Monday, December 31, 2012

The Third Annual Wherein I Rant Awards - 2012

Wow, time for one of these end of year wrap up posts already, huh? Well, it's sure been an interesting year. I stopped updating, I lied and said I was going to start updating again, some other... Stuff... Happened... In any case, it's not important. What is important, though, is my opinion on 2012's movies and video games! It's been an... Interesting year for those too. I've been calling 2012 the year of surprises. The Avengers surprised everyone by being one of the biggest movies ever, Joss Whedon surprises the studio by proving that he can make money for them, some of the biggest games of the year come right out of nowhere, not even having been announced when the year began... But all of that is relative. It doesn't matter how big the surprise is, how good is the surprise? And that's what I'm here to talk about, the best video games and movies of the year. You guys ready? All right, here we go.



Best Film

5 - The Dark Knight Rises

While the film isn't as good as The Dark Knight, and is indeed probably the weakest of the Nolan trilogy, I still loved it. The pitch-perfect casting which all three films benefited from, as well as a story which is really gripping if you don't think about it too hard, helped me really enjoy the movie as I was watching it, even if I did immediately pick out half a dozen plot holes as soon as I left the theater. Borrowing from several very recognizable Batman storylines helped my inner comic book nerd be satisfied, and the film features, in my opinion, the best version of Catwoman ever put on screen, large or small.

Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are both better films, but The Dark Knight Rises was good enough to close out the trilogy, and even the worst Nolan Batman film is better than most other stuff out there. I had a really good time with it.

4 - Wreck-It Ralph

Wreck-It Ralph sold itself with tons and tons of video game cameos in the commercial, and while it has quite a few of those (which I appreciated, being the lifelong gamer that I am), the reason the movie works is because it's a love letter to gaming far beyond that. The way it pays tribute to the little things about gaming was something I really appreciated, and the fact that it was a fine film, with a lot of heart, on top of that, was just icing on the cake.

3 - The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was a film which I was very excited about, but also very nervous about. The fact that they were splitting The Hobbit, not a long book on it's own, into three very long films was enough to make me wary, but so far the seem to be pulling it off.

The added material works most of the time, although you have to accept that the film is a series of short vignettes set in Middle Earth which just happen to tell the story of The Hobbit as a framing device.

Also, side note, the 48fps version of the film looked incredible, and I don't care what anyone says. It's good to see progress actually, you know, progressing. 

2 - The Cabin In the Woods

I've mentioned this before, but really, I can't say much more. Cabin In The Woods is an incredible movie, but if I tell you why, it ruins a lot of the fun. Just, give it a try some time.

1 - The Avengers

Again, The Avengers is a film I've mentioned before. It's simply fantastic. The film felt like both a Joss Whedon product, and the perfect Avengers film, and really, what more could you ask for? Everyone saw this already, but man, it's so good. Just... So, so good.


Game Of The Year:

10 - Spec Ops: The Line

Spec Ops: The Line is a game I don't think anyone saw coming. Not that people didn't realize it was coming out, but because all the leadup made it appear to be just another generic modern military third-person shooter. When the game actually released, and turned out to actually be a brutal deconstruction of the modern military shooter though, and on top of that, one with an absolutely insane storyline, it took a lot of people by surprise.

I actually only recently got around to playing this one, and I'm glad I did. It does a lot of really interesting things with it's story, and while the risks it takes don't always play out, and it stumbles in a few too many important spots for me to really love it, I respect that it actually tried to deal with such mature themes, when most modern military shooters go out of their way to avoid them.

My biggest problems come in to the fact that the game is really just not any fun to play. The difficulty is screwed up (I recommend just playing through on easy to see the story, I struggled through most the game on normal, dealing with bullet sponge heavy enemies, until I just gave up because I was so bored of the combat). I've heard some claim that the game being un-fun was part of the "point," and I'm not sure I'm convinced of that.

The game is also gorgeous, especially when set to the "vibrant" color scheme. It's set in Dubai, which has been hit by multiple sandstorms, so at times it falls into the "brown is realistic" problem many shooters do, but when it hits you with a great vista, it was the prettiest game I played all year. In addition to this, the way the main character and his squad members are transformed throughout the game, going from being a very restrained, protocol-following soldiers, into obscenity hurling, vicious men, filled with white hot rage, was incredible.

I'd definitely recommend giving this one a look.

9 - The Darkness II

I never played the original The Darkness, and I never really felt compelled to. It being a console exclusive when I'm primarily a PC Gamer (though I do own several consoles) kind of steered me off, and while I heard decent things about it, there's really only a few things people tend to remember about it, and nearly all of them involve Jenny. The part where you can watch all of To Kill A Mockingbird on TV with her, and the part where she dies are the two I hear cited most often, specifically.

