Saturday, January 14, 2012

Best Surprise 2011 // inFAMOUS 2

The "Best Surprise" award goes to the game that didn't have a lot of hype behind it but turned out more awesome than anyone could've imagined. It went from being off my radar to taking up all my time.

I loved the first inFAMOUS.

Even after I'd beaten the storyline, I spent hours collecting the last of the scattered Blast Shards and finishing up any leftover side missions. Sometimes I'd just glide around, doing nothing in particular. Maybe I'd blow up a car or three. Maybe I'd do a Thunder Drop off the tallest building I could find. It didn't matter what I was doing, really; I just liked inhabiting Empire City and playing as Cole. Even so, I couldn't bring myself to feel anything more than dread for inFAMOUS 2.

Blame that on the first major reveal for inFAMOUS 2, which showed off a newly revised Cole, swapping out the bald, bland superhero with a gravelly voice for a trendy, tattoo-laden playboy with a cocksure swagger and a seemingly endless supply of clever one-liners, now fighting against the Reapers from Blade 2 with giant lobster claws for arms.

Uh, what?

It only got worse from there. The second major reveal detailed the characters who'd be surrounding Cole on his latest adventure. Even as the developers recognized that Cole's buddy, Zeke, had been one of the worst parts of the first game, they promised that he would still be a major character in the sequel. As well, they showed off the two new ladies in Cole's life, Nix and Kuo, who would represent the newly revamped moral choice system. You see, Nix, a sultry African-American character who wears revealing red leather, keeps her hair in dreadlocks, and has fire powers, would represent "evil," while Kuo, an Asian-American character who wears a business casual suit, is a government agent, and has ice powers, would represent "good."

What's that called, children? Say it with me now: subtlety. Very good!

It honestly felt like the developers at Sucker Punch Studios were trying to burn their own franchise to the ground. It was the only explanation. Then—suddenly!—as if the clouds parted to allow God himself to intervene, Sucker Punch came to its senses. Cole was turned back into that beautiful, bald man we all grew to love (or at least tolerate) in inFAMOUS. Nix and Kuo ended up having much more depth than we could've anticipated. Zeke got a true character overhaul that not only made him bearable, but likable. Even those dumb lobster zombies turned out all right.

But that's not all. inFAMOUS 2 represents a true distillation of everything great about the first game while still layering on smart changes of its own. Take Cole's new Ice Launch power. When he uses it, ice rises from the ground, thrusting him forward higher than he could ever jump normally. It's a satisfying move that removes one more obstacle in the player's exploration of the city. But the true brilliance of the Ice Launch comes with the new electrical wires placed above the street just out of jumping distance, but at the exact height of an Ice Launch. Rather than having to climb up a power line to start Cole's electric grinding, the Ice Launch allows players to simply tap a button and speed away.

It's that kind of brilliant design that led me to call inFAMOUS 2 "one of the most perfect games I have ever played" in my review. Once again, I found myself playing for hours with no real objectives. I'd see how long I could skate along power lines across the city without falling, then test whether or not I could throw a car and tether to it while it's still in the air.

Based on those initial reveals, I thought Sucker Punch had completely lost sight of what made the first game so special. I thought I was going to hate inFAMOUS 2. Instead, it absolutely blew me away and became one of my favorite games of the year. I'm sorry I ever doubted it.

If you want to hear how I chose inFAMOUS 2, you can download my deliberation process, subscribe with iTunes, or listen to it below:

Runners-up: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, Catherine


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Most Disappointing 2011 // Mortal Kombat

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.

It's really weird to be giving Mortal Kombat, a game I once called "the most fun fighting game ever made," the Most Disappointing award for 2011, but here we are. I guess that's just what happens when you ship a game with broken online play and don't fix it for six months.

When it comes to fighting games, I'm an enthusiastic tourist. I love hearing about all the crazy strategies, watching the pros duke it out in tournaments and sharing the inevitable YouTube clips later on, but unless it has "Street Fighter" in the title, I'm probably not going to be "hardcore" about it.

I got hardcore into Mortal Kombat.

For a while, that's all we played in my apartment. We'd crowd together on the couch, laughing and trash talking and setting up ridiculous matches where we wouldn't know who we'd be playing as or against, or even if our characters would have arms. It became the new go-to party game.

Pretty soon, I found myself on Mortal Kombat strategy forums, figuring out the best combos for my favorite characters, then practicing them for hours in the Practice mode with all the damage percentile and location displays turned on.

Then summer rolled around and I was home again, now without quick access to friends and roommates who wanted to play. I'd been clamoring for a real challenge though, so I was excited to move the fight online. I wasn't excited for very long.

"The online multiplayer experience is one of the worst I've ever had," I wrote in my review. "If you're lucky enough to connect to a match, prepare for an unplayable, unresponsive mess. Lag pervades every aspect of the experience, even the character select screen. The developers keep promising some magical patch to fix everything, but it's already over two months too late for me. As far as I'm concerned, Mortal Kombat doesn't even have online play."

