Tag Archives: The Year in Review

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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.

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The Year in Review: #1 Gone Home

The Year in Review: #1 Gone Home

Gone Home is a beautiful game for many amazing, complex reasons. For all the things it does right, it needs to be praised for the things it doesn’t do. Its blend of an unrelenting drive, pushing you through walls and barriers like a bulldozer, and measured, deliberate restraint stands head and shoulders above its forest of giant sequoias, each towering figure already a testament to Gone Home‘s excellence.

First and foremost, it tells a story. If the original design doc started out with nothing more than “craft a story and give the player no choice to become invested in it,” then Steve Gaynor and the rest of his Portland-based fellows at The Fullbright Company succeeded. More than that, they succeeded where so many others have failed. Even games that weave great tales of betrayal, thievery, and deception often can be foiled by the simple act of not playing.

Gone Home doesn’t give you that choice. Or at least it didn’t give me that choice. I must have had bacon in my pocket because this tender, raw, violent, sweet dog wouldn’t let go once it sank its teeth in me. As soon as you step into that broken flickering porch light, it begins. A cup, a Christmas duck, a bag, and a note. Such a simple chemical equation for a bright, vivid reaction.

Gone Home

It’s a tempered catalyst. So much of what makes Gone Home is what doesn’t stick in your face and what it doesn’t allow you to do. Many games can be lumped into a zeitgeist; this one tells ancillary stories through audio logs, this one puts you behind cover with a gun, and this one throws XP at you like it’s confetti. But Gone Home doesn’t do that. It is wholly comfortable in being what it is and nothing else.

This is a game that doesn’t let you run. You can’t jump. At no point is there anything leading you into or throwing you at combat. All you do is walk and look at things. And yet it inspires moments of genuine horror. It gives you chills from the little sparks of “what if” it shoots into your mind. It gins up action through emotion, through will and desire, through an impossibly heartfelt love for someone that doesn’t even exist.

The game’s restraint enables you to more readily accept its spell, its charm. Rather than spread you thin like too little jam on too much toast, you seep slowly and steadily deeper and deeper into what it does give you. Like a gaseous form, humans will take the volume it’s given. Gone Home gives a taut little house of two hopeful heroines for you to fill with your heart, choosing to make your emotional journey a potent one instead of a broad one.

Gone Home

It focuses on feeling real rather than expansive like a Greek epic. What 90s family didn’t have a bunch of store-bought VHS tapes haphazardly labeled for their pirated content? What child didn’t have glow in the dark stars stuck to her ceiling? And who wouldn’t turn on the lights and turn them off again just to see them light up?

And who wouldn’t fall deeply, madly for Lonnie. Who wouldn’t be pleading—praying—no no no no no as they ran up to the attic. Few games make me emotional just at the mention of their name, but Gone Home does it. It goes deep and rattles the rusted cage of feelings, hardened after years of heartbreak and forlorn passing, and softens it with a rebel. It brushes off the cobwebs with a sister, a father treading water, a mother hearing a siren song, and a house hiding more than you’d ever know. It’s what makes Gone Home my absolutely unrivaled game of the year.

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The Year in Review: #2 Tomb Raider

The Year in Review: #2 Tomb Raider

I don’t know what to tell you. I liked Tomb Raider. A lot. But that’s the majesty of having a personal top ten list for game of the year; this isn’t a defense or accusation or anything of the sort. This is me sharing my experience with you, and that’s it.

Tomb Raider is an objectively good game, but it also contains its fair share of problems. For example, it builds up a vulnerable yet powerful hero in Lara, but also one that has yet to tap into the character we’re used to seeing fighting tigers and cartwheeling over crumbling structures. When she kills a person for the first time, it’s tense and meaningful in a way we didn’t think we would ever get from a Tomb Raider game.

And then she goes on to immediately kill a dozen more before racking up nearly a thousand corpses by the end of the game. It’s immensely squandered potential. We could have had an action-adventure game that held all of its action and adventure within our hearts and heads instead of shooting the shit out of dudes and animals.

Tomb Raider

However, judging a game for what it’s not is never a good idea, though ignoring it as part of the final product is similarly foolhardy when it jukes you like this. But the Tomb Raider we’ve gotten is still something special.