So I was actually quite surprised when I bought The Darkness II on PC for a pittance, and had a lot of fun with it... For all of five or so hours. While the game is unfortunately short, what's there is undeniably entertaining. The darkness powers are all really fun, the executions are satisfyingly brutal, and the characters are... Well, the characters who actually get fleshed out are pretty solid.

Even though the story was overly predictable (and done much better in the Buffy episode "Normal Again," for the record), and I literally predicted the post-credits twist halfway through the game, the story beats themselves are done competently enough not to get in the way of the game itself.

If you give The Darkness II a chance, and a few hours, however, you'll find a very entertaining experience, and there's something to be said for a game which can be gone through in a few hours, and be reflected back on as being pretty darn fun.

8 - Super Monday Night Combat

I really, really liked the first Monday Night Combat, and it's player-versus-player, third-person-shooter take on the tower defense genre. Now, Super Monday Night Combat not only attacked a new genre, the MOBA (or Dota-like, if you'd rather), but a new business model, by launching as a free-to-play game, with all of the character classes unlockable lots of play, or by paying some money (essentially, the League of Legends model).

Super Monday Night Combat is an incredibly fun take on the genre, is extremely fun to play, and is actually really funny (the first time you hear the lines, which are inevitably repeated far too many times). The classes have tons of variety, but none of them felt incredibly overpowered, and each required skill (albeit some more than others) to play effectively. It's some of the most fun I had with multiplayer this year, and if you haven't tried it yet, it's free, so go try it out, it's a lot of fun.

7 - FTL - Faster Than Light

Perhaps no game signifies 2012 better than FTL - Faster Than Light. Not only was the game made via a successful Kickstarter, a trend which only began this year, but it is an incredibly ambitious game, like many of the games you'll see further up this list. It is, in it's own way, entirely about player choice, as are the top three game on my list, which was a huge theme for games this year, although it's 

The game is essentially the Star Trek game I've always wanted. It lets you take the roll of the captain (well, controller of the captain, along with other crew members) of a space ship on the run from the rebel forces, with the only plans which will let you defeat the rebels, blah, blah, blah, generic science fiction story.

The reason to play this game, is because it lets you command nearly everything about the small ship you're on, during space battles, and just general space combat. Every time you jump to a new beacon, you'll get some sort of random event. Sometimes they're hostile (Slavers are attacking you!), sometimes they're neutral (A merchant wants to sell you some stuff), or sometimes nothing of consequence happens at all. As you travel the galaxy, you can build up your ship in all sorts of ways, focusing on weapons, or shields, and upgrading them with scrap, or using the scrap as currency to buy new items or crew members. During attacks, you can have your crew attempt to fight off boarding parties, or open up the airlocks for the rooms the boarding party is in, and vent the atmosphere, suffocating them. You can destroy ships, or send your own crew in to disable them, and defeat their crew, giving you more stuff.

The sheer amount of tactics which appear in the game is astounding, and the game is incredibly fun to play. Unfortunately, a few mechanics that I just didn't click with prevented me from putting it any higher up on this list. The rebel fleet is constantly getting nearer to you, and as a result, you have to keep constantly progressing toward an end goal. The result is that, by the time you finally start to feel built up, you inevitably reach the extremely difficult final boss, which I have yet to defeat.

I hope to see improvement upon this in a sequel, letting me take my time, in more of an open world. As it is, FTL is a fantastic game, with a few incredibly disappointing caveats. Definitely give it a look, especially if you're a science fiction fan.

6 - Rayman: Jungle Run

The only iOS/Android title to feature on my list, Rayman: Jungle Run is a runner released by Ubisoft, using the same engine and art assets as last year's extremely good Rayman: Origins. Now let me be clear, this is not an endless runner, it's a runner. This means that, while you don't have full control of your character (only having the ability to jump, hover, and punch, while constantly running forward), there are still goals beyond "run as fast as you can," as there are 40 levels (50 with the recently released free update), each with a set number of Lums (collectibles), and with an end goal. 4 of the levels are "Land of the Livid Dead" levels, which are extremely challenging, and only available after meeting a set number of Lums collected.