I had reached rock bottom, now finding myself on Mortal Kombat tech support forums, poring over angry posts from other frustrated players all looking for a solution. For me, that solution never came. By the time NetherRealm Studios had finally patched its game up to a working standard, I'd already moved on.

I've heard that the game works online just fine now, but I haven't checked — I haven't touched Mortal Kombat in months. I'm out of practice and I just don't care anymore. If I want to play a fighting game online now, there are much better alternatives, like, say, Street Fighter III: Third Strike Online Edition, which plays beautifully online.

[Update 1/13: A friend convinced me to try the online play again. "Just one match," he said. "See if it's changed." So I tried it. I won the match, but the character select screen lagged, the match itself lagged, and even the Fatality animation at the end lagged. And that's while running the latest patch, 1.05. So yeah. Turns out that it's still messed up.]

Offline, Mortal Kombat has no equal. It's the best fighting game in years, hands-down. But that's precisely what made its downright atrocious online play sting so much. There were worse games in 2011, but nothing disappointed me more than trying to play Mortal Kombat online.

If you want to hear how I chose Mortal Kombat, you can download my deliberation process, subscribe with iTunes, or listen to it below:

Runners-up: Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, Killzone 3


Monday, January 9, 2012

Most Potential 2011 // L.A. Noire

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.

I did not finish L.A. Noire. I made it about halfway through the Arson Desk, which means I'm maybe an hour or two away from finishing the game. But I can tell you right now: I'm never going to finish it.

It completely broke for me after the Homicide Desk, about halfway through the game. I realized how utterly formulaic the game was: You get a case, examine the body, collect evidence that leads to new locations with more clues to find or people to interrogate, and once you've exhausted those, solve the case. Rinse and repeat. Nothing I did felt like it mattered anymore, so eventually, I just stopped.

But until that point, L.A. Noire had been absolutely blowing my goddamn mind. I'd never played anything like it. I was being challenged to think like a real detective, learning how to interpret evidence and use it to either corroborate people's stories or catch them in their lies. I couldn't play it absentmindedly, either, since a sharp eye was always needed to read people's faces during interrogations.

Oh man, those faces.

L.A. Noire broke every other game for me. I simply can't look at other games anymore without thinking about how awful and fake the characters look. The MotionScan technology at work here is astounding, easily single the most impressive thing I saw in a game all year. It uses 32 high-definition cameras to capture every little detail about an actor's face as he performs his part, and the results are stunning. The characters in L.A. Noire actually emote. They look like real people, and that's because they are.

I want that technology in every game I play from now on. In L.A. Noire, it was an essential part of the game since you needed to study people's faces to determine whether or not you should trust them. While most games don't really require this level of detail, they could all benefit from having characters that look and act like real people. It's a huge leap forward in the art of telling immersive stories in games, and I know this term gets thrown around a lot, but I really believe that L.A. Noire represents a watershed moment for games.

L.A. Noire reminds me of Heavy Rain. Both are deeply flawed games, but they're also incredibly ambitious in the way they attempt to push the medium forward. I don't know that I would necessarily want an L.A. Noire 2, but I definitely do want more games like it.

If you want to hear how I chose L.A. Noire, you can download my deliberation process, subscribe with iTunes, or listen to it below:

Runners-up: Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon, Red Faction: Armageddon


Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Review // Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception

Without a doubt, Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is the most lavishly produced, highly polished game I've played all year. It's also one of the least fun.

That's coming from a guy who beat Uncharted 2: Among Thieves in one ten-hour sitting because it was just that good. Sure, it totally fell apart at the end, pitting Drake against ridiculous blue monsters for no good reason before flagrantly ripping off the final boss fight of GUN, but the nine hours before that were sheer brilliance, so all was forgiven.

But Uncharted 3 is a mess from start to finish, opening with a bar fight that plays like a poor man's Batman: Arkham City and closing with a shameless retread of Uncharted 2's final moments. As the credits mercifully closed the curtain on Drake's Deception, I was left totally speechless, wondering how Naughty Dog could've dropped the ball so badly.

Let me take this opportunity to reiterate just how outstanding the production values of this game are: It's beyond gorgeous, filled with the kind of crispness and bright colors that made Uncharted 2 pop off the screen. The set pieces are technical marvels, pushing the PlayStation 3 harder than we ever thought possible and making for exhilarating showpieces. There are no cut corners here, and it shows.

That said, looking pretty just isn't enough when the rest of the game is so lackluster.

Uncharted 3 stumbles right out of the gate, opening with an awkward bar brawl and a blatant disregard for the events of Uncharted 2. It never feels inspired, like that game did; it feels like "just another adventure," which I'm sure most people will be totally fine with, but wasn't really what I was looking for. Abandoning the last game's conclusion in favor of yet another trip around the world to find yet another fabled lost city with only the barest of explanations just feels lazy.

