2010: The Year in Gaming

I like playing video games, but I’ve been pitifully broke the past year, so most of what I got to play this year is stuff from 2009 that’s since made its way into the bargain bin, and even then I didn’t finish everything I started (I’m still trying on Mass Effect, for example, but it’s just not as awesome as the fanboys make it out to be). Still, since it’s the end of the year and everyone’s making their best-of lists, I can at least comment on  the few of 2010’s releases I did get to play.

Sonic the Hedgehog 4

I’m not sure how Sega managed to screw this one up so badly. Okay, that’s not the best way to put it–it’s Sega, for god’s sake, where “screwing up Sonic games” has been emblazoned on their letterhead since the Dreamcast days.  (We’ve all seen that graphic of the Sonic Cycle by now, right?) But playing Sonic 4, you really have to wonder: what the hell made them think this was anything close to what the old-school fanbase wanted?

The original three Sonic games (four if you’re counting Sonic & Knuckles, though I see that as more of an expansion for Sonic 3) are classics. They have great controls, the physics are tight and feel exactly how living in the real world would make you expect them to feel, the sense of speed and inertia was revolutionary for its time, and the stories form a motivational narrative without pandering to the furries with anthropomorphic bat cleavage, making us play as emo anti-heroes with guns or throwing human-hedgehog romances on the screen. The old Sonic games are fast, fun and very replayable. They’re everything the post-16-bit sequels haven’t been.

Sonic 4 is supposed to be the game that takes the series back to its roots. It’s not. The controls are shoddy. The feeling of speed and inertia is all gone; notice how quickly Sonic comes to a stand-still when you let go of the forward button, even when you were running at full speed, or how he actually loses momentum going down slopes and half-pipes this time around. The camera’s zoomed in too close to Sonic so he takes up an obscene portion of the screen, meaning you don’t have enough time to react to what’s coming when you start moving quickly; compare the relative size of Sonic and everything else on the screen in Sonic 4 to the Genesis games. Sonic  even comes out of his ball in mid-jump, making him vulnerable to taking hits when you’re in the air. There are Sonic Advance-style instant-full-speed pads spread across the levels as opposed to having levels designed to allow Sonic to naturally build and use his speed like he did in the old games. I suppose there might be some nice things I could say about the game, but why bother? When you add it all up it’s a huge mess, and none of the rare bright spots outshine the mediocre-to-crap majority of the game.

Some people might claim that this is a natural result of trying to adapt a classic 2D platformer to modern gaming sensibilities. Those people are idiots. For a counter-example to this argument I’m going to point to New Super Mario Bros. Wii, which came out at the end of last year and is fantastic (seriously, go buy it now if you haven’t already). NSMBW not only recreates the gameplay of the NES Mario games, but it incorporates new abilities from the 3D games, such as wall-jumping and jumping three times in quick succession to achieve greater heights, and it works flawlessly. Why is it that Nintendo can pull off this kind of 2D resurrection and Sega can’t? I could propose several possible reasons why Nintendoes what Segain’t, but I think I’ll go with this one: Sega is a lazy developer. There’s no excuse for Sonic 4 to suck this much, but it does anyway because Sega knew it would sell regardless of whether or not it was any good.

I hear good things about Sonic Colors, but I already wasted $10 on Sonic 4, and I’m loath to give Sega another goddamn dime. I keep looking for it at the Red Box whenever I’m at the store.

Final Fantasy XIII

Talk about your mixed feelings. There are things I really enjoyed about FFXIII. The battle system was a lot of fun, and the soundtrack was strong.  The story was interesting, though I felt a bit rushed through it at points. And of course the game’s pretty, though after all the time the damn game spent in development and considering how much of what was planned for the game is missing from the final package, what’s there better look good.

And there’s the rub: just like FFXII before it, FFXIII just doesn’t feel like a whole game to me. The Final Fantasy series has been paring down the actual game portion in each offering for a while now; it seems every subsequent offline game since the PSX era has had fewer towns, fewer optional areas, fewer side-quests that didn’t involve collecting a hundred or so random bullshit MacGuffins (be they cards or monsters or any of that grind-happy crap); with the PS2 era we even lost the relative player-freedom of world maps and controllable airships. FFXII somewhat addressed the issue with its large, branching areas and by allowing the player to go on MMORPG-style mob-hunts, but it only had a few towns, not to mention the story just kind of piffles off into nothing after a while, so it’s hard to chalk it up as a win in that regard. In any event, FFXIII takes the trend to the extreme.