While I am typically extremely off put by runners (I can't stand the "endless runner" genre, and I find them an utter chore to play), I had an extremely good time with Rayman: Jungle Run, partly due to the inventive, and entertaining level design (though it should be noted, I recommend playing by trying to collect all the Lums, as the game is extremely easy otherwise), and partly due to the incredible presentation. The art assets are just as GORGEOUS as they were in last year's release, the music (which is primarily taken from the Rayman: Origins soundtrack) is fantastic, and the world of Rayman is as zany as always.

As someone who doesn't like this genre of game, this one is so well made, I didn't care, and couldn't help but have a blast with it. Me putting this on my list, and especially so high up, and above such good games, should speak for itself. I'm not the kind of guy who plays a ton of games on my phone, but this is one you definitely shouldn't overlook. Plus, I could listen to that perfect score music all day. HOLY CRAP IT'S SO GOOD! I realize it's from Rayman: Origins, but I kind of want to call that, like, 15 second loop, song of the year anyway. So, so good.

5 - Torchlight 2

I liked the original Torchlight, but I had a few, very specific, very large problems with it. The repetitive, eventually boring environments, the absurdly overpowered Alchemist class, the terrible, terrible final boss fight, and the lack of co-op all eventually put me off of the otherwise entertaining experience. Torchlight 2 solved all of these problems, albeit coming with it's own set of them.

The environments are more varied this time, the classes and their powers more well-balanced, and the game is a blast to play co-op with a friend. The world feels bigger, and although you're going down a set path, it doesn't quite feel that way, since you're in an overworld, not just descending deeper and deeper into a cave. 

Despite it's almost non-existent story, Torchlight 2 triumphs by making the player feel powerful, and with all the different classes, and randomized areas, there's tons of replay value. Back when I was playing it near launch, Veteran, which I was playing on, seemed to be pretty messed up, however, with the difficulty curve being way out of whack. That may have been fixed, I haven't checked, but points were taken off for that. Still, that was a minor complaint, and Torchlight 2 is a great game. Definitely give it a look if it's your kind of thing.

4 - They Bleed Pixels

By 2012, you wouldn't be remiss for ignoring every indie, 2D, retro graphics platformer to come out, since there are about 8 released every day. Still, when I gave They Bleed Pixels a try despite that, I was really pleasantly surprised.

Not only is They Bleed Pixels extremely challenging, but unlike games like Super Meat Boy (which I also really like), the keyboard controls actually work well enough for me to make it through the game, despite their warnings that you should use a gamepad. They Bleed Pixels is an extremely challenging, extremely fun 2D platformer bathed in the Cthulu mythos. It also has a very well made combat system, which lets you kill enemies with various moves, and build up your score by executing combos. After getting so many points, you can actually earn checkpoints, which you can drop anywhere in the world where you're able to stand still for a moment, or, if you think you're good enough, you can refrain from dropping your checkpoint for a large point (or "pint", if you'd rather), bonus. It's a clever idea, and one unlike anything I can think of in other games. The checkpoint system lets you drop checkpoints before, or after sections you've found difficult, and it's really well executed. 

On top of that, the incredibly difficult, very well designed levels are a blast to play, if you're good enough. They're far, far longer than something like Super Meat Boy's, which helps set it apart from games like that, even if it obviously took a lot of inspiration from them. This one comes highly recommended.

3 - XCOM: Enemy Unknown

XCOM: Enemy Unknown sure was a surprise this year, wasn't it? Not only was the game not even announced when the year began, but XCOM, the first person shooter which had next-to-nothing to do with the actual old turn-based strategy series was much maligned. Now, all of the sudden, the shooter has disappeared (presumably undergoing some heavy retooling), and the strategy game, made by the kings of turn-based strategy, Firaxis, has come out, and oh boy, it is glorious. 

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a tense, difficult, highly entertaining game. While I've never played the old ones, so I can't speak to how it treats the franchise, on it's own, the game is wonderful. Losing soldiers, especially those you had begun to build up, and named or customized. 

The enemies were all extremely well designed, the upgrades were all crucial, and yet you simply couldn't get all of them, at least early on. You were sure to lose people, and since death was permanent, it really meant something (R.I.P. Captain Machismo, my first heavy, your facial hair will live on in folktale and legend). The actual story of the game itself was simplistic, but that left plenty of room for letting you create stories about what was going on yourself. The game is fantastic at letting you do that. 

The game does eventually suffer from maps being repeated a bit too often, and there are (or at least, were when I was playing) quite a few bugs which hurt the game, but the game overcomes those things, to be one of the most incredible gaming experiences all year.

2 - Mass Effect 3

It's a real shame that any time I have to talk about Mass Effect 3, an absolutely phenomenal game, I have to use the disclaimer "other than the last ten minutes." Let's think about that, shall we? The Mass Effect trilogy was a hundred hours of near perfection, and the last ten minutes left such a bad taste in my mouth that I try to pretend they never happened, because they retroactively make everything that came before them worse.

