Tag Archives: The Year in Review 2014

The Year in Review: #1 Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

The Year in Review: #1 Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

To talk about Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, I have to first talk about Grand Theft Auto V, which also was number four in 2013’s Year in Review. The Rockstar opus is, perhaps, a game that singularly qualifies what it means to have an open world. It feels unbelievably full, like it’s about to burst at the seams with just stuff.

It is also something they have done before and continued to iterate and improve upon since the first Grand Theft Auto in 1997. More than that, it’s something everyone else has been doing for quite some time as well. The urban fervor is ripe with possibilities in an open world. Steal cars, fire guns, and blow stuff up. The recipe is something we know well à la Mafia II, Watch Dogs, and Saints Row.

Bits and pieces change here and there, but the overall flavor remains the same. Even Red Dead Redemption, one of my favorite games and one set in a rather original time and place, still felt overly familiar. (Not least of all because it was another Rockstar joint, but we can get to that another time.) And then games that remix large portions of the framework like Infamous creates an open world with much to be desired.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Here is where we find Shadow of Mordor. It stands tall among others who attempt to imbue a digital landscape with some semblance of life by doing things drastically differently. Leaving the clichés of inner city freedom behind, we are in a wholly fantastical place of orcs, elves, and possessive yet empowering ghosts. The closest we had before this was the Assassin’s Creed series (which, admittedly, is structurally similar to a fault), but those were still tied to a reality of physical consequences and historical architecture.

A city is easy to fill, albeit if only in concept and not execution. Civilians freely wander the sidewalks, drive their cars, and go about their day. Cats, dogs, and birds can turn a park from an empty lot to a visual treat as you plow through on your blood-soaked rampage. Gin up some construction and place some choice incidents and you have a town that feels lived in.

A different time and place for Shadow of Mordor does not guarantee a better open world, as proven by The Saboteur (decent, but not great). In fact, filling up a fantasy world does not give you the opportunity to stuff the turkey with all the usual suspects. And if not a vibrant social or wildlife infestation, interesting gameplay has to make the sandbox compelling.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

This is why Shadow of Mordor is so interesting and so well worth playing. It makes its world of dark fantasy feel alive and worth exploring because its gameplay and mechanics make it feel alive and worth exploring. Its Nemesis system creates an entire living, breathing network of militant dynamics and social hierarchies. It injects your otherwise run of the mill encounters with fodder enemies something personal and unique.

Other games create a facade of a beating heart. Those people you run over with your car and buildings that you blow up with your bombs mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. You outrun the cops and you marvel at the indestructible construction of fictional cities. Most games are, if nothing else, but a facade for storytelling.

But Shadow of Mordor takes one more layer away from that mask by creating these customized and deserving foes. For each fellow that strikes you down, you create someone with a name, but it feels like he was there all along. As he rises through the ranks with each battle you fight, it becomes something perverse, drawing inklings of pride for your repeat offender.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

It is something that, programmatically, is nothing overtly memorable. Data like names and fight results are stored and analyzed by the terabyte every second in the fighting game community. But the presentation makes it so special. They hate you. They kill you. They remember you. It feels very much like you are walking a deadly walk into a world that existed long before you ever came around with your sword and dagger (which is also really just a sword, the second best part of the game).

By breaking the mold of what makes an open world feel like an actual locale of people and places and things, Shadow of Mordor creates something special. It’s unique for the genre and it is felt as unique by you and me as the players. The world doesn’t just feel alive but it feels like it is something that exists just for you. And it’s why Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is my number one game of the year.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

The Year in Review: #2 Far Cry 4

The Year in Review: #2 Far Cry 4

You like Far Cry 4. I know you do. You know you do. Even if its ostensible aim (open world shooter) isn’t your cup of tea, there’s something in there for you to do. It is, impressively, an absurdly wide ranging game. Granted, the majority of the time, you’ll be shooting people, but the ways in which you can best accomplish that are manifold through the most delectably insane methods.

That’s kind of the key word here: “best.” It can, in this case, mean any number of things. As opposed to pure stealth games where getting spotted is either some arbitrary demerit down to Fox from Fox Hound or an overwhelming physical accosting by surly guards, being seen in Far Cry 4 is very often a choice. It is a choice to embrace the world as it comes.

If you so choose, you can sneak around with a bow the entire time, ducking in and out of bushes to disable alarms and picking off patrols one by one until you face the last foe face to face. Out in the open, he will receive his sweet release and you will deliver it by way of steel and lead. Or, you can plant C4 on a car, drive it into a camp, and blow it up. Or you can storm in guns blazing, hopped up on so many syringes you can hardly see straight. Better yet, do it on an elephant.

