Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Portal 2: A Wider Aperture

Here is a truth: that less, quite often, is more.

I mean, how do you write about a pretty darn okay game? How do you do that?

It's easy to write about good games. You set the relevant knobs to "effusive", dig out your box of superlatives, and try and pretend that the entirety of human existence was nary but a prelude to this moment.

And bad games write themselves. You anthropomorphise them, so that one cloven foot is brutally kicking puppies and one malformed paw is enthusiastically saluting Hitler and everything in between is modelled after the style of a particularly unintelligent professional footballer. This is called journalism, and I have heard that in some uncultured backwaters they pay you for it.

But what about the also-rans? Where in the dark night of hyperbole is there room for a star to shine only dimly?

So the critical consensus was that Portal - the original, this is - was frikkin' awesome. I think we are agreed on that. We took a census, or something. And I think we are also agreed that we love it so much that if creators Valve were to come along and leave something on our doorstep - some orphaned and unloved child - that they had chosen to call Portal 2, we would take that child into our home and try to pretend we loved it as much as our other progeny. I think we are on common ground here.

But is Portal 2 really any good? Can it measure up to its older sibling? Do we lovingly hug it each night and sit with it as it falls asleep, or do we just kind of wave at it from the doorway while waiting for this week's episode of Community to download? These are the questions that occupy sentient minds in the lonely hours, and they are questions that demand answers.

Well, Portal 2 is an awkward child. For one thing it's fatter than the original, and for another thing it's lazier. Thirdly, I'm running out of steam on this whole kid-based metaphor so let's abandon it and cut straight to the chase. Portal 2 is a good game, but it's not a great game, and the reason why is that we already played the original Portal, and we didn't need more.

Portal had three killer ideas. One: the portal gun. Two: GLADOS. Three: the design aesthetic. That's what we're here for. Geometric white rooms that we can portal across to give GLADOS the finger.

Portal 2 has two great additions: Stephen Merchant as the voice of a dimwitted AI, and a thing called Conversion Gel. Oh, there are other newcomers, but they're not great. They're just there. They're window dressing to distract you from the central truth that 70% of Portal 2 consists of repetitive busywork to keep you occupied while the voice actors regurgitate their dialogue.

It is, to be fair, good dialogue. GLADOS and her turrets are now supported by a whole range of new characters, both major and minor, and pretty much everything they utter is gold. That's the game, right there, and it's the chief reason that the thing is easily recommendable to just about anyone. You're going to love both the script and the delivery.

But the gameplay falls into two categories: repetitive, and iterative. Either you're doing something you've done before, or you're doing something that's similar to something you've done before. You can combine these two words into one new word called "repetetiterative" but there's no good reason to do so. Repetetiteration is great if you're training someone to learn a task, but when you're following a title as revolutionary as Portal it's disappointing that nobody thunk up anything as clever as the actual portals themselves. The bridges, tunnels and gels that the game dispenses are all variations on puzzle-genre staples, and the portal-enabled twists on them are either trivial or under-explored.

The standout is the Conversion Gel. It's a sticky white paint that gets pumped out of big Mario-style plumbing tubes. Anything it touches becomes a surface which supports portals. This would have been redundant in the first game, but what's new in Portal 2 is that it hoards portalable surfaces like a conservative politician hoards public school funding, only dispensing the goodies when compelled by the combination of absolute necessity and outraged parents demanding to know why their children are getting IT training on a BBC Acorn. Normally in Portal 2 the rooms are made of rusting brown portal-averse metal, with only the occasional frosting of white portal-friendly wallpaper. And yes, often this makes the solutions blindingly obvious - just put the portals on the only place they can possibly go.

So when you get access to the Conversion Gel, it feels great. It feels empowering. Yes, you're still running a fairly linear puzzle, but you're offered the illusion that suddenly you're making the rules. The very first time you get the gel, you're offered the chance to completely paint a large and complex room with it, and it feels great.

And then, of course, you hardly ever see the damn stuff again. So that was nice while it was there, I guess.

This is the dark side of Valve's famous iterative playtesting process. When they get every build of the game played again and again under controlled conditions, yes, it it lets them polish the experience until it shines. But at the same time it can feel like the player has been koshed in a dark alley and had all their "agency" and "free will" stolen by thieves and blaggards. Portal 2 feels very much like one of its new innovations - the "edgeless safety cube" (a ball).

Here is the thing: Valve already made a perfect game about portals. It was called Portal. There was not a single thing in that game to fault. It was flawless. How do you improve on that? How do you expand on that? You can't. A delicious chicken carbonara doesn't look any tastier when you wallpaper your entire house with it.

Portal 2 is good. Portal 2 is very good. But given its antecedents, very good isn't enough to stop it being disappointing.

Less, quite often, is more.

Friday, May 06, 2011

In Brief: Heavy Rain

This is a nitpick. Let's get that straight. Heavy Rain is an excellent game and everyone should play it.

After all, to really bitch about a game, you have to love it first.

So with that in mind, here is the thing: for a mystery game, Heavy Rain is awful light on the mystery.

I don't mean the big mystery, of course. The game wants you to wonder who the Origami Killer is, and you do wonder, despite the obvious freaking clues pointing at him with giant metaphorical neon arrows, mostly because the game actively doesn't just mislead you but rather actively lies about key events.

But it is a big mystery. It's a mystery that gets introduced about five scenes in and isn't resolved until the final act. Everything in between involves gathering clues, and talking to suspects, and (in the case of journalist Madison) being threatened with rape on three separate occasions. There's car chases and fistfights and a nasty bit of business involving a choice of surgical implements, but you don't resolve that central mystery, or even any subset of it, until right at the end, even on a perfect playthrough.

So what's keeping the player going? Where's the payoff? Scene after scene goes by with no questions answered. I can only speak for myself, but I found it exhausting. After you quicktime your way through your third desperate knife battle in as many conversations, and find yourself still with no new information, you're a long way from being in the coveted "just one more level" zone of addictive play.

So this is what I mean when I say it sucks at the mystery. It needs little questions. It needs little answers. It needs them scattered up and down the spine of the game, because if your gameplay is narrative then you need to offer narrative rewards.

And the questions are there. What's the deal with the cop's addictions? I don't know. The game doesn't explain. Why can't Madison sleep? What's the significance of the killer's poem? Heavy Rain throws these issues out there, and even has them drive plot points, but then seems to forget about them, or at least think that explanations aren't necessary. Properly handled, these could have given the game the sense of structure that occasionally feels missing. They could at least have turned the grim march towards the endgame into something that felt less like a joyless descent into failure.

Heavy Rain is a huge improvement on Fahrenheit, the last game from David Cage and his team at Quantic Dream. But it's still got a way to go in learning to tell a satisfying story. I'm looking forward to their next attempt. Will they continue to improve? Really, that's the mystery that's keeping me engaged here.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Burnout Paradise

I know that the point of blogging is to present opinions, but sometimes you just have to say, "I don't know what to make of that." For instance, did you know that singer/songwriter Tori Amos was initially approached to take the role of the female lead in George Lucas' awful Howard the Duck movie? No? And... it's kind of hard to know what, exactly, that goes to show.

That's the case with Burnout Paradise. I can't say it's not terrible, because it is. It's absolutely terrible. But I can't say it's not brilliant. Because it's got brilliant coming out of the seams. It's a horrible mistake and a wonderful success and an abortion and a revelation all in one. And you'd think that that should in some way elevate it to the magical heights of Gaming Olympus alongside such balls-out conceptual apocalypses as Metal Gear Solid and Mirror's Edge - but it can't even make its mind up on that and resolves instead to be enjoyable without ever being breathtaking.

The Burnout franchise is a simple thing. You drive a car; the car goes very fast, and often it crashes. The crashes are detailed, epic, and almost pornographic - if lovingly rendered shots of twisted metal are what turns you on. Crashing isn't a punishment for failure as it would be in some games; it's where the game begins, lives, sires children, and dies. You crash, your flailing wreckage takes out a bunch of your rivals, and then you're teleported back to the road with a rolling start, ready to wreak some more carnage.

So Burnout Paradise has the basics in place. There's cars, and there's fast, and there's crashing. The difference from previous installments is the context. Where Burnout Takedown and Revenge (and the apallingly bad Dominator) had presented the gameplay as a series of isolated events, Paradise smushes it all together into a single fully-explorable city scattered with car-oriented things to do. And then makes it all... online.

