Tag Archives: design

Games as Art – Part 4 (David Cage GDC 2011)

3 Mar

At this year’s Game Developers Conference, David Cage, creator of Heavy Rain, questioned the creation of games which are ostensibly for teenagers. (Source: CVG) The focus on killing as sole objective is an aspect of gaming that he disagrees with, in that it fails to engage and tell a story in an interactive manner. Cage makes some very interesting points, looking at the fact that adults are the biggest audience for games now, and that games can use their interactivity to tell a story. Unfortunately for Cage there are a few problems with what he said. Firstly, adults enjoy killing things as much as teens apparently, and in the same way that the most popular movies are simplistic, games are not looked to for their artistic merit by the majority.

For those of us who do look for more from our entertainment, secondly, Heavy Rain, which Cage points to as a more story focused interactive experience, is not all that well plotted in terms of interactivity. Cage deserves an awful lot of credit for attempting to create something so different, but ultimately Heavy Rain has too many flaws to be what he envisioned. The plot is its biggest downfall, more reminiscent of the throwaway thrill of ‘Criminal Minds’ or ‘CSI’ than an intelligent piece of entertainment. It doesn’t answer the question ‘How far would you go for someone you love?’ It is different, it was an exciting few hours and it’s certainly worth playing, but as an example of what gaming could be intellectually and artistically, it falls short.

Cage's Fahrenheit was a far superior game to Heavy Rain

There are, however, some examples of how interactivity and the game format can tell a story in a way a movie, book or any other form of media never could. While Heavy Rain fell back on movie clichés in its storytelling, games like ‘The Last Express’ and’ Facade’ follow a more unique path. These games are far more interesting for the would-be developer than Cage’s creation, and should be held in higher regard amongst gamers. Both games would fail to reach any level of mainstream popularity for different reasons, but one can only hope they become the ‘Velvet Underground’ of gaming. Not many people played them, but everyone who did went on to make a game themselves, to paraphrase.

The Last Express appeared as the adventure game fell from popularity. Created by Prince of Persia developer Jordan Mechner and Smoking Car Productions, it was a perfectly realised period piece. The setting is the Orient Express, the legendary train which travelled from Paris to Constantinople. With characters discussing revolution, and conflict on the lips of most passengers, the pre-Great War setting is stunningly evoked. What makes the game special though, aside from the richly detailed train, is the use of time. The player must travel around the four carriages of the Express, engaging in conversation, looking for clues and trying to piece together exactly why main character Robert Cath is a wanted man attempting to fulfil the revolutionary goals of his murdered friend, Tyler Whitney. The mystery takes a back seat to the characterisation rather quickly, as eavesdropping on conversations reveals more and more about each individual on the train.

The Last Express was an artistic triumph

In using the interactivity of being able to move about the train, Mechner realised a form of storytelling which creates a different experience for each player. In real time it is impossible to hear and see everything, and snippets of overheard discussions of politics shape the way the story pans out. While there is a linear thread holding everything together, there are so many incidental details that the game has far more mysteries than those which affect Cath. The ladies who may be in a relationship, though this is never explicitly stated, the young girl with her sick aristocratic grandfather who meets her childhood friend, now a callous revolutionary, aboard the train, these are the characters which remain with the player long after the game has reached one of its many conclusions. In a book or movie there would either be no time to explore such intricacy, or it would be explicitly available, rather than a wonderful discovery on the player’s part. It is entirely possible to miss all these elements and that is why The Last Express stands above most other games in terms of storytelling nuance, subtlety and interactivity. The reward is not in killing, nor reaching the ending, but discovering the wealth of detail Mechner and his team created.

Facade is similar to Last Express in that it plays out in real time, but this time there is only one room and two characters. The player is faceless and essentially voiceless, simply watching Trip and Grace, a couple the player character is friends with, as their evening descends into soul searching and genuinely affecting relationship breakdown. It’s more like a play than a game, but the player can interject with responses to questions and prodding to influence the flow of their conversation. Multiple endings exist, to the point that after more than ten plays later I have yet to see two the same. Trip and Grace have all the human complexity that is so rare in any form of entertainment, let alone games, slowly revealing truths to each other as they weave through their broken dreams and shattered lives. They can be pushed apart or pulled together, though the player’s input never quite influences things in an obvious manner – Telling them to make up causes them to argue more for example. This is a far cry from the simplicity of most conversation based games, such as Mass Effect.

Grace and Trip have remarkable emotional depth

In telling its story in a manner which allows the player to assume a role, yet in many ways not that which they intend, Facade offers perhaps the most human experience ever seen in an interactive medium. Trip and Grace are far too complex to fully understand after playing through the ten minute experience, and attempting to comprehend their motivations and personalities is compelling. They have more to say in a sigh than most videogame characters manage to grunt out over twenty-plus hours, and that is a tremendous achievement. Without the interactivity this would be a mere stage play, a fleeting glimpse into one part of their relationship, one facade. Giving the player an odd form of control over events allows that facade to be lifted and far more to be revealed than would be were this any other form of media.

