Reports of my Demise and so on…

It’s funny how getting out of the games media, despite leaving this site as largely my only outlet for writing about games at a time when a long-overdue generational shift has left plenty to talk about, has led to me writing almost nothing. Seriously, apart from last year’s top ten and coming out of retirement for one freelance review, posting on GAF is all I’ve done.

I aim to change that. I’ve given the place a facelift, and now I’m going to be more regular in posting impressions and opinion pieces. Honest.

My biggest dereliction of duty has been nothing about my PS4, as letting the opportunity to post impressions on  a new piece of hardware would once have been unthinkable. I’m more positive than a lot of places have been, being happy with the price/performance ratio and the focus on gaming at the expense of multimedia functionality, which will no doubt come through future firmware updates. It’s nice to have a non-evil Sony back, and I’m even hopeful at the prospect of the benevolent dictator situation that gave us such a great library in the PS2 generation. But maybe that’s from spending too long on NeoGAF.

The biggest criticism of the new hardware has been entirely predictable, as it happens every single generation: no games. I disagree. I loved Infamous: Second Son enough to make it my first platinum trophy, have put over 120 hours into Battlefield 4, and enjoyed Ground Zeroes (don’t pay more than £20), Assassin’s Creed IV, and the freebies from PS Plus. I liked Tomb Raider enough to give that another crack once the definitive version reaches a more justifiable price too. Just don’t be tempted by Killzone; any reviewers who scored it higher than a 5/10 are insane, and Infamous has supplanted it as the essential eye candy.

Admittedly I have been playing the PS3 more than the PS4, but Dark Souls II and Final Fantasy X HD are no mere games. The former captured my interest more than either of its predecessors and will happily be upgraded if the rumoured PS4 version turns out to exist.

But like I said, a software drought happens every generation, so you should at least give it a year before you start worrying. If you bought a PS4 without expecting this, you must be new at this early adopting lark.

In other news, a little over a month from now I’ll be heading to India for a fortnight, spending time in the Himalayas and the desert of Rajasthan. I’m not sure what sort of network access I’ll have apart from the odd forays into towns with Internet cafes, but whether they come before or after my return, this and Twitter will be my main repositories for photos for those at home. I hope you’ll enjoy them.

And no, I still haven’t given up on Shenmue.

Best of 2013 #1: Fire Emblem Awakening

Fire Emblem AwakeningHandheld games have an unfortunate tendency to be overlooked in the copious GOTY awards at this time of year, but the lack of this in the popular lists – not this one, then – is a tragedy. Good for Animal Crossing and Zelda, which are great, but here we have a B-tier Nintendo franchise upping its game on a spectacular scale.

The 3DS has had a spectacular year, by all accounts, and its earliest hit was my favourite. Its presentation is lovely, from the personality-filled 3D models to the animated cut-scenes that almost justify the stereoscopic effects on their own. It’s the perfect standard bearer for the features of the 3DS, introducing me to StreetPass, SpotPass and the rest through well thought out integration. Plenty of free DLC as well. Sad that that seems like an aberration today.

Credit, too, for 8-4‘s brilliant translation. True to the setting and humorous without being obnoxious, even while including Internet memes in its dialogue – something I still find hard to believe is possible.

Awakening is a great starting point for Fire Emblem neophytes, with little baggage from the previous instalments and even – cover your ears, purists – the ability to disable what was once the series’ USP: permadeath. This nod to accessibility should be praised rather than reviled, for this game’s unexpectedly strong sales performance – who knew that a good game on a system that was starved of great software would result in sales? – look to have kept it alive.

If the standards are this high, here’s to many more.

Best of 2013 #2: Grand Theft Auto V

Grand Theft Auto VGTA, how I’ve missed you. We’ve suffered numerous instalments of your pretenders since we last set foot in Liberty City, but they just weren’t the same.

I feel like I’m in a minority in standing by my high opinion of GTA IV, a game I felt certainly had flaws but did more than enough to justify the acclaim. Honestly, if they patched out the inane and annoying friendship system, I’d have no reservations about awarding that game a perfect score. Did it have as much to do as San Andreas? No, but it had different ambitions and fulfilled them admirably.

