Dec 282011
 

2011 was a year where we saw a ridiculous amount of good and great games released.  After several years with a dearth of great titles, this year was overrun with quality games vying for our attention, which magnified the problem eventually encountered by all gamers: Too many games, too little time.  Here’s where I take a look at some of the more memorable ones that I’ve played.

Best “New” Game
Of course every year we’re usually drowning in sequels, but this year, we had a decent amount of new games that weren’t the 8th or 9th iteration of the same thing (I’m looking at you, CoD 8!).  Probably my favorite was L.A. Noire.  When you boil it down, L.A. Noire was pretty much an adventure game that had a dash of action and a hint of open-worldness, but the overall presentation and production values tied to an interesting story made it one of my favorite games of 2011 overall.  Top notch voice acting and an entertaining cast of characters kept me playing just to unravel the story.  Searching for clues and making a case against suspects has never been so well done as it is in L.A. Noire.  Definitely worth checking out, and also makes for a great spectator game for your significant other.  Also, it’s now available in PC form.

Honorable mentions in this category go to Bullet Storm, which was much better than I expected and is probably the game that Duke Nukem Forever should have been.  Also Telltale’s Back to the Future point-and-click adventure was very good for those who love 80’s nostalgia.

Best Indie Game
I almost called this category “best downloadable game.”  Of course, in 2011, almost every game is “downloadable” — but really what I’m looking at is indie games that haven’t had any wide retail releases and usually cost $20 and under.  This category probably had the most growth in 2011 with hundreds of quality titles released.  The one that stuck out the most this year for me was Magicka.  A witty, tongue-in-cheek story with hilarious co-op play made this one playable, and re-playable for months.  It’s hard to argue with a game about wizards and magic that comes out with a Vietnam expansion complete with M16s and grenades that totally works in its game world.  The game wasn’t without its technical flaws, including lack of mid-level saves which were magnified by random crashes to desktop during co-op after a later patch, but it still provided hours of entertainment.

Honorable mentions go to Sanctum, the first person tower defense game that started life as a UT mod, Bastion and Renegade Ops.

Best Co-op
Co-op games have become a trend as of late, and 2011 had its share.  Magicka was pretty good here, as was Sanctum…even BF3 threw one in there and dangled weapon unlocks as a carrot.  But one game stands out in my mind:  Portal 2.  Portal 2 was better than the first in every way possible, which wasn’t too hard to do since the first Portal was essentially just an extended demo / pack-in for the Orange Box.  The single player in Portal 2 was great, and the co-op was completely separate and excellently done.  Trying to figure out puzzles with a friend with sometimes hilarious results was better than expected.  Mix in a heavy dosage of GLaDOS and great writing and it’s co-op at its best.   Even if you only played and enjoyed the single player, you owe it to yourself to buddy up and play the co-op, you won’t be disappointed.

Best Multiplayer
This one is pretty easy for me.  Battlefield 3 is the obvious choice.  BF3 offers such an deep experience that lets you play the game you want to play it.  The classes you choose actually affect the way you play the game and with extra-large maps and a few different game Battlefield 3modes, this game will keep you entertained for hours on end.  Team play is not only an option, but almost required even in just regular pub servers, it’ll scratch most people’s itch for some sort of organized team gameplay.  Not to mention the persistent stat and level tracking, all available from the web, BF3 provides the most in-depth experience we’ve seen in an online shooter…probably ever.  Sure, it has its flaws, and the whole Steam / Origin debate raged during the pre-release period which was turned out to be a non-issue or at least accepted begrudgingly for most players.  Where else are you going to get your online shooting needs?  True, CoD 8 still has its followers, but it’s too hollow and shallow of an experience for my tastes at this point.

Best Single Player
Again, this is an easy one for me; Skyrim.  I only dabbled in Oblivion years after the initial craze over the game, never played any previous Elder Scrolls games, but after thoroughly enjoying Bethesda’s last game, Fallout 3, I was ready to jump into the land of Tamriel head first, and wasn’t disappointed.  This is a game that you can sink 50+ hours and still not see everything.  Also it’s hard to discount the number of internet memes this game had already created.  I’ll be playing this one well in to 2012. 

A close runner up here has to be Deus Ex.  The series got a reboot and a facelift and it made for one of the best games of 2011.  Only a game of Skyrim’s magnitude could unseat Deus Ex as my favorite game overall.  Both games are must plays.