Both of these games do something which developers desperately try to and fail in the attempt. All the graphical heft in the world can’t create an immersive world if the player doesn’t feel a part of it. Action games make the player the centre of the universe, a universe where enemies wait for them to arrive only to die in seconds. The problem with this approach is that it’s too formulaic. There is no element of unpredictability to most games. Any surprise is so obviously scripted that an ambush is exactly the same as every other enemy encounter. Immersion requires the player to play a role in the game, yet feel they are part of something bigger. They may be a major player, but there must be that element of a larger world, otherwise the game is just a series of linear levels with the occasional thing that goes ‘boo’. Bungie, for all their faults, knew this when creating Halo: Combat Evolved. It’s disappointing they seem to have forgotten along the way, but Halo was brilliant because Master Chief, overpowered as he was, merely acted as a cog in a greater machine.

Heavy Rain was occasionally rather immature

Last Express and Facade both made use of this element, that the player could influence the story yet it would play on without them, perfectly. Adding real time to this only made the premise more convincing. Gamers often discuss what is and is not ‘art’ in a game. For gaming to truly be considered art, the medium must create a method of storytelling truly distinct from others, and in Facade and Last Express it has. Through offering the player the chance to prod the story along, change its course or merely watch it play out, gaming can carve out a creative niche that cannot be filled by any other type of entertainment. The problem with this is, since adults seem to enjoy ‘teenage’ games, Cage stating that you can create games for adults is just a whisper in the ocean of noise that is the games industry, and money will always shout loudest.

It’s not that these games don’t exist, but Last Express bankrupted the developers and Facade saw more praise from the art community than from gamers. Cage may have done something somewhat different, but it ended up being a heavily marketed, dumbed down thriller which failed to truly innovate, falling into the same routines he criticised other games for. It was not the meaningful game he claims, truth be told and I can only imagine he had to compromise heavily to gain the kind of push Sony gave Heavy Rain. Any developer with a true artistic vision will be hampered by the same problems, the need to create a game with broader appeal. Those who want to break that mould only have to look at the failure of The Last Express to see where creativity, intelligence and vision lead. Even Cage’s own Fahrenheit, which was far superior to Heavy Rain, saw far less success. I agree with Cage completely, games need to be more mature, but they also need to draw the player into the world, rather than making them a casual spectator, as Heavy Rain ultimately did.

Top 100 Games – 98 – The Last Express

15 Feb

The Last Express
Year: 1997
Genre: Adventure

The Last Express is almost as well known for its lack of success as its quality, and that is a pity. Developed by Jordan Mechner, the man behind Prince of Persia, The Last Express is an absolutely unique and incredibly clever adventure game. Taking the pre-rendered backgrounds popular in the mid to late nineties and adding an animation style called ‘rotoscope’ which creates an impressive visual style. It’s reminiscent of the art popular during the era of the game’s setting, a visual style that has never really been used elsewhere. Only Bioshock comes to mind, but it’s still a far cry from the level of accuracy shown here. Taking place over three days prior to World War 1, on the famed Orient Express, the game is a little Agatha Christie and a little Hitchcock, possibly evem some F. Scott Fitzgerald. Our hero, Robert Cath, is more Indiana Jones than Hercule Poirot or Jay Gatsby, but it’s the setting and large cast that make it stand out.

The art design is incredibly unique

The train itself is a monument to excess and adorned in a gorgeous art-deco style. It’s all accurate, down to the weather outside, the stories in the newspaper and some of the political groups and events mentioned by characters. This exhaustive research combined with the period visuals make an immersive experience that has rarely been matched. The real-world period setting may have put off many gamers, but this is a remarkable achievement. The characters are the most important element of the game however. There are no stereotypes here, each minor character is brilliantly acted and memorable. The characters also speak in their native tongue and subtitles only appear if Cath understands their language. From a Russian revolutionary to the naughty aristocrat’s son, they are all evocative of the era. Even more stunning are the conversations which occur as the game plays out in real time. There is the palpable sense of the end of an era, the shift in power from aristocracy to bourgeoisie. Travellers on the Express speak of revolution in far-off nations and your character is embroiled in a plot to arm the Serbian resistance. Communists reading Nietzsche cross paths with society ladies looking for adventure. It’s a truly incredible atmosphere.

The gameplay is a little different to the standard adventure game. There are multiple endings, and minor alterations in the players actions can lead to death, premature ending or, if you’re lucky, reaching Constantinople. The ability to ‘rewind’ time allows these outcomes to be changed, and actions understood. It’s a huge encouragement to play again, and the story is mysterious and exciting, yet slow-paced. The game plays out like a novel, the action is not always on-screen and there is more subtle conversation pushing events forward than outright confrontation. Diplomacy and intelligence win the day, though the threat of violence looms heavy in the air. Getting to the bottom of what’s going on is compelling, with even Cath himself being of questionable moral standing. The Last Express is an absolute one-of-a-kind in the gaming world – slow, thoughtful and highly intelligent. If most games want to be movies, this one sets itself apart by wanting to be a book.

