on Jan 7, 2013
Let’s put these last few whip-marks on the dead horse that was 2012 and move on. If I spend any more time looking back I’ll end up running into the stuff in front of me.
Just great. More brain-dead IP harvesting. Just take a random title from 20 years ago and give it to a bunch of people who have no idea what made the title special to begin with. Tell them you want “Mass Effect meets Gears of War”. Make it for consoles, then port it over to the PC six months later, tied to both Gamespy and Games for Windows LIVE. Put tits on the cover. Also, we need a main character, which should be a thirty-something white guy with short hair. You know, somebody everyone can relate to. Give the dev team a tight release schedule, and then blame pirates and the bad economy when nobody buys the damn thing.
What? They actually had a team that loved the original and understood what made it work? And they made a true gameplay sequel, even to the point of including something as exotic as turn based gameplay? It runs well on PC’s, it’s stable, and it preserves the core mechanics?
What is this mad, topsy-turvy universe I find myself in?
This game was everything I’d hoped it would be. It keeps the original gameply that worked, and improved on bits that didn’t. Sure, there are a few nitpicks I could make about some monster types or character classes, but that’s to be expected in anything this deep. The fact that we’re talking about “Why are snipers so powerful?” and not “Why did they remove the base-building and add all these prerendered cutscenes?” means the game is a successful remake of a classic in my book.
I hope it makes money. I suspect it didn’t sell Halo-level copies, but it probably didn’t cost $Halo bucks. I’d love to see publishers spending a little more money on this sort of thing.
I should have loved this game. It had a unique, non-photorealistic art style that made it stand out. It revived a lot of the gameplay mechanics from my beloved Thief franchise. It had a magic & steampunk setting, which is a favorite of mine. It had a many-paths-through design philosophy that has become all too rare over the last few years.
I should love this game. This should have been my game of the year. I should have played through it three times. Instead, I stalled partway into the third or forth mission. I put the game down, and haven’t picked it up again.
I’m not sure I can point to any one reason and say, “This is the central problem of the game.” I feel like I’m failing you as a critic, since that’s pretty much my job here. And yet I find myself falling back to vague, non-specific stuff like, “It just didn’t click for me” or “I couldn’t get immersed in the setting” or “Hey! Borderlands 2 sure is fun wheeeeeee!”
I’ve heard a lot of people talk about why this game didn’t work, but a lot of the discussion focuses on a lackadaisical approach to themes, a bit of bad balance, or how the morality system pushes you away from the fun mechanics. Those are all problems, sure, but they’re problems that become evident once you’re a few hours in. For me, the malaise began almost from the opening scene. I didn’t care about the protagonist, I didn’t care about the queen, and I didn’t really hate the bad guy. I sat through a first-person torture scene and by the end I didn’t have any real urge to settle up with the guy doing the torturing. It was almost a case of “Some kid died!” You are being tortured therefore you hate this guy and are now motivated. Go! It all just felt so perfunctory.
If pressed, I suppose one thing that might have helped would be to move the initial betrayal back a bit. You’re betrayed pretty much as soon as the credits are over, without any time to settle into things. The game handed me something, and then yanked it away again before I even had a chance to feel like it was mine. I think there should have been one or two missions at the start where:
- The queen is established, along with her friendship with the player.
- The player gets a sense of the stakes for curing the plague, and follows a few leads.
- The player is encouraged to trust or respect the Evil Betrayer Guy, or work for/with him professionally.
This wouldn’t have needed to be much. Just a tutorial level where you slink about, listen in on some dudes, and get a feel for who you are and what you do. Give the player a goal, let them nearly accomplish it, and then have them betrayed just before their efforts pay off. Deus Ex: Human Revolution did a pretty good job at this. It let you be a human for a few minutes before yanking the rug out from under you, and the payoff was stronger for it.
My other complaint about the game is that everyone is just too boring. Corvo is a silent protagonist so we can’t expect any quirks out of him, but the rest of the cast really needed some more color in their personalities. The worst was The Other, a strange supernatural being who… looked like any other twenty-something white guy, had a straightforward delivery and didn’t feel particularly crazy, dangerous, unreliable, exotic, or deceptive, which are the traits we normally associate with enigmatic trickster gods.
Having said all that. This is not a bad game. At all. (Or at least, the first four levels aren’t bad.) I’ve slogged through much worse games. There’s nothing to really hate, but there’s nothing I loved either. I can’t bring myself to feel strongly about it one way or the other.
Hey! Borderlands 2 sure is fun wheeeeeee!
They did a good thing when they got Anthony Burch to do the writing on Borderlands 2. Borderlands Original Flavor did a lot of winking and elbowing and grinning like it was kidding around, but there weren’t all that many jokes. Scooter was sometimes amusing and the character intros were grin-worthy, but the bulk of the game was meandering and lacking in any kind of coherent villain. The wasn’t being funny, it was just reading cliché videogame dialog in a funny voice.
Borderlands 2 largely fixes this by maintaining a consistent tone and adding some jokes. Maybe the jokes work for you and maybe they don’t, but at least they exist this time around.
Handsome Jack is the best villain I’ve faced in a long time. He’s almost entirely a joke, but he has a lot of fun at the expense of the player character without ruining the fun of the player. Nicely done.
The Walking Dead
If I was the sort of person who gave out “Game of the Year” awards all official-like, then this would be that.
Yeah, the game doesn’t have the choice it feels like it should. A few of the characters are more annoying than interesting. The puzzle elements in the first couple of episodes feel sort of tacked-on. And Kenny drives the plot (literally, as we’ll see in the upcoming episodes) more than he should.
But Walking Dead succeeds for me simply because it’s done what so many other games have failed to do: It creates an intense emotional connection and an investment with the plight of the characters. I cared more about protecting Clem than I did about protecting the entire Earth the last 4 or 5 times I’ve saved it.
You can haggle over whether this gameplay is really “new” or not. Is this the same as Heavy Rain? Is it a mashup of dialog-based games and old adventure game mechanics? This is like arguing over the term “RPG” or debating about where we draw the lines between genres. However you classify it, this game connected with me in a way that no other game has.
I wasn’t sure what to do about games like Skyrim and The Old Republic. They came out at the tail end of 2011, and so they aren’t 2012 releases. On the other hand, the conversation about these games didn’t really reach critical mass until 2012. How do we classify a game? According to the year of release, or according to when it was actually relevant? In the coming year, Far Cry 3 will have the same problem: It arrived too late in the year for me to play it, but its 2012 release date means it’s off the 2013 list.
In the end I concluded that if we’re going to do one of these arbitrary lists, we might as well stick to the rules. And if a few games get overlooked because they came out just before Christmas? No big deal. There’s only so many games a person can play in December, and there’s only so far back I can recall and still have meaningful things to say about a game. In any case, it was a good year.
Still no Half-Life 3.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.