Hey folks, it’s your editor, John Teti. We here at Gameological enjoy a good year-end retrospective as much as the next. So throughout the week, we’ll be presenting Games We Liked—Gameological contributors’ short reflections on some of their favorite games of the year.
The brief here was simple: We chose a bunch of games that left a mark on us in one way or another. In each entry on the list, one of the Gameological critics will share a game they liked, and a reason why they liked it. Each one is a personal opinion of the writer—not a unanimous call.
We invite you to write your own “Games We Liked” mini-retrospectives in the comments. We’ll pick our favorites and collect them at the end of the week in a feature we’ll call—this is going to sound crazy—Games You Liked. (It’s okay if some of your choices overlap with some of ours. People can like the same thing for different reasons, after all.)
Today we’ve got staff picks from Anthony John Agnello, Matt Kodner, Samantha Nelson, Jason Reich, and Drew Toal.
ANTHONY JOHN AGNELLO
I liked Asura’s Wrath because it didn’t give a damn what anyone thought. This is a game where you control a Buddhist god whose fight with another god starts in a hot tub and ends with the destruction of a continent. And in between, one of them gets impaled on a sword stretching from the moon to earth.
Over the course of six hours, you only control the god Asura for about five minutes out of every half hour—the rest is cinematic sequences—and that’s being generous. When you do get to play, it doesn’t always work so great. Fighting a rival deity in outer space doesn’t feel as nice as it does in, say, the classic space shooter Panzer Dragoon, and the Zoroastrian fisticuffs are a little sloppy. None of that matters, because for all of the excess in Asura’s Wrath, it has an uncompromised emotional core. It may star a screaming six-armed warrior god, but his losses and pain feel real, maybe even more so because of how bombastically weird and obscure the whole game is. It never dips into epic cutscene mugging to hit high notes like God Of War might; it just does what it does, and sometimes that involves about 45 seconds straight of a man screaming.
It’s impossible to evaluate a game in a vacuum, devoid of industrial concerns. After all, it takes a ridiculous amount of money and effort to make a video game for the major consoles. So it’s hard not to think: Is a game the way it is just because it needs to sell a lot of copies? Pandering is hardly a rare phenomenon in mainstream media. Asura’s Wrath doesn’t pander. It’s possibly one of the least commercial games ever made. No one made this to make money, and if they did, they are crazy. It’s borne of a tangible passion that shines through as you play it.
Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational
I liked Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational because it evoked severe emotional highs and lows—with golf. The freak obsession that golf inspires can seem baffling on the outside, but even having played the game just once as an adult, I get it. It isn’t the culture of wealth and privilege, the wacky clothes, and glittering gear that hooks people. Golf’s secret treasure is emotional extremity. Landing a perfect chip onto the green from 60 yards away offers a hell of a rush. But the fairway grass cuts both ways. Watching your ball grace the lip of the hole and spin away just a quarter-inch can make you feel like your high school sweetheart just called you up to dump you all over again. World Invitational puts that frightening seesaw of the heart right in your pocket and builds an impressionist cartoon world to mirror the experience.
This PlayStation Vita version of Hot Shots Golf isn’t outwardly different from previous entries. You choose a giant-headed cartoon golfer and hit a variety of tourist-destination themed links: castles, deserts, seaside links. Since you can do all sorts of super moves, like setting your ball on fire to give it some extra distance, you’d think the golfing wouldn’t feel so much like the real thing, but first impressions are deceptive. All of golf right there in the machine, in exacting detail. The fury after watching the wind push your ball into the drink. The melting rapture of a perfect putt.
World Invitational is a fantasy, though. No real person would ever play golf in the middle of the savannah, surrounded by lions, or design a course around a harbor where a sailboat blocks your path to the hole. The whole game is wrought in colorful extremes, with a mix of soft rolling hills and stormy cliffs. It’s agony, ecstasy, and a 9-iron, all in the palm of your hand.
Need For Speed: Most Wanted
I liked Need For Speed: Most Wanted because it harnessed my hatred of car commercials. Car commercials are the worst. Their cloying, patronizing falseness makes me seethe, especially this time of year—no one gives cars as presents for Christmas, Lexus! Need For Speed: Most Wanted takes you inside the universe of car ads and invites you to wreck the place.
