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Gaming’s Best and Worst of 2011 – A Delayed Interruption

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March 6th, 2012 at 12:09 am

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Adam’s Alliterative Awards Attached Arbitrarily At Awesome And Awful Amusements!

I know this blog’s been missing for a few weeks, er, pretty much all of February. Which is a shame as I was in the middle of this HUGE SERIES chronicling the CORE ASPECTS of all of gaming using Skyrim and Dark Souls as opposing examples to ENLIGHTEN AND ENTERTAIN, but then . . . stuff happened. Sickness struck me down. Moving took time to organize. There was interpersonal life drama, because LIFE. Plus, while still putting out a few reviews, I also got a tad busy with other projects.

So I cry pardon and say sorry. I will get back to the conclusion of the Skyrim/Dark Souls series, as all good journeys need an ending. But now it’s time for something completely different.

That segue has never been used out of its original context EVER before!

So, award season ended recently with the finish line we like to call the “84th annual Academy Awards” as North Americans (and the Finnish) are well aware. Aside from proving that Billy Crystal’s career is in dire need of carroussel, it wasn’t that eventful. Oscar bait won Oscars. There probably should have been more nominations for “Original Song”. Matt won the pool I think.

But far more importantly, it reminded me that one of the unfortunate requirements to reviewing ANYTHING (and if you suck at reading fine print) is that if you don’t put out some kind of “[ARBITRARY NUMBER] of the [BEST/WORST] from [PREVIOUS YEAR]” list, my life clock starts beeping and I’ll be hunted down like a dog by the lower level thugs in the Digital Reviewer Mafia.

Logan's Run, Life Clock, Logan 5, Carroussel

Yes, I did watch Logan’s Run recently, why do you ask?

Since I don’t want a knife in the back from an IGN Intern, let’s take a moment to acknowledge several games that are “so last year” because the first thing any “Best of Year X” list should probably do is be about the year in question. The ground rules are as follows:

  1. Since I couldn’t decide whether to do a “best of” or “worst of” list, this is probably going to be both.
  2. As I don’t generally like the way the rest of the gaming press handles this masturbatory plaudit promotion, I’ll be making up categories as I go.
  3. Oh, and to keep things fair and source-able I’m only going to assign awards to games that reviewed on CLR, and provide a link to each, even though I beat more games that came out than were reviewed.

 

 

Like Bloodrayne: Betrayal, which, though I didn’t review it, does win the award for “Best Bloodrayne Game Ever Made” due to not sucking more than it’s protagonist. But that’s so specific that it’s even less important than the rest of the superfluous awards to come.

Now let’s get on with it, shall we?

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Best New Character in a game:

Wheatley – Portal 2

Wheatley Cereal

Valve’s writers, led by Eric Wolpaw and Marc Laidlaw, have been crafting some of the most memorable video game characters ever for the last few years. They’ve done such a good job that when it came down to figuring out the best character of the year, it really meant, “Which Portal 2 character is your favorite?” And really, that comes down to one of two choices: Stephen Merchant as Wheatley and J.K. Simmons as Cave Johnson.

Though Simmons’ Johnson proved more memetic, especially due to the lemon speech, it was Merchant’s cheery, off the cuff, colloquial readings that infuse the Intelligence Dampening Sphere Wheatley with enough personality to carry the entirety of the game. With an upbeat attitude never slowed by ineptitude, Wheatley, “the product of the greatest minds of a generation working together with the express purpose of building the dumbest moron who ever lived”, not only managed to steal the spotlight from GLaDOS and Johnson, but occasionally proved to be touching and inspirational. If the Portal franchise continues, I just hope they head to SPAAAAAACE to pick up Wheatley first.

“Hello! This is the part where I kill you!”

