When I read Brandon’s post on ‘gamer’s block’ I took a step back to consider whether I’d suffered from it at any point and, truth be told, I don’t think I have. Like many others around here, I’ve got an absurd backlog of games and while the size and my distinct lack of time to make even a dent in it intimidates me, it also excites me, especially when I’ve finished off whatever it is I’m currently playing and have the time to pluck something else from my virtual shelf.
The biggest problem I’ve faced this year however, is committing to games — something I’m usually very good with. I used to be relatively steadfast but these days I seem to flit about like a bumble bee with ADHD. Somewhere near the beginning of the year I was deep in the Capital Wasteland in Fallout 3 but I was distracted from that by Saints Row: The Third. I was distracted from Saints Row: The Third by Dark Souls. I was then distracted from Dark Souls by Guild Wars 2. I was briefly distracted from Guild Wars 2 by Tower Wars then the Eurogamer Expo and shortly after that Natural Selection 2. I was distracted from Natural Selection 2 by Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Then I was distracted from Deus Ex: Human Revolution by Need for Speed: Most Wanted and various other games on my shiny new Google Nexus. There’s plenty I’ve missed in that rundown but that’s been my 2012 in a nutshell: a year of distractions and niggling loose ends. It’s a good job the Log of Shame got put on the fire because my score was already looking pretty dire…
Anyway, let’s get started. I’ve not restricted myself to 2012 releases this year so any game’s game. I also didn’t get round to XCOM, Dishonored, Waking Mars, Hotline Miami and The Walking Dead, all of which I’m very eager to play. Loosely in order:
Triple Town (Android)
Amanda included this in her Games of 2011 list and a year later I’m right there with her. Triple Town is a disarmingly cute, fiendishly difficult, beautifully elegant and hopelessly addictive mash-up of a match three puzzler and a light city builder. Three tufts of grass make a bush. Three bushes make a tree. Three trees make a hut. Three huts make a house. Three houses make a mansion. Three mansions make a castle and three castles make a… well, I’ve not managed that yet but I’m determined to do so. There are crystals that act like wild cards, there are bears that terrorise and scupper your plans, there are robots which gobble up things to clear vital space. Placing a crystal without matching it up leaves a rock behind, and trapping a bear also kills it leaving a gravestone, and you guessed it: they can be matched up too. I didn’t expect the mechanics to be quite as compelling as they are but they’re so simple to grasp and increasingly harder to manipulate as your city develops and you begin to run out of space, thanks in no small part to bears. Lots and lots of bears. In fact, Triple Town is responsible for my girlfriend and I coining a new phrase: ‘bear herding’. Bear herding is usually followed by bear culling. The PC version is considered more feature rich, but on Android it’s still a brilliant little title.
Gratuitous Tank Battles
GTB‘s an unusual game because it’s not so much about pushing through levels, as in most tower defence games, it’s about pushing through (or pushing back, depending on whether you’re attacking or defending) an enemy that has access to the custom units you’ve built, with all the pitfalls and strengths you gave them. The problem-solver units you throw at the computer create new problems when they’re hurled back at you. And boy, do they get hurled back at you. It’s like crab apple fighting with that mean kid at the bottom of the road who never cared. But there’s something inherently entertaining about facing off with your own creations, seeing them being wielded by a heartless machine intent on stabbing you with its 1s and bludgeoning you with its 0s.
The online component allows players to upload their own custom levels as well, possibly bundled with their own custom units, to be played and rated by others. It’s an almost endless source of user-created content, all accessible from within the game itself. GTB is just a terrific package for serial tinkerers and particularly tower defence fans looking for something substantial, unique and… well, just plain old fun.
Ah, Vessel. I still don’t know anybody who’s actually played it, which is a shame because it’s one of the year’s early and apparently overlooked highlights. It got 81 on Metacritic and everything. Here’s what I said about it back in March.
And on the eighth day, God created Windosill to lighten up after a hard week. There’s no other interactive experience I can think of which delighted me quite as much as Windosill did. It’s popping bubble wrap for the soul. For something that was less than a quid (a Great British Pound to you foreigners) and took less than an hour to complete, that’s rather incredible. For more amazing stuff by Vectorpark go here. I highly recommend Feed the Head and Thomas (the egg) – Seasons.