What sticks out the most to me is the simple act of actually playing the game. It feels just superb in so many ways. Lara handles in a way that hews closer to her days in short shorts and a crop top than the bumbling steps of Nathan Drake, but in the nuances of her animations, she still comes across as a green adventure, just one with huge potential. She dodges quickly and effectively but inelegantly; she strikes quick and reliably but never hard; she shoots fast and accurately but tentatively.

So while the narrative impetus to see Lara grow into someone more capable is tossed out the window, the character-player interactions mostly see them through to the end. This also includes, however, Lara’s use of the bow. This might be why I liked Tomb Raider so much more than most people (though everyone still does seem to like it a lot). I limited myself to use only the bow.

Tomb Raider

It felt personal that way, and the entire game hinges on connecting to the personal strife of Lara on this island. The bow shoots much like any other firearm: hold the left trigger to aim, press the right trigger to fire. But its actual controls are inherently imbued with agency. You have to hold the right trigger to draw the arrow back and release it to fire. That alone sets it apart from a gun’s “press to kill” modus operadi.

This means that every arrow you let fly is one you send out with conviction. You set the arrow, drew the string, and released. It forces you to consider the implications of your actions. It even enables the sensation of regret in the midst of killing, allowing you to re-quiver your arrow.

But to do that, you have to release your left trigger before your right one, disengaging from the same side you began it with. The reversal itself is worth consideration. Its movements are opposite those of the kill, reflecting the desires to see an arrow penetrate some thug’s head and the desires to remain hidden and let a life go untouched.

Tomb Raider

Unfortunately, you only reach this point of contemplation once you’ve reached the end, still relying on the bow, recovering arrows and cursing its speed when all you need is rapid fire power. This personal choice in effort and challenge colored my time with Tomb Raider.

Many of you will otherwise find competency where I found excellence. Its objective qualities are straightforward: amazing art design, Camilla Luddington’s stellar voice acting, and so on. But for the ruminations of life, death, stoicism, and conviction caused by the drawing of a bow, Tomb Raider is my number two game of the year.

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The Year in Review: #3 Papers, Please

The Year in Review: #3 Papers, Please

Denied. Denied. Approved. Denied. What the fuck is this bootleg identification? Hella denied. Denied. Denied. Approved. Papers, Please.

All day. Every day. Denial and approval, rejection and acceptance. The implications of my actions are massive. I am one of the vigilant gatekeepers to the homeland, told that what I do keeps my fellow countrymen safe. And I must do it quickly and accurately because my family is depending on the money I make. The grand scope and the intimate necessity of my job are impossible to ignore.

Except I do. I’ve seen people die, I’ve shot people, betrayed others, and I’m slowly killing my family. But it’s all fading away from a roar to a hum to eventually pure silence. Everyone—from me to my wife to the happy-go-lucky guy who tries to sneak in—is just a number, a figure to check facts against.

Papers, Please

It didn’t start out this way. I used to care. I was so concerned about making good money, and not just good in a decent amount but good in that I listened to these people. Some had family on the other side of this border check. Some were trying to flee bad situations. Even if I got demerits, I wanted to still be a good person.

Then it begins. I first reduce you to a picture. And then I make you nothing more than a country and a city. Then a single date. And before long, you are an obstacle between me and my stamps. It’s a slow degradation, moving you from column to column, from one labeled Humans to one labeled Animals. It’s despicable.

But I don’t care. And that’s the beauty of Papers, Please. Through the mundanity of repeatedly—ceaselessly—checking passports and visas and pictures and listening to sob stories, you become numb. I know I did. I stopped being the person I was when I started this terrible job and became a machine that only churned out stamped documents and meager money for my family.

Papers, Please

It’s a game that manages to do what so few others do, and that’s tell a story through its mechanics. I don’t mean that it expresses narrative intent through interactions like when you are forced to do that thing at the end of The Last of Us or something, but an entire empathetic framework is constructed with the things you are doing to relate this character to you.

The only other game this year that really did that was Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, which grafts a relationship onto the two sticks of your controller before putting you under for emotional amputation. Papers, Please does it by transforming you the same way it does this poor immigration inspector. The first time you get docked for pay is hurtful. The next time it stings a little less. And then, well, there isn’t much left to hurt.

Then it shocks you awake. A hooded figure or someone with esoteric intentions shows up. A bomb goes off. You open the gun cage and you take aim. You are reminded of what you were before when you could actually feel and you weren’t just a whirring bit of gears and smoke that pumped out satisfactory accomplishments.