Games as Art – Part 2

27 Jan

The Discerning Consumer

In explaining why the gaming press fails to separate those games with a more artistic nature, it led me to us, the players, and our role in shaping the industry. With the press doing nothing to tell us which games are really special, it falls to the consumer. Unfortunately, gamers are, as a group, not exactly discerning. We probably buy far too many games, and still the more interesting ones are ignored. The marketing of certain releases is obviously a big influence, yet we don’t generally go out of our way, as a film buff would, to actually learn what is really good. And how are we expected to when the games a vocal minority of gamers cry out for are simply given the same, or worse review scores as those which permeate the consciousness through advertising and media coverage. It is rare that a smaller budget, or more artistic game is previewed extensively, and games thrive on the hype machine, aided by the internet and rabid fanboy-ism. Gamers are, to pigeonhole, ‘nerds’ and as such, cling to certain franchises as horror fans do (Someone kill the man who made ‘Saw’- preferably in an ironically over elaborate trap). The ‘hardcore’ audience simply demands more sequels, or even remakes from their developer or publisher of choice. The smaller community, if it even exists, who want games to transcend these stereotypes are largely ignored, it is far easier to make money from a core consumer base that will support even a substandard product.

It’s usually developers and publishers who suffer the criticism of the vocal minority, but that seems rather reductionist. Gamers need to point the finger in some other directions. I’ve already mentioned the gaming press, but more so – at themselves. The publishers are merely satisfying the incredible demand of the majority of consumers, the same way movie, book and music companies do. In that sense, the gaming press serves a similar function, they are populist, they offer a product which praises across the board, for a variety of reasons, because there are many reasons we play games, as there are many reasons we go to the movies or read a novel. As I said in the previous article, games have not been separated as other media have. There are trashy novels, to be read on holidays or for a light read before bed, and there is literature, which is to be savoured, debated and reflected upon. In gaming terms, we consume and reflect on everything. Call of Duty (I think it’s fair I single this series out, but it’s not alone) is simply a ‘holiday read’ or ‘popcorn movie’ but it is debated ad infinitum, along with Halo, Battlefield and every other major release. The problem is the subject of these debates.

Gamers don’t look at their hobby the way a film buff does. They pore over technical details, differences between consoles, graphics, frames per second and every other aspect of the coding. Content is last on the list of priorities and story has only recently become a strong focus, but only as far as looking to generic Hollywood action movies for inspiration. I’m sorry, but Uncharted 2 is just not that good, it’s another generic cover shooter with a slightly more interesting exploding background. It’s not that there’s no place for that kind of thing, I enjoy a simple distraction from the existential dilemma of modern life as much as the next man, but I often want more from my entertainment, I want to think and be challenged. Games very, very rarely do that. What young game designer, who has creative and intelligent ideas, has a chance to use them in an industry so dominated by large publishers, huge budgets and worst of all, an audience that rewards mediocrity and repetition. Did we really need another Assassin’s Creed game this year? Yes, the sequel was an improvement on the original, but maybe the developers would have been better off spending far more time crafting a third instalment which was a huge improvement over the second, which told a new story in a new way. The critical praise and consumer reaction to Assassin’s Creed 2 however, meant that the publishers wanted to strike while the iron was hot, and build a franchise. There’s more profit to be made now, and into the future as things stand in gaming, from franchise-building, which has become the goal for publishers.

Gamers should celebrate the original, the new IP, but we stick with the brand we trust. Magazines don’t drop review scores even if the sequel is almost identical, and we continue to give money away for a few more tries at something we enjoyed, in absence of guaranteed fun from a brand we don’t know. This incredible lack of trust in a new commodity has led to countless iterations of the most tired of formulas. Final Fantasy may change its story and characters in each new game, but the brand remains, despite the game being unrecognisable to those who remember its heyday. The franchise has changed, but utterly failed to innovate, and that remains true for most of the industry. Mediocre games which achieve even moderate success garner sequels. Was it really necessary to give us another ‘Kane and Lynch’? Well, yes, of course it was, the gaming public never tires of shooting people. Even Rockstar, when attempting to create a game set in the Old American West, an entirely admirable change from the greys and browns of urban grime or warfare, chose to resurrect an IP most had no knowledge of. Pointless, but they surely had their reasons to do so, and it boils down to the importance of brand recognition in generating interest. Even an obscure brand is more valuable than an entirely new entity.

