Sorry, the running order has already slipped, due to yesterday being a lovely day of family, friends, and boardgames, but here’s today’s scheduled Games article. Comics should be with you tomorrow.
It’s been a big year for games, in about every conceivable way. Between the rise of Kickstarter, and the continuing flood of Humble Bundles and its ilk, it’s not hard to look at 2012 as a year that a
wealth of alternative approaches opened up to game developers.
But looking at the industry – which also spent a lot of the year showing its ugly side – isn’t really my forté, or that interesting. It’s not about the machine, it’s about what it produces. On to the games!
Probably the most ‘important’ game of the year is Thirty Flights of Loving, which introduced a bit of fresh vocabulary to the medium in its hard cuts and hypercompression. Over the 20 minutes it lasts, the game jumps around non-linearly, squeezing in enough story, world and character for your average blockbuster. It’s not a game I fell in love with, but it is a useful game, the kind you can expect to see name-dropped endlessly in articles about game narrative from now on.
Dishonored‘s narrative is much more traditional, telling Dunwall’s story with a mix of cutscenes, overheard conversations and level design (graffiti, audiologs, books, bodies, etc). The real story, of course, is in how you played it – leaping rooftop to rooftop, freezing time and possessing rats; switching cups of poison and hiding under tables to watch the outcome; silently dispatching roomfuls of men and leaving their unconscious bodies on top of chandeliers.
It’s not quite the machine for memorable anecdotes I’d hoped for, but partly that’s down to how I played, strictly sticking to a set of rules I’d assigned myself – never get spotted, never kill (with the exception of those who framed me for the murder of the Empress). It meant I found myself restarting at the slightest provocation, getting into sticky situations becoming a nuisance rather than a chance to improvise with the excellent toolbox the game grants you.
It made me realise how much I love games which force me to live with my actions and mistakes – more on that later.
Halo 4. Now there’s a game I didn’t expect to see on this list.
I’ve played every game in the Halo series, now six installments deep (not including last year’s remake). Together, I’ve probably devoted more time to it than any other series in videogaming (and therefore probably more than any other hobby full stop).
The game picks up, two games later, where Halo 3 left off back in 2007, with Bungie handing over the reigns to first-time developer 343. It wasn’t too promising, especially once I heard about the CODification of the multiplayer, introducing levels and points and perks, abandoning Halo’s trademark simplicity.
And then the chatter came through the wire. Twitter suddenly blossomed with praise, throwing around phrases like “ballet” and “finely tuned” and expressing their surprise at just how good it was.
On paper, Halo 4 shouldn’t be as good as it is. There’s nothing particularly original on offer – the opening of the singleplayer campaign, at least, is so structurally similar to the 2001 original it could be a remake. It even trims off some of my favourite features – multiplayer minus my beloved Invasion mode, and the rather-good Firefight has been replaced. But most damningly, there’s not even a good control setting, or even a customisable one.
And yet everything somehow feels fresh and elegant. Both the visuals and handling are satisfyingly chunky, delivering on the promise of Halo at its best. Maybe it’s just down to streamlining the experience and turning all the dials to 11 – in multiplayer especially, where respawn time is erased completely, and weapons and vehicles are thrown into each level with careless abandon.
I don’t know, it’s just an utter joy, and I need to play more. Now.
One of the great pleasures of having spent so much time with a game’s predecessors is being able to really appreciate the various tiny changes – in the case of Halo 4, take the way the singleplayer campaigns provides with much more limited ammo. You can see why it was changed – it forces you to constantly switch around your arsenal – and it’s a satisfying process of discovery, even if you disagree with some of the changes.
It’s a similar story with Spelunky, an Xbox Arcade remake of possibly my favourite PC game ever (and the other contender for the game I’ve spent most time spent playing). I love that there’s no ‘restart’ button, encouraging you to live with the consequences of getting stung by a scorpion in the first 10 seconds of a game, which really focuses the point of the game. The in-game encyclopaedia, as much it offends my inner Spelunky purist, is rather smart, and I love the way the Tunnel Man asks for items rather than/as well as cash to dig his shortcuts, which adds a sprinkle variety and narrative to your encounters with him.
Mostly, though, I can feel how the distribution of monsters, damsels-in-despair, and traps has changed. They’re laid out more densely, which upsets my play style a little – and means letting a boulder loose can get you in a lot of unintended trouble as it steamrollers shops, shrines, and damsels – but ensures levels never get boring, especially with the addition of all the new monsters and secrets.
The removal of end-of-level scoreboard is the change that hurts most. It always helped lend a sense of progression to a session of bashing your head against Spelunky‘s unforgiving world, and was tied neatly into the game’s physical levels.
But, really, Spelunky is such a complete, rounded concept to start with that it doesn’t really matter, and the port is responsive and pretty. Plus, one of the changes is the ability to switch out all the Damsels for pugs, which eliminates pretty much any criticisms I could raise.
FTL picked up many of the same pleasures Spelunky provided and ran with them – basically, by being completely unforgiving in its mechanics and making every mistake count. I’ve written about how it simulates being captain of a spaceship with controls jammed to the heart of the sun, but ultimately my favourite thing was the permanence, and how it made every little decision (much-needed repair or new laser weapon?) feel important, especially when it turned out to be the wrong one.
It’d be easy to characterise Hotline Miami as I game I like as a concept more than in actuality, but in fairness I’ve barely dipped into its sun- and violence-drenched levels. I find its smooth subtle blend of Drive, the old GTA, and ’80s cocaine nightmare highly appealing, but I’ve spent more time reading about it (and nodding along) than playing it. It’s a similar story with Dark Souls, which technically came out in the form I played it late last year, but I’m including it here, because [various justifications] but mostly because I want to namedrop it.
If we were applying the ‘WWE All Stars’ rule (which I never got around to writing about as my Game of 2011, sorry, due to losing the disc – but essentially the one I had most fun playing with friends, biggest laughs, the thing I’d want to play most with drink in hand) my personal game of the year would be Worms 2: Armageddon on Xbox 360. That’s in spite of it being a game which came out on the platform in 2009, and actually really launched in the late ’90s. Nevertheless, it’s still got it, and the living room TV turns out to be Worms’ natural home. That simple move proves to be far more of a revolution than any of the abortive attempts to introduce 3D, complex physics, or any of that modern malarkey.
And there’s still so much stuff I haven’t even touched, for reasons of time or money, that I can’t wait to get my hands on. Far Cry 3, Walking Dead, XCOM, Mark of the Ninja… I’m sure I’ll get round to talking about some of those in 2013, with my usual trademark timeliness.