Best of 2012 #1: The Witcher 2
Cheating? Nah. Although The Witcher 2 debuted in 2011, this year marked its first console appearance in its Enhanced Edition form. The 360 wasn’t the definitive way to experience it, but this side of a mortgage to pay for the PC to run it in its full glory it was still mightily impressive.
Even in its cut-down form, this game blew me away. I’ve been a fan of the books since the first one was translated into English and missed the first game after the console release was canned, and it surpassed my wildest expectations for both its depth and the faithfulness of the adaptation. I also wrote about how impressed I was at its ability to satisfy the whole role-playing side of a role-playing game by not railroading the player, and I stand by that. Most games are content to be embarrassingly cack-handed in their depictions of morality, and this somehow managed to feel nuanced while portraying an established character.
It’s doing things that BioWare struggled to do in Mass Effect with colossal budgets and the support of EA behind it. And all from a little Polish studio working with a licence that was little-known in the anglophone world before the first game set tongues waggling. With this and the underrated Metro series, Eastern Europe is seemingly becoming a hotbed of technically stunning, ambitious and innovative literary adaptations, and long may it continue.
A gaming PC is one of my planned purchases for the first half of 2013, and seeing The Witcher 2 in all its glory – GPUs are only now able to run it with ubersampling on at a stable frame rate, and it’s a sight to behold – with areas that aren’t divided to fit into 256MB of RAM will be one of the first things I do. I so rarely go back to games I’ve finished that those intentions should absolutely be taken as a comment on this game’s quality. Watch Cyberpunk 2077 like a hawk, because I’m expecting great things.
Best of 2012 #4: XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Hard to believe that a year ago we didn’t even know this game existed. On this day in 2011 the only XCOM revival on the agenda was the FPS version, which I think looks fairly interesting but has become a whipping boy for this generation’s ill-advised attempts to reboot cult PC classics for the Call of Duty generation.
This was pure fan service, though. Seriously, if you’d asked hardcore XCOM fans – is there any other kind? – what they’d like from a modern take on the franchise, I can’t imagine the result being far from what Firaxis delivered.
Praise must be lavished for how it achieved this while making a game that’s still enjoyable and eminently accessible for newbies like me. I dabbled with the original UFO when I first got Boxer installed – that app deserves some kind of award for making DOSBox usable to humans – and found it absolutely impenetrable and, while I have no doubt that there’s a superb game in there, I suspect it’s something you had to be there in 1994 to really appreciate.
By designing it to modern standards, introducing mechanics gradually so that the player’s skills grow with experience, this Enemy Unknown is accessible without massively dumbing down the core strategy or toning down the unforgiving difficulty. It should go down as an example to both gamers and developers – to the former as proof that the buzzword ‘accessibility’ isn’t necessarily the kiss of death for challenging gameplay that it admittedly often is, and to the latter as a blueprint for how to do it.
It didn’t do COD numbers, but it looks as if 2K had realistic expectations and is happy with the commercial performance. That bodes well.
Best of 2012 #6: The Walking Dead
It’s going to be hard to come up with much to say about this given how recently I spent a few hundred words gushing about how well done The Walking Dead was, but I’ll do my best.
The best evidence of how effective the story here was the fact that I’m still thinking about it. Daring stuff compared to the cliched nonsense that passes for in-game plots most of the time. I’ve spent hours poring over flowcharts about what might have been, had I been nicer to this person or saved that one instead. It feels cheap to boil it down to the numbers like that, but it’s an outlet when the wait for the follow-up series. We are getting a second season, right?
In all seriousness, I would refer you to the recent post for my thoughts on the game, because they’re so recent that my opinion hasn’t changed. The Walking Dead represents Telltale finally fulfilling the promise that it had only threatened to before, despite the quality of the licences it had to work with.
I wouldn’t go as far as some in praising it as it has some annoying niggles and occasionally not that much game, but it’s going to live on forever more as evidence that a game’s story can make you cry.
