OK, it's Wednesday and you probably already know the drill, but make sure you check out today's podcast if you want to hear more about our deliberation process and watch today's video for a brand-new look at a game voted on by all y'all! Have a good Sunday.
Best New Character
Iron Bull (Dragon Age: Inquisition)
With the world on the line, as demons surround us all, everyone could use a good laugh, drink, and romp in the sack. Maybe all three at the same time, if we're lucky! Iron Bull, an eccentric and dominating Qunari responsible for his own damn nickname, happily provides in Dragon Age: Inquisition.
You'll spend hours speaking with your companions in Dragon Age, a pursuit only worthwhile with characters worth a damn. Iron Bull greets you as as a total bad ass, a warrior leading a happy band of gold-loving mercenaries, but reveals himself to be much more over the course of the game. He has a bit of a wild (and weird) side, and isn't ashamed to flaunt it. Whether you accept Iron Bull doesn't phase Iron Bull. He is who he is.
He's even more interesting if you play as a Qunari. In a game rooted in class and racial warfare, watching Iron Bull criticize your own upbringing roots the game's politicization in surprisingly electric waters.
When Freddie Prinze Jr. voiced Vega in Mass Effect 3, it caused most to boot up IMDB and recall what cheesy 90s movie we'd last seen Prinze Jr. in. (She's All That, obviously.) While Prinze Jr. put in a respectable performance as Vega, he knocks it out of the park here, partially because it's nigh impossible to tell it's him in there. If Prinze Jr. felt a bit like stunt casting the last time around, he dismantles such arguments here, but it wouldn't mean anything without such an interesting character to bring to life.
Best Early Access Experience
The way Steam has codified the process of selling games to people before they're complete has really shaken up the PC game market, mostly by layering a healthy dose of chaos across Valve's popular digital storefront. Some of the things that go up as "Early Access Games" are, like, barely video games. But some developers are using Early Access in interesting ways, whether it's simply offering extremely good portions of partially finished games or offering a deep level of insight into the development process. But Nuclear Throne does it all.
Vlambeer has been delivering regular updates to its dual-stick shooter with Rogue-like-like-like tendencies for some time now, with live video feeds of development and addressing of user feedback happening on Tuesdays and Thursdays and new builds typically hitting on the weekend. It also helps that Nuclear Throne is already pretty fun and pretty robust from an options perspective. It'd be nice to see more developers with games in Early Access be a little more transparent about their progress.
Best Console Exclusives
Most video games come out on every platform under the sun. It's really expensive to produce a video game in 2014, which means companies spread their bets evenly. We're mostly removed from the days when buying one platform meant a hugely different gaming experience. But multiple platforms still exist, which means manufacturers have to provide incentives to buy one machine over the other, and exclusives remain the best possible carrot.
Microsoft started scaling back first-party development during the Xbox 360, and it's been trying to play catch-up ever since, following Xbox One's slow start. We're not sure what Sony's up to, and imagining the PlayStation 4 without its slate of (largely ported, though excellent) independent games is a pretty scary thought. There are plenty of potential greats coming in 2015, but how many are on a single platform?
It's little surprise, then, Nintendo's hit this one out of the park, especially this year. The company has never been able to rely on third-parties, which means Nintendo's forced to single-handedly support its own platforms with quality games. Wii U might not be selling well, but it's building quite the library. Bayonetta 2, Mario Kart 8, Super Smash Bros., and Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker are some of this year's best, and, if you had to pick, excellent reasons to pick up the Wii U over and Xbox One or PS4.
Runners-up: Xbox One, PlayStation 4
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
Shadow of Mordor isn't exactly the first game to be set in the Middle-earth milieu of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In fact, you can go back over three decades and find games based on the work of Tolkien running on such artifacts of ancient making as the ZX Spectrum. But it's probably the best game to come out of that universe, and even though it's largely built out of familiar parts, it introduces an exciting new element to open-world action that will likely have a profound effect on the genre in the coming years.
Sure, Shadow of Mordor's nuts and bolts are right out of the Assassin's Creed playbook: climb all over ancient buildings and ruins, and stab a zillion enemies to death. But we hope Ubisoft turns around and takes a cue or two from Mordor, because this is a more fast-paced, fluid, and entertaining climbing-and-stabbing game than anything the assassins' guild has ever turned out. And while the melee combat is taken straight from the Batman playbook, the game layers enough ridiculous superpowers on top of the core group fighting that doing battle hand-to-hand eventually makes you feel like some kind of fantasy superhero.
You know why this game is here, though. It's the Nemesis system. Without it, this is merely a really good open-world game that cribs all its core ideas. With it, it's a unique experience in a genre already known for weird, emergent gameplay situations. The Nemesis system's ever-changing lineup of orc captains makes your own time in Mordor feel unique to you, as you start to develop a true adversarial relationship with the most powerful enemies who repeatedly give you the most trouble. Fighting an organic hierarchy of unique, dynamically behaving enemies who can show up at any moment is neat enough on its own, but Monolith did a surprisingly good job of coming up with a distinctive range of names, appearances, and dialogue that give coherent personalities to these somewhat randomly generated enemies. There must be hundreds of lines of dialogue in the game for the captains alone, and the way they accurately comment on your past dealings with them never stops being entertaining over the course of your entire time with the game.
There are plenty of things we'd like to see improved in the (hopefully inevitable) follow-up--a storyline that's more than a greatest-hits of plot points and imagery drawn from Lord of the Rings would be a start--but for a first-time outing, it's remarkable just how well Shadow of Mordor's various pieces actually come together.