FFXIII is little more than a battle system and a bunch of cutscenes. I enjoyed the story, though I feel it suffers in the mid-section; it’s obvious that Square cut a lot of content to streamline the experience. There’s an apparent villain with ties to Sazh’s backstory whom I expected to fight, but said villain gets summarily killed off, for no apparent reason, a bit later on; there’s another villain I fought a couple times whose name and purpose in the story I just can’t remember (though at least the last battle against him was a nifty nod to FFVII). This entry’s Cid shows up a couple times and just kind of gets tossed away as a character when he’s no longer convenient to the plot. Likewise, the antagonist is… just kind of there for most of the game, except for when he’s needed to spur the story forward again. Still, FFXIII does a good job of fleshing out the protagonists (well, most of them) and making Cocoon seem like an interesting place to explore–if only the player was actually allowed to explore it.

Problem is, there is no exploring Cocoon. The first half of the game is a straight run down one very pretty hallway after the next, without any meaningful deviations. There are no shops, there are no towns, there are no NPCs, there are no inns. You run down a path, killing enemies, until the next cut scene plays. Of course, there is some exploration to be done on Gran Pulse (once you get there around 30 hours into the game) but that all comes down to MMORPG-style mob-hunts, which is another word for “the developer didn’t care enough to create fun optional content, so here’s some busy-work instead.”

It’s interesting in a way, like a complete deconstruction of the post 16-bit Japanese RPG formula. Almost everything in the game is automated or presented in such a way that the player has no choice but to do exactly what the programmers wanted him or her to do. Advancing one’s skills takes place on a linear field where you hold A to advance until you run out of ability points; get in too many battles and you find yourself up against an artificial wall, unable to advance your stats further until the game decides to open the next level to you (usually at the end of a chapter). When you’re in combat, you can only control the actions of the party leader, who’s computer-assigned until halfway through the game. Equipment choices are limited and effectively meaningless. The player is almost taken out of the equation entirely. The game does everything but run through the dungeons for you, and if you want to do more by yourself–tough, that’s not an option.

In a way I’m glad Final Fantasy XIV has already been such a failure. This series needs to go back to the drawing board, and hopefully Square taking some financial hits will force them to think again about what made the series popular to begin with. FFXIII was a fun ride, but it feels too much like a movie. I want to play my games, dammit.

Mega Man 10

I’ll keep this short and sweet: Mega Man 10 was nowhere near as good as Mega Man 9. The level design was boring, the music was so-so, the bosses were fairly bland and none of the special weapons seemed all that interesting. Getting to play as Bass and Proto Man was interesting, but Capcom was lazy here; neither character had his own ending to speak of, and if memory serves they both used the same special weapons as Mega Man. It’s pretty obvious this game was a quick cash-in after MM9‘s success.

I’m also disappointed to hear that Keiji Inafune has left Capcom. I had high hopes for Mega Man Legends 3; now I’m not sure what to expect from it.

Red Dead Redemption

I’ve been playing this one pretty much non-stop since Black Friday. It’s an open world adventure by Rockstar set in the Old West–think Grand Theft Auto: Cowboys and Indians. I still need to beat it; I have my farm back, but apparently there’s still a few more mission strands to complete.

RDR does a lot of things right that GTAIV did wrong. For starters, the game world is huge and varied, and there’s plenty of optional stuff to do. You can go hunting, you can collect herbs, you can raid gang hideouts, you can go on side-quests at the request of “Strangers” met along the way; you can play blackjack, poker and dice at saloons; you can go out with your lasso and break a wild horse if you want a new steed. I always felt that GTAIV’s version of Liberty City was too small and yet too confusing to get around in, with too little to do. RDR feels more along the lines of GTA: San Andreas to me; RDR is nowhere near as in depth, mind you (there’s no changing your stats or body type, and only a set number of outfits to collect), but it gives you the virtual equivalent of a few US states and a sizable chunk of Mexico to play around in.