Papers, Please

But you quickly slot back into it. It tells you how easily it is to give up what you hold most dear without vigilance. It tells you so much about the faults of being a person by forcing you to be just a tool. It does all this so smoothly and impressively that Papers, Please has to be my number three game of the year.

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The Year in Review: #4 Grand Theft Auto V

The Year in Review: #4 Grand Theft Auto V

There’s a lot to be said for Grand Theft Auto V, and it’s nearly all in the superlative. It’d been aging in the Rockstar North smoky oak barrels for over five years, so it’s no surprise it was both highly anticipated and then supremely fulfilling once it came out. I mean, god damn, it had $1 billion in sales in its first three days.

That’s thanks in no small part to its immense and top notch infrastructure. First off, the voice acting and motion capture combine to tell entire life stories of Franklin, Michael, and Trevor in each cutscene. For as long as they may seem relative to industry averages, they actually are rather short for how much we gather of each of their life stories. The way they hold themselves and the way they command or move about a certain space is just as important as the way they deliver their lines.

And of course there’s the fantastic writing (expected at this point from the Houser brothers), amazing sound design (and that killer original score), and the absolutely absurd production value. Rockstar produced more than a city; they produced a world. Every part of Los Angeles found its way into Los Santos. Every little neighborhood, every expansive working community, and every historical landmark. It feels more like Los Angeles than being in Los Angeles does. (It’s also a lot better for your health.)

Grand Theft Auto V

But that’s not the core of Grand Theft Auto V. That’s just blanket of cherries they threw on top of the sundae. No, the thing that makes Grand Theft Auto V is chaos. Abject, unfettered chaos. And I’m not talking about the heists, though they are emblematic of the concept. It’s about the three characters and how they almost always seem out of their depth but just manage to scrape by.

That could sum up the entire story: three dudes keep getting into deeper and deeper shit until they catch a break and dig their way out with explosions, guns, and blood. But that also sums up every amazingly set-up predicament the game puts down in the player’s path. Anytime you have those three controllable in a mission is when the game manages to elevate itself.

If Michael is up on a ridge providing sniper cover, Franklin will be coming up the left flank of a lumber yard while Trevor goes charging down the middle. It’s all good on paper, but then shit hits the fan. You snipe and snipe, trying to open up space for the others to make their move, but there’s a guy running up through stacks of crates towards Trevor, preventing you from getting a shot, and Trevor can’t see.

Grand Theft Auto V

So you switch to Trevor and you move to make the anticipatory shot. But you hear Franklin call in, so you switch to him and he is swarmed. It’s no good from here, so you go back to Michael and holy shit dudes are crawling up the hill to where you’re camped. Can Trevor turn back and pincer these thugs? But Franklin is still in deep shit. Michael can’t take a single shot with so many guns on him.

They are so fucked.

It’s that sort of chaos that I’m talking about. No matter what you do, it always feels like you’re just barely beneath the water, looking up at all the air you could be breathing, lusting over the free range you could be using to shoot all these bastards. In a back alley with a dump truck or in a military depot or in a helicopter buzzing around a skyscraper, you always feel like you’re in too deep.

Grand Theft Auto V

But then you are given free, reminded that there’s always a way out. With the special abilities of each character, you can always construct (or destruct, as it usually goes) a path to salvation. It’s a rapid contrasting of extremes that makes it so fun. One minute you’re thrown into the deep end with a brick around your feet and then you’re the one doing the dunking.

It’s an immediate and well-earned retribution. You suffer and then you succeed. It’s what makes every momentous trio-fueled mission so tense. It’s what makes me want to go back and play every battle again. It’s what makes Grand Theft Auto V my number four game of the year.

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The Year in Review: #5 BioShock Infinite

The Year in Review: #5 BioShock Infinite

There are just some absolutely classic spoilers in the world of entertainment. Even those born fresh, bearing mind availed of watching Star Wars, know that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. They know what Rosebud really is and they know you probably shouldn’t eat Soylent Green. Hell, there’s even a shirt for it.

BioShock Infinite, however, is a rarity; it can’t be spoiled. I mean, sure, you can sum up what happens at the end, put into words the rational absurdity that happens, but it doesn’t take anything away from it. Having stumbled across bits and pieces of the immense conclusion to the game, my jaw was still on the floor by the time the credits rolled.

Knowing that Bruce Willis was dead the whole time and that Tyler Durden isn’t real robs you of half of the entire experience of watching both of those movies. Instead of witnessing the events unfold with virgin eyes, you skip right to the second stage of watching for the little touches that show you the truth: the flickering appearances, the people that talk to him, etc. You miss the “OH WHOA” moment because you already know.

