Initially, I was pretty okay with Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst. I’d played the little beta they put out a month or so back and enjoyed myself somewhat, especially since the game does FEEL like Mirror’s Edge. The free running aspect of Catalyst is still, for the most part, just as satisfying as the original game ever was. Running, jumping, climbing and the sense of speed are all intact in a way that bamboozles you into believing you’re about to have a good time with the Mirror’s Edge sequel / reboot / whatever that you always wanted. But then the open world aspect slowly rears its ugly head in a way that even I didn’t expect.
You start off in a small piece of the full city and more finger quotes districts open up over time as you complete story and side missions. The map does pack itself to the brim with hideous little icons to check off of a list like the worst Ubisoft open world offenders but I didn’t take much issue with it in Catalyst because I figured since it was fun traversing the city, that just happening across these activities naturally would be better than specifically beelining my way to them from the other end of the map. Sadly, the world is only deceptively open. The rooftops may as well be really giant hallways for how many options you have to get from one place to the next and, because of this, you’ll find yourself running back and forth across the same rooftops utilizing the same moves over and over again. For instance, there’s this rooftop near the runners’ hideout that has two horizontal vents several yards apart which you will traverse repeatedly. One is relatively high so you’ll slide under it and the other is lower to the ground so you’ll likely mantle over it on your way to pick up another uninteresting story mission. By my count, I completed these exact motions in this exact spot roughly 15 times in the first 3 or 4 hours of play because you have to return to the hideout so frequently and you don’t unlock fast traveling until several main story missions in.
While I certainly didn’t do too much writing this year, I definitely still played a lot of games. Rather than organizing a half hearted Top Ten or Top Five list that doesn’t always accurately convey what made each game truly special, I’ll do some more specific categories.
Light spoilers ahead.
It may be my least favorite of the “Souls” franchise overall, but damn, it easily has the best art style of them all. From the gloomy stonework of the decidedly gothic streets of Central Yharnam to the maddeningly nonsensical cliffs, valleys, and lakes of the Nightmare Frontier, the environments of Bloodborne have the intense beauty of an extremely unnerving painting, but it’s even better in motion. Vicar Amelia’s flowing hair and serene glow as she tries to horrifically maim you inside of a dreamily lit church cathedral stands out in my mind as the moment in which I realized that Bloodborne’s visuals were something truly special. Too bad they had to absolutely murder the frame-rate to achieve such incredible visual design but whatever.
Favorite Multiplayer Game
Picking an MMO as my favorite multiplayer game is a huge step towards me finally admitting that maybe I’m not as sick of them as I once thought. After the incredible experiences that were Star Wars Galaxies and Burning Crusade era WOW, I became pretty fed up with the fact that MMOs never seem to truly progress as a genre. But, dammit, I started playing Final Fantasy XIV earlier this year and didn’t stop until I had cleared most of the content up thru Heavensward… Almost 200 hours later. The formula mostly remains the same as always; quest, grind, loot, and dungeon runs until you’re ready for the big leagues of raiding. But FFXIV has awesome aesthetics, a surprisingly engaging plot to follow, and a number of quality of life player conveniences that make it feel fresh enough to keep even the most jaded MMO hater enthralled.
Plus, most of the dungeons are really fucking good.
This was a tough decision for me considering that MGSV and Bloodborne both came out this year and have absolutely incredible soundtracks.
Undertale is nothing if not interesting and this particularly shows in the game’s eclectic mix of tunes. From melancholic, folky guitar riffs to silly and upbeat chip tune tracks, Undertale’s music is both extremely varied and highly affecting. I can call to mind each in game moment when I hear its accompanying song. I can’t think of a game from 2015 whose identity is so intrinsically tied to its music.
Game I Played The Least Before Deciding I didn’t Like It
Sticky driving, tired hand to hand combat, innumerable open world game design tropes and some developer’s Dad doing a horrible Max impression all caused my patience with this one to run out in about two hours. It’s too bad because the visuals are stunning and there is likely some good buried deep within this game, you just have to do far too much scavenging to find it.
