Thursday, November 14, 2013

The PS3 Retrospective Part II : 2008.

Here's where things get really interesting, for the gamers.

2008 - aside from being an all-around great year for gaming - was a turnaround year for the embattled PlayStation 3.  After two years of sub-par ports and less-than-inspiring first-party offerings, playing catch-up to Microsoft's head start in the high-def market, the PS3, now armed with better-quality third-party games and the sterling Uncharted name, dug its claws in and began to climb.  This was the year the library spread its wings, with brawlers, platformers, RPGs and first-person shooters splattering across the gaming landscape in starbursts of awesome.

Burnout Paradise (Jan 22, '08) was the last great gasp of the ultrapopular Burnout racing franchise, which made its name pushing gorgeous, slow-motion car crashes to the forefront of its games, and Paradise was on every current-gen pickup list when it dropped.  A true new-gen multiplayer racer with a huge open world to cruise through, tons of unlocks to find and challenges to overcome, it remained popular for years after its release.

Devil May Cry (2001) was the definitive new-era brawler, and every major brawler since its PS2 debut has used its template.  After (series high point) Devil May Cry 3: Dante's Awakening, hopes were high for its next-gen debut, and while Devil May Cry 4 (Feb 5, '08) is a gorgeous game by any standards, meeting the frame-specific demands of mastery of its predecessor, the formula felt a bit tired.  This was compounded by the game's relentless re-use of its environments and bosses, and the fact that series hero Dante had taken a backseat to the lovelorn, whiney Nero.

Nero, at least, brought the interesting Devil Bringer mechanic into the mix, which would serve the series well in its reboot half a decade later.

Grand Theft Auto IV (April 29, '08)

After the ridiculously (wonderfully) wide-open Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004), Rockstar North focused their attentions back on a fictionalized version of New York for the series' 7th-gen console debut.  Many criticized IV for its strict adherence to the GTA formula of getting jobs from an increasingly wacky assortment of characters as you go from desperate street thug to king of the hill - and it's worth noting that IV took some steps back in terms of vehicle and property ownership - but IV also represents a real refinement of what a Grand Theft Auto can be.

On the PS2, we accepted that the games' shooting, brawling and driving weren't as good as those you'd find in games dedicated to each mechanic - after all, how can you expect the mechanical perfection found in linear games in a wide-open world?  In IV, Rockstar established that they wouldn't accept just good-enough, and completely re-tooled the driving (now deeply physics-driven) and shooting (now cover-based), which had long been the series' bane into something slick, stylish and capable.  They also took a page from (under-appreciated open-world western) GUN and allowed the dour story of immigrant Nico Bellic to take center stage, offering one of the standout characters of this or any year.

The result was a definitive 7th-generation game - a richly detailed world, thick with optional activities and personalities - that would never have been possible on the PS2. It's worth noting that the PS3 version wasn't quite as good as the 360 version, with an unfortunate blur filter when moving quickly - but this was removed for the Liberty City Stories DLC.

Metal Gear Solid 4 : Guns of the Patriots (June 12, '08)

Metal Gear Solid 4 was a major tentpole game for the PS3 early in its life cycle.  The series has been tightly associated with the PlayStation brand ever since Metal Gear went Solid in 1998, and MGS4's exclusivity to the PS3 (oddly, it's still never seen a port to another platform) meant a lot to the hardcore crowd.  For many, this game was the entire reason they bought a PS3.

Metal Gear Solid 4 billed itself as the last Metal Gear Solid famed director Hideo Kojima would ever helm (a promise he's made and broken several times), and the final mission of series hero Solid Snake.  As someone who's been playing Metal Gear games since they first appeared on the NES, Metal Gear Solid 4 was a six-hour tantric orgasm of stealth-action fan service.
"For folks who have history with the franchise, the entire game is Hideo Kojima pointing out over the crowd and shouting "this one's for the fans!" - and given that we're talking about one of the most rightfully celebrated series in all of gamedom, this results in a title that is nothing short of incredible from tip to tail."
-from the review-
The Battlefield name had long carried weight for PC gamers, but Battlefield : Bad Company (Jun 23, '08) was EA's first major step into the war Call of Duty started for console gamer's wallets.  Bad Company 2 was a story-driven exercise focusing on a misfit group of soldiers looking for a big payday, but it's the game's comfortable shooting and wildly destructible environments that earned it legions of new fans.

It didn't make a huge splash when it landed, but Bad Company laid the groundwork for EA legitimately challenging Activision for the console shooter crowd in years to come.

Siren : Blood Curse (Jul 24, '08)

Siren : Blood Curse is the one and only survival horror game to be included in the PS3 Retrospective, and the one and only truly great survival horror game of the 7th generation of consoles - not that it had much competition.  While it was a staple of the PS1 and PS2 eras, modern audiences demanded ever-improving graphics and design, which the relatively niche market of the horror genre could not support.  As of this writing, it has all but died out on consoles.

