Tuesday, April 19, 2016

My favorite Souls boss themes, in the form of a top ten list (spoilers)



I'm still working on my review for Dark Souls III (there's a lot to process and I want to make sure I get my analysis right), so in the meantime, here are what I consider to be the ten best boss themes across the entire series. Souls games don't tend to have a lot of music, which gives it that much more impact when the music actually does kick in.


Honorable Mention: Soul of Cinder (Dark Souls III)

Dark Souls boss themes like to go awfully high on wailing choirs, particularly in the first and third games of the Dark Souls series. This track seems to fit that descriptor until the 2:15 mark, when an unexpected shift suddenly turns this battle into a throwback to the Gwyn battle in the original Dark Souls, the theme of which will be referenced later in this list. This theme isn't altogether one of my favorites but that's a clever way of telling a story without words.

10. Ruin Sentinels (Dark Souls II)

Not a whole lot to say about this one - it's a rollicking theme that gives its brass section center stage to great effect. This is one of the first memorable encounters in Dark Souls II, because I don't believe From Software has thus far had the guts to pit you against three of the same boss at once. An intense track for an intense situation.

9. Maiden Astraea (Demon's Souls)

This won't be the last time I say this, but the Astraea theme is incongruously pretty. We've been battling pretty much nothing but scary monsters up until this point, and we certainly didn't expect the pattern to be broken at the end of the repulsive Valley of Defilement. But here we are, battling two polite, seemingly un-corrupted individuals who are begging to simply be left alone. As one of the series' first "puzzle" bosses, the discomfitingly beautiful music is your first indication that this battle will not play out like the others.

8. Bell Gargoyles (Dark Souls)

The Gargoyles are among the most notorious dick moves in Souls history, and the music that plays alongside them move the battle from intimidating to outright scary. Those spindly stairstep strings are just a masterclass in maintaining tension, as if a mortal battle is being fought while teetering over the edge of a cliff. Which, in a way, it kind of is.

7. Executioner's Chariot (Dark Souls II)

I actually don't like this boss at all ("puzzle bosses" in Souls games rarely go over well with me), but the setting and atmosphere are perfect. So much of this level is spent with the coliseum towering over you that when you finally get in, it's enthralling to be accompanied by a theme that wouldn't feel out of place in a historical epic. The bit at 1:30 in particular strongly reminds me of the horns being sounded at the beginning of a match in Gladiator.

6. Lady Maria of the Astral Clocktower (Bloodborne)

This theme has the dual task of preparing players for one of the toughest hand-to-hand battles in the series and reminding us that this is one of the few sympathetic figures in this universe, and that having to fight her is kind of a shame. The music gets to have its cake and eat it, opening with ominous bells and fluttering strings before moving to a gorgeous, melancholy single-violin piece at the twelve-second mark (by which point, let's face it, we're deep into the battle).

5. Abyss Watchers (Dark Souls III)

One of the flat-out saddest boss themes in Souls history. If you fought Artorias in the first game's DLC, you know what happens when the Abyss corrupts you. These guys are clearly modeled after that encounter, and they're so far lost that they're battling each other, cursed to rise, kill, die, and repeat perpetually. A vocal-heavy track that keeps the number of singers to a minimum, making this track intimate, poignant and tragic.

4. Ludwig, the Holy Blade (Bloodborne)

This one places so high on the list specifically for the transition that begins at 3:40 and unleashes an all-out assault at 4:18 as the boss, presumed to be just another tragic figure lost to the beast plague, suddenly begins speaking in a calm voice, picks up the Moonlight Greatsword, and carries out the remainder of the battle on two legs. It's an unforgettable transition made largely possible by this music.

3. King Vendrick (Dark Souls II)

To be honest, I kind of wish this wasn't a boss theme at all. It's such a powerful moment - King Vendrick has been hyped as some sort of otherworldly figure for the entire game, and when we finally see him, he's a broken man, wordlessly wandering his tomb in circles while you casually take what you need and buzz off without issue. Making Vendrick a secret boss, and in fact one of the most powerful in the game, spoils that a bit, but I'll never forget the chill that went down my back the first time I came across this scene and heard that piano sting.

2. Gehrman, the First Hunter (Bloodborne)

Probably the most singularly accomplished piece of music ever to come out of a Souls game, it's almost too good for the battle, which is (a) functionally not all that different from many other bosses you've fought until this point and (b) against a character I think I'm supposed to be sadder about fighting than I am. Whatever the case, this is one of the most stunning boss themes I've ever heard.

1. Gwyn, Lord of Cinder (Dark Souls)

I'd argue that this is the most iconic piece of music to come out of a Souls game, evident in the way both sequels' finales return to it like a motif. Most boss themes in Dark Souls are meant to get you riled up, on the edge of your seat, and there'd be no reason to think that the epic final encounter against the antagonist the entire campaign has been hyping up would follow suit. But then we hear this simple piano piece and see Gwyn instead as a tragic figure, one who brought about his own destruction to prolong the Age of Fire. Knowing that your character is likely to follow in his footsteps only makes it more poignant.


Thursday, March 3, 2016

Spoilerhot


I recently wrote a Superhot review that you can read by clicking on this hyperlink. It just went up the other day, but I want to note that I actually wrote it last week, before the embargo was lifted and the game landed in public hands. This is important because Superhot's release has morphed my opinion of the game. Not substantially, though, and certainly not for the worse. Let me explain.

See, we knew what Superhot purported to be: a shooter in which time only moves when you do. It fulfills that standard, and it is, to my mind, about as much fun as a game centering on this idea can realistically be (i.e. very). Hopefully my review explains that, so I won't waste much time reiterating anything.

