Monday, January 16, 2012

The Year That Was 2011: Games Edition

Now that we have looked back at what took place on the blog, let’s shift focus and talk about the games that I played during 2011. It was a quiet and subdued year for me, the intention right from the beginning being to hold back on purchases and only really buy the games that I deemed to be ‘must-have’. This led to a focus on just a handful of titles that I eventually began referring to as the “Big Four”. Ultimately that figure decreased to three as one title didn’t come out at all (The Last Guardian), but the sentiment as a whole describes the year that I had perfectly, and it alludes to the approach that I had throughout it. It should also be noted that this post is replacing any ‘Games Of The Year’ posts I would have otherwise done, as I do not feel that I played enough of 2011’s range of titles to truly offer an informed opinion or to highlight the things that were done right. So, without further ado, the videogames that I got to play in 2011.

Test Drive Unlimited 2

Despite clearly being a massive fan of the racing genre, I always felt a little guilty for having this title so high on my anticipation list for 2011. For whatever reason it just felt ‘wrong’ to be excited for this game when better titles (supposedly) were on the horizon like a new Zelda and Forza Motorsport 4. Yet high it was and the reasons for it were simple: I absolutely adored the original game because it enabled me to just pick a car and drive it, wherever and however I wanted to. To be able to experience that pleasure again with improved visuals, new additions like weather and off-road racing and on a much larger scale thanks to the inclusion of two islands rather than one was incredibly enticing for me, and I simply couldn’t wait to try Test Drive Unlimited 2 when it released in February. It was the first of my “big four” games and, in hindsight, it was the right choice as it absolutely delivered on the expectations I held for it.

Having said that, however, it was also a huge disappointment -- not only was it flawed it was incredibly inconsistent, too, making for an insanely fun game when it got everything right and a horribly frustrating one when it got everything wrong. It took far too long to be able to play the game as I intended -- using it for the pleasure of just driving -- thanks to a ridiculous (not to mention unnecessary) story mode; the dirt races and routes felt tacked on despite still being rather fun; and new features such as weather were nothing more than superficial add-ons at best. I have still lost countless hours playing it and just driving freely, so my experience with it has been mostly positive, but there are some serious issues with the game, too, and for the most part they are inexcusable.

I will be covering Test Drive Unlimited 2 in a little more detail in the near future, so keep an eye out for that.

L.A. Noire

The second of my “big four”, L.A. Noire was easily my most anticipated game of the year. Sure, Rockstar’s involvement with it was certainly a big factor but I was more intrigued by how different it appeared to be, and by Team Bondi’s overall ambition with the title. A meticulously recreated 1940s version of Los Angeles to inhabit; a protagonist who is a cop rather than the usual criminals leading other games; and a game in which conversations and discovery (IE: the interrogations and investigations) are the most prominent parts, not shooting or driving or any of the usual suspects? Yes please!

Unfortunately my excitement didn’t pay off as much as I would have liked as the game was somewhat of a let-down. It was still good and I am still very glad that I got to experience it, but it definitely has its problems and some of its main components conflict with each other more than they should, too, which is unfortunate. And the game’s rendition of LA, the feature I was looking forward to the most? Very impressive, no doubt about that, but also very redundant as it is nothing more than a dull and empty space.

Ultimately the game was overshadowed by the controversy that followed its release involving Team Bondi, Brendan McNamara and the eventual (perhaps even inevitable) closure of the Sydney-based studio. Despite these real life dramas and the inconsistencies that L.A. Noire exhibited, I still enjoyed the game and still firmly believe that it was an important title and certainly one worth investigating. It could have been so much more than it actually was, but what was there was still worth the time I put into it.

I plan to revisit L.A. Noire in the near future to try and knuckle down on my thoughts, as it definitely comes across as a game that I need to discuss here on the blog.

Portal 2

In all honesty I wasn’t expecting to be playing Portal 2 this year. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in it or didn’t want to play, it just happened to be a game that I was prepared to wait for like so many of the other big 2011 titles. However, shortly after I purchased my gaming PC I was lucky enough to get the game and, in typical Valve style, it delivered on all expectations.

How do you surpass perfection? By continuing to be perfect, that’s how -- precisely what Portal 2 did. There’s no denying that the sequel had some big shoes to fill and I am sure it would be fair to say that most people out there had their doubts, despite the game being made by Valve, and yet it nailed everything that it set out to do. Objectively, it is the game of the year purely because of how skillfully and elegantly it achieved its goals, but subjectively it would be a strong contender for that nod because it is just simply fantastic. I had an absolute blast playing around with the new mechanics and found myself, once again, baffled by some of the genius level design and clever puzzles. It has one of the best videogame endings of all time, I think, and personally one of the best openings, too -- I was absolutely hooked as soon as I heard how much Wheatley had to say when I left the game idling, and when I was ready to actually play I couldn’t because I was in hysterics. Humour in videogames is still seldom seen, unfortunately, so I absolutely cherish the funny moments that the entirety of Portal 2 gave to me.

