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            Can you handle it?
by Ethos

The One that Got Away 2010 – Ethos

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

Gran Turismo 5

I play a lot more video games than I used to. Not that I put in more hours, per se. If that is true, it would be a minimal increase. I mean that I way play more titles in any given year than I used to.

I used to pick up any major first party Nintendo release (see: Mario, Zelda, Wave Race), any major Final Fantasy entry, and precious little else with a few exceptions. The rest of my time was spent on replaying Ocarina of Time and FFIX.

One of those exceptions seemed to be the Gran Turismo series. I loved the detail present in every facet of the game. I – perhaps surprisingly – liked the challenge, and loved slowly working my up to better cars and more interesting races.

I actually fell off the series for a bit. I purchased – but barely played – Gran Turismo 3, and never touched 4. Still, I was looking to get back into the series.

However, Nintendo had a surprising year end with Donkey Kong and Epic Mickey, and then Sly Cooper came around and turned out to be awesome, so time and money didn’t seem to lend itself to Gran Turismo 5, despite dedicating a theme week to the game.

I know I have Forza 3 and it’s really good, but I would truly like to try out GT5 for myself and have a real opinion on the series for the first time in a while. Especially because this one seems to be splitting the masses. This is the generation for the fall of the Japanese greats, is it not?

Runner up: Fallout: New Vegas

Yesyes, I barely played Fallout 3. Also, I stunk at it. But I did really like it. The mood was great, the size of the world was daunting, and the writing and RPG mechanics were good too. I considered New Vegas to be a bit of a second chance. I missed my second chance.

Biggest Letdown 2010 – Ethos

Saturday, January 1st, 2011

Final Fantasy XIII

How can I follow up Riddles’ hilarious post with the same pick? While I think he’s completely wrong about the battle system, he’s bang-on with everything else.

I was extremely excited for Final Fantasy XIII. I thought the world looked beautiful, I loved the idea of a badass female lead, and because I’m a really big fan of Final Fantasy XII I couldn’t imagine the game could be bad.

Boy was I wrong. The game is almost less of a game than Heavy Rain. And that’s saying something. In fact, before the credits roll, the title is less of a game. No decisions matter. The leveling up system is pointless, the upgrading system is worse, and progressing forward is quite literally a tunnel. We’re not joking when we make the comparison.

The fact that Final Fantasy XIII becomes a fun game after the final boss, and as such the back-end leveling and upgrading systems start to make a difference and actually become great systems really makes little difference.

The point is that this was supposed to be a worthy entry into the esteemed series, a HD JRPG that I could really dive into. FFXII had my hopes high, and XIII tore them to pieces. Granted, it took me a while, I was in denial for a bit. But a 60 hour price to get to a good game is too much.

If you had asked me a year ago if I’d ever sell Final Fantasy XIII, I’d say “hell no”. But I sold it and I have no regrets. Vs XIII will have to do a lot to regain any sort of trust in the series.

Runner up: Epic Mickey

When last year’s runner up in this category earned a “N/A” from me, it’s a little depressing that I was deciding between 3 titles for this year’s second biggest letdown.

Still, life must go on and while Guardian Signs was a step backwards from Shadow of Almia, and Heavy Rain turned out to not be a game, the fact is that my hype was never huge for those titles. Epic Mickey had me pretty excited. I wasn’t expecting the controls and camera to be top-notch, but I also wasn’t expecting them to practically ruin the experience. The game could have been truly excellent. Unfortunately, the technical flops squashed this possibility.

Seriously, this could have been a true Game of the Year contender. Instead, it’s a decent game. There’s nothing wrong with the content, but the sad fact is that if you can’t properly play or view an excellent game, it is no longer an excellent game.

It’s truly a shame, but it’s the truth. This was definitely a year for loving more games and different games than I expected, and for being let down by hype and previous standbys.

Except Super Mario Galaxy 2. That was a standby and exceeded my hype.

Most Surprising Game 2010 – Ethos

Friday, December 31st, 2010

Darksiders

Finally this gem gets to win one of these instead of just being the runner-up. Riddles mocks me for loving this title, which I find especially delicious because not only has he never played it, but he would love it.

Anyway, multiple people tried to draw my attention to this game before its release, but I shrugged it off. For whatever reason, the previews didn’t excite me. One might say I even had unbridled apathy for Darksiders.