There's very little to be said about the ending of Mass Effect 3 that hasn't been said already, so let me be brief. I didn't like it. It didn't work on a lot of fundamental storytelling levels, it felt rushed, the extended cut was essentially butting a bandage on a mortal wound, and "Leviathan" probably would have fixed most of my issues with it, were it not for the fact that it, you know, WAS PAID DOWNLOADABLE CONTENT. That's the biggest load of garbage I've ever seen, and genuinely breached the trust I had with Bioware.

That said, holy crap, Mass Effect 3 is an amazing game. The high points of Mass Effect 3 are easily the best moments in the entire franchise. The story is great. The setpieces are breathtaking. The quiet character moments are among the best the series has seen. The combat is the best it's ever been. You get to see all of your favorite Mass Effect characters, and see what's happened to all of them. You get to solve some of the biggest problems in the Mass Effect universe. You go to incredible locations. The game looks incredible (I'd easily say it's the best looking game on this list, other than the occasional odd looking human character).

My only complaint, aside from, as I said, an ending which Bioware should be absolutely ashamed of, was that the side missions were picked up in an incredibly halfhearted way, and completed as such.

The game also features multiplayer which, despite all odds, is absolutely fantastic. I do, admittedly, have some complaints with how the unlock system works, and would have preferred a store which let you choose unlocks, perhaps tied to your persistent N7 levels. Of course, the flipside of that is, the store (which, for the record, never requires you to spend a dime on unlocks, if you're willing to sink lots of time into the game) seems to have made them enough money that each multiplayer expansion, of which there have been several, all high quality, has been released for free. I think it's the best "horde mode" I've ever seen in a game.

It's a shame all anyone talks about from Mass Effect 3 seems to be the ending, because while the ending is a pile of hot garbage, the rest of the game is wonderful. If it hadn't been for that lackluster ending, this would have been an easy pick for my number one slot, because the game is just so utterly fantastic, and was a great ending to the trilogy... Up until the actual ending for the trilogy.

Mass Effect 3 is a great game. Not a good game, a great game. Aside from it's last ten minutes, I can't say enough good things about it (and I'm still playing the multiplayer all these months later). It's just a shame it had to end on such a sour note.

1 - The Walking Dead

Dear God... Dear God... The Walking Dead is unlike anything I've ever played. It's such an emotionally draining experience. It forces you with choices which, unlike many games with choices, don't have a clear right-or-wrong answer. It makes you care about characters, and then mercilessly kills them off. It's the first to really take advantage of the episodic method of storytelling, to the point where playing the episodes as they were released was, in my opinion, the best way to play them.

It tells a crazy story, in a horrible world. Yes, there are zombies, but just like the other form of The Walking Dead fiction, this story is about humans. For my money though, this is the best The Walking Dead there's ever been, and that's as someone who really likes the comics, and likes what he's seen of the TV Series.

The Walking Dead, while oppressive, and bleak, and tragic, is also a beautiful experience to have. The fact that it lets you-- that it makes you care about these fictional people so much, is utterly astounding.

If you haven't played The Walking Dead yet, you need to do so. It's an incredible experience, and a great story. There are a lot of reasons why I loved this game so much, but rather than describe them, I'll leave you with this: Play The Walking Dead. It's the first adventure game I've really, truly loved in a very long time.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Significance of The Walking Dead (Spoiler Free Edition)

I really like Telltale's The Walking Dead. In fact, it's probably my favorite game of the year, and that's saying a lot. It's easily Telltale's best game, and I really liked Puzzle Agent, Poker Night At The Inventory, and what I played of Back To The Future. The Walking Dead is a game which, I feel, finally gets everything right that Telltale, and the video game industry in general, have been trying to get right for so long. I'd even go so far as to say that The Walking Dead feels like a progression of the medium.

For those who don't know, The Walking Dead, by Telltale Games, is an adventure game tie-in to Robert Kirkman's extremely popular comic series The Walking Dead. I say tie-in because, unlike the television show, Telltale's The Walking Dead is not an adaptation of the comic books. It tells a different story, with different characters (or occasional appearances by characters from the comic), set in the same world with the same zombies. It's even considered canonical with the comics, as a matter of fact.