A persistent multiplayer sandbox themed around the concept of high-speed metal smashing violently into hard objects? Let me ask you this: where do I sign up? Right? What is there not to love? And to a large extent that's not sarcastic. The driving action is solid, there's a heap to do, and the transition between online and offline play is orgasmically simple and sleekly elegant.

There's a problem, though, and it might be apparent from what the developers had to say about Paradise. Said Alex Ward, the game's creative director, "To create truly next-generation gameplay, we needed to create a truly next-generation game from the ground up." It's refreshing to know they were working from the ground up, rather than from left to right or inside to out (those are common beginner mistakes), but I challenge you to find a part of that sentence that isn't composed of buzzwords and cliches. What happened to, "To create fun, exciting gameplay, we needed to come up with solid concepts and then playtest the crap out of them"?

The most egregious sin is the complete castration of the crashing mechanics. Ability to steer your wrecked car into competitors? Gone. Ability to detonate your wreck to nuke nearby rivals? Gone. Much loved Crashbreaker mode, wherein you're challenged to score maximum property damage in a single epic multi-vehicular pileup? Gone - or, more accurately, transfigured into a decent but rather brain-dead mode called Showtime, wherein we learn that a wrecked car cartwheeling down a highway for upwards of ten minutes actually can be more than a little dull.

Another problem is the assymetrical layout of the map. In designing Paradise City, effort was made to include all the classic Burnout locales - beach, highway, countryside, downtown, and mountains - but the result is a map dense with detail on the eastern (city) side and packed with long stretches of nothing on the western (mountainous) side. All events in Paradise City have their finish line at one of the eight cardinal directions of the map, so when a race leaves you washed up at the Observatory in the north-west or the Wind Farm in the West, it's often a long drive eastwards before you can find anything worth doing.

While we're on the map - the serpent in this particular paradise - it's hard to picture the designers sitting around and saying to each other, "I think we can all agree, there's nothing that spices up high-speed racing like pausing the game to see whether you should take the first left or the second." I'm not sure what kind of a brain-spasm led to making "navigating" a part of the basic gameplay of Burnout but it's about as welcome as a feminist at a pro-wrestling match. When you lose events - as you will, frequently - you'll find that although about 10% of the time it's legitimately due to your poor driving, the other 90% of your frustrations will be missing turn-offs, taking sub-par routes, and accidentally driving into "short-cuts" that exit onto different roads going in wildly different directions.

The last of the conceptual problems with the game is the Smashes and Crashes. Throughout the city, giant red billboards and tiny yellow fences are set up. Each time you blast through one, the game gleefully informs you you've collected another Smash (or Crash), and when you hit these things while barrelling down a previously unexplored back-road at 100 miles per hour it's the perfect embodiment of high-speed craziness.

Unfortunately, there's 120 billboards and 400 barricades and you're encouraged to "catch 'em all". Once you're down to your last couple of dozen it's a process of spotting one from a distance, stopping your car, and then slowly circling the block working out how to get to it. The game helpfully tells you which parts of the city the missing collectables are in, but that doesn't change the fact that verbs like "stopping", "reversing" and "driving slowly" are pretty much antithetical to all that Burnout traditionally holds dear.

All of those complaints aside - and they're sizeable complaints - there's still a very solid game under the hood here. Events like "Road Rage" and "Marked Man", that involve violently shoving other cars off the road (or resisting their attempts to return the favour) are brutal, adrenaline-fuelled fun. Anything that launches your car into the air is excellent, whether or not you end up landing safely. There's over 75 vehicles to collect, and each one feels unique and identifiable. The soundtrack's reasonably okay, although the decision to make "Paradise City" play over each and every iteration of the game's endless opening menus is pretty damn inexcusable. And the truckload of free patches and downloadable content that the developers showered the game with long after its release is just this side of Valve's gold standard in ongoing support for middle-of-the-road games.

Two elements particularly stand out as genius. One is relatively simple, which is the Road Rules conceit. Any time you start driving down one of the game's many, many streets, a little timer starts running. You can totally ignore it, or you can floor the accelerator in the hopes of setting a new speed record (or "Road Rule") down that length of road. Your records are stored online and can be compared against the game's par times or the best times of yourself and the people on your friends list. The leaderboards are seamlessly integrated, showing you your friend's best time for whatever road you're currently driving along with a selection of other speed records via a constant text crawl at the bottom of the screen. It's a brilliant, "Care about this, or not," stratagem that makes the long drives back and forth between start and finish lines a lot more bearable.

The other is the online. An in-game interface keyed to the d-pad lets you find multiplayer sessions while driving, and when you enter them you do so without any transition - you're still in the same car with the same velocity on the same stretch of road, only now there's other players. The game tracks heaps of stats about other players and isn't afraid to share them with you in a variety of ways - most prominently through temporarily updating your local leaderboards to include the people you're playing against, but also through pump text at the start of races where your rivals' intimidating takedown and win/loss records are handed out with the enthusiasm of a professional sports promoter. The host can initiate races and other events that automatically gather up everyone in the session, or they can declare one of about 500 "freeburn challenges" which ask players to accumulate a total amount of airtime between them, or all perform a particular jump, or all meet in some ludicrous location like "the top of the waterworks". They range from trivially easy to epically hard and data on what to do, how to do it, and how close you are is well presented and engaging. Or of course you could drive around and smash into each other. That's fine too.

In the end Burnout Paradise is less about the cinematic road violence of previous entries in the franchise, and more about capturing the spirit of all those children who liked to take two toy cars and ram them into each other. It's a sandbox in the truest sense of the word, where the developers have given you moving parts and challenged you to find your own fun. It's a dismal failure as a Burnout game but a raging success as an accessible, understandable experiment in social play. It seems to keep getting $10 cheaper every three months so pretty soon it'll be basically free, which leaves you with no good reason not to check out a copy, I guess. And, y'know, try and beat my times.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Grand Theft Auto IV

It's tempting to believe your own hype. If you're Mike Myers coming off the success of Wayne's World, Austin Powers, and Shrek, you can honestly believe that spending five years perfectly honing the art of the fart joke really is a kind of genius. If you're hotshot producer McG, creator of The O.C. and Supernatural, you can think that Terminator 5 and The Pussycat Dolls Present: Girlicious are high-concept masterpieces that a salivating public desperately needs to consume.

And if you're Rockstar Games, you can come to believe that people buy Grand Theft Auto games to experience their gritty realism, superlative storytelling, and deep, believable characters.

I say this not to denigrate the GTA legacy. The strange little trilogy consisting of GTA III, Vice City and San Andreas are the definitive gaming experience of the last decade. Most games would settle for any one of exciting high-speed driving, visceral explosive mayhem, or a vast and lovingly detailed urban playground to explore, and GTA has, up until recently, consistently nailed each of those elements with laserlike precision.

Sure, GTA is a franchise about stealing cars, driving them very fast, and then blowing some shit up. But it does it on an epic scale. Which is where, I think, the brain crazies eventually set in. Because it's an easy bit of carelessness to think that an epic scope requires an epic story.

This is something that GTA developer Rockstar very much wanted to do. They wanted to create a protagonist as deep and as complex as their faux-American sandbox cities. They wanted to introduce gamers to a man whose pain and angst they could virtually palpate, even as they fired an endless stream of rocket-propelled grenades at police helicopters. A man who aspired to the heavens even as he stuffed dollar bills into the G-strings of coked-up strippers. This is Niko Bellic, recent eastern-bloc immigrant determined to chase the American Dream and outrun his past as a violent madman - no matter how many innocent civilians he has to beat to death with a baseball bat along the way.

What's being aimed for here is tragedy. It's the story of a man held hostage by his past and repeatedly sodomised by circumstances beyond his control. In the PR for Grand Theft Auto IV it played out pretty attractively, but in execution it was something different. Rockstar promised their game would make tragic violin music play in our heads, and we were all pretty excited about that until they showed us the skull drills and the tiny, tiny violinists. This was not a game of subtle storytelling. It was the equivalent of opera rendered in musical farts; lowbrow, off-putting, and hard to remain in the room with after the first five minutes.

