Highlights and Massive Shites: Gaming in 2013 (The Good)

I think we’re well past the point of fashionably late, but since my hard drive decided to die on its arse just before Christmas I’ve been slightly delayed in putting out all of the stuff I had planned.

Anyhoo, I don’t think I need much more of a pre-amble for this: here are the four games I enjoyed most last year. The four worst will be dropping in tomorrow, or whenever I can bring myself to write about Dead Space 3 again without having a rage blackout.

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance
metal-gear-rising-revengeance-screenshots-oxcgn-10First of all, let me just get this out of the way: a lot of people in the ‘games are art’ crowd get raging hard-ons for good artistic direction and aesthetic design. Me? I go wild for a good soundtrack, and MGR has one of the most appropriately awesome soundtracks in recent memory. Actually, just in memory, since almost every other game I have played this generation didn’t possess a single memorable tune, (with the exception of that one song from The Darkness II).

Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s do the review, proper.

There are a lot of people who extol the virtues of a game that doesn’t babysit or handhold, and having spent the last five or six years being forced to prove I know how to look up and down in every other fucking console shooter I play, I can certainly see the merit in this argument. That being said, MGR goes a long way toward showing why proper tutorials can be so crucial in a game where a well-timed parry can be the difference between ripping a room full of soldiers to nothing and getting half your health bar lopped off by a giant gorilla robot.

When the game was first released I was initially put off after hearing a number of people talk about how broken the combat system was. In actual fact, the combat system, while perhaps not refined to the same level as Bayonetta or Devil May Cry 4, is extremely satisfying and the Blade Mode gimmick, which allows Raiden to fine-tune each of his sword swings or just go absolutely mental while the enemy is suspended in mid-air, never loses its satisfaction while also making for a lot of tactical diversity.

The big problem with MGR is that the games parry system is never properly explained, despite pretty much being the core of the fighting system that everything else hinges upon. If you can’t get to grips with the parry system, then you will be lucky to make it past the first few levels, and it will actually make progression impossible at certain points in the game. Why, then, Platinum decided to only explain parrying with one poorly diagrammed tutorial is utterly beyond me, but the odd design choices don’t end there.

Throughout the game you are able to upgrade Raiden’s stats as well as buy him new combat moves, but all of their descriptions range from incredibly vague to just a little obtuse (the quickstep move is called Offensive Dodge, for example). This issue is further hampered by the fact that the move description in the upgrade screen doesn’t include the buttons to execute the move; they are instead found in the moves list which is perplexingly hidden in the help menu, rather than being placed on the pause screen as one might expect.

I realise I’ve just spent several paragraphs trashing this game, but it’s in my top four for a reason, and that’s because the game itself is absolutely solid and a ridiculous amount of fun to play –even if the camera does occasionally blindside you, leaving you exposed to more robot gorilla beatdowns– it just does absolutely nothing to educate the player or let them in on what actually makes the game fun.

I played through the entire game without using a single one of the moves I had purchased because I assumed they just got added into Raiden’s admittedly impressive constant attack loops. It was only after watching videos on Youtube and reading up on the subject, that I realised how much more fun I could have been having.

My advice, if you are interested in getting into MGR or perhaps re-visiting it, would be to watch Chip Cheezum’s thoroughly excellent Let’s Play of the game first or, if you’d rather save the campaign content for yourself, check out the handy combat primer he made to explain all the mechanics the game doesn’t bother to.

Final Verdict: MGR is a game that thoroughly deserves more praise and recognition, it just harpoons its own chances by being about as penetrable as a marble statue of a nun.

Saints Row IV
Saints-Row-IVI was in two minds over whether or not this should be in the best or worst games of 2013, not because it’s not a good game –it’s a brilliant game– but because, while I sympathise with the fact that Volition’s slapdash approach to design is most likely attributed to it’s original publisher THQ going under and their acquisition by Deep Silver, Saints Row IV rehashes a lot of things from previous titles in the series; including a world map we’ve already seen before.

The benefit to this, though, is that it presumably gave Volition the chance to put more time into the new features, even if they are just baudily nicked from other games like Crackdown or Prototype. As I’ve said before, in regards to Darksiders, though, how harshly you should be judged for blatantly ripping off other games is dependent entirely on what you do with those ideas.

In that respect, Saints Row IV blows every other game right out the fucking water.

Everything that has been borrowed from other games is only implemented better here –which I would argue is a testament to how talented the Volition team truly are– so it feels less like shameless copycatting and more like Slash taking the guitar off that dick at the party who won’t stop playing Wonderwall over and over and then busting out the November Rain solo on top of your dining room table.

What I’m saying is Saints Row IV plays like a masterclass in how to make your gimmicks fun rather than just gimmicks.