Chloe is still in the mix, though no longer as a love interest nor as feisty (and therefore, is much less interesting), now joined by a cheeky Brit named Cutter, both of whom get inexplicably cut from the story about halfway through. Really, the one character that Uncharted 3 does any justice to is Sully, whose past with Drake is explained in a long scene that culminates with a chase that would have been awesome if it didn't result in instant failure the moment you make a wrong turn.

Ultimately, the story here hits most of the same beats that Uncharted 2 did, right down to a late "reveal" of Elena, who's been off doing her own thing between games, and ends on the exact same note, too. It lacks the passion of earlier games, and more than ever, just feels like an excuse to string set pieces together.

No more is this evident than the sinking cruise liner that Naughty Dog proudly trotted out at its big E3 2011 reveal. It's stunning, for sure, but it also has shit-all to do with the rest of the game. It's a two-hour tangent in the middle of the story that goes nowhere and serves only as an impressive set piece. It's window dressing, and nothing more.

Something to note is how much that sequence changed between the E3 demo and the final game. In the demo, combat smartly took a backseat to the spectacle of everything going on around you, and the whole scene played out quite smoothly as a result. The final game, however, foolishly throws dozens of enemies at you, breaking the flow of another "would have been awesome" scene. Instead of concentrating on finding a way out of the ship, I was busy dodging bullets, grenades and fists, and not having much fun at all.

It's a game that has a few good tricks, but uses them all too often. If you liked the end of that E3 demo, when Drake runs toward the camera, then I hope you'll still like it the fifth or sixth time you do it in the full game. You'll run toward the camera from water. You'll run toward the camera from fire. You'll run toward the camera from a nonsensical swarm of spiders. You'll run toward the camera from another nonsensical swarm of spiders, and then once more, just in case you weren't tired of it yet.

You'll also fight some very nasty brutes, seven-foot-tall beasts of men that come at the most inopportune times and usually require that you take them out with your fists because, really, guns are so passé. You'll fight one every time Naughty Dog seemingly didn't feel confident that a combat scenario would be memorable enough, which proved to be pretty often: You'll fight one in a bar, a burning chateau, a citadel, a plane, a truck, and just when you thought you couldn't possibly fight another one, you'll fight another one. Despite the location changes, these fights play out exactly the same way every time and would've been much better reserved for one or two instances throughout the entire game.

But the biggest downfall of the Uncharted series has always been the gunplay. Whether the enemies take too many bullets, the combat scenarios aren't well-designed, or the aiming is busted, something is always wrong. Well, that hasn't changed.

Looking pretty
just isn't enough
when the rest of the game is so lackluster.

Uncharted 3 has all of those problems, but it's the poorly designed combat scenarios that I found the most frustrating. Probably the worst of these had me fighting dozens of pirates in a ship graveyard. They were spread out across several boats, and I had very little cover to work with. The enemies were extremely aggressive in this section, constantly flanking and forcing me to risk getting shot while I moved to new cover. Sometimes, I'd be in the flow of things, handling it well, feeling good, when an armored guy with a shotgun would come running at me from the side. If I couldn't take him out quickly enough, I'd die from his shotgun, a wayward grenade, or the never-ending gunfire from other enemies.

After about seven retries, I did what I always do at some point in every Uncharted game: I dropped the difficulty down to Very Easy and moved on with my life.

There were also times when I'd be fighting alongside AI partners who were more content to watch me die than pitch in. For instance, there's a point in the game where Cutter gets injured and Sully needs to help him walk, so Drake and Chloe are charged with covering them. You're assaulted by waves of enemies, eventually culminating in guys with riot shields and an armored brute. I didn't have any grenades to deal with the riot shield guys, but since the enemies only ever focus on Drake, I figured I'd use that to lure them away from Chloe, exposing their backs to her. Dangerous for me, but easy kills for her, right? Apparently, too easy — Chloe refused to shoot at them, and eventually I was forced to abandon what should've been a winning strategy.

Not everything in the game is bad, though. There are occasionally some truly exceptional moments in Uncharted 3; they're just undercut by all the bullshit. Drake wandering helpless for days through miles of desert, for example, is truly exceptional. The way Drake just happens to stumble onto what he was looking for in the middle of that desert, however, is bullshit. Drake being totally fine to run around and fight dozens of guys after days in that desert with no food or water is also bullshit.

I'd like to tell you that the multiplayer saves Uncharted 3, but I can't. Granted, since I only rented it, I couldn't actually play the multiplayer in the final game, but you can read my coverage of the multiplayer beta to understand why Uncharted's multiplayer isn't really for me. I also tried out the Subway promotion that was supposed to offer the full multiplayer ahead of the game's release, and it seemed largely unchanged from the beta, so I'm going to assume the multiplayer's still not for me.

I'm completely aware that I'm the odd man out here. I get that. But for as good as Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception looks, and as intricate as its set pieces are, I simply didn't have fun playing it.

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception / $59.99 / PS3