"I'm not gay," declares Niko's cousin Roman in one cutscene. That's good to know; it's not really something we had any lingering questions about, but as exposition goes it's pretty to the point. No one asked him about his sexuality; it's something Roman volunteered. Everyone loves a chatty character, right? Two missions later, Roman says it again, and the point becomes clear - homosexuality is hilarious. Homosexuality, and also "titties", which Roman takes the opportunity to discuss every time he opens his mouth.

This isn't observational comedy. Nobody's suggesting human sexuality is wryly humorous. This isn't a stand-up comedian enquiring, "So, what's the deal with gay people?" It's that schoolyard brand of funny where merely using the word "titties" is enough to provoke sniggers, year-in, year-out. You don't have to understand what "titties" are - the important thing is that everyone else is laughing, and you should too.

That's - let's be fair - exactly what GTA has been serving up in lion-sized portions for more than ten years now. It's nothing new to say that Rockstar is endlessly happy to use the words "woman" and "prostitute" interchangeably, and off-handedly equate "gay" with "mentally unwell". They paint their entire cast with the same psychopathic brush, whether they be male, female, or Jamaican, so there's some equality there, but you're still left with the impression that it's less of a deliberate artchoice than simply that they don't know any better.

Shallowness has never been the bane of a good game. The Mario Bros would not be noticeably improved by attempts to subvert Mario's broad Italian stereotypicality. Pacman requires neither motivation nor backstory (animated TV series notwithstanding). And similarly, an optional layer of depth is rarely anything but a boon to a game. It's great to know that Mega Man has a rich and storied continuity, and at the same time it's perfectly okay to just not care.

Where it all goes wrong is when the developer ties you to your chair and demands at gunpoint that you take them seriously. "This is modern day Shakespeare," screams Rockstar, waving their snub-nosed pistol alarmingly for emphasis. "This is the finest goddamn story ever told by humans. In the future, when Facebook replaces Wikipedia as the font of all knowledge, the group entitled Dictionary Definition Of Pathos will have pictures of our game in its gallery." And then they pause, and add, "Titties," and snigger.

The game opens with a close up of a fat man having sex - because sexuality in the overweight is inherently hilarious - and moves quickly to the apparently unrelated exploits of our protagonist, Niko Bellic. Niko's a man who's just made the journey from Somewhere-That-Used-To-Be-Called-The-Soviet-Union to the balmy shores of America, and is quickly disappointed to find it's not quite the land of milk and honey he'd envisaged. He's pretty conflicted about what to do with his life, and he'll talk about that conflict in endless, vague detail as he takes long, dull drives across the city, goes on extended, half-assed fetch quests for people he can barely stand, and engages a succession of girlfriends on chorelike excursions the game refers to as "dates". Those dates! Never has the process of trying to get laid felt so mechanical and unexciting.

It's GTA as told by a cut-rate Martin Scorsese, where action and plot progression are implied but not seen, and gameplay and interaction are replaced by long, slow cinematic pans, and the sight of neon lights reflected in dark puddles on rain-slick streets tells more than clear goals and understandable missions ever could. The sandbox is gone, and while you may briefly believe you're driving around a large, living city, in reality you're chained to the wheels of a giant, diabolical Simon Says. GTA IV has a series of hoops, and by gum, you're going to jump through them.

The awful mission design is best evidenced by an early job given to you by a Jamaican acquaintance. You're given a description of what you have to do, but it's in Jamaican so thickly-accented that even Niko confesses to not having understood it. Which is a great joke, until it's time to actually complete the mission. Lucky there's some monosyllabic onscreen mission text to get you going. It's a five minute drive from where you get the mission to where the associated gameplay actually starts (a drive that must be repeated each and every time you fail out of the mission), and when you get there you're shown a drug dealer and asked to "follow him without being seen".

This is the game's first on-foot tailing mission, and there's no explanation of the relevant mechanics. The goal has nothing to do with "not being seen" (the dealer looks straight ahead at all times with neck-brace intensity) and more to do with staying within about four to fifteen metres of the dealer while he moves. The limits of the safe tailing zone are not explained, or graphically indicated in any way. When you fail out, there's no indication of what you did wrong - the dealer just starts running, and after a while you lose him.

The dealer's path is a masterpiece of bad game design. It takes him down a back alley, into a residential apartment building and out of the same building through its backdoor, and then across a road to enter yet another building, where he eventually ascends to a third-floor apartment. Who does that? Who walks through somebody else's house to get to their own? Moreover, you could have reached the final destination quite handily by car, but the game for unspecified reasons makes you do it on foot.

The mission ends with a sudden and violent firefight against a half-dozen heavily armed thugs. It transitions from stealth to combat without warning, and of course when the ambush inevitably kills you it's back to the start for another five minute drive and extended stealth sequence before you can try the fight again. It's terrible, but what's more terrible is the central conceit - that the task is put before the outcome. The goal of the mission is to eliminate a nest of drug dealers. A good game would give you the end goal and ask you to find a way to execute it, with tailing this dealer being a strong contender for the dominant strategy. A bad game - which this is - orders you with laughable sternness to do some tailing and then asks at the end, "By the way, can you kill these dudes now?"

What happened to driving around and blowing some stuff up? What happened to those games that revelled in letting you bring your own unique style to a non-stop orgy of velocity and violence? How did the sun-drenched fantasies of Vice City and San Andreas metamorphose into the dingy, depressing muck of GTA IV? I was buckled in for sixty hours of fun but the game I ended up playing couldn't have been more pretentious if it had been wearing a beret.

It sickens me - it physically sickens me - the critical acclaim that many outlets showered GTA IV in. Not every game needs to be Citizen Kane, but even in the shallower end of the art pool there's a difference between something as fun as The Rock and something as misguided as Dead Silence starring Donnie Wahlberg. This isn't big dumb fun, it's big ponderous tripe. It's bloated and self-important and good heavens we can do better than this, people.

It's appropriate, I guess in a way. And all I can say is that whoever stole the GTA franchise and took it on a joyride through the unnattractive clums of GTA IV had a whole bunch more fun stealing it than I did stumbling across its burned out chassis afterwards.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Games of the Decade: #5 - #1

#5: The World Ends With You (2008)
Nintendo DS
There is more innovation in The World Ends With You than in the rest of the decade of gaming put together. In every single gameplay mechanic it flies so far away from what we've seen before that it's daunting. And yet it is without misstep; from an adjustable difficulty scale directly tied to rewards, to a system wherein you both influence and are influenced by city-wide fashion, to the controversial dual-screen combat mechanics, its eccentricities are both brilliant and consummately executed. And it uses them to tell a story about individuality, teamwork, and culture that's thoroughly worth telling.

#4: Metal Gear Solid 2 (2001)
PlayStation 2
Its sequels were equally outstanding games but it's Metal Gear Solid 2 that to me had the greatest impact of the franchise. There is nothing about Metal Gear that is small in scale; like a gaming Titanic, everything is epic, historic, possessed of a gravitas that slams you in the chest at every opportunity. It's utterly unafraid to abandon its own past successes and explore new ground, it's packed with hidden detail, brilliant twists, and thrilling set-pieces, and the production values put Hollywood to shame. Metal Gear knows how good it is; the game is confident that were no one to ever play it, it would still remain one of the greatest games ever made, and that confident shines through every polygon and infuses every line of dialogue, leaving you awestruck before it.

#3: Dragon Age: Origins (2009)
XBox 360, PC, PlayStation 3
I'm still upset about the callousness of Dragon Age's ending but my outrage would not be possible had not the proceedings up to that point been so perfect. The characters who populate Dragon Age - and particularly your party companions - are the best written characters to ever appear in a video game. You care about them as real people. They are multi-faceted, never stereotypical (well, maybe Oghren), and their approval or disapproval of your actions really matters on a powerful, emotional level. And on top of that the game constantly presents choices that matter - not because of their impacts on the game (although they do, unfailingly, have impacts) - but because you're left knowing that you made that choice. Real meaning comes from within.

#2: Portal (2007)
PC, XBox 360, PlayStation 3
No one hates Portal. No one. I don't think there is anyone who was ever born who hates Portal. It's so incredibly rare for the gaming community to come together as a single voice around one game and say, "This is ours." And yet Portal manages it. It's not the portal puzzles themselves, although those are certainly decent, but something about its short, self-assured scope, its mood, its dry humour, and its now ubiquitous cake references and ending theme. We all love Portal, and absent being given a sequel truly eye-gouging in awfulness, I think we probably always will.