Also present is the series’ trademark irreverent humour –my personal favourite in-joke being the ability to select Nolan North as a voice option. I don’t mean he was one of the actors that supplied Voice 1, 2 or 3; I mean the option is literally called ‘Nolan North’– and even though some of the jokes are worn a bit thin at this point and come across as trying too hard, (like once again using cheesy 80’s power ballads during pivotal moments in the story,) it’s all done with such a deliberate sense of piss-taking that, at it’s worst, it only ever feels like one of the slightly less good Naked Gun sequels, and never strays into god-awful Scary Movie territory.

The new ridiculous plot of a game within a game also gave the developers a lot of lee-way to expand on the slightly more fantastical elements we saw in Saints Row the Third, like the virtual reality cyber-demon battles, so this time around there are Tron-style bike races and giant mech destruction challenges alongside the more traditional mayhem challenges that are also improved upon by the addition of guns that create black holes and the ability to smash the ground and send out tremors to blow everything up.

My only real complaints about the game, from a design point of view, will only become evident if you’re planning to get 100% –like the challenges that require you to drive cars a certain distance in a game where you never use cars because you can jump a hundred feet in the air and fly– but, to be honest, if you actually want to fully complete the game then that kind of suggests you’re already sold on the experience, and there is plenty to distract yourself with while you put off going back to finish that one particularly annoying activity.

Also, Protip: Reducing the games difficulty markedly increases the time limits on all activities, which you may find helpful after you fail that final fucking jumping puzzle for the thirtieth time.

Final Verdict: If you’re new to the series, then Saints Row IV is a perfect diving board, acting both as a culmination of the over-arching plot but also a retrospective for the previous three games, and if you’ve been following the series from the beginning there is definitely enough new stuff crammed in to warrant a playthrough, but I would argue that it’s perhaps not worth the full £40 RRP when half the content is stuff you’ve already done before.

Rogue Legacy
RogueLegacyLast year marked my inaugaration into the world of Steam and PC gaming in general, since prior to that I was working with a laptop that literally struggled to run Flash. I arrived just in time for the famous Steam Christmas Sale and, over the course of a month, I picked up enough games to mean that I’ll probably not need to buy anymore until the Steam Summer Sale rolls around; maybe even until 2015.

The game I’ve spent the most time with, currently, is Rogue Legacy, a roguelike action-platformer made unique by the fact that, every time you die, you re-roll your starting character and pick from one of three ‘heirs’, all of whom possess different traits; ranging from the profoundly useless baldness trait to the rather handy OCD trait which restores your MP as you clear each room of furniture.

As well as genetic perks, the game boasts a moderately robust skill tree which you upgrade with the money you gather from killing enemies and finding chests throughout the castle, as well as relics, armour and swords which grant stat boosts and stackable abilities like double-jumping or leeching HP from slain enemies.

Your overall goal in the game is to defeat the boss monster in each of the castles four sections, so you can open a door to defeat the ruler of the castle and save your King, but if you’re anything like me then you’ll probably find that you spend more time just running into the castle, over and over again, to kill as many enemies as you can and amass huge sums of gold to turn your character into a war machine. The plot isn’t particularly relevant, anyway, since once you finally do achieve your goal you just get thrown into new game plus mode to run the castle again with considerably stronger enemies/better rewards.

So far this may all sound pretty bog-standard for a game of this genre, but the two things that make Rogue Legacy stand out for me are it’s charming/unique design, both aesthetic and in terms of gameplay, and the fact that the game is initially hard as balls. Maybe it’s just my years as a console gamer that have softened me, and this is standard for for the Glorious PC Master Race, but on my first few runs of the castle I was lucky to survive more than three or four rooms before I got burnt to a crisp or a ghost knight’s halberd jammed through my faceplate.

This is where the games roguelike features become hugely beneficial because, rather than abandoning the game after finding it too hard to progress, every time you re-enter the castle all the rooms change and you suddenly find you can exploit enemy weaknesses that you couldn’t before, by hiding behind walls or standing under the platforms they are on and jumping up to hit them when they leave an opening.

In terms of actual combat it’s all pretty standard stuff, common to the likes of post-SotN Castlevania, but the variety provided by the random castle generation and enemy layouts give the game that sickeningly addictive nature normally only associated with Facebook games, while marrying it to solid platforming, hacky-slashy fun.

Final Verdict: In the end, it took me about ten hours to complete my first run of the castle, but I’ve since beaten it twice again and am currently sitting at just under 30 hours playtime which, for a game I paid less than a fiver for, I think speaks pretty highly of how fun it is.