Most Disappointing Game
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
I was saving this category for Fallout 4’s stark mediocrity but, honestly, I can’t seem to get over the depressingly empty feeling that the “conclusion” of Metal Gear Solid V left me with. Perhaps that was the whole point of it, and if so, congrats to them for fucking up my entire life. I mean, the fact that the story meandered around awkwardly for forty hours before just deciding to wrap up with a twist that most of us saw coming from the first big trailer is pretty upsetting to me. Venom Snake barely saying a fucking word and a distinct lack of stupidly long cutscenes were just the icing on the cake.
Oh well, at least it was fun to play I guess.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
The Witcher 3 likely makes my top ten games of all time list. The combat is vastly improved from The Witcher 2 which immediately fixes my biggest problem with that game. Throw in an exceptionally designed world that, in all its beauty and horror, actually feels like a real place despite the inclusion of mysticism, and some of the best character writing in the past few years of gaming, and what you have is an open world RPG that feels truly special. Many of the side missions in The Witcher 3 could be the main storyline in a number of lesser RPGs. Not once in my 100 hour playthrough did I feel like I just wanted the game to be over.
Throughout my nearly 100 hour playthrough of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, I couldn’t help but constantly recognize ways in which the game continued to make the story of the main quest feel compelling. A surefire way to break the immersion, sure, but it felt like something truly worthy of recognition. After all, often my least favorite parts of open world RPGs are the main story, yet The Witcher 3 manages to make its main questline feel important and consistently interesting despite the dozens of hours of other content also vying for the attention of the player. This is, of course, a natural extension of the game being all around really damned good, but there’s definitely more to it than this.
It certainly helps that the main objective at any point in the game can be boiled down to a single line without feeling meaningless. It starts off as “Find Yennefer.” It’s pretty clear from the game’s opening moments that Yennefer is a person of great importance to Geralt and that their relationship extends beyond one of mere intimacy, especially since his dream initially depicts a fairly simple and relatively mundane version of their lives together. A lazy and beautiful morning at Kaer Morhen with some of the people Geralt cares for most. Geralt the character clearly feels compelled to find Yennefer but why would the player controlling Geralt feel the same?
The dream continues on to depict his relationship with Ciri, a young girl who takes the role of his protégé but perhaps somewhat of a daughter figure as well considering their apparent closeness. Everything then goes quickly into nightmare territory with Kaer Morhen coming under siege by a force of overwhelming power and Ciri being attacked directly.
While those with knowledge of the past games, or perhaps even the books, will recognize all of the shit that Geralt and Yennefer have actually gone through together, these details are unnecessary thanks to the game’s presentation of the dream and Geralt’s brief discussion with Vesemir afterwards, should the player choose to let Geralt open up about it. Geralt even states that he dreamt of he and Yen together at Kaer Morhen despite the fact that she had never even actually been there, making the beginning clearly idealized. In this conversation it also becomes readily apparent that Geralt is worried by the dream although fails to go into much detail about why. One thing is certain though. It seems as though Yennefer is in danger and that danger may extend to Ciri as well.
I haven’t done one of these in a bit. Here are some games I’ve been playing.
(Image courtesy of Codemasters)
Dirt Rally (Early Access)
I caught myself getting pretty excited when Codemasters decided to stealth drop Dirt Rally into Early Access on Steam a few weeks ago. I’m a pretty big fan of the Dirt series even though Dirt 3 and Showdown, the two most recent entries prior to Rally, missed the mark by a pretty wide margin. Thankfully, Dirt Rally represents an extremely strong return to form for the series, even in the feature limited Early Access version that is currently available.
Perhaps return to form is a bit inaccurate. Dirt Rally is, by all accounts, the most sim-like of all of the games in the Dirt series, so its more like a return to Codemasters’ earlier Colin McRae titles. Dirt Rally, with the default level of assists and AI set to the easiest difficulty, proves to be a decently challenging experience for several hours of play. The handling model in the game is generally more realistic than past titles and will require some getting used to. Not to mention the fact that the tracks are often more hazardous than ever with roadside debris, hairpin turns and slick surfaces all looking to fuck you over. Dirt Rally required a decent amount of studying before I ever felt like I was even a little in control of my vehicle.
