Gaming favorites from 2012

With the recently released Far Cry 3 as its bookend, the gaming year has come to a close. I feel like 2012 was finally the year when everyone started taking indie releases from smaller studios seriously. Many of my personal favorites were indies, and my #1 was a free-to-play game that’s not even been properly released yet! Add into the mix the numerous old-school projects Kickstarted this year, and I can only conclude that 2012 was a pretty good year for gaming. Here’s what I liked the most:

01. Dota 2 (PC)
How could it be anything else than Dota 2? So far, I’ve played the game for more than 900 hours, which is way more than the combined time I’ve spent playing everything else this year. I jumped into Dota 2 raw, never really having played Dota 1, League of Legends or any of the other games in ARTS genre. Of course I sucked. Slowly but surely, however, I got better, having now reached what I consider a reasonable understanding of the game. I can clearly see there still being miles to go to actually be good, but I can also see how far I’ve come. That’s the beauty of this game.

02. Super Hexagon (iOS, PC)
I think it’s fair to say I have a bit of an obsessive personality. I also like games that put my skills to the test, but the gameplay loop has to be short enough. When a hard game makes me backtrack half a level, my interest fades. That’s why Super Hexagon is so great: It’s nothing but the loop. Just one minute of your time, two buttons and a minimalist aesthetic that I find really appealing. This game always seems impossible, but somehow it you keep playing. A design masterpiece.

03. The Walking Dead (PC)
During my formative years, I was all about point & click adventure games; Especially LucasArts ones. So it pleases me greatly to see Telltale Games finally having struck episodic gold with The Walking Dead. Moving the focus from puzzle-driven mindbenders of the past to a more story and decision-driven experience, this a game where writing comes first. Some gameplay elements get cut in the process, but at least I consider the payoff well worth it.

04. Journey (PS3)
One of the most beautiful games I’ve played. Journey sheds almost every game-like quality from itself, focusing solely on the experience. Everyone will have a different journey through this desert, and everyone will see their path in a different light. The Grammy nomination couldn’t have gone to a better soundtrack either, since the music in this game is sublime.

05. Far Cry 3 (PC)
Sandbox game of the year. After the massive disappointment that was Far Cry 2, I wasn’t expecting that much from the third installment. Luckily, FC3 is a giant step in the right direction. Eliminating the bad parts and amplifying the fun ones, poking around the freely explorable island is an absolute joy. You can opt to go with stealth or just blow everything up, often ending up doing both. The combination of great technology, nice supporting characters and cool gameplay elements keeps things interesting, even though the game kind of winds down a bit towards the end.

06. Spec Ops: The Line (PC)
I almost skipped this game since I wasn’t paying enough attention. After all, on the surface Spec Ops: The Line looks like any other cover-based military shooter that’s come out in the last few years. But the real meat here is in the story: An unflinching view into the darker side of war where atrocities get committed and no-one really knows who the good guys are. Got me thinking, which is more than I can say for a lot of games.

07. Legend of Grimrock (PC)
RPG’s had a bit of a quiet year, especially the fantasy ones. One little piece of old-school dungeon crawling goodness was released, however. Harkening back to tile-based classics such as Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder, Legend of Grimrock updates the graphics and interface to the modern standards but otherwise adheres to the tried-and-true formula: Puzzles and exploration with a four-man group. The game works because of its strong mechanics and general atmosphere, even though the story is a bit flimsy. Bonus points for no hand-holding and letting players figure out stuff on their own.

08. Mass Effect 3 (PC)
One of the biggest releases of the year, and also the one that spawned a good chunk of controversy. All things said and done, ME3 is a worthy addition to the series, but not as brilliant as part two. Since the gameplay is mostly the same, it all boils down to the story: Saving the galaxy in an epic war of the worlds might be more important, but the stories and personalities of your teammates were just plain more interesting to me. There’s some good drama in ME3 as well and overall it’s a very good game, but just not a GOTY contender. After all, they reduced my Jack to a minor side character!

09. Dear Esther (PC)
Lots of games with hefty subject matter came out in 2012. Dear Esther is one of the more grim ones. A dose of depression and melancholia that’s oddly intriguing, a tranquil stroll through a deserted island and a mind of a lone wanderer. Lasting only a couple of hours, the actual gaming elements here are few and far between. Dear Esther, more than any other game on this list, is purely about experience. What you get out of it is completely up to you.