Lost Planet 3
Lost_Planet_3Lost Planet 3 does a lot of things wrong. Capcom continue to prove themselves the king of shitty optimisation by having excruciatingly long load times between absolutely everything –despite a 3 or 4GB hard drive install– which is only exasperated by some truly shitty level design that constantly forces you to run between far-away locations to advance the game.

Quick question: if you were in charge of designing an interstellar mining colony, where would you put the garage for the mechanic who works on all the giant mining robots? Right next to all the robots? Hell no, you put it two floors down and four or five loading screens away. Do, however, make sure to point out in cutscenes that your rig is capable of traveling straight down to the garage, just to make the long trips the player has to make, on foot, all the more frustrating.

Question time, again: say you were designing an on-going side mission wherein you task the player with going out into the wilderness to gather the DNA of a specific monster and then bring it back to a scientist in the colony; where would you put that scientist? That’s right, you put him three elevator rides and two overlong airlock sequences away, then you force the player to go through that ten times in a row because you neglect to mention that you have to keep going back to the scientist to get the next mission despite it being made abundantly clear the scientist in question is capable of contacting you through your comms channel because that’s how you get the first mission in the first fucking place.

Ugh.

Lost Planet 3 is littered with bewilderingly awful design choices like this, so you might be wondering why I put it in my top five. The simple reason is that, unlike so many other Triple-A titles I played this year, the game managed to create a surprising sense of immersion that even the avalanche of load times wasn’t able to dispell. Things like the charmingly odd juxtaposition of listening to country-rock on your rig’s radio while you trudge around a frozen wasteland punching giant ice beetles in the face with a giant drill went a long way to creating a genuinely believable world, and almost all of the characters manage to be likeable or at the very least relatable; even if their characterisation never went beyond the most basic Disney movie tropes.

The game also does a fantastic job of building atmosphere around about the time you start exploring abandoned facilities and uncovering evidence suggesting you weren’t the first people to set foot on the planet and, in a rare moment of creative design taking precedence over committee, not all of the planet’s backstory is forced down your throat, whether you want it or not.

Your character is initially brought to the (lost) planet to replace another miner who went a bit loopy and disappeared, but the only way you discover her fate is by actively exploring the world yourself; it’s completely possible to complete the game without ever finding out what happened to her.

I know it might seem weird to praise a game for not showing you content, but in an industry that is rapidly beginning to resemble a hyperactive child –where every dev team is so terrified you’ll miss the collapsing building they spent six months rendering that the camera twists your character’s neck right around and forces you to watch it– it’s refreshing to play a game that lets you go at your own pace and discover things for yourself.

Going back to the atmosphere, it’s all enchanced by a spot-on soundtrack that, while largely forgettable where melodies are concerned– hits the mark perfectly by incorporating Brian Eno style ambient tracks and displaying an understanding that subtlety has the power to make things all the more intense when shit does inevitably hit the fan; as opposed to the standard industry practice of throwing up violin shrieks every time a shadow moves past a wall.

Speaking of shit hitting the fan, though, combat does occasionally suffer from some pretty awful enemy balance. Your character moves about as fast as you’d expect a man strapped in enough layers to survive constant sub-zero temperatures to move, but the game constantly pits you against tiny fast moving enemies that swarm you, en masse, and are difficult to effectively draw a bead on and take out before they’ve laid at least a couple of hits into you. This is made more annoying, still, as the smaller enemies inexplicably pack the biggest punch; every death I had in the game was at the hands of the tiny facehugger rip-offs or the scutterfuck arseholes that constantly take cover and only ever expose themselves to fire several perfectly aimed barbs right into your slow-moving arse.

Fighting the larger enemies, on the other hand, is a true joy just as it was in the earlier Lost Planet games; dodging their attacks to shoot at their glowing, orange weak spots is as fun as ever and becomes even more enjoyable the first time you get to fight a giant crab bastard inside your rig and parry its attacks to jam a drill up its arse (although these sections are occasionally plagued, again, by sluggish or unresponsive controls).

Robot punch-ups aside, the game truly comes alive in the optional missions, particularly the one that tasks you with tracking down some lost colonists and discovering their fate, it’s just a shame that they are let down by forcing you to slog through more poorly designed creature battles to get to the really compelling story aspects. That isn’t something you should ever have to say about a video game.

Final Verdict: I was pleasantly surprised by Lost Planet 3 and, despite its faults I think it deserves a lot more attention than it got upon release. I also thoroughly applaud Capcom’s surprisingly clear-headed decision to streamline the series and take it back to an atmospheric story-driven campaign, rather than whatever the fuck that convoluted Lost Planet 2 mess was supposed to be.

My advice to Capcom, now, would be to take whoever was artistic director for this game and put him or her in charge of the inevitable Resident Evil reboot, and sack whatever braindead chimp they let turn RE6 into a game of soggy-biscuit between David Cage and Michael Bay.

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