But what I also mentioned in my review is how wonderful Superhot is in ways we weren't expecting. Namely, it's a cracking good sci-fi story. More accurately, it's a relatively bog-standard sci-fi story presented in a manner that I've never seen before. Here's a product in which viral marketing actually plays a tangible role in the game's plot. Superhot's developers were depending on their fans to make this narrative whole, and the gamble has paid off.

The most immediate characteristic of Superhot's story is that it's meta as hell. It tells you, point-blank, that you're playing a video game. The menu is designed to look like a DOS interface, many of the "cutscenes" are stylistically filtered to resemble ASCII art, and the campaign opens with someone inviting you, via an unassuming chat program, to open some "superhot.exe" file. When action gets heated, you're assured, frequently, that it's all just a game. None of this even looks real; the plainly visible polygons highlight the artificiality of these scenarios.

And that sells the underlying thrust of Superhot's narrative, which is that you're being manipulated into performing nasty deeds for some very powerful people. We never learn who exactly they are (unless this information is buried deep within the game, which wouldn't surprise me), but we're going along with it because, hey, it's good fun and none of this is real, right? Superhot so transparently and unambiguously being a video game is what makes this plot work so well. If this were real, these corporate overlords would want us to think this is just pure escapism.

But Superhot unveils its' villains nefariousness in increasingly unsubtle ways, namely when the "protagonist" develops doubts over the perceived innocuousness of his or her actions. That's when the bad guys make it clear that we're not in control. Video games like to present us with the illusion of choice when there's so little true emergent design in this medium; every decision that we make is ultimately something that someone on the development team planned for. Superhot pokes fun at that in amusing ways, particularly when the stranger on the other end of the line tells you to quit and you cannot continue the campaign until you've exited and restarted the game.

In a medium oversaturated with Chosen Ones, Superhot makes it clear that you're not special. You're just another drone. You can't fight the system. You're going to do bad things for bad people, and you'll go along with it because you're having too much fun, and you don't have a choice anyway. And you won't be rewarded for it. After everything you've done for your bosses, they'll thank you by forcing you to put a bullet in your own head, because you're just as disposable to them as the legions of people you've gunned down for them.

Where it gets cool is the way the developers of Superhot have deployed the game's actual, real, not-fictional fans to get this message out by relaying the game's deliberately cheesy marketing schlock. For one thing, the campaign ends with a canned word of recommendation ("the most innovative shooter I've played in years," etc.) that players willingly repeat on social media because they enjoyed the story and want to play along. The message even includes a link for a discount - an effective incentive, since if you're going along with all of this, you obviously enjoyed the game enough to want other people to try it, as well.

Even better, though, you've surely noticed that it's impossible for people to praise Superhot without at some point slavishly repeating its title. "SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT." They're always sure to put the period between the "super" and the "hot." Obviously, it's a reference to the fact that each level ends with a disembodied voice chanting the title while the words flash across the screen.

So what was the point of that, and why are we reiterating it? Well, remember that one Seinfeld episode when George keeps randomly singing his last name around a women he's dating with the hope that the annoying will become the infectious, much as a commercial jingle seems irritating but gets into your head? Same thing here. For a bit, you wonder why the game keeps shouting its title at you. Then you get used to it. Then you stop paying attention to it. Then it becomes an integral component of that experience, so central that you can't talk about the game on Twitter without joining in.

The best part is that I didn't even get to see this before I did my write-up. Superhot already earned one of my most positive reviews in recent memory, and now I like it even more, in this exact moment, at the peak of its popularity.

Of course, if Superhot hadn't been both good and high-profile, this gamble wouldn't have worked. But since the game has impressed so many people, the ultra-meta corporate marketing angle of its plot is taking full form within those of us who are just trying to spread the word about how much we enjoy this thing. We're all the slaves, and we're perpetuating the cycle. We know the truth, but we're too comfortable to care, and we don't have a choice, anyway.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

A ranked list of every 2015 release that I played

Fun fact: I do actually keep an active log of the games I play in a given year (as well as a constantly-changing to-do list), so I thought it'd be fun, as I've done before, to rank every 2015 release that I've played. First note is that I generally try to occupy my time with good games, which is why there are few outright bad titles on this list; most of what's here is at least passable. Secondly, bear in mind that remasters of games released prior to 2015 weren't in the running for my GOTY list, hence why stuff like Majora's Mask 3D and Rare Replay weren't on my top ten despite placing higher than some of the games that were.

* re-releases or remasters of older games
^ games that I admittedly didn't spend much time with

74. Godzilla
73. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5
72. #IDARB
71. Tower of Guns ^
70. Submerged
69. Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash ^
68. Drizzlepath
67. Evolve
66. The Order: 1886
65. Star Wars Battlefront
64. Until Dawn
63. Just Cause 3 ^
62. Apotheon ^
61. 404Sight ^
60. Dying Light ^
59. La-Mulana EX *
58. Spectra ^
57. Kick & Fennick ^
56. Xeodrifter *
55. Batman: Arkham Knight ^
54. Cosmophony ^
53. The Static Speaks My Name
52. Halo 5: Guardians
51. Oblitus
50. Mushroom 11
49. Pokémon Shuffle
48. God of War III Remastered *
47. Broken Age ^
46. The Old Tree
45. Final Fantasy Type-0 HD *
44. Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin *^
43. Project CARS
42. MonsterBag ^
41. Game of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series
40. Rise of the Tomb Raider
39. Castle in the Darkness
38. Disorder
37. Hatsune Miku: Project Mirai DX *
36. Zero Punctuation: Hatfall - Hatters Gonna Hat Edition
35. 0RBITALIS
34. Her Story
33. Yoshi's Woolly World
32. Rebel Galaxy
31. Pillars of Eternity
30. The Mammoth: A Cave Painting
29. Cubot *
28. King's Quest
27. Hook
26. Mad Max
25. I Am Bread
24. Fallout 4
23. Titan Souls
22. Kirby and the Rainbow Curse
21. Splatoon
20. Transformers: Devastation
19. Helldivers
18. Downwell
17. Tales from the Borderlands
16. Axiom Verge
15. Undertale
14. Environmental Station Alpha
13. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
12. Jotun
11. Rare Replay *
10. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate
9. Hand of Fate
8. The Beginner's Guide
7. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
6. Ori and the Blind Forest
5. Grow Home
4. Rocket League
3. The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D *
2. SOMA
1. Bloodborne


