Before I start rattling off creative works and their arbitrary rankings vs other creative works (spoiler: Bayonetta wins), I want to use this space to discuss some of the larger gaming industry trends of the past console cycle. Today, the things that scare me the most (don’t worry things get better Friday)
The Long Slow Death of Electronic Arts
We’re going to spend a lot of time talking about EA games this week, some bad, mostly good, but the thing that disturbed me the most was that after the release of Dead Space 2, there was really no reason for Electronic Arts to stay in the discussion.
And that’s troublesome because Electronic Arts is so darned big. They release dozens of games a year across every conceivable non-Nintendo platform, and until 2011 they were producing a ton of stuff relevant to hardcore gaming snobs, whether we like to admit it or not. And even when they weren’t producing GOTY-quality titles, at least stuff like Kane and Lynch 2, Mirror’s Edge and Dead Space Extraction was interesting. Sure at it’s heart EA was a collection of soulless suits beholden to a bottom line instead of an artistic vision, but this was the company that brought us Mass Effect and Dead Space! Surely they were on our side?
Mass Effect 3 represented our fears about Electronic Art’s upper management meddling made manifest. Suddenly EA’s corporate suits weren’t just stepping on the throats of hapless sports developers, they had directly interfered in and ruined something we actually cared about. Since then things have only grown worse-- Dead Space 3 does not in any way represent anything we ever wanted from the Dead Space franchise, Plants vs Zombies 2 is a decidedly worse experience now that EA has forced Popcap to adopt a Free To Play model, and for the past few years the company has been obsessed with chasing Activision's corporate model-- a corporation that has stated on several occasions that they are unconcerned with any franchise that cannot be twisted into producing yearly scheduled updates.
Maybe Mirror’s Edge 2, Titanfall and Dragon Age: Inquisition can bring back that artistic spark that made us forget about the glassy corporate facade. I hope so. I badly, badly want the new Dragon Age to be good, and we should be pulling for the folks developing it. But it’s hard to trust EA in an activision-driven world.
The Complete And Total Irrelevance of Japanese Development
Look, I could sit here all day and try to rationalize my preference for Japanese games-- the art style is better (Or in the case of most Western games there’s simple presence of any form of an art style), the gameplay is generally better and more rewarding than Western games owing to Japan’s strong arcade tradition, or any number of things that totally do not have anything to do with spending my teen years maining Chun-Li: But the simple reason I game snobs have a preference for Japanese games is the same reason car snobs prefer Italian cars: They have a soul.
It’s hard to explain, but it’s the thing that separates Gears of War from Vanquish, or God of War from from Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry from Devil may Cry-- well let’s just begin there, shall we?
Too many Japanese games are being developed by Westerners and I don’t like it. Western developers simply don’t get the small things right: The tone is all too often too far up it’s own ass, as Western games tend to be, the gameplay is more concerned with rewarding the player than offering a challenge, the music trends toward the exact wrong kind of butt-rock, and the art style is-- well, strip the main character from any DmC screenshot and I’d have a hard time telling you if it’s not a Splinter Cell: Conviction screenshot instead. I absolutely would not have that same problem with Metal Gear Rising.
What’s worse, there’s no sign of this getting better. Dead Rising is a western series now. Capcom has handed over the keys to Strider to the people responsible for Battleship and Castlevania has little to nothing to do with Koji Igarashi anymore.
And the worst thing about all this? The people making the decisions at Konami and Capcom are probably right. Japanese development is slow and expensive. Western developers figured out how to release an XBox 360 game inside of 18 months: If the Last Guardian ever releases at all we will have been in development since at least 2007.
Maybe there’s no good end to this. Maybe the best we can hope for is for Japanese game developers to take a role at Western developers much like Shigeru Miyamoto has for Nintendo’s own stable of Western studios: Provide a steady guiding hand of what elements make good games great. But I gravely fear that even then the great soul of a Japanese-developed game will be lost to us before the end of the next cycle.
Okay, back to my arbitrary list of videogames. I’ve changed my mind and will list 10 games each but will only properly rank the top five because I am, and I cannot stress this enough, supremely lazy and this entire thing has kept me away from Spelunky for most of the day. The following games will get a paragraph each and like it:
I wanted to like Braid more than I did and I always felt like I was wrong somehow for not being in love with it. It’s one of those games where I’m a fan of the concept and everything around it, but kinda bland on the actual game part of the video game. It needs to be in the discussion but this is all Jonathan Blow’s work of love will get from me today. If Braid’s inclusion bothers you then pretend this was Metal Gear Solid 4’s provisional spot instead.
