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2009 in Review: Left 4 Dead 2

Posted by deckard47 on January 26, 2010

I’d thought that Among Thieves would be here, at the top. This is the last of these year in review thingies, because I can’t think of anything I liked more than Left 4 Dead 2. Yes, when Among Thieves was on its way (and while playing it), I thought that I wouldn’t play a better game this year. I still love Among Thieves, and maybe it will get its own post, as a consolation prize (a runner-up spot, maybe), but for now, it’s time to talk about L4D2.

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2009 in Review: Dawn of War 2

Posted by deckard47 on January 20, 2010

I’m pretty wretched at RTS’s. I don’t say this out of some kind of misguided attempt to curry favor or make myself look different in some way (I’m sure lots of people are bad at these games). I don’t have the kind of mind that can properly analyze and respond to complicated moment-to-moment tactical developments, or one that can remember what to build fastest, first. Sure, I have a fuzzy idea of what does well, but playing against a human (or a computer above Easy) I’m weak and easily destroyed.

A few years ago I welcomed (a step above my normal “tolerate” policy for RTS’s) Relic’s Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War. It was like a mix of an FPS control zone capture-based mode and a cool, almost squad-based RTS. I was still bad at it, but it was tons of fun. I avoided the sequel for two reasons: at the time, my computer whimpered at the site of the game’s menu, and I figured I’d explored everything Relic had to say about that world.

I was, luckily, wrong. Not only had Relic plugged an amusingly simple (yet enjoyable) narrative full of ridiculous growly men into their world, they’d done it while pretending to be making the sequel to Dawn of War, while they were really working on the continuation of Company of Heroes, Relic’s awesome WW2 RTS (which would be on this list if it hadn’t come out prior to 2009).

It seems like a lot of people compare DoW II to Diablo. I suppose they aren’t far off, in some ways. The maps do all resemble dungeons (in their similar structure and makeup), there is a lot of loot, and there are mobs, boss units, and levels to be had. Playing the game (on a higher difficulty), the last thing on my mind was Diablo. Battles in DoW 2, when not handled properly, are quick, deadly things. Upon returning to the game after a month-long break, I started up a campaign mission. I’d forgotten who my best troops were, what powers and items they had (and what each power did best), and what abilities I’d gifted them with. It was like dropping into Baldur’s Gate 2 after a long hiatus. The first hour or so is spent enduring brutal, near-instant humiliation at the hands of the game’s enemies and AI.

What DoW 2 does is actually quite impressive, when you think about it. It takes that (necessarily) cautious, often-brutal squad gameplay, lowers the difficulty (just a bit), and turns everything else all the way up, especially in the explosions and eviscerations department. While that might not necessarily be your thing, as it is not mine, it facilitates (graphically) the game’s desire to let you mess around with every map and battle. The game is constantly, entertainingly willing to let you attack your enemies using a vast array of powers, in a surprising number of tactically viable ways. Again, I’ll compare it to a Bioware game, in this case, Dragon Age: when you come up against a horde, you might lose half or all of your squad before regrouping and healing. So how do you take the enemy out? In my case, you think, and you examine your crew. Maybe you restart the mission so you can drop in different units. Then you use your sniper crew (who I quickly upgraded to have super-ultimate cloak) to utterly destroy the enemy with satchel charges. Or you send out your heavy gunner crew, alone, and have them drop two devastating sentry guns in at the last minute, just as the horde is upon them.

It takes the tense tactical play of a squad-based RPG, and then takes almost all of the standard attacks, maneuvers, and abilities and makes them seem outrageous and ridiculously fun. In that way, it kind of is like Diablo (and its story is definitely closer to something you’d find in a Blizzard game), but only if Diablo was a game that focused on smart, squad-based tactical RPG skirmishes. It’s also beautiful, and almost every unit in-game moves and attacks with obvious weight and purpose. Watching giant mechs and aliens explode through walls, while smaller units use heavy ordinance to open new avenues of attack onto sniper units for the first time, I couldn’t believe (and still can’t believe) that games can get away without including this kind of fluctuating, controllable terrain (this is beginning to sound familiar). Despite these new levels of tactical nuance, the game is also, somehow, quite laid back in its pacing. My units may attack using ludicrous space laser swords, but battles are not quick affairs.

The pacing is also just about perfect. It is just fast enough that I can lose a battle in a few minutes, but i i’s also slow enough that I can think as I play (no need for a pause button), adapting to new threats as they appear, and reallocating my units as need be. It’s a far cry from my normal thought process in RTS’s, which is normally this : “Oh shit, here they come I’mgoingtodie!” The fact that this excellent gameplay comes packaged in a silly if mostly fun universe just adds to my delight every time I open the game. I can’t think of another game released this last year, be it an RTS or an RPG, that satisfied me and made me feel smart in this way.

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2009 in Review: Red Faction: Guerilla

Posted by deckard47 on January 19, 2010

Lots of games purport to deliver an amazing, open-ended experience where you can go anywhere and do anything. They all do their best, it their little (and sometimes bug) ways do deliver on this concept. Red Faction: Guerrilla delivers on its promises of wide-ranging, highly destructible combat with style and skill. Of course, unlike other open-world games, RFG fails to provide any kind of compelling narrative, its world, while beautiful and convincing in its austere, Martian way, is often drab and unexciting. The people and ideas that populate this game are old and dying, close to the point of carrying on as some kind of unhealthy undead fiction. Of course, absolutely none of that matters after the first hour (or after the sixth or seventh hour, for that matter).

