12 December 2010

The Most Terrible Games of 2010

Every game starts off as a perfect 10. During those virgin moments when I'm loading up a game for the first time--Havok acknowledgement, Bink Video acknowledgement (what the hell is "Bink Video" anyway, and why do some many games seem to depend on it?), and so forth--my heart practically explodes with hope. (I wrote about this peculiar brand of hope in detail in this post.) I'm at maximum optimism, baby. I want the game that I am about to play to be nothing short of spectacular. I want my head to be blown off by how terrific the game is.

Then, as usual, almost always, the game turns out to be complete and utter dog shit.

Scientific fact: Approximately one out of 20 games is interesting and worth playing. Another scientific fact: Maybe one out of every hundred games is legitimately great. In baseball, you get one hit for every 20 at-bats, or one home run for every 100 at-bats, and you're out of a job pretty quickly.

Yet we gamers continue to march into game stores, continue to gladly hand over $60--or in Canada, $70--only to receive the videogame equivalent of an exploding cigar in return. I remember living on 106 Street in Manhattan about 10 years ago. Money was tight back then. I was working at a terrible job, trying to survive, trying not to have to pack up my belongings and go back home.

One day I marched into the nearby EB Games and saw that the Dreamcast version of Soldier of Fortune had just come out. I bought the game. I'd read quite a bit about Soldier of Fortune, and always wanted to play it, and finally it was out on a platform that I owned. I headed home with my new game, loaded it up (hope, hope, hope, hope, etc.) only to be completely fucking soul-crushed by the atrocious load times and shitty gameplay.

I promptly took the game back to the store, hoping to trade this trash in for something better. The gloating cashier--at least he seemed to be gloating--informed me that in its current "opened" state, the game was only worth $20. Even though I'd paid $60 for it only an hour or so ago.

I said: "So, as soon as I take the shrink wrap off the game, it loses two-thirds of its value?"

He said: "Yes, that's right."

I said: "This is bullshit."

I was practically in tears. I grabbed the stupid fucking game off the counter and exited the store, my face hot with shame and embarrassment. As soon as I got home, a terrible electrical storm hit New York. Rain came down in sheets. Lightning pinged off the tops of buildings. I sat by the window, watching the storm do its work, clenching and unclenching my fists, not realizing in this moment that I was experiencing my own super hero-like origin story. It was on this night, as rain and lighting came from the sky, that my life took a turn, that I forever became someone else.

Thanks to that piece-of-trash port of Soldier of Fortune, I became who I am today.

So the next time you think I'm being too hard on a game, that I've handed out a score that seems cruel and unusual, remember this: All I'm trying to do, you dummy, is to make sure you never have your own Soldier of Fortune moment.

Anyway, here are five $60 exploding cigars from 2010.

5. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II (LucasArts, PS3/360)
This one really hurt. Sure, it looks a little better than the original--a game that I loved dearly, mostly because it let me feel like a Star Wars fan again--but the sequel is short and repetitive, and worse still, just plain fucking dumb. The writing is terrible. The story: Also terrible. The game has huge narrative holes in it that imply that it wasn't even close to being finished. LucasArts has the best intellectual properties, the best facilities, the most talent and money, etc. Star Wars: TFU II is basically a greeting card from George Lucas that says: "Dear Gamers, Eat shit. Love, George." Price: $59.99. What the game is actually worth: -$2.

4. Mafia II (2K Games, PS3/360/PC)
I could not wait to play this game. I thought: "This is a smarter, more mature Grand Theft Auto." Note the Roman numeral in the title. As a general rule, games with Roman numerals tend to always be smarter and more mature than games that feature regular numbers. But what Mafia II turned out to be was a painfully linear, painfully dull experience. Also: Collecting old Playboy magazines was cool. But who leaves their old Playboys sitting around on coffee-shop counters? I don't. So even the whole old-Playboys thing was ruined. Also: driving old-time cars is never fun. Never. Also not fun: a mini-game centered around selling cigarettes out of the back of a truck. Fuck you, Mafia II. Price: $59.99. What the game is actually worth: $4.99.

3. MAG (Zipper Interactive, PS3)
To be honest, I sort of knew this one was going to be terrible in advance. Because I am psychic? No. (Though I've always thought that I might be a little psychic.) This is why: Because you can't hang a game on what amounts to basically a technological boast. Sure, you can DO 256-person multiplayer. Yes, it is POSSIBLE. But you still need A REASON to have 256-person multiplayer. Because, just being able to do it does not qualify as a reason. So, what you're left with is a heartless, soulless experience where, instead of working together in factions, most jagoffs run through the game as if they are auditioning for Rambo 9. We need faces, Sony. We need story. We need more than tech. Price: $59.99. What the game is actually worth: $3.