To be honest, I don’t even know what possessed me to buy the game. Maybe it was some misguided attempt at spite. I’m capable of that. I mean, I bought and beat Bioshock secretly the moment Riddles gave up on trying to get me to play it. So perhaps it was the fact that I had told so many people that I wasn’t interested.

In any case, I’m very pleased with the end result. I was expecting a moderately fun title, and got an involved, epic, addicting, and attractive new IP. Perhaps the puzzles never got particularly difficult and the framerate could have been smoother after acquiring the horse, but the game as a whole surprised me greatly with its quality.

People who like to toss around “derivative” as an automatic negative mention the Zelda-style items and puzzles, the God of War combat and upgrades, and the portal gun to use as points against the game. But Darksiders uses these things so unabashedly, that it doesn’t make sense to me as an insult. Even forgetting the game is the “mature” Zelda that many of us have been waiting for since the Spaceworld 2000 demo turned into Wind Waker, it is still a game unlike any other regardless of its obvious influences.

Darksiders was the most pleasant gaming surprise for me in 2010, and I can’t wait for the sequel.

Also, here is a link to a relevant Penny Arcade comic I posted when the game first came out.

Runner up: Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light

This could have be in the running for number 1 if the second half of the game wasn’t just retreading your steps. But despite that massive disappointment, the game shocked me in its ability to be such a powerful throwback to the JRPGs that started the craze.

4 Heroes never holds your hand. If you don’t read the instruction booklet, you must explore the mechanics for yourself and rely on your critical thinking skill and the occasional tip from townsfolk to hone your strategy.

On that note, the game pleasantly emphasizes exploration as a necessity for progression. While there are scripted scenes, a full appreciation for the story and culture of each area only comes from talking to people.

The result is feeling engaged and challenged and responsible for how well you’re doing. As opposed to say, FFXIII, which just pushes you through a tunnel until after the game is complete when the thing finally becomes a game.

Anyway, this is rambling too long for a runner-up, but the game is good. Way better than I expected.

Best Atmospheric Experience 2010 – Ethos

Friday, December 31st, 2010

Mass Effect 2
*WARNING: Many extreme Mass Effect 2 spoilers are detailed below*

Very few games can control my heartbeat like Mass Effect 2. It plays the thing like a harp. Slowing down, speeding up, sometimes stopping completely. At the beginning of the game when Commander Shepard is running through the collapsing Normandy and finally makes her way to the bridge, the fearless commander is forced to slow to a walk. The music cuts away, and all that’s left is the sound of Shepard’s breathing through her helmet and spacesuit while the player notices a beautiful and horrible view of a closeby planet because the majority of the roof of the spaceship has been ripped off.

This is just one example, and unlike God of War III’s tactic of saving the best for first, this moment is consistently matched and conquered throughout the experience.

Choosing to kill Samara or her daughter, boarding and exploring a dead reaper, stumbling upon a cannibalistic slave society, hearing Harbinger’s voice issue philosophical threats as you flee a structure set to explode. This is a game that is so alive and thick with atmosphere that it is the only game in which I don’t mind being a little scared from time to time. Granted, Mass Effect is very rarely a scary series, but the point is that I’m so drawn into the world that it’s like I have no choice but to trek on until completion.

While some people love to play through multiple times to see all the possible reactions and outcomes, I’m so sold by Mass Effect’s atmosphere that I can’t do it. I have played through 1 and 2 one time because it makes no sense any other way to me.

Mass Effect 2 is dark and depressing and epic and varied and occasionally a little twisted, and you can feel it with every step. I might prefer the first game, but Mass Effect 2 is an atmospheric masterpiece.

Runner up: Darksiders

I could chose Heavy Rain, but I’m going to use an excuse that I just bashed earlier in these awards and admit that I hate that game too much to pick it. Epic Mickey even had a fair shot at #2, but I’m too let-down by its technical shortcomings.

Darksiders surprised me in not only how much fun it was, but in how dense some parts of the world felt. It was nowhere close to Mass Effect territory, and I can assume improvement for the sequel, but it would be silly to deny that I didn’t feel the hopelessness and ruin throughout the experience.

Darksiders jumped from creepy to epic to surprisingly pretty with ease, and the world felt cohesive and exciting to explore. Not to mention that the lead character, War was treated by enemies with fear and respect along with the typical malice. Not a common reaction from terrifying looking baddies.