I didn’t expect to enjoy Jamestown as much as I did, especially after Ikaruga had its way with me. Even more unexpected was playing through the entire game co-operatively with an old friend, and more unexpected still: on Divine (the penultimate difficulty). We managed to complete every level, barring the last, in ten hours. The last one took another ten. I can’t deny the air was a beautiful blue for most of that, but when we cracked it, when we finally defeated the game, it was worth every hiss and cuss. We actually high-fived. The characters and their unique abilities, the elegant vaunt system and how it works so perfectly in multiplayer, the deft balance between accessibility and challenge, the beautiful graphics and rousing score: it’s probably the finest vertical shooter I’ve played. Cheers Danny, for sticking with it to the bitter end!
Need for Speed: Most Wanted (PS3)
I never got to play Burnout Paradise or Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, so when Need for Speed: Most Wanted arrived, combining elements of the two, and also helmed by Criterion, I couldn’t have been happier.
Touted as ‘the most socially connected racing game ever’, in single player, Most Wanted revolves around collecting and pimping out the numerous unaffordable cars parked across the open city and taking part in various activities in a bid to unlock upgrades and set outrageous records for your friends to beat in their own time. These events take the form of speedwalls (highest average speed), ambushes (escaping the cops the quickest), standard races, ‘Most Wanted’ races (where you go up against some of the most desirable cars in the world in the hopes of acquiring them), cop chases (lasting as long as possible then escaping), billboards (time spent in the air with a successful landing) and speed cameras (top speed through them). Every part of the game is geared towards compelling you to one-up your friends. To add to this, when you smash one of the myriad billboards scattered across the city it reveals the records set by your friends as well as the highest scorer’s avatar (or possibly a mugshot depending on whether they’ve uploaded one). If you manage to beat them then naturally your avatar or mugshot gets plastered across it instead. I’ve uploaded a picture of everyone’s favourite 90s soap goon and his dog, Robbie Jackson and Wellard from Eastenders. If that doesn’t compel you to smash a billboard, nothing will.
In multiplayer it’s a decidedly different affair. Hosts set up ‘speedlists’ which include all sorts of unique challenges which you have to race to, then take part in. Get there first: score speed points. Defeat other players in events: score speed points. Takedown other players en route, during and after an event: score speed points. It’s all about the speed points. The player with the most speed points at the end of the speedlist wins. The more you play, the more you unlock, which is a bit of bugbear for me but it’s rewarding nonetheless and even more so when you win with a ‘lesser’ car.
Underneath Most Wanted’s sleek exterior however, is a massive troll; one that enjoys nothing more than hearing you gnash your teeth over its idiosyncrasies. Like Criterion’s Burnout series, Most Wanted is, naturally, a very fast game, and one where discerning the next turn or hazard to dodge is particularly difficult. To complicate matters there are very few way-markers as well so you’ve got to master the art of keeping one eye on the map in the lower left of the screen — to know whereabouts you’re supposed to be heading — and one eye on the road. This wouldn’t be too bad but the GPS which powers the map is temperamental and prone to sending you bizarre counter-intuitive routes. Then there’s the traffic. And the cops. And spike traps. The deadly ‘EasyDrive’ menu that allows you to change your car and customise it while driving at insane speeds, removes most of the UI (including the map) and is finicky to use, but is often worth risking during an event (for instance, to replace your tires after bursting them or to switch gear transmissions). In multiplayer, there’s also no starting grid or indication of which direction a race will be heading until roughly five seconds before the race starts, so there’s every chance you’ll be facing the wrong way entirely. The game never wrangles control away from players either so it’s common for races to ‘start’ before the five second count down has ended. And to top things off, players who have finished a race are egged on to ‘Takedown other drivers for more speed points!’. It’s lawless anarchy; the wild west of racing games — which is quite fitting given its title — but that’s exactly the reason why I love it.
Guild Wars 2
For 120 hours Guild Wars 2 had me in its vice-like grip. As somebody who doesn’t ‘do’ MMOGs, that’s quite a feat. Remarkably, I spent most of that time alone as well, exploring and doing whatever I wanted, soaking in the incredible sights and sounds of Tyria. Here’s some postcards from my travels:
I dabbled in world versus world and player versus player. I did plenty of jump puzzles, events, and renown hearts. I pursued my character’s personal story somewhat and even took part in some world event mini-games (hide and seek was way too much fun for a temporal Halloween attraction) but it was the incidental stuff that surprised me the most; the discovering of unmarked areas and quests from listening in on incidental background chatter. One renown heart saw me break into an Inquest hideout to free several captive Asurans. Once I’d freed them it was mission accomplished. But instead of heading off, I hung around to see what the Asurans would do. Sure enough, they started arguing over whether they should escape the hideout or destroy all the Inquest’s technology while they had the advantage. After a spirited exchange they decided to seek revenge, and up popped a new quest prompting me to accompany them on their errand. Unexpected moments like that made the experience for me.
