Life, The Universe, And Gaming: Was 2013 The Calm Before The Next-Gen Storm?
There’s an old saying that goes, “Hindsight is always 20/20.” The idea is that when you look back on something, it always seems so easy to see what went wrong, or what could have been done better. The phrase, “In hindsight,” always prefixes such realisations. Unfortunately while it’s happening it is sometimes ridiculously difficult to see the same things, mostly because you’re working on an ‘in the moment’ mentality.
Thus, at the end of every year it’s human nature to sit back and take stock of the year that has passed, noting the mistakes, the successes and the things that could have been done better. It’s a form of growth, really, and in the world of gaming I feel that it’s important that we do the same. So we know where we’ve come from. So we know what we got up to. So we know where we’re going. So every year for my final column of the year, I try to break down the year of gaming that was, into a constructive and thought-provoking highlights reel of sorts. But just for the games. I don’t have the energy to cover everything in the industry. In hindsight, maybe I shouldn’t have admitted that.
In any case we now stand on the brink of a new generation of gaming, and with 2014 fast approaching (seriously, it feels as if January was fucking yesterday, man) the number of uniquely current-gen offerings is dwindling. At the end of the previous generation we got some amazing titles and this time is no different, only it kinda is, because reasons. I’ll get into them in a bit, don’t worry. I will just say for now that this year has been a mild disappointment for me. Intrigue! But for now let’s talk about a game that I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride in, that released right at the beginning of this year when things were still bright and hopeful.
At the beginning of the year we got DmC: Devil May Cry. Developer Ninja Theory actually stuck to their guns and gave us something that was so drastically changed and yet completely familiar that I would actually take off my hat to them, if I was actually wearing one. Actually. Now I don’t particularly care for those people who were butthurt about the change of direction because I really, really, really enjoyed this game. Sometimes I wonder what matters more to people, when a fully functional and excellently mechanised combat system is shunned entirely because the main character doesn’t look like he used to. Never mind the fact that he used to look equally as unrealistic as he does now.
This highlighted two trends in recent years for me, with regards to gaming. One is that you do not fuck with source material that is adored by millions. You just do not, ever, because if you do then that is that, and your IP will suffer for it. Second, we’ve reached a new stage in gaming where it’s not enough to simply have a good, working system and then build around it. (There is one exception to this rule, this year, and it will follow shortly.) DmC: Devil May Cry was rated well, but not well enough, because although the action and gameplay was absolutely triple-A, the story and characterisation was not and so the overall experience suffered for it.
This trend seemed to perpetuate throughout the year, where it was either one or the other but not both. But before we talk about that some more, let’s take a quick break and talk about something else that happened this year.
Dead Space 3. Now, here’s a game that I’ve defended until blue in the cheeks. See, I’m one of those guys who actually enjoyed Dead Space 2’s shift towards an action-oriented approach. I thought it was fair because scare tactics are only effective for so long, and the game’s strongest points were its psychological tricks, which it was still playing on the character through the sequel. What I couldn’t defend about Dead Space 3 was the stuff the developers were saying to justify the things they were doing. We got cover shooting mechanics and human enemies, and the developers insisted that these would not be frequent in the game, which then begged the question: Why was it even included in the first place? If a developer cannot even stand by their design choices then what hope does a game have? Publisher pressure or otherwise, Visceral really messed up with Dead Space 3.
Furthermore, the game brought to the mainstream something that had previously mostly been used on the mobile and free-to-play gaming models — that of microtransactions. Suddenly, you were paying for the game at full price and during the game’s story you were offered the chance to ease your experience if you spent more money. Come again, Electronic Arts? Another huge issue that this game brought, although it was more perpetuating rather than popularising, was that of hiding the true ending behind paid DLC. I won’t blame Dead Space 3 for all the microtransaction problems of the world right now — cough — but I will not stand by and claim that it isn’t a game that was created with the sole intention of milking every last cent that the franchise is capable of, to the point that the series is now virtually dead in the water as a result. You could call it a… Dead Space. What?
Incidentally, like with DmC: Devil May Cry, Dead Space 3 was also a game that fell into this hole of getting one thing right but messing up elsewhere, which carried on through the year until we got two games that absolutely blew everything before them out of the water. Within the space of a month we got two games that were rated P for Perfect. T for ten out of ten. O for overrated. I’m kidding, but you guys know the games I’m talking about, right?
I’ve shared my thoughts regarding BioShock: Infinite and The Last of Us but if you don’t already know, then all you really need to know right now is that they were both highly-rated games this year that were met with an initially overwhelmingly positive response, and then in the case of the former, an overwhelmingly negative response once people came off their initial highs and started looking at the game without those rose-tinted spectacles. I tried my best (eventually) to explain why I felt that BioShock: Infinite was a controversial game, but for the most part a lot of people just reached the consensus that the game was trying to be smarter than it actually was.