As I talk about it, maybe this – more than DeathSpank – was the second game that Riddles was too stupid to play. He likes God of War, he likes Zelda, he likes pretty things and great atmosphere, and he pretends to like good games, so suck it up and buy this one, Olivia!

Oh, and both Mass Effect and Darksiders have good music. That helped the atmosphere in both.

Best Visual Experience 2010 – Ethos

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

Final Fantasy XIII

Yes, we all know the game sucks.

I’m just more of a man than Riddles so I can give a deserving award to a game that doesn’t deserve any other positive award this week.

Final Fantasy XIII is beautiful. It has bustling cities filled with well-designed trains, robot dragonflies, pockets of mysterious green light, unbelievably tall buildings, yet beautiful beaches and lakes. It has rocky terrain that opens up into a small grassy haven looking over a vast ocean. It has Pulse that is filled to the brim with wild, untamed life: Massive stemmed flower giants, beautiful cavern waterways, animals chasing and eating each other, beasts the size of dinosaurs, sprawling fields with pockets of tiny paradises.

It’s almost more impressive how the game managed to drain all this beauty of any personality within the game, but from a pure visual standpoint, the graphics and art direction are top-notch. (Did I do a better job of describing art direction this time, Glenn?)

But forget the world, let’s move onto the annoying, one-dimensional, gimmicky characters. From that description, obviously I don’t care for their personalities, but FFXIII includes some of my favourite character design of the series. Snow and Hope I could do without, and Vanille is just Rikku or Selphie with a different skin, but Lightning, Sazh, and Fang are three designs that deserved fantastic personalities.

Despite the vapid story they would tell, I shouldn’t have to explain the majesty of Final Fantasy’s CGI cutscenes. The direction and detail are mind-boggling. Complete visual treats. The opening minutes of the game made me say “holy fuck” out loud. Of course, I didn’t know that the game would be so disappointing, but my response was based purely on the spectacle.

Oh, and Lightning’s cape NEVER clipping on her sword hilt as she ran? That’s a visual achievement I’ve never seen before.

Runner up: Darksiders

It was very difficult to choose between Darksiders and Super Mario Galaxy 2 for this one. Ultimately my HD-whore side won out.

Darksiders may not have the technical excellence of Uncharted 2, but it makes up for it in great use of colour, scale, and design. Darksiders takes the over-the-top nature of God of War, but inserts it into a colourful Zelda-like world and makes it all fit. Therefore, sticking a knife into a bleeding eyeball to open a door to solve the next boomerang puzzle just seems to work. War’s horse just has an epic feel, the bosses are grand and well-designed, and the world breathes personality and variety.

God of War III may have moments that are the best visually I have ever seen, but it is hardly consistent in this way. After the opening 45 minutes, nothing compares. Some moments in the game actually seem sub-par for this generation. Darksiders is visually consistent and always surprises and excites.

Most Addictive Game 2010 – Ethos

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

Plants vs. Zombies Game of the Year Edition

So this is a bit of a cheat. Plants vs. Zombies came out in 2009, and the Game of the Year Edition that came out this year is barely different. But I didn’t discover this gem until 2010, and Riddles chose God of War for an award last year, so suck it!

Anyway, since I discovered this cutesy tower defense brilliance early this year, I have likely booted up the game 60% of the days that followed up until today. The campaign is varied and challenging, the mini-games, challenges and survival modes are wacky, fun, and time-consuming. But even more time-consuming is the almost completely pointless Zen Garden that is just a place to harvest cash to buy upgrades.

All these facets are wrapped up in well-thought-out balancing, a charming graphical style, great music, and – obviously – an entirely addictive nature.

I’ve beat the campaign at least 10 times total and spent countless hours with the title, and only show minor signs of slowing down. This was an easy win.

Runner up: DeathSpank

This was a tossup between the Sly Collection, Mass Effect 2, and DeathSpank, but the ridiculous thong-donned hero won out. While Sly’s mission based structure kept me playing, I do eventually tire out and while I was completely sucked into Mass Effect’s universe, the pacing was perfect and I was happy to be done when it was over. DeathSpank, however, has so many sidequests on the go, and so many hilarious conversations to explore that even after a sequel released just weeks after the original, I was (and am) desperate for more.