The major "hook" of the game is that it presents you with extremely difficult choices, and gives you virtually no time to select them. Unlike the morality systems in games like Mass Effect series, though, these aren't black and white, right or wrong choices. In most cases, there's no "good" answer, and both options outright suck. The spirit of the game is simple, showing you the cold reality of what this sort of apocalypse would be like. Even those who jokingly (or seriously), say that they're ready for the zombie apocalypse to hit, will find themselves faced with situations they've never considered. And, even more interestingly, the series drama doesn't come purely from the zombies, it primarily comes from the people.

The episodic format for games has been around for a while, but I don't think it had really been done right until now. Telltale's experimented with it with things like Back to the Future, and that was all right, but splitting it into episodes like they did, didn't really add anything to the game that splitting it into chapters wouldn't have achieved. Poker Night at the Inventory was presented as the pilot for a new series, but that was two years ago, and nothing more has come of it. Even huge companies like Valve struggle with the format, as evidenced by the infamous lack of Half-Life 2: Episode 3.

The Walking Dead, however, actually feels like it benefits from the episodic format. The weight of each choice the series faces you with is so heavy that, to be honest, I felt like I needed the month long break between episodes. Each time I finished an episode, I felt like the worst person possible. In fact, this is the first episodic series I've played where my advice would be, even if you've waited for the full series to come out, give yourself some time between each episode to decompress, and reflect upon the choices you've made. I wouldn't have said that for the episodes of Half-Life 2, or for the episodes of Back to the Future. While it was fine that those game came in the episodic format, the episodic format did not inherently enhance the experience, as I felt it did with The Walking Dead. In fact, in the future, I hope Telltale sticks to the episodic format even more strictly, keeping a solid month by month release schedule, and sticks to it (although I realize why they would be hesitant to do so).

But what really makes The Walking Dead so special, in my opinion, and what makes it beat out great titles like Mass Effect 3, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Torchlight 2, FTL, or They Bleed Pixels, all astoundingly good titles in their own right, as my GOTY, is that it feels important to me. And it feels important to me for one specific reason; The Walking Dead is not fun. It is not a fun game. Allow me to explain.

Up until this point, games have always been about being fun. And don't get me wrong, that's great. I love fun games. But the thing is, The Walking Dead manages to be a great, super engaging experience, without being fun. The Walking Dead is not a fun experience. It's stressful. It's emotionally distressing. The choices you have to make are horrible. It makes you care about characters with wonderful writing, and then has horrible things, up to and including random senseless death, happen to them. It's a grueling experience, and the fact that it manages to be so engaging, and such a great experience, while also being one that's not "fun" in any sense of the word, seems super important to me.

Back when film was first invented, most of the earliest films were comedies. The reason why was simple, slapstick comedy is easy. That doesn't make it lesser by any means, and I absolutely believe that comedy can be art, but with the medium being so new, and so primitive, comedy, or eventually more "fun" adventure films, were a simple way for the medium to become established. Once people had started learning the medium, and it had become more established, we started seeing the beginnings of what film would become. It wasn't until the later days of silent films, and the early days of talkies would we see films start to tell dramatic stories which were designed to emotionally engage the viewer. Movies like Gone With the Wind, for example, couldn't have existed in the very earliest days of cinema, because the format wasn't established enough for anyone to know how to use it to effectively tell a dramatic story, so comedy (slapstick and otherwise), were used to learn, and evolve the medium. This was a very important step in the evolution of film.

I feel like that's what we're seeing here with video games. Before this point, games have been about fun. That's not a criticism, that's a fact. Even games which I feel are indisputably art, Bioshock, Wind Waker, Mass Effect, have been about providing the player with a fun experience. The Walking Dead is the first game where I wouldn't say that hold true. It's a great experience, it's a great story, it's a great game, but it's not "fun". I'm not sure if The Walking Dead is the first game to do this, but it's the first game I've ever felt this way about, and it's the first game to do this which I feel has achieved this level of success.

I don't think The Walking Dead is the Citizen Kane of gaming, by which I mean the game which will sort of legitimize the medium in the eyes of the art snob out there (not that it needs legitimization), but it does feel like a progression of the medium to me, and one which I'm excited to see. Everyone should go out and play The Walking Dead right now. It's a great game, and possibly a very significant one for the future. It's seen such success that Telltale, a studio which I feel has always struggled to find it's place, between mild successes like Back to the Future, or critical and financial flops like Jurassic Park, has already announced both a Season 2, and a game adaptation of another popular comic book series, Fables. Not only is Telltale's The Walking Dead the best The Walking Dead there's ever been, it's an astoundingly huge success, in a year where even big studios have been coming under fire for their restriction of player choice.

Go play The Walking Dead. It's really good.