Unexpected Greatness
Every year there’s at least one game (more if I’m lucky) that ends up being a something that I wasn’t anticipating, tried on a whim and ended up being pleasantly surprised by the results.  Previous years Batman Arkham City and Star Craft II were games I had zero expectations of and ended up enjoying so much they made my top games list.  This year, Saints Row the Third makes that list.  I never played the first, only briefly played the second, but on numerous recommendations and an aggressive Amazon sale, I figured I’d give it a go.  The game is so completely over the top and so well written with juvenile jokes that  are actually funny (unlike Duke Nukem Forever) the game exceeded all expectations I had.  It’s just plain fun to play, and in the end, that’s what counts.

Honorables
With 2011 being so rich with great games, there were several others that I enjoyed so much but didn’t make the other lists.  Dead Space 2, for example, was definitely much better than the first in every way.  Also, if you got the PS3 version, you got a copy of Dead Space Extraction, which turned out to be a pretty good light gun game that’s worth playing if you’re into the Dead Space fiction.

Another game I sunk a ton of time into and will revisit, hopefully via co-op is Dead Island, a better than expected open-world zombie smasher.  After its rocky launch, the game got a bit of a bad rap, but is completely enjoyable if you’re into smashing hordes of zombies in hyper-violent style.  Let’s not forget Batman Arkham City, which was very good and while it didn’t recapture the magic that was Batman AA, it’s still a great game and in any other year could have been one of the best games of the year.

I want to mention Deus Ex: Human Revolution one more time.  I absolutely loved the Blade Runner-esq neo-noir atmosphere, the ability to upgrade your character in any way you see fit and a great story.  I’m looking forward to going back to it and playing some of the DLC.

2011 was so jam packed with great games that there were plenty that I didn’t even get to.  There’s still a few that I will probably get to next year, like Uncharted 3, Rage, The Witcher 2 and the indie shooter Hard Reset.  But no “best of” list would be complete without a corresponding “biggest disappointments of” list.  I’ll be working to put that one together over the next few days.

Of course these are just my memorable games of the 2011, I’m sure everyone has their own take on the year.  Feel free to add your comments!

Sep 292011
 
Battlefield 3

Now that the “early” access for pre-orderers is over, the Battlefield 3 “don’t call this a demo” beta is open to all, on the platform of your choice. All the juicy details are here, and if you’re playing on the PC, be sure to update your drivers, as described here.

I had a chance to check out the beta, and can say the gameplay is mostly what you’d expect from the next BF game, with some pretty great visuals.  The Battlelog stuff, as I previously speculated about here is a mixed bag, but has a lot of potential assuming DICE can streamline and optimize the experience.  Now’s the time to stop taking everyone else’s word for it and decide for yourself, no strings attached.  Get downloading, soldier!

Sep 262011
 
Battlefield 3

With the BF3 beta starting on September 27th for pre-order customers before opening to a wider release on the 29th, you’ll want to make sure your rig is ready to go to enjoy all the action.  Nvidia and AMD have you covered, with BF3 optimized drivers.

Nvidia’s drivers, version 285.38 ,are out, promising a 38% increase in performance and improve stability and image quality.  Grab your Nvidia flavored drivers here.

UPDATE:  AMD now has  their BF3 tweaked drivers available too. You can download them here.

Sep 012011
 

Now that September is here, the holiday game rush is upon us.  It’s also back to school season, back to serious work season and before you know it, the actual holidays themselves will be here, all resulting in limited gaming time.  Lots of games plus limited time equals important decisions to be made.   Let’s take a look at three of the more notable multiplayer shooters that will hit the PC over the next month or two and examine what will be worth your time and money.  Each one is a sequel and each has an appeal to a specific market segment.

Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad

The first of our 3 games we’re looking at today will hit the virtual shelves on September 13th.  RO2 is the underdog in this fight, coming from Tripwire Interactive, who got their start as a Make Something Unreal winner with the original Red Orchestra UT2k4 mod.  RO2 is the ambitious follow up to the retail version of RO, now using the latest version of the Unreal 3 engine.  RO’s focus is on realism (relative to other games in this genre) and provides a bit slower paced, more strategic experience than the BF and CoD series of games.  Another noteworthy aspect of RO2, is it is one of the few World War II games still around, after they were totally over-done in the past decade.  That means you won’t have any high-tech gadgets or laser guided nukes to kill your enemies with, which depending on your point of view may or may not be a good thing.