If we want to see games challenge other art forms and establish themselves as worthy, then we need to change the way we approach the industry. Firstly, buying every major release, or most of them, is an exercise in futility, they’re mostly the same as each other, and most of those which offer something different end up being clones of other games. How many versions of God of War have appeared since Kratos first ripped the head off a mythical beast? And God of War is derivative itself, it’s just a more polished scrolling fighter. If sequels, imitations and remakes stopped selling as well as they do, then developers would be forced to push the envelope and create something more unique. This in turn would increase competition to provide the most originality and creativity, to offer something different, be it story or gameplay, and to innovate rather than imitate. It is through this that we might see more artistic games. We also need to stop clinging to our precious franchises. Yes, the characters might be ones we like, but seeing them in their seventh game is simply absurd. I’m not quite as critical of Nintendo for this however, they do attempt to create a new Mario or Metroid experience somewhat regularly, and while say, Mario 64, Sunshine and Galaxy share similar core mechanics, they are vastly different games. There is a good reason why Nintendo continue to compel a new audience, and it is quality and imagination, not the same game over and over.

The backlash over Metroid: Other M is an interesting example of the problems with how we approach our hobby. Metroid Prime had three games in its series, it had run its course after adding the innovation of Wii controls. Nintendo wisely moved the franchise, which they know makes them more money than a new IP, that’s the market reality, to a new developer. (As much as I’d like to see a whole new game, setting and character, Nintendo do have to make money.)This was a disappointment for many fans, but do we need a fourth Metroid Prime game? Yes, Team Ninja changed some of the main character’s traits and personality, but they also made something different, and that should be commended, and Nintendo praised for taking a risk when every other company is content to offer the same thing in a different box. We, as consumers, even those of us who consider ourselves informed, are failing to reward intelligence and innovation, and the backlash against us has begun as the games we play have become more bland than ever. Thank goodness for the downloadable games of XBLA and PSN, where some wonderfully original titles like the beautiful and poignant ‘Flower’ or the unsettling ‘Limbo’ can be found. The problem however, is that without marketing from the companies, without reviews and press reflecting it, and without gamers making the effort to seek it out, imagination will always be trumped by the safety of the familiar, and this will inevitably lead to the continued lack of respect games receive in the artistic pantheon.

Best and Worst of 2010

22 Jan

2010 was an exciting year for games, with Microsoft and Sony jumping on the motion bandwagon, indie games reaching new heights and some excellent mainstream releases. There was, of course, plenty of bad as well. We saw yearly instalments of the big-budget titles become the established norm as Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty joined FIFA and the rest of the sports games in the stockings of the majority of console owners. Renowned film critic Roger Ebert denounced the idea that games could be art, and while initially this seems a negative, the fact it’s even being considered by someone like Ebert is a huge leap for the medium. California saw debate on censorship laws for games distinct to other entertainment, and the court’s ruling in 2011 may be a landmark moment in the industry. It’s been an exciting year for gamers, and with some great titles coming in early 2011, it’s time for a look back at the best and worst games of 2010, from the terrible to the pinnacle of 2010, GameGameBlog’s game of the year.

The Worst
Allow to me qualify this slightly. Of course there are worse games than those on this list, but these are the most derivative or disappointing of the year. A bad developer making a bad game is no surprise, but this list is for those games which got our hopes up only to dash them against the pointy, pointy rocks of reality.

Dark Void
This is the game where Nolan North, cover shooters and wisecracking leads all jumped the shark. On a jetpack. Featuring a flight element which defies all efforts at control and sends the player around in circles as they try in vain to find enemies, as all bad flight games do, Dark Void had an instant sense of cheapness. With Nathan Drake basically the main character, but with a different name and a steampunk aesthetic trying to hide the blatant theft of ideas, Dark Void did very little to stand out other than the jetpack sections. Unfortunately, having a jetpack in a cover shooter is a bit like having a bazooka in a boxing match – in the end you’re just going to kill yourself no matter who you take with you. With the ability to fly snatched away at random as well, it really is just Uncharted, minus the gameplay, minus the somewhat original ideas, minus the charm (that some seem to think the irritating Drake has) Dark Void is genuinely awful, but the developers at least were nice enough to create an 8-bit style version, which is infinitely better called Dark Void Zero, as well as advertising the game A LOT. If nothing else, at least they have a good marketing department, but all that made was a game that feels like the publishers getting focus groups to pitch ideas. ‘I liked Uncharted, and jetpacks are cool’ Gamers deserve better.

