14 Aug 2008

2007 in review. A gaming retrospective.

It seems like only yesterday that we were all hotly anticipating a year of outstanding, next-generation gaming. In fact, it was yesterday and we are again today, but I'd like to take you back to this time last year when the wait for Crysis was dragging on and people were still pulling their hair out over the Vista and DirectX 10 fiasco. Bioshock was within spitting distance and the Orange Box and Call of Duty 4 were the talk of the town. All the while I was a mess, mainly because I was stuck with a Pentium 4 processor that bottlenecked the crap out of my 8800GTS.

How times have changed. Crysis and Bioshock both failed to realise the hype that the publishers had stuffed up their respective arseholes whilst Valve ran away with a very well-earned "If I could compare myself to any character from the Bible, it would probably be Jesus" award. Portal was saintly, Half Life: Episode 2 was what fans of the series deserved and Team Fortress 2 was... well, it was something else. Not only that, but they all arrived packaged together for the price of a single game. Valve, I salute you, as should we all. Oh and I learned all about the inner-workings of a PC and how to make none of it go together correctly.

Here's a brief run-down of the biggest names of 2007:

Bioshock, Horror!

Not many people know this, but Bioshock was actually the product of a bet I once made with Ken Levine that he couldn't crowbar an identical plot twist into each game he made. Well, Ken, you've done it again. Go on, take the money, it's all yours. You've earned it. Inexplicably though, the bet did not include clauses requiring him to dumb down gameplay and discard the relatively freeform style of System Shock 2, so he's left me completely in the dark regarding that.

Crysis Crisis

Crysis came and conquered, pulverising many puny PCs with its poorly optimised nano-fists. Only since I upgraded my computer have I been able to run the game adequately, but it's still far from perfect in terms of performance and gameplay. It's another fine example of a developer admitting their previous mistakes, reporting to have learned from them and then making them all over again out of apparent loathing for their consumer base. Crytek naturally thought that when we said we hated the mutants in the second half of Far Cry, we were pulling their leg. Either that or I missed the customer survey that indicated flying fucking aliens were right up our street.

CoD - Far from Extinction

Unexpectedly, the game I invested the most time in last year was Call of Duty 4. The single player campaign was less than impressive. Yes, a lot of people felt that it was Hollywood in a game and it was for sure, but a lot of shit comes out of Hollywood. Aside from the laughable politically correct vagueries of the setting, there was a disconcerting feeling that every time the game came close to becoming a harrowing portait of modern warfare, the developers were actually concentrating on how cool it looked to be kicking the crap out of Middle East-istan. Still, the multiplayer portion is incredible and I am entirely convinced that perks should become a staple in future first-person shooters, providing that they are implemented this well.

That's it for now. Tomorrow I look to the future with a simple consumer's perspective on Fallout 3, Spore and others...


Anonymous said...

I should say first of all that I haven't played any of these games, cos a) I have a wife and a baby, and b) I only have a 5 year old Dell Inspiron 8600 to play them on. However, I did skip over to metacritic to check out Bioshock's score as I had heard it was pretty good. It gets 97% overall which must make it one of the absolute best reviewed games of all time! The *lowest* it got was 80%. So how do you account for that? Have all the old-school reviewers recently been replaced with younger models who don't actually remember what gameplay is and think everything's just so original?

Nick said...

"Have all the old-school reviewers recently been replaced with younger models who don't actually remember what gameplay is and think everything's just so original?"

Very possibly :)

I think that in a marketplace heavy with 1st person shooters, Bioshock was a breath of fresh air. It has a real class about its art design and the execution is intoxicating. However, compared with the previous games in the series, its gameplay mechanics and structure are lacking. What made System Shock (and before that, Ultima:Underworld) so great was the manner in which the player interacted with the game world. You had a sense of being there, not because the graphics were great (though in their day they were pretty special), but because there was a genuine sense of cause and effect. If you were to survive then you were going to have to do so on pretty much your wits alone. Tip-toeing through the early sections of System Shock 2 looking for weapons and ammo is probably one of the most profoundly engaging gaming experiences I've ever had. There was a real sense of dread knowing that you've only got two rounds left in the clip and you can hear at 'least' two mutants around the next corner. In Bioshock you are never short of ammo or EVE (mana by another name), you re-spawn close by your death-point at no cost whenever you die and worst of all, by the time you finish the game you will have every single power and skill completely maxed out. This quote is taken from a review on another blog in which the user is proclaiming Bioshock to be "perfect game design":

"In this game, you'll never have to redo the same boss fight a thousand times because you died a millisecond before the boss: the damage you inflicted persists even if you die. It all plays beautifully as the game's difficulty is very well-balanced (if a little on the easy side, even on the maximum difficulty level)."

