James' top picks for the year were the last things he expected to enjoy.
By James Pinnell on December 4, 2013 at 1:57 pm
One of the things I generally complain about to fellow journalists and friends is that lack of “surprise” that increasingly comes from entering a new game.
Developers and publishers constantly promise new mechanics, experiences and technology, but generally fail. As games become more expensive to produce, bigger studios start to feel the pinch from their overlords — niche systems, ideas and creativity don’t sell franchises, and those franchises that make incremental changes rather than wholesale overhauls allow for players who want to be comfortable. After 20-odd years of gaming, I don’t want to be comfortable anymore — which is why I’ve been enjoying the flood of new indie experiences that actually attempt to work against the status quo.
But it’s not just new experiences — it’s also refined ones. These five games were the titles I played this year that delivered those surprising moments — whether improving on classic systems, creating new ones or just making great use of creative prompts, such as humour, sadness or even politics. We’re coming up on the end of the year, and GON’s official GOTY awards are not far away – but this feature is designed to reward those titles that may not be showered in kudos, or simply forgotten on top of all the BioShocks and Last of Us‘s that whitewashed Metacritic this year.
If you haven’t heard of some of these, or have and haven’t got around to checking them out, I highly recommend you do.
This choice may be the most conventional out of the five, but bear with me. Blizzard came out of nowhere with this one, and its in that reasoning alone that it becomes unconventional.
If you told me that I would have spent an entire month during the release of GTA V playing a collectable card game online, I would have told you to get back in your box, you insane bastard. My loathing of advanced card games was grown from the overly complex and expensive Magic: The Gathering — an obsession of many friends during my high school years. Thanks to the various expansions, rules and ongoing outlay, I just could not enjoy any of the matches I attempted to play. Blizzard, as it did with Warcraft, StarCraft and Diablo previously, stripped back what made this past-time so inaccessible, and simplified the base to allow new players to get into the game immediately — making Hearthstone the first card game with a very clever, staged tutorial that actually makes sense.
The beauty of Hearthstone is in the age old mantra of successful game mechanics — easy to learn, hard to master. The conditions are simple: like any MMO or RPG, the skills or minions cost mana to cast. Creatures and Demons have health and attack attributes. There are limits on both, but they can be buffed via additional skills. There are special cards that apply various unique effects. All of these rules are well known by almost anyone who has been near World of Warcraft in the past decade, and their conversion into card form was a genius move that leveraged that same player base already warm and cosy within Blizzard’s grasp. Then there’s the impeccable polish, presentation, sound and visual effects. The fact it will be able to run on almost any modern device you own. Its F2P system that still rewards players not willing to drop any coin. There have been times I’ve launched the client just to muck around with a deck, and ended up playing for 4 hours.
Hearthstone makes, and tops, this list because it did what very few things manage to do to a 30 year old man — change his mind. I, like many, scoffed at the original announcement of this title. I lamented that it was a colossal mistake by the developer to assume regular joes would be keen to swap real-time adventuring for the card based equivalent. It’s easy to say that I have been well and truly proven wrong.
One of the first assignments I pitched when I began writing for this fabulous portal of PC goodness was covering the wild and wonderful world of F2P MMOs. It’s safe to say I’ve played over 80 of them in the past 3-4 years, from the dismal (RaiderZ) to the especially heinous (Rusty Hearts). It says something about the wholesale throughput of the Korean games industry when only one game out of the many still perks my interest to this day — and it’s about sailing. So it was with absolute pleasure that I discovered Neverwinter, which I was fully expecting another vomitous morsel of a burned out WoW clone, instead ended up with one of the best examples of the genre I’d ever played.
Like Hearthstone, Neverwinter succeeds in its dedication to simplicity. Stripped of the overcomplicated rubbish of many F2P games, Cryptic took their many years of experience and used it to make something rather pure. The battle system focused less on hotkeys, cooldowns and mana management, instead taking full advantage of the mouse to make combat significantly more entertaining. Your class is flexible, quests are short, and the time based challenges add a bit of spice to necessary tasks that can normally feel like arbitrary busy work. The game world is huge, with heaps to do and a great party system that supports players easily jumping in and out of it.
Most importantly, Neverwinter respects you, and it respects your time. It doesn’t attempt to goad you into paying for anything you don’t want, nor does it attempt to monetarily restrict you from anything that prevents development. Its successes are so prevalent that it actually managed to tear me and my friends away from Guild Wars 2, arguably one of the best retail MMOs ever made, because of its exceptional polish, performance and easy partner recruitment (free games tend to be easier to sell). This one will be tough to top.