Final Fantasy XIII
For such a beloved franchise to fall so far from grace is sad to see, but much of that is down to Final Fantasy fans refusal to accept Square Enix moving in a new direction. It would be commendable, to be fair, were they making quality games, but Final Fantasy XIII is sadly a far cry from the level of quality that Square Enix should be producing. FFXIII has the problem of linearity without a compelling reason to continue playing. Now, the Final Fantasy games were never as open-ended as they seemed, but it was the illusion that made them work. Previously, Square created living, breathing worlds. You may have seen only a small part, but it felt open, like a real adventure. FFXIII is a series of corridors and really feels like it, the game world is bland and lifeless. This would be ok if the plot and characters were worth following, but the characters are as bland as the environment and incredibly annoying and cliched. The only interesting part is a large open field, but any freedom is hampered by the fact that the only thing to do is battle, and while the battle system is quite good, it rapidly descends into repeatedly pressing one button repeatedly. Final Fantasy has had some poor characters before, but Square always managed to create a world worth exploring, until now. XIII does a massive disservice to fans of the series, and while it’s great to see a new direction, here it does nothing but destroy what made Final Fantasy great, and fails to add anything to replace that.

Final Fantasy XIII

God of War III
The first two God of War games were good, but between Bayonetta and Darksiders, God of War’s third installment had been outclassed and rendered obsolete before it hit shelves. The game was more of the same, technically brilliant and with some excellent graphics, but the gameplay simply paled in comparison to the competition. Add to that the fact that niggling annoyances remained, such as the button mashing just to open a chest, and pointless quick-time-events to defeat a boss repeated ad infinitum. Worst of all though, was the fact that Kratos has evolved into a less and less interesting or likeable character. Essentially the game requires you to play as a nasty, cruel and sadistic moron with little motivation other than apparently being angry at himself for being stupid. He makes Squall from FFVIII look like the greatest character ever conceived and is an emo fringe away from crying as he gouges out the eyeball of a Cyclops. Without a decent plot and with both gameplay and graphics being far less impressive as they were on PS2 thanks to the advances made by other devs, GOW III traded on controversy with ill-advised sexual content and pointless violence, the kind of things that sold games in the early 90’s. Sexual content in games needs to have some maturity if it’s to be taken seriously, but GOWIII barely manages to depict an adolescent fantasy without seemingly impossibly tacky and cheap. Bioware showed that sex has a place in videogames, but games like this just make gamers look like 14-year old idiots who like breasts and blood. That’s not even mentioning the ridiculous levels of violence. Games can be violent, I’ve played plenty of them and I’m not averse to it, but some context other than ‘I’m angry so I’ll tear off your leg’ would be nice. Surely as a medium games have moved beyond the likes of this?

Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days
Did anyone actually like Kane and Lynch? Didn’t think so, but no one told Eidos or Squeenix. It’s not without an original idea, I suppose, there’s an incredibly gimmicky and annoying youtube/grainy camera style. It’s not exactly appealing and clashes with the crime movie styling of the plot. In terms of gameplay, it’s a third person cover shooter, with another cheap gimmick – co-op focus. This makes what works best in single player utterly pointless played alone, and didn’t Army of Two beat IO to the punch? It’s amazing really that anyone bothered to play Dog Days, the characters are about as appealing as your average X-Factor contestant, and have even less to say. The plot is contrived, clichéd and frankly, boring. By-the-numbers gameplay really doesn’t add much incentive to keep shooting things. There are just so many better cover shooters out there. Dog Days is ultimately the Rocky V of third person shooters, it’s pretty much the same as everything else, yet somehow far, far worse.

Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1
The levels are mostly well-designed, there’s plenty of colour and great visuals, it looks like Sonic and sounds like it too. It was a real treat to finally see Sonic return to his 2D roots, without a cast of annoying sidekicks. All was not well however, as despite all the great work that went into the design, Sonic 4 had one fatal flaw, the controls. It seems Sonic has slowed down a bit in his old age. Sure, he can get going, but maybe its arthritis or just muscle deterioration that makes him have similar acceleration to a tank. It takes so long to get Sonic to a decent pace that getting slowed down at all is controller-hurlingly frustrating. It promised so, so much, but Sonic fans who’ve suffered through the 3D years should have been more wary. Go buy a Mega Drive and Sonic 2 for the definitive experience and to remember why the blue hedgehog was the coolest thing in videogames, because now he’s just a cold shell of his former self. Here’s hoping Sega realise the mistakes they made with the physics for episode 2.

Halo: Reach
I’m being slightly harsh putting Reach here, it’s no less derivative than Black Ops or any of the other pointless sequels released this year, but Halo was actually a good game. The original, while a bit overrated, was fun and had some incredible moments, but Bungie conspired to remove the large scale and unpredictable battles which made Combat Evolved so enjoyable. Instead of the brilliant vehicle sections over open environments, or through ramp-filled corridors, there was only driving slowly and awkwardly between the same skirmish, with the same amount of enemies. The mistakes made in Halo 2, which forced the player into far more linear environments, with little choice in how to approach combat, remain. It was forgivable once, but a third time is just unacceptable, even more so when ODST, barely more than a mission pack, had more originality and creativity. In a vacuum it’s a decent game, but it really is a poor send-off for Bungie in their last Halo game, and considering how much Halo fans love the franchise, they deserved better.

