April 29, 2013

BOOTYs: Top 5 of 2012

My experiment in revamping the BOOTY awards was a failure. The result is not an in-depth post per category, but a top 5 and (maybe) some extra awards thrown in. What's that you say? April is almost over? What better time to look back at the best games of 2012? Having played almost every major release, I've found that there were actually a lot less games that blew me away than I thought. Last year saw a lot of big releases, but it was the smaller titles, mostly released earlier in the year, that stood out to me. I've decided to do a top five this year because I think some great games get unfairly excluded if you just do the three best. So, for those of you way behind with your games, I present the Best Offerings Of The Year for 2012. My recommendations for must-play titles are:


Nobody wants to play adventure games any more, right? WRONG. Adventure games are awesome. They're the only genre of game that puts narrative first. It is for this reason that adventure games have some of the best writing and acting in the medium. Now, I've never read the Walking Dead comic or seen the show, but I don't feel like I need to. I get it. This game made me get it. It's not about the zombie killing or even the zombies at all. It's about the people and their interactions. What do you do when the apocalypse comes? Who do you trust? What decisions will you make to survive? That's what this game is all about.

You play as Lee Everett, who may or may not be a bad guy. The game opens up with you in a cop car. It eventually crashes, and Lee is thrust into the zompocalypse with no idea what the hell is going on. You soon stumble upon a house with a little girl, Clementine, inside. Lee decides to look after her, and then the adventure commences. As far as gameplay goes, you will occasionally have to kill some zombies or perform other tasks in the form of, basically, quicktime events. The bulk of the "action" revolves around solving puzzles– like how to sneak past some zombies, obtaining supplies, rescuing survivors, etc.  But it's not really about that. It's about the interactions you have with the people around you and the choices you make. The conversations you have directly impact the way the narrative goes. Something as simple as lying about you name could cause a huge domino effect down the road. Other times, you'll be faced with the choice of saving one person or taking one corse of action over the other, the outcomes of which will change the events of further episodes. And to provide a more realistic feel, the game often forces you to make a decision in mere seconds. Just like in real life, you may sometimes regret it. And just like in real life, you have to deal with the consequences.


Each episode is about two hours long, making the game clock in at about 10 hours. It's the type of thing you could play several times in order to see how things play out. But why would you? I'll never touch this game again because my experience was my own and my friends was his own. It is, really, a choose your own adventure book. And that's awesome. Just make sure you don't buy a retail copy. Those are completely broken.




It's difficult to even discuss this game without giving away important secrets about the game. BE WARNED: Minor spoilers of end-game content will be discussed in the paragraphs below.

Fez was marketed as a puzzle platformer. You are Gomez, a weird looking... guy with a magic Fez. See, the world is on the brink of complete destruction because some magical talking rubik's cube has exploded into 64 pieces. With your magic Fez, you can see an otherwise 2D world in 3D and so shift the perspective of things. Using the triggers, you can rotate the world right and left. Using this power and the ability to jump, Gomez must collect at least 32 gold cubes. That's it. No enemies and no health bars. Just jump around and collect stuff. It's actually pretty refreshing, considering that the art and music are beautiful and work together to create an immersive and relaxing experience.


But Fez is not just that. Oh, no. Fez is much more. The game may seem very simple on the surface, because it is. However, if you take the time to uncover all its secrets, something magical happens. You are transported back in time to the olden times of video games. Spoiler time: Once you finish the game with 32 cubes, you unlock a new game+ mode. This does not simply allow you go back and collect the other 32 cubes. No, this changes the game completely. Now Gomez gains the ability to see in 1st person. Why is this significant? Because there are codes everywhere that you can only see in first person. And you can only decipher the codes, if you've been paying close attention. To get most of the other cubes, you have to do some code breaking. This portion of the game requires that you learn an entirely new alphabet and numbering system. Those scribbles on the walls you thought were meaningless? Yeah, those were actually secret messages. And, also, you'll find that the game has story! A very interesting one, at that. So then, you put down the controller and pick up a pen a paper. Used to be you'd talk to your friends about game secrets, but now we've got the whole internet. Fez brought people together in a modern way. It took the internet, collectively, nearly a month to figure out how to solve the game's final puzzle and obtain the last secret cube. And even then, nobody knows why the answer (scientifically calculated) actually works. It's unfortunate that the answers are already out there for those who have been waiting for a PC release. It's the kind of thing that can only happen once. I can only imagine what things would have been like with MiiVerse. End spoilers!


The only complaint I have about Fez is that it's pretty short. The game I was looking forward to, the one that was advertised, is only half the game. Just when the puzzles were starting to get good, it was over. The rest of the game is great too, but completely difference. I will remember Fez for both things. But the part I enjoyed most was over far too quickly.