Worst New Character in a game

Connor Morgan – Homefront

Connor Morgan Homefront Worst

If Wheatley is an exercise in showing how to make an idiotic character lovable and relatable, Morgan is one of the best examples of making the same archetype seriously force the audience re-examine the validity of eugenics. He isn’t funny or interesting in any way, presents the worst points of humanity, is the least useful member of the team you partner with in Homeront and as his haircut foreshadows, makes the worst decisions possible at all times. In a title that only had two weeks to live, he’s the tumor that tacks on the terrible; if you cut him out, it wouldn’t have made Homefront rise above mediocrity, but at least it wouldn’t have been offensively stupid.

The Best Ratio of Expectation to End Result

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Let’s be honest. Gamers are a fickle bunch, and worse, the gaming press is pretty much a hype machine on steroids that will claim a game is like Jesus riding a dinosaur before it even comes out if the marketing team paid them enough, only for buyers to discover that all too often it’s more like Jim Jones introducing you to his buddy the Kool-Aid Man. Once you get burned by 10/10 ultrahype or under-performing nostalgia it can be pretty tough to ever think ANY upcoming game will bring out your inner Console Warring Fanboy tendencies again.

Unless you’re a Sonic fanboy that is.

This cynical mistrust is especially prevalent of sequels or remakes to series that seem to have died out long ago. Often rightly so. Especially if the originals were either really good games, or god forbid, genuinely genre-busing and legitimately historic classics that hold up even today.

So let’s be honest. If you knew what Deus Ex was when Human Revolution was announced, is there any real way you could have moved your expectations past “Concerned, and just hoping it’s not terrible” or “Veeeeery Cautiously Optimistic” if you were having a good day? I know I couldn’t.

So when the game, though by no means perfect, actually turned out to be pretty damn good? Oh man! That right there. That deserves some notice! DX: HR A prequel no one ever asked for, but most of us are glad we got.

The Worst Ratio of Expectation to End Result

Dragon Age 2

On the other hand, there comes a time when a developer or publisher who has built up goodwill with their fans puts out a product that the entire audience turns around and says in a unified voice “No sir! May you have a good day without my company, as I shan’t be ambling into this establishment again!” They then proceed to replace their monocle, don their bowler hat, and stride away with silver-tipped cane in hand.

Kerfuffled Henry Hatsworth

“Harrumph!” – Gamers.

Which apparently was the case with Dragon Age 2, a game that I actually managed to enjoy quite a bit at the time and still feel that view is accurate for it’s circumstances. You see, I didn’t play Dragon Age: Origins, and walked into DA2 without any real expectations or foreknowledge. Hence, even though it had problems, much of the inherent freshness of a new experience carried me through some of the slower portions of the beginning, and the excellent middle portion served me well enough to stick with it to the end . . . when it just sort of lost steam and fell apart. Completely and quickly. I mean, we’re talking House of Usher speed here folks!

So, I think I get why if a person was coming to this not only with high expectations, but also with the sense of novelty removed, they just wouldn’t like it very much. Heck, I can’t force myself to get through the game again either, because there’s no drive to discover anymore. Which means that yes, Dragon Age 2 ended up as probably the most disappointing game of the year, for the largest majority of fans (for me personally I’d give it to Bionic Commando Rearmed 2).

Plus the only real contender to this award, Duke Nukem Forever, doesn’t get it because there WERE no expectations since as none of us thought that it would ever exist.

The Best New “Innovation” In a Game

Including a Legitimate Story in a Fighting Game – Mortal Kombat and Fight Night Champion

So, it’s not like Fight Night Champion‘s plot is Shakespeare or even a Quinn Martin Production, but you know what? It’s a helluva lot better than nothing. Because for both a sports or fighting games, nothing is what you usually get in this department.

