2012 Year End Game Review: Matt Byrd

2012 in gaming isn’t a year that is easy to sum up with hyperbole, or one sweeping statement.

It was far from the greatest year in gaming (very, very far), but even still, when I was compiling this list, I had to make some heartbreaking cuts, and felt I was disrespecting some very good games. For every cheap money snatching blockbuster we got this year, we were also gifted with some genuine surprises and accomplished franchise extensions (many of which make up this list). The end result of one step forward and one step back for an entire 12-month period may not have moved gaming ahead, but the constant motion made choosing the best of the year a dizzying experience.

Somehow, though, I was finally able to narrow it down to 10 games that I feel comfortable saying are the best of 2012.

10. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

On the surface, it looks like all there is to “Kingdoms of Amalur” is a standard RPG coat of paint and a souvenir of the high profile closure of “38 Studios.” It’s not the type of game that makes its first impression with its looks, but rather its personality. The game’s speedy free flowing combat system never ceases to be entertaining throughout the very long adventure “Amalur” provides.

An all-star team of developers and outside talent (fantasy great RA Salvatore penned the story) may have been behind “Amalur,” but nothing feels old hat about the game, and it instead comes across as something closer to a fresh faced group of young talent, with heads full of new ideas creating something against the grain. It’s one of the more surprising, and certainly among the most pure fun, releases this year.

9. Xenoblade: Chronicles

If “Amalur” looks standard and done before on the surface, then “Xenoblade” is practically a fossil upon first viewing. It’s a member of the dying JRPG genre, and was featured on the outdated Nintendo Wii, which would normally spell either doom or obscurity at best. Yet after a wave of hype from the Japanese market, and several thousand petition signatures later, audiences everywhere were greeted by something that felt like meeting an old friend, and finding out that you have just as much fun with each other as you used to.

“Xenoblade” pays tribute to all of the great JRPG conventions that shaped it, but it just as carefully takes note of all the things that made those game’s grow stale as well, and manages to mold new forms for them so you are left with a game that somehow makes you nostalgic for things you never knew before. Your party becomes your family thanks to a great relationship system, and the character building and combat mechanics keep things fresh as you explore one of the more unique worlds available for the genre all in pursuit of finishing an equally gripping story. The era of JRPGs may be over, but “Xenoblade” reminds us why it had a dynasty in the first place.

8. Sound Shapes

I love new, bold ideas in gaming, and “Sound Shapes” may have been among the newest and boldest this year. It has nothing to do with its basic gameplay either, as “Shapes” traditional 2D side scrolling system is fairly ho-hum. Much like a new “Mario” release though, the real draw doesn’t lie in the mechanics, but rather the design. “Sound Shapes” employs a minimalist graphic style that is charming, but only serves to give substance to the soundtrack that defines the experience. Several different musical artists contributed to the music (and the design) of the levels, and as a result we are provided one of the first games since the brilliant “Rez” that feels like an organic and physical product of the soundtrack. It’s more of an interactive soundtrack than a fully loaded video game, but it’s artistic value is unquestionable, and I wouldn’t want to know the person who couldn’t have fun with it.

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The “Halo 4″ Effect: Video Game Franchises that Need New Developers

While we’ll have to wait for the initial sales figures, considering how much of a critical hit it has been already, “Halo 4” is looking to become another runaway successes for the famous franchise. Having now played it, I’m thrilled at how the game truly does invoke that feeling of the original titles while not coming across as the cash-in of a well established formula that it so easily could have been. While it’s not quite so simple, we can thank this in large part to the efforts of the series new developer, 343 Industries, who have admirably taken over from the great Bungie.

When I first heard that there was to be a “Halo” game not made by Bungie, I got worried. Now that I step away from it though, I see that it really was the only way that “Halo” was ever really going to flourish again. In fact, the more I think about it, if we’re being honest, there are a lot of classic franchises that have gone stagnant and could use a fresh start courtesy of a new developer. Here’s five of the biggest examples.

Castlevania

The “Castlevania” series was forever altered with the release of “Castlevania: Symphony of the Night”. Gone were the days of the incredibly challenging and linear, classic 2D side scroller, and in came a new “Castlevania” game that emphasized exploration and advancement, similar to the “Metroid” series (coining the term “Metroidvania”). It was such a success in nearly every respect that it changed the outlook and direction of the series for years to come.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the problem is that was way back in 1997, and the series entries ever since have mostly fallen into the realm of knock offs of “Symphony of the Night” or misguided 3D action romps that are at best average, and at worst “Castlevania 64”. As all time great a developer as Konami is, they don’t seem able or willing to make a truly noteworthy entrant to the franchise anymore. It’s just impossible to believe that with the series rich timeline and incredible gothic atmosphere there isn’t a significant amount of fuel left in the tank. Whether it be a glorious and long overdue return to the series roots, or something else entirely, it’s time that one of the greatest series of all time reminded everyone why it is just that.