It's been a damn long time since the last Paper Mario. Five years, in fact. Every game since the second has innovated in some way. Super Paper Mario was a platformer RPG hybrid... thing. Sticker Star doesn't take it that far, but it does redefine some key elements of the game that actually make for a fantastic experience.

There are two main changes that Sticker Star makes to the traditional Paper Mario experience: pacing and stickers. The game now has an overworld and stages, just like a traditional Mario Bros game. However, when you enter into a level, it's more like a bit-sized chunk of the traditional Paper Mario world. You still interact with characters and fight in turn-based battles, but the new layout is specifically geared towards handheld play. That's not to say that these levels are boring! In fact, there's tons of secrets hidden within. The only complaint I have is that you often have to backtrack a lot and go through a lot of menues.


Next, there is a completely new battle system. If you were expecting some new sidekick partners for Mario, prepare to be disappointed. Replacing them, and the traditional battle moves, are stickers. Stickers are everywhere and are integral to battle. No stickers, no fighting. Every attack or action Mario preforms in battle uses a sticker. There's tons of them in all different types. Some are offensive, some defensive, some healing, some extra strong, some wimpy. As you progress, you'll collect pages in your sticker book so you can hold more. The stronger they are, the more space they take up. Then theres the really deluxe ones made from throwing photorealistic objects at a magic wall. These are like pressing the "win" button, but are rare and take up a ton of space. Great against bosses, though.


Be warned, the game has been stripped of a lot of its RPG elements. There's no exp or mp. There's just health that you can upgrade by finding health upgrades in the world, Zelda style. There's just coins and stickers. And yet, that doesn't make the combat any less strategic. In fact, I find that it's more so. Sticker management becomes its own metagame, and carefully planning your attacks becomes another. It's good to have a diverse sticker set handy to be ready for anything. But the bosses provide some of the best challenge. You need to chose wisely, carefully observe and plan. Bosses can often be taken down quickly if you have the right stickers, and it can be pretty damn difficult without them. But the game never holds your hand in this regard; you have to realize it for yourself. The one gripe that I have here, and for the game in general, is that it kind of just throws you in and says "good luck!" Sometimes you won't know that you need to find a specific sticker to progress, or you won't know where to find it. If you never found that sticker that would make that boss easier, than too bad for you. You'll just have to keep failing until you realize it. I'm not saying that the bosses are impossible to beat without the right mega stickers, but that's clearly the way they're supposed to be beaten. Other than these little hiccups, I really enjoy the combat of this game.


And, of course, there's the other aspects like sound and visuals. Sticker Star is undoubtedly the best looking and sounding Paper Mario game. It's got a memorable, jazzy soundtrack, and takes the paper aesthetic to new levels with cardboard foliage and the like. I own several 3DS games that I like, but this is the first one that I loved.



THQ may be gone, but they could not have gone out on a better note. Darksiders 2 is everything a sequel should be. If you're expecting a repeat of the original, keep looking because Darksiders 2 is not that game. Of course, it's best to talk about it in comparison to its prequel to explain just why it's so much better.

1. The pacing: The first game had really weird pacing. It was structured like Zelda, but had some really odd ideas about how to implement gameplay mechanics. War's horse, for example, came so late in the game that you only actually used him in the section where you obtained him. I think after that, you ride to one more location and never use the horse again. In Darksiders 2, you literally begin the game riding Death's steed and he's integral to getting around the game world. The items in the first game were, like Zelda, used primarily in the dungeon where you found them. The later in the game you get them, the less you use them. This time around, you get almost every puzzle-solving device early on, so the rest of the game builds on the ideas from the beginning. Instead of being one-note, the items are used in increasingly complicated ways. It's much more enjoyable this way!


2. The combat: Darksiders 2 does not play like Darksiders. It's similar in that it's an action game, but that's where the similarities end. War was a hulking tank. His actions were slower and more methodical. Death is flipping around and rolling everywhere and summoning undead minions and casting magic spells. Curiously, he's more nimble but can't double jump or glide. And you'll be dodging instead of blocking, but that's okay with me because War's dodge was terrible. You also have a much larger assortment of weapons from scythes to hooks to giant hammers. There's still plenty of moves to unlock but they're even more complex now and each weapon style has its own.





3. The puzzles: Like I said above, the dungeons play out pretty differently in this game. Death has a lot more in the way of movement options which really freshens things up. You'll be leaping and free running a lot. I liked the dungeons in the original game, but I never liked the way they played. For whatever reason, I never got board of clearing dungeons in this game. There's more of them, and they're shorter, but they're far more interesting. I'd like to touch on the bosses in this section because they were always a sort of puzzle. In Darksiders, like Zelda, there was a right way to defeat the boss. You had to follow patterns. But I found that many of the bosses in the sequel could be defeated any way you please. There's a faster way, but no wrong way.