F1 2011

After being blown away by F1 2010 and inspired to do things like my Living The Life series, it was inevitable that this game would be a key title from 2011’s lineup. What you might not have known, however, was that I was prepared to hold off buying it until perhaps even this year due to the aforementioned desire to hold back on my purchases. That was until I found myself in possession of a review copy, anyway.

F1 2011 is hard to comment on because, aside from playing it enough to be able to write the review, I have barely touched it -- not when compared to the amount of hours I have put into its predecessor F1 2010, anyway. What I did play, however, demonstrated to me that the game was absolutely an improvement with some great refinement being made by Codemasters, and key new features like the inclusion of the Safety Car being thoroughly welcome. It wasn’t just an annual release ready to cash-in on the brand or license, it was a genuine successor that illustrated that F1 2010 wasn’t just a one-trick pony, and that Codies had a direction that they wanted to go with the series. Whether it can sustain everything in its current form for another go with F1 2012 later this year remains to be seen but, right now at least, F1 2011 is another fantastic Formula 1 and racing game, and the franchise as a whole is well on its way to being one of the genre’s finest.

I will be covering F1 2011 extensively this year, as well as using it for the second season of my role-playing story. I refuse to focus on the title until I have covered F1 2010, however, so expect musings on that game in the very near future. 

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception

The third (and final) game of my “big four”, Uncharted 3 was absolutely high on my list because it was the follow up to the impeccable Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, and because it was being made by one of my favourite developers in Naughty Dog -- a studio I firmly believe deserves to be considered in the same light as Rockstar, Nintendo, Valve and the other behemoth names of the industry. Most of all, however, I was eagerly anticipating Drake’s Deception because it meant another journey with some of my favourite characters in the medium, meaning I could share more adventures with Elena, Chloe, Sully and, of course, Nathan Drake.

Interestingly, now that I have played it, I feel like Uncharted 3 was a bit of a let-down. A feeling that actually bothers me because there is nothing inherently wrong with it and because it exceeded what Uncharted 2 brought to the table back in 2009. The graphics were sublime; the set-pieces were absolutely amazing; the levels and locations were incredible; and the continuation of the story and the ability to see more of the characters was brilliant. Yet, somehow, I feel like I enjoyed Uncharted 2 more and I find that fascinating to contemplate because on an objective level Drake’s Deception is better in every way. I’m sitting on my thoughts about the game for a few months so I can revisit it and really understand them, so when I play it again I will cover it here on the blog. In the meantime it absolutely is a fantastic game (despite what some of the backlash it is receiving might suggest) and ultimately it ensures that the Uncharted franchise as a whole is one of the best to have come out of this current generation.

Forza Motorsport 4

Like F1 2011, commenting on Forza Motorsport 4 is difficult for me because I have barely played it and, once again, I wasn’t expecting to have access to it, either. For whatever reason a very generous friend decided to buy two copies and lend one to me, and now we’ve made a deal in which I will be buying the game off him once I am ready to do so. Being the Collector’s Edition means that I am rather grateful to be in a situation like this, but either way it is interesting because it was totally unexpected.

The first thing I noticed was how much better overall the sound quality was: cars sound absolutely fantastic now, and the environmental ambiance and general aural performance has been improved immensely. Physics, too, have continued to be refined to remarkable levels, something I won’t fully get to understand until I have played it for some time. The graphics are also better -- that’s obvious from screenshots alone, as demonstrated above -- but, as a simulation game, I don’t pay too much attention (okay maybe a little bit) to that.

Unfortunately, however, I just haven’t played it enough to give you any decent summary of how good it is. Why haven’t I spent time running it through its paces or driving lap after lap after lap? Because I am still working on Forza Motorsport 3 and I am trying to wrap that up before fully transitioning into FM4. Look out for some coverage on the game later in the year once I have given it a proper go.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Another game that I wasn’t expecting to play and thus, can’t really comment on, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a hard one because I both like it and don’t think it is as fantastic as everyone else makes it out to be. I realise having played very little I can’t speak to it like everyone else can, but the brief sessions I did have with it illustrated to me that whilst it was a massive improvement over The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, it is also full of the issues that have plagued the series for years, too. It looks and sounds better, has a more interesting setting and features a world that looks like a joy to get lost in, and yet it still has wooden (and fairly uninteresting) characters, the same goddamn voice-overs and repetitive quests and/or dungeons. I don’t know, the game just had (and continues to have) such incredible hype surrounding it and yet that’s what the final product is? Really?

I just don’t see it, but then as I said I have barely played it so it isn’t right to judge. I am sure it is a fantastic game (I did enjoy what I played, honest!) and that I will enjoy it when I can finally play it properly, but at the same time I just don’t think the series as a whole is right for me, or that I am just missing what everyone else sees in it. I guess time will tell on that one.

Oh, and for the record: I was able to play it due to another generous friend. I don’t own it myself yet, unfortunately. 