Wednesday, January 6, 2016

These are the ten best games of 2015 and I'm not wrong unless I am

Before you ask, yes, that's Mad Max, and no, that's not on my list. That just happens to be the game that I've been playing lately (acting as my Just Cause 3 refugee camp of sorts) and I like that particular screenshot. Perhaps there'd be some iconography in a burning wasteland had this been a worse year for games, but eh, 2015 wasn't bad. Unless we're talking about endings, in which case, yeah, 2015 sucked.

This abundance of games unable to stick their landings has ultimately made me too paranoid to award top ten honors to two particular standout titles that, for one reason or another, I haven't finished yet. So I'll just hand out a couple of honorable mentions and then dive into the best releases of the year that I actually played all the way through.

The first is Undertale, which might just be the best-written video game in years, and I'm certainly not alone in that sentiment; as I write this, it's one of the two finalists for GameFAQs' Best Game Ever poll, the other being freaking Ocarina of Time. And it's winning... by about two to one. It'd be a funny, delightful game even without the hook wherein players are encouraged to find nonviolent solutions to combat situations, but even the subversive humor couldn't quite pull this thing out of the random-encounter, turn-based JRPG fire pit without a few burns. It's absolutely worth playing, but I can't back that up with a complete image of the game yet.

The other is The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which I haven't finished because it's so goddamn enormous. This is the rare instance of a game perhaps providing too much worthwhile content, with a world virtually unrivaled in scope for a single-player RPG, and in which even the throwaway missions have purpose and context both mechanically and within the story. I stopped not because I got sick of it, but because even after dumping a hundred hours into this monster, I'm intimidated by how much more of it I still have to see.

I can't personally say where this ranks among 2015's best until I've seen the whole thing myself, but against near-unanimous praise and a seemingly endless bombardment of awards, I'm sure CD Projekt won't lose much sleep over one no-name critic omitting it from his top ten. Besides, I have no issue with this being the GOTY favorite across the board, not when The Witcher 3 so clearly raises the bar for the attention to detail we should be expecting from open-world RPGs.

So with that out of the way, here are my ten favorite games of 2015. In a rare showing of efficiency, I've actually reviewed all of them, so links aplenty.

10. Jotun (PC)

Comparing a game to Shadow of the Colossus is a slippery slope for anyone. Usually, it sets up unrealistic expectations against a wall that can never be scaled. It's an even trickier comparison for me to make, though, because (a) I don't like Shadow of the Colossus and (b) that's a viewpoint that the vast majority of gamers cannot relate to. When I compare something to Shadow, I'm referring to the hole that it left wide open.

So when I say that Jotun is a lot like Shadow of the Colossus, try not to read into that as a statement on the game's quality (though I do actually think it's better). It's more a matter of attitude and structure. This is a slow-paced, melancholy trek through a beautiful but threatening world, and yeah, maybe there are some boss battles against screen-filling monsters, but if that's all there was to the game, they'd just turn into white noise. (Speaking of 2015 releases, this is the crucial mistake that Titan Souls made.)

Instead, these grandiose run-ins with gods are merely the climactic components of a more downplayed audiovisual showcase. Jotun employs Norse mythology out of some noble desire to actually respect and adequately explore the subject material, going so far as to hire Icelandic voice actors for authenticity. The hand-drawn visuals are impossible not to compare to The Banner Saga (high praise), and the soundtrack is one of the year's best. This all underlines that Jotun is the rare god-killing game in which killing gods is a little beside the point. (Review.)


9. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate (3DS)

I'd made a prior attempt to get into the notoriously impenetrable Monster Hunter series, and truth be told, it may be a matter of circumstance that the fourth entry was finally the one to pull me over. I'd requested a review key just for the hell of it, and this just so happened to be the first game Capcom sent us in years, I'm told. So I was forced to finally figure Monster Hunter out under pressure of work ethic.

Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is full of numbers, and the only real assurance that I can give new players now that I've stepped over is that, in time, the game will explain what all of these numbers mean. But don't worry about the numbers. Worry about the game's central and universal appeal: the satisfaction in slaying big, ugly monsters. I don't mean to undersell the game's astonishing depth, because people wouldn't be spending thousands of hours on these things if there wasn't some meat on the bone, but MH4U's largely story-free structure means that it's a game that lasts until you're satisfied with it. That could mean mastering one weapon or all of them.

In the couple of weeks I spent with MH4U leading up to the review embargo, I devoted nearly as much time to this game as I did my job, and it wasn't a struggle; the game is that engrossing, that rewarding, that high on content. The only reason it ranks so low on the list is the hardware limitations. An action-heavy game such as this is borderline unplayable without a second analog stick, which the 3DS inconveniently doesn't have. That means either importing a clunky peripheral or caving for the New 3DS, an upgrade that Nintendo has justified about as well as Game Boy Micro. Not an easy sell, but MH4U knows what it owes you and pays you back with interest. (Review.)


8. Hand of Fate (PC)

This game has presented me with a bit of a challenge as a critic, because nothing about Hand of Fate actually sounds good. It's a roguelite. It's card-based. Presentation is minimal. Combat is pure Arkham worship. Every screenshot makes the game look more boring than the last. Even the title sucks. Had I been offered the chance to review this pre-release, I'd likely have Googled it and turned it down. Then I'd have heard wonderful things about it, bought it with money, and felt silly. But not too silly, because that money would encourage the indie scene to produce more deceptively clever games such as this.