Price:  It will be the least expensive of the 3, with a MSRP of $40. Pre-ordering on Steam will knock off 10% or 20% if you own the original game.  Early beta access (right now) requires the “Digital Deluxe” edition for an extra $10.

DRM: Steamworks.  No matter where you buy this game, it will have to be activated and tied to your Steam account.  No additional layers of DRM should be present.

Summary:  RO2 will be a good choice if you’re tired of a lot of the “arcade-like” elements traditionally found in the CoD games and, to a lesser extent, BF games.  Classes and vehicles play a large role and allow you to play the game in a way that more fits your style, similar to the BF games.  Keep in mind the community for RO2 will be smaller than that of CoD and BF, so you may not have many friends playing this game, at least initially, although word of mouth could be strong.  Generally speaking, the community will be a little bit more mature than the other two games as it’s catering to a smaller, more realism based market.

Battlefield 3

BF3 is far and away the most hyped game of the three, especially on the PC side.  DICE has been touting the PC as the lead development platform and has promised key PC centric features like Direct X11 visuals and robust community and social features through their web interface dubbed “Battlelog.”  BF3 on the PC will allow for up to 64 player battles on huge maps and a few different game modes including conquest, rush and death match.  Since it’s set in a modern warfare setting, you’ll have lots of high-tech gadgets, along with lots of vehicles, including jets to play with.  While the BF series does rely heavily on team play, it does have its share of arcade-like elements and is probably best described as somewhere in between RO and CoD in terms of gameplay speed.  Lastly, BF3 will have a co-op mode that is separate from the single player story, allowing you to team up with a friend to complete missions like rescuing hostages and the like.

Price:  BF3 and CoD both retail at $60.  Pre-ordering gets you the “Strike at Karkand” DLC (basically a retro map pack) which will cost an undetermined amount of money post release.

DRM: BF3 will require you to register and associate the game to an EA Origin account.  Origin will be mandatory no matter where you purchase it from, and the game most certainly will not be on Steam.

Summary:  BF3 will have a large community and will likely be played for years to come (if it follows previous BF games).  Chances are you’ll have friends that will be playing it, and it promises to offer worthwhile single player and co-op game modes.  The upside of a long lasting game is that you could wait a bit, play one of the other games and pick it up deeply discounted at some point next year.  BF3 will be out October 25th.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 aka CoD 8

Admittedly, I’ve followed the progress of MW3 the least out of the 3.  After being an avid player of previous CoD games, the yearly iterations have resulted in a bit of a “CoD fatigue” for me.  Gameplay reports for MW3 seem to follow a similar CoD model with the usual assortment of kill streaks, perks and multiple game modes.  Also, single player will be back, continuing the saga of the previous two MW games.  Of course, your enjoyment of that mode will depend on how much time you invested in the earlier games.  Also new this year is the addition of social features for the CoD community, similar to BF3’s Battlelog.  Most parts of that will be free, although certain aspects will require a subscription fee.

Price: CoD MW3 has a MSRP of $60.   Expect regular releases of pay-for map packs post release.  Subscription fees for “premium” social features.

DRM: Steamworks.  Continuing the trend from MW2 and BLOPS, MW3 will use Steamworks, meaning no matter where you buy it, you’ll have to register and activate it through your Steam account.

Summary: CoD MW3 will most likely be the most popular of the 3 across all platforms.  Fast-paced shooting with minimal team-based elements.  MW3 won’t make you a CoD convert, at this point, you know whether you’re a CoD guy/gal or not.  Like BLOPS, it will support dedicated servers, so it’s not as PC-unfriendly as MW2 was, but still MW3’s bread and butter lies on the consoles.  Chances are you’ll have friends playing this game, but don’t expect this game to stay popular for more than a year, since CoD 9 will supplant it around this time next year.  CoD: MW3 will be released November 8th.

Aug 202011
 
Battlefield 3

Much has been made lately of BF3 moving some key features that normally appear in game to a web interface.  Things like friends lists and the server browser.  PC gamers are a fickle bunch, and when they hear things they’ve been used to a certain way for 20 years are now changing, internet outrage ensues.  Before you start to rage, listen to DICE developer Alan Kertz, who  makes the argument on why it will be better that way:

Why Battlelog in a browser? Battlelog let’s you check your stats, your friends, your feed from Any Where. Work, the toilet, the pub…

Battlelog on the web also makes it easier for us to support you the players. We can build a better Server Browser on Battlelog.