Bionic Commando Re-Armed
Having a Western remake of the Japanese NES classic Bionic Commando is more than a tad hypocritical of me considering what I just said about Western games lacking the same soul as Japanese developed games, but GRIN’s take on Bionic Commando is more than just that-- it is a slavish re-creation of the very soul of Bionic Commando brought over to modern platforms and given just enough modern day western polish to keep the whole thing relevant in the modern era. I mean sure they’d go on to ruin the entire thing one game later by putting a jump button in the one game ever made that never needed a jump button, but Re-Armed is too good not to appear somewhere on this list. Also it was the first instance I can remember of one of my favorite trends of this console cycle: Modern day recreations of forgotten classics. The good ideas never really go away, and the success of Re-Armed is proof of that.
A racing sim game was going to get on this list whether you liked it or not, and this is where Forza 3 ended up. It’s also without qualification my favorite game among all Forza and Gran Turismo games-- Sure it lacks the otaku obsessiveness Gran Turismo, but it has unlimited replays and that alone turns sim racers from a chore where you could lose an entire hour’s worth of progress due to one bad corner into something you could actually have fun with.
In a more perfect word Mirror’s Edge is as well regarded as Portal 2. Also in that world DICE had faith in their artistic vision and never put guns in Mirror’s Edge.
Red Faction Guerrilla
While Saints Row 3, Grand Theft Auto 4 and Sleeping Dogs were more polished, Red Faction Guerilla represents a subgenre of open world games more dear to my heart-- Open world games that eschew polish and storyline and replaced them with fun and blowing shit up real good. Red Faction Guerrilla, Just Cause 2 and Mercenaries 2 are at around the same level for me and I had an equal amount of fun with all three, RFG gets the nod here simply because no game before or since has let you knock over an entire building using nothing more than a really big truck.
Mark Bradshaw’s Definitive Official (for now) List of Games of the Generation Early Era Top Five
5: Uncharted 2
If this were a listing of most influential games of the generation, Uncharted 2 would top this list, as evident by the number of games released in its wake that are basically reskinnings of Uncharted 2’s cinematic pseudo-freeform-but-really-as-linear-as-a-rollercoaster “exploratory” gameplay.
In the industry’s defense, they chose a fine game to base the next four years off of. Uncharted 2 is an excellent adventure game, even if it sometimes does a poor job of masking its linearity-- The jumps are thrilling (if scripted), the exploration is enthralling (if guided) and the combat is immediate and fun (I have nothing snarky to say here, rarely has 3rd person gunplay been done so well in a game that is obstinately not trying to openly ape Gears of War).
Naughty Dog basically released a fixed and updated version of the Tomb Raider series for the modern era-- to the point that when Crystal Dynamics rebooted the actual Tomb Raider franchise, they decided to fix and update Uncharted 2 itself, replacing Uncharted 2’s guided exploration with actual dungeon exploring.
Uncharted 2’s influence had some decidedly negative effects on game design, however, and I hold what may be an unfair grudge against it due to that. 3d exploration and platforming games never really recovered; nearly all developers followed Naughty Dog’s lead and simply pointed out intended platforming paths to some degree. It also reinforced the notion that it is okay for they player’s character-- by necessity a likeable, sympathetic sort-- to become a raging sociopath the moment they enter the player’s control. Nathan Drake is a wonderfully realized character-- during cutscenes. The moment he starts in on a mission he becomes a ruthless murder machine racking up a wholly absurd death count, mostly involving people simply doing their jobs of standing around and making sure priceless artifacts aren’t stolen during their watch.
I enjoyed my time with Uncharted 2, and it’s a fine way to spend a weekend, but ultimately there’s a lot sizzle with very little gameplay meat. If I allowed myself to list games released this year I’d have left it off the top 5 entirely and used Tomb Raider 2013 in the late era list instead.
4: Dragon Age Origins
Lost amid the hype of the flashier, more popular (and better selling) Mass Effect Trilogy is Bioware’s other PS360 original IP series, Dragon Age. Perhaps this is because Dragon Age II was such a disappointment, perhaps this is because Mass Effect 2 overshadowed every other non-Bethesda WRPG of the generation, the first Dragon Age is a criminally overlooked masterpiece that, in my opinion, represents the very finest RPG Bioware ever crafted.
Unlike the Mass Effect games (which devolved into a clumsy, stilted attempt to ape Gears of War’s gameplay), Dragon Age attempted to bring the depth and complexity of one if the company’s traditional fantasy-based WRPGs to the console. While it wasn’t perfect, it was probably as close as you could bring Keyboard-and-mouse turn-based action to a 360 gamepad. Even more remarkably Dragon Age felt like a PC WRPG when played on a PC and not a jumped-up Zelda adventure with delusions of grandeur. You know, like Fable 3.