Far Cry 4

But the important thing, oddly enough, isn’t just that you have choices. That’s simple enough; simple binary choices plagued video games not five years ago and still we find their grubby little hands on our stories and mechanics every so often. What you have here is a very comprehensive freedom to accomplish a finite set of goals in a nearly limitless way.

That interminable bucket of possibilities is meaningful. In the most literal sense, you can already do that in any game. Wait some random amount of time before stepping into a mission marker and most likely you’ve done it differently than anyone else before you. Far Cry 4 does this instead by offering an immersive range for which you to rampage across and explore to your trigger’s desire.

Kyrat, the setting for the game, is what makes it so worthwhile. It is full of wildlife that at any given point could drastically improve or utterly destroy whatever well laid plans you had. Or it can just add little joyous moments of chaos to your day, seeing a bear and a tiger fight as you soar over in your wingsuit. Or you can let loose caged and feral animals on your unsuspecting foes.

Far Cry 4

So much of what the world accomplishes can be summed up in the notion of a living world. Open world games attempt to make this happen to varying degrees of success—from Infamous‘ starkly empty and noiseless streets to Grand Theft Auto V‘s bustling urban life—and Far Cry 4 does it by imbuing a sense of purpose to its inhabitants. There’s a lot of stuff happening in the mountains of Kyrat, but all of it is there with a reason.

Townsfolk tell you stories and comment on your impact on the area. Animals hassle you but also let you craft gear and provide you with interesting fashion-oriented missions. Guards patrol and get in very real firefights with rebels. And when you take it all in stride, variety cropping up at every turn as you drive from place to place, it gives the world a very appreciable veracity.

There are the parts of Far Cry 4 that are old being presented as new again. Some of it has been refined and other bits are just new signage for old quirks. You can count of it handling the same, which is to say tautly and quickly. The component with which you directly interact is still superb, but the world in which that mechanical nugget is set in has been built up to a remarkable degree. It is a land full of life, both wild and otherwise, and it spans a beautiful, vibrant bucolic expanse, offering shenanigans, strife, and explosions. And it’s what makes Far Cry 4 my number two game of the year.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

The Year in Review: #3 Shovel Knight

The Year in Review: #3 Shovel Knight

This is what happens when you give a knight a shovel. You end up, curiously enough, with one hell of a game. The $311,502 from Kickstarter sure didn’t hurt, but most of the credit goes to Yacht Club Games for taking the old skeletons from the games of yesteryear and shaking loose all the good bits for you to play.

It was easy to overlook Shovel Knight. Retro as an aesthetic has been raging on for the past several years now and is unlikely to slow down until the end of forever. Retro as gameplay has coincided with that pixelated wave of nostalgia, but it so rarely gets executed with the care necessary to make it worthwhile.

And by that, I mean the game is being made tolerable. It’s the common fault of looking back on the past to gloss over the monstrously proportioned gaps in usability and intuitiveness and head straight to fawning over what used to be. It’s not just getting the pinpoint accuracy of jumping simultaneously over and between moving obstacles or figuring out the stoic patterns of oversized bosses that made those old platformers so identifiable but the way all those little avenues of ingenuity come together.

Shovel Knight

That aggregation of mechanical design facets included all the old faults as well, things that have been rectified and sorted out as the years go on and developers build upon older generations of experience and knowledge. Shovel Knight managed to infuse modern sensibilities into the framework of something distinctly older.

Its mechanics are undoubtedly ripped from the handbook of 8-bit sidescrollers: moving platforms, a DuckTales-esque pogo shovel, head-bopping enemies, etc. But then you get platforming puzzles that are definitely of a newer ilk, forcing you to alternate between traversal and combat all in a single moving breath or limited sight paths that require sustained spatial awareness.

There’s a fidelity to the movement that comes across as singularly of an analog control but the gradient upon which you move is of a digital era. It mashes up well against the amalgam of remixed gameplay, further deepening its seat on a throne of beautifully blended ideals. There’s the raw, almost reckless sensation of old school level and enemy design merging seamlessly with a current day concern of innate progression and smoothing iterations.

