Best of 2008

Believe it or not, there are only ten days remaining in 2008, which can mean only… oh.

No, unlike the last three years, I won’t be counting down the last few days of the year with my favourite games that this trip around the sun has brought. It was always fun to knock it together while infused with ‘Christmas spirit’, but the fact that the timing precluded the great games that I got for Christmas – probable inclusions like Final Fantasy XII and Mass Effect among them over the last couple of years – means that I’m instead going to do it during the first ten days of 2009.

In the meantime, look over my picks from 2005, 2006, and 2007. Some of them I’d change in retrospect, but at least you can get a reminder of how this year stacks up.

The Evergreen Street Fighter II

Guile

Speaking as a fan of Street Fighter III, which is a beautiful, deep, competitive game that didn’t receive nearly the attention that it deserves, it really has nothing on its predecessor. A rough calculation tells me that I’ve already bought Street Fighter II three times this decade, and playing the new HD Remix has really reminded me of just how brilliant this game is.

Besides its better, more iconic characters that have gone on to become archetypes in themselves, Street Fighter II is a game that just never seems to age at all, no matter how many times I play it, and that amazes me every time I return. The lick of paint for the latest release obviously helps, but looking beyond graphics it’s as much fun today as it ever was. Everyone must have at least some experience with this game, and you only have to play for a little while to feel at home again, even if you haven’t played since it came out, which is pushing two decades ago. It’s impossible to have ‘just one more game’, especially now that we have a version that works extremely well online.

What’s impressed me more than anything, though, is how playing online has shown just how deep a game it is, even compared to one that is so deliberately tough to master as its sequel. People know every in and out of every character and move, and some of the high-level players you’ll meet online can completely humble you, switching styles as they go and thrashing you, even with characters that I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. Even after all these years I can’t work out how to effectively play as a ‘charge’ character like Guile, and yet I can go online and be routinely humiliated by one of them. Such is life…

It seems like HD Remix has been timed to hype up a certain other fighting game due in February, and if that was indeed one of its purposes it’s worked with me. The previews are coming out and suggesting that the talk about Street Fighter IV going back to the deep yet accessible roots of Street Fighter II, appealing in the process to both the hardcore and casual fans – that’s ‘casual’ in the old sense, not the ‘plays Imagine Party Babyz’ kind – may actually be true. While that ‘back to basics’ marketing trick has lost its power not to make me suspicious after its repeated use on Sonic games, there just isn’t a better foundation for a fighting game than this.

Because of this, no matter how good SFIV ends up being, it won’t be its immediate predecessor that it’s held up against. Aiming to succeed Street Fighter II is ambitious, given that even the best new fighting games struggle to be played for three years, let alone seventeen, but again, this is the sheet to crib from. I hope it succeeds, and I bought an arcade stick as evidence of my faith – okay, so HD Remix had something to do with it as well – but I have my suspicions as to which Street Fighter I’ll still be buying with each new generation when 2025 rolls around.

On Gears of War 2

I finished Gears of War 2 the other day. It took me far longer than it should have done because of a slightly doughy patch in its middle that I needed a push through, but overall it was a better game than the first in every way. Crude and brainless, yes, but is that a bad thing?

There are a lot of gamers who will hold up games like Gears 2 as the worst thing to ever happen to gaming, somehow responsible for denying the medium its rightful place among the ‘respected’ entertainment media, but I think that there’s always a place for this kind of thing. Besides the point that no one except gamers takes it that seriously, you’re barking up the wrong tree if you think that games aren’t respected enough because of testosterone-fuelled action games.

Gears of War 2 - The Hollow

Aliens, Terminator 2, Die Hard, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, The Matrix… All of these movies are, to various extents, considered to be classics, if not in general then certainly of their genre. They might have some cod philosophy to please the chin-stroking crowd, but at the end of the day you watch them to see people with guns doing cool shit.

Gears is the same as that. It’s as subtle as a brick, but it looks amazing – see the above shot – the tight action is second to none when it’s on a roll and, on the whole, I just had a brilliant time with it. Is it art? Who cares? I’d prefer movie posters and comic book artwork on my walls to Monet, and I’d prefer Gears to a game that’s trying to be clever for the sake of it. At least Gears of War is honest about the fact that it’s a game, and the point of them is to be fun.

If you’re looking to Gears to bring you closer to enlightenment you’re barking up the wrong tree – hell, it’s barely even a tree in that case – and I won’t come away from it as a better person, but I got to ride a fucking Brumak!

Sending EA The Wrong Message

It’s fair to say that I’ve been critical of EA in the past, accusing the company of everything from┬ásingle-handedly┬ábringing down the industry to the ritual murder of virgins… maybe. It’s been massively improved recently, though, somehow turning Pro Evo into the football franchise that’s resting on its laurels with the really rather good FIFA 09 and, for every questionable decision, releasing a few games that are actually pretty risky and unique.

Dead Space

In the last year, for example, Burnout Paradise was a major departure from the previous games’ successful formula, and it has since been supported by some incredibly diverse downloadable content, most of which has been free. Bearing in mind that this is the company that has charged for in-game money and that’s incredible.

Rock Band 2 came out and, understandable licensing fee aside, Harmonix was allowed to patch in the ability to export almost every game from the original game for the new one, which made me happy.

Then, this Christmas, we’ve had Dead Space and Mirror’s Edge, both new IPs that bring new things to their respective genres – if Mirror’s Edge could even be considered part of a traditional genre – and have allowed a couple of clearly talented studios to cut loose from their usual licensed pap and Battlefield drudgery respectively and flex their creative muscles.

