of every single poster that they have in that game. They are all magnificent nods and references to different movies/games (the Portal one is fucking hilarious).

Alice: Madness Returns

As someone who was a big fan of the first game, this was something I always wanted to see happen. As someone who talked to American on a pretty regular and personal basis about his frustrations with the gaming and movie industry (namely about the defunct Oz project he was working on as well as the production hell of the Alice movie), this was something I never expected to happen. The little bit that I played last night (I just found the Mad Hatter) has been fucking excellent. Really looking forward to playing more of that, and I'm definitely buying the original from XBLA at some point this week.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Is it okay to say that I'm not digging it so far? Sure, I haven't made a ton of progress in the game yet (still on the first mission). However, there's...well...there's all this talk of "choice in gameplay", but I feel like my "choice" is "sneak around like a bitch and stay behind cover because you're going to get fucked up otherwise". I mean, this isn't "Deus Ex: Espionage Revolution", and I know that the original (which I loved) had some stealthiness about the game. I just don't remember it being so clear-cut in that part of the gameplay department. Oh well. I'm going to stick it out and play some more.

Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga

I haven't plugged this in yet, but my friend Pip said "buy it, it's what you wanted Divinity II to be". He and I see eye-to-eye on many things, and for $20, I figured it was worth some of my time. Ego Draconis was fucking wretched, so anything that improves upon that works for me at this point. I'm sure I'll have something to say about that eventually.

Beyond that, we've got a copy of Assassin's Creed: Revelations at the store that I still haven't touched yet. I might get around to that at some point, as I need to start rounding out my Top 25 for the year (which pretty much seems about complete so far). I figure that'll be on there somewhere.

WHAT ABOUT YOU GUYS? What games are you catching up on before the end of the year? What did you pick up for Black Friday? What are you picking up for Cyber Monday?

Until next time, piece.

(P.S. - Super 8 was pretty alright, but I could've done without so much sappy drama bullshit).

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The Trials and Tribulations of Pursuing Perfection

***WARNING - THERE MAY BE SPOILERS DOWN YONDER***

No matter where you go on the internet, you are going to find plenty of people that will take something great (in this case, Skyrim) and try to nitpick it to death in order to bring it down a notch or two. Why wouldn't you? After five years of waiting and promises of lessons learned alongside new technology, you come to expect the game to be something akin to perfection. It's a silly expectation to have.

However, there's something that whittles at you as minutes turn to hours while roaming and exploring the world of Skyrim. For every sweeping vista presented to us, we are presented with a bug; for every dragon encounter, there's a glitch somewhere else. It's the curse of the open world game, maybe even mathematic formula - ambition and innovation comes with a price. It's a price we happily pay...isn't it? Maybe not, if you look at the myriad of players out there who are complaining about every little thing here and there that comes up. It's perfectly acceptable to bring these things up, as low-res textures rear their ugly head and giants pummel us...into the sky?

There are greater concerns, though. For instance, how much further does Skyrim honestly push the genre forward? Its play-forever quest system seems pretty well built, and while one can feel like they are incapable of telling the difference within the first ten hours or so of playtime, you eventually see where the system is at play. When you make your way into a town like Solitude and the first thing that happens is a guard telling you to pay a tax to enter (only to persuade him otherwise through speech), it makes the world feel a bit more alive...even if you can see the seams of where it is all stitched together.

Yes, Skyrim pushes things further when it comes to general creating a world of minutia and detail. What about choice? Do we have choices in the game? It would make you think so. To kill or not to kill; to steal or not to steal; we have choices all around us. What about when we want to join The Circle? Can we choose to find a way into The Circle without taking in the blood of the Lycan? Through all the errands you run and speechcraft you improve... With all the dragons and spriggans and bandits you've slain, is there a way to persuade Skjor to let you into The Circle...to trust you...without having to subside and become a creature of the night?

No.