Halo Reach

Bioshock 2
Bioshock needed a sequel even less than Army of Two (which almost made this list). It may have been a great game, but the story was totally self-contained, perfectly wrapped up and pointless to continue. But then, 2K love money… a lot. They love it so much they were willing to put a different studio (2K Marin) to work on a sequel to Irrational’s classic. It was a terrible decision. Obviously plenty of gamers wanted a sequel, but Bioshock is a game that attracted those who wanted something a little more cerebral, so it’s not just a case of putting a few new levels into an existing engine, it had to be more than that. Removing the quality of storytelling and replacing it with a bland, uninventive plot with dull characters is not redeemed by putting the player in the shoes of a Big Daddy, especially when it makes zero difference to gameplay. Even worse, the game revolves around protection of others, which I’m pretty sure everyone hates but a few very masochistic game developers. Bioshock 2 is as derivative as they come, it lacks originality and intelligence and is clear winner of the ‘cynical cash-in of the year’ award.

Aliens vs. Predator
If you remember the 1999 Aliens vs. Predator then this is possibly even worse a game than it already seems. AVP ‘99 was a wonderful mix of three games. Playing as the Predator was an FPS with some well-implemented additional skills like infra-red and thermal vision. You could use all the classic weapons and really felt like a monster, lopping heads off marines and generally causing mayhem. The alien was strange, but a lot of fun, with the ability to quickly crawl around ceilings and walls, using stealth and surprise to take out the humans. Then the marine was an FPS survival horror that created a great sense of tension, a bit like Dead Space. AVP2010 manages not only to be a poor game, but to totally ignore what made the ‘99 version good. Playing as the Predator feels slow and boring, with a focus on melee rather than the shoulder cannon and speargun. The alien is a confused mess of terrible controls, dated graphics and terrible level design. At least the Marine campaign is playable, but it feels less up to date than the earlier iteration and even amongst the current crop of cookie-cutter iron sights as standard FPS games, it falls flat in any attempt to create dramatic tension, or even a few shocks. Most incredible of all is that Rebellion developed both this and the previous AVP game. It’s shocking what a decade can do to a studio.

Aliens vs. Predator

The Best:

Game Dev Story
It seems strange to choose an iPhone game, but Game Dev Story is impossibly addictive, and far deeper than the majority of games for the system, yet without losing the simplicity necessary for a quick play. Angry Birds or Cut the Rope might have more immediate and obvious appeal, but GDS has much more to offer, it hooks and doesn’t let go in the same way classic sims like Theme Park did. With just enough options to make it strategic, and a great pacing which moves things along at a decent speed, creating games becomes a compulsion, as you try to get a little bit better, make a little more. There are plenty of little details and nods to gaming history that will raise a smile, and the sprites are well designed to the point that you become attached to your staff. Seeing ‘Intendro’ release a new console that looks like the Virtual Boy or NES is great, and a little knowledge of the past goes a long way. Finding combinations of genre and direction is well handled, encouraging a risk versus reward element to development, where innovation can lead to better games later, but a sequel or a genre you’ve made already is likely to sell better. Even after completion the desire to return and do a little better remains, GDS is a real highlight in the now rather impressive iPhone library.

Bayonetta
Platinum games must be the developer of the year, between this and Vanquish they’ve managed to release two of the most fun and playable games of 2010. Bayonetta is Devil May Cry sped up and camped up. An absurd plot, ridiculous heroine, oddly serene music and all manner of general craziness somehow makes the whole package even more appealing. It’s the gameplay though that really stands out. Bayonetta is sublime to play, an absolutely wonderful fighting system which becomes a savage ballet with a little practice and is an absolute joy to control, make it one of the best pure gameplay experiences in years. There’s a lot to be said about getting a combo perfect and being rewarded with a giant boot crushing your enemies, but it’s the precision button presses that add up to an intuitive game. It’s a little like a sped up Arkham Asylum at times, and is immensely rewarding. The difficulties that can be unlocked, as well as the compulsion to beat a high score make it a tremendously addictive title that has far more longevity than the average button masher, and far more intelligence behind those combos. Bayonetta may be a bit cringeworthy as a character, and her hyper-sexualisation is somewhat over the top, well a lot over the top, but it’s all in fun, and even if it’s not your thing, the gameplay is too good to ignore.

Bayonetta

Darksiders
Slipping in under the radar before God of War III, Darksiders showed the adventures of Kratos up as the shallow button mashers they are. Just as Bayonetta showed the slow moving God of War series how fighting should be done, Darksiders nailed the exploration and puzzle element, shamelessly ripping off Legend of Zelda. Its derivative, the art style is basically stolen from the mind of Todd McFarlane and the combat is very similar to God of War, but it all works brilliantly. The game has far more depth than most of this type, particularly western-style brawlers, which just don’t have the combat depth and need something extra. Darksiders finally delivers that, with a great Zelda-esque progression. The characters will appeal to some certainly, the voice acting is decent and the story isn’t terrible. The design is quite good, and the environments and enemies have enough variation that it doesn’t become stale. It’s not original, but manages to transcend its flaws and deliver an experience that outshines its competition easily.