Finally, you can use all the features of Battlelog while playing via alt-tab. So you can check stats or browse servers in play (unlike BC2).

In case you’re late to the party, Battlelog is the name for the all-in-one website that will serve not only as your server browser when you launch the game, but as a social media hub for all things BF3.  Much like what CoD MW3 is doing and will be charging a subscription for, except Battlelog is free with your purchase of BF3.

While I’m part of the fickle PC gamer crowd, I don’t necessarily think the sky is falling with Battlelog.  Let’s face it, previous BF games, and especially BC2 had notoriously bad server browsers, and terrible friends list support.  Remember after a patch, your whole friends list disappeared, and then you had to re-friend everyone?  Then remember when it happened again?  Remember how horribly sluggish the server browser was the first 6 months BC2 was out, only to get marginally better later on?  We’re not exactly losing the pinnacle of in-game multiplayer support.

It stands to reason that a web interface for all those things would be much easier to build, and then easier to maintain than building it in the BF3 codebase.  Changes to the browser and other aspects of Battlelog can be done independent of gameplay changes and be completed more quickly — so I really do believe they can build a better server browser on Battlelog.  Will it be a hassle to Alt-Tab to get to those things that we got to in game previously?  Possibly, but usually to get to those things before, you had to quit a server (or whatever you were doing) to get to those menus. Now an Alt-Tab might be an improvement, since you can stay connected, browse for a different server and then have friends follow, without having to navigate clunky/non-responsive in game menus.

We’ll see how it plays out, but Battlelog has the potential to actually offer a better experience, assuming it’s done right.  Keep your pitchforks and torches in the closet for now.

Aug 122011
 
Origin

Now that it’s confirmed that BF3 won’t appear on Steam, the only mystery was why. While it’s not any great shock to hear EA was pushing Origin hard, now we have definitive word by the BF community manager on Twitter that BF3 will require Origin.  We now know BF3 uses the Origin equivalent of  Steamworks, which means no matter where you buy the game, you’ll need to activate it on Origin — including retail disc formats.  Obviously, if you bought a game on Steam that you had to then activate on a Steam clone, requiring both to run to appease their DRM demons, rips in space time would occur.  That’s why Steam is out of the loop but services like Direct2Drive or GamersGate are still in, because they don’t tack on any extra DRM or client restrictions.

Now we know, and knowing is half the battle.  Anyone not buying BF3 because of the Origin requirement?

Aug 082011
 
Battlefield 3

The BF3 hype machine is in full effect now.  A little over two months out, DICE is claiming that BF3 is the “deepest” shooter they’ve ever developed, and promise unlocks that could take years to achieve.    Now before you start to rant that you don’t want to have to invest insane amounts of time just to unlock competitive weapons, gadgets and attachments in the game, keep in mind that DICE isn’t simply referring to in-game hardware unlocks.  They’re also talking about elusive service medals and pins too.

Battlefield players are among the most loyal out there. Our games are literally played for years by our hardcore fans, and we want to actively support that. There should always be something left to achieve in Battlefield 3.

However, they also address hardware unlocks too.  That was one thing many felt was lacking in BC2 — you could unlock every weapon and gadget fairly quickly, diminishing any sense of game accomplishment thereafter.  They’ve got that covered too:

Compared to Battlefield: Bad Company 2, Battlefield 3 will have more than 10 times the hardware unlocks spread over weapons, weapons attachments, gadgets, and a huge unlock tree for vehicles alone.

So it sounds like you will have your fill of in-game items, awards and cheevos if that’s your thing.  If that isn’t your thing…well, you’re pretty much going to hate most games that come out now anyway.

You can read the full blog post over on the official Battlefield Blog.

Aug 072011
 
Origin

Ok, so you gave in to EA and installed Origin, and you caved and preordered BF3 after not letting yourself get excited about the game all Spring and Summer.  Well, maybe I’m describing myself a little bit here, but that’s beside the point.  So now that’s Origin is installed, it works just like Steam, right?  Mostly yes, but I noticed a few things that might be helpful to new users.