10. Edna & Harvey: Harvey’s New Eyes (PC)
Germans never stopped making adventure games. And it’s a good thing that they didn’t, since Edna & Harvey: Harvey’s New Eyes is one of the best traditional point & clickers I’ve seen in a few years. Way more twisted than the children’s storybook-like art would have you believe, this game had a sense of humor I could relate with. No, it’s not always funny and the voice acting gets annoying in places, but for the most part I enjoyed myself a lot.

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Gaming favorites from 2011

Played lots of games again this year. Star Wars: The Old Republic is still to be released, but I think pretty much everything else worthwhile is already out. Thus it’s time to list my favorites from 2011:

  1. Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (PC)
  2. Portal 2 (PC)
  3. L.A. Noire (Xbox)
  4. Battlefield 3 (PC)
  5. Dead Space 2 (Xbox)
  6. Deus Ex: Human Revolution (PC)
  7. DiRT 3 (PC)
  8. Bulletstorm (PC)
  9. Rage (PC)
  10. Uncharted 3 (PS3)

And why not do an Indie Top 5 while we’re at it:

  1. Hector: Badge of Carnage – Episode 1 (PC)
  2. Binding of Isaac (PC)
  3. Anomaly: Warzone Earth (PC)
  4. Hard Reset (PC)
  5. Trine 2 (PC)

Lots of good stuff outside Top 10 as well, I did enjoy Batman: Arkham City (Xbox), Dead Island (PC) and Shadows of the Damned (PS3). Games that didn’t grab me even I thought they would were Witcher 2 (PC, I need to try this one again), 999 (NDS) and Dark Souls (Xbox). Disappointments were Dragon Age 2 (PC) and Brink (PC).

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Gaming favorites from 2010

Nope, I didn’t play all games that I wanted to in 2010 (especially Fallout: New Vegas being one of the games I haven’t really even properly started yet), but I think I came close enough to make a list. Here goes…

  1. Mass Effect 2 (PC)
  2. Red Dead Redemption (Xbox)
  3. Heavy Rain (PS3)
  4. Battlefield: Bad Company 2 (PC)
  5. Amnesia: The Dark Descent (PC)
  6. Limbo (Xbox)
  7. Alan Wake (Xbox)
  8. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (Xbox)
  9. Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Wii)
  10. Bayonetta (Xbox)

Completed all of the games above, the singleplayer campaign in BFBC2 being the only exception – played multiplayer pretty much exclusively on that one.

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Dragon Age Origins: Witch Hunt DLC

Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age both got their own DLC missions released this week. As is the case with ME2, I’ve also been diligently playing through most of the Dragon Age DLC released so far, only skipping the ones I thought seemed to consist of nothing but combat.

While the new Mass Effect 2 DLC was very good, unfortunately the same thing cannot be said for Witch Hunt. Touted as the final Dragon Age DLC before part two next year, I was hoping for an especially nice bookend for the saga of my warden, but no. Funnily almost everything that was done right in the ME2 DLC is done wrong in Witch Hunt — it really is a tired rehash of recycled assets posing as a new story.

I mean, I can understand Bioware being unable to provide you with your original group because of voice actor availability and cost effectiveness, but the people that are forcibly shoved into your lap this time are just bare cardboard cutouts with not much personality at all. It’s concerning when you cannot attribute even a single personality trait to your elvish party member after adventuring with her for a couple of hours. Just give me my old group, even though you’d have to make them mutes like in ME2 DLC, damn it!

The story in Witch Hunt is nothing special and tries way too hard to keep the scenarios changing, which only results in unfocused sprints through whatever RPG staple (elven ruins/dwarven caverns/mage towers) the game wants you to see next. Even Morrigan, who the DLC is really all about, only shows up at the very end, and the answers she provides only work to make the player even more confused about the situation than before. I can only hope it’s some kind of a veiled setup for stuff that’ll happen in Dragon Age 2, since it’s definitely not trying to tie the loose ends together at all.

I really don’t see even the most hardcore Morrigan fans walking away from this jumble feeling satisfied. While Leliana’s Song was by no means a great DLC, it was still miles ahead of Witch Hunt and enough to keep me content (although I have to confess I’m a hardcore Leliana fan and very easy to please in that aspect).

I am, however, a bit curious about how differently the ending in Witch Hunt could play out depending on the choices the player has made before. I basically threw Morrigan out of my party in Origins immediately after she started whining, so I never really managed to get any kind of bonding going on with her. Not curious enough to get another playthrough going, though.

Farewell, warden. We had some great times — this DLC just wasn’t among them.