Who should develop: From Software, the makers of “Demon’s Souls” and “Dark Souls”. I salivate at the thought honestly, as both “Demon’s Souls” and “Dark Souls” feel like the direction the “Castlevania” series should have gone in long ago. They feature larger than life bosses, a variety of spooky enemies, and a “make you regret that you can’t stop coming back” level of difficulty. The series would fit the developer like a glove.

James Bond

The James Bond franchise has seen more developers than the role itself has actors, which may help to explain why we still haven’t gotten a significant game from 007 and crew since the legendary “Goldeneye”.

That’s not to say that every entry has been as bad as the recent “007 Legends”, some like “Blood Stone” and “Everything or Nothing” are actually decent, but rather that the it is in dire need of a rejuvenation that no developer has been able to conjure since Rare. Even when they are not great, when we are treated to a Bond movie every 4 years or so, it always feels like an event, and consistently entertains in one way or another. Considering the wealth of material that the James Bond franchise has, and how much of that can easily translate to games, there is no reason that a competent developer shouldn’t be able to produce that same effect for Bond video games.

Who should develop: There’s a ton of candidates I would love to see take a stab at this, but the one that keeps coming to mind is Remedy (“Max Payne”, “Alan Wake”). They’re a developer that exceeds at creating atmosphere in their games, and when making a good Bond game, your first job is to perfectly capture that iconic James Bond atmosphere, without messing up the gameplay too bad. They’re not a huge developer, exactly, but the impossible level of polish and charm they put in their titles would be very welcome for a Bond game.

Star Fox

At times the “Star Fox” series feels like the Buffalo Bills of the early 90’s. Always so close, and never quite there. The original “Star Fox” was revolutionary for its graphical style, while 1997’s “Star Fox 64” had everyone believe that Nintendo had the next great franchise on their hands. From there, though, 2002’s head scratching “Star Fox Adventures” threatened to take the series into an ill-advised and unwanted new action-adventure direction, while every other release has been either a rehash or re-make of the originals, which in all fairness have been good enough to remind us of the series potential, but not great enough to put it over the top.

It’s time then for some new blood that can realize that the lack of games in the rail shooter genre, and the name power “Starfox” still has, and make it all come together for a glorious return to form. The last couple of “Star Fox” installments have produced quality with little to no effort, so it would be interesting to see what the result of an honest new full effort push would be.

Who should develop: This one is tough, but I’ll go with Ubisoft Montpellier. The development team behind the brilliant “Rayman Origins” can pull off that difficult mix of cartoon looks and intense gameplay that “Starfox” needs to succeed.

Silent Hill

Recently I called “Silent Hill” 2 the greatest horror game of all time. However, when I speak of “Silent Hill” in revered tones, I’m only talking about games 1-4 where Konami was handling development duties.

Ever since then, a few different developers have attempted to re-imagine the franchise and, with only a few very specific successes as exceptions, have all failed in providing any of the quality of the originals. “Silent Hill” was originally defined by its dread filled atmosphere and psychologically challenging scares. In shying away from an action first mentality, it provided a gaming experience that you almost regretted playing, but couldn’t help but be captivated by. The mystique and intrigue the series maintains is as thick as the fog that made the town itself famous, and there is still a lot it has to contribute in the right hands.

Who should develop: There were talks recently of Hideo Kojima taking over the series (which might actually happen), and while that would be fun, while I’m dreaming I’ve got to go with Frictional Games, the developers of “Amnesia: The Dark Descent” and the “Penumbra” series. They’ve been quietly making revolutionary and truly terrifying titles for years now, and a shot at more mainstream, big time success with the next “Silent Hill” game would be incredible.

The WWE Series

Along with titles like “Goldeneye” and “Mario Kart 64”, wrestling titles such as “WWF No Mercy” helped to make the N64 the system for multiplayer gaming. Of course that was in the heyday of wrestling, and of developer AKI who had a great feel for how to make a wrestling title sing with its gameplay. Since then the series has been passed off to Yuke’s, and while 2003’s “Smackdown: Here Comes the Pain” is one of the best wrestling titles ever, even the most hardcore of wrestling fans have been left feeling cheated by their most recent offerings.

Much like the “Madden” series the complacency of recent WWE titles has removed a real sense of urgency from the games that have taken the competitive spirit a title like that needs to thrive. Respectable attempts to keep the series fresh have been made, but attempt doesn’t mean success, and Yuke’s is sadly failing, even if their intentions are for the best. This game needs a new story mode, a new engine, and a fresh perspective. In short, a complete overhaul.

Who should develop: It’d be fun to see AKI, now Syn Sophia, do it, we don’t know how much of their team from the original is still in tact, plus this is about fresh starts. Instead, why not Team Ninja? The “Dead or Alive” fighting series has always been over the top and incredibly fluid with a variety of unique personalities, which are a few of the most important elements you need for a good wrestling game. Not to mention a Team Ninja developed WWE game would be original to say the least.