Honestly, is about danged time. I mean, fighting games and sports games have easily the simplest mold for being transferred into a narrative medium (Kung-Fu Flicks & Rocky clones respectively), and conversely are one of the few genres that has real space for telling about inter-character conflict in a more personal way (most of it’s one on one combat/underdog athletes working their way to the championship). Adding a genuine narrative to explain why the two dudes are duking it out not only makes lots of sense, but it has a really high chance to pay off. Up until now, the closest we got was oft overlooked back story, unique character introductions, John Madden commentary and the occasional hilarious ending screen featuring a dancing Gorbachev:

So while it’s not much in the way of true “innovation”, the fact that multiple folks finally realized that people might want to actually have some characterization better than a paragraph written by paranoid schizophrenic tossed onto these two genres is just refreshing, and a trend that I really hope will continue. It’s only truly strange that it took this long to do it any real justice. Not that Bio F.R.E.A.K.S. didn’t try it’s best.

Worst New “Innovation” in a Game

“Radiant Story” – The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Listen, this isn’t actually badly designed or anything. It’s just ****ing evil.

I mean, Skyrim is a world that already offers enough variety of gameplay (even if much of it’s shallow) to drown a child or Jon Stewart sized man in. If you have self control issues, time-budgeting problems, or an addictive personality it might ensnare you with its glamour and drain you of your precious bodily fluids as it’s cornucopia of content. I’ve barely made it out alive myself, and I leveled up my “Ensnarement Resistance” Stat with TVTropes inoculations.

Point is, a system that dynamically generates content for the player and “guide”s them to unexplored sections of the map that they never really needed to see, throws hints at the player like commercials, or just genuinely creates new missions tailored for their play style could theoretically (and eventually will) mean a game that never ends.

Ever.

So no. The Radiant Story system in Skyrim isn’t “bad”; it just might end up destroying society. Just as we always expected.

The Best Marketing for a Game

Not Yet Devilish Jeans – El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron

EDWIN Jeans in El Shaddai

Because seriously, who doesn’t look at pretty boy Enoch’s ass for 12 hours and go, “Man I really want to wear his sweet denim!”, but then realizes that Enoch’s pants don’t have that certain je ne se quois that Lucifer’s jeans have, so you end up debating with yourself which pair of pants to try and order off a Japanese website and inadvertently putting yourself into the strangest spiritual crisis imaginable? One based entirely on jeans.

I have no idea what was going through the developer’s brain with this one, but come on! Angelic product placement for work-wear! It’s sacrilicious!

The Worst Marketing for a Game

Losing The Rigged Game via Tweet – Duke Nukem Forever

Simpsons Local Bullies

I was going to put in something about how Activision convinced a whole bunch of folks to pay for Call of Duty ELITE, a service they provided about 80% of its features for free, and then proceeded to lock the service down for almost a month being a PR debacle. Or Homefront‘s complete and utter failure at balloons.

But then I remembered this gem. Or to put in the form of a Friends episode title: The time when THQ’s marketing guy posted an angry tweet that basically confirmed that the entirety of videogame “journalism” is held hostage by publishers who use it as a marketing avenue . . . and when Ross slipped on a Ham Sandwich.

Classy. But then, 2011 wasn’t a good year for video game related marketting jerkwads. Just a good year for watching them crash and burn.

Best Use of Difficulty

Perilous Circumstances + Precise Combat = Excitement! – Dark Souls

Dark Souls Double Duel

Dark Souls is obviously a hard game. It’s a rather well known fact.

What might be less well known is that the actual combat mechanics of Dark Souls are incredibly good. The control scheme takes some getting used to, but once you do you’ll be blocking faster than the chubby friend of a girl being hit on, nimbly dodging danger like you were this guy, while thrusting and parrying as if you were Errol Flynn. You have an incredibly wide array of maneuvers at your disposal and each unique weapon changes the assortment available. It’s a remarkable feat to make a combat system feel this kinetic and strategic all at the same time, yet the folks at From Software pulled it off.

That brutal difficulty? It only makes things better. Because (for the most part) Dark Souls is tough but fair. Most challenges can be overcome with a clever strategy or simply learning how to duel better, and usually, this fluid and complex combat system provides ample opportunity to actually do just that.