On top of that, the story’s fairly good; John Marston isn’t your typical Rockstar sociopath out to make a name for himself and/or amass wealth–he just wants his family back from the government stooges who have kidnapped them, and if that means hunting down the members of his old gang, so be it. It’s nice to play a game with a likable, human protagonist for a change. It’s telling that the game doesn’t simply end with the completion of Marston’s original mission, though Rockstar certainly could have stopped there and had a great game on their hands as it was.

NBA Jam

Dude, it’s NBA Jam. What do I have to say here? I normally don’t like sports games, and I’d rather not give EA any of my money, but I’m willing to make an exception for the Boomshakalaka. See also: “I hate racing/fighting games, but I’ll play the heck out of Mario Kart/Super Smash Bros.

IT WAS NEW TO ME

Thoughts on a few games that came out before 2010 that I didn’t get to play until this year.

Bioshock: Something about this game just clicked for me, which is rare for an FPS. I never played System Shock (I’m not a PC gamer), so I didn’t come into it with any of that attendant baggage. I hope the sequel will be just as good once I get around to playing it.

Mass Effect: I don’t know. I like it well enough, but from what I’ve played the story just isn’t taking off like I want it to, and I’m frustrated that Shepherd dying means it’s automatically a game over even if the rest of my party is standing (that annoyed me in FFXIII as well). I’ll get around to finishing it some day. But now you know why I haven’t played ME2 yet.

Batman: Arkham Asylum: Probably the best superhero game ever made, and easily the best video game adaptation of Batman as a character. I loved the emphasis on Batman’s role as a detective, and any opportunity to hear Mark Hamill doing the Joker again is worth the entry fee. Can’t wait for Arkham City.

Ghostbusters (360 version): I’ve heard mixed reviews on this game, but I had a blast with it. Maybe that’s just because I watched the movies and the cartoon so much as a kid; I even had one of those plastic proton packs and a collection of Ghostbuster action figures. I don’t think it was just the nostalgia, though; this was a pretty solid game, and the writing was up there with the movies. I wish they’d make a sequel in the same vein instead of the apparent cheap cash-in we’re going to get.

Stuff I Didn’t Get To Play That I Wanted To

This turned out to be a long list.

Bayonetta: I’m kind of on the fence on this one. I hear good things about it. Problem is, I hear those things from people who like other Sega games, and with the exception of old-school Sonic games I’m generally not a Sega fan. The demo seemed alright, if a little button-mashy for my tastes.

No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle: The first game is insane fun, not just because of the over the top violence, but for the zany story and the way it deconstructs video games and those who play them. I hear mixed things about the sequel, but I still want to play it.

BioShock 2: Given how much I enjoyed the first one, it’s a given that I’ll pick up the sequel once it hits the bargain bin.

Assassin’s Creed (series): I keep hearing people talk about how much they enjoyed ACII and ACII: Brotherhood. I’ll have to rent it one of these days.

Nier: I heard almost nothing about this game when it first came out, but it’s been showing up on other people’s end of the year game lists, and it sounds worthwhile. A Square Enix RPG that isn’t an anime-cliche-filled tunnel? Sign me up!

Alan Wake: I know almost nothing about this game outside of the protagonist being a writer looking for his missing wife, but word is it has a pretty decent story.

Super Mario Galaxy 2: The first SMG is still probably the best game on the Wii. I haven’t gotten around to picking up the sequel yet, mostly because I’m broke. But man does it look fun.

Metroid: Other M: It’s a Metroid game. I have to play it, even if it is by a team that usually makes crappy fighting games and turned Ninja Gaiden, one of the best series on the NES, into a shitty cheap as hell button-masher. But I really wish it would come down in price.

Super Meat Boy: Apparently this is really good? I’ve had my XBox hooked up to the internet all of three times since I bought the damn thing, but some day I’ll have to log on and give this one a shot.

Donkey Kong Country Returns: It just came out. I haven’t had a chance to play it yet. But man did I play the heck out of the original games.

Golden Sun: Dark Dawn: If you didn’t play the originals back on the GBA, you missed out. The story was kind of meh, but the emphasis on puzzle-solving was classic fun.

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