I’d love to jump back into Guild Wars 2 because there’s so, so much I haven’t seen, but knowing just how much there is to discover is as debilitating as it is enticing. The lack of any sort of subscription fee thankfully keeps that door open so who knows whether I’ll be back. I sure hope so. You can read my rather extensive noob beta impressions here.
Natural Selection 2
There’s a lot I could write here about why NS2 is one of my games of the year but I’m hoping to write something more substantial about it in the future. The reason why I haven’t already is because… well, I think I’m still pretty shit at it. Suffice to say, NS2 has dominated my ‘solo’ multiplayer time since its release in October. After the radio silence of Brink it’s so nice to hear people using their mics as well, and civil people too. Only a couple of nights ago, for the first time in my gaming career, I heard a female talking in a public game, which took me by surprise. Short of a few idiots here and there though, over the 52 hours I’ve spent with NS2 I’ve been amazed at how accommodating and friendly the community is, which helps immeasurably when the learning curve is this steep and the skill ceiling so high.
Rather than try and distill the essence of the game into one (misrepresentative) paragraph, I’ll touch on one of the most interesting things about the game: its masterful use of light and sound. NS2 is one of the few multiplayer games where silently hiding in the shadows can be as much of a lifesaver as flailing around wildly or running backwards whilst shooting. In fact, as an alien it’s arguably your greatest weapon. As a marine, it’s an overlooked tactic in getting the jump on some unsuspecting skulk. You see, NS2 is dynamically lit and full of environmental clutter that casts foreboding (or enticing) shadows everywhere. What’s more, when a power node is taken out by aliens, it’s lights out in that area until the auxillary lights come back on. In this window of time, marines frantically switch to flashlights and don their man-sized Huggies, and aliens cooly switch to heat vision. Heat vision however, is a double-edged sword because, while it throws out the need for light entirely, it also throws out the shadows with it, so you’ve no way of knowing whether you’re visible to marines or not.
I remember one particular instance where I was sliding around as a gorge (the alien support lifeform) just as the power went out. I realised I was outnumbered by marines so I quietly scrambled behind a stack of crates. Without enabling heat vision I could see the glow of flashlights and their beams panning around the room, getting closer and closer. I moved further back. The flashlights cut into the darkness on the wall beside me and the shadow that I was safely nestled in got narrower and narrower as they flanked my position. I shrank back further until I was right up against the crate and with the final slither of shadow disappearing, they found me, and promptly blew my glowing belly to pieces. Not a happy ending, but it was one of the more memorable moments I’ve had with NS2, of which there are many. I’m sure there’s plenty more in store.
At A Distance
I think Joel Goodwin from Electron Dance and I have had a good run with co-op games. Oh, hang on, I forgot about Atom Zombie Smasher. Nevertheless, with Portal 2‘s co-op topping my Games of 2011 list and now Terry Cavanagh’s At A Distance winding up in second, I have another experience to cherish. However, because At A Distance is local co-op only, Joel had to venture up to the grim North from the shandy-drinking South and play it beside me. I can’t deny he brought a nice smell with him… perhaps that’s what the south smells like? As with our Portal 2 sessions, he managed to capture our reactions on video which he edited together and nestled amidst an illuminating and spoilerific discussion we had back in September. Arcadian Rhythms‘ ShaunCG commented with:
…holy crap. That sounds intense.
If you’ve got a hardy open-minded friend (or a few!), a spare computer and screen handy, and a single evening to while away, I couldn’t recommend At A Distance enough. It’s intriguing, unique and one hell of a ride if you can get to the core of it. I’d also recommend steering clear of that discussion until you think you’re finished with it — we leave no rock unturned!