The Stanley Parable
The Stanley Parable has the best game demo in human existence. As a demonstration of gameplay, it both fails and succeeds at the same time, a statement that would only make sense to those who have gone through it. Never before had I laughed so much at the various dry slights at game tropes, nor did I mind that for about 45 minutes I actually did very little other than walk around and press the odd button. But this is the beauty of The Stanley Parable, as it successfully utilises the original Matrix film’s advertising trick of asking the viewer to guess what the content of the production is actually going to be. It does this through the narrator, who questions your every move and action as if he had already known what you were going to do.
Literally everything about this game is genuinely unexplainable. The game effectively forces you to investigate exactly what it is, while at the same time parodying the limited choices it gives you and lampooning the distinct lack of narrative that is truly available when player “freedom” is a complete illusion. I initially struggled to understand the point of the game, but after an hour I began to realise that this was actually its innate genius – every dry joke and flat insult to your abilities and progress is a direct and perfect commentary on what modern games are and the tricks they play to create the illusion of immersion.
But at the same time, every choice you make (and there are a lot of choices) matters, and everything adds up into one of a plethora of various endings that begin to make a tiny amount of sense before the narrator decides things are becoming too normal. What makes The Stanley Parable so great is also what makes it so bewildering, frustrating, rewarding and ridiculous at the same time. There haven’t been many games where I’ve wanted to replay anything from the very beginning again, but I couldn’t wait to see what this stack of crazy came up with next.
Since Fez and Super Meat Boy hit the mainstream in what seems like an age ago, platformers have entered a new golden age of innovation — from Rayman Origins to Spelunky, the success of this genre alone over the past few years is likely to have increased the amount of Big Picture use tenfold. Of them all, however, Rogue Legacy has stuck in my mind as probably the best example of how taking one element, the fleeting, almost constant death of the protagonist, and mixing it with another — heritage — to build a very solid example of both how and why roguelikes don’t have to be stupidly frustrating or repetitive.
Your first death in Rogue Legacy is likely to be extraordinarily quick — your character can only take a couple of hits against a crop of enemies inspired by Mega Man X levels of difficulty. Once you die, you essentially become your son, who incorporates the traits, look and even some of genetic flaws (flatulence anyone?) that make being a human so magnificent. The longer you live each time, the stronger you can become thanks to selective evolution alongside some help from your blacksmith and enchantress friends.
Any game that can at the same time both force you to relish your avatar’s life but at the same time welcome death is very clever, and the beauty of Rogue Legacy is in how much fun it is to actually play. You can see how your character evolves each time you spawn, how certain features are incorporated, and how various skills and traits balance themselves out to create both challenges and strengths. Each spawn also spins the roulette wheel of enemy spawns and room placement, removing any sense of continuity in the environment and forcing you to quickly adapt to the new world. Each death means something, even if it is just a bit of gold, and dying after a hard fought run can feel like a devastating loss. But that’s life.
Oh, and if you don’t have a controller, get a controller. If there was ever a game made to be enjoyed for Big Picture, it was this one.
Papers, Please is one of those titles that really goes above and beyond, mashing a ton of various themes, ideas and philosophies into one brilliant title that made me think from the moment I began playing. You are a border agent within an imaginary Eastern European hellhole. Your job is to process as many citizens through your checkpoint as efficiently as possible, avoiding the advances of the various undesirables who attempt to subvert your clever eye. The spoils? Barely enough money to cover bread and medicine for your family, and even that pittance dependent on how hard you work.
The game is not fun — at least not in a conventional sense — as the day in, day out monotony of checking and stamping passports loses its flavour, with each new week introducing some ridiculous new visa or passport requirement. But its at this point you realise that there’s something bubbling under the surface — that the game is specifically making you bored, frustrated and tired, to let your eyes glaze over as the ground begins to shift under your desk. Letting this woman escape her violent spouse could cost your son his meal for the night. Taking a bribe could mean medicine for your sick uncle. Helping a burgeoning revolution could cost you your life.
The choices you make define how the game progresses, and you can see the results as people becoming increasingly desperate, some attempting to rush the fence in a gritty, 8-bit cutscene where they gain nothing but a bullet for their efforts. But the game doesn’t pretend that you are some kind of superhuman hero. You never leave your desk, but the power you wield as a bureaucrat becomes, in essence, stronger than any weapon. Who you trust and what you feel is right will be questioned when you least expect it. Take my word for it folks, you will never look at Immigration control the same way again.