Jeff mentioned in the last two Bombcasts that he felt like Bloodborne was much easier than he’d anticipated. In the discussion that followed, the bombcast crew briefly touched on the idea that perhaps this was because the Souls series’ reputation for being completely impenetrable was inaccurate to some degree. This definitely has a lot to do with it. Thanks to a combination of overbearing Bandai/Namco ads talking about how “OMG UR DEF GONNA DIE BCAUSE ITS SO HARD” and many mainstream gaming journalists consistently falling in line with this marketing ploy to some degree, what you have is a series that is unfairly passed over by many people because they just think that they wouldn’t be able to handle it.
The truth is that Souls games just value observation and patience over any form of raw skill, mechanical comprehension, or character build quality. Obviously having any or all of these things can make your time with a Souls game even easier but someone with the ability to patiently observe and calmly react to situations could make their way through the game without ever having to understand any of the admittedly sometimes overwhelming systems that are at play in these titles. And I think this is where the disconnect is for many people. Few other games ask players to be so consistently careful and even fewer games punish players as harshly for their carelessness.
This is where some of the changes in Bloodborne come into play and why the newest FromSoft title is the easiest in many ways.
From has, pretty smartly, made the initial playthrough of the game a bit easier when compared to past titles, but left the difficulty there for those that want it, locked away in chalice dungeons and NG+.
The biggest change has to be the health regain system that allows players to partially regain their health by striking an enemy after being damaged. This effectively lessens the punishment of player mistakes and somewhat encourages sloppier play. This, in turn, ensures that fewer blood vials will be used which, considering that players can now have 20+ healing items on them at any time, makes it quite easy to not have to use too many vials prior to reaching the boss. Being forced to use some of your valuable healing items on the run to the boss was a major point of difficulty in the past.
Healing is also now extremely fast, occurring in roughly a single second. Compared to the absurdly slow animation for drinking an estus flask in Dark Souls, this makes healing while in immediate danger actually feasible. Not to mention that the new dash makes backpedaling your way out of a fucked situation that much quicker, after which you can just quickly pop off 2 of your 20 blood vials. Combine all of this with the new ranged parries that are just as easy to pull off as shield bash parries in Demon’s or Dark Souls, except you can stand outside of melee range to do them. Or stand in melee range, potentially take a hit, and still regain your health off of a parry.
From aren’t stupid, though. They’ve been pretty aware of what aspects of the Souls series their fans love and these changes are, of course, intentional. They even took steps to balance them out. Armor now does little to protect you from physical damage meaning large enemies hit you harder than ever. They’ve added more random flailing to bosses which ensures that their movesets can’t be memorized as easily. NPC hunters can really take you out to pasture, too. Not to mention that the final (human) boss is one of the most challenging and enjoyable fights of its kind that the series has ever seen.
Bloodborne is certainly still quite a challenging game at times and has all of that Miyazaki “charm” in shiny new wrappings. It’s a great game and will easily be in my top ten at the end of the year, but it is far less punishing and much more accessible than what series veterans may have become used to.
The difficulty of Souls games is DEFINITELY oversold by many but, make no mistake, Bloodborne is definitely the easiest one of the bunch.
Dying Light – Developed by Techland and Published by Warner Bros.
Purchased on Steam and reviewed on PC
Dying Light feels like a much more complete version of the ideas that Techland posited back in 2011 with the extremely flawed Dead Island. The latter felt like a budget title the instant that you booted it up which, while giving it a decent amount of charm, wound up being the killing blow for Dead Island in my eyes. The myriad of technical issues, cringe inducing story moments and questionable gameplay decisions sapped the enjoyment from the title regardless of its decently creative and fun gameplay systems. Dying Light, on the other hand, at least gives off the initial impression that it is trying to appear to be a AAA title, complete with snazzy little intro cutscene and a tonal shift towards the more serious end of the spectrum. However, it quickly shows its true hand when the plot absurdities and horrible voice acting reveal the camp beneath it all.
This is decidedly for the best. My patience for overly dramatic and self serious zombie related media have run dry long ago and a sillier approach is always welcomed. This is not to say that Dying Light doesn’t have its somber moments, but there is definitely more of a b-grade horror movie tone present throughout that lends well to the main character’s constant “Oh, fuck this” attitude. The protagonist is far from silent, often chiming in with thoughts that mirror the player’s own, and shit very rarely goes his way. And, in the end, this means Dying Light’s tale is considerably more human than many experienced in modern games. Don’t get me wrong, the plot is still pretty much terrible, complete with supposed twists and major character deaths that pack no meaningful punch, but by the end I had really come to sympathize with the plight of whatever the main character’s name is.
