The Best (and worst) of 2013 – Richard Plant
Hello again, screaming monkeys of the Internet.
I’ve been out of writing about games for a while, since someone told me that they were for children and that a thirty-year-old guy ranting about Pokémon was super not cool. It took me a few months of sawing wood and oiling-up car parts to build up enough testosterone in the bloodstream to turn on Steam again, just in time to empty the contents of my wallet down Gaben’s infinitely-gaping money-gullet.
As a result, I’ve been mostly playing games on PC this year. So we all know what that means:
Welcome to indie hipster blowhard special!
Games that I’ve loved
This year, it’s mostly been about discovering scary underpants feelings, sending folk to the gulag and making my fingers bleed.
This game actually made me cry. Not like a girl or anything, but a single manly speck of moisture did escape my clenched lids. So after running twelve miles in the snow and punching a grizzly bear for looking at me the wrong way, I sat down and had a think about why that might be.
You see, there’s really not a lot to Gone Home, which is a bit surprising given the pedigree of the Fullbright Company design team. You come home after a long time away to a house where there’s nobody home, and you just kind of go from there. Walk from room to room, click on stuff and read handwritten notes. There are not really any puzzles or challenges to overcome, nothing driving you forward other than your own hunger to experience the emotions that the unfolding story of what went on in your absence provokes.
And what an experience it is. You see, I’ve been feeling for a while that a lot of what games talk about is stuff that I’m not hugely interested in anymore. Gun kills alien, sure, but what about the post-traumatic stress that will blight the rest of the gunholder’s life? Gone Home trades on so many things that just pass a lot of mainstream genre gaming by: Riot Grrl nostalgia, the experience of being a teenager in the 90s, learning to face up to who you are even though who you are is scary and unsettling (and not in a JRPG teenage-farm-boy-saves-the-world way for once).
I want you all to play this game, so I’m not going to give away the plot, but suffice it to say that it uncovers a particularly beautiful little segment of the human condition in such a challenging and joyful way that it’s difficult to keep from laughter at the sheer exuberance of the masterful understanding on display.
Buy it, play it, be a better person.
Yes, I know it’s in beta. Yes, I know it’s trading card game. Yes, I know it’s basically a dumbed-down version of Magic: The Gathering. Shut the hell up.
Here’s why it’s not just good, but great.
First of all, the production values are just incredible. That might seem like damning with faint praise, but there’s just something about the card a card slams down on the table with a mighty thud like Thor’s own hammer Mjolnir that thrills me down to my little socks. That same level of dedication to technical perfection runs through the whole interface, and in a game where the interface is the game, that’s pretty important. Packs of cards open with a blast of magical sparkles and a wonderful warm light to fanfares that just fill you with excitement, and then you get to flip every one over individually – a masterful touch.
The game itself is a marvel of refinement. While the tradition MTG structure can rapidly become a little complex with different colours of mana and innumerable card effects, Blizzard have winnowed that down to a much more manageable level. Instead of different resources for particular types of card, each card costs a fixed amount of mana, that automatically builds up during a match. That means that each player has access to a roughly similar pool of cards, with particular heroes having a stash of class cards that guides the play styles open to them.
The limited card selection is also something of a strength – instead of being blindsided by a card you’ve never seen before, you’re instead taught something about how to employ a style of play that is also open for you to try out. A last minute triumph is (aside from a couple of overpowered legendaries that are crying out for balancing) usually due to skill, rather than access to a stash of uber power in your pocket. It’s possible to come out of the tutorial levels with a fully working deck that you can pit against players who’ve been around far longer.
Really, Blizzard have always been about evolution rather than revolution. WoW took well-established mechanics and goals and spun them in a way that millions of people could immediately grasp and become invested in. Hearthstone comes from the same stable, certainly, but it feels like a more personal game. Rather than throwing mountains of content at you to keep everyone satisfied, it’s about refining your personal take on a field of options, giving your own genius time to shine.
Oh, and there’s no chat, voice or text. Yay for censorship.
GAME OF THE YEAR – ROCKSMITH 2014
Remember when I said I was a terrible hipster? Yeah, well my game of 2013 is something that no one played!
But that’s okay. I know we’re all supposed to be over rhythm action games, there are landfill sites full of plastic guitars all over the nation that could tell you that. I’m just not ready to go.
Rocksmith is an incredible piece of software in many ways, a lot of them to do with games, which it most definitely is. It holds out the promise that Guitar Hero had at the very beginning, not just being a fun way to flick bits of plastic, but actually making you a better musician. And I can confirm that, in fact, it does that admirably.
The whole suite is a dense collection of linked games that will test and improve your shredding. There’s the Guitar Hero-esque notes falling down the screen that actually teaches you to play the songs, but that’s just one way to play. Sometimes what you need is to go over a section over and over again with every perfect repetition rewarded with a slight increase in difficulty until you’ve mastered it. Sometimes, you need to play through a whole song with the note track blanked out, hitting those bars from sheer memory. Sometimes you just want to wail for a while with a virtual session group backing you up.
All of those you can do, and they’re great. But every guitarist knows that without working on the fundamentals, all you’ll be doing is learning a couple of riffs, not really understanding your instrument. That’s where the Guitarcade comes in. It’s a list of minigames that each work on a particular set of technical skills, such as slides, scales or bends, and make it into a 8-bit arcade game. It’s a sexy idea, and one that has paid off in tighter chords and less bruised fingertips.
I could probably go on about this game all day, but you already know if you’re going to play it or not. To be honest, if you haven’t already bought it and loved it, I’m sort of wasting my breath. But I don’t care; I’ve had more fun with this game than almost anything else this year, and gained a new appreciation for Kurt Cobain’s mighty sting-bending fingers of steel. It’s a rock-and-roll Christmas miracle.
The game that pooped all over my dreams
I’m not going to waste too much of my breath on this scion of the pit, but suffice it to say I rejected any number of merely bad games. No, I reserve my seat in the express plane to hell for the game that was so close to being great that seeing it crash and burn hurts me deeply.
Fuck you, DICE.
I spent a lot of good time with BF3. I’ve got some great stories, like the time I was in a hide-and-seek tank battle with a tenacious bastard around the Grand Bazaar, which I won by hopping out of the burning wreckage of my vehicle just as it was about to explode and ramming an RPG up his gun turret. Or the time I ran from one end of Operation Metro to the other without firing a shot. Or the time I stabbed three guys with mortars one after another without them noticing.
I’d love to be able to tell you similar stories about BF4. It certainly looks great, with its sneakily designed open-ish map structure funneling battle into cunningly-designed kill corridors, along with some of the best dynamic events in any online game (I refuse to use the word Levelution, because I do have some lingering respect for the English language).
The problem is, I can’t play the damn thing. It’s so fundamentally borked that playing online is absolute torture, and not the fun kind. I can’t count the number of times that I’ll settle into playing a couple of rounds of Conquest, when I’ll be booted after five minutes of getting killed by invincible glitching super-soldiers.
And guess what? The progression system has been turned into micro-transaction heaven, with many of the attachments stuck inside treasure boxes.
Nope. Sorry, shootmans, I’ve got some self-respect. It may be a small, shivering vole-like creature, but it’s all I’ve got, and there’s no way I’m wasting it waiting for you to patch your product that I paid full price for into a vaguely playable shape.