Highlights and Massive Shites: 2012 in Gaming (The Bad)

Because when I said, ‘tomorrow’ I obviously meant Monday. Anyway, here’s the second half of my ‘games what I’ve played this year’ list. I should point out before we get started that I could honestly only come up with three games that I had enough of a problem with to put on this list. Oh, I’d also like to apologise in advance for some heavily TL;DR content up in here.

Anyway, as I was saying, the games here aren’t necessarily bad, they just let me down for particular reasons, but you might still enjoy them. Hell, I hope you do.

Except for Kingdoms of Amalur, because fuck that game.

Darksiders II

CoverA lot of people complained about the original Darksiders being a terrifying patchwork doll of other games, a pill that became particularly difficult for apologists to swallow after War collects the literal, how-did-they-not-get-sued-for-this Portal gun towards the end of the game. My counter-argument to this was that, while it was a bold-faced rip-off of any number of franchises, judged by the sum of its parts it was a very, very fun adventure game with an appealing, albeit testosteraged, protagonist.

For the most part, Darksiders II goes a long way to distance itself from its predecessor. To start with, that game copies Prince of Persia 2008’s parkour engine, wholecloth, including some of the character animations, so far as I can tell. This may upset some people –PoP 2008, for many, ranking somewhere between Prince of Persia 3D and being an actual Persian prince, moments before the Spartan army rolled into town*– but I thought it was a great game, and the mechanics slot into Darksiders II perfectly, given that Death is a lot swifter than War (there’s a metaphor in there, somewhere.)

As well as that, Darksiders II introduces several RPG elements, including skill trees, levelling up and a loot system, the latter being extremely broken because possessed weapons can be levelled up with incredibly powerful perks; meaning you’ll often find yourself using a laughably weak weapon because it gives you a hundred defense points and regenerates health. It doesn’t hamper the game, but it doesn’t add anything to the experience either: playing on normal difficulty I made it through most of the game relying on the first two skills I unlocked and downing the hundreds of health potions the game chucks at you.

The real problems start to arise as the game slides into it’s second act, following an exhilarating if somewhat obtuse fight with a colossus, (because apparently we can’t get enough of those fuckers, in adventure games). After arriving in the Kingdom of the Dead, we’re told we have to go see the King of the Dead, but he won’t speak to us until we find three stones to defeat a boss. Then he won’t help us until we recover his three generals. Then one of his three generals won’t help us until we bring him three souls to judge. Do you see a pattern emerging, here?

For all its faults, the original Darksiders was tight and focused: you knew exactly what you were doing and why. In stark contrast, there were several times in Darksiders II where I was fighting my way through a dungeon and I had absolutely no idea why I was there. This isn’t helped by the fact that many of the quests you are sent on abruptly end with absolutely no payoff. No new abilities, no special items, just a quick cutscene before your booted back to the hubworld, having achieved nothing but a list of new locations to visit for no reason whatsoever.

If I can return to the number three thing: it’s absolutely ridiculous. I know fetch quests are standard fare in games like Darksiders II, but normally the story will try and come up with a compelling reason to do things or at least vary your objectives: in Darksiders II you are always gathering three of something. Always. The most frustrating thing about it is that, nine times out of ten, the items you spend all your time gathering will inevitably turn out to not exist, to not work as they are intended or to be used against you.

It’s almost like Darksiders II is attempting to satirise the genre, but that’s the tricky thing about satire, especially in video games: it’s difficult to get the tropes just so ridiculous that they’re funny, (see: Matt Hazard,) and not so much that you feel like your wasting your time in a hobby almost exclusively devoted to that.

Plotwise, the game is all over the place, specifically when you fight Samael, who it is repeatedly made clear is the most powerful being in existence, yet you smash his pan in in a few minutes. It feels like the writers had came up with a good story but the developers had no clue how to integrate it into the game and make it cohesive; this is painfully apparent when the end of the game is reduced to a two-minute boss fight against the allegedly omnipotent being that has brought four separate worlds to their knees, followed by a brief cutscene that does nothing to explain Death’s plan, and then the epilogue from the first Darksiders again.

In short, Darksiders II is a really fun game to play, but the lack of direction and the fact that the plot shifts into a freefall for the latter half of the game kills the atmosphere and makes slogging through another dungeon feel much less appealing. It’s essentially a sandbox filled with nothing but sand.

*I accept no responsibility for any historical inaccuracies present in that joke.

Sleeping Dogs

I’ll keep this one short, as a bit of a palette cleanser sandwiched between these two gigantic_-Sleeping-Dogs-PS3-_ meltdowns. Sleeping Dogs is absolutely fantastic, but the reason it makes the worst rather than the best list is because almost everything I enjoyed about the game can be followed up with, ‘but…’

The story is engrossing and keeps you gripped, but it’s incredibly short by the standards of similar sandbox games. I suspect this was the result of editing rather than lack of ideas –probably to maintain the SquareEnix graphics standard– because characters pop in and out of the story without introduction or explanation, and it was the last mission before I even realised who the bad guys were supposed to be, because I’d already had two or three nemesis’s who had conveniently dropped out of the plot several missions ago.