Dying Light takes the already enjoyable basic gameplay concepts from Dead Island and tweaks them to fit with the new parkour elements which are now a primary focus. Gone is the analogue melee combat which made accurate weapon swinging possible by giving the player full directional control but, honestly, I didn’t miss it as much as I thought I would. In its place exists a system to make melee combat feel much quicker which falls in line with the idea that the player should constantly be on the move. Dying Light feels more like you’re taking potshots at zombies as you sprint by whereas Dead Island felt more like an actual straight up fight. The parkour takes a lot from Mirror’s Edge (including the smart notion of making a shoulder button the jump button), feels great and is surprisingly satisfying thanks to a smartly crafted world to traverse. I just wish there had been a little more variety, as roughly 75% of your total play time is spent in one of two environments. That said, the parkour is easily the most successful part of the game as it ensures getting from point A to point B is always an immensely enjoyable experience, which is great because you’ll be doing a lot of that. Not to mention that Dying Light pretty much lacks any form of fast travel for a majority of the game.
I know about as much about iOS gaming as I do about the current state of affairs in Lithuania but I definitely know when I like something, and I really like Space Marshals. It’s a gorgeously rendered top down iOS shooter with a particular focus on using stealth to engage enemies tactically and some beautifully realized touch controls that make the whole affair pretty painless to get into. It’s satisfying, and damned fun to boot, but it’s held back by some poor encounter design and the occasional overpowered enemy.
Space Marshals actually reminds me quite a bit of 2014’s Counterspy, both in good ways and bad. Counterspy was, of course, pretty strictly 2D whereas Space Marshals is more isometric, but the minute to minute gameplay isn’t all that different. Simply running headlong into a room full of enemies will only serve to get you straight iced in Space Marshals due to the fact that you are frequently both heavily outnumbered and outgunned. This leads to the utilization of stealth elements in order to tactically position yourself in the environment to give yourself an upper hand in combat. This is the modern equivalent of stealth gameplay boiled down to its simplest elements. Sneak around killing dudes just out of earshot or sight of other dudes and continue doing so until you’re spotted, then just start mowing guys down until things return to status quo. Rinse and repeat.
Alien: Isolation asks quite a lot from the player. It asks that you consistently pay attention to your surroundings, that you strongly consider every single move, and that you be aware of the Alien’s location at any given moment. It asks that you remember things; passcodes to doors, the minute details of a floor’s layout, and even potential hiding places should things go south for you. It even asks that you look past your own anxiety and stress in order to move forward, one step at a time while under extreme and constant duress from all manner of forces more powerful than you. All of this takes a toll that is both emotional and mental, and, over time, this tension drastically alters the way you perceive the game itself as well as the challenges that it places in front of you. But perhaps the thing Alien: Isolation requires most from the player is something that is often in short supply: Patience.
There is a lot of waiting in Alien: Isolation. In the very beginning this is a good thing. Your brain is on full alert and you can feel your insides twisting at the mere prospect of that first sighting of your hulking Xenomorph nemesis. You know it’s coming. As a fan of Ridley Scott’s original film, those inevitable first deaths at the hands of the Alien are as tantalizing as they are dreadful. Smartly, the game holds back for roughly two hours of walking, exploration, and exposition about just what the hell is going on in Sevastopol station. The tension is sky high by the time you first glimpse the Alien in a clumsy, pre-rendered reference to the film that is really only missing a cat. This tosses away a lot of the good will that the game has been building so carefully but is certainly not even close to a killing blow. Soon enough you’re attempting to avoid a group of trigger happy humans, as well as the Alien, without even the motion tracker to assist you, in order to escape to another floor via an elevator.