A few notable exceptions exist on the horizon - some indies are coming to PS4 and Shinji Mikami is returning to the genre with the Bethesda-published The Evil Within - but, as of this writing, the only pure survival horror game on the PS3 worth your money and time is Siren : Blood Curse.

To this day, the game doesn't get the recognition it deserves, but I'm here to tell you it's brilliant.  It's sickeningly creepy, beautiful in its own horrific way, boasts a remarkably eerie soundtrack and has a brain-twisting story that stays with you long after the credits roll.  I wrote these words five years ago, but they remain true today:
"I cannot recommend Siren: Blood Curse strongly enough."
-from the review-

Ratchet & Clank : Quest for Booty (Aug 28, '08) was meant to tide us over until the next proper R&C game dropped the following year.  Like Siren, this pirate-themed spacefaring adventure was digital-only in North America (it saw a disc release in the UK).

Bridging the narrative gap between Tools of Destruction and its sequel, Quest for Booty's few scant hours didn't so much satisfy one's craving for the unique R&C formula as they did whet one's appetite for more, and it would be fourteen months until we tasted (what appears to be) the final proper Ratchet & Clank game.

Dead Space (Oct 14, '08)

A dream game, Dead Space was the first original property from a studio then known as EA Redwood Shores.  Owned by Electronic Arts for years, the studio pumped out licensed crap like James Bond games and Simpsons titles until - the story goes - they went to their executives with an idea the studio felt really, truly passionate about.

It would be Resident Evil 4 in space.  It would have a totally-new twist on the standard shooting mechanics gamers have been burning into their muscle memory since headshots began to count and take its artistic inspiration from classic horror sci-fi cinema like Alien and Event Horizon.

Dead Space would prove to be something very special.  An action-horror experience with comfortable, snappy controls, it inhabited one of the best-realized video game worlds of the generation.  Taking place largely on the mining space-leviathan U.S.G. Ishimura, Dead Space's world was all sharp, textured and physical.  The ship itself, so informed by the tactile, industrial science fiction of the best of Hollywood, felt like a real and fascinating place.

Dead Space's combination of triple-A production values, inspired design, comfortable gameplay, stunningly gross monsters and good 'ol fashioned jump scares made it a surprise hit, and a new franchise for publishing giant Electronic Arts.

BioShock (Oct 21, '08)

BioShock swept Game of the Year in 2007, when it appeared on PC and Xbox 360.  At the time, it was a very important exclusive of Microsoft's, showcasing that the 360 could be more than a box for the Halo and Madden bro-gamer crowd, and its appearance on PS3 was very welcome indeed. A intelligent reflection on the Objectivist philosophies of Ayn Rand taken to their ultimate conclusion and an indictment of the odd motivations video game players blindly accept, BioShock raised the bar for the subject matter a big, triple-A video game was permitted to tackle while offering a fresh-feeling mix of RPG-style player customization, tight first-person shooting and a wealth of player choice in tackling the world.

Seven years after its release, BioShock remains one of the single most important video games of all time - even if it's worth noting that it really goes off the narrative rails in Act III, and that BioShock 2 was kind of a better game.

FarCry 2 (Oct 21, '08) didn't get the love it deserved upon its release, but that's likely due to it having some irksome flaws that really put a damper on the player's fun factor.  A wide-open-world first-person shooter set in Africa, FarCry 2 sets the player as a mercenary suffering the effects of malaria (which gets real old real fast), tasked with roaming the game's huge world and wiping the map clean of activities.  The game is beautiful and the shooting feels correct and weighty, but its design of constantly jabbing yourself with a needle to suppress your malaria symptoms (and constantly fighting your way through roadblocks on the way to your next objective) killed the flow for many a gamer.

Things got way better in its 2012 follow-up.

LittleBigPlanet (Oct 27, '08)

LittleBigPlanet was meant to be Sony's Mario. A major tentpole release for the company in late 2008, LBP was part cheeky kid's game and part savvy strategy to introduce a social, player-creativity focused philosophy to console games.  A major hit with critics and consumers, the game's "floaty" platforming didn't dissuade millions of kids (and adults) from throwing themselves in to the game's virtual LEGO playset like sacks possessed, and they're still making DLC for it(s sequel).

A veritable culture sprung up around the game, with leaders and followers, cliques and philosophies, all vying for the attention and affection (or anger) of other players.  LBP never attained the Mario status Sony was hoping for, and it's worth pointing out that PC gamers had been building, customizing and sharing content for years - but for a console game to permit it was, at the time, revolutionary, and a feather in Sony's cap.

Fallout 3 (Oct 28, '08)

Bethesda shocked the world when they announced their own Elder Scrolls-style take on famed Interplay/Black Isle Studios isometric PC RPG Fallout.  It was a gamer's dream come true - a huge, destroyed open world to explore, the abject weirdness that the classic series was known for, a heaping helping of gore and far better combat than the Elder Scrolls series were known for by way of a clever system that allowed the player to plan their attacks as if it were a turn-based game.