I've no doubt that Hand of Fate was made on a tiny budget, but once you've played it, it's hard to dismiss the game's simplistic look as anything less than a deliberate stylistic choice. It's mainly because the one source of personality that we do get, the Dealer himself, is one of my favorite concoctions to come out of any game this year. Funny and sinister in equal proportion, his abundant dialog is a counterbalance to the crude illustrations and text boxes that comprise every actual "scene." Because those are irrelevant. They're just cards, and it's all just an illusion. But the Dealer? His powers are real, as he frequently reminds you. The game is just a game, but Hand of Fate is still rife with intrigue elsewhere.

Beyond its presentational charm, Hand of Fate is both fun and highly approachable; its rules and mechanics are easily grasped, and rounds are short. While there is a "campaign," there almost didn't need to be; Hand of Fate perfectly lends itself to controlled, easily-digestible bursts, the sort of thing a player can consume at a pace of their choosing. I take issue with the game's final level (which piles on the handicaps to the point that finishing it feels like a matter of blind luck), but Hand of Fate is otherwise one of 2015's most pleasant surprises. Play it. There's no game on this list that I'm more sure you'll enjoy. (Review.)


7. The Beginner's Guide (PC)

Of the five people who discussed The Beginner's Guide on the GameCritics podcast a couple of months ago, two hated the game so much that they filed for refunds, the third expressed regret that he hadn't filed for a refund, and the fourth voiced his disgust that the game was even being dissected to the degree that its creator wanted. I was the fifth, and here The Beginner's Guide sits among my favorite releases of the year. A divisive game, this one.

It's framed as a collection of unfinished design projects by a person named Coda, compiled and sold by his acquaintance, Davey Wreden, who stumbled upon the cursed blessing of success a couple of years ago with The Stanley Parable. It's a ruse, of course, and that's common knowledge by now, if only via the understanding that there'd be some severe legal ramifications of this guy releasing another person's work for profit, explicitly without said person's approval. But when I first played The Beginner's Guide knowing nothing about it, I had no reason, at least initially, to spot the bluff. I believed I was playing witness to nonfiction, which made me personally invested in the game's highly fictional story without even realizing it.

The Beginner's Guide is the sort of thing that always excites me in the video game medium: a narrative told in a manner that I've never seen before. Wreden's plea here is simply not to be a selfish friend, and while it's not a complicated message, it's conveyed here with one of the craftiest uses of the unreliable narrator device that I've yet seen in a game, as Wreden himself directly lies about what it is that we're even playing. And yeah, the power of something like that can only last so long in the spoiler-frenzy Twitter age, but while the window for experiencing The Beginner's Guide fresh has passed, I'll be in admiration of Wreden's push to expand the boundaries of interactive storytelling long after the shock isn't so shocking. (Review.)


6. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (PC)

Can a game be one of the year's biggest standouts and most volatile disappointments simultaneously? Konami certainly tested that theory, and yes, I'm putting the blame on them rather than Kojima himself. We may never know what the hell is going on between those two, but the abundant unresolved threads left dangling in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain's disaster of a plot paints an unmistakable image of an incomplete product. And now that Kojima has cut ties with the company and Konami has expressed intent to move on with the franchise without him, there's heartbreak in the likelihood that we will never get to see the auteur's complete vision of this saga. After three decades, it's an anticlimax.

But none of this stops The Phantom Pain from inevitably ruining every stealth game that releases after it. They'll all feel incomplete without Reflex Mode, and they'll all feel laughably behind the times without sprawling sandbox maps in which enemy alertness changes organically, convincingly and persistently. I'd have thought that we were largely past the point of technology being used to innovate, that new generations of hardware are more and more coming to mean prettier graphics and not much else. But The Phantom Pain's depth and scope are the sort of thing we wouldn't have seen five or ten years ago.

The Phantom Pain may be "about" vocal cord parasites and a woman who wears a skimpy bikini because she breathes through her skin (ugh), but really, it's about strapping hot air balloons to bears. It's about gold-plating your attack helicopter and calling in air raids soundtracked by "The Final Countdown." It's about bases with countless routes, full of enemies who become alerted to your presence and actually stay that way. I accidentally deleted my save file for The Phantom Pain, and while it was an anticlimax in a game full of them, it also proved that even with well over a hundred hours logged, the only way to pull myself away from this thing was to go cold turkey. (Review.) (Silly spoiler piece.)


5. Ori and the Blind Forest (PC)

This comparison may seem a little out of left field, but Ori and the Blind Forest reminds me just a hair of Pixar's Up. Not because the animation is incredible (though, by god, is it ever), but because, if you'll recall, Up had a brief introductory sequence that could very easily have functioned as a beautiful, devastating, self-contained story in its own right. That's how I feel about Ori's opening chapter. Before the game proper even begins, developer Moon Studios subjects us to more warmth, despair and heartbreak in ten minutes than most 50-hour games could match.

Of course, Ori is an excellent Metroidvania in and of itself, the standout in a subgenre that's not exactly had a sparse showing. Part of the reason I'm not terribly bummed out by the Metroid series being so missing-in-action lately is that my thirst for games like these is regularly quenched by the indie scene. We got some great Metroid lookalikes this year (Axiom Verge is the obvious example, and I've recently been getting furiously invested in the terrific Environmental Station Alpha), but I'll always lean slightly in favor of releases like Ori that complement the overlapping, constantly-expanding design principles with their own unique worlds and the mechanics that correspond. You do things in the titular blind forest that you'll certainly never do on Planet Zebes or its countless derivatives.