#1: World of Warcraft (2004)
There's no real doubt about it - this is World of Warcraft's decade. It's the game that ate a genre - for five years it's had no serious competitors in the Western MMO world, with everyone else squabbling over the meagre second place scraps. It's conquered gaming culture, it's enervated the mainstream, it's inculcated, launched, and raked in the profits of a multi-media marketing empire. It's the single game responsible for the majority of the profits of Vivendi's gaming division (when such a thing still existed) and the driving force behind the merger of Blizzard and Activision into the monstrosity I like to call Blactivision. It's been parodied in print, in song, in film, and in a memorable episode of South Park, it's the worldwide face of online gaming, and as 2010 rolls around despite being five years old in an industry that punishes titles not released this month it's still trending upwards.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Games of the Decade: #10 - #6

#10: FarCry 2 (2008)
Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
There is nothing quite like FarCry 2. Certainly there was nothing in its flawed predecessors to suggest this game was coming. It simultaneously operates on many levels - as a free-roaming sandbox game and as a top notch FPS certainly, but also as a breathtaking safari through the African savannah and as a suprisingly deep and introspective meditation on the cycle of violence that plagues that continent. Long after the game finishes it's the quiet moments that will stay with you, the times spent in the long grass, vision tinged yellow with malaria, as this astonishing virtual world turns around you and without you.

#9: Prince of Persia (2008)
XBox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
The Sands of Time games were perfectly good games, but the 2008 Prince of Persia is a masterpiece. From its opening moments it has a command of storytelling, of metaphor, of pacing that few games can even comprehend from a distance. It has only two characters, it explores them with perfect rhythmn and grace, and it makes every challenge a mirror reflecting back on their relationship. It culminates in a powerful ending that offers the only real and meaningful closure the story could have borne.

#8: Bejeweled (2001)
Bejeweled is a strong game in and of itself but here it stands for that entire uncounted legion of games that have represented the single largest growth in gaming over the past ten years - the casual downloadable market. The match-3s, the hidden object games, the small-scale sims and the entire cyclopean empire of PopCap Games. For the world's x-million serious gamers Bejeweled will be the game on this list that they care about least, and for the ten to twenty times as many people who aren't serious gamers but have nevertheless engaged their credit card to purchase a title or two, Bejeweled may well be the only one they've played.

#7: Mass Effect (2007)
XBox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
I named this my game of the year in 2007 and in purely personal terms I stand by that. In Mass Effect, Bioware brings their long and saluted history in the development of Western RPGs and adds to it a focus, precision and vision that they'd not quite reached before. Mass Effect isn't a playground for players to find their own path; it's a coherent beginning, middle, and stunning finale, a tightly wound story that encourages and supports not mere exploring and levelling-up but honest-to-God roleplaying. It's the computer RPG grown up and it deserves every bit of praise it's received.

#6: Rock Band (2007)
Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Guitar Hero came first but Rock Band outstripped its predecessors and kept growing from there. Implementing a full four-player band and supported by two years' worth of weekly song expansions, Rock Band is the definitive music game of a decade in large part defined by music games. Rock Band is going to be the shared cultural touchstone which to a huge cohort of people will represent this decade in gaming; its place in gaming history as storied as Pac-Man, Golden Axe or Super Mario Bros.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Games of the Decade: #15 - #11

#15: Animal Crossing (2001)

Actually to be honest it's the DS Animal Crossing, Wild World, that was the one I fell in love with but whether you played that, the original, or the recent Wii City Folk (published in Australia under the lamer title Let's Go To The City), it's pretty much the same game. There's no action in Animal Crossing, or narrative in the traditional sense of the world. There's not really any goals, other than a few collections to complete. It's pure social play; you interact with and build friendships with the quirky animals who live within the game, explore and decorate your town, and then share your achievements with friends. It sounds like a kids-only proposition but instead it's deeply compelling and it's one of the most memorable titles Nintendo's ever produced.

#14: Braid (2008)
XBox 360
Braid isn't about time-bending puzzles, retro game homages or a demand for infuriating precision, although it has all those things. It's about emotions, and the game's final level is one of the most powerful ever included in a videogame. The game presents, through gameplay, a hypothetical - what if time ran backwards and allowed us to take back our mistakes - and then goes on to show what mistakes we might take back.

#13: Crackdown (2007)
XBox 360
Crackdown rediscovers what we knew about videogames when they were first born - that the sheer act of virtual movement should be inherently enjoyable, whether or not that movement has a goal or destination. Roaming the streets and rooftops of Crackdown in giant building-spanning leaps is the the most perfect single item of gameplay ever created. Were the game to be nothing more than jumping from rooftop to rooftop it might still be one of the best games of the decade.

#12: Half-Life 2 (2004)
Half-Life 2 is an amazing achievement in and of itself - excessive time spent in sewers and trainyards notwithstanding - but when you add in its two episodic expansions it becomes very near immaculate. The breathtaking set-pieces alone, from the game's beginning to the introduction of Dog through to the heartbreaking finale of Episode 2, are the very best gaming has to offer, but on top of that the characters of Half-Life 2 are some of the most astoundingly realised in a virtual environment. Their expressive faces and realistic eye movement engage you on a subconscious level that others do not and Alyx Vance becomes one of those few creations who is not merely a character but a companion.

#11: Desktop Tower Defence (2007)
Credit for creating the tower defence genre technically goes to a Warcraft custom map but credit for perfecting and popularising it rests entirely with Desktop Tower Defence. The gameplay is simple - use limited resources to buy stationary turrets in the hope of shooting down a line of advancing invaders before they cross the screen - but despite the obscene proliferation of imitators, DTD remains one of the kings of this quirky genre. It's exemplary of the rise of Flash gaming and it's easily possible to put more hours into DTD than many fully-fledged retail games.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Games of the Decade: #20 - #16

#20: Katamari Damacy (2004)
PlayStation 2
When I say Katamari Damacy, really I'm talking about its sequel/remake We Love Katamari, as the original never made its way to Australian shores. But the games are by and large interchangeable so this entry stands for the entire franchise. Using a giant ball to "roll up" items as diverse as paperclips, watermelons, people and the Eiffel Tower is an inherently enjoyable premise, and the quirky visual style and unforgettable soundtrack are the touches necessary to make this one of the most feel-good pick-up-and-play games in gaming history. You just can't help but love it.

#19: Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved (2007)
XBox 360
Sometimes you have to go backwards to go forwards. One of this decade's best games is only barely visually distinguishable from something from the 1980s. Geometry Wars brought the dual-stick shooter back into fashion. You fly around a playing field with the left analogue stick, and direct your never-ending flow of bulllets with the right stick. Besieged by an ever increasing swarm of enemies, it appears as if you should die within seconds. Every moment you defy that expectation feels amazing and the whole experience adds up to a visceral, addictive, adrenaline-fueled adventure that more sophisticated games struggle to replicate. Geometry Wars revitalised a genre, gave a kick start to Microsoft's now-successful Live Arcade service, and is a hell of a game entirely on its own merits.

#18: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004)
PlayStation 2, XBox
Seeing as I regard Grand Theft Auto 4 as a vile and unwarranted mutation in the GTA lineage, best quickly forgotten, the pinnacle of the GTA games must surely be 2004's San Andreas. A serious and well-defined protagonist, a sprawling free-roaming landscape of unprecedented size, and a depth and vitality to the gameplay that outstripped its already excellent predecessors all came together to make this the defining sandbox game of the last console generation. It stands here to represent its entire franchise, a franchise that redefined - for better or for worse - the public face of videogaming and invented the urban crime sandbox as a genre quickly populated by imitators both weak (True Crime) and strong (Crackdown).

#17: The Sims (2000)
No analysis of the decade could be complete without mentioning The Sims, one of the world's all-time best-selling games and one of the key steps in placing gaming as a mainstream hobby. Will Wright's little virtual people ensnared the hearts of a legion of gamers and soon millions of people worldwide were recreating their housemates and making them have sex. The Sims 2 and 3 were merely iterative embellishments rather than evolutionary ones so the original will here stand in for the entire franchise and all its expansions.