Mario Kart 7

Yet another game I wasn’t expecting to play because I wasn’t expecting to own the platform you find it on. It wasn’t until last month, December, that I got my Nintendo 3DS (yes, as a Christmas present) and as such this game only barely scrapes onto the list. Despite this it already stands out as one of the year’s most interesting and enjoyable games, and I definitely look forward to playing it some more in the very near future.

The fact that Retro Studios had a hand in its development is also something I find fascinating, not just because of their own pedigree and what it means for the game but because of what it may suggest for Nintendo (and thus, the medium) going forward, too. By collaborating with Retro to design some tracks and environments, EAD Tokyo have indicated that they are not against the idea of working with other development teams; western development teams. This is significant information and could be very interesting to keep an eye on as the Wii U comes out and Nintendo enters the High Definition race -- Retro may not have released any HD games themselves yet but, being a Western team, they would absolutely be familiar with it. Will they be leading the charge, so to speak, when it comes to the approach Nintendo ultimately have with their upcoming console? Probably not, but it’s still an intriguing thing to observe and contemplate.

Super Mario 3D Land

As with Mario Kart 7 I wasn’t expecting to own this and because the purchase was so recent I haven’t played it enough to really comment on it. What I did see was impressive and I look forward to playing more, but having said that it also didn’t grab me as much as I was perhaps expecting it to.

Regular readers of Raptured Reality would be aware of the fact that I am not as into Mario or Zelda as most Nintendo players are, my series of choice instead being Metroid. They would also be aware, however, that Super Mario Galaxy captivated me and surprised me with its genius level design and fantastic use of perspective, so my reaction to that wonderful game definitely played a key role in my interest for Super Mario 3D Land. A mix of Super Mario Galaxy and old-school Mario platformers, in 3D, on a handheld? It almost sounds too good to be true and, if I’m honest, it is… What is there is seemingly a really well made, fantastic title, but by being an amalgamation rather than a unique experience I also feel like the game might ultimately fall a little flat for me personally. But, again, I have barely played it -- let’s revisit this subject once I have given it a proper chance.

Minecraft

What can I say about Minecraft that I haven’t already said countless times before? The game is a marvel, quite literally, and if hours played were a defining factor behind choosing a game of the year the thing would win hands down. Featuring it for two years in a row is also a little weird, as no other game (except maybe World Of Warcraft?) can remain as important and as prominent as Mojang’s indie sensation has. Of course, the game ‘officially’ came out late last year by finally leaving Beta status, but no matter what state the game is in one thing has remained consistent and abundantly clear the entire time: Minecraft is on this list because it is inspiring, mesmerizing and because it unleashed a creative side to my personality that I didn’t even know I had. It is one of the best games I have ever played and I fully expect that I will be playing it for many more years to come, too.

This may be a touch hyperbolic so early into a new one but, Minecraft isn’t just one of the games of the year, it’s one of the games of the decade. I eagerly look forward to seeing what other developers can do with the new genre that Mojang have created.

*****

So there you have it, the games that I was lucky enough to play during 2011. As suggested above it was a rather quiet year for me and I didn’t get to play everything I wanted to, including The Last Guardian which was unfortunately delayed for whatever reason. I missed Batman: Arkham City, The Legend Of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Bastion, Deus Ex: Human Revolution and so many more games that I definitely wanted to play. Unlike 2011 my aspirations for 2012 aren’t restricted in any way so I definitely will be catching up with all of the titles that I missed throughout the year. I will also be playing a whole host of games due to come out, too, but I will have more on those in a preview for 2012 in a couple of days.

Finally, I suggested in yesterday’s post that I found the year to be disappointing. The reason for this is because I felt like all of the titles that had high expectations and immense hype either underperformed or failed to deliver. It’s not that the year’s best games weren’t great experiences and worth waiting for but, rather, that after looking so strong for so long the final outcome for each of these titles was a little… lackluster. A similar thing happened with 2010’s range of titles but I definitely feel like that year was a better success (if you will) than 2011 ultimately was. Was the year yet another example of hype reaching unrealistic and unattainable levels? Maybe, but either way it is an interesting thing to observe and contemplate. Here’s hoping 2012’s line-up has a better chance.

2 comments:

Gaming in Public said...

I thought it was one of the worst years as well. This year really just piggy backed on big names rather than brand new IPs. The other thing that was disappointing was Nintendo's lack of software for Wii. I am one of the few hardcore gamers who still loves Wii but after this year find little reason to keep supporting them at home. Literally only Zelda was the top game for Wii that came out this year.

On the good side I think LA Noire has they way we look at games. They face technology behind each character shows how much gamers really want to believe every game they play.

Steven O'Dell said...

Gaming In Public -- Pretty much, and the brand new IPs that were around were either ignored or failed to live up to their expectations, exacerbating the problem.

And yes, Nintendo's lack of titles last year was absolutely appalling. I love that company and always will but jesus christ they need to get their act together, too. Oh and being American you forgot about Xenoblade Chronicles but even if you include that, two major titles is not enough.