Playing this game, I wonder: how can games get away with the ancient non-destructible (or in many case, scripted destruction) environments. Watching something built by designers topple thanks to my hard work is unique feeling. Watching it topple again in a completely different way, just because I wanted to do it better, is something else entirely. Games like GTA IV, Just Cause 2, and Crackdown 2 (along with shooters like Modern Warfare 2) all feature outrageously overpowered ordinances and explosion-ready targets. It’s actually quite surprising that more games don’t license the technology used in Red Faction: Guerilla and the Bad Company series (the only other mainstream action game to use such effects), now that those games have attained such success. It isn’t a gimmick. When everything (but, sadly, the ground) can be destroyed, a player is encouraged, allowed, and thrilled to approach missions and map-traversal in new, exciting ways.

Thankfully, the rest of the gameplay isn’t bad at all. Cars drive with an appreciable Martian lack of heft, enemies are dangerous, ever-present harriers, most of the weapons are fun and punchy (or even better, explosive), and multiplayer perfectly translates the single player gameplay into fast, frantic bouts of wall-breaking, jet packing deathmatch (in fact, the game earns a lot of points just for the inclusion of an amazing jet pack). Really though, what makes this game impressive is the way that the player is constantly encouraged (by what she has seen, what the game has taught her, and the options available to the her) to solve tactical situations using less-than-average techniques. In fact, in light of this recent blog post over on BLDGBLOG, I’d like to recognize these wonderful parts of Guerrilla for what they are: liberating, exciting explorations of unorthodox, randomized destruction and traversal of ever-changing architecture. I’ve played all of the open-world, sandbox games (of this and the past generation) out there, and this is the one that actually feels fun and dew when I start it up after a long break. I never have to watch warehouses blow up in canned animations, and I never have to work with anything less than what I want. It’s an impressively liberating experience, and it is fun.

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2009 in Review: Dragon Age

Posted by deckard47 on January 16, 2010

At the behest of some of my supporters (er, I mean readers), I’ve decided to do a 2009 year-end summation type article. I’m late on this, and I’m unsure how to do it. I’d love to just steal from Simon’s version, but then he’d know, since he reads this. So, originality. Tricky. This will be the first of many posts, I hope. This one is about the game that I wish I could leave off this list. I love it too much to exile it, as you will see:

The worst game that I still genuinely enjoy, and actually kind of love: Dragon Age

Dragon Age. It’s a game I’ve been waiting for for a long time, a game I hoped would replace BG 2 as my go-to CRPG in the years to come (when that old itch showed up), and a stop on Bioware’s road to their ultimate narrative-centric RPG (they sure haven’t perfected it yet). It’s a game I’ve played at least 40 hours of, and one  I still can’t bring myself to finish. The setting is wearing on my nerves, I’m having trouble getting excited over new, high level powers, and the silent protagonist stands out among her verbose companions. I still love it though, and it’s still Bioware, but for me, whatever magic they brought in BG 2 is less in evidence here than I thought it would be. They’ve shifted it, focusing on Mass Effect more and more of their considerable, admirable talents. I fully expect that game to be as brilliant as I thought the first one would be (and I think the first one is brilliant). Dragon Age is stilted, static, and turgid. I love the characters, much of the writing, and the spirit with which the game thrusts its universe into your face.

In comparison, in Mass Effect, conversations felt dynamic, fast-paced, and exciting. They weren’t perfect, but they sold the immediacy of the world much better than DA can possibly manage. Every conversation in DA is interesting and deep, and the characters are wonderful, but after a while I just wish they’d get to the damn point. Bioware’s strength these days is in highly cinematic (yes, I know, I mean that their attempts to replicate certain filmic visual gimmicks is always better and better, in-cutscene, that is) conversations and small groups of NPCs. Dragon Age just throws to much shit at me. Maybe I’m getting older and nastier, but I don’t care about my avatar, my hero, unless she’s a talker, a doer, and an obvious agent within the game. My character in Dragon Age tries, but she just doesn’t seem to do much, unless she’s having awful stilted sex with another robot.

Still, this game is, without a doubt, the most impressive thing I’ve seen this year (last year now, I know). For the first 30 hours or so, I wasn’t overwhelmed, I was swept up in their fiction, for all its faults. It’s a fictions as thick as any I’ve ever seen in a game, and it doesn’t rely on cheap tricks and tired methods of exposition to tell you the story of its world (although that codex is just unwieldy). It avoids the increasingly annoying “journal entry” and “voice recording” filler that stands in for a fully constructed world, for exposition delivered in an interesting fashion by characters, and in turn, by every inch of the world itself (not to say that Dragon Age does this, but it does a better job at letting its world and people tell a story than many games full of video diaries, blabbering NPCs (who we’re told, lyingly, are not cutscenes. THEY ARE), and loquacious robots and mysterious guides. I’ll finish it, because it proves to me that Bioware is on the right track in many ways (let’s consider this award from Able Gamers, for a moment, linked here), and that they’re hearts are in a better place than most. They’re creating games that are less and less marginalizing, offensive, and exclusionary. They’re so far ahead of so many companies, it’s just a bit sad. So, here’s to Dragon Age, the one game that shouldn’t be on this list (if this list is a tally of what I consider to be the best games of the year), but is so good, it found its way on anyway.

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