Sunday, January 06, 2013

My Games of 2012

It's been a while since I posted anything, but certainly not as long as this guy, a guy whose writing I used to enjoy. I don't really have an excuse for not writing except for some imagined problems and something I could pass off as a mid-life crisis --- yes, I am old ---. So, as I shuffle them off I shall put forth a stronger effort to post more frequently --- starting with today's post.

There were many games that I wanted to play in 2012, but I only got round to playing a few of them. And the few that I did play were largely disappointing. Check them out after the page jump.

Ghost Recon: Future Soldier (PS3)

Although it's still tactically based, Future Soldier owes more to games like Battlefield and Call of Duty than it does to its predecessors --- perhaps it should have been called Ghost Recon: Future Call of Duty Battlefield Soldier. Those other military shooters are all about the run-and-gun, set pieces, over the top cinematics, and ludicrous stories. I always enjoyed Ghost Recon because, for the most part, it allowed me to take my time and work as part of a team. I could order my guys to flank, fire, hold fire, recon, or sneak and feel satisfied at the end of a mission for having gotten through it without resorting to some kind of ridiculous lone-wolf tactics or an all-out battle.

But Future Soldier ditched most of what I enjoyed about the series and brought in too much flash from those other games. There are many sections that require a little bit of stealth, but it's all up to the player to bring about success in a lone-wolf style. The AI-squadmates can no longer be ordered around, and I miss that. Sure, they are smart enough to take cover when necessary, stay out of sight when required, and let the player know when something isn't right, but it sure woud have been nice to have had the abiltiy to move them around. The closest this game comes to that is the synchronised takedown. The player tags enemies, the AI target them, and everyone fires when the player fires. This was, admittedly, satisfying to do, but not nearly as fulfilling as moving a team around a battlefield to achieve objectives.

Also, the game included too many Call of Duty-style set pieces, too many defend-the-position moments, a few take-out-the-armoured-vehicle-to-advance moments, and a sniper section that was reminiscent of the infuriating sniper section from Advanced Warfighter. Most egregious of all, at least for me, were the two on-rails sections. One of them occurs near the beginning of the game, and that almost put me off playing it. The second, thankfully, doesn't appear until the end of the game, but it had me shaking my head in confusion and frustration. If I had wanted to play Call of Duty, I woud have played Call of Duty. There is also a sequence which has the player controlling an armoured mech-like device. This made me feel silly.

Mind you, it's not a terrible game, but if you're used to the tactics and pacing of the earlier Ghost Recon games, Future Soldier is not the game you should play. You'd be better off playing Operation Flashpoint.

Halo 4 (Xbox 360)

When I play a game in the Halo series I have a laugh-out-loud good time. Whether it's Combat Evolved, the much-maligned Halo 2, or the shamefully-overlooked ODST I enjoy every moment I play. The pacing is perfect, the difficulty is well-balanced, combat is fluid and dynamic, enemies are interesting, and there is always the right amount of humour. Even when I die, I can't help but laugh and continue to play, because I feel compelled to play, even though I've played them several times over.

I can't say the same for Halo 4. The Master Chief seems sluggish, the new enemies are dull and not at all interesting to fight, and everything seems so serious now; there's nothing to laugh or smile about in this new game. A few hours into it, I did not want to continue. I felt no connection to the hero or the story, I did not care to see the next mission, nor was I interested in fighting either Covenant Forces or the Prometheans. I think the only thing that kept me playing was the desire to see the cut scenes. They look fantastic, and they really began to flesh-out the story of the Master Chief and his relationship to Cortana. But, I began to experience frustration after frustration, and eventually just gave up; I watched the cutscenes on YouTube.

Sure, Halo is a first-person shooter, but it was always different from other shooters. It had unique weapons, fun vehicle sequences, smart enemies, and dynamic combat that kept me on my toes. And it always felt different from other shooters. I think Bungie knew it had something cool on its hands, but that it was ultimately ridiculous, which is why the grunts were always silly and the Elites were always boastful. This Halo 4, though, just feels like another shooter to me.  The new weapons are ineffective, the Chief's grenades seem to have been nerfed, and why am I always scrambling to find ammo and weapons? This was never a problem in the other games. Also, why did my Warthog explode when I tried to drive it across that river? And why do the Elites and the Grunts no longer speak English?

Some websites, like Giant Bomb, go on and on and on about how this feels just like a Halo game, but I have to disagree. Yes, it looks fantastic, it plays well, and is (a little bit) better than average, but it does not feel like a Halo game to me. Maybe I'm just old

N.B.: Tom Chick has a good review of Halo 4 over at Quarter to Three that pretty much sums up how I feel about this game.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution (PC)

The story is convoluted, but I enjoyed the themes that delved into the nature of humanity, the morality of genetic and physical enhancements, the illusion of choice and free-will, man vs. corporation vs. government. I even enjoyed the difficulty of relating to and liking the protagonist. Adam Jensen suffers injuries that require everything but his head to be replaced by prostheses. He's not a bad guy, but he's not a particularly good guy, and all those physical enhancements make him seem both non-human and human simultaneously. While playing, I had to ask myself, "Is this guy even human anymore?". Sure he still has his head, face, and brains, but is he still Adam Jensen? Are these things and his thoughts the characteristics that make him human? If so, does it really matter that his body is no longer flesh, blood, and bone? These are very interesting questions that I imagine will make for a good movie.