But while I don't want to discount how much fun Ori is, there's no escaping that its audiovisual splendor is its biggest and most immediate appeal. This is the most beautiful 2D game I've ever played, and it's got the music to match it. (If I do a blog entry on the year's best soundtracks, Gareth Coker's work here will be an easy #1. Nothing else even comes close.) Ori really feels in line with a Studio Ghibli production, and not just on a superficial level. It's cute, it's simple, and it's got very little dialog; anyone can follow this. But it's also dark, mature and deeply moving, tackling the complications of life that kid-friendly content such as this often forgets that it's still allowed to address. What a magnificent game. (Review.)


4. Grow Home (PC)

When this released completely under everyone's radar early in the year, I expressed my bafflement that a game so charming, creative and innocuous could come from Ubisoft. Consider, though, how much lip we give Ubisoft games for always doing the tower-climbing routine. Then consider that Grow Home is essentially a game singularly about climbing a massive tower. The tower in question is actually a beanstalk, but you get my point. Maybe Grow Home isn't quite as out-of-character as we'd once assumed.

But I'm not down on climbing things in video games. I enjoy it, even. I enjoyed it in the original Assassin's Creed way back in 2007, and I still enjoy it today, however much that series has run the mechanic into the ground. If the immediate reward for slaying a massive boss is to watch an overelaborate death animation and then stand triumphantly over its corpse, then the immediate reward for a tricky platforming section should to be to gaze down on the land from which you were once looking up. Grow Home is all about that, set in one persistent level, where at any point the game's draw distance tells the full story of your journey up until that moment. By the time the game ends, you're miles into the sky and it shows.

The game certainly isn't light on smaller charms, either. There's the way your robot is procedurally animated, or the way climbing makes good use of the physics engine and actually takes work and focus. There's the low-poly-count simplicity of the game's visual style, or the delightful chirps and hums that comprise its audio component. There's the fact that Grow Home is rife with collectibles that are totally optional, only there if you're into that sort of thing, like I am. It all works so well, and with such a simple formula, that you have to wonder why it's so unique, or why it took Ubisoft to make it. A few more games and I might consider forgiving them for Assassin's Creed: Unity. Well, okay... a lot more games like this. (Review.)


3. Rocket League (PC)

If there's one game this year that's even more difficult to sell than Hand of Fate, it's probably Rocket League (though they're pretty evenly matched for bland, nondescript titles). In this case, though, it's less about the game being composed of unappealing elements and more about the setup being so simple. It really is just soccer with cars. It's really no more complicated than that.

Is it, though? I don't play sports games, nor do I play sports in real life, nor do I even really watch sports in real life aside from American football. So why does throwing RC cars into the mix make this so much more appealing? I think it's because it translates athleticism into a language I understand. I mean, let's not beat around the bush here: I don't play sports because I'm crap at them. I'm not fit, I'm not in shape, and I have poor reflexes. But driving a car with an Xbox 360 controller? That I can do. I've got plenty of experience with that.

It's rare for me to get terribly invested in multiplayer games, so it's probably not a coincidence that the one multiplayer game this year that I spent a lot of time with is one I'm actually kind of good at. Suddenly, all of the adrenaline rushes usually reserved for actual athletes I'm experiencing in my pajamas, at my desk, at three in the morning while snacking on Cheez-Its. Of the hundreds of Rocket League matches I've played, not a single one didn't, at least for a split second, make me feel like I belong on a varsity team. Credit to the game for also sticking to its strengths. There's no campaign, no story, no extraneous bonus modes, nothing beside the point. Just a terrific concept executed as perfectly as it can be. (Review.)


2. SOMA (PC)

Here's your proof that scores don't mean anything. I awarded SOMA four stars out of five, citing some disparity between its horror elements and overarching plot, and yet I honestly considered giving this the top spot, well above a number of higher-scoring releases. The plot really just got to me that much.

SOMA hasn't been getting much attention on year-end lists, and the optimist in me believes that this only means that more people need to play it (or finish it). If that's the case, I'm still staying quiet on where SOMA goes in its final act, and will simply say that this is the ballsiest, most affecting ending to a game that I've seen in years. Frictional Games' vision of the future is oppressively bleak, perhaps hopelessly so, and SOMA's conclusion inspires some very important questions about holding on when all is lost, and what we even define as "lost." Many sci-fi stories have pondered over whether or not machines can have souls, but few have so poignantly linked that question to humanity's own survival as a species.

This is the annual entry for games that I wouldn't call traditionally "entertaining" so much as depressing and introspectively exhausting (an honor previously bestowed to Spec Ops: The Line, Papers Please and The Banner Saga), but if you have a soft spot for imaginative, thought-provoking and ultimately uncompromising science fiction, I beg you to play SOMA while the statute of limitations on spoilers is still active. If you're at all like me, the ending will leave you staring at the credits with your mouth agape. (Review.) (Spoiler piece discussing the game's message.)


1. Bloodborne (PS4)

Some may call this choice a predictable one, but since I failed to recognize the brilliance of Dark Souls back when it was initially released (and since I wasn't doing GOTY articles back then anyway), this may be my first, last and only chance to acknowledge Hidetaka Miyazaki's work in such a manner. Even if From Software re-emerges from the rut of dark medieval fantasy after the release of Dark Souls III in a few months, it's unlikely that they'll even stumble upon a pairing as perfect as "Souls meets Lovecraft" again.

Seriously, how cool was it that they completely kept this angle out of the marketing? And how in keeping is it with the correlation between expanding knowledge and creeping dread found in the best works of cosmic horror? The Souls series' cryptic storytelling methods have become one of its defining characteristics; we enter one of these things anticipating a search for answers, and we know that From won't make it easy on us. But just as the characters at the heart of any great Lovecraftian tale come to realize that ignorance is bliss, the answers we find at the root of Bloodborne's mysteries prove infinitely more terrifying than a simple werewolf plague. It's a wondrous, dizzying downward spiral into madness.