2. Crackdown 2 (Ruffian Games, 360)
I loved the original Crackdown, and I thought that I loved the sequel, too. Crackdown 2, to be fair, was a fun little diversion for a few nights. Yes, I obsessed over the orbs. My beloved orbs! Yes, I enjoyed driving through zombie hordes at top speed. But like a pork taco purchased from a street vendor, what tasted pretty good at the time moved through my system at an alarming rate of speed. Explanation of my elaborate metaphor: Crackdown 2 is the pork taco. And the whole "moving through my system" thing is a reference to poop. What I am trying to say is that this game barely registered on my gaming psyche. And now the Crackdown "series" ends after two games. Price: $59.99. What the game is actually worth: $7.

1. BioShock 2 (2K Games, PS3/360/PC)
More Big Daddies. More Little Sisters. More BioShock. PLUS: MULTIPLAYER!!!!!! (NO WAY!) BioShock multiplayer, in my opinion, wins the award for Unholiest Abomination of 2010. I feel terrible for the poor people who had to build the multiplayer component. Sure, you can still find a few lost souls playing the game online. Yet, I can't shake the feeling that anyone who is still playing BioShock 2's multiplayer must have had something go horribly wrong in their lives. Maybe their wives left them. Or they lost their jobs. Or they are in a prison because they were wrongly convicted of a crime of passion and the only game that the prison owns is BioShock 2.

They must have experienced some sort of devastating tragedy. Because no one plays BioShock 2 multiplayer of their own volition.

Also: The Big Sister concept sucks. Remember how strange and unnerving the Big Daddies were when you played the original game? The Big Sister, by comparison, always announces her arrival by practically banging pots together. Then she just flies around and causes havoc exactly like enemies do in about a billion other games.

And while the whole game looks like BioShock and plays like BioShock, and smells and tastes like BioShock, it's not BioShock. None of the BioShock soul made it into the sequel. It's an empty, hollow, cold, heartless, obvious bid for more popularity and more money. That's all it is. It goes exactly where you think it's going to go, every step of the way, making it the absolute worst kind of exploding cigar: the kind that explodes on you only after you've already invested five or so hours into the game.

01 December 2010

The 10 Best Games of 2010 (5 Thru 1)

OK, you jackals, here are the rest of my You-Like-What-You-Like picks for 2010. Feel free to chime in with your personal picks, recommendations, and/or hate mail below. [Missed the first entry? Too lazy today to scroll down a few pages? Click here to view my 10 through six picks.]

One more point I'd like to make before I continue: These games are not necessarily perfect 10's. In fact, every game in my like-what-I-like list is flawed in some significant way. Perfection isn't a part of the like list. The like list is simply about the games that I wound up investing the most time into in 2010.

Anyway, let the grousing begin!

5. Rage of the Gladiator (WiiWare, Ghostfire Games, Wii)

The only thing I love more than Nintendo's Punch-Out!! series is a good Punch-Out!! clone. Which is exactly what Rage of the Gladiator is. Instead of the spunky Little Mac, the game stars an up-and-coming warrior named Prince Gracius. There are some cutscenes that explain exactly who Prince Gracius is and why he is fighting. But I usually can't skip through them fast enough. All I want to do is return to the arena/ring and dole out more ass-beatings.

The game features 10 opponents of various sizes and shapes. Once you've defeated all 10 enemies, Challenge Mode is unlocked in which you re-fight everyone a second time, only this time each opponent has new powers. There is a final (final) boss who you battle only after getting all the way through Challenge Mode. It's a pain in the ass to get to him--or should I say "it"?--but trust me when I tell you that it's worth the effort.

You can customize your attacks thanks to an RPG-like skill tree. But what really sells the game for me is the playful spirit of the whole operation. It's even more playful than Next Level's Punch-Out!! do-over was last year, which is really saying something, since that game was pretty playful. Fighting ogres and ninjas and lions who have dual snakes growing out of their backs is fun, but when those creatures transform into--well, let's just say most of your opponents transform into something else after you've knocked them down twice--is the exact moment when Rage of the Gladiator becomes far more than a Punch-Out!! clone.

4. Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Nintendo, Nintendo, Wii)

Wondering why you've never played Super Mario 65? The answer is this: Nintendo normally does not do sequels. And it certainly never does sequels on the same console. Here's an exception. The level-design geniuses at Nintendo had obviously worked up a head of steam after finishing the first Super Mario Galaxy. The result: this masterwork, which somehow, some way turns out to be even better than the perfectly awesome first game. Sure, spotlight hog Yoshi is the big selling point for the sequel--he practically takes up the entire box cover for SMG 2. (He's far bigger than Mario is.) But it's the game's crafted platforming that's the real star of the show here.

"Crafted" is the right word. There isn't one element of this game that feels slapped together and hustled out the door. Every jump, every flip switch, every Goomba, every boss fight feels considered, honed, perfected. But this platforming heaven, thanks to the steep difficulty level, occasionally turns into a hell. I say: stick with it. The sense of satisfaction you feel after completing an especially challenging level will stay with you long after you've powered off the Wii.

3. Kirby's Epic Yarn (Nintendo, HAL Laboratory, Wii)

From crafted, we move to craft-y. My mom was a big sewer when I was a kid. She had tins filled with all sorts of odd buttons. The racket of her sewing machine ruined many episodes of The Brady Bunch for me. Which no doubt explains at least some of the primal appeal that Kirby's Epic Yarn has for me.

The game is constructed entirely of different fabrics, yarn, and thread, as if the whole thing was literally woven together. It's that tactile quality--the want-to-touch-it quality--that really drew me into the game, and helped me conquer the semi-rotten first impression the game made on me. Yes, the game makes a terrible first impression, thanks to all the cutesy bullshit I had to endure at the start.

Yin-Yarn, Fluff, and and Metamato--all characters from the game--are overly sweet. But it's the cloying voice work of the narrator that really made me want to throw up on my shoes. Thankfully, he goes away fairly quickly, and I was able to get down to some old-school, two-dimensional platforming goodness.

It's not nearly as challenging, or as satisfying, as Super Mario Galaxy 2. But Kirby's Epic Yarn turns out to be far more charming and addictive. Like the stop-motion Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer that airs each year, Kirby's Epic Yarn has the stuff to become an annual holiday staple. There's just something about the game that will always feel like Christmas to me. And for that, HAL Laboratory and Nintendo, I salute you.

2. Dead Rising 2 (Capcom, Capcom Vancouver/Blue Castle Games, 360, PS3)

The first Dead Rising is one of my personal all-time favorites. Yes, it's a well-established fact that I am a complete sucker for zombies. But in addition to awesome zombies, Dead Rising had a terrific sense of place. The Willamette Mall will forever be as real to me as the Shoppingtown Mall, in Syracuse, New York, is.

If you've scanned ahead, then you know that Red Dead Redemption is not on the list. Sorry, RDR, fans. The reason RDR is not on the list is illustrated perfectly by Dead Rising 2. Red Dead Redemption, which also had a terrific sense of place, was too sprawling, too repetitive, and just plain too boring for me. Dead Rising 2 never felt too big, never overwhelmed me with its scope, and never made me do anything that felt like a waste of my time. Everything I did in Dead Rising 2, whether I was saving survivors or finding a store with a steady supply of chainsaws in stock, always felt purposeful, and essential and dramatic.

One more thing: If you're on the fence about committing to the $59.99 full game, download Case Zero first for $5 and see if its for you. Case Zero is the best damn game demo I've ever played, bar none, and it's a great introduction to the rest of the experience.

1. Limbo (Microsoft, Playdead Studios, 360)

No game has gotten under my skin, and stayed there--not ever--the way that Limbo did this year. From the creepy opening screens--which make you feel like you're about to watch a low budget horror movie--to the minimalist art design, this game is the embodiment of the phrase "and now for something completely different."

What makes Limbo so remarkable is how well it adheres to the show-don't-tell adage. It never beats you over the head with exposition, the way that games like Epic Mickey and Red Dead do. It slowly, and confidently, pulls you deeper into this strange world, never over explaining anything, always trusting you--the gamer--to be smart enough, and curious enough, to figure things out on your own.

Best of all, the game generates a sense wonder like no other game I have ever played. Even now, months after I played it, I constantly think about the things I saw in Limbo, and the experiences I had there. No, I can't explain the ending. No, you will not walk away from Limbo feeling satisfied. It never lets you exhale--that final, cathartic exhale--the way that we expected games to let us exhale. That's what makes it so brilliant, and so special, the way that it slyly flouts convention. It's short--you can get through it in a night or two--but not since Portal has a gotten into my subconscious and dwelled there the way that this game has.

Buy it. Play it. Love it.

Anyway, here's to a terrific 2010--one of the best years I can ever remember for gaming. And here's to an even better 2011. As Vic and I often say to each other, "We live in a golden age." Never was it more true than it was this year.