If the combat weren’t as enjoyable or interesting, the grating challenge would be unacceptable. But Dark Souls, like Super Meat Boy and others before it, proves that as long as you know what you’re doing, a challenge isn’t the detriment game developers seem to think it is.

Worst Use of Difficulty

Overactive HP Regeneration + Overabundance of Weak Combat = BORING – L.A. Noire

LA Noire Boring

To be fair, the annual winner of this award should always be “every game everywhere that doesn’t let you adjust difficulty”. This year the list includes Dark Souls, Portal 2, this entry, and many, many others. But that’s really a personal pet peeve of mine, and not very specific at that. We need a single entry here, and I choose Rockstar’s last foray into the open world.

Specifically, it’s a good thing L.A. Noire‘s pretty and into new things, because boy howdy is it dull at times. Those times being whenever anyone pulls out a gun.

Seriously, whoever thought it was a good idea to give Cole Phelps a healing factor (as previously discussed) so that he could suck in bullets while he blows out hot air thereby removing much of the threat and excitement of combat, and THEN also decided to include about six combat sequences a chapter should be fired and never allowed to make games again! Oh, wait. That happened.

L.A. Noire could have helped birth a new era of high-budget detective adventure gaming. But big budget games require the common man be as interested as the nerds like me who want to solve mysteries, and they want decent action along with clue-hunting. Not providing the action pretty much kills chances for mystery solving adventure, at least amongst the major producers in the gaming industry (and why some folks are resorting to other methods). This is to speak nothing of the game’s chances of establishing itself as a series that could maintain enough popularity to spawn sequels.

Which means . . .

It looks like Cole Phelps is one detective, that had his case – *dramatic pause while fiddling with shades* – closed?

CSI Miami yeaaaah

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Uh-oh.

It seems that as with any awards ceremony, I’m starting to run long.

So, let’s speed this up and get all the technical awards out of the way! As in, “Technically, these games don’t deserve recognition due to the aforementioned ground rules, but I feel like pointing them out anyway.” As with all technical awards, these were handed out last week in the lobby of an inner city Motel 6 by a super model on hard times.

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GAME THAT I MISSED, Because Damnit SKYRIM! You stole 2 months of my life!

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

I will avenge you. And/or finally get around to playing you. Some day . . .

Best Game THAT I BEAT (BUT DIDN’T REVIEW FOR SOME REASON)

Outland (Console)/The Binding of Isaac (PC)

Seriously consider checking Outland out. It’s a little platforming adventure game with a tinge of Ikaruga-like enemy attack absorption based around colors. It’s got some fun boss fights, a jungle themed art style, and often ends up a spirit walking head trip. As a downloadable, it’s not terribly expensive and I’d highly recommend giving it a whirl.

Same deal with The Binding of Isaac. Just replace the description with “Disturbing Religious Parable set in Procedurally Generated Zelda Shooter”.

OK, so not the same thing at all. Still good though.

Game(s) That I finally scratched off my Backlog

Mass Effect 1 & 2

This was well documented when I lost a heaping helping of time to the sweet, sweet lull of sci-fi, Commander Shepard and the Normandy’s Galaxy Map music.

Unfortunately, the demo for the upcoming third installment has me more than a little bit worried. The Flanderized council of worried military officials confront the increasingly derpy Shepard at the start and it plays out like a reeeeeally bad piece of fan-fiction. Combined with a lot of the building vitriol over EA’s meddling with the series, and my expectations have been punched in the face like an intergalactic news reporter.

Still, I keep my fingers crossed, and hope that the underwhelming intro, the troubling concerns over DLC, and the fun but needless multiplayer mode aren’t trends toward yet another underwhelming trilogy termination.

GAME I DIDN’T NEED TO PLAY BECAUSE I ALREADY DID

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations

Huh, I remember when I was complaining about the fact that Ubisoft had mad a sequel to their Assassin’s Creed series that was needless and only seemed to be marking time until they could get to a real sequel. It was when I played Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood.