In discussing where Bloodborne ranks among the other Souls games, I've heard plenty of arguments that I can't really disagree with -- that the RPG elements have been needlessly toned down, that farming for blood vials is a chore when you're stuck, that the visual style becomes a bit wearying after a while, that the Chalice Dungeons are awful, and so on. They're all valid points, but none of them can sully the fact that this is perhaps the best Lovecraftian story in a medium that also includes Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem. It's a one-two punch that I never realized I even wanted until I had it. What a thrill it is to truly discover a Souls game again. Time will tell if Miyazaki and his team will ever be able to replicate this feeling, but it seems unlikely. Bloodborne is too perfect a formula. (Review.) (Post-script.) (DLC review.)

Now, here's the other stuff...

Most overrated: Her Story
Most underrated: I Am Bread
Most overlooked: Jotun
Most visually striking: Ori and the Blind Forest
All-out best-looking game: Mad Max
Best story: SOMA
Best writing: Undertale
Best character: Loader Bot (Tales from the Borderlands)
Best original soundtrack: Ori and the Blind Forest
Best licensed soundtrack: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Biggest surprise: Hand of Fate
Biggest disappointment: Halo 5: Guardians
Most enjoyable bad game: Pokémon Shuffle
Least enjoyable good game: Undertale
Game that I spent the most time with: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Game that I spent the least time with before judging: Tower of Guns
Game that I most wanted to play, but didn't: Super Mario Maker
Game in my Steam library that I most want to play, but still haven't: Neoncube
Best game that I still haven't finished: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
All-out worst game that I played: Godzilla
Best non-2014 release that I first played in 2014: Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
Best remake/re-release: Rare Replay

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Yeah, wow, Star Wars Battlefront is totally not my thing


I'm pretty relieved right now that I didn't agree to review Star Wars Battlefront for anyone. I did it purely because I never played the original Battlefront games, but I'm not sure if that would have colored my opinion in any questionable manner. Frankly, the longtime fans seem to dislike this thing even more than I do.

I dedicated a solid chunk of my day to playing Battlefront - not enough to form a thorough critical take on it, but enough to determine that this is pretty exemplary of what I don't like about modern online shooters: unbalanced progression systems. You know how Call of Duty isn't actually a bad series in and of itself, but kind of ruined games forever regardless? This is one of the ways. It popularized this competitive multiplayer model wherein success is determined less by skill and more on total play time.

To put it in simple terms, the more time you spend with Battlefront, the better your weapons are. You start with absolute garbage, and as you rank up and earn credits, more powerful equipment is made available. There must be appeal to this system, because it's worked wonders for Call of Duty on an annual basis, but I can't for the life of me see why. It creates an unnecessary blockade for newcomers, and there's no reward in overcoming that. If I'm doing well in a multiplayer game, it want it to be the result carefully honed skills, not free time blindly dumped into a progress bar.

While I wasn't fond of Halo 5: Guardians, something I've consistently liked about the Halo series is its level playing field. The progression system in those games (with the exception of the slightest chaste hint of unlockable loadouts in Halo 4, thankfully not something that threw the balance of that title off) is purely cosmetic. Unlocking new armor doesn't give you an unfair advantage; it's just a trophy.

If nothing else, it's not a bad idea to follow Titanfall's model, wherein most of the equipment unlocks don't make you more powerful so much as they change your strategy. Would you rather be able to deflect bullets for a limited amount of time or deploy smoke that kills mounting enemy pilots? Neither is provably better; they're just different. Blowing more time with the game expands your options, but it doesn't make you a better player by default. You've got to work on that yourself.

Speaking of which, I just booted up Titanfall, and it turns out that there are currently fewer than 400 people playing it worldwide. Worldwide. What the hell, people? I'm not exaggerating when I say that this is the most acutely balanced multiplayer shooter since Team Fortress 2. It's brilliant. Why didn't it stick? Why does no one care about it anymore while nonsense like Destiny is still making Game Informer cover stories? I know that another EA shooter just released, but Jesus.

Anyway, Battlefront takes this progression system to its logical extreme, where the starting weapons have zero range (in a game that's generally unfolding on a massive scale, where being able to take out enemies from a distance is kind of important) and even less power. I've been in situations where I've stood only a few meters away from an opponent, pumped nearly a dozen rounds into him, not killed him and then watched him down me in two shots. I can even the odds by putting more time into the game, I guess, but I'm not enjoying myself enough now to continue playing. I'd rather go and play something like Titanfall, but I can't, because y'all are playing this instead.

The presentation's solid, I guess. Very Star Wars-y. I'm not hugely into Battlefield, so I'm not the authoritative voice on whether or not Battlefront is simply the reskin that people are labeling it as. What I can say is that, despite EA's pleas, I will not be playing any more of it, not when there are so many games that provide more immediate thrills.

P.S. Yeah, whoever voices Vader in this game is really, really bad at it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Let's do that thing where we rank Halo campaigns


Yesterday, Halo 5: Guardians was released. Yesterday, I finished Halo 5: Guardians. My new job hasn't started yet, in case you're wondering.

While I'm not even close to being finished with the game yet, given how much I'm enjoying its multiplayer modes, the simple truth is that I've been a Halo fan since long before I was playing console games online. Given that I've now played every campaign from beginning to end, I figured I'd put that expertise to use my doing that thing we always do whenever the latest entry in a long-running franchise is put on the market.


7. Halo 3: ODST

I'd call it unfair to hold this release up to the standards of mainline entries had Microsoft not charged $60 for it, an admission on their part that they believe ODST to be just as worthwhile a purchase as anything else on this list. Some seem to agree; I know people who were clamoring for this to be included in Master Chief Collection, disappointed when it initially wasn't and uplifted when it was later thrown in as DLC. I can see why, too, because this was Bungie's boldest experiment with the series, a sandbox game that dials back the space opera in favor of a more intimate, character-driven campaign exploring the aftermath of a major event earlier in Halo canon. (That the main characters were all voiced by Firefly cast members didn't hurt nerd cred.)

