The Leftovers, 2012 Edition
It’s hard to believe that 2012 has already reached its end. Only moments ago it was 2011 and I was young and innocent and had a head full of ambitions and dreams. Worse, I didn’t write about some dozen games that I intended to, and now it’s really too late to get to them for fear of appearing out of vogue. Instead, here’s what I would have written, though in much abbreviated form — the leftovers of 2012, if you will.
Assassin’s Creed III
I had a friend in high school who read reams of alternate history, and spent the bulk of second-year Deutsch expounding on how the South could have won the Civil War had Apartheid time travelers gifted them AK-47s to keep the slave race subjugated indefinitely — real incisive analyses, I must say. I never really got it until I started playing the Assassin’s Creed series, which soon replaced the lore of Quake as The Series I Take Too Seriously. “That’s not what the Assassins did!” I would scream at my monitor in the wee hours of the morning. “The reality was much more interesting!” In the end, that’s what a history degree gets you: real mad at a game series you’re secretly enjoying, except for all those moments that the game jerks you out of the actual story to be a whiny doofus in the modern day again.
This time, in what is ostensibly the series’ third outing (though it feels like it’s been going on since long before I was born, probably thanks to the tedium of stopping being a sweet Assassin and going back to being bartender Desmond again), you play as a Native American with a name that includes punctuation, so everyone calls him Connor. This time, instead of hanging out in the Renaissance again, you’re entrenched in the American Revolution. And once more, the series takes five steady steps forward before taking four back and falling on its ass, in the snow. The main problem can be illustrated by the difficulty I had in finding a good screenshot for this article: out of over 150, all but a few featured giant glowing text informing me of my objectives, and prominent arrows pointing to where exactly they were located. The rest of them were of me sailing my awesome boat and blowing up British ships, segments that quickly made the rest of AssCreed3 into a waiting game until I could get back on my ship. The antagonist was far more interesting than Connor himself, both the combat and stealth gameplay are possibly among the easiest game mechanics ever developed, and you will not for one minute have peace from those glowing arrows telling you what to do, what to think, and what to feel. Oh, the other good part was being able to use my Native American powers to climb trees and hunt wildlife, though heaven forbid you fail to skin a single wolf after being attacked by five of them, because the screen will start to show digital glitches and will inform you that CONNOR DID NOT KILL ANIMALS AND NOT USE ALL THEIR PARTS. Except for humans.
Why do I like it so much then? No idea. I’m no professional.
Rating: I take this series too seriously. I cannot have an objective opinion.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II
2012 earned many distinctions, including that it was the year the internet figured out that Call of Duty games are all the same. Just twelve short months ago, all my CoDfriends wouldn’t shut up about what incredible and quality experiences they were, and now it seems I can’t
turn my head go outside look at comments sections without seeing people complaining about how CoD is derivative. Good for them! Unfortunately, it’s come at exactly the wrong time, because this is easily the most innovative that Call of Duty has ever been. It’s not just that a couple hours in I was riding on horseback and blowing up Hind helicopters with SMAW rockets in the mountains of Afghanistan, though that’s got to be a factor too because CodBlops2 is at its best when it’s utterly absurd. And it’s not just that the villain seems to have a mostly-legitimate complaint against our happy way of life, especially since we apparently needed to burn down his villa and murder his family so we could keep snorting drugs and watching bad Hollywood films in our air-conditioned mansions all day.
Rather, it’s because CoD:Bo2 lets you make decisions, and it does a pretty darn good job of it. People live or die based on your actions, and the game sort of takes that into account — not a ton, but hey, it was never trying to be Mass Effect, and it does a frankly better job of making you feel complicit when bad things happen than Spec Ops: The Line managed, if only because you actually did the things it accuses you of. Which means it rates pretty high on the scale of surprises from this year.
Rating: I won’t try too hard to defend it. Just a little. Because it’s CoD, but better than CoD.
I should have loved Deadlight: a zombie survival game from a side-on perspective, in which running, climbing, and hiding is your primary reaction to threats, and with a bit of mystery to shake up the plot. Even the grumbly bearded protagonist, fragile with only three tiny health pips, seemed like a perfect avatar for my exploration of this overrun world. So what went wrong?
Put simply, the middle act. The first third of the game was just fine, full of scavenging through abandoned buildings and sprinting (and tripping and falling and scrambling back onto your feet) from zombie hordes. Hints of banditry, a few simple (and logical) environmental puzzles, discarded documents from a collapsed society, and scant resources all aided the illusion that this was truly a ruined world with no place left for hope in its rusted and unmoving heart. Then it went downhill as you descended into the sewers and played around in a ratman’s labyrinth for an hour. Everything became puzzles of the sliding and timing and jumping variety, and it was possibly the most dissonant thing I’ve played all year, completely at odds with everything that had before or would later happen. Oh, and unlike the realistic city above, these were mega-sewers, full of great caverns and vertical shanty-houses, all apparently built by one crazy old man with a dream and an enterprising spirit.