The 2012 E3 Awards

Is another E3 already almost behind us?

Yes, yes it is. With as much that’s changed in the world of video games over the years, its somehow comforting to know that E3 is still around to exhibit the best of the industry in a big atmosphere way. Unfortunatley the age is starting to show on the old gal, and the show hasn’t been as captivating the last couple of years as it probably should have been. While this years was more of the same, there was still enough on exhibit to be worth talking about. It’s not quite done yet, but I’ve seen enough to start naming the best, worst, and most memorable of E3 2012.

Best Presentation – Sony

This is more of a choice made out of necessity than something I absolutely fell in love with. While there was very little mind blowing here, Sony managed to put together a tight presentation that was loaded with games that people actually came to see. While the storybook segment was a complete bomb, in the end Sony managed to show better than any other company that they have plenty of sure fire greatness ready for their fans. If only “The Last Guardian” had made a surprise appearance, this one might have been more memorable.

Worst Presentation – Microsoft

Poor Microsoft. Sure their market share an income is absurdly large, but they cannot seem to put together an E3 presentation that doesn’t make their fans feel awkward. While this years showing wasn’t as bad as last years Kinect centric, child actor filled disaster, it’s scarily close. Bad celebrity appearances, uninspiring game footage, and boring presentations more at home at lame board meetings than the world’s most extravagant trade show for your industry were the unfortunate highlights of this years Xbox showing.

Biggest Surefire Hit – “Assasins Creed 3″

“Assassins Creed” has been a money in the bank franchise since the series second installment. So far it looks like there is absolutely no reason to suspect any less out of the “Assassin’s Creed III”. What I love most about it is that Ubisoft has found a perfect way to make the franchise feel fresh again, by changing the time period and location to the rarely explored American Revolution, they also seem intent on really making everything that was great about the series perform at its absolute best. The jaw dropping E3 footage only confirms that this will most likely be the smoothest and most exciting “Assassin’s Creed” yet. Unlike the British troops in the game, this one isn’t likely to miss.

Biggest Surprise – “Watch Dogs”

Ubisoft strikes again. Garnering no real press prior to the event, the demo for Ubisoft’s “Watch Dogs” showcased something truly intriguing. You play as a man who has an incredible array of technological abilities that essentially give him super powers over the modern gadget obsessed world. The idea is cool enough, but the way that it seems to be implemented creates so much potential for amazing moments. The world of the game is also absolutely gorgeous, and begs you to re-watch the demo several times to gather all the little details. There is nothing like a fresh idea from an established developer, and Ubisoft seems to have exactly that.

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Halo: Reach beta footage surfaces

Reach beta homescreenAs with the last several Halo titles, Reach already has some “leaked footage.” It gets the quotes because really, it could be fake. It could be viral marketing. It could even be leaked footage, but whatever the case, this thing is questionable.

The video opens on the boot screen, which features this message:

Welcome to the Halo: Reach Public Beta, the experience you are about to enjoy is an early sample of a few multiplayer and single-player levels from Halo: Reach, launching exclusively on Xbox 360 later this year. Until then, drive [sic] into Activities or Campaign and have a blast.

The text is pretty sloppy, which makes me lean toward the fake side of the boat. The video also leaks a new mode called “Murder Mode” that supposedly allows you to kill enemies without being seen. I could have sworn that was the bludgeon to the back of the head move. Also, why would it be called “Murder Mode?” Why not call it a “Murder Skill,” unless it allows you to become invisible for an extended period of time, which really isn’t so different from the Arbiter’s cloak skill in Halo 3.

Check the full video at Xbox Evolved.

Bethesda’s Ashley Cheng Gets Bitchy About ODST

Halo 3: ODST.Halo 3: ODST has been the topic of some hot conversation, mostly with regard to price. There are droves of people who think the game is merely an expansion and doesn’t warrant the $60 price tag it carries. Others, like Bethesda’s Ashley Cheng, think Microsoft simply mismanaged the ODST marketing campaign and you should just suck it up.

On his blog, Bethesda production director Ashley Cheng said confusion around the title’s name and place in the franchise is the only thing that makes people wonder if the game is worth $60.

From Cheng’s blog:

Give me a break. First off, most games – especially first person shooters – are anywhere from 5-10 hours. Tops. What makes Halo different from others? You can’t just ping Halo ODST for it. I bet if Microsoft hadn’t screwed up the marketing messaging, there would less talk about pricing.

I’m inclined to agree, though I’m also inclined to say not enough people care about this to make a difference. The game is going to sell and sell fast. Sure people will bitch, but that’s bound to happen any time you have millions of people rushing to purchase a product. You’ll never have one hundred percent of your consumer population believe the product is worth the price.

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