The Need For Speed series has historically presented itself as an ugly commercialized car fantasy, and Most Wanted is no different. It opens with slick shots of real autos driving through a city at night, all muted colors and lens flare, while a breathy woman talks about trying to get the most wanted cars with put-on orgasmic yearning. It’s hard to resist the urge to change the channel.
But Most Wanted’s developer, Criterion, is nothing if not puckish. Most Wanted looks and sounds like previous Need For Speed games, but this is really the successor to Criterion’s 2008 wonderland of chaos, Burnout Paradise. That game was a goofy fantasy that let you drive fake cars really fast and then, if the mood struck you, cause a hundred-car pile up for points.
Most Wanted is never that unpretentious, but it does have that anarchic fire in its belly. All of its cars are based on real vehicles, from heavy Ford trucks to Lexuses (Lexi?), and once you hop into them, your goal is to go fast regardless of what’s in your path. Trees, lampposts, mailboxes, and most importantly, other cars: Smash them all. The game indulges the destruction fantasy further by having ineffectual cops chase you, giving the illusion that the peaceful quiet of Car Commercial Land is in danger. The fantasy is ultimately just as hollow as it is in actual TV ads, since the world always goes right back to its unblemished state after the race, but the transience of its havoc doesn’t take away from Most Wanted’s fast, dirty pleasures.
I liked Draw Something because of its open-ended privacy. On any given day, I’ll interact with friends, acquaintances, family members, or strangers on a variety of online platforms. I’ll share a funny YouTube video on a friend’s Facebook wall, or tweet a virtual thumbs-up to a novelty Twitter account. These interactions are thoroughly public, and I kind of like it that way. It’s my generation’s way of getting to know people, and for others to better know me. At its peak, Draw Something was my favorite way to communicate online, precisely because it made every interaction private in a game with no “correct” method to play it.
While often likened to a game of catch, in my own experience, I found it more akin to playing a game of chess by mail—one where neither player grasps the finer intricacies of chess, but both enjoy corresponding and talking trash more than playing the game itself. You draw a picture and then send it to someone else, and they guess what you drew. Then vice versa, and so on. Trouble is, for my part, I can’t draw, and was born with stubby fingers fitted to hands the size of a cherub’s. My pictures rarely came out as intended, but I never had to let anyone other than my playing partner see how bad they were. However, it was just as much fun to infuriate my friends with obtuse representations of “backflip” as I imagine it would be to wow them with great art.
Gameological contributor Derrick Sanskrit recently showed me his own approach to the game–making Pikachus a requisite part of each drawing. Beyond the awesome artwork in his blog, it struck me as inspiring that he was able to throw each sketch online for the world to see. As much as I enjoyed Draw Something for its sense of privacy, it’s really only as shut-off as each player wants it to be.
I liked Frog Fractions because of its deadpan surprises. Going in blind, it is more than possible to miss the vast majority of Frog Fractions, a wide-ranging Edu-tainment parody. Before you start genre-hopping, Fractions positions itself as a low-rent take on teaching the importance of fractions, by way of a simple game in the style of Missile Command. As a frog sitting in a pond on a lilypad, you have to lap up pesky flies and collect precious fruit, used for upgrades between rounds. Business as usual. Ostensibly, a player could go through wave after wave endlessly, without realizing there is an entirely other game waiting for the player. To get there, you have to do something completely unexpected—explore.
After a few upgrades, you’ll likely hitch a saddle to a dragon, a mount that allows your rather slow frog a little more freedom of movement. From there, with a little adventurous thinking, you’ll find yourself breaking the bounds of the pond and exploring strange new dimensions. Fractions takes on the guise of a space-shooter. It turns into a text adventure. It parodies Dance Dance Revolution . There are surprises at every turn—it just takes some poking and prodding for the game to give them up.
I liked Diablo III because the dialogue embraced the art of the one-liner. I appreciate a good dramatic monologue, but it’s the one-liners from films and TV shows that I often find myself quoting while trying to replicate the actor’s delivery. Less can be more when it comes to memorable dialogue. That’s definitely the case in Diablo III. Sure, there are some intense and emotional cut scenes, but for me it’s really all about the one-liners.