Deadlight never fully recovered from that, despite some interesting sequences opposing the bandits later on. At best, a few moments reached out to graze the promise of the first act, but those fingers never quite gripped.
Oh, and the ending was simply terrible. To spoil it completely, your character gives the girl he’s been trying to rescue a speech about how she can’t ever give up, then he gives up while she gets away, for no reason whatsoever. Maybe to distract the zombies, though she was getting on a boat, so it’s not as though the zombies could follow them anyway. Pointless.
Rating: 1/3, because the first third was good.
My enjoyment for Fable III died when I realized how much time I was spending getting nonexistent people to like me by watching my character go through painfully unfunny animations that were intended to be funny. Ah, a scullery maid! Let’s whistle a tune to increase her approval of me! Now let’s do a quick dance with her, ending with me holding her aloft like the White Swan! Now I’ll flatulate! Ooo, she loves me now!
It’s not just that. It’s also that Fable III is that guy at the party who thinks he’s super funny and now he’s telling everyone that as a kid he was scared the Grinch would really steal Christmas, and everyone is sort of smiling and nodding along, but you can tell they’re wondering how this group date went so far south. Even the parts that could have been funny — we’re back on Fable III now, no longer talking about the guy from Sam’s party — like the bit where some RPG-playing mages shrink you down to be the playing piece in their game, are decisively not funny. This stuff is distilled anti-humor. The characters are sort of “bickering” with each other while you wait for the game to just get on with it, and it’s as though all the dialogue has been written by that same guy from the party and he’s been given this job because he told everyone he’s considered very funny and nobody checked on that.
It’s not even really an RPG, because you’re always going to be playing as the same character, except now you can dress him in a blue dress ha ha.
Rating: I’d like to end with a joke, but Fable III has made me lose my taste for all of them.
Far Cry 3
There are a couple things I want to say about Far Cry 3, and no, neither one is about the game’s reported racism, though yes, rumors of the game’s racial insensitivity have not been exaggerated. Ten minutes in and you’re given your own personal Magical Negro, who will alternately give you mystical powers, dispense wisdom, and get jealous now that you have mystical powers and wisdom. Then he’ll drink a lot.
I want to talk about stuff other than that, though twenty minutes in you’re saving an island full of helpless brown people, despite the fact that they’re descended from a line of powerful mystical warriors and have just as many weapons and personnel as the bad guys.
I’d like to talk about what a good game it is, but it’s hard not to mention that a few hours later you might get inducted into the native tribe as their messiah while their once-independent (and super hot) amazon leader gets weak-kneed at the mere sight of your translucent skin. Oh, and they might start taking hallucinogens and trying to sacrifice things.
Enough! Okay, Far Cry 3 is pretty darn bad at race relations. And it isn’t as much a commentary on gun culture and video games as its creators insist.
What it is, is a really, really good game. It’s probably the best open-world game I’ve played since, well, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, which it incidentally shares some interesting quirks with. It’s filled with excellent and smooth action, whether you’re hunting in the jungle so you can make a bigger wallet from the hide of an endangered species or assaulting a pirate cove where some hostages might be imprisoned. The stealthy aspects work like a dream, letting you take down enemies with your bow or grab them behind and hurl their own knife into another baddy’s neck. And every clifftop has a hang glider to take you somewhere vibrant and beautiful and filled with people to kill. So while all that Noble Savage stuff might be a bit tough to overlook, it’s hardly the point. Rather, the point is the tip of my arrow taking down a thug without anyone else noticing.
Rating: So good that I don’t care about the racism.
Jeez, I need to speed this along.
L.A. Noire shares more with Mad Men than just a cast — it’s nearly as convincing a period drama as AMC’s series, sporting a breathtaking rendition of 1947 Los Angeles. I could drive around this L.A. for hours. Unfortunately, it suffers from a bout of bipolar disorder. Not only does your protagonist, Cole Phelps, go through intense mood swings, one moment consoling a shocked witness and the next threatening to book her, but the entire game vacillates wildly between extremes. The newfangled facial animation technology looks great except when it takes a turn for the awful. Cole will spend days on nonviolent investigations, only to blast a dozen bank robbers on the drive between points of interest. And, for me, the nail in the coffin was when he started behaving like even more of a moron than was believable.
So I’ll confess, I couldn’t finish L.A. Noire, especially once the vice and homicide investigations were finished and I was stuck looking into arson. Methinks the game could have been a touch more succinct.
Rating: Vibrant and unified game world with glaring bizzaro exceptions.
Mark of the Ninja
The main thing you need to know about this game is that in a year filled with good stealth games like Dishonored, Lone Survivor, Stealth Bastard Deluxe, and Far Cry 3 — okay, and some bad ones too, like Assassin’s Creed III and Hitman: Absolution — the best stealth of all was found in Mark of the Ninja. It’s a sheer joy from start to finish. It’s got varied powers and items, all of which have their uses and make sense (okay, maybe not the last teleporty one, but it’s so fun to use that we can forgive its inclusion). The story is madly absurd. The assassinations are bound up in the concept that killing a well-protected person is hard, especially when you’ve got to find them first. You can play through in mostly nonviolent fashion, and it’s properly challenging. The animations and art are gorgeous. I cannot recommend it enough.