#16: Saints Row (2006)
XBox 360
Anything Grand Theft Auto can do, Saints Row can do better. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but every so often it substantially improves on the original and that's the case here. The Saints Row franchise has a clearer and more focused concept of what makes GTA fun than GTA does; it's systematically addressed each of GTA's mechanical weaknesses in terms of navigation, mission pacing, scripting, and difficulty, and answered them in clear, unambigous, and obvious terms. It's hard not to see it as the pure and undiluted source of the increasingly murky rivers GTA is floundering through and it's inconceivable that anyone who's spent any length of time with both franchises could continue to prefer what GTA is offering.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Sienna Reads: Muscle March

An individual of my acquaintance has commenced reading ESRB game rating statements in a phone-sex-line voice, and YouTubing the results. That's a resounding WTF right there but its application to homoerotic Wii posing game Muscle March takes the above and bonds it unwholesomely to a double-digit exponential. Damn exponentials. Sitting there in their superscript. Mocking me. Their day will come.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Games of the Decade: #25 - #21

#25: Silent Hill 4: The Room (2004)
PlayStation 2
There's some debate about which is the best Silent Hill; we're all agreed that it's one of the first four games, and if you're one of the luddites who favours Silent Hill 2 then insert it here because only one of them is making the list. Silent Hill is - or was, before its recent misadventures through Origins and Homecoming - gaming's pre-eminent survival horror franchise. With none of Resident Evil's campy schlock, and with a wholly unique and disturbing fog-drenched body-horror atmosphere, it was as a fine bourbon to the cheap beer of its peers. The Room was the one that most impressed me; it starts with you awakening in your apartment to find the front door chained shut from the inside, a mysterious hole in your toilet wall, and a series of bloody handprints visible through the fish-eye lens set into your front door. Out the window, the world seems normal - at first. The set-up brough the claustrophobia and malaise of the Silent Hill world home in a very real way and moved past the film-derived tricks of previous titles to really make unique use of the gaming medium.

#24: Max Payne (2001)
PlayStation 2, XBox
Max Payne may well be the best-told story in a videogame. It's a simple story - a noir tale of violence, madness, crime and revenge - but it's told masterfully, with a confidence and maturity few games reach. That the gameplay lives up to the story is all it needs to be one of the best games of the decade. Much like The Darkness it's filled with a glorious attention to detail but there's a self-assuredness here that The Darkness lacks. The sequel is similarly excellent. My hopes for the forthcoming third installment - not developed by the original team - are low.

#23: Kingdom Hearts (2002)
PlayStation 2
Either you're the target audience of Kingdom Hearts, or you're not. If you grew up with Disney movies and Final Fantasy games, then Kingdom Hearts will push more buttons than you knew you had. The initially absurd pairing of Goofy and Donald with SquareEnix characters such as Cloud and Squall quickly convinces you of its genius, and the mindbending trip through a plethora of twisted Disney worlds - including a Hundred Acre Wood where Pooh thoughtfully contemplates his own impending extinction - is one of the most memorable experiences delivered by any game, ever. The sequel improves the gameplay at the cost of some of the first game's originality and accessibility; they're equally fine and this entry stands for both.

#22: Beyond Good & Evil (2003)
XBox, Playstation 2
Michael Ancel's masterpiece Beyond Good & Evil is another game that sold poorly despite being critically lauded. Unhelpful cover art and a title with no relationship to the actual game probably didn't help it. But if you take the time to explore what it has to offer you'll find an expansive, heartwarming world, a dynamic, engaging protagonist, support characters who seem to jump out of the screen, and the best use of photography-based gameplay to tell a thrilling espionage story ever made in a videogame.

#21: Left 4 Dead (2008)
Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
Valve's co-operative zombie apocalypse shooter is one of the most fan-loved games of the decade. Unique, fast-paced multiplayer gameplay and memorable characters combine to make it a gaming icon. A lack of content and less than a year between its release and planned obsolescence don't seem to have diminished the love that people continue to show for Bill, Louis, Zoey and Francis.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Games of the Decade: #30 - #26

#30: Guitar Hero 2 (2006)
XBox 360, PlayStation 2
There's no doubt the Guitar Hero franchise is one of the defining icons of this gaming decade, but singling out a particular entry is tough. The original is certainly a candidate, as is World Tour, which appropriated the Rock Band idea of four-player fun. But the one I personally had the most fun with was Guitar Hero 2, which had the perfect mix of on-disc songs, co-op action, appropriate difficulty, and replayability. Let that stand in for the entire franchise here, as the gaming name that brought plastic instruments into every gaming household.

#29: Halo: Combat Evolved (2001)
Once again I'm letting one title stand in for an entire franchise here. Halo is not, and has never been, the best first person shooter, or the most innovative, or the one with the best story. But by some indiscernible magic it's the one that penetrated a sports-loving car-tuning pot-smoking beer-guzzling male demographic and made them hardcore, committed XBox gamers. It's the franchise that sold a million systems and its protagonist, Master Chief, has become the Sonic or Mario of this gaming decade. And you know, it's not a great game, but it's a pretty damn decent one.

#28: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (2005)
Nintendo DS
Each and every one of the Ace Attorney games is equally wonderful so I may as well highlight the original. These courtroom detective stories ride entirely on the quality of their convoluted, hilarious, heart-pounding scripts, and it's amazing that through iteration after iteration that quality remains undiluted. Playing an Ace Attorney game combines the best aspects of a point-and-click adventure and a well-written pulp detective novel and it's hard to see how anyone who's interacted with one could fail to wholeheartedly love it.

27: Disgaea (2003)
PlayStation 2
This is the best turn-based strategy game ever made. No ifs, no buts, this is it. It doesn't leave room for improvement. Levels of depth are themselves built on levels of depth; whenever you think you've fallen all the way into the game another trapdoor opens beneath you offering hundreds of hours more play. Characters level up, who hold items that level up, which hold within them multi-level dungeons which themselves contain items and characters. A political system allows you to pass votes to rewrite the laws of reality; at the point when you've done everything you can vote the game up to yet another iteration of difficulty and the hunt begins anew.

26: Devil May Cry (2001)
PlayStation 2
God of War isn't going to feature on this list, for three reasons: it came after Devil May Cry, it's derivative of Devil May Cry, and it's less enjoyable than Devil May Cry. Everything that Kratos did, Dante did first and better (although I'll give Kratos credit for all those threesomes, Dante hasn't yet gone there but it seems fair to give him time). The smooth, free-flowing aerial combat of DMC gave birth to the "stylish action" genre which includes such entries as God of War, Wet, and Bayonetta, but despite it all DMC remains the bar that the others have yet to jump.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Games of the Decade: #35 - #31

#35: Super Smash Bros Melee (2001)
Substitue Brawl if you prefer it but Melee is the Smash Bros title that won my heart and it remains my favourite GameCube title of all those that I own. The gameplay alone would be enough to win it a star placing in any list of fighting games or party games, but the illustrious cross-franchise roster of characters (that lets you beat Pikachu with a baseball bat) and the obsessive level of Nintendo fan service contained in every aspect of the title take it shooting out in front as one of the greatest titles released on any platform, ever.

#34: Final Fantasy X (2001)
PlayStation 2
I personally think Final Fantasy X is the best traditional JRPG (Japanese Role Playing Game) released this decade and its lifetime sales figures seem to agree. Whether or not it compares to to the much-loved Final Fantasy VII is open to debate but it kicks the spit out of the anemic and lifeless XII. Yuna's Sending dance remains one of the best and most beautiful cinematic cutscenes in any game ever, the Sphere Grid was a levelling system possessed of extraordinary depth and flexibility, and the characters were lively and filled with a real energy and personality that the angst-ridden archetypes of other games only aspire to.

#33: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002)
PC, XBox
If Morrowind isn't the best Western RPG of the decade it's only because of the surprising depth and vitality that that genre has engjoyed over the last ten years. Offering a wide, vibrant world to explore that allowed players to set their own goals and their own methods of achieving them, it was an experience of a scope and ambition not seen since the excellent Ultima VII. It was marginally superior to its more linear successor, Oblivion, and were it not for Bioware's twin offerings of Mass Effect and Dragon Age it could easily have claimed the decade's RPG throne.

