Before I grace you philistines with my inviolate opinion I promised I’d talk about what I found encouraging in the gaming industry and what we had to look forward to in the next generation of games.
Gamers tend to be cynics. It’s an easy mindset to fall into; our industry takes fresh young creative minds and forces them to create and endless thin gruel of mass market palp easily digestible into yearly franchises. Imagination is banished; creativity shunned. There is no soul to most of our industry. But that’s okay, because the tools are at hand for those creative minds to break free entirely and lead us toward a golden age.
We are verging on an era where publishers can be cut out entirely. I’m still not sold Kickstarter is a long-term solution for funding independent gaming projects; at some point stuff like Subutai’s adventures into borderline fraud will erode support and we’ll need something more stable. At the same time it is difficult to casually discredit crowdsourcing development cost as a fad. A Kickstarter-like program is going to exist in some form, and as long as developers can acquire funding and get their projects out on services like Steam and Playstation Network, then publishers can be removed from the decision making process entirely.
Speaking of distribution there exists dwindling few credible reasons for Gamestop to exist. Between the next generation of consoles and Steam, there exist no good reason to ever have to own a physical product in order to play videogames, unless you’re the sort of crazy shut-in who values batarangs and hug pillows. You no longer need to deal clerks constantly hounding you to trade in your games, you’ll never again be chided for not pre-ordering a game, you’ll never have to deal with pre-release lines outside the store in the middle of the night in October, and never again be asked if you’d like to sign up for a rewards program. Sure, the romance of collecting games will be lost and the bookshelf full of game boxes will be as anachronistic an Ikea CD display rack, but that’s a small price to pay in return for funding developers directly.
Developers will have to learn how to create games in this new environment, but those that can will see an age of artistic freedom devoid of the nightmares of modern development. Already we are seeing the fruits of removing publishers from the development loop. Gone Home could not have existed had The Fullbright Company been forced to compete with retail space against Assassin’s Creed Yearly Update #5. Capcom had no interest at all in making Mega Man fans happy, but Keiji Inafune asked fans directly and received nearly four million dollars for his Mighty No. 9 Kickstarter. A year ago Planescape: Torment and Shadowrun were historical artifacts, neglected and forgotten by the monoliths who owned their rights. Thanks to Kickstarter and Steam, Shadowrun is being introduced to a new generation of gamers and by next year Torment: Tides of Numenera will bring gamers back to the greatest WRPG world ever visited.
That brings up one more point before we go on the second half of my list: The good ideas need to never die. Back in the PS2 era we were convinced 2d gaming was gone forever, or at least relegated to niche Japanese developers such as Vanillaware and Atlus. Adventure games were a curiosity dominated by European developers and whoever it is that keeps churning out Nancy Drew adventures.
Now an entire new generation of gamers will have the chance to be exposed to the ideas in Shovel Knight Adventures and Broken Age and those ideas will influence the games those gamers go on to develop. Things are great now and they’re only getting better.
Speaking of getting better, let’s talk about games. As before I’ve not ranked games 10-5 and while they’re good, they’re not good enough for me to warrant pulling away from Spelunky to write more than a paragraph about each.
Fallout: New Vegas
New Vegas came off the heels of Fallout 3 and I was still l suffering from Fallout fatigue, as a result New Vegas is the unfairly maligned middle child of Bethesda’s open world RPG trilogy. Fallout 3 gets all the memorable moments and Skyrim gets all the mainstream love, but New Vegas was still the better video game. It streamlined Fallout 3’s mechanics and cumbersome perks system and had the best writing of anything Bethesda released thanks to the excellent talent Obsidian Entertainment. Still, New Vegas never had a chance to resonate with me in the way Skyrim did and most importantly it’s my fucking list, so there.
Pac Man CE DX
The good ideas never die, and sometimes the best ideas can be turned into something new and beautiful and brilliant. Such is the case with Pac Man Championship Edition DX. (heretofore referred to as PAC-DEX). PAC-DEX takes takes the base idea of Pac-Man and adds particle effects and blistering speed and leaderboards and 20 billion ghosts and is in turn a classic in its own right. PAC-DEX is the greatest retro remake ever made and it is enormously frustrating that it did did not serve as an inspiration to remake every pre-Crash arcade game from Space War to Major Havoc.