Considering that your characters are only capable of saying a few things, Blizzard could have just given everybody the same basic sound and distinguished them with some vague accents. Instead the developer hired a stable of established voice actors. The wizards seem to have gotten the pick of the litter. The male wizard is voiced by Crispin Freeman, who brings the same sinister creepiness he showed playing Alucard in the English dubbing of the Hellsing anime series. The female wizard is even better, with Grey DeLisle just barely tweaking the voice she used for Avatar: The Last Airbender’s villainous Princess Azula. The fact that both characters can shoot lightning at their enemies makes it easy to pretend that, after the Avatar finale, Azula moved on to fight the agents of Hell in Diablo. I could easily see her telling someone, “Your mother shouldn’t have spawned you,” perhaps after defeating them in some volleyball. It’s worth experimenting with the other classes in Diablo, but the wizard’s voice made her a keeper.
The Secret World
I liked The Secret World because its internet-based puzzles created the feeling of unraveling a real conspiracy. In the dark world of H.P. Lovecraft, knowledge is a curse, more likely to drive you mad than actually help you stop evil. Luckily, in most of Lovecraft’s stories, that knowledge is relegated to hidden tomes in dusty libraries and occult shops. Not so in the online game The Secret World, which has you battling demons in a sleepy New England town—in the modern age.
That change of time period could have hurt the Lovecraftian theme, but developer Funcom embraces the media of the 21st century to enhance the mood. With the touch of a key, you can open up an in-game web browser, which you can use to look for advice on World or just to check your Gmail. Its main purpose, though, is to solve the game’s many clever puzzles. Cracking someone’s password to progress in a quest could involve a trip to a dummy site operated by the game developer or just a trip to Wikipedia for more details on an in-game reference. Sure, you already have a browser—unless you’re reading this on your hypertext teletype machine—but not having to jump out to a separate program means you stay immersed in the game. And it acknowledges that the paranormal investigators of World would have the same instant access to information on their modern-day smartphones as you do. (One downside: The ease of access also makes other players surly if you start asking them for help solving puzzles. “Just Google it” is a common refrain.)
While there are clues in the game’s environment, I love that many of the puzzle components are displayed publicly on the web. The overlap between fiction and reality provides new meaning to seemingly mundane sites and facts, unveiling a secret world hidden in plain sight.
Max Payne 3
I liked Max Payne 3 because the multiplayer was fun for people who suck at multiplayer. I am one of those people. And frankly, I have better things to do than suffer undignified sniper deaths while some teenager thousands of miles away makes untoward suggestions about my mother over a headset.
So I was shocked by how many hours I put into Max Payne 3. The Gang Wars mode, which throws players into a competitive five-act mini-campaign, spices up the usual bang-you’re-dead routine by turning the traditional deathmatch into a story where events have real consequences. Successfully blow up a bridge in Act 1, for example, and it stays blown up, forcing you and your opponents to adjust your strategy accordingly, on the fly. “Vendettas” add an extra thrill to the proceedings by rewarding you when you take down a player who has killed you several (or in my case, several dozen) times in a row. And Rockstar’s crew system is a treat. Players join crews, and when members of the same crew are online at the same time, they’re automatically designated as teammates. If two crews clash frequently, they trigger a large-scale feud involving all the members of both teams. (Take note, readers: Crews will be part of the upcoming Grand Theft Auto 5, and the Gameological gang—codename GLOG—could use your help. Join us, and I promise we’ll waive the brutal initiation.)
These simple ideas elevate the online experience, turning multiplayer into something alive and unpredictable. Of course, none of this makes me a better player. But Max Payne 3’s multiplayer offers so many fun extras, the online experience becomes fresh instead of frustrating.
I liked Dragon’s Dogma because it let you share your companions. These non-playable “pawns,” as they’re called, are sidekicks created by players for use in their own quest to vanquish, and then Dogma makes them available for recruitment into anyone else’s game. It’s like in that movie Another Earth, where a new planet appears in the firmament and it turns to be identical to our own Earth, but slightly different. There’s a second version of you, your parents, your insufferable boss, that pile of dishes in your sink that you hope will go away if you avoid eye contact long enough. Everything. In Dragon’s Dogma, your main pawn might be walking by your side helping you look for chimera pelts, but in someone else’s game, that same doppelgänger battles a dyspeptic Cyclops. (Imagine the possibilities!)
It’s as close as I want to get to directly interacting with other players in Dogma, and it gives the world a transient, ghostly quality. I often found myself wondering where a pawn came from—it would have been fun if there were some kind of regional marker identifying the creator’s origin. While the dialogue you conduct with these companions could have been more varied (and less incessant), I loved that no two game experiences were completely identical—just nearly so. In a way, Dragon’s Dogma is Capcom’s paean to quantum mechanics and the resultant “many worlds” theory. It’s heady stuff that’s brought down to earth, so to speak, only when you do something like recruiting a pawn named Poophands to your party. Which I did. Because it’s hilarious.
