Saturday, April 23, 2011

FEATURE - the best games that aren't "the best."

We all love our triple-As - they're so damned close to perfect, you can't not love them. These days, we demand our games are of such uniformly high quality, or we do not deign to partake - after all, this can be an expensive pastime - if you're going to charge me sixty dollars, you'd better fucking bring it.

The thing is, "triple-A" almost exclusively applies to production values. That's not to say they have lacking gameplay (though they can) - but compelling, comfortable, satisfying gameplay is achievable by much more humble productions. Exemplary design - or an otherwise exemplary gaming experience - doesn't require a forty-million dollar budget. Neither does sheer ambition, creativity and inspiration - and these are the qualities that elevates a game from "great" to "special".

These titles aren't always the most attractive date you can take home to Mom, but they've got personality. They've got heart - and they'll offer so much, if you'll give them half a chance - and since most of these titles fell short of our collectively high standards, they can be found rather cheap these days (if you can find them).

Ooh, and look at that - I've got reviews done for all of them. This will be linky. I think we'll start out with the two games that are, to be honest, the worst games on the list...

Pandemic Studios - open-world action - Electronic Arts

The Saboteur is, I'm sorry to say, the game that sunk Pandemic. After its release and subsequent tepid response from critics and consumers, the studio was liquidated - which makes sense, given that the title had fun driving but mediocre shooting and sub-par platforming.

You've got to hand it to them, though - they really tried with The Saboteur. They tried to give us something new. Something beautiful. Something inspired - and in many ways that matter, they succeeded. If you're able to disengage your brain from titles with better gameplay (the platforming of inFamous or Assassin's Creed, the gunplay of Uncharted), you'll find this title offers a wholly unique experience. It has a beautiful, inviting world, a shining kernel of endearing inspiration at its core and art direction that is, at times, shockingly attractive.

You can find it (very) cheap nowadays - if you find yourself wanting to try something that feels rather different from every other open-world title, I suggest you pick up The Saboteur. You get to tool around 1940s occupied Paris and the surrounding countryside in sweet, curvy, classic rides, listening to cool old tunes, kicking Nazi ass and growling at folks in a thick Irish brogue.



Artificial Mind and Movement - third-person shooter
Bethesda Softworks

Despite being kind of a... shitty game, Wet is still one of my favorite titles of 2009, thanks almost entirely to its presentation.

It falters in design that quickly gets boiled down to the most efficient way to clear a room and maximize your points - you run up a wall, jump off the wall, knee-slide across the ground and shoot dudes in the head. And that's cool - but because that is the single best thing you can do in terms of earning the game's currency, that's pretty much what you're always doing, which can get old. It also has some very sketchy platforming, but who cares?

When you decide to forgo the points pursuit, just have fun with the title and choreograph some slick John Woo action, Wet wants to let you.

It's got a phenomenal soundtrack, inspired presentation, and if you can just flick your brain off and let yourself enjoy the ride, it will regularly paste a big 'ol smile on your face.


Sucker Punch - open-world action-platformer
Sony Computer Entertainment

Now here's a game that got platforming deliciously right. In fact, every facet of inFamous's gameplay is polished to mirror shine - Sucker Punch's success at nailing third-person shooting on their first attempt is pretty incredible. It's easily my single favorite platformer on the current gen (or will be until, perhaps, inFamous 2), and boasts production values that put it within striking distance of the coveted triple-A standard.

But Chance, inFamous is a triple-A game!

No it's not. Sony tried to market it as if it was, but let's face it, it's not. Its engine gets the job done, but - aside from the gorgeous electricity effects - won't really wow you. More egregiously, its in-engine cutscenes have animation that looks like placeholder work, and the animator just never got around to making them look decent.

I don't care, though. Not one whit. It's a fantastic game. Intelligently, thoughtfully designed, brilliantly executed and beautifully laid out with sharp, poppy art direction. More than anything, inFamous is a game that is constantly a wholesome, thrilling pleasure to play.


GRIN - action-platformer - Capcom

Another fantastic platformer. The game came and went in spring 2009 with barely a blip on the collective gamer radar, thanks to heavily mixed reviews and a multiplayer-only demo that did little to sell the experience - and it is a Goddamned tragedy that GRIN shut down, and we'll never get a sequel that improves and polishes the experience put forward here.

I don't know why I picked it up, when I saw it for ten bucks - I suppose because I dared to hope. When I paid the kid behind the register at Best Buy for it, I swear I was blushing because I didn't want anyone to see me buying this game that we had all accepted as horrible.

I now tell anyone who'll listen that Bionic Commando is a nearly perfect modern interpretation of the classic. It is - inFamous aside - the funnest game on this list. After my buddy Blue and I turned it into our Game Night game for a few weeks, he went out and bought it. Then he showed it to his friend, and his friend bought it. Bionic Commando love is catchin' like a fever and I want you, dear reader, to get infected.

Now, look. I know you don't believe me - and that's fine. To be suspicious when someone contradicts everything you've heard on a particular subject is the natural reaction, but let me leave you with this hopeful kernel which may take root:

It's true.


Radical Entertainment - open-world action - (sigh) Activision

Prototype is first and foremost the spiritual successor to Radical's orgasmic 2005 title Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction. Those of us who played (and subsequently adored) that rare licensed gem had high hopes for Prototype, but it is perhaps not quite as ridiculously fantastic as Hulk.