GTA V, meanwhile, strikes a balance that seems to have achieved the feat of pleasing everyone. It boasts the storytelling ambitions of IV – while arguably doing it better – and offers a ridiculous amount of content. It looks gorgeous, even on outdated hardware. Much credit, too, for the seamless character switching in an open-world game, which is an achievement both technically and narratively. I expect that to be much imitated in a genre that frequently follows the path forged by this series.

So how does Rockstar top this? Oh, I think you know.

Best of 2013 #3: The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between WorldsA Zelda sequel just seems weird. Sure, Majora’s Mask technically takes place directly after Ocarina of Time and the Links in the first two games are the same incarnation, but to use the same map, the same world, even the same visual style? What’s next? A new one every year?

But it works. A Link to the Past is long enough ago that my memory of this map is far from perfect, and it hardly seems like we’re on a slippery slope to talking about Zelda 2015 next year – although I wouldn’t complain if there was Majora’s Mask 3D in time for next year’s list. A Link Between Worlds looks hideous in screenshots but lovely in motion, the rock solid 60fps, even in 3D, ensuring the same level of responsiveness as the SNES game.

My only complaint would be that a couple of the noble experiments with the tried-and-tested Zelda structure don’t really work. The rental system, for example, takes away the fun of revisiting past areas with new items and, as far as I can tell, adds only unnecessary frustration when dying. Rupees are so abundant that it’s no great hardship to buy your items outright, and from that point the rental system has no reason to exist. The game’s also very easy, without much of a difficulty curve that is clearly a symptom of its lost structure.

Still, it’s Zelda, and it’s the best in a while. Should this turn out to be the first in a Mario-esque cranking out of a familiar Nintendo series, and the quality stays this high, I won’t complain.

Best of 2013 #4: Tomb Raider

Tomb RaiderPossibly my surprise of the year. What a hopeless PR campaign led me to suspect would be a QTE-laden Uncharted knock-off instead was a thoroughly enjoyable open-world adventure that I felt, in its platforming and exploration, actually outdid its inspiration. But I was right about it being QTE-laden.

It’s funny because the talk before launch was about its narrative ambitions, and that part of the game turned out to be complete guff. Bland stereotypes posing as characters and a big helping of that good old ludonarrative dissonance weren’t enough to overcome some cool enemies and interesting setting. The mix of angry pirates, supernatural Japanese cults and World War II infrastructure had great potential but ultimately was little more than a fun place to climb around.

But I’m always inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to disappointing storytelling when it’s supporting solid gameplay – otherwise you might as well just watch a movie – and I loved the time spent with this new Lara Croft. Exploration, hunting, combat and the Metroidvania-style push to return to past areas with new abilities were superbly designed, and that was enough for me.

Best of 2013 #5: The Last of Us

The Last of UsI’m confident that The Last of Us will be sweeping up more than its share of awards this season, so understand that this isn’t an attempt to be contrary. If I’m criticising BioShock Infinite for propping up an ambitious storyline with flawed gameplay, it’s only fair that the current darling of Naughty Dog’s ‘dedicated’ fan base gets the same treatment. The Last of Us suffers from gunplay that hasn’t really improved since Uncharted, occasionally frustrating stealth mechanics, a poor final act, and generally fell foul of my boredom with the whole zombie thing.

But enough criticism. This is a celebration.

Like BioShock, this game hangs an impressive storytelling achievement on that somewhat uninspired skeleton. The Last of Us’s story is downright brave, hitting an early high with its opening sequence and peaking with the horrific winter chapter. The performances of its cast put most games to shame, both in the work of the actors and how they’ve been rendered digitally. In that respect, The Last of Us is the fulfilment of the promise that Uncharted showed within Naughty Dog. The characters are likeable, subtle, understated. They’re like actual human beings.

It’s only my opinion that the actual game side of things lets down the achievements elsewhere that keeps TLOU out of the highest echelons of my list. And if it wasn’t for the need to counteract the more enthusiastic cheerleaders out there, this entry would appear more flattering than it is.