#32: The Darkness (2007)
XBox 360
The Darkness takes a break from running and gunning - although there's plenty of running and gunning - to let you sit down with your in-game girlfriend and watch the entirety of the film To Kill A Mockingbird as your girlfriend drifts off to sleep. The scene lasts 128 minutes (the length of the film) or until you get bored and turn off the television. It's the most notable example of a dedication to characterisation, pacing, and miniscule details that permeates the entirety of one of the decade's most masterful and criminally overlooked games.

#31: Mirror's Edge (2008)
PlayStation 3, XBox 360, PC
To say that Mirror's Edge is anything less than an amazing achievement says more about you than it does about Mirror's Edge. The game has only grown on me with time. It offers a sense of speed, mass, momentum and agility that no game before or since has captured, it delivers a clean and beautiful visual aesthetic, and it says more about the role of guns in videogames and in society with two simple mechanics than the entirety of the gaming industry combined has said before or since. Good film has never had to be accessible film and the same is true of good gaming; Mirror's Edge is good - damn good - and that's something that I believe that more and more people will realise with time.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Games of the Decade: #40 - #36

#40: WarioWare Inc. (2003)
GameBoy Advance
There's nothing quite like WarioWare Inc. Even the sequels don't manage to quite capture the frenetic charm of the original. Hundreds of three-second games, each requiring only a single action ("Dodge!", "Stab!", "Throw!"), packed back-to-back at eyeball-breaking speed. It's a concept bred from genius and the implementation on its first showing is impeccable. It distills the pick-up-and-play philosophy that made the GameBoy such a hit to its absolute purest and frankly I think Nintendo would be better served by re-releasing the original on new consoles rather than trying to replicate it.

#39: Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem (2002)
The cleverest survival horror game ever made. Not the best - it's covered with edges so raw they'll cut you - but the cleverest. The reason? The sanity system. As your character encounters the supernatural menaces teeming in the game's corners, their sanity begins to slip away, and as it does the game becomes steadily less trustworthy. Doors open into deathtraps, where you watch your character die, only to awaken back outside the door. Mad voices whisper instructions from the speakers. Cockroaches crawl across the inside of your television screen and items you thought you'd acquired turn out to be entirely hallucinatory. In one memorable sequence the game pretends to reset back to the GameCube boot-up icon, purportedly erasing your entire progress since your last save.

#38: Pikmin (2001)
A totally unique game mechanic, a legion of adorable characters, and a compelling dog-eat-dog environment to explore and conquer. It's just one of the many triumphs of living legend Shigeru Miyamoto (creator of Mario and Zelda, amongst others). Pikmin's originality is matched only by its competence; for many franchises it takes several iterations to refine gameplay to this level but Pikmin achieves it on its first outing. As tiny space explorer Olimar, you use the analogue sticks to sweep your army of plant-like Pikmin around to assault enemies, explore territory, and convey heavy objects back to your ship for transport. It went on to inspire the reasonably decent Overlord games and the less exciting Pikmin 2.

#37: Fahrenheit / Indigo Prophecy (2005)
PlayStation 2, XBox
In Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy to Americans), developer Quantic Dream revisited the early 90s concept of the "interactive movie" and by and large got it right. They developed a compelling mystery, interesting characters, and a new, pulse-pounding way of interacting with and experiencing videogaming that is totally unlike anything before or since. The first two scenes, where you play first as a man struggling to hide a dead body and escape a crime scene, and then as the two detectives investigating that same scene, establish a high point that the rest of the game never quite lives up to, but it remains a breathtaking trip through territory rarely explored by mainstream designers.

#36: Zone of the Enders / ZoE: The Second Runner (2001)
PlayStation 2
I'm including the two ZoE games together as they really form a single, epic game stretched over two installments. The first game is so short you can't help but feel it's not complete and the second game is so tough in spots you'll feel like you missed a tutorial. Together they form a single narrative vision. Hideo Kojima's tale of humanity, rebellion, and spacefaring giant robots is a representation of mecha anime unparallelled in gaming history. It flawlessly defeats the problems of 3D-movement and combat that have been the bane of similar games and goes on to tell a powerful, engaging story spread across two planets and two main characters. They're hard to get your hands on these days but if you get the chance they're not to be missed.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Games of the Decade: #45 - 41

#45: Wii Sports (2006)
Wii Sports is one of the most important games ever made, and if it's not higher on this list it's only because despite being important it's not actually that great a game. Bundled with the Nintendo Wii, it's the game that not only introduced the Wii to worldwide audiences (and began an unprecented sales tornado that catapulted Nintendo back to the top of the gaming industry), but it's the game that unlocked a whole new marketplace for Nintendo (and eventually other publishers) to exploit. Ads featuring celebrities such as Olivia Newton-John enjoying tennis in Wii Sports told the world that the Wii was a console not only for gamers, but also for mothers, fathers, families, entertainers, and everyone who doesn't consider themselves "in" on the complex world of videogames.

#44: Sam & Max Save The World (2006)
PC, XBox 360, Wii
One of the defining events of the 1990s in gaming was LucasArts killing the point-n-click adventure genre; one of the defining events of the 2000s was Telltale Games resurrecting it. Through the medium of monthly episodic content, Telltale delivered two "seasons" of excellent Sam & Max games, along with four episodes of Wallace and Gromit, five episodes of Strong Bad, and a final triumphant resurrection of the Monkey Island franchise through the five-part Tales of Monkey Island. Sam & Max Save The World (the first Sam & Max season) stands in for all those accomplishments although it's a thoroughly deserving candidate in and of itself - funny, clever, and fully comfortable with its unique episodic format from the moment it steps out of the gate.

#43: WipeOut Pure (2007)
PlayStation Portable

The whole WipeOut franchise is an exemplary achievement in gaming; WipeOut Pure just happens to be the one I enjoyed most. They're amazing high-speed futuristic racing games but if that was all they were they'd lag behind Criterion's Burnout franchise. What sets WipeOut apart is the mood. WipeOut channels state-of-the-art electronica and trance music and combines it with soothing colour palettes and smooth, eye-pleasing lines to create not so much a game as a mental zone, a meditative state which, above and beyond the finish line, is the real destination of every WipeOut race.

#42: Ico (2001)
PlayStation 2
Ico is a game about holding hands. That's all it's about. It's about journeying from point A, to point B, while holding hands. Point A and point B are both located with an immense, brooding castle that at times is starkly lit and at other times hides in billowing shadows. With no real exposition, with no dialogue to speak of, Ico manages to create a poignantly emotional gaming experience without peer and is a must-play for everyone who aspires to discuss games.

#41: Psychonauts (2005)
PlayStation 2

Psychonauts is a great game, combining witty dialogue, well-crafted humour, and the most original level concepts ever seen in a videogame. But its real significance is in what it's come to stand for. Psychonauts is the game that got nothing but glowing reviews in every publication that reviewed it, and flopped on store shelves. It was a massive financial disaster for publisher Majesco. It's the key argument in the ongoing discussion of the battle between quality gaming and commercial success and as such is one of the most important games of the decade.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Games of the Decade: #50 - #46

#50: Burnout Revenge (2005)
PlayStation 2, XBox
Take Burnout Revenge as exemplary of any or all of Burnout 3, Burnout Revenge, Burnout Legends or Burnout Paradise, all first-class paragons of racing action. (But the less said about Burnout Dominator the better.) The Burnout franchise takes exceptionally well-implemented high-speed racing and combines it with cathartically transcendental devastation. Not only is crashing a car in Burnout both satisfying and (usually) helpful to your progress, the crashes are rendered with loving artistry to make each and every one a ballet of splintered metal worthy of the most aggressively independent film festivals you can think of.

#49: The Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess (2006)

I've never much liked the 3D Zelda titles. Despite all the praise lavished on Ocarina of Time, it was clunky, filled with tedious busywork, and still struggled with the basics of 3D game design, at that time still an emerging field. Twilight Princess is the finished game for which Ocarina was merely a tech demo. It's an emotive and well-told story wrapped in polished, satisfying game mechanics and to say it's the best Zelda game made to date is one of the highest honours a game can receive.