4. The RPG elements: The first Darksiders didn't really have these. You could collect souls to buy upgrades. You can still do that (although it's gold now, which makes no sense considering you play as Death) but Death also earns XP you can use to unlock skills. I'll admit, I don't use them much. I summon explosive minions and that's about it. Hell, I don't even usually remember I have a reaper form. But the option is there. Where these mechanics came into play for me was in the loot. Random loot drops are everywhere. You can change Death's outfit and weapons for different effects. There's even a "crafting" system where you can combine weapons together and chain effects.


5. The world: Darksiders took place on Earth. While I love what they did with it, and I thought the dungeon themes were great, Darksiders 2 takes it to another level. They really let the creativity juices flow this time because the game takes place in various otherworldly locations. Each fairly big, open location takes is unlocked in a certain order and can then be revisited for extra exploring. It's more like Amalur than Zelda. There's not a ton to do, but there are secrets to find and extra dungeons to discover along with sidequests. The characters are a lot more varied and interesting than in the first game, too, with Death himself being a standout. He's voiced by the excellent Michael Wincott, who you may know as the Prophet of Truth in Halo 2. The music, too, is a vast improvement. Jesper Kyd, of Assassin's Creed and Hitman fame, scored this game and gave it a completely distinctive and amazing sound. The music in Darksiders was generic action, from what I can remember, but you'll never hear music like this in another action game.




This one was a complete surprise. It was actually my pick for game of the show at PAX Prime 2011. There were about two people in like so I decided to try it. I had seen the E3 trailer previously and thought the game looked incredibly badass. I wasn't expecting it to play just like that. Now, full disclosure, I never played much of the first Darkness game. I tried it, but the segment was pretty short. The first game was made by Starbreeze, the guys who did The Chronicles of Riddick and last year's Syndicate reboot. I've never been a huge fan of their stuff, but I get why people like it. Starbreeze doesn't just make mindless action shooters. The Darkness 2, however, was not made by Starbreeze. It was made by Digital Extremes, who's track record ranges from average to terrible. They did the original Unreal games on PC as well as a few forgettable shooters for the original Xbox and Dark Sector. You can't imagine my surprise when these guys not only made a good game, but my favorite game of the year!

I didn't come in with any baggage having played the first game, so I couldn't be upset about things being changed. The whole voice cast, for example, was replaced. This game will spoil the original for you if you haven't played it. There was an important plot point that serves as the very foundation of this game, and they let you know it at every turn. My understanding is that this game was made into much more of a traditional shooter. Only, it's the best shooter I've played in years. Jackie is the host of The Darkness, so he's got all sorts of crazy super powers. The game is built around "quad wielding" your guns and crazy tentacle arms at the same time. You've got one that grabs and one that slashes. You can unlock new moves and abilities as you progress using points that you earn from kills. Did I mention you literally eat the hearts of your victims to regain health? That's not all the crazy stuff you can do. You can also tear guys in half, impale them with pipes, use a car door as a shield and then throw it as some guy and slice him in half. This game makes you feel like a complete badass. You even get a little demon minion that aids you, and you can even control him in some sequences. Basically, the game makes you feel like a complete badass. 




But that's only the half of it. It was the story that really got to me. Well acted and well written, the game's narrative was really something else. I've never played an FPS that was quite so emotional. You're not really even the good guy (or a good guy), and yet the game makes you relate to Jackie and his circumstances in a way I didn't expect. Jackie faces many inner demons and it leads to some interesting mind games with the player. It's not that the game has a twist, per se, but it does make you question what is real. The best part of this is that the game presents you with a few choices that let you basically pick what story you believe in. They're completely black and white, but the fact that you're not sure if this is happening or that is happening, but completely change everything. There's not good or bad, right or wrong, only preference. And that preference changes the ending and the entire meaning of the game. Now that's player choice.


I have a few issues with the game, though. You start out feeling extremely powerful, yet instead of getting stronger I felt weaker as the game went on because you face up against increasingly more powerful and plentiful enemies. One section with a buch of floodlight guys (light drains your powers) made me want to ragequit. The other thing is that there are a few boss fights in the game. Boss fights in first person shooters never work for me, and this game is no exception. Then again, I don't typically like boss fights of any kind.


Of all the games I played last year, The Darkness 2 sticks with me the most. It's fun, got a beautiful comic book style, and has some highest quality writing in games. Playing it is an experience I'll never forget. I also have to respect that the game wasn't artificially inflated with meaningless fluff for the sake of "value" in the form of extra game hours. The Darkness 2 is just as long as it needs to be, and it has a co-op mode you can play through when you finish the main game. Nowadays, the it can be had for $20 or less. That's a hell of a steal.