This early sequence represents the game at its best. A clearly defined objective and some obstacles to be avoided with careful observation and a tiny bit of self assured forward progress. I slowly crept toward the objective in question, a door that needed to be hacked, with my heart pounding in my ears almost as loudly as the Alien scurrying in the vents above and the horns from the soundtrack blaring in my headphones. The Xenomorph clambered down from the vent in front of me with that shuddering vocal noise so strange that I couldn’t even begin to classify it. My first actual, unscripted Alien sighting. It was as awe inspiring as it was horrifying, easily making up for the earlier scripted missteps. All nine feet of it truly dwarfs the player character’s huddled form, startling me into an inability to move. Thankfully, it hadn’t yet spotted me so I began my painfully slow crawl back the way I came from, and huddled behind some cover where I waited for my situation to improve. I didn’t mind waiting because it was partially instinctual and, in my mind, it served a purpose: survival.
I’m officially referring to Sunset Overdrive as my “Pleasant surprise of the year” because, man, I really didn’t expect to like it at all. Insomniac’s favor with me fell off pretty drastically during what I considered to be a run of pretty mediocre PS3 exclusive FPSes, uninspired Ratchet and Clank sequels, and then whatever the fuck Fuse was. This heartbreak and subsequent loss of faith in Insomniac’s ability to consistently put out quality, fun, and charming products really made me skeptical of Sunset Overdrive even if its concept had a lot of potential. Then came the abysmally unfunny ad campaigns which tried way too hard to get across that silly, anti-authoritative punk tone. The odds were pretty heavily stacked against Sunset Overdrive for me but, almost as if to simply prove me wrong, I think Sunset Overdrive is some of the most fun I’ve had playing a video game this year.
The premise is simple but with an interesting stylistic twist. What if the apocalypse was brought about by an energy drink that causes violent mutations in human beings and the corporation responsible for the drink would go to any lengths to contain and cover up the incident? The result, according to Sunset Overdrive, is the “awesomepocalypse”. A version of the apocalypse in which silliness and fun often trump whatever horrid acts occur during the collapse of society. The story, while always entertaining, really doesn’t have too much to it aside from the stock standard reluctant rise to heroism that your character pursues. The game has cliches in spades but it comes across as definitely purposeful thanks to the game’s overt self awareness. So, there really isn’t much of a plot to speak of but at least there are some relatively charming characters along the way.
The writing is decent enough but is mostly held back by some pretty forced hit or miss humor early on in the game which feels much more natural after several hours. It’s like they stopped trying to be funny and just started being funny, which works very well in the game’s favor and does an excellent job of upholding the lighthearted tone. And I really think that it’s that tone, which permeates everything in Sunset Overdrive from the art style to the music, that helps prevent the game from becoming stale across the numerous hours it takes to complete. But it’s the gameplay that truly sets it apart from the rest of the AAA titles as of late.
Do note that this review is only of the campaign and does not take into account any of the multiplayer features.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is at least better than the low point found in last year’s entry, Ghosts, but more importantly, it manages to actually recapture a little bit of what made Call of Duty such an enjoyable series in the early years. That is to say Advanced Warfare is strange because while it certainly attempts to push the franchise into the future through both the setting and, subsequently, the mechanics, it also feels more stuck in the past than ever.
Advanced Warfare is extremely faithful to the established Call of Duty formula, however, exactly which version of that formula may be the most surprising part. It feels most at home when compared to Modern Warfare 2’s flavor of action movie insanity, especially when you consider the sense of scale both of these games have. The release of Black Ops in 2010 signaled a full on departure from the large scale warfare prominent in previous entries and started to focus more on smaller, more intimate and secretive conflicts. More spy movie shit, if you will. Modern Warfare 2 had its fair share of spy movie shit as well, but much of it was in the background of a much larger conflict, and the player often participated in both types of missions.
Similarly, Advanced Warfare consistently switches between small and large scale battles throughout its campaign, ensuring that the pacing shifts enough that things never really feel stale. This return to the feel of older Call of Duty games is welcomed initially but it might be too little too late because, regardless of how good the game is, it’s still Call of Duty. The sense of excitement and wonder that used to permeate the release of a new Call of Duty is noticeably absent, as it has been for years, and really only serves to hinder Advanced Warfare in the long run. I definitely enjoyed myself while playing the game, but I also couldn’t help but feel like Advanced Warfare’s attempts to recoup the status quo that was lost in the last few games only made its formulaic mechanics outshine any potential amazement from the new stuff.