That should do it for the majority of the Technical Awards, but we can’t forget the all-important “Honorary Award for Someone Most People Can’t Even Remember”! It’s an award show classic!

Which leads me to . . .

Developer Moment of The Year

When David Gaider eloquently killed a Troll

Let’s all take a moment to remember that while gamers can get worked up about anything and everything, the folks making the games we enjoy are people too, and more than capable of pointing out just how dumb we can be about the things we like to gripe about. David Gaider, head writer on Dragon Age 2 and I attest, the main reason that game is worth playing at all, took a moment in March of last year to do just that.

Take a moment to bow Dave. You’ve earned it.

You done? Good. Now get off the stage, we’ve got to get to the main event!

____________________________________________________________

That’s right folks! It’s the big one; the one that every videogame journalist stakes their reputation for the following year upon. If I blow it, my credibility’s shot until I can re-up with my local distributor. If I nail it, then you’ll have no choice but to pay attention to my incessant ramblings for another twelve months.

Are you ready?

Sure?

OK, then.

Without further ado . . .

The Best game of the Year!

Batman: Arkham City

Batman Arkham City Head Smash

Yeah, yeah, I know. How unexpected that the quite obviously best game of the year, based solely off its excellently designed and implemented gameplay, high production values, smart writing and plotting, and clever use of beloved characters gets chosen as the best game of the year!

I mean, come on! It’s like I’m not even trying!

Which is partially true, for while Arkham City is easily the best game of last year, it’s also a sequel to a licensed tie-in of a cultural icon that borrows many genre conventions from itself, but with a stronger focus on improvement rather than innovation or novelty. The critically cynical (read “Art House” and/or “Hipster”) part of me wants to recognize some other game that doesn’t have so much of an advantage. That is just as good in many ways, but either tried for some innovation, or at least wasn’t a sequel.

But looking at the games CLR reviewed last year, only three of them weren’t sequels, reboots, or tie-ins to an extant franchise. Heck, even Catherine, though wildly different from expected gaming conventions in most every way, was a spin-off from the established Persona series. Adding on the filter of “games reviewed by the site” leaves exactly three options, one of those being L.A. Noire, which, as already stated, had the problem of putting the player to sleep whenever the dramatic music kicked in.

So that means there’s really only one true choice to be had . . .

The Best Game of the Year . . . that wasn’t a Prequel, Sequel, tie-in or reboot.

Shadows of the Damned

Shadows of the Damned Garcia and Johnson

I know what some of you might be thinking; that despite being created by several masters of the medium and being a total blast to play through, Shadows of the Damned is also a crass, rude experience that panders to the lowest common denominator with with its sexist, phallocentric themes. It means I’m having CLR – a site primarily concerned with the highbrow arts of literature, theatre, visual expression, cinema, and ballet – endorse a seven hour supernatural dick joke as the best ORIGINAL game of 2011.

To which I say, it’s really all in how you handle it. I mean, it’s not like the classical world set a precedent for bodily humor about the baser instincts as one of the foundations of theatrical production or anything. Right?

Oh, wait. It totally did. So I’m justified in defending digital demonic dick jokes on the grounds of “artistic integrity” (and that it’s a rather good game)!

Remember kids: if some Greek dudes did it thousands of years ago, then you can defend it as a valid form of expression! Even if you’re talking three foot dongs. Scratch that. Especially if you’re talking three foot dongs.

Which brings us to our conclusion. I hope the winners (and their fans) are happy with the results, and that we all learned something today. Mostly that rushed, ill conceived, best and worst lists are about as meaningful as well-planned, thoughtful best/worst lists: which is to say that they’re all completely arbitrary, and we critics wouldn’t do them other than to meet audience expectations and legal obligations.

NEXT TIME: Either we’re finishing the Dark Souls/Skyrim series, or Mass Effect 3 derails me further. Only the Greek Pantheon knows for sure! I’d ask them for some help, but when you consider that they liked watching dudes walk around with Meter Long Peters, I think I’m going to stay away from them for a while.

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