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Mass Effect 2 DLC: Lair of the Shadow Broker

I think Mass Effect 2 has pretty much had the best Downloadable Content available for any game so far. The missions (Kasumi’s Stolen Memory, Overlord & Shadow Broker) are not just cheap rehashes of pre-existing assets but actually introduce an impressive amount of genuinely new stuff into the game.

I’m not talking about fancy new guns or abilities; equipment or skills rarely pique my interest in RPG’s. They’re just a means to progress the story and see new areas. I’m an old school adventure game player that was gradually forced into RPG’s during mid-nineties when “real” adventure games started to disappear, and while I’ve learned to like the combat aspects, it’s the story and the sense of wonder that drives my Mass Effect experience.

It’s a good thing then that Lair of the Shadow Broker, much like Overlord before it, definitely does not skimp on cool-looking new areas and impressive vistas. The cinematics are top notch, voicework solid, and there’s a spaceship with an engine that has to be seen to be believed.

While I still consider Overlord my favorite ME2 DLC, Lair of the Shadow Broker is not far behind. The story is rather simple one, yes, but it provided enough motivation and intrigue to keep me interested for the 2-3 hour duration, and the post-mission options provided some more fun diversions that were totally unexpected.

The only downside in Lair of the Shadow broker is the boring boss fight syndrome that really permeates the entire Mass Effect series. I guess it’s partially caused by the fact that the game is designed for consoles and pad controllers first and mouse+keyboard combo on PC just allows you to go surgical on bosses’ weak points, but I always walk away from these fights underwhelmed. I probably shouldn’t be expecting World of Warcraft style raid boss encounters in a game like this, but a little more imagination wouldn’t hurt.

Anyhow, this is another great DLC for Mass Effect 2 and shouldn’t be missed.

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Thoughts on Amnesia: The Dark Descent

I finished the game just moments ago and wanted to get some immediate impressions up. I’ve been a fan of Frictional Games’ output since the original Penumbra Tech Demo, and really only been disappointed once with Penumbra Requiem. Amnesia is another quality indie horror by the guys from Sweden, but I don’t think it tops Penumbra Overture or the Black Plague in my book.

Sure, it’s a way more polished game than Penumbra in every way, but it feels slightly flat on its two key gameplay concepts: puzzles and the atmosphere of tension. Most of the puzzles in Amnesia felt like retreads from Penumbra series and thus were quite simple and straightforward to solve. I’d also have liked more physics and environmental puzzles rather than the usual gather this/combine that mechnanics.

About the atmosphere of tension: Don’t get me wrong, Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a very atmospheric game with a few dabs of really intense stuff sprinkled here and there. It’s nowhere near as tense as Penumbra 1-2, however. This can probably be partially attributed to me just getting too familiar with the HPL engine, but I think the main reason is that the game just felt too easy.

Enemies seemed to just plain vanish after hiding for a while, and there was never a need to survey patrol routes or generally do anything else than hide in a cupboard for a few moments. In Amnesia, enemies are just a minor annoyance, as opposed to the nerve-wracking, terror-inducing dogs in Penumbra Overture or the torchlight-wielding mutants in Black Plague. An enemy popping through the door just to shamble away and completely disappear soon after just didn’t feel that scary.

Anyhow, despite my criticisms the game is well worth the asking price and hopefully will introduce a slew of new people to Frictional Games. It just isn’t “the scariest game ever” or the masterpiece some people hoped it would be.

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Overhaul complete

At least for now, that is. I stashed all the old stuff out of sight and revamped the Aphex Face page to be a part of the site structure. Furthermore, the old Aphex Face URL now redirects to the correct blog page, so people coming in from Google searches should see the page as per usual.

I also removed the outward links to Discogs and Mobygames, since I’ve not been updating them as much as needed lately (ie. they’re badly out of date). Still need to add an email link somewhere…

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Time for an overhaul

My webspace provider is updating the underlying php engine from php4 to php5, which is all nice and dandy — except for the fact that it completely breaks the XSLT wizardry on the current pages. Probably a good thing, though — it’s about time to get on with the times and upgrade to a proper CMS.

So here it is, a new look for bastwood.com, powered by WordPress. Maybe now I’ll actually have the motivation to update stuff more often, given that it’s dead easy to do all kinds of stuff with WP. I’m kinda not happy with the page appearance at the moment, but I’m probably too lazy to actually make my own theme. If I find something that looks better, I’ll switch.

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