Sunday, December 14, 2014

Best of 2014 - biggest surprise.

There were relatively few shockers in 2014 - nothing, at least, that entirely took us by surprise or rocked us to our core - but there were a few pleasant realizations, and troubling revelations.  Let's break it down.

honorable mentions

In 2013, when Microsoft was weathering the online backlash to their planned digital rights policies on the Xbox One, they did a complete about-face and stripped everything out of the platform that differed from the norm, in the hopes that would effectively reposition them for the late-year launch of the Xbox One.  When that launch came - and throughout 2014 - the One was outsold at every turn by the PS4.

Is it because the PS4 is a more powerful platform with better games and an inviting self-publication policy to attract indie developers?  Of course not.  It's because the PS4 is cheaper.

In another reversal, they pulled the mandatory Kinect 2.0 usage from the system, and offered the console without the suspicious camera - effectively negating the price difference between their platform and Sony's.  That didn't quite do it, so over the holiday season they're offering the Xbox One for around $350 - fifty bucks cheaper than Sony's closest price.

It didn't completely turn the tide - some reports have the PS4 selling within 10,000 units of the Xbox One's 1.2 million over Black Friday weekend - but it's yet more proof of how much of its own blood Microsoft is willing to shed in order to win the console war.

It's less surprising, to me, that Assassin's Creed Unity sucks.  Flip a coin, any given AC game may suck or may be awesome - but with Watch Dogs, one really got the sense that Ubisoft were taking this thing seriously.  Watch Dogs was to be their statement about what open-world games could, and should be, literally telling us it would "go beyond the limits of today's open world games."  The enthusiast press was almost universally-hyped about the game, and I remember folks at work insisting that Watch Dogs would finally keep the promise of open-world games and emergent gameplay.

It didn't.  It's a pretty boring game with decent stealth and downright bad design when it comes to its more spectacular action beats, with a boring character and a boring story.  In aping Rockstar, they soundly proved that they are no Rockstar - who only release open-world products of uniform excellence consistently and reliably - keenly aware of the fact that each masterwork is a statement on the quality of their brand.  Ubisoft, it seems, are comfortable burning the public's perception of their games to the ground with titles that roll off their conveyor belt without a meaningful quality-control check.

With Watch Dogs - and perhaps, then, cemented with Unity - it's become pretty clear in 2014 that Ubisoft thinks very little of their consumer, and doesn't think very much about how to make fun video games, either.

Note: Ubisoft also release Far Cry 4 in 2014, and it is frickin' amazing.

It can happen, of course.  Every now and again you get Rocksteady making Batman games or CyberConnect2 making a Naruto game, but in 2014 we got two excellent games from huge properties that had never, before, managed to get themselves into a decent video game.

South Park: The Stick of Truth is far and away the shiniest, most-polished game Obsidian Entertainment (Fallout: New Vegas, Alpha Protocol) have ever released.  Beyond being an excellent semi-traditional RPG, it bursts with the unique flavour of South Park that only creators Parker and Stone could have given it, as the two were deeply involved in the game from creation to release.  It is the definitive South Park game, and one of the better titles of the year.

Alien: Isolation - a first-person stealth/action/adventure from a developer that specializes in real-time strategy games - is the polar opposite of every single Alien game we've been offered in the franchise's history.  A game totally uninterested in letting us mow down hordes of xenomorphs with high-powered future weapons, it concerns itself entirely with re-creating the iconic world and thick atmosphere of Ridley Scott's seminal film, and permitting the player to feel the clawing terror of being alone in the dark with a few chunky gadgets and a superpredator.

It's a lesson games often prove - that teams can offer singular and meaningful experiences, if the folks with the money will have a bit of faith in a vision, and permit something unique to be produced. Of course, it helps if the developers are insanely talented.


The early days of the PS3 saw a similar resurgence in survival horror - but that felt more like the last gasp of a genre that had been eminently popular on the PS2, with the heyday of Silent Hill and Fatal Frame.   On the PS3, the genre petered out with the excellent Siren: Blood Curse, a few middling western-developed Silent Hill titles and an egregious Alone In The Dark reboot.

With the PS4, though, it feels like a whole new world of horror, as legendary auteur Shinji Mikami gives us The Evil Within - basically Resident Evil 4-2 - and indies are offering us high-quality jump-scares with Daylight and Outlast or thoughtful pixel-driven stuff like Home: A Unique Horror Adventure.  Even the triplest-of-As are getting in on the action with the internet-rocking P.T. and Alien: Isolation - probably the most effectively-immersive experience of the year.

The problem horror had on the PS3 was twofold.  One, it's always been a somewhat niche genre, and whole swaths of gamers will avoid them entirely.  Two, in order to achieve the immersion necessary, a great deal had to be spent on visuals and production values, as shitty graphics are a deal breaker when it comes to suspension of disbelief.  The limited audience and skyrocketing production costs rung the death knell of games concerning death.

It is, perhaps, that new-gen gamers are hungry for fresh experiences - given the relatively slim libraries of each new console - that permits production of these riskier properties at this point in the platforms' life span.  It could also be that Sony has been actively courting PC indies - long the guardians of this forgotten genre - to ensure stuff like Outlast and Daylight appeared on its platform.

And here's the lovely part - also in the pipeline are Among the Sleep, The Call of Cthulhu, Dying Light, Forgotten Memories, Grave, The Forest, Home, Human Element, Koduku, Silent Hills, Soma and Sony's own Until Dawn.

After nearly ten years in the wings, survival horror is back - and it's just getting warmed up.

biggest surprise(s) of 2014

This is actually an update to this post - I originally had horror's resurgence in the top spot, but that seemed like a... standoffish answer, and not an honest one.  To be honest, the biggest, most shocking and thrilling industry moments of the year came at Sony's press conferences.  Take, for example, when Sean Murray walked up onstage at E3.

The trailer begins, we see the cave, we walk out of the cave and oh my God, is it?  There was a stunned silence in the auditorium, followed by whoops and applause when the lights came up, and Murray was standing there.  Yes, the most exciting indie game introduced in the past year - No Man's Sky - was coming to PlayStation 4.  Sony gamers across the world shrieked in excitement.

There are a ton of awesome-looking indies coming to Sony platforms. Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, Not A Hero, Wanderer, Hyper Light Drifter, Night In The Woods, Y2K, Salt and Sanctuary - too many great-looking ones to name, in fact - but there are a crucial few that ended up being some of the games I'm most excited to play.

I was stunned when they announced gorgeous strategy-RPG The Banner Saga was on its way to PS4 and Vita, but - personally - the biggest and most unexpected thrill of the past year was when Adam Boyes came onstage at PSX, showed a trailer for Killing Floor 2, and then announced that Red Hook Studios' Darkest Dungeon was coming to Sony platforms (PS4 and Vita).

Sony's well-chosen indies - a massive list of games I'm dying to play, top my personal list.  To put it another way, there were only two times in the past year where I blurted out "oh my God, yes!" - the No Man's Sky announcement, and the Darkest Dungeon announcement.  There was no greater industry shock in 2014.

I literally needed a cigarette after.

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