With a relatively brief (12-hour) core story mission but an absolute wealth of side-missions and locations to explore, Fallout 3 became a Game of the Year frontrunner for 2008, and solidified Bethesda's reputation as one of the most ambitious western RPG studios around.

Oh, and it has a ton of bugs.  Bethesda rarely patches their horribly buggy games, but Fallout 3 was so successful that a litany of high-quality DLC followed - you can pick up the full game now, with all its DLC in the Fallout 3 Game of the Year Edition for a song.

Valkyria Chronicles (Nov 4, '08)

Valkyria Chronicles will be found on pretty much any top-ten list of PS3 exclusives to this day. Coming along at a time when the console was starved for JRPGs, it was a breath of fresh air mechanically and visually.  With art direction and effects that made it look less than an Anime than a manga (Japanese graphic novel) that had been animated and a strategic combat system that mixed action (you control your soldiers as they dash across the battlefield, get into cover, hide in tall grass, etc), paper-rock-scissor class mechanics and turn-based, pinpoint control (aiming freezes time), it became the sleeper hit of the year.  VC went on to do respectable sales thanks to the tireless publicity of a legion of fans who wanted everyone to know just how special, beautiful and involving the game is - and I'm here to tell you, it is.

It's got a story that pleasantly looks at both sides of a (WWII-esque) conflict, casting neither heroes nor villains as two-dimensional archetypes.  You absolutely fall in love with these characters, to the point that when the game dips into anime stereotypes (a "beach episode"), you're having too much fun to feel insulted.

VC would remain the high water mark for engaging, accessible strategy RPGs on the PS3 (sorry, Disgaea) until XCOM appeared in 2012. It doesn't hurt that the game is absolutely gorgeous by any standards.  Great music, too.

Sony (or perhaps Insomniac) refused to give up on the Resistance franchise, but despite capable mechanics and fantastically weird, fun weaponry (and a bunch of ugly aliens to shoot with them), the series continued to struggle for relevance. Resistance 2 (Nov 4, '08) was tacitly accepted by critics to be quite good, but nothing that truly thrilled or engaged the player.

I's good.  Don't get me wrong, Resistance 2 is a good game and anyone who tells you they don't love Insomniac's zany weapons is lying - but I'm sorry, Sony, it's no Halo.  It's no BioShock or Doom.  It's just Resistance, and that's why the Sony Store itself was selling copies of the game for $10 two months later.

Mirror's Edge (Nov 12, '08)

Mirror's Edge is a definitive 7th-gen title.  It was the type of game we saw in our head when we first heard of the PS3 and Xbox 360 - something that could never have been accomplished on the PS2.  I'm of the opinion that Mirror's Edge was the first significant evolution in the (venerable, honored, honest) platforming genre since Mario went polygonal in '96.

Lots of other games had offered first-person platforming prior to Mirror's Edge - any number of ill-advised first-person shooters, and the Thief series was relatively successful at it - but nothing even approached this game for the sheer polish, responsiveness and immersive movement.

Mirror's Edge was positively championed among "hardcore" gamers, who appreciated its razor-sharp challenge and remarkably polished controls, but that niche market couldn't support the title to the point that a sequel became immediately necessary - unlike Dead Space.  

Rumors of that sequel swirled for the past half-decade, and at E3 2013, EA finally revealed they were indeed working on a Mirror's Edge sequel for next-gen consoles.  I, for one, can't wait slip Faith's sneakers back on.

Prince of Persia (Dec 2, '08) was meant to be a reboot of Ubisoft's bread-and-butter platforming franchise, but it lost its footing, tripped, smacked its head and never got up again.

Known now as Prince of Persia '08, the reboot was a stunningly beautiful cel-shaded affair with a honeycombed world of linear platforming to wall-run, jump and swing your way through.  Gamers were thrilled at the trailers and screenshots we saw, but most everyone immediately turned their nose up at the game when it dropped.  An odd mix of Assassin's Creed's autopilot platforming and the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time trilogy mechanics that won Ubisoft Montreal so much praise in the early '00s, gamers and critics decried the game's lack of significant challenge, and it received middling reviews.

They weren't wrong, for the record.  After pushing the analog stick forward to leap from a platform, you can literally control your hero for the rest of a platforming sequence with one hand, tapping the jump, grab and swing buttons in time with just your right thumb.

It's simple, but I've always felt it's also pleasurable.  Ubisoft would later ignore this reboot and attempt to recapture their glory days with Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, but it... it's just terrible.

* * *

Here, at the end of 2008, the PS3's feet are firmly planted. At this point, it had a very strong library of first and third-party games, and its exclusives were different enough (Resistance aside) to encourage gamers to choose it over the competition.

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