“this idea that they need to expand their fanbase to people who don’t really like the sport, and that’s when all this crap gets involved. The idea that somehow watching a basketball game is not interesting enough to a lot of people and that if we’re going to have a really wide audience we have to appeal to people who don’t like the game. And any time a product tries that, whether it’s basketball whether it’s music, whether it’s film, anything like that, the idea becomes that “for this to become successful, we need to appeal to people who don’t really care” it gets worse.”
-- Chuck Klosterman, The BS Report With Bill Simmons 4-6-1
Yes, these are the only retail releases for the week and no, I’m not going to talk about them. The mere fact that I had to find, rehost, and post their box art means they’ve taken up a disproportionate amount of the finite time I have left upon this mortal coil.
Instead I’m going to talk about five games I’ve played this year (in retrospect possibly the five games I’ve played this year), most of which have no problem being videogames, some of which are videogames to the point that they could send mainstream crowds fleeing in terror, weeping bitterly about muddled mission objectives and criminal camera positioning.
Y’know, the stuff you became a gamer for, for right or for wrong. Note that this does not necessarily mean games that were actually released this year. To be perfectly honest I”m not sure if five console games have come out in 2011 that justify a sixty dollar price tag, so most of these games are simply stuff I’ve never got around to purchasing until this year, or simply games that were stuck in my back catalog.
Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit
I’ve spent most of my time with Criterion’s version of Hot Pursuit trying to figure out if I actually like it or not and I’m still not quite sure-- This is an unusual circumstance as a game is quick to let you know if it is gold or if it is garbage.
A large part of this may be my expectations for Hot Pursuit. I expected it to be the definitive arcade racer of the current console generation, much like Criterion’s own Burnout 3 set the standard for arcade racers of the PlayStation 2 era, and given the Need For Speed lineage of real-world car porn and lauded gameplay from the Hot Pursuit series the concept should have been solid, if not transcendent.
There’s some things that Criterion’s Hot Pursuit gets right. The Autolog feature ranks your accomplishments in single player events verses your friends list, sort of like a more immediate and intimate version of high score leaderboards found on most Xbox live titles. It doesn’t sound like a hugely compelling feature at first, but it has the effect of turning single player events into something that can be expanded into your larger online community, and from personal experience although I may not be particularly interested in how well I do in a race against eight other competitors in an online event there’s something gratifying in seeing how well I did in a time trial vs someone I trade barbs with on messageboards. Namco tried to do something like this with Pac-Man CD Deluxe but for whatever reason they never got it into their heads that competing vs your friendslist is far more compelling than competing vs an average of scores worldwide.
Also, the actual Hot Pursuit portion of Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit is outstanding fun, and lives up to the legacy of EA Canada’s original Hot Pursuit all the way back in 1998. The problem lies in the fact that the stuff outside of the Hot Pursuit modes range in degrees from boring to awful. The racing is vanilla and doesn’t really benefit from Criterion’s Burnout expertise. Yeah, there are wrecks, but not the spectacular wipeouts that make the Burnout series such a gratifying experience. Indeed, the wrecks are annoying more often than not, the player is forced to sit and watch what amounts to an unskippable cutscene as the car pirouettes about the asphalt, rarely coming in contact with a rival racer. The Ill-conceived Interceptor mode is by far the most glaring fault of Criterion’s Hot Pursuit. In these events a single racer is pitted against a single cop, with the racer’s goal of simply leaving the cop’s general area for a period of roughly twenty seconds. These events almost always end with the racer making a quick cutback, disabling the cop’s radar, and then driving away in a random direction-- as long as the racer doesn’t make the mistake of running into oncoming traffic it is almost impossible for the cop to win these events.
None of these faults are helped by the lack of perceived progress in the game. Oh sure there the EA-mandated Experience Point bar, but these points have little effect other than to grant you access to faster cars. You don’t actually get to pick which car you purchase with these points, mind you, they’re simply unlocked in a set order as you accrue experience. As all of the cars are balanced against their own class there’s little sense of differentiation-- sure, you’re going faster, but 150 mph in a Porche Boxter plays the same as 210 mph in a Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggra.
Now all this bitching and moaning aside, I don’t regret buying Hot Pursuit, but I do feel like Criterion’s talents went largely unused. There’s little of Burnout’s defining chaos involved and as fun as the Hot Pursuit mode may be it really feels like any competent arcade racer studio could have accomplished the same thing. I get the feeling the Criterion branding is solely to help the flagging image of the Need For Speed franchise, a plan that works splendidly as long sine asshole doesn't come along and references the Wii version.
I know I’m dealing with a good game when it pulls shit like shifting the camera angle five times to traverse one hallway, with a different joystick orientation for each section, and I don’t really care. Nier is like that.