Shovel Knight

Shovel Knight takes the pillars that so many other games take for granted and strips them bare, building instead with them rather than haphazardly on top of them. It steeps in the foundational essence of well-worn retro platformers and lathers up into a new, fresh-faced piece of the old and the modern. It manages to extract the utility from nostalgia instead of just a tiny palette of colors and shapes up into Shovel Knight, my number three game of the year.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

The Year in Review: Not Angry, Just Disappointed

The Year in Review: Not Angry, Just Disappointed

This year has been a rough one. Compared to the past few years where you could go into January with high hopes and a belief that this industry was headed somewhere good, leaving 2014 also leaves an aftertaste. There are some usual suspects that always make us shift uneasily in our seats, but when they stack up high like a plate of endless pancakes, it’s cause for concern.

Concern and indignation, really. First let’s consider that this holiday season looked like a banger back at the turn of 2014. We had games like Batman: Arkham Knight and The Order: 1886 coming at us hard and fast. But Arkham Knight‘s October turned to 2015, as did The Order. The same goes for Mad Max and The Division. (Technically aimed at the next year anyways, even The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt suffered yet another delay, breaking promises and deadlines.)

This turned the end of the year from a gangbusters gameapalooza to a rather tepid end to a depressing year. (We’ll get into that in another TYIR.) While not terrible games, we are left with Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker and Lara Croft: The Temple of Osiris for December. November was a little better off with Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and LittleBigPlanet 3 along with Far Cry 4 and Dragon Age: Inquisition (and the obligatory Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed releases), but still not the fresh bounty we’d been promised.

The Last of Us Remastered

Perhaps worse than that, we were fed stale (if refined) bits of bread and told they were good as new. This year was rife with HD rereleases, an invitation almost too obvious with the nascent years of these new consoles. The biggest and more recent titles of yester-generation came back like Grand Theft Auto V and The Last of Us, both of which proved their objective quality and impressive aesthetics.

As devs figure out how best to milk the hardware of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, we further received the announcements of rereleases of DmC, Saints Row IV, and supposedly Borderlands. It’s a marginally improved concession for convenience if you want to play these games, but the draw of playing on our infant nostalgia is wearing thin. It’s almost becoming annoying—insulting.

You probably noticed that there’s a big HD rerelease missing from the aforementioned 2014 litany: Halo: The Master Chief Collection. That’s because it leads right into the biggest trend of disappointment for the year. Case in point, one of the biggest components of the Spartan anthology—the online multiplayer matchmaking—simply did not work. This lead to both Bonnie Ross, head of 343 Industries, to writing a personal apology to players and throwing an offering to the voracious wolves.

Halo: The Master Chief Collection

The biggest and most advertised portion of the collection was, in a word, useless. It’s still a lovely and centralized way to play the campaigns of the main Halo series of games, but all that marketing about playing every map with all your Xbox One buddies just couldn’t be made true. And unfortunately, it wasn’t the only one with that problem.

Driveclub didn’t have its full capabilities until this month, a chasm of lacking features including weather and, most importantly, online play. Its launch popularity broke its own server infrastructure, rendering much of it useless to its players, which then drove Evolution Studios to delay the Driveclub PlayStation Plus Edition.

Then there was Assassin’s Creed Unity, a true debacle on almost all counts. Frame rate often fell to nightmare status and crashes were strewn about like sprinkles at a Baskin-Robbins. Missing faces were commonplace enough to question the veracity of general healthcare during the French Revolution. It was so bad that Ubisoft offered free DLC and a free game so as to surreptitiously attempt a legal dodge.

Assassin's Creed Unity

Ubisoft, actually, just hasn’t had a good year in general. It had a solid highlight with Far Cry 4 and South Park: The Stick of Truth, but its highly publicized and anticipated Watch Dogs turned out to be somewhat of a dud. The Crew also turned out to be quite the uninteresting product and not without its own fair share of technical issues.

Combined with putting out the single most broken game of the year in Unity, Ubisoft has a lot of ground to make up in 2015. (They do get credit, though, for putting out Child of Light and Valiant Hearts: The Great War.) Quite a few studios coming out of 2014, actually, have a long road of ahead of them.

Bungie put out a similarly mediocre but functional game in Destiny. We thought they were just Halo developers and this would prove they could do more, but we ended up with Halo with odd bits of MMO mixed in and a mild proof that they do absolutely love pseudo-robotic space warriors with flying AI buddies.

Destiny

While not a broken or a bad game, it was disappointing. Much of the big, triple-A roster this year, in fact, was disappointing. Thief, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel!, everything just mentioned, and so much more failed to live up to expectations either set by studio reputation, past franchise titles, or even just good demos as past trade shows. You have plenty of reason to be mad about some of these and many other things, but really, I’m just disappointed at this point.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,