Just Cause 2
Just Cause 2 was criticised unfairly at launch, critics citing a lack of depth, yet Just Cause 2 offers, at last, the ability to play the set pieces usually left to cutscenes – these the same critics who laud the likes of Assassin’s Creed, despite it being far too simple and repetitive. Just Cause 2 doesn’t bother trying to have an interesting plot, or good characters, they’re merely a footnote to the action. Some games will try to be something artistic, which is both important and interesting, but otherwise, they should be fun. For every ‘Citizen Kane’, there must be a ‘Commando’. Very few games try to be anything more than entertainment, yet they ignore the crucial point, that fun is paramount in that case. I can forgive a games flaws if it tries to tell an interesting story, but if, for example, GTA4 tries to shoehorn ‘realism’ into a cartoon world, it detracts from the experience. Just Cause 2 has a huge game world, no boundaries, and is bright and colourful. Basically, it’s everything a sandbox game should be. Probably the most fun game of the year, it suffers from the usual flaws of sandbox games, and the missions aren’t that much fun, but when you can hook an enemy to a gas canister and send him rocketing into the air, or climb to the highest mountain and leap onto a passing plane, or… well the missions just don’t matter, this is a virtual playground and it’s a crying shame that it’s so underappreciated.

Just Cause 2

Vanquish
Platinum’s other stroke of genius this year brilliantly redefined the cover shooter. Fast, action packed, and completely over the top, Vanquish has you sliding in slow motion along the ground while shooting giant robots within the first five minutes and never slows down. The intricate combat is a thing of beauty, allowing players to move with the sort of control not really seen in games like this. It’s precise, and encourages improvisation as enemies flood the screen, forcing you to dash to safety, move from cover to cover and never stop. It’s a far cry from the likes of Uncharted and Gears of War, which are littlemore than find cover, shoot, move forward. Vanquish is much more, you shoot while moving, constantly vary direction and take things on at a pace which defies logic. It takes a bit of getting used to but once you get it, it’s hard to imagine going back to the slow moving Marcus Fenix or Nathan Drake. As they did with Bayonetta, Platinum have stripped down and rebuilt the genre, making it more fun, more exciting and more intense in the process. Vanquish does what games have forgotten to do in their quest for realistic warzones, made the player feel like a superhero while retaining a high level of challenge. It’s a shame that that seems to have been lost between the iron sights of war shooters. The best thing about the game though, is that it really is great to see a Japanese company making unique, quality titles, despite the apparent decline in the quality of Japanese games

Super Meat Boy
Remember when platform games were a perfect blend of simplistic fun and complex challenge? When the game was hard enough that you might not finish it for weeks, but you kept coming back for more? Well Team Meat certainly did when they made Super Meat Boy. It’s one of the most unexpectedly charming games of the year, with oddly cute and likeable characters and a brilliantly unique visual style that continually surprises. The gameplay is the main thing though, and it’s unbelievably good. Tight controls barely begins to describe this, it has the same speedrun potential of the original Super Mario Bros. and the developers were keenly aware of the importance of giving the player total control. Its fast, but never too fast. It takes a few tries to figure out each of the challenging levels, but after a few goes you’ll be reaching the place where you died in seconds and getting that little bit further. It all culminates in one perfect rush, and a replay showing every last effort you made at once, possibly one of the simplest, yet most entertaining additions to a game this year. If you like classic platformers and aren’t afraid of a challenge, this could be your game of the year.

Super Meat Boy

Super Mario Galaxy 2
Nintendo just don’t get Mario games wrong. This is similar to the first Galaxy game, yet there’s enough new here that it still retains a freshness that most sequels can’t begin to match. The levels are as well designed as before, if not even better, and the challenge is just enough that it’s neither too easy, nor too hard. The music and general presentation are phenomenal, especially considering the Wii is little more than a GameCube in disguise. Nintendo know how to imbue a game with charm, and Galaxy 2 positively oozes it. From the gorgeous and varied worlds, to the inclusion of Yoshi, Nintendo have a sixth sense about knowing what to include to please their fans, and weren’t afraid to remove some of the less appealing elements of the first Galaxy. This is a game that revels in the innocence and fun of an adventure, it’s overflowing with imagination and creativity, both from an artistic and technical perspective. Galaxy 2 is a reminder, on the 25th anniversary of gaming’s most enduring and iconic character, of what it is that makes video games great, a flight of fancy like this would be almost impossible to achieve in any other medium, only Pixar and Studio Ghibli have a similar power to delight.