If I could find a single fault, it’s that the game is too short. And when I, who thinks most games are bloated and self-important and could use a bit of a trim, think your game is too short, you’ve got a winner on your hands.
Rating: Too short. So awesome.
I have some significant complaints about Planetside 2, and they all fall under the auspices of the “Free2Play” problem.
The game itself is wonderful. It’s massive warfare spread over three continents, two of which I haven’t even seen because I’m still battling across the first. Taking part in skirmishes with over a hundred other participants, or raiding enemy strongpoints, or just piddling around at base and letting everyone else get dirty — it’s all fun, every action has impact because everyone else is real. But they’ve got to pay the bills, and although their Free2Play model is somewhat less evil than most, it’s still on the “extortion” end of the scale. Want a new gun? That’ll be seven dollars, please.
I’d much rather pay fifty bucks in one go for everything, all the guns and special camouflaged pants and attachments for my space-planes, as though I was buying a normal game, and then still have free-account people running around and unlocking everything with their precious time and cash in small increments. I guess then they’d miss out on landing the occasional “whale,” the elusive (well, probably not as elusive as I’d like to believe) customer who deposits hundreds of dollars over time into their game, and, yes, my business model isn’t pitilessly exploiting those folks. But come on, why can’t we see a single Free2Play game that doesn’t feel like blackmail?
Rating: Greed. Game’s good though.
This is the most colorful, happiest, and most song-filled game of the year. It made me happy to play it. Part of that was undoubtedly nostalgia for old platformers that were hand-drawn, sunny, and possessed of cheer rather than overwrought gravitas, but I’d swear this is better than most of the games I’m remembering.
Rating: There isnt much else to say. If you’re suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, this is the game to get.Sleeping Dogs
This is one that they got 70% right, and that 70% is when you aren’t using a gun. I’d say that the GTA Clone has needed a fresher for a while, but I’d be wrong. There have been plenty of exceptional GTA-a-likes recently (I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Saints Row: The Third). This one manages to be good by taking place in action-movie Hong Kong, complete with slow-motion bike chases, chickens in the marketplace, and, of course, over-the-top martial arts. And just as Saints Row: The Third reinvigorated the genre by being deliciously irreverent and outlandish, this one manages to be surprisingly good by focusing on hand-to-hand action.
The downside is that the 30% of the game that relies on guns is that much worse.
Stealth Bastard Deluxe
Stealth Bastard was originally a free game about a stealthy little clone being put through a series of diabolical tests, and that free game was so good and so well-received that it warranted an update and commercial release.
Although I’m sure someone can cite another example, it’s the first arcade-stealth game I’ve ever played. You’re on the clock, so speed is often as much a consideration as creeping through the shadows. It doesn’t become fully impressive until all the bits are added, all the seeker-bots and moving blocks and timed switches and laser beams and loud floors and all the rest, but when it comes together, some of its puzzles are marvelous at making you feel like an idiot until you feel like a genius.
Oh, and it comes with a full editor and community level portal. While 99% of the user-made levels are simply awful, especially if you play through the developer’s levels first, there are some gems in there, and hopefully with time we’ll see some truly great creators playing around with SBD’s systems.
Rating: The second-best stealth game of the year.
Like everyone, I had a couple friends into Diablo 3, and they tried their hardest to suck me in too. So why I bounced right off that game but spent so much time with Torchlight II is a mystery to me.
Okay, it’s not. Here’s the thing: I’m really tired of badly-done grim game worlds. Grim means more than black skies, plague-monsters, and hand-wringing narration about demons and the end of the world. Especially if your game doesn’t contain any characters thicker than the type of paper they use to make Bibles. Maybe Diablo 3 was the better game, though my few hours with it were mostly spent in utter boredom (I’ve been told I need to finish the game once to get to the good stuff. Well, to hell with that, sir. To hell with that). Torchlight II, on the other hand, had me leveling up on an average of every fifteen minutes, and making actual decisions when I did. It was fine with my berserker sporting a maniacal grin and laughing aloud at the clash of steel, rather than gazing with grimly-set jaw over the grim grim landscape at all the grimness. It took a jollier approach to the whole evil-demon-stuff-is-evil thing. It even seemed like my character was skipping between encounters.
And I liked that. So there.
Rating: Better than Diablo 3.
Posted on December 31, 2012, in Holiday Special, Reviews and tagged Assassin's Creed III, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Deadlight, Fable III, Far Cry 3, L.A. Noire, Mark of the Ninja, Planetside 2, Rayman Origins, Sleeping Dogs, Stealth Bastard Deluxe, The Leftovers, Torchlight II. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.