REPORT CARD
Last time, I predicted what the best games of 2012 would be. How did I do? Not so good...

Best Xbox Game Projected Winner: Halo 4
Best Xbox Game Actual Winner: The Witcher 2
It's hard to pick a "best Xbox game" when the Xbox barely has any exclusive games. As such, you've got to stretch the definition to include console exclusives (games also on PC). In this case, I think The Witcher 2 was probably the best. Halo 4 was nice, but didn't blow me away. Any other Xbox exclusives were downloadable, although that lineup was great.

Best 3DS Game Projected Winner: Kid Icarus Uprising
Best 3DS Game Actual Winner: Paper Mario Sticker Star
This one is closer than you think. What it ultimately comes down to is playability. Kid Icarus is not easy to play. Unless you have a stand and a flat surface, it's downright painful. Seeing as Paper Mario was my 3rd favorite game of the year, it seems like the obvious choice.

Best Wii Game Projected Winner: Xenoblade Chronicles
Best Wii Game Actual Winner: The Last Story
I want to like Xenoblade. I really do. But I'm terrible at it. I don't like the combat system at all and I can't even win a fight against some tropical birds. Plus, the game looks like butt. Graphics aren't normally a factor to me, but Xenoblade is one of the worst looking games I've ever seen in the year 2012.

Best XBLA Game Projected Winner: Fez
Best XBLA Game Actual Winner: Fez
Nailed it.

Best Wii U Game Projected Winner: Pikmin 3
Best Wii U Game Actual Winner: ZombiU
Pikmin 3 doesn't even come out until this August. I said of it last year, "Pikmin 3 will either be a launch title or it'll release shortly after launch. It's the only exclusive I know for sure that'll be coming to the system this year, so it's an obvious pick." How wrong I was. ZombieU, on the other hand, was a surprisingly good survival horror game that made great use of the gamepad. Now if only we could get some more games for this system.

Best Overall Projected Winners:
3. Kingdoms of Amalur Reckoning
2. Halo 4
1. Borderlands 2

I only did three games, but none of them were even in the top five. Blech. Amalur was pretty good, actually. It was my favorite game to look at by far with it's colorful and fantastical art style. I think I played it for about 40 hours before I realized it was kind of boring. I'm not even sure how the game managed to do that. I've been wanting to revisit it lately, though, since I've taken such a long break from it.

Halo 4 was good but not great. By far the best looking console game, graphically, with a great soundtrack and some great atmosphere. The gameplay, however, is showing its age. 343 had the opportunity to move the series forward, but they decided to play it safe instead. At least it's the most fun I've had online since Halo 3.

Borderlands 2. What to say? It's more Borderlands. Still a blast with friends, but, ultimately, more of the same. Maybe too much of the same.


2013 Projected Winners
This ought to be interesting. It's nearly five months into the year now and many games have already come out. I've got my picks for the front runners, but it'll be interesting to see if anything that comes out later can top my picks. In the end, it's all riding on Nintendo's word that their releases will come out as scheduled. This year, of course, will be full of surprises with a bunch of new consoles coming out. And we won't know anything about the new Xbox for another month.

Best Xbox 360 Game: Gears of War Judgement

I honestly can't think of another exclusive for this system coming out in 2013.

Best 3DS Game: A Link to the Past 2

This is probably going to be the hardest decision of the year. The 3DS faces its best year yet with games like Fire Emblem, Luigi's Mansion, Animal Crossing, Project X Zone, Mario & Luibi, and the possibility of even more like Yoshi's Island. Any one of those games could take the top spot, but from what I've seen of ALttP 2, it just might be the best of all.

Best Wii U Game: Super Mario

Assuming a new Super Mario game comes out this fall like Nintendo stated it would (it'll be playable at E3), then that will most definitely win. I can't say for sure what games are coming out and when because the Wii U is still somewhat of a mystery. My second pick would probably be Pikmin 3, in the event that Mario doesn't come out this year.

Best Downloadable Game: Shovel Knight

Having successfully completed its Kickstarter, Shovel Knight is set to release on computers and Nintendo platforms this September. It looks retro in all the right ways.

Best PS4 Game: Killzone Shadowfall

Just for the hell of it. I might not even have a PS4 to test this game out on, but I'm going to make a wild guess anyway.

TOP 5 OF THE YEAR:

5. Bioshock Infinite
4. Pikmin 3
3. A Link to the Past 2
2. Metal Gear Rising
1. Super Mario
As long as Mario comes out on the Wii U this year, I'm sure it'll be game of the year. If not, it'll be hard for anything to beat Metal Gear Rising. In any case, I see this as the year of Nintendo.

SLEEPER HITS OF THE YEAR:

Killer is Dead, Lost Planet 3, The Wonderful 101
These games are kind of off the radar, but I think they have the potential to be great.

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