I’ve only been doing this a few weeks, so there’s hardly any in-review things to do here, so instead I’m going to do an in-review of the greatest hits of games I’ve tried out over the past year. Most of them are relatively new, except for the tabletop RPGs:
Calls of Duty, various
I’ve commented on combat simulators before, so I’m a little embarrassed to admit that they remain a guilty pleasure of mine. They’re relatively mindless and fast-paced and test a combination of hand-eye coordination, reflexes, attention to detail, and theory-of-mind (“how will my opponent react/where will my opponent be paying attention to”) that make for some entertaining gameplay. I generally hold the individual installments to be essentially identical in those regards, though: as in many other genres, Activision has a pretty great racket going, in that they can get people to buy the same game, over and over again, year after year.
Minecraft, and also Terraria
As far as I’m concerned, one is just a 2 1/2-D version of the other. But they are definitely fun, and somewhat addictive. I haven’t played them too much, because avoiding monsters involves much more elaborate set-ups than I’m willing to devote time to, and thus, monsters keep wrecking my shit. But, these games both manage to take a rather literal interpretation of “sandbox game” to some incredible depths: making games where there is no objective other than to build and play and actually interesting and exciting, and inspiring people to make some amazing projects that consume way too much time. The Zero Punctuation review captures this more or less completely, so go watch that.
This game is pretty amazing. The gameplay itself is solid, if not particularly remarkable: it’s a relatively simple 3/4 view arcade-style adventure game with mild RPG trimmings. But it’s also visually and musically breathtaking, and with a narrative arc to match. Despite the simple gameplay, the game adds enough variablility and curveballs to avoid feeling repetitive. It also has some decent replay value, in the form of a New Game+ and a mechanic evocative of the “skulls” from Halo. Oh, and without spoiling too much, the New Game+ plus option actually ties back to the plot in a pretty incredible way. Lastly, despite the fact that the relatively simple gameplay would suggest an abbreviated story and world, but this is far from the case. The entire game is puntuated with hints and details that fill out a much larger world, and several elements, between the weapons, gods, and factions, represent ample material for mining for, say, a tabletop setting.
I think I’ve talked enough about this game, as has everyone else on the planet. So, leaving aside what I’ve already said, I’ll say that it is a pretty good game. It lives up to Bethesda’s reputation of making extremely wide worlds with ample opportunities for screwing around. It also lives up to Bethesda’s other reputation of making collossally buggy games -so buggy, in fact, as to rapidly become fatiguing and lead me looking to greener pastures for a reprieve. DESPITE playing on PC and having access to the console. I do enjoy most of the gameplay: the UI is relatively simple, and the levelling mechanics employ a “use it to level it” system that I tend to find gratifying in RPGs. They also make the world fiction pretty accessible, for the fifth installment of a popular series: as a newcomer, I was able to catch onto the backstory pretty rapidly. So, in the absence of an arbitrary rating system, I’ll say I guardedly recommend this, as long as you don’t frustrate easily.
Batman: Arkham City
Obviously, this truly is the year of the open-world game. The developers tried to downplay the open-world-ness of the sequal to Arkham Asylum, presumably to tamp down on any comparison to various somewhat-more-open games out there, but all the hallmarks are there. The story’s easily as engaging as Asylum, complete with mindscrew elements and Surprising! Twists!, and the game takes advantage of Batman’s diverse rogue’s gallery to an even greater degree than the previous installment, and the Riddler Puzzle/exploration/treasure hunt element is not only expanded and granted some relevance, but also ends up being a natural complement to the new, city-sized setting of the game.
If someone managed to take a matching/puzzle game like Tetris or Bejewelled, a classic track racer, a rhythm game, and an iTunes visualizer, put them in a blender on high, and still have the end result be kinda awesome, you would get Audiosurf. It’s an indie game that was included in one of the indie bundles that Steam has been releasing periodically, and is another nice, causual arcade-style. It’s a pretty simple concept: you race down a track, collecting blocks of one type, while ignoring blocks of another type. Some game modes give you multiple colors of blocks to collect and match, which would be where the puzzle element enters into things. So far, it’s a pretty ordinary game.