Red Dead Redemption
This is Rockstar’s only showing on either list; GTAIV is too annoying and GTAV is still too new. I think Red Dead will keep this spot regardless as I still believe it to be the best game Rockstar North ever made. The gunfighting is fun (and not a chore to be avoided at all costs like GTA) and it does a breathtaking job of capturing the empty loneliness of the American West while still engaging the player. The story falls apart in the second chapter and never really gets itself back together, which is a shame considering James Marston is such a great character. I’m happy with Rockstar never revisiting the RDR universe; Marston’s story has been told and after playing GTA IV I’m unconvinced Rockstar would do a better job with a second go.
While developers have copied Gears of War, Platinum fixed Gears. Instead of producing a heavy, plodding, largely unsatisfactory gameplay model based around lumbering from cover to cover while trying to avoid fire at all times, Vanquish is light, fast, and encourages the player to run up to and engage the enemy head-on. You don’t lumber your way across the map, you fly and slide in behind cover, flitting from one barricade to the next, popping out and activating bullet time, flipping behind the enemy and ripping entire squads to shreds in an orgy of hot lead and scrapped metal. Vanquish is a beautiful experience, every bit worthy of Platinum’s legacy.
The Walking Dead
That’s more like it. Dark Souls is one of those games who’s central concept is so anathemic to publishers that it’s a wonder the game wasn’t worn down into a fine paste during focus testing. Luckily for us From Software probably doesn’t even have a QA department and Namco is hilariously inept, so From managed to get this thing out the door before anyone realized what was going on. In all fairness Dark Souls deserves to be in my top 5 but it makes me feel inadequate whenever I try to play and I don’t need more of that in my life.
AND NOW, THE TOP FIVE!
5: Dead Space 2
The Dead Space games came out of nowhere and revolutionized both survival horror and action games. The gunplay was fast and enjoyable without ever being mistaken for Gears of War, the enemy design was unique and terrifying and the levels dripped with a palpable sense of tension never seen since.
Dead Space even had a unique gameplay hook that was more than just a gimmick. Instead of just blindly firing at center mass, the player was encouraged to shoot off enemy limbs one by one. All this served to heighten that sense of tension as you carefully measured each shot fired as maimed enemies nightmarishly limped and hobbled your way.
Dead Space 2 gets in over Dead Space 1 mainly because of the brilliant Ishimura sequence. The dread and foreboding as Issac Clarke investigates the abandoned hulk of the first Dead Space is the single best sequence of the generation. Dead Space 2 also provided the best New Game Plus mode ever: a punishingly difficult hardcore mode where you’re allowed only three savegame spots over the game’s 10+ hours of playtime, although like virtually any NG+ mode ever I would be surprised if more than 5% players ever visit it.
In a better world Dead Space would have replaced Uncharted 2 and Gears of War as the default template for the console generation. Of course in a more perfect world Dead Space’s own developers would have done the same and never made Dead Space 3, either.
4: Spec Ops: The Line
Once you get past the pedestrian paint-by-numbers gameplay Spec Ops: The Line is brilliant and revolutionary, which is not something you’d expect from a game that from every angle seems like just another attempt to cash in on the popularity of Modern Warfare.
Spec Ops: The Line explores the fucked up twisted decision making that goes on in the head of everyone who chooses to play a video game, and does so as a point-for-point (and credible) retelling of Apocalypse Now. Spec Ops examines the acceptance of violence inside the modern-day shooter and does so in such a way that gamers are forced to question the conflicting, insane things modern shooters ask of us.
That sounds like utter bullshit, but Spec Ops: The Line manages to pull it off, and do so in such a way that does not preach to the player. Although it explores our acceptance of violence it does not feel like the product of a parents council meeting. Spec Ops does not talk down to us, it does not judge-- it justs asks that we accept responsibility for the simple fact of playing a video game. And in that way it is revolutionary.
Of course it was a commercial failure and Yager Development was never heard from again. But in that way Spec Ops feels all the more brilliant and subversive; like its entire development was a covert trick played upon by the publishing industry. And perhaps it was.