You have no choice. If you wish to continue the questline, please drink from this fountain of blood and move onward. That's when you realize "nope, it's still just a game".

It is something that is understandable when trying to join the Thieves' Guild: if you can't pickpocket someone or steal from someone worth a shit, why should you join that guild? However, a precedent is set with The Companions early on that there are members that aren't werewolves. Sure, they also aren't part of The Circle itself, but progressing through the story, you find your leader talking about how great an addition you've been and how he hopes to groom you to become the next leader. You try to find another way to be in The Circle. Even the old man sitting at the Skyforge says that he will not become a werewolf, but he offers no alternate questline. If there is a questline that doesn't involve ripping your clothes off and becoming a beast, it's not easily presented as an option to you. That's fine, but it also means the player doesn't feel like there is a choice.

Going into the game, my character had a certain set of principles and morals that I personally wanted to follow: always dual wield, never use magic that isn't resto or alter, never become a creature like a vampire or a werewolf due to your own free will, and always act the role of a berserker. It had worked perfectly fine...until now. There is a roadblock, and I unfortunately passed it.

I don't feel like this is "my" character anymore. I now feel like I'm a byproduct of a linear pathway.

Has Skyrim pushed the genre forward? The definitive answer amongst the crowd is "yes, it has". However, there are times where it feels like the game is still so far away.

I hope everyone is enjoying the game as much as I genuinely am, but I hope you get to stand true to your character more than I have.

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What Madness Has Been Wrought On This Man?

Within the course of a week, I purchased Dark Souls and Skyrim. This is the part where you look at the computer screen and say "oh shit, what the fuck have you done to yourself, jakob187?" I know, I know. It's kinda fucked. Not proper fucked, but fucked enough.

I had just gotten my Greatshield of Artorias and Quelaag's +5 on Dark Souls (and on my way to picking up my Ornstein's Armor...first playthrough btw) when Skyrim was released. The moment the game hit my hands, there was this internal conflict that was too great to handle: which game would get my time? Both are incredibly well-made RPGs, both are relatively unconventional by many genre standards, and yet...it feels like the Judgment of Solomon. It's impossible (or at least feels that way) to dump the right amount of time necessary for either one of them to be everything that they should be.

This is an odd place to be as someone who has (flame-shield on) venomously hated the Elder Scrolls franchise. I never cared for the leveling system, the way they handled stat dumping, the level scaling, and so many of the other things that the games featured. However, something about Skyrim feels so goddamn right. The way they handle leveling is still the same, but it feels much more natural and well-paced as I progress through the game. The perks system is what makes all that feel perfect. I never felt like I was actually creating my own character before in the other Elder Scrolls games - I was playing by genre conventions still. In Skyrim, it genuinely feels like this character you've created is your own. Everything about him (or her), from the spells you use to the weapons you smash with... It just feels...right.

Dark Souls is phenomenal, though. It's the kind of game that makes you realize just how weak and yet how strong you are. When you are getting your ass handed to you, man...you are getting it HANDED to you! However, when you triumph over that battle, you stand back and shout "I AM A GOLDEN FUCKING GOD, YOU PIECE OF SHIT" and then do a celebratory dance...and that's just against some piddly muthafucker in the first area. Sure, the game can be exploited, but it's part of it all. That capability of saying "hey, I found this way to do something I probably shouldn't, but I just fucking owned that asshole, so it's worth it" is just another layer of that power. The depth of character creation is also fantastic, as you feel COMPLETELY custom.

It's a tough place to be as a gamer right now with all the games coming out (I still haven't touched Arkham City or Battlefield 3 again since I bought Dark Souls). However, for any RPG fan, it's an especially difficult time. How do you put the proper amount of time into two games that are fully deserving of it?

And that's BEFORE February come around and we have Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning brought into our lives.

Anyone else that has this problem arising? Is anyone else torn between these two games...or any games right now...and if so, what's the solution? Do you just forsake one until you've become sick and tired of the other?

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