As for the game itself, it was a ho-hum experience for me. Even though I enjoyed exploring Adam Jensen's world, the combat was weak, the boss battles were woeful, and the stealth was only decent. I found it ridiculous that there were vents and crawl-spaces conveniently placed throughout the world. Also, the RPG-style dialogue trees interrupted the flow of the game for me and the hacking mini-games were frustrating. I would have avoided them it they weren't required for gathering information about door codes and such. Couldn't there have been another way to get them? Also, it didn't seem to look as good as most reviews were saying. To me it was all dark shadows and yellow-neon lights. It didn't look nearly as good as Halo 4, and that was on a console.

Borderlands 2 (PC)

I fucking love this game --- the fact I've played almost 400 hours of it since its release attests to that. I love exploring, shooting, looting, searching, upgrading, driving, destroying, etc., etc., etc. The writing is very good, the humour is great (though not always), and the voice-acting is top-notch. And, holy crap, does it look good. Well, it looks good when you're running it on a GTX670 at high or ultra-high settings, but still, it's a dream to see.

Is there anything I don't like about this game? Well, yes, there is. There is always something about the ones we love that we don't like, but that we can overlook. I don't like the grind,; or the overpowered creatures (Rabid Skags and Rabid Stalkers); or Tiny Tina; or the ridiculous so-called guardian bossess (Terramorphous, Hyperius, Vermivorous, Pyro Pete); or the stupid number of times certain enemies have to be killed to get the good loot; or the amount of effort that has to be put into taking down certain enemies only to be given nothing but useless shit for loot; but there is enough in this game to do to make up for all of that. Most of the time, I just enjoy playing it, even if I'm not completing missions or killing bandits. And the wonderful DLC just keeps on coming and continuing the enjoyment.

Spec Ops: The Line (PS3), My game of the year for 2012

It's a military shooter.
It has Nolan North.
I has a sand-tech mechanic.

You should not avoid this game for these reasons. You owe it to yourself to play this game, because it is an important game. It is important because it turns a critical eye on itself, shooters specifically, and video games generally. This is a title which proves that video games are art because it examines itself, its motives, and the motives of its audience.

Initially, Spec Ops: The Line seems like your average 3rd-person, cover-based military shooter, but it becomes evident that it is not the type of game that just hands you a gun and says, "Here's your weapon, now go be the hero". As the game draws you towards its centre you begin to realise that, as Captain Walker states while in a private moment, "this is wrong, all of this is wrong", and that you are definitely not the hero.

There are some genuinely disturbing moments in this game which, as the wonderful analysis by Extra Credits points out, make it "unfun" to play. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to play on after them. These moments are moving and thought provoking and I had to find out how they would affect Captain Martin Walker (played brilliantly by Nolan North) and his team (also perfectly voiced by Christopher Reid and Omid Abtahi). Indeed, more that a few times, I found myself saying, aloud, "What the fuck is going on here?", or "What the fuck did I just do?" because these were things that other (military) shooters never forced me to examine and they were things that I genuinely felt uncomfortable doing and witnessing.

Spec Ops: The Line makes you do these things because it wants you to think about the games that you play; it wants you to ask yourself why you are so casual about the cruel things you do in games; it wants you to realise that sometimes soldiers have to make choices; that sometimes soldiers have no choice; that sometimes the things soldiers do affect them deeply; it wants you to see that the human mind is a fragile thing; it wants you to to examine your desire for wish fulfillment through video games. It also wants you to realise that games are more than just fantasy, wish fulfillment, and escapism. It wants you to understand that games are a medium of expression that are as valid as TV, film, literature, and music.

Spec Ops: The Line expresses itself by using Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now as structural devices. Just as the protagonists in those works made a physical, real-world journey to a mysterious, dark, central point, so to does the protagonist of the video game. Similarly, they all make a metaphorical journey deep into the darkness of the human heart and mind; along the way they discover the evil that men can do. They, along with the audience, gradually get sucked deeper and deeper into it before they realise they can't go back. Just as the book and the film used literary and filming devices to achieve this, the game uses game-mechanics and game-tropes as metaphors to drive forth the narrative and the player. Mind you, it doesn't always work effectively. There were some moments that felt forced and contrived which, thus, muted their messages, but overall, the story, narrative, and gameplay were strong, and the themes were not lost upon me.

Now, if you're just looking for a run-and-gun, shoot 'em up, military bust up, then you should look elsewhere. There are some wonderful sequences --- there's a tense one in a hotel lobby while Deep Purple's "Hush" blasts away over the PA system; another one in an aquatic centre; and another one that has you working your way up a supertall building --- but the combat is largely repetitive. Keep in mind though, that it is like this because of the necessities of the narrative, characterisation, and the outstanding ending.

So, yeah, it's my game of the year, and you should play it. If you want to read a better, more coherent discussion of the game, check out Erik Kain's Sands of Darkness: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of 'Spec Ops: The Line' and Game of the Year Contender: 'Spec Ops: The Line'

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