#48: Vagrant Story (2000)

SquareEnix (or SquareSoft, as it was then known) is a company with a willingness to take risks, and Vagrant Story was a big one. An intelligent, adult story told in an unfriendly gothic world was just the beginning; Square went on to hang the gameplay off a controversial "risk" system that involved lengthy attack chains where each successive blow you landed on an enemy did less damage and raised your vulnerability to reprisals. Together with frustrating box puzzles and an impenetrable crafting system it wasn't everyone's cup of tea. However, the art, story, and mindblowing conclusion were so outstanding that this game deserves to be on any list of first-class games. Sadly for SquareSoft, the risk didn't pay off - Vagrant Story was never a commercial success.

#47: SoulCalibur 2 (2003)
Gamecube, Playstation 2, XBox

It's no secret that SoulCalibur is my fighting franchise of choice, and to be honest I can't understand any alternate viewpoint. The magic of SoulCalibur lies in pacing that is both lightning-fast yet deliberate, a deep range of moves which are simple to execute, and clear visual depictions of the strengths and strike zones of each character that allow both masters and novices to understand the action on screen. SoulCalibur 2 is for my money the best entry in the franchise, although 3 and 4 both have their merits. If SoulCalibur is the decade's best fighting franchise and 2 is its best iteration, that makes SoulCalibur 2 the best fighting game of the decade, right?

#46: LocoRoco (2006)
PlayStation Portable

You can hate the PSP, but you can't hate LocoRoco. It's a unique fusion of music, art, and gameplay to create an addictive, compelling platforming adventure that will stay with you long after you put it down. The conceit of the game is that to guide your small army of singing, blob-like LocoRocos through a level, you don't control the Locos directly but rather tilt the entire world, to send them tumbling down ramps and flying around curves. There's nothing else quite like it - except, of course, for its sequels.

Games of the Decade: 2000 - 2009

It seems everyone is making "Games of the Decade" lists, and it seems they're doing it wrong. They're recentist, they're genre-centric, and dammit, they're not the list that I would make.

So I'm doing my top 50 games of the decade. They're the games I deem most significant, most iconic, and most downright good over the period between January 2000 and December 2009.

Here's my biases: I regard the PC and PSP as broken platforms; a good game on either platform is struggling against technical incompatibilities and bugs on the PC side, and horrible controls and loading times on the PSP end. There's PC games and PSP games on the list but it's worth noting they're not starting from an even footing.

There's also only two Flash games on the list. There've been a hell of a lot of good Flash games in the last 10 years but it's simply hard to put the majority of them side by side with the 50 best retail games of the decade and say that it's better.

The NGage never existed and the iPhone isn't a gaming platform. There have been some indubitably excellent games for the PlayStation 3 but with the exception of PixelJunk Eden, Flower and Linger In Shadows (none of which make the list... just) I haven't played them so you won't see them here.

50 seems like a lot but it's a hard cut to make. I wanted to include one of THQ's wrestling games on the list both for their massive commercial success and the often overlooked quality of the early-2000s titles - but they just didn't make the list. I wanted to include often-neglected gems like DefJam: Fight For NY or Amped 3 - but they're just not in the best 50 games of the decade. So just because a game's missing from the list doesn't mean it isn't high in my regard.

The list will be counting upwards from 50. Games are in order, with #1 being the Game of the Decade. Updates are every Tuesday and Friday at 10 pm Canberra time until the list is done.

Have fun, and Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Halo Wars (Multiplayer)

From my perspective, the only difference between an AI and a 14-year-old American is that the AI is polite.

I think this is what impressed me about Halo Wars. This is a game, like all of the Halo titles, that is clearly built for multiplayer. Around half of the game's achievements are multiplayer-only achievements. And yet, when I firmly informed the game that the "multi" part of the phrase "multiplayer" would be performed entirely by the game's artificial intelligence, it shrugged, started the game, and began duly handing out achievements.

I prefer playing bots. I really do. Not just because on average the XBox Live community is a cesspit of pre-pubescent homophobia and racism which Halo enthusiastically scrapes the bottom of, but because bots offer a more meaningful experience. They play at a level of skill determined by me and they make decisions based on fixed rules, which means that I learn faster by dint of being able to try different things in similar situations, and I can accurately judge my skill gain as while I am getting better they are verifiably remaining the same.

When I say that I want to play multiplayer, sometimes I genuinely mean I want to play with other humans. This is the case with most every co-operative game, and also with rare competitive exceptions like Soul Calibur and Call of Duty 4. But mostly it means that I want to experience the multiplayer content. I want to capture a flag; I want to get a killstreak; I want to narrowly win a hotly contested deathmatch. Experiencing the content is different from experiencing the competition. I don't need to feel like I won teh internetz. I don't need to beat any other real people. I could be the world's worst player and still enjoy beating some bots.

Requiring you to be beat real people in order to experience the thrill of beating people is like a driving game that puts you in control of a real car in a real race against real drivers. It's certainly an experience but to a large extent it's redundant. The very attraction of games is their ability to simulate scenarios and experiences that may otherwise be too difficult, improbable or outright impossible for us to enjoy in real life. Defeating Sephrioth in Final Fantasy VII is not any less enjoyable for the knowledge that Sephiroth is not the avatar of a Minnesota high school student.

It's particularly an issue when it can be hard to identify an AI. In Halo Wars, if you have the chat turned off, the only way you could tell a human player from their gameplay is when they make a mistake. The only signs of human intellect to be seen are indecision, ignorance, and poor judgement; without them it's anyone's guess. AIs here are functionally interchangeable at all but the highest and lowest levels of play.

So in short I had a blast with the multiplayer component of Halo Wars. It was exceptional. It turns out that the average denizen of the gaming internet can indeed be replaced by a machine to the benefit of the world in general. For perfect realism I suppose there should have been an "AI will randomly quit mid-match" check box, to be toggled on or off, but in general I can't help but think that an MMO where all the other players were AIs might be something of a hit.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Crossing The Same Bridge Twice

The period from February through to August this year was a gaming drought of unprecedented proportions. I'm hard pressed to cite anything from that season that made me excited to own gaming hardware. Eventually September unfolded like a wonderful and exotic flower and since then the nectar has flowed with overwhelming sweetness, but in the wasteland that went before I was forced to go back to some old titles and enjoy them that little bit harder.


Theoretically the goal with Crackdown was to take my points for the game from an anemic 620 up to its current height of 1050. But really it was completely rediscovering what I had already considered to be one of the greatest games produced this console generation. Just moving around in Crackdown is a pleasure that plays on the animal parts of one's brain; it's a symphony of acceleration and exhileration that no game before or since has really managed to nail.

On my first trip though Crackdown I'd noted that it was able to stimulate real-life vertigo when I ascended to particularly high locations; this time I was able to realise the role that the excellent environmental sound effects play in that achievement. I also discovered that the game's driving systems, horrible for the majority of the game, suddenly become intensely enjoyable when you level up the protagonists's driving skill to maximum levels, unlocking a wall-climbing SUV, a missile-spewing APC, and a sleek, elegant racer able to devastate vehicles in its path merely by touching them. Rather than grinding completed content to achieve the game's remaining goals, I found myself using the goals as an excuse to keep interacting with the content. Crackdown is a sublime argument enjoyable process making the idea of meaningful rewards irrelevant.

Saint's Row

There are no words for how much I love the single-player portion of the original Saint's Row but it had frustrated me how many of the game's achievements were tied to multiplayer content. On my first interaction with that content I had no fun, and assumed I was simply over the game; too saturated in it to enjoy this online extension. A more recent attempt to go bareknuckle with the online play has corrected me - the multiplayer is hideously designed, inherently terrible, and to the extent that matches can be found at all in the barren wastelands of XBox Live they are dominated by the kind of spawn-camping software-assisted griefers who flourish in such carelessly-created environments. After an hour or so of being farmed for someone else's achievements I gave it up forever as a bad idea. In turns out the same people who created the majesty of the single player game ARE perfectly capable of designing multiplayer that efficiently murders babies.

Left 4 Dead

Every time I say that quality trumps quantity, Left 4 Dead laughs at me. I came back to it to sample the new Crash Course DLC and the Survival mode. Crash Course, naturally, is great. It's only two levels but they're longer than what came on the disc, which makes for an interesting variation to the game's pacing. There's more of the hilarous off-handed dialogue and a couple more memorable set-piece battles. But once you start replaying it (and particularly if you're going for the Littlest Genocide achievement which involves killing 5,395 zombies exclusively within Crash Course's two maps) the deficiencies of the "director AI" once again become clear, and you find yourself learning possible witch and tank spawn points off by heart and slaughtering the same zombie hordes with mind-numbing regularity.