3: Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect 2 is probably the best thing Bioware has ever produced. Whereas Mass Effect 1 had the feel of Star Trek: The Motion Picture to it, Mass Effect 2 felt like one of Larry Niven’s late 70’s sci-fi yarns made into a video game. Unlike virtually everything in its field Mass Effect 2 did not try to tell an epic galaxy-saving storyline, and instead told an intimate tale of a furtive group of near-criminals working in the shadows of a far larger universe that did not take them seriously.
The mechanics, although streamlined from Mass Effect 1, were still recognizably that of an RPG and represents Bioware’s best attempt to mesh the immediacy of an action game with the depth of a classic PC RPG. And the characters were, of course, amazing. Mass Effect 2 is where Garrus stopped being a joke and where Mordin became an icon. Even the game’s starting sidekicks, usually the part where Bioware casts fall apart, were interesting.
Remember how I said how Bioshock II unfairly taints our perceptions of the first game? Well Mass Effect 3 is sort of like that, only the corruption is not quite as unfair. After all, a lot of Mass Effect’s promise was built into the payoff of the third game, and that payoff was garbage. Saying Mass Effect 3 retroactively ruined Mass Effect is sort of like saying the second half of Sunshine retroactively ruined Starshine-- Mass Effect 3 is part of the whole, and you cannot judge Mass Effect 1 or 2 without taking Mass Effect 3 into consideration.
Yeah. That’s better. Sorry, Mass Effect 2. Maybe one day someone will Kickstart a better ending.
So if the writing in New Vegas is better, and the mechanics are better, and is overall the best game Bethesda’s touched all generation, why is Skyrim #2 and not in the bottom five? Two reasons:
Skyrim became the game I’m playing when I’m not playing any other game, and
#2: For the stuff you actually play open world PCRPGs for, Skyrim is better. The exploration in Skyrim is untouched, even hundreds of hours later there are still unmarked icons on my map, dungeons that have never been explored, ominous towers lurking in the tundra mists yet untouched. The dungeons are foreboding, the dragons impressive and the game’s hidden unwritten stories, while not quite as good as those in New Vegas, are still quite good.
The gameplay model is.. well, its not bad, but overly simplistic; the most depth you’ll ever see is pools of oil you can drop lanterns onto. The story is... okay the story is actually bad and forgettable, and there’s not really any characterization or character building involved at all. But these are things you accept going into an open world game, and flaws I’m willing to accept in return for what Bethesda games bring to the table. If Skyrim were as focused or polished as a Bioware RPG it just wouldn’t work. Bethesda’s embrace of player choice and the consequences of those choices are what makes their games great, and no game I’ve ever played is more enjoyable to futz around with all day doing nothing at all.
Deus Ex Human Revolution
But freedom and emergent gameplay can only take you so far, and when listing the best videogames of the generation it’s only fair for the best game to actually be good as a game.
DEHR is something of Skyrim’s dark mirror. Both have deep PC RPG roots, but Deus Ex tells a focused, tightly guided story masked by the RPG trappings that surround it. You have choices, but the choices aren’t particularly important and all three resolutions tie up again at the same place near the very end of the storyline. There is exploration but only within the chapter you find yourself in; no backtracking is allowed. There are elements of emergent gameplay but they all revolve around what happens if you’re discovered sneaking around and your subsequent efforts to kill everyone who may have seen you.
But man is it an amazing video game. Plenty of games have attempted to marry real time action with the depth of an RPG, but DEHR is the realization of those attempts; everything before it feels like experimentation whereas DEHR is the finished product. The first person sci-fi gunplay is every bit as enjoyable as the Halo series’ single player efforts and the levels are full of hidden paths to exploit and explore. It is even a fine stealth game should you choose to play it that way-- not quite as good as the stealth found in a Batman Arkham game but still a perfectly valid path.
The only complaints I can level against DEHR is that it suffers from a decided case of power creep. As your abilities grow the game starts to become easier instead of more difficult, which is the opposite of the way it should be and makes it harder to become invested the further in you get. The bosses are another issue, sadly, and are just plain bad and the perfect example of why games don’t need boss fights more often than not.
But everything else is just handled so well any complaints seem trivial. It is every bit a worthy successor to the original (and only other existing) Deus Ex, and the perfect target for every developer going into the next generation of games. DEHR makes good on every promise told to us when the generation began.