Possibly 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.
I take it as an indication of the quality of 2013′s games that BioShock Infinite, a game that seemed a shoo-in for copious awards come this point in the year, now looks likely to be frequently overlooked. I’m kind of the same now that the lustre has worn off and the rough edges – prosaic shooting, an occasionally annoying AI companion, bullet sponge enemies, that boss – have become evident.
But the original BioShock did very little… original, gameplay-wise. That achieved its plaudits through its setting and story, and while Infinite’s Columbia doesn’t grab me as firmly as the glorious Rapture and its rug pulls can’t touch BioShock’s, I played through the whole thing in two sittings because it kept me enthralled, keen to see what it would do next. The pre-release hype hinted at parallel universes and time travel, but it still surprised me in how quickly and to what extent it ran with those themes.
Just imagine the praise that would be heaped on its shenanigans had it been a Christopher Nolan film, say. Gaming as a mature storytelling medium? Never in doubt.
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.
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.
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.
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.