The plot is forgettable, but Bioware plots usually are, and it falls too easily into the traditional Bioware plot path, but these things were not yet tiresome when Dragon Age was released. At any rate you don’t play a Bioware game for the plot, you play it for the characters and the adventures they find themselves in, and I daresay Bioware has never done a better job at these things than in the first Dragon’s Age.
What, I’m listing the first Bioshock instead of Infinite? Well yes, but as I stated on Monday, I’m only listing one contender per franchise. Get back with me in a year.
Many (okay, okay, most) people were frustrated/disappointed at Bioshock’s rather staid, unremarkable FPS model despite the atmospheric wrapping of decay and brilliant writing it shipped within. I actually liked Bioshock’s gameplay but I’m absolutely the last person for whom you should trust to hold a rational opinion about about any Bioshock game. I bought in completely into the world and the writing and would have gladly spent another dozen hours exploring this drowning world and it’s utterly insane inhabitants.
...I mean, if Ken Levine wrote that second game. Not Bioshock II. Oh god, no.
The first Bioshock is an interesting case of how a needless or lackluster sequel can damage your perception of a fine first game, no matter how irrational or unfair that may be. I love Bioshock’s world, I love it’s atmosphere, I love Rapture, I love the people within it-- but you take that same gameplay model and force an obligatory sequel onto it using that gameplay, that setting, and that atmosphere but take away the writing and I want nothing to do with it.
Bioshock was a revelation at it’s release and it opened the way for a new subgenre of FPS games-- Highly atmospheric, highly linear, story-driven FPS games that could tell a little bit better of a story than something from Valve at the cost of a focus on game mechanics or gameplay. We also started to see some if the first stirrings of complaints regarding narrative dissonance in videogames-- Bioshock wants to tell a worthy story, but has to do so while holding up the creaking carcass of the FPS gameplay model. We’d see this question addressed to varying degrees of success from everything from Alan Wake to Spec Ops: The Line to Bioshock Infinite itself.
2: Arkham Asylum
To put into some perspective Arkham Asylum’s towering greatness, here’s a list of things I consider Asylum to be best at or near the top at to this very day
- Still the best stealth game of the generation. Probably the best stealth game ever made. Arkham Asylum managed to do something no stealth game had managed to do since and very few after it-- Stealth was no longer a chore to be avoided. Stealth was your ally. When Batman is hidden and lurking in the bleeding shadows of Arkham Asylum he becomes more powerful. Arkham is the very first stealth game where you engage in stealth not because the mechanics demand it or your character would die in open combat-- you engage in stealth because it scares the everloving fuck out of everyone you’re trying to kill.
- Absolutely the best superhero game ever made. Maybe the best licensed game ever made. If it weren’t for Arkham Asylum the best licensed game of this generation would be...what? Wolverine Origins? Asylum is all the more remarkable in that it finally broke the gaming industry away from the concept that a superhero video game had to be tied to a movie, that a superhero franchise can also be a video game franchise.
- One of the top 3d brawlers of the generation. Probably in the top three behind Bayonetta and maybe behind Metal Gear Rising, but only by a little bit. Arkham’s timing-based brawling and impeccable counter system were a revelation-- A lot of games have attempted to copy Asylum’s seemingly simplistic one-button combat, but most fail. Even Arkham City managed to screw this up a little bit by adding complexity where no complexity was needed. I dont’ know of another game this generation that so rewarded the concept of that zen-like gaming flow state that is usually only approached by the very best Japanese developers.
- Best level design of the generation. Arkham Asylum is the best 3d Metroid game you’ll ever get. Batman’s abilities and the gameplay mechanics of stealth and brutal, intimate combat mesh perfectly with the titular Asylum itself, a rambling collection of forgotten passages and death traps. This is enormously frustrating considering Rocksteady immediately forgot how to do good level design following Arkham’s release, forcing the Arkham Asylum gameplay model into a crowded free-roaming city that it was never designed for.
I could sit here and repeat what you all know I already love about Bayonetta-- that it is a love letter to Sega and to action games, that it is the finest action game of it’s generation, the best 3rd person brawler ever made, that it is the masterwork of the man who brought us already towering works such as Okami, Devil may Cry and Resident Evil 2--
But perhaps the best argument I can make for Bayonetta’s spot at the top of this list is the fact that I can’t come up with a game made this generation that I like nearly as much. I don’t know what my #2 game of the generation is: Okay, I know I just said Arkham Asylum, but that’s only because I cannot give a sublist of a sublist without the entire enterprise devolving into utter silliness. And I don’t know what can approach Bayonetta’s greatness short of Bayonetta 2 itself.
Everything before and since Bayonetta seems flawed in some way. Bayonetta’s greatness is that it lessens everything else around it-- it’s star is too bright.
Come back Friday for Mark Bradshaw’s Definitive Official (for now) List of Games of the Generation Late Era.