Thursday, January 6, 2011

Most Disappointing 2010 // Red Dead Redemption

The "Most Disappointing" award goes to the game that seemed like it was going to be absolutely incredible, but for whatever reason, it just didn't live up to the hype. I was expecting to love this game and instead was completely underwhelmed.

Ever since that original teaser trailer back in 2005, I've been pumped to see how Rockstar would handle the Western. Mixing that underused genre with a developer as talented as Rockstar seemed like a recipe for guaranteed success. Every subsequent trailer they released leading up to Red Dead Redemption's release only stoked that excitement further, as did the numerous perfect review scores.

As I made my way through the game's sublime first of three acts, I met some truly extraordinary characters: John Marston, the protagonist, was simultaneously tough and charming, taking each situation with nothing more than a cocked eyebrow and a cavalier outlook. Bonnie MacFarlane, a feisty rancher, proved a great foil to Marston's dry charisma and seemed like an early candidate for a potential love interest. Marshal Johnson, a weathered lawman, easily became my favorite; the kind of old-fashioned, honest sheriff I was hoping to fight alongside for most of the game.

The dialogue was smartly written, the voice acting was perfect, the pacing was excellent, and the story was pinpoint-focused on the "capture or kill" of Bill Williamson, one of Marston's former gang members. To say the least, I was impressed.

The hunt for Bill Williamson was to move down to Mexico, literally half of the game's huge world. And I was ready to chase him to Mexico and beyond, if I had to. I was determined to capture him alive. It only seemed right given Marston's reformed nature.

The first chink in the armor came when Jose Gonzalez's stellar "Far Away" began to play after I arrived in Mexico. What a powerful moment, for a real, honest-to-goodness song to begin playing here in this mostly ambient Western game. I was stunned. I was equally stunned when I got off my horse to pick some flowers (one of the game's collectables) and the song immediately and jarringly stopped playing. What a powerful moment, completely ruined by basic interactivity.

Everything fell apart after that. The focus on Bill Williamson was completely gone, replaced with a Mexican revolution that dragged on and on and never interested me at all. Like Marston (or so he claimed), all I cared about was catching up to Bill Williamson. The phenomenal characters I'd met before were replaced by unlikeable stereotypes. What was going on?

Finally though, Williamson was kneeling in front of me. I relished the moment and tried to figure out how to let the characters surrounding us know that I wanted to take him alive. After about ten seconds, a character I absolutely despised impatiently shot him, robbing me of any satisfaction at all. Wow.

After that, Marston's mission arbitrarily became the killing of the former leader of that gang, a man that had only ever been talked about in passing prior. It felt like the game was being stretched.

Without giving anything away, everything about the game's ending is truly brilliant -- one of the best I've played in years -- but the lead up to that ending is painful. The characters I loved were never revisited again in a meaningful way and the story completely lost the flawless pacing and focus of the first act.

Combine that with an embarrassing number of both game and immersion-breaking glitches, some rough, dated mechanics, and repetitive missions and Red Dead Redemption had completely lost me by the end. No other game this year disappointed me as much as this one did.

Runners-up: Split/Second, God of War III

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Most Potential 2010 // Dark Void

The "Most Potential" award goes to the game that sounded awesome on paper and had real flashes of brilliance, but could still be so much more. Hopefully this game will get a sequel that can deliver on its promise.

Dear Dark Void,

Remember the first time we leapt off that cliff together and activated the jetpack? And those UFOs came chasing after us and we had to do some pretty fancy flying to take them out? They were no match for us. We were a great team.

Or how about the time we had to destroy that crazy, rotating cylinder? Where, instead of taking cover behind those moving platforms, I just rocketed past everything, set it to self-destruct, then flew past everything again to escape? Wow, what a rush! Those were some really fun times.

But I also remember you taking me on lots of incredibly generic third-person shooting adventures too. Those were never your strength, so I don't really understand why you did that. We were having such a good time mixing ground and air combat that I just don't get why you insisted on having missions that focused on one or the other. Staying solely on the ground highlighted that you were pretty bland as a third-person shooter, and staying solely in the air highlighted that you weren't a fantastic air combat game either.

When we first started seeing each other, things were really exciting! You're different than the other games I've played in the past. You had some really cool, fresh twists on an established genre; ideas that I still think sound fantastic. And occasionally, they were. But too often, you fell back on tired gameplay tropes we've both seen elsewhere, done better.

Why didn't you stick with the concepts of dynamic environments, vertigo-inducing scenarios, and nonlinear levels, designed to allow freedom of play style with the jetpack? Sometimes, it felt like we were revolutionaries, man. Breaking new ground. Changing the world. But too often, it felt like we were just playing it safe.

But the thing is, I know you can become the game for me. You really impressed me with your creative ideas and visionary ambition. You always felt like you were on the cusp of something wonderful, something truly amazing. With a little effort, I think know you can soar to heights other games could only dream of.

I believe in you, Dark Void. Hopefully I'll see you again soon.


Runners-up: Split/Second, Heavy Rain