BioShock Infinite

But the ending of BioShock Infinite has to be seen, has to be played. The culmination of your physical efforts land you square in a heated battle on the side of a giant mechanical monstrosity you thought you were going to have to fight. And then you almost do. And then something breaks.

And I don’t mean the little harmonica. I mean the world. I mean your brain. Even if someone told you that you ended up back in Rapture, the snap to the pane of a watery window is incredible. It’s a shock to the system, and as you step away, you realize you’ve been here. This room, in particular, was ingrained in your mind the moment you set foot in it in BioShock.

The lighthouses, though. Here’s the spoiler for that: “you see an infinite sea of infinite lighthouses under a sky of infinite stars.” Not quite the same, right? You need to see and walk through the piers of your own volition. You need to be able to gawk dumbfounded at your own pace. You need to make those choices because you need to slowly realize that they represent the fact that you aren’t making any choices at all.

BioShock Infinite

When you see more Bookers and Elizabeths walking around, doing the exact same thing, you understand that your actions, even under the epiphany of endless possibilities and universes, are always accounted for. The concepts of fate and free will are casually words in your head, but BioShock Infinite visualizes it for you in such a way that it makes the crushing sense of helplessness wholly inescapable.

That’s what makes BioShock Infinite so incredible. It envelops the past six years of ruminations on Rapture and stolen paradise. It folds in the stunning art direction and sound design. It stands upon the shoulders of unmatched voice acting and characterization. It is BioShock Infinite, my number five game of the year.

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The Year in Review: #6 The Last of Us

The Year in Review: #6 The Last of Us

The Last of Us is an amazing product. It came in the middle of June, just after E3, and in the midst of many other wonderful games like Max Payne 3, Gunpoint, and Rogue Legacy and it managed to stand out just fine. There are moments where I find myself staring at a broken door or an unkempt lawn and don’t just think about playing the game but feel myself reliving those afternoons and nights.

More games, however, came out, and slowly pushed The Last of Us down the list. It became more and more apparent to me that it is a game that needs to be taken as a whole to be held in regard. Disassembled into its discrete elements, The Last of Us is kind of nothing special.

The enemy encounters become confusing. Some of them can be avoided and others must end with either your or everyone else’s death, so you don’t know if you’re playing poorly or if the game is just poorly communicating its expectations. And the story, from start to finish, is full of tropes and is stocked with factory parts.

The Last of Us

The exceptions are, without a doubt, the sound design, the art direction, and the voice acting. Take on their own, all of those can be the best the industry has to offer. Noises that sound even kinda-sorta close to Clickers still make me jump, and I don’t know if any two people could have fit Joel and Ellie more than Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson.

But you have to take into account that Naughty Dog made The Last of Us, and it shows. To say they put a bow on mediocre gameplay and a rote story would be a disservice to them and the game resulted. The narrative touches they imbue into the 25+ hours are incredible. When just by happenstance you hear the fear Joel inspires and when Ellie huddles under you as enemies bear down.

When winter hits. When the fire burns. When a trigger is pulled. It seems painfully obvious, but Naughty Dog knows they were making a video game, and the actions and choices they put in front of you take that into consideration. It’s these moments where they decide to exercise that power of interactivity in a narrative that The Last of Us shines.

The Last of Us

It’s almost as if the entirety of the game built up to winter. Dire straits, tests of faith, and steely, wildly irresponsible, and absolutely admirable determination might as well be falling all around you along with the snow. From that moment on, you know nothing will end well. And after winter, you know it won’t end well in the least pleasant way possible.

But the genius is that the game continues. It lets you stew in your paranoia as you panic and you wonder. Inside, you are pushing down the fear. Not fear for their lives or anyone else’s but the fear that a decision the worst possible decision you can think of is going to be made and it’s totally out of your hands.

And it is. The choice isn’t yours. It was made from the very beginning. For all the middling experience in the first two-thirds of the game, it was necessary. It set up every domino necessary because in that last moment, the game takes your hand, thrusts it forward, and says, “Watch.”

The Last of Us

And you do. You watch. But in the back of your mind, you know it took you only 99% of the way there. The last 1%. That was you. This messy pile of raw emotions, exposed like a shredded cable, was you. This is The Last of Us, my number six Game of the Year.

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