Nier is a throwback, filled with the sort of old-school Japanese game philosophy nuttiness while at the same time providing an addictive, deceptively deep action experience. It’s an action RPG, sort of like a Zelda game mixed with Ico’s art design and the moral of the story was that no matter how hard you try you’ll never ever be happy.
The pacing in Nier is maddening though, and the game’s only real weakness in my eyes. For the most part the game consists dozens of hours of fetch quests where little storyline progression takes place, only to be met with brief, violent fits of plot. Adding to this frustration is that the game’s story is based upon the relationship formed around the game’s four main characters-- a harried father, a sentient book, a warrior woman dressed from the Improbable Geometry section of the Victoria Secret catalog and a boy living inside the husk of his dead sister-- but the game doesn’t actually give much interaction between these characters outside of voice clips. It’s telling that the most fleshed out relationships in the game, the one that features the most character development, exists between the characters introduced the earliest in the game. Supposedly this improves as you complete playthroughs (I’ve yet to complete what I understand to be the first of four endings), but it’s still annoying to be introduced to a character and in roughly fifteen minutes to have the other characters treat the newcomer like a lifelong companion.
Gameplay is spot-on though, Nier is of those rare action RPGs where you don’t mind the occasional random swarm of enemies, this just gives you more provocation to experiment with weapon and magic combinations. The world has this sort of haunting ruined beauty that far surpasses Western attempts at the same motif, and the music is simply phenomenal. If you can get past it’s decidedly PS2-era graphics and polish, Nier is easily worth far more than the asking price.
Marvel vs Capcom 3
I cannot fairly judge Marvel 3 as I’m godawful with it online. The single-player portion is as fun as you can expect the single-player portion of any fighting game to be, but for me going online and being assaulted with an endless stream of Sentinel beam spam is the exact opposite of fun. I don’t regret buying Marvel 3, I just wish the game wasn’t roughly as accessible as the Voynich Manuscript.
Assassin’s Creed 2
I’ve had AC2 for a while now, my last attempt at defeating it thwarted by the game’s inexplicable refusal to recognize a valid save game that occurred roughly three quarters of the way through, resulting in the game being shelved for ten months. Eventually I got interested enough in one day playing Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood to take another crack at risking sixty hours of my life to the vagaries of the Xbox 360 hard drive, and I’m glad I did, as Assassin’s Creed II may well be the best western action game of the current console generation.
Which is weird, because AC2 is not an action game; it’s obstinately an open world game. Somehow despite it’s Grand Theft Auto 4 roots AC2 manages to be the best 3d platformer since Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, and the combat isn’t bad either. It’s no Arkham Asylum, but it is roughly seventeen times as interesting as the block-counter-instakill mess that made up the latter three hours of Assassin’s Creed 1.
Indeed, it is sort of startling that AC1 and AC2 were produced by the same development team, but it goes to show that a solid core gameplay concept and some experience at failure are sometimes all you need to produce a classic videogame-- it is just a shame we’ll never see this theory put to test with Mirror’s Edge.
Dead Space 2
If you loved the first Dead Space (and you’re a goddamned anti-American commie if you don’t) then you’re going to love Dead Space 2, as Dead Space 2 is basically Dead Space 1 with all the crap rail shooter segments removed and more Dead Space put in to make up for it. IN fact it’s so much Dead Space 1 that the game starts to drag on through the middle portion of the game.
It is hard to tell if Dead Space 2 is a survival horror game anymore or just an exceptionally lonely version of Gears of War. Like most games of the type there is a point about halfway through the game where you come across more ammo than you could conceivably need, and the game doesn’t really get a chance to mentally traumatize the player after the unending blood geyser that constitutes the first fifteen minutes.
The story is better this time around, but it still falls into the familiar gaming trope of your character being told to move from one emergency to another with little actual storyline progression taking place between catastrophes, but at least your guy gets a personality-- along with a face and voice-- this time around. I came in wary of this change from Dead Space 1, but in this case it actually works. Issac Clarke is not your typical Gears meatbag, and you get the idea that he’s genuinely tired of the insane shit he has to go through just to access a snack machine on the other side of the room, or the maze of laser beams and land mines some careless maintenance guy left between two ends of an elementary school gymnasium.
There’s some perplexing gameplay elements involved, though. Like most modern games there are checkpoint saves involved, but the game has no intention of keeping up with your life total between these checkpoints, it is entirely possible that you’ll come across a checkpoint that lands you in a hopeless situation with little ammo and less life and surrounded by an insurmountable amount of alien zombies. Fortunately you can manually save at designation save stations, and there’s usually enough of them scattered around that you rarely lose more than a quarter hour’s progress.
Dead Space 2 is one of the few Western games that gets New Game Plus right, providing the player with all the upgrades from previous completed play-throughs any time they start a new game. This has the result of your character being an unstoppable avatar of doom by the start of your third play-through, but by then this is a welcome diversion and sort of cathartic.