Deadly Premonition
This is an interesting one, wouldn’t you say, Zach? Deadly Premonition should, by all rights, be awful but it’s not even close, in fact it came close to being crowned best game of the year. Combining elements of disparate games and at times movies, it somehow manages to turn utter madness into a compelling and brilliant experience. There are plenty of flaws – the cars handle poorly, the combat is awful, the presentation is patchy and occasionally awful, the graphics are often terrible and it’s just a bit nuts, but it’s amazing in ways that can’t really be explained properly without having played it. The game begins as a poor Resident Evil 4 clone, nothing special, not really great, then becomes Alan Wake for a little while, adopting an episodic structure. After that it’s Shenmue, with your character questioning people and talking to everyone you can find. For a while it’s even Grand Theft Auto as you drive from place to place. Essentially it’s a sandbox detective game where you’re tasked with finding the killer of a local girl in a small American town. It’s also a survival horror at times. The plot and acting though, are the real draw. While the gameplay is good enough to keep things moving, the plot makes it special. Drawing on Twin Peaks, Stephen King and classic B-Movies, but ramping up the crazy, you play as Francis York Morgan, a mysterious FBI agent with a special interest in murders like the one you’re investigating. He veers from charming to delusional, and with a supporting cast of bizarre and suspicious locals, there’s not much that can be trusted and the game takes its time in revealing its cards. The plot is surprisingly good, despite being thoroughly odd, and it helps that the voice actors are mostly excellent, and the lead is simply brilliant. The soundtrack is the best of the year, despite being astonishingly ill-fitting. It really, really shouldn’t be good, but Deadly Premonition is so much more than the sum of its parts. If you like the idea of a game where the lead character talks to himself as he drives about 80’s movies (at great length) then you’ll adore this game, there really is nothing else like it, is there Zach?

Deadly Premonition

Alpha Protocol
This is a game that has a lot of flaws, to be frank, but it elevates itself above them. The early stages feel like any other cover shooter, but with some vague RPG elements. With a little perseverance though, the experience opens into something far more interesting. The choices you make become integral to the games developing plot, altering future interactions and challenges based on how you approach earlier situations. A dialogue system that encourages quick thinking leads to gut reactions, and makes for a far more impressive version of Bioware’s conversation system. Obviously Obsidian learned a lot from their work on Knight of the Old Republic II, and while New Vegas was the better of their 2010 output, the innovative Alpha Protocol is more deserving of praise. It actually handles the concept of player choice and consequence far better than New Vegas, as well as Heavy Rain in fact, without sacrificing the actual game in the process. It plays a bit like Mass Effect 2 minus the polish, but what AP lacks in that, it more than makes up for in the compelling nature of watching what you do change the world around you.


GAME OF THE YEAR

Minecraft
Minecraft isn’t even finished yet, which goes to show how impressive the concept is, and yet its so simple it boggles the mind that no one made this game before. The basic idea is that you mine for coal, rock, wood and such and create items, build a shelter and survive the night when monsters come to kill you. With simple graphics and a simple premise, the core mechanics are merely the gateway to a world in which your imagination is king. Online groups build cities, sculptures, vehicles, have even come up with games. Minecraft is phenomenally rewarding, and after a low-key start, where you simply survive the first few nights, suddenly you realise that the landscape is entirely yours to manipulate. Every block can be slowly moved and crafted into something totally unique. This genuinely puts the brilliant level editor of LittleBigPlanet to shame, and is the pinnacle thus far for games based on user-generated content. Forget LBP 2, this is the game for anyone wanting to join a community of creators. The amount that can be done with so simple a game is unbelievable, and this all came from a single developer. He now has a studio and a large staff, such is the popularity of a game that only very recently went to beta.

There is an incredible calm that washes over the player when the crafting starts coming together, a sort of zen-like appreciation for a simpler life. Just hacking away at stone becomes a blissful part of the experience, and the tranquil surrounding of trees, sand and water which give way to underground caverns filled with gems, iron and lave are all clearly crafted with an attention to detail unseen in most mainstream titles. The music too is wonderful, and the sound design is top-notch (no pun intended) in general. Red Dead Redemption got accolades for knowing when to be quiet, yet Minecarft should have earned that praise. The music only occasional breaks the serenity and when it does it only serves to draw the player in deeper. Such simple visuals may put off some, but they’re missing out on what is a victory for design and art over flashy graphics and explosions. The environment discourages conflict, and that’s only when enemies are even in the game, it is entirely possible to just build. Minecraft is what the Lego games always should have been, a virtual world of creativity, where only those with the imagination and drive to play and build are rewarded. There are no achievements or unlockables, just the joy of seeing, after hours of work, a huge structure, planned, designed and built by you, the player. It’s addictive, compelling and unfathomably clever, as well as being one of the best multiplayer experiences in gaming history. I must re-iterate, that it’s the idea of a single person, who at this point has done what minecraft allows players to, taken a simple idea and turned it into something enormous and utterly magnificent. Get in early and get creating because Minecraft will be the biggest thing in gaming soon enough, and no doubt one of the larger studios will snap up the rights to destroy it completely.