Rayman Origins (PS3)
Rayman Origins is proof that you don’t need to bring anything particularly new to the table to provide a memorable and exhilarating experience. It’s about what you bring, and how you present it, and Rayman Origins presents its impeccably agile platforming so beautifully, and with such glee and exuberance, its hard not to break a smile. It’s probably the most gorgeous 2D game I’ve ever played too. Here’s some pictures to illustrate why:
Rayman Origins hasn’t topped this list for its visuals alone though. No, this is a game that’s as enjoyable to play as it is to behold, and as enjoyable to behold as it is to listen to. The soundtrack composed by Christophe Héral and Billy Martin is every bit as giddy as the game’s visuals, bursting with movement, life and colour. I wish I could sufficiently identify the different musical styles that the soundtrack encompasses because it’s a such wonderfully exotic and eclectic mix, all performed using a vast array of instruments. From marimbas, didgeridoos and kazoos right through to banjos, bongos and just good ol’ whistling. One track even includes one of those tubular toys that make those weird noises when you tilt them (around the 2:22 mark — it’s totally worth listening to in full though). It’s an incredible entity spanning 36 tracks and one that’s been brightening up the cold winter days in my frosty Honda for the last month or so. In fact, not since Katamari Damacy have I been so impressed with such a delightfully off-kilter and outright confident soundtrack. I’d embed the entire thing here if I knew people would listen to it but I suspect not, so here’s some choice picks that I think best represent its musical breadth:
I didn’t play Rayman Origins alone though. Like Jamestown and At A Distance, I played it locally with somebody who I don’t typically play games with: my girlfriend Hailey. Okay, I do play games with her, but usually she’s a spectator rather than an active participant. As an illustrator, she was never a fan of Rayman’s translation to 3D, preferring the painterly pixel art of the original, so naturally, on seeing the demo, she jumped at the opportunity to join me. Having been raised on Sonic and Talmit’s Adventure and more recently grinding her way through Yoshi’s Island DS and Bean’s Quest, I was confident she’d feel right at home here; which is great because a friend told me that playing Rayman Origins co-op would be the Ultimate Test of our relationship on the basis that it’s a very difficult platformer. Yikes.
WE WERE FINE THOUGH. REALLY.
Rayman Origins is separated into five worlds, some with their own unique twists on the usual tired videogame tropes. For instance, the traditional ice and lava levels are themed around chilled cocktails and fiery Mexican cuisine (see images above). Each world is accessed via a hub called the Glade of Dreams and the aim of the game is to collect ‘Electoons‘ in order to rebuild hub paths between the different worlds. These cutesy pink blob-creature-things can be collected in a number of ways: releasing them from cages, collecting a sufficient number of ‘Lums‘ and speed running a level after it’s been completed once. There are usually a total of six Electoons to collect per level and the more you collect, the more alternative character skins and ‘Tricky Treasure‘ challenges you unlock, which in turn contribute towards unlocking the sixth and final world.
“Whoopee Gregg. Sounds great. Wait, I think I’ve left something in the oven…”
Bear with me.
While these elements don’t sound particularly exciting on their own, it’s the way they subtly (and expertly) introduce the player to different depths of play that sets the game apart.
On your first playthrough of a given level, you’re unlikely to find all the hidden cages or collect enough Lums to unlock all the Electoons. Perhaps that suspicious looking bush you went flying past earlier has a doorway hidden behind it? Or perhaps a Lum King? Or even a Skull Coin? So you replay the level, only this time you’re a bit more savvy; you know the lay of the land, the perils that lie ahead, and where and when to position yourself to gobble up those stray Lums that escaped you last time. And bingo, you found the last remaining cage too. But you’re still a few Lums short. So you try again because you know this level now, you know you can do it. This time you’re sliding, hopping, swinging and landing exactly where you should, when you should. You hit the Lum count and unlock those final Electoons but there’s still one missing. The speed run. It’s not about the Lums, or uncovering hidden cages anymore, it’s about taking everything you’ve learnt about the level and holding it together for one unbroken dash across the level from start to finish. In one minute and fifteen seconds? In one minute and fifteen seconds. Come on Hailey, we can do this.
And we did. We completed the whole damn thing together (thanks in no small part to the forgiving co-op mechanics). We went from haphazardly bumbling through levels, to cruising through them as if they were our daily commutes. Okay, that’s a stretch, but we had grace when we finally got those speed runs right, which is something Rayman Origins‘ blissful platforming physics model has the capacity to deliver in buckets. At its best it’s a breakneck downhill thrill ride; at its worst its a zany and stunning spin on the old-school 2D platformer. There are even neat horizontal shooter sequences to break things up.
Before I finish, check out this Tricky Treasure challenge, featuring (probably) my favourite piece of music in the game. I consider it a perfect summation of Rayman Origins‘ ode to movement:
Prior to Rayman Origins, VVVVVV was my favourite platformer. Sorry Captain Veridian, you’ve been trumped. But don’t worry, you’re still better than Mario and especially that blue hedgehog… he could learn a trick or two from Rayman.
Have a great 2013, and thanks for reading.
Chivalry: Medieval Warfare
Blimey. I honestly didn’t think I’d played so much this year.
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