The narrative - which the developers really tried to hype - is just godawful. The mission design, likewise, doesn't approach the awesome stuff we were doing in Hulk, but at the same time...

Prototype is all your sickest fantasies of power and violence, realized. Its action is huge, its gameplay is (for the most part) razor sharp, and if you can't have any fun with it I have to posit it's because you've decided you're not going to.


Studio Japan - survival horror - Sony Computer Entertainment

Siren: Blood Curse is more criminally underrated than Bionic Commando - but the ignorance of the PS3-playing population is more egregious in this case, given that survival horror is all but dead on the current generation.

It's essentially a retelling and (successful) retooling of the brilliant, ambitious and severely flawed Siren on PS2. Like the original and its sequel, it is a genius combination of the stress-fueled survival horror genre and the tense, nervous gameplay of a stealth title. It's also emotionally affecting, has gorgeous art direction, capable graphics, an exceptional lighting engine and a story that will twist your brain in knots.

Blood Curse strips away all the shit that made the original Siren all but completely inaccessible, streamlines the experience, tweaks the gameplay, gives the whole thing a graphical overhaul and aims itself squarely at the Western market - and it succeeds at every turn.

I cannot recommend Siren: Blood Curse strongly enough.

Due to the spectacular (and mostly deserved) failure of the original in North America, though, this title is only available on the PSN. It's a 10GB download, and costs around $40, unless you wait for Halloween. It's relatively cheap if you're looking to import the disc release from Asia (this version is in English) or the UK (this version has an English manual and a making-of video).


tri-Ace - Japanese role-playing game - Sega

Aside from Shin Megami Tensei and Valkyria Chronicles, JRPGs and I don't really get along. They're just so damned boring. The ones I like tend to significantly break from the norms of the genre, either by way of presentation, inspiration or mechanics - and Resonance of Fate boasts all three.

One of my favorite games of 2010 - a remarkable feat for any JRPG - it was passed over by the masses because some genius decided to release it one week after the ultra-hyped, incredibly gorgeous Final Fantasy XIII. Unlike Square Enix's latest magnum opus, however, Resonance of Fate actually passed the Attention Span Test, and kept me coming back for eighty-plus hours.

A great deal of the for-the-masses entertainment that breaks free of Japan has annoying tropes that drive me nuts, which makes much of it taste like a year-old stale cracker. Resonance of Fate, on the other hand, boasts a bright, crisp, sparkling flavor thanks to being so damned different. Lemmie break it down for you:
  • beautiful, unusual, interesting art direction and world
  • a wonderfully subtle story
  • costume design that's actually really, really good
  • the best voice work of 2010
  • the craziest weapon customization you've ever seen
  • quite possibly the best turn-based combat system I've ever played
Resonance of Fate is really one of the unsung gems of this generation - I can simply never get enough of its combat.


Vigil Games - action-adventure - THQ

Darksiders is the closest thing this gen has to a Cinderella story. Vigil Games, co-founded by (in)famous comic book artist Joe Madureira, came out of nowhere and somehow presumed to know what they were talking about, when they promised us Darksiders would be awesome.

They explained that it's a lot like Zelda, except like, totally badass. They showed a combat system that cribs the brutal finishers of God of War and the stylish swordplay of Devil May Cry - and we were all like, "well, I'd like to believe you guys, and - wait a minute, who are you guys again?"

Few of us were prepared to hope they knew what they were talking about. Those of us who took a chance on this Little Game That Could in early 2010 discovered that, as with Okami before it, when a developer of skill and vision takes on the Zelda structure and adds their own spin, the results can be an absolutely sublime experience.

With poppy art direction, streamlined, snappy combat, a decent narrative, the classic progression mechanics of one of gaming's greatest franchises and a breath of inspiration, Darksiders is one of the best examples of a great game that's not-quite triple-A.


Platinum Games - brawler - Sega

Bayonetta, like inFamous, is on the cusp of triple-A-ness. It has exceptional graphics and art direction, is technically astounding (on the 360) and is probably the single best realization of the brawler genre ever created. It also has some cutscenes that look like they were put together with Garry's Mod, and a piss-poor PS3 port done by Sega.

The PS3 version retains the stellar art direction and incredible gameplay - it's still a blast - but it is wholly inferior to its 360 counterpart in terms of technical merit. Bayonetta remains an exceptional title. A further evolution of brawling in three dimensions from the man who re-wrote the rules with Devil May Cry back in 2001, and one of the better games of 2010.


Obsidian Entertainment - open-world RPG - Bethesda Softworks

Despite being one of the biggest titles in the industry with a grand publicity budget, Fallout: New Vegas falls well short of the triple-A standard thanks to its stunning variety of bugs, crashes and hard freezes.

At the same time, Fallout: New Vegas is the most enjoyable western-developed RPG I've played in years (and yes, I'm counting Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 in that assessment) - and a much better game that Fallout 3.

New Vegas understands the whole 'RPG' thing much better than its predecessor, while maintaining the fantastic, immersive atmosphere. No matter which quest you're working on, it never feels like you are simply running through a lonely, isolated thread of narrative. Instead, you are running along and vibrating one strand of a very, very large web that stretches across the entire game world. It's pretty incredible.


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