And yet this remains the only Halo game that I've never replayed (with the exception of Halo 5, which just came out yesterday, so give me a bit). In retrospect, I'm indifferent to ODST's open-world focus for the same reason I never took the bait with Destiny adding RPG elements and social play to the series' tight combat. The slower pace only gets in the way of what Halo does well, and still ODST has the distinction of being the shortest game of the franchise to date. It's a noble effort, but I'm not so enamored with these new characters that I'm happy chugging through a relatively inconsequential plot to get to know them better. This is the most forgettable title of the Halo series.


6. Halo 5: Guardians

My full review is on its way, but while I only just completed Halo 5 yesterday, I'm confident that no level of meditation on my part will push this latest release to a higher spot on this list. It's not just that Halo 5 disappoints in and of itself; it actually undoes much of the goodwill built upon in 343 Industries' previous game. In retrospect, the quasi-romance between Master Chief and Cortana in Halo 4, which was far more effective than it had any business being and established a level of narrative maturity that Bungie never showcased, now just feels like hollow setup for a bunch of schlocky, D-grade character twists that are only surprising in that they're irrational even by Halo standards. And the game has the nerve to end on a jarring cliffhanger, when the series should have learned the first time it did that.

Still, aside from some major lapses in judgment in the final two missions (the nadir being a battle against three overpowered bosses at once), Halo 5 can still claim to being generally fun to play. In fact, it's the first game in the series to natively run at 60fps, making this, to my mind, the best-playing first-person shooter on a controller to date. Seriously, I've become a PC fanatic since the last Halo game was released, and I'm still finding this thing silky smooth on thumbsticks. Unfortunately, while the polish is here, fresh ideas aren't; with Halo 5 somewhat lacking in new toys and new baddies to use them on, all we get is the same solid gunplay as always, in service of Halo's most disappointing story yet.



5. Halo 3

Typically in trilogies, the first entry establishes the basics, the sequel ups the ante, and the final chapter just sort of scratches its head and curses the previous entry for leaving the franchise with nowhere else to go. It's telling that after Bungie made us sit on such an infuriating cliffhanger for three years, the resolution itself was criminally uneventful. How is this situation resolved? Uh, through space magic, I guess. The gang gets together to essentially push a button that wipes out the Flood, ends the war and, sure, I guess strands Chief and Cortana in space just so things don't get too convenient.

I understand Bungie's desire to dial things back a bit after Halo 2 drew criticisms for collapsing under its own world-building weight, but Halo 3's nine-mission campaign essentially brought nothing new to the table while underlining some of the series' long-running issues and Bungie's refusal to address them. I'd often said that my ideal Halo game would be one in which the Flood never show up, and while that did eventually happen, that plot thread still dangles at the start of Halo 3, and the need to resolve it results in an endgame stage that very nearly rivals The Library for tedium. I'm glad that this wasn't the last we saw of Halo, partly because I just like the franchise, but also because this would have been a meager note to end on.



4. Halo: Combat Evolved

There is absolutely no getting around the fact that Halo, for all of the ways in which it revolutionized console FPSs, hasn't aged well. It's such a shame given how much the first half of the campaign is still exemplary of all of the things that Halo does well: the AI, the vehicles, and the massive outdoor battlefields. Had Bungie kept that momentum going, the game's status as a classic wouldn't constantly be second-guessed as it is today. But then the Flood shows up and everything goes to hell.

It's not just the Library, either. While that level is the series' most maligned moment, the entire latter half of Halo, with its repeated interiors and huge stretches recycled from earlier in the campaign, feels like the product of Bungie being pressured to get the game finished in time for the original Xbox's launch. And maybe that was a good thing, because who can say that whether the Xbox brand would still be around today had Master Chief been representing from day one? Regardless, we're left with a shooter that, despite all of its advances for the genre, feels frustratingly imperfect.


3. Halo 2

While Halo 2's influence in online console gaming is irrefutable, its campaign tends to be the least popular of the series, and I can see why. It's overlong, the ending is a crash course in how not to write a cliffhanger, and it delves too deep into its own self-serious mythology, with around half of the campaign told from the Covenant's perspective. But it ranks among my favorites simply for correcting the big issue with the first Halo in that it's consistent. Even when the Flood shows up early on, its appearances are staggered in such a manner that it never becomes tiresome to the same degree that it drowned out the entire second half of Combat Evolved.

So while none of Halo 2's best moments quite feel as liberating as, say, taking to the beach of the Silent Cartographer in a Warthog for the first time, it moves swiftly and to many places, holding my attention more firmly than its predecessor despite being considerably longer. And I actually like the Arbiter; he's a far more fleshed-out character than Master Chief, and his timed invisibility trick lends his missions an additional layer of strategy, particularly on higher difficulties when you need every advantage you can get. That's another thing - if you're the sort who likes to play these games on Legendary, Halo 2 offers the toughest (and thus most satisfying) challenge of the entire franchise. It's a terrific and very replayable game, and if that puts me in the minority, well, more for me.



2. Halo: Reach

This was the Halo game that I always wanted, one in which we never fight the Flood and never set foot in a single piece of monotonous Forerunner architecture. It sounds weirdly non-progressive to say that Reach is great for removing more than it adds, but this was the game in which Bungie finally addressed longtime series issues and gave us the best, most consistent Halo experience of their decade-long run with the license. When we play Halo campaigns, we want sprawling battles against intelligent Covenant AI, and that's exactly what Reach gave us, no strings attached.

And while I certainly wouldn't call Reach's storytelling a masterstroke by any stretch of the imagination, it earns points for its straightforwardness while still feeling like a vital component of the Halo equation (compared to ODST, a story that didn't need to be told). Since the original game began with a single human ship fleeing after the invasion and destruction of Reach, we already know how this prequel will end - not happily - but Bungie still wrings some surprises out of the manner in which Noble Six's story is concluded, and the level of participation that players have in closing this chapter. This was Bungie's last Halo game, and in my mind, they went out on the highest note realistically possible.