The mini-games are fun and varied, but there’s only a handful of each and you will finish them fairly early on. I will give the game credit for coming up with a hacking mini-game that wasn’t an utter fucking chore to do, which is handy because you will be doing a lot of hacking, and they integrate really well into the story missions, but others highlight some of the games glaring technical flaws. In particular, the racing missions rapidly become an exercise in frustration when your will occasionally hit a kerb –as part of the race to go through paved areas– and this will cause your car to either stop dead or flip thirty times in the air.

The hand-to-hand combat is fluid and satisfying, but doesn’t handle as well as Arkham City; the gunplay is exciting but the fact you can quite easily stay in bullet-time for a whole fight drops the difficulty to zero; the vehicle sections are fast-paced and the nudge mechanic makes running enemies off the road a lot more effective, but I don’t know if the AI is really erratic or if civilians in China have a really strong social conscience, because they will drive over three lanes of traffic just to crash into you in the middle of a chase.

Overall, Sleeping Dogs is a good game, but falls short of being a great game in almost every respect. Also, by sandbox standards, it is really short. Even going for a hundred percent run, I finished the game in about twenty hours which, when you consider how shit I am at video games and that it took me the same amount of time just to get through Saint’s Row the Third’s campaign, isn’t great value for money.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

Kingdoms-of-Amalur-Reckoning-online-passI genuinely bought into the idea that this games failure, and subsequent bankruptcy of its developer, was down to it being dwarfed by the success of Skyrim. After playing the game to completion, I suspect that particular little rumour was perpetrated by the developer, themselves, to disguise the fact their game was an astounding festival of mediocrity.

I first got interested in KoA after playing the demo and experiencing a more robust version of Fable. After completing the game the only nice thing I have to say about it is that it made me look back on my time spent in Fable III –which I still have on record as the worst game I’ve ever played– and think, ‘at least it had Stephen Fry.’

The problem I have with Amalur is that it seems to want to fill a gap between the Fable franchise and the Elder Scrolls series that I’m not sure actually exists: catering to a market of people who want customisation, but don’t want it to be useful; who want a huge arsenal of weapons, but also an extremely broken and sticky combat system; who want an epic story, but don’t want to be a part of it, (in the majority of pivotal scenes, the day is saved by an ally’s sacrifice, rather than yours.)

As I said about Borderlands 2, how much you enjoy being bombarded by quests depends on how much you enjoy the world you are in. I loved how in Borderlands 2, I could explore huge areas, checking off quests as I go, and taking in the unique and different scenery and enemies. In Kingdoms of Amalur, every dungeon is exactly the same. I mean exactly. If you ever played the PS2 game Dark Chronicle, you may remember their touted dungeon creation system, which randomly generated each area every time you returned. Kingdoms of Amalur does something similar, except that they’ve just copy-pasted the same dungeons fifty-odd times and hoped you won’t notice.

I appreciate that when you’re making a game as big as Amalur you can’t realistically expect the hundreds of areas you explore to all be completely unique, but you have to reach a compromise. I wasn’t a huge fan of Skyrim, I felt that the longer I played the more repetitive it got, but I appreciated the way that, even when the textures were re-used, every dungeon had its own story. In particular, I remember finding a lighthouse at the northern-most point of the map where I discovered several corpses, carrying the pages of a diary revealing bits and pieces of what had went on. I never found the quest attached to that incident, (assuming there even was one,) but it really stuck with me because, in the absence of the games story, I was forced to create my own series of events. It was a true piece of immersion and, for all the problems I have with Skyrim, it is one thing that will stay with me for a long time.

In Amalur, every dungeon is full of the exact same enemies who will attack you in the exact same fashion until you get to the end of the dungeon and pick up what, or whoever, you were sent there to fetch or kill and then you will leave and never ever come back. There is no story behind the dungeon, (it’s either a series of leafy tunnels or an abandoned castle,) and there is absolutely no other reason to go to these places. They exist only for single quests that do nothing to tell you about the world you inhabit; to give you experience points and waste another half hour of your time. And that is the whole game.

The only nice thing I have to say about KoA is that the forest you start in looks absolutely fantastic and does a great job of immersing you in the world. The problem is you’ll never see any of the scenery because the worlds are huge but largely unpopulated so there’s no reason –when on one of the innumerable needlessly complicated fetch quests– to travel by foot rather than with the quick travel function, which drops warp points on your map like rain irrigating a fucking field.

At its heart, Kingdoms of Amalur is a bog-standard RPG, the kind that get shat out regularly be shovelware companies with names like ‘Dungeon Fighter’ and ‘Dragon Swords’, to be bought by well-meaning grandparents who confuse them for something anyone would ever want to play. The only reason this game got any kind of attention is because of the developer’s very public demise and, maybe, because the project was attached to Todd MacFarlane, which in retrospect should have told me everything I needed to know about this bag of balls.

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