I ran right into the game's brick walls again, as well. To tackle Expert difficulty you need four players - no ifs and no buts - as the AIs just aren't up to the task. With no guild play or team persistence, attempting to educate random strangers on how to not play like douchebags is a thankless exercise in frustration, and as far as playing with friends either you have three friends with the game and a Live Gold subscription or you don't, and even then getting them online at the same time can be epic. The other DLC - Survival mode - quickly convinced me it was a waste of time. Nothing's less fun than losing because a team member screws up, and Survival mode, with its "fight until you drop" mentality, makes that an inevitability rather than a possibility.

Friday, December 04, 2009


I am a fan of B-movies. If there is such a thing as a B-game, Wet is it.

When Activision and Blizzard went through their cyclopean merging last year and formed the entity affectionately known as Blactivision there were inevitable casualties. Two were Brutal Legend and Ghostbusters, who found new homes in the diamond-encrusted maws of EA and Sony, respectively. Another was Wet, a much lower profile development, and the fact that it has reached retail at all is due to the unlikely auspices of roleplaying powerhouse Bethesda Interactive.

Wet is a game which is nothing but rough edges. There's not an aspect of the game you can look at without seeing how money, time and polish would have vastly improved it. Travelling through its rather short story involves pinballing from limitation to limitation, and the whole thing eventually sputters out in an unsatisfying finale.

But, you know what? It's a blast.

This is a good game. It's a good game not because it is rough, and not despite being rough, but simply through enabling us to not care about it being rough. You can run on walls, you can slow down time, and you can shoot fools right in the muthafucking head, and beyond that really everything else is window dressing. If you get to the end and feel like you haven't shot enough fools in the head, you start a new game, maybe on a different difficulty setting, and introduce more heads to more bullets. It's not the milestones that are fun here, but the process of reaching them.

Wet knows it's a B-game. It glories in it. The graphics are overlaid with artificial film scratches, loading times are covered by drive-in cinema adcruft, and the plot is ripped straight from a 70s blacksploitation epic with a gravel-voiced Eliza Duskhu shoehorned into the leading role. Characters with improbable names like "Tarantula" abound; the game treats them with a completely straight face but never manages to elevate them to more than a gun-toting freak show.

Other games have gone down this path; House of the Dead: Overkill is a recent example. But Wet is somehow more authentic, because we, the audience, can see that this could have been a different game. All that separates Wet from something like Devil May Cry is six months in development and a budget to match. It's in the finest tradition of B-movies - reaching for the stars but settling for cardboard and glitter, and like B-movies of old it makes the perfect fit for the bottom half of a double bill. Enjoy a week of Brutal Legend, and follow it with a chaser of Wet.

Wet was clearly never destined for preorders and midnight launches, and in that sense it's a got a refreshing freedom of movement. It's firmly in the "stylish action" genre but it's free to borrow tricks from sources that haven't enjoyed Devil May Cry's level of commercial success. A "never stop running, never stop shooting" philosophy is lifted from Bizarre's The Club. Stylised swordplay and dry humour evoke No More Heroes. A kinetic variety of parkour-inspired motion brings to mind Mirror's Edge. But Wet picks and chooses from these very idiosyncratic games and it largely picks wisely.

Largely. It features one level so rage-inducingly-awful as to nearly make me give up in disgust. About halfway through the game, you find yourself exploded out of a plane in mid-air, and forced to dodge burning pieces of that very same plane while in freefall, while shooting at and being shot at by faceless goons who, like you, are also falling out of the plane, all with the intention of catching up to and utilising a mid-air parachute. It should be the game's definingly awesome set-piece but purpose-built mechanics, cheap one-hit kills, an inability to effectively read the environment and a complete lack of checkpoints make it a brick wall in the path of fun. Once you've solved it once it gets easier on replays but that's poor consolation to those struggling the first time around.

Wet is not anyone's Game of the Year. It's not a critical masterpiece or a roadsign along any of the streets that lead to the gaming nirvana. But it doesn't have to be. Even among mediocrity there is the good and the bad, and in that halfway house Wet is some of the best there is. There is room for the B-game, for that mixture of passion and compromise, of vision and clumsiness, and when a game like Wet emerges from the very heart of that territory it is a joy and a treasure that should not quickly be passed by.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Brutal Legend

The very best of games don't sell an experience; they sell an identity.

I, for example, have always been a huge fan of metal. Black Sabbath is a personal favourite. Motorhead are excellent. If you asked me to name one song I could never get tired of listening to, it would be Angel Witch. This is a true fact that applies to my entire life and it has applied to my entire life from five minutes after I booted up Brutal Legend until about 48 hours after the credits rolled. And then I was done. Maybe next game I'll establish my credentials in punk.

This is interactivity's shining citadel, the glorious pulsing heart that pumps enthusiasm through the gaming body. "This is Spinal Tap" is a movie about music; "Gitaroo Man" is a game about music; "Brutal Legend" is a game where the music and you are one and the same. The dissociating mechanism of the avatar is sidelined and the subject matter is infused directly into your veins.

This is Brutal Legend. It's a conversation between friends that starts with, "Say, you like good music and good stories, right?" and ends by leaving you convinced you were there at Tampa Stadium listening to Jimmy Page pick out the opening notes of Stairway to Heaven before a crowd of fifty-six thousand fans. It transmutes you into a fan; not so much original as prototypical; a storied soldier in an army a million strong. It can do this because, for Brutal Legend, Metal is not a familiarity with the music, a love of the personalities or a fondness for minutiae but rather an attitude and a manifesto. To be Metal, says Brutal Legend, all you need is a love of good music, a commitment to personal honesty and comradeship, and a nebulous but all-encompassing willingess to rock.

This is the kind of image that revolts some people. It's farcical, in a way. I'm perfectly willing to rock through hours of Brutal Legend, throwing up defiant horns in the face of all those who defy The Metal, and then turn off the console and kick back with some Sarah McLachlan and maybe a couple of sudoku. My metal-ness is entirely confined to the period during which I'm piloting a virtual Jack Black around the inside of my 360, but for that period it is absolute and unassailable. For $60 I've bought inclusion in one of the defining musical phenomena of the last hundred years, and I've done it without having to engage in the messiness of tours, festivals, or interaction with other fans. That's a bargain, if ever I saw one.

Is it hypocrisy or genius? Does it matter? It's not that Brutal Legend is a fantasy; it's that it's such a convincing one. The world presented through the game is one littered with chrome, fire, and semi-druidic monoliths. Noble barbarians wield the power of Metal against gothic organists, glitter-encrusted groupies, and apocalyptic demon beasts. Ozzy Osbourne himself does service as the guardian of the underworld and Lemmy Kilmister tours as a taciturn biker gifted with the healing magic of bass guitar. If this is fantasy it's one that even the genuine articles enthusiastically subscribe to.

As a game, there are shortcomings here. Your lantern-jawed protagonist is regularly called upon to engage in hack-and-slash that could generously be described as shallow. There's a motor vehicle that handles less like a car and more like a bad-tempered rhino. Real time strategy is dabbled in with more enthusiasm than genuine talent, and there's collectables and sidequests that would have looked dated in the era of the Nintendo 64.

But they're not sufficiently bad to stop you playing, and that makes them good enough, because the real treat here is the world itself, and the exhilerating storytelling, scriptwriting, and soundtrack that bring it, vibrating with passion, to life. Every moment spent with the game is a revelation, whether it's hearing the serious but self-aware dialogue, discovering a new and breathtaking metal-inspired landscape, or just kicking back and listening to Black Sabbath belt out another rendition of Mr Crowley. Simply being in the game is a pleasure and even those parts of the game that are trying to kill you are affectionately letting you know that you're not just any enemy but specifically their enemy. It's like being hugged, but with teeth.

This is the awesome pinnacle of ersatz awesomeness. It's art about trash made from art. And if, at a crucial turning point in the game, a chase sequence is punctuated by Dragonforce's epic power-metal ballad Through the Fire and Flames, does it really matter if I only recognise it from Guitar Hero III?