1. Halo 4

But embarrassingly enough, whereas it took Bungie a full decade to truly grasp the strengths of their own franchise, 343 Industries got it right on their first try. In jump-starting a new trilogy, they've wisely kept the aggravating Flood out of the equation, opting for a new enemy faction in the Prometheans, who are utterly fearsome but also organized enough that their presence doesn't turn Halo into a mindless shootfest. Halo 4 stands as a terrific example of how to breathe new life into a series without robbing it of what made it popular to begin with. It has no real lulls. It's outstanding.

Most impressively, though, it's the first Halo game that makes Master Chief and Cortana out to be more than simply a player avatar and an exposition machine, respectfully. In fact, I'm convinced that the only reason Halo 4's emotional payoff doesn't quite stick the landing is that we're already so used to these two characters being so one-note; for them to suddenly experience conflicts and express feelings is almost hard to grasp. But that's Bungie's fault, not 343's. Despite the many wrongs committed by the next entry's plot, Halo 4 stands as an excellent standalone experience and the series' finest hour.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

SOMA is totally a metaphor for euthanasia

Note: This article contains spoilers for SOMA. If you haven't finished the game yet, it'll still be here when you do. And if it's not still here, you'll have no evidence that I promised otherwise.

So you've finished SOMA, then, have you? I know this because you would have heeded my warning if you hadn't. So how about that ending? Real gut punch, right? I really do think this'll rank as one of my favorite games of this generation, even if it's got a couple of pacing and narrative issues that I couldn't ignore in my review. Because despite my qualms, this is the sort of thing science fiction was invented for -- to explore important human themes in situations we have not (yet) been confronted with. And while SOMA leaves you with a lot to think about (which is why I love it), I want to talk about one thing that I briefly touched upon in my write-up, which is what I perceive to be the developers' stance on euthanasia, i.e. mercy killing.

Let's briefly recap the plot. In the early 22nd century, Earth's surface is destroyed by a comet, and the only survivors are the inhabitants of PATHOS-II, a research facility at the bottom of the ocean. Resigning to the futility of the situation, the scientists devise a plan to "preserve" the human race: by creating digital copies of the remaining citizens, compiling them onto a device called the Ark, and then launching it into space, allowing humanity to continue its existence in some form regardless of what happens to the survivors' physical bodies. The protagonist himself, Simon, was the first subject of such a brain scan, and nearly a century after his death, he's been reinstated in a mechanical body for initially unknown reasons.

This is an oppressively bleak game, in large part due to the hopelessness of this situation, and how well the developers sell it. It's bad enough that most of humanity has been wiped out, but the remaining members are stuck at the bottom of the ocean, completely removed from sunlight and under constant danger of being crushed under the tremendous pressure. To make matters worse, a rogue AI called "WAU" is using a biomechanical substance called structure gel to transform anyone it can find into half-human, half-machine abominations. Humanity is, in its physical form, completely screwed. The Ark really is the only thing we're clinging to.

Near the end of the game, we meet a human named Sarah, who is untainted by structure gel but nevertheless in very poor health. She's in possession of the Ark, and she hands it over with one request: that we pull her life support, putting her out of her misery.

So, yeah, that scene obviously, unambiguously deals with euthanasia. But let's look at the broader picture here, and why I believe SOMA is also making a more nuanced statement. What makes this decision so complicated is that throughout the course of our entire journey, which spans the complete length of the PATHOS-II facility, Sarah is the only living, breathing human that we encounter. Which means, yes, she is literally the last human on Earth. She's already dying, and she wouldn't be able to reproduce and perpetuate the human life cycle by herself anyway, so we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the species is doomed. But to kill her is to make the human species extinct with our own, bare hands. It's a heavy, burdening moment.

Let's fast-forward to the ending. The Ark has been launched, and in a post-credits scene, Simon awakens in the simulation, portrayed as a lush, calming forested area. He reunites with Catherine, his companion, and expresses his relief that the plan came together and that the fate of humanity has been secured for potentially thousands of years. If you watched the scene out of context, you'd think it was a happy ending.

But it comes after the real conclusion, in which Simon successfully launches the Ark and watches in disbelief as it takes off without him. Catherine explains, as she had already done earlier in the game, that a human consciousness cannot be transferred from one location to another; it can only be copied. So while a new version of Simon is safely aboard the Ark, the one we've been controlling is stuck, left to wither away and die, alone at the bottom of the ocean.

Now, if you cater to the belief that machines can have souls and that a digital copy of a human can be human itself, this ending can be interpreted as, uh, not a complete loss, since we completed our mission and some form of Simon is indeed safe, sound and headed far away from this planet. To me, though, this ending punishes both Simon and the player for succumbing to a false sense of hope in a world where all hope is lost. Our failure to accept the fall of humanity leads to the hollowest of victories.

I mentioned in my review how vital SOMA's setting is to the effectiveness of its themes, and this is exactly what I'm talking about. We walk through unappetizing grey corridors. We hear the creak of metal as PATHOS-II bends under the pressure of the ocean. We see human corpses being reanimated into biomechanical monstrosities. We see the collapse of civilization. We watch the last human on Earth dying right in front of us. At a certain point, you have to ask yourself: What's the use? Why preserve this? We've lost the battle. It's over. If turning humans into machines is an acceptable compromise, then the ending should be a happy one. But I'm betting that for most people, it isn't.

SOMA is, at the end of the day, a game that asks us what we'd do if we were in the position to play Kevorkian with the entire human race. I think it's got a powerful message about prolonging the inevitable. Especially if you read the Ark as some sort of spiritual afterlife and, oh god, that's a completely different blog entry right there.