The cool part is this: the tracks are generated randomly, based on songs you select from your hard drive. This game was first brought to my attention thanks to the popularity of youtube videos featuring Audiousurf runs of songs from the video-game-themed webcomic Homestuck, which is just about as much recursive jackassery as the human body can physically tolerate. But this is definitely a casual game worth checking out. While you’re at it, also check out Homestuck, and its music.
One major criticism/critique of how many people play various World of Darkness is that it that the personal horror/dramatic elements are frequently downplayed to the point of being informed elements, and instead prefer to play the games as “supers with fangs”. Capturing this latter playstyle seemed to be the main objective of Exalted, and while it delivers on that promise, there are places where the limitations of the Storyteller system start to poke through. I was definitely acquainted with Exalted’s reputation for over-the-top action well before I experienced it, and that part failed to disappoint, though I suspect that rolling buckets o’dice is a lot more viscerally entertaining in live play than when using a dicerolling program.
I’ve always found the various humanity/whatever scales to be an interesting roleplaying mechanic, and while I never got a chance to really see the Limit/Virtue track in action before our game went on hiatus/ragequitting because of schedule conflicts, but it seemed to get the “With great power comes great insanity” trope across remarkably well, as your characters destroy themselves with hubris and jerkassery even as they Do Incredible Things.
I have to admit: while I’ve played a handful of story games, I’ve never been completely comfortable with them. In the case of Lady Blackbird, though, it was pretty easy to ease into the gameplay and feel like. It might be that I have a passing familiarity with the body of fiction it’s inspired by (most obviously Firefly, but with a setting that has major echoes from the anime Last Exile or Final Fantasy VI’s magi-steam-tech-punk), making it pretty easy to grok. Combined with what is actually a pretty narrow base: pre-generated characters that comprise a five-man-band, and with tensions and dramatic conflict strongly suggested within their various motivations, this all mitigates the social risk someone like me might feel in participating, and provides a relatively low barrier to participation. Again, I’ve only played one session thus far, but I definitely approve. On the other hand, this does seem like a game whose strengths rely on its players having some familiarity with the tone and referants: if someone hasn’t seen or doesn’t like Firefly, I think a lot of the appeal of this particular game are likely lost. For a like-minded group, though, its ease of start-up and low social barrier makes it good for a one-shot or impromptu session.
Monte Cook’s Arcana Evolved
D&D was for me, as for many others, the first RPG I was exposed to, even though I was a late bloomer and didn’t play until 3.5. I was also one of the last to get fed up/burned out on D&D and move on to greener pastures. I even still have designs to one day revive an old story arc from my college days. But, at the same time, the egregious system flaws did wear on me with time, and were especially clear and discussed about amid the turning of the editions and subsequent “3.5 but moreso” that is Pathfinder.
Anyway, all that’s a preface to saying that I’m not a huge fan of AE. It’s basically one big reminder of my biggest gripes from 3.5 and Pathfinder. Only worse, because it’s built up from 3e, which already had some pretty egregious flaws. System that heavily favors spellcasters? Of course, it was written by Monte Cook, and Monte loves spellcasters. Hypergranular skills that make no sense? Yeeeep. Plenty of trap options seemingly intended to punish Timmy (to borrow MTG parlance) for being Timmy? Of course. In the time I played D&D, the overwhelming thrust of design efforts was to fix all of the above things, because they were problems for people playing the game. Monte Cook, to say nothing of the folks over at Paizo, never seemed to figure that out. </edition-war>
Honorable Mention: Legend
Never played it, but it was pointed out to me by one of my co-AE players, who was similarly griping about 3.5. It seems like an actual promising fix-up for D&D, and the designers were pretty unashamed about taking lessons from any and every other game out there, including 4e. And best yet, it’s pay-what-you want, with proceeds going to Child’s Play, so that’s reason enough to check it out. I may very well use this for my eventual game, though it will involve a fair bit of character re-writing.
Honorable Mention: Burning Wheel
Haven’t played this one either yet, despite several attempts to do so. It’s a neat system, and includes my previously-mentioned-favorite-thing for advancing abilities: use them to level them. Also, the character and monster burners are pretty remarkable: it’s amazingly easy to see a character concept and history proceed naturally from some pretty simple starting points. Desperately want to try this one out in action.
So, what about everyone else? Try out any new or interesting games this year? Any new games anyone’s looking forward to? I’m genuinely interested here, guys, and totally not just fishing for comments.