Mark Of The Ninja
I liked Mark Of The Ninja because at any given time, I could barely see what was happening on the screen. This game is really dark, and not in the clichéd “dark and gritty” sense. It’s physically lacking illumination, a deliberate design choice that heightens the sense of mystique. As a ninja, you’re required to hide in the shadows (obviously) and use the absence of light to your advantage. Maybe you’re crouching in a conveniently located shrub and waiting for a guard to blithely walk past. Or maybe you’re taking a more ruthless approach, extinguishing an overhead lamp with a dart, lowering yourself from the rafters, and wrapping a wire around the same guard’s neck, dangling his body as a warning to others. Whatever the case, visible light is the enemy’s most fearsome weapon. (Unless it’s used to reveal your dangling corpse trophy. In that case, light the joint up like a Christmas tree.)
The persistent gloom is essential, as ninjas don’t last too long in open combat. If you do your job right, the mercenaries will never know what hit them. One minute they’ll be lingering by the door, enjoying a cigarette, keeping watch, and wondering if maybe they should go back to school to get that teaching degree—you know, really make a difference. An instant later, a disembodied hand will reach up out of the floor, kill them (more quickly than the smoking would have, at least), and dispose of the body in a nearby dumpster. All thanks to the darkness.
Mass Effect 3
I liked Mass Effect 3 because its controversial ending acknowledged the limits of mortality. (Warning: specific plot details ahead.) Reaction to the finale of BioWare’s choose-your-own-space-adventure trilogy was so visceral and immediate that the developer quickly issued “extended” endings with mostly cosmetic additions to avert some kind of armed internet uprising. At issue was the fact that BioWare pitched the game as an experience where your in-game decisions matter—and lived up to that principle for the majority of the trilogy. But then the final moments of Commander Shepard’s fight against the existential threat of genocidal space squids rendered those decisions moot.
No matter what you decided to do as you rallied the universe’s other races (or not) to your human-led fight, most everyone dies, and your Commander Shepard’s superhuman efforts result in what can only be considered a pyrrhic victory. I’m not really commenting here either way on the wisdom of that creative decision, but what I did like about it—the thing BioWare undoubtedly got right—was the decision to kill Shepard no matter what. She/he was already on borrowed time—Shepard was effectively resurrected in the beginning of the second game by a shadowy human supremacist organization—and nothing less than the hero’s death would be enough to stop the galaxy-wide organ harvesting. Really, the extended endings—hastily made up to quell the outrage—were unnecessary. How did anyone think this thing was going to end?
There’s a tendency in pop culture to keep marketable characters on life support long after they should have been retired, ideally in spectacular and bloody fashion. Human agency is great and all, but given a long-enough timeline, none of us can move the cosmic needle that much. Shepard goes out on his/her own terms, which is the best any of us can hope for.
Transformers: Fall Of Cybertron
I liked Transformers: Fall Of Cybertron because it fulfilled the promise of gargantuan robots in video games. Ever since the urban renewal nightmare known as Rampage—granted, that featured giant monsters and not robots—I’ve keenly felt the potential for video games to put you in control of a giant mechanized beast and just let ’er rip. Not just big, but big. Whether that means battling an eight-story-tall mecha Robert Moses, or just playing as a foul-tempered, fire-breathing space T-Rex, I leave those details to the developers.
In this regard, Fall Of Cybertron had the potential for scale-tipping greatness, and the game not only sees my space T-Rex, it raises me a freaking Bruticus. Comparatively, other Transformers resemble nothing so much as shiny little ants next to this Voltron-like behemoth. Bruticus’ levels are something of a sideshow, since the minuscule Autobot swarm has about the same chance of taking him down as a hamster wearing an adorable little army helmet does against a Sherman tank. Prepare for extermination!
The Lilliputian mayhem is its own reward, and the only thing Bruticus is missing is a giant magnifying glass to set the tiny Autobots ablaze. But then, I guess, he has a giant flamethrower instead. And he’s not even the biggest dude in the game! As Optimus Prime (who’s puny but has a lot of heart), you issue orders to the city-sized Metroplex, who—as the most monstrously huge thing on the planet—reliably lays waste to all Prime’s real estate. My inner 10-year-old hasn’t been this geeked since Crossfire.