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.

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!

Jun 142011

Having finished L.A. Noire last week, I figured I’d follow up my first impressions with a few final thoughts on the game.  Overall, I found the game very entertaining from start to finish although this can definitely be considered a game that is “not for everyone.”

First off, it’s not an action game.  Even though it’s Rockstar who brought you GTA and Red Dead Redemption, L.A. Noire is most certainly not a cops and robbers shoot ‘em up.  There is a bit of shooting, and you’ll get to kill your share of bad guys, but these sequences feel more like afterthoughts or bolt-ons rather than important parts of the game.  Additionally, the shooting in the game isn’t very good, and probably provides some of the least enjoyable parts of L.A. Noire.  Adding to the feel that action isn’t a focus, there is an option to allow you to skip action sequences if you fail them a few times in a row.  I didn’t need that option, but it’s nice to see it available for those who aren’t adept at action games and want to enjoy L.A. Noire for its story and adventure-like aspects.

Second, the driving parts can be quite tedious.  Driving, sometimes long distances, to crime scenes coupled with the fact that reckless driving can hurt your overall case score makes you want to skip driving all together.  Thankfully, this was accounted for, as most of the time your partner can do the driving, which basically amounts to fast-traveling to your destination.  After the first few times, I let my partner drive everywhere, although there are a few instances where you are forced to take the wheel to tail a suspect or chase someone down.

Lastly, the overall case formula can be repetitive.  When you strip it down to it’s core components, each case more or less follows the same pattern.  You start at the precinct and get a case assignment.  You drive (or fast-travel) the to the crime scene, look for clues, question witnesses, follow up leads, interview suspects and charge the one that best fits the evidence.  Sometimes it can end in a shootout or car chase to vary it up, but the basic formula is there.  Without spoiling it, there is no true way to fail a case, just varying degrees of success.  In cases with multiple suspects, you’ll have a sense that none of them are guilty, but some are more worthy of being thrown in jail than others.  There’s always the “popular” choice from the captain and your partner, even though you have suspicions that something larger is going on.  The cases are mostly all tied together and yes, it all will make some sense in the end, so stick with it.

With a bunch of negatives listed above, how is it possible that I enjoyed this game?  The game, at heart, is a very well polished adventure game, like some sort of modern-era point and click adventure.  With the action being forgettable and a repetitive case formula with some deviations, the thing that brings it all together is a capturing story, top-notch voice acting and excellently written dialog.  L.A. Noire unfolds like a great cop drama, sticking with the implied noir theme set in a beautiful 1947 Los Angeles environment where attention to detail was paramount.  And let’s not forget the motion capture tech used here, that has the in-game characters not only voicing their lines, but acting them out as well.  It’s all very well done.

Again, I’ll voice my praise for this game, as I did in my first impressions.  The story keeps you interested all the way through, and makes you easily dismiss the weak parts while you enjoy the experience that’s a bit unique in today’s games.  As mentioned previously, this game also is great for spectators who can play along looking for clues and interrogating suspects, while also enjoying the story much like watching a TV show.  Playing the game a case at a time seems to work as a good pace, as each case can run roughly an hour at a time, depending on how thorough you want to be.  With about 19 cases, there’s a decent amount of content here, and that doesn’t count the side stuff like finding hidden cars, responding to street crimes and doing the free-play modes where you can explore the city, if you so desire.  I haven’t done much of that and concentrated most of my focus on the main story.  It’s probably one of my favorite games of this year, if not the favorite so far.

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May 182011
If you have been following any of the big gaming sites or even mainstream media, you probably already know that L.A. Noire is receiving glowing reviews and universal praise.  I decided to give it a shot and after just a couple hours with the game, I can see what all the excitement is about.

I hadn’t paid much attention to the game during its development cycle, and not a whole lot of news had come out about it to know exactly what to expect.  Of course, you see the name “Rockstar” on the box art, so immediately you think of GTA and Red Dead Redemption, just in a 1940’s setting.  You would be wrong.  True, there are a few small elements that may loosely compare to those games, but only in the most general sense.   As a quick disclaimer, I wasn’t much of a fan of any of the recent GTAs or RDR, but I am definitely a fan of L.A. Noire.

L.A. Noire is a crime solving game that is broken up into cases.  The cases are nice sized chunks of game play that have a beginning and end to them, and depending on how well you do on each case determines your character’s overall progression through the ranks.  As you level up, you can unlock more intuition points to help you find more clues and help you out when you get stumped.

The general case layout, at least in the first part of the game, is that you start out by investigating a crime scene, looking for clues and evidence.  A big part of the game is interviewing witnesses and potential suspects, and while you are doing that, you have to try and read their facial expressions and mannerisms, then compare it to any evidence you’ve gathered to decide if they are lying or telling the truth, which drives how to proceed.  The amazing part is that it actually works really, really well.  L.A. Noire has some of the best “face tech” we’ve seen in games, so you really have to pay attention to interviewees.

The few items that may only slightly resemble a GTA or RDR game is the driving and combat.  The combat is not a large part of the game, and your character cannot pull out a weapon at any time.  There are only specific instances that fit the context where you can draw your gun, and even then, you probably don’t want to shoot if you don’t have to.  The controls for that could be a bit tighter, but it’s forgivable given the fact that this game isn’t really about shooting and plays a small roll.  Most of the game is looking for and examining evidence along with engaging in dialog with your partner, witnesses, suspects and other persons of interest.

The driving in the game is probably the only part I find a bit unpleasant.  The amount of the city that you can travel in L.A. Noire is impressive, but I found the driving controls to be a bit too floaty.  Of course, being a cop, you actually don’t want to crash into other cars or objects, and if you do it enough, it can really hurt your case “score.”  Thankfully, they accounted for this, and in most cases, you can let your partner do the driving which results in what basically is “fast travel” to the destination of your choosing.  I expect to let my partner do the bulk of the driving for the remainder of the game.  There are some small side missions that you can take on while driving, which are radio calls requesting officers to respond to different events that you can accept or ignore, which could involve chasing down a suspect or diffusing a hostage situation.

The game’s presentation is some of the best I’ve seen.  They nailed the 1940’s setting completely (or at least my perceived image of it) with sharp visuals, period specific music, top notch voice acting and great dialog.  The game looks phenomenal and from what I’ve read, the PS3 version edges out the 360 version in graphical quality.  Also, the PS3 version has the advantage of being contained on just one blu-ray versus three DVDs on the 360.

So if you were on the fence about L.A. Noire and are looking for a great story-driven crime game, definitely check it out.  The game unfolds like a good crime drama and could definitely make for a good game to play with a significant other or friends.  Working together to analyze the evidence and talk about possible motives or suspicions of lying make it an interactive game for non-players too.  I’m definitely excited to dive back into the world of L.A. Noire and take on some new cases.

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