Best of 2012 #7: Sleeping Dogs
Chalk this up as the year’s biggest surprise, for sure. A troubled development and ambitious designs on a genre that few developers are talented enough to pull off rarely equals anything worth shouting about, and I don’t think any tears were shed when it was dropped by Activision and looked to be destined for a life spent filling retrospective articles about what might have been.
Frankly it would have been a surprise if Sleeping Dogs had come out at all, so the fact that it appeared and was as good as it turned out was shocking. It also subverted the received wisdom that urban crime games have to be set in the US to be a success, topping charts around the world.
It deserved it too. It was polished, the city made a nice change from New York or LA again, and both the hand-to-hand combat and gunplay took a dump on GTA’s routinely flaky equivalents. Really, if GTA comes out and is content to recycle the mediocre-at-best shooting of previous instalments – and there’s no excuse considering that its immediate predecessor in the Rockstar oeuvre is Max Payne 3 – it’ll deserve every negative comparison to Sleeping Dogs it gets.
United Front’s invention and love of genre film is continuing with the DLC – Asian horror and classic kung fu respectively – and hopefully this series will continue where its original home, Activision’s True Crime, looks to be left to die. There’s a joke in there about exploitation cinema somewhere.
Best of 2012 #8: Hitman: Absolution
For its failures as a Hitman game, Absolution still tickled me as a stealth game. Splinter Cell – one of my favourite franchises of last generation – has made a habit of disappointing fans with ill-advised re-imaginings, Metal Gear hasn’t been about the stealth for a while now, and the late 90s fad for the genre had faded, leaving stealth fans as high and dry as hardcore Hitman fans must be now.
I wouldn’t class myself as one of them, having only played the superb Blood Money, so perhaps I was detached enough to enjoy Absolution for what it was rather than what I wanted it to be. It nailed the compulsive pursuit or perfection that I loved from classic Splinter Cell and threw in a handful – but only a handful – of the murder puzzles of previous Hitman games.
Credit is deserved as well for going against the disappointing trend of six-hour single-player campaigns with no replay value. Over 20 hours first time through is practically unheard of these days, and this genuinely does boast multiple solutions that are worth experiencing for the wealth of Easter eggs and humorous conversations to overhear. And you don’t even have to pay for DLC to get it all. Bravo, IO.
Even so, let’s have a proper Hitman game next time, though, eh?
Best of 2012 #9: Darksiders II
I hold up the Darksiders series as an example of the kind of game we don’t get any more. Both the games are solid, fun, polished B-tier adventures loaded with content of the sort that was ten-a-penny a generation or two ago, but the way the middle ground of developers has fallen out with increasing budgets required for a project of this size means it doesn’t happen any more.
Sadly, Darksiders II may end up going down as an example of why this is a dying breed. Unrealistic sales required to turn a profit coupled with THQ’s precarious finances will likely put paid to future instalments. A shame. But at least we have an Assassin’s Creed game every year to scratch that adventuring itch, right? Hey, come back!
Putting aside my opinion that a healthy industry needs more games like this, Darksiders II was a great game. Derivative, yes – it’s Zelda with Prince of Persia’s platforming and a loot system, essentially – but polished. It’s not as good as the original, though. I went through them back to back, and in that circumstance it’s glaring how the tight, focused adventure of Darksiders gave way to a stretched, bloated quest; the first world of Darksiders II is packed with things to do, and subsequent ones become increasingly sparse as you get the impression that the realities of having to populate a world this big caught up with the realities of Vigil’s ambitions and budget.
And then you hit Earth: one of the most ill-advised changes of tack in gaming history that would have been annoying even if it had been competently designed.
But this feature is about games I liked, damn it, so I need to stop being so negative. I really did like Darksiders II, despite the impression that the last couple of paragraphs might have given you, and it will be tragic if this is another planned series that got me invested before leaving me high and dry after only two. God, I’m having flashbacks.