So it’s good that the new, risk-taking EA is reaping the benefits, then, right? Oh…

It’s not all that surprising considering that people are going to be picky about their games and new stuff like this has to go up against guaranteed sellers like Gears 2 and a new Call of Duty, but it’s still a huge shame. I’ve seen some pretty good deals on both of those, and Dead Space in particular is brilliant, so if you’re looking for some late Christmas presents at least consider them because otherwise the new EA will take over from Activision as the new old EA… or something.

The PlayStation Home Beta

Admittedly I’ve been against Home from the beginning, but having spent some time with the beta a bit before it opens up to everyone, I have to say that I really can’t see the point of this. It’s bland, boring, soulless, slow, and I can think of a ton of ways that I’d prefer to interact with what community there is on PSN.

The character creation suite is the first port of call, and I’m afraid that I have to make the obvious comparison between Miis and Avatars here: Home has a serious case of the uncanny valley going on. While the other two offerings aren’t realistic in the slightest and yet allow you to make a fairly recognisable representation of yourself, Home takes a far more realistic approach, and as a result I spent ages working on it to end up with someone that doesn’t really look like me at all. It looks more like a real person than a Mii, but wandering around Home everyone pretty much looks like they escaped from the same Gap advert.

It’s early days still, but when there are so few clothing options for your drone/mannequin and it looks like any extra will need to be bought with real money, I don’t see it getting much better.

The monetary issue is a big one as well. I got a summer house free for being in the closed beta, which is a room with some stairs and a fireplace, and a nice view of a lake. It’s functionally identical to the harbour apartment that you start with, but Sony is apparently charging $4.99 for it, and that’s without the palette-swapped furniture that you have to pay extra for. I could understand maybe charging for the cool interactive stuff like arcade cabinets and the TVs that will presumably add in video sharing when that comes back, but the items in there now are just pointless.

The initial 77MB download is just the engine and your starting space, a spartan single-room apartment. If you want to leave the room and visit the Home Square, the central hub, you have to twiddle your thumbs while it downloads, and as it does this, there’s bugger all to do in your room. You want to leave that and visit the Shopping Centre? That’s another 20-odd meg to download. Ditto if you visit a clubhouse or the personal space of a friend who has a house type that you haven’t visited yet. I think I’ve literally spent more time downloading than actually doing anything.

Also, thanks to the dearth of people who have headsets, I’m reliant on text chat to communicate. This is something that I haven’t done on a console since Phantasy Star Online on the Dreamcast, and for a system that’s supposedly going to attract the Facebook crowd with its intuitive visual interface, it’s very reliant on using a virtual PDA menu – not a PSP or even a Sony Ericsson phone, shockingly – to do anything.

Mainly, though, it’s just plain dull and soulless. Everyone looks the same, for some reason that completely escapes me you have to queue to play the games that are available, and everyone’s as baffled about what you’re supposed to be doing as anyone else.

Tycho from Penny Arcade said today that, “this is what happens when your marketing department tries to make a game”, and that hits the nail on the head. There’s no interesting hook here, and when the big new content like game spaces and new sponsored areas – in other words: adverts – are what you have to look forward to, what’s the point?

Sonic Unleashed Sucks

Any sane Sonic fan will know by now that the correct way to approach a new Sonic game is with trepidation. If Sonic Team has been insisting that this one will be the return to form without Sonic’s furry friends – or worse – and their shit new game mechanics, what it really means is that this one will have new furry friends with gimmicks that it hopes won’t be quite as bad as previous attempts.

Even after rubbish like Shadow the Hedgehog and and utter trash of Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic Unleashed is possibly the most depressing yet. It’s not that it’s worse than Sonic 2006, thankfully, but what’s depressing is how it’s such a case of one step forward and two steps back. The Sonic stages are back to basics, brilliant fun, extremely pretty, and exactly what I want from a 3D Sonic game; put a few hours of these together and I’d happily pay the asking price, regardless of what brainless story had been hung on the bones to justify it. These represent Sonic Unleashed’s step forward.

Sonic Unleashed

However…

The were-hog was, let’s face it, a bad idea from the start. Tell me you didn’t hear about it and cringe immediately.

It’s a bizarre attempt to bring in some Devil May Cry-style combat, except it’s just crap. Mash the buttons to destroy some rejects from the ranks of Kingdom Hearts’ Heartless and Twilight Princess’s shadow creatures, occasionally getting into a QTE to kill off the bigger ones, and do this for room after room, unless the game decides that some block-pushing would be better. Yes, that’s block-pushing puzzles. In a Sonic game.

Bearing in mind that the Sonic stages are over in a few minutes and the were-hog ones can be ten minutes or more, they take up a significant proportion of the game – like more than the Sonic stages.

It’s just insane to me that nobody thought during testing, when they’d just finished breaking the sound barrier as the Blue Blur, that being stuck in the same room for five minutes as you dragged a block onto a switch, twiddled some knobs to raise and lower platforms, dragged another block onto them, moved them again, dragged the block to the other one – all so that you could get to a careful, slow walk across a balance beam, which couldn’t be more at odds with the Sonic ethos if it tried – wasn’t any fun whatsoever. Once again, I’m baffled as to what’s happened to the Sega of the Dreamcast days that could seemingly do no wrong.

Throw in boring and largely non-interactive Tornado sequences – you don’t even have control over the plane like you did in Sonic Adventure – and it becomes hard not to play the game without shaking your head. I’m beyond really being disappointed because I just don’t care any more. It’s for the best if we all just forget about Sonic and leave him back in his glory days.

Until the next time Sonic Team promises to take it back to basics…