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First off, I made the assumption that the directory that I installed Origin in will also house all the games that I install through it.  Steam works that way, right?  In Origin’s case, this is actually false.  By default, Origin wants to install its games on to C:\Program Files\Origin Games (at least in my case).  For some, this may not be a problem, but if you’re anything like me (and most other PC gamers I know) you install your games on a different drive than your system drive.  This is especially important if you run a small SSD as your system/OS drive and have a conventional drive for games and applications.  To change this, click on the gear icon near the top right-ish of the main Origin window and click “settings.”  Right on the General tab you’ll see an option under “Downloaded Games” you can set to tell Origin where you put your games.  Keep in mind, Origin will not move any existing games installed, this will just take effect for new games downloaded — so do this now before you try to install BF3.  There’s also an option for keeping Origin game installers, but unless you feel a need to keep them, I don’t see why that would be worthwhile.

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One thing that Origin has that is Steam-like is an in-game overlay which at this point is pretty much just in-game chat.  Pressing Shift + F1 is the default setting here, not to be confused with Steam’s Shift + Tab. You can configure the hotkeys for that combination also in the settings under the “In Game” tab.  Only one obvious tip here; don’t set your Origin hotkey combo the same as Steam or anything else that you may have running while gaming.  I’m pretty sure something disastrous will happen.

Aside from those two things, there isn’t much else that Origin can do at this point that is worth tweaking.  I’m sure as time passes EA will build out their platform much like Steam has, but until then, it’s main purpose will be to serve as a BF3 delivery platform, soon to be followed by the exclusive place to get Star Wars: Old Republic when that arrives later this year.

Aug 062011
 
Battlefield 3

After it was already almost a forgone conclusion, we now have word that BF3 is really, really, really not coming to Steam — for reals.  The word comes from both the official Battlefield Twitter account and a forum post on the EA forums from staff.  Again, they mention Valve’s restrictions on DLC and post-release support.  Interestingly, we haven’t heard much from Valve’s side of the story, and we still haven’t heard much from other devs and publishers about these restrictions EA keeps bringing up.  The exact details are still unavailable as to what EA is looking to do with BF3 that Steam won’t let them.

Unfortunately, Steam has adopted a set of restrictive terms of service which limit how developers interact with customers to deliver patches and other downloadable content. No other download service has adopted these practices.

Of course, there is still a chance that EA and Valve come to some sort of terms before the launch of BF3, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.  In turn, with BF3 not being available on Steam, it provides EA will a bit more leverage to sell it on Origin, as we discussed here.  So while I’m sure EA would love to sell BF3 everywhere possible, not being on Steam can’t be bothering them too much.  EA squarely places the blame on Valve, but rarely things are that simple.

Is no BF3 on Steam a deal breaker for you?

Aug 052011
 
Battlefield 3

After making Origin mandatory for the BF3 alpha test, EA isn’t letting up on the Origin hard sell.  They know they have a valuable piece of content that can make or break Origin and they’re pulling out all of the tricks.  First off, if your pre-order BF3 through Origin, you’ll get all the “Back to Karkand” DLC for free, which is no big deal, since that’s true of everywhere else that is selling the game.  To sweeten the deal, they are giving early access to the beta in September.  No exact word on how early “early” is, but it’s dangled out there.  If that’s not enough, they are guaranteeing you can pre-load the game so you can play the game the second it becomes available and are also throwing in some Battlefield Play4Free items as well.  The final icing on the cake is that those who were alpha testers can also get a free game with their BF3 pre-order and can choose from Mass Effect 2, Dead Space 2 or Medal of Honor.  Short of coming to your house and cooking you dinner, EA is throwing everything possible to make Origin the place to get BF3.

Obviously, all this is a smart move for EA, who is desperate to get Origin off the ground and help put a few dents in Steam’s armor.  It also provides them a marketplace that they control so that they don’t have to play by Valve’s rules and also not share a cut of the profits of games sold on Steam.  My experience with Origin so far isn’t that great; the interface is clunky and at time feels sluggish — but the same could have been said when Steam first hit the market.  Time will tell if Origin will gain a significant market, but considering the size of EA and the number of games they publish, it’s a safe bet that Origin will be hanging around for a while.  It can’t be any worse than the Games for Windows Live Marketplace, can it?

Where are you planning to purchase BF3? Has Origin offered a sweet enough deal for you to give it a shot, or will you look elsewhere?