There's not really too much I need to say about the above quote is there? *head in hands*

What happened to GAME design? Not physics algorithms, nor sound-design, not voice-acting nor pixel-shaders. I mean GAME design? How can anybody make a game where it is fundamentally impossible NOT to complete it, even on the hardest level?!?

Nngnngnnnggg. It's still a good (as a first person shooter), but it has SO much potential, SO much pedigree. I would gleefully exchange some of the water effects and textures for a more open-ended game world.

Speaking to Rowan on the phone earlier he likened the game to "one of those movies that you see at the cinema and the spectacle of it blows you away. Yet the next day, when you come to reflect on the film, you can't really remember what it was about!"

Anonymous said...

Ah, so it's too easy! I am tempted to say "well have you played jet set willy recently?" but I can see what you mean.. similar story to Deus Ex 2 then.

Rowan Davies said...

To be honest, it wasn't the lack of difficulty that caused me major problems and I'm not saying for a second that Bioshock isn't an achievement of a game. If a new developer released this, I'd be shouting about it from the rooftops because there would be serious potential there. As it is though, I almost feel like recent high-expectation PC releases have been a step backwards from what I always felt games could become when playing them a decade ago. I just don't think Bioshock was enough of an evolution from System Shock 2, a game which it's clearly trying to ape, and that was released ten years ago.

The metacritic rating for Bioshock is ludicrous. Due to the current market and mainstreaming of the gaming medium I understand that developers need to appeal to a wider audience to sell a game, but I just find it slightly disappointing when there's so much potential for improvement, especially when most of these new games are technically incredible.

But that's purely from a hardcore gamer's perspective and it's hard not to sound like an arsehole when speaking from that viewpoint.

As for reviewers that get so hypnotized by the hype, well I can't figure it out. I find it surprising that if you're so involved in the gaming industry that you wouldn't become instantly aware when a game doesn't hit its mark...

Nick said...

"Ah, so it's too easy! I am tempted to say "well have you played jet set willy recently?" but I can see what you mean.. similar story to Deus Ex 2 then."

Hahaha! Thankfully I haven't ;) In many ways it does have similarities to Deus Ex 2, but it's less buggy, more interesting and has the added benefit of being slightly 'art-house' in its aesthetic, meaning that reviewers are wary of criticizing it because it seems to fit the niche of 'games as art' which they are so precious about promoting. It's not that I have a problem with that perspective, I just feel that Bioshock had a bit of a free ride in some respects.

Also, I think that reviewers are forced into playing an awful lot of terrible games. When a game is as hyped and anticipated as Bioshock, I think they look forward to it so much that they perhaps can't be entirely objective. If you're playing junk for however many hours a day, when something relatively good, or interesting, comes along then you are likely to shout from the rooftops.

I was showing System Shock to someone who's a big 1st person fan, but was only eight (EIGHT!) when it came out. He was quite surprised at how open to the player it was. Within 5 minutes of gameplay you are making huge choices about what character path to take and you are already immersed in a gameworld which allows you to actually PICK how you want to go about doing things. Ten minutes in and my friend was relieved when I picked-up a pistol, but amazed that I couldn't use it as I hadn't spent any points on weapon skills! Hehe, I laughed and said "Can you possibly imagine a 1st person shooter coming out in 2008 in which the player CAN'T use a pistol?!"

Nick said...

Sorry, 'System Shock 2' was actually the game I was showing my friend.

Rowan Davies said...

"Also, I think that reviewers are forced into playing an awful lot of terrible games. When a game is as hyped and anticipated as Bioshock, I think they look forward to it so much that they perhaps can't be entirely objective."

That is an interesting point and I can imagine it makes a huge difference after wading through masses shit to find something competently designed...