Meanwhile, everyone still sang the praises of The Last of Us, a game that I found to be glitchy, dissonant and depressing (by intention, sure, but why do I want to play a game that makes me want to off myself?) and all of this before the fact that it plays like a story arc straight out of The Walking Dead, with equal amounts of resolution to the story, which is to say, practically none. Ellie was the redeeming factor for this game, and if not for her, I would have been far more harsh on it. Still, the world loved it.
I, meanwhile, had a lot more fun playing other games this year. So what’s next on my list of games that bear mention from 2013? What game would I rate higher than almost everything else this year for no valid reason other than that I just had a solidly good time playing it?
I’m a huge Deadpool fan. Crazy huge. Massive, in fact. To the 11 o’ clock of where I am currently seated is a Deadpool action figurine still preserved in its packaging because I’m that kinda guy. I still regret not purchasing a Deadpool keyring that I saw at rAge 2013. So when the game finally came out this year, you can bet your ass that I got my spotless paws on them.
Deadpool was a unique gaming experience, in that you played a character who was aware that he was a character in a game. Further, as part of the story, he was attempting to create his very own game starring himself, and you as the player had the privilege of controlling him. Breaking the fourth wall? Try smashing it to pieces. As far as one-of-a-kind experiences go, Deadpool stands unrivalled in the gaming world and is a definite highlight of the past year. It’s just a shame that so many people aren’t fans of his crude style of humour, or just found the game to be a little lacking in terms of other areas, such as the combat mechanics or environments. Indeed, developers High Moon Studios wasted some amazing opportunities to really delve into zany worlds with this character, and they instead delivered levels full of browns and greys.
Extremely disappointing considering that it was the main reason a lot of people criticised the game. I’d still wager that a lot of these people were looking at this as a ‘game’ first when what it actually was, was a fan service, and yeah maybe Marvel cashing in on the recent pop culture successes of the character. Seriously, Deadpool is everywhere these days, owing to the surge of popularity with his character since the abhorrent X-Men Origins: Wolverine movie. And I’m loving it.
Although if the bland and lacklustre environments really got to you, to the point that it was inexcusable and ruined your experience, then I might remind you that there was a game that came out this year that was all environment and not much else. Arr, ye be sailin’ on rocky seas now…
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag just elicited a four-second sigh from me, because I really did enjoy it. In fact, I challenge you to find someone who has played it that has not enjoyed it. It’s just a really fun and enjoyable game. Only, it isn’t really because you’ll spend half of it getting frustrated at having to tail yet another NPC, and then you won’t even get an effective resolution to the story, saying nothing of simple character payoff. And this game boasted all the potential in the world, too. This year, Ubisoft showed that they’re not above sacrificing the integrity of their own storylines in order to sell games, and Black Flag was a shining example of something that should never exist, but for all intents and purposes, is kinda neat for existing anyway. Why am I so conflicted about this!
Then again, conflict was the central theme of this year, wasn’t it? What began with Ninja Theory getting hated on by die-hard DMC fans swiftly moved onto Aliens: Colonial Marines getting hated for being a piece of shit that was nowhere near what we were led to expect from Gearbox, pre-release, moving onto Dead Space 3 getting hated for being so action-centric with all those microtransactions, and then we picked on Tomb Raider for its alleged rape scenes and objectification of new Lara in its attempts to try and not objectify her. Then we got Remember Me, another game that made a big deal about its female progratonist, only it was quite forgettable if you’ll excuse the pun. Meanwhile, BioShock: Infinite and The Last of Us were raking in the awards and perfect scores and yet neither game really truly deserved it, which some gaming forums were going on about from the very start. Do I even need to make mention of Xbox and Microsoft’s ridiculous Always-Online DRM stories, and how they were annihilated in five minutes at E3 2013 by Jack Tretton? I’ll stop there but needless to say, this year has been one hell of a controversy-filled, conflict themed ride.
It’s strange because as far as the gaming goes, this year was not really that good. At least, not until this game came around…
My personal game of the year, Grand Theft Auto V, was the first real shining light for me this year where I could stand with hand on heart and say, “Any criticism that I have for this game is nitpickery at its finest and I can think of so many ways this game improved on its predecessor that I never thought possible, and only one way that it did not.” And that one way is something so miniscule for me that it barely bears mention, but just for the purposes of equality, I will mention it: It’s about time we got a female protagonist for this series.
That was the only real complaint about the game in any case. It was apparently very misogynistic and I disagreed with that to some extent, however I was also acutely aware that these parodied males who exist as protagonists for the purposes of satire, if female, would accrue a whole other kind of ire from the feminist community. After all, Rockstar Games portrayed some genuinely bad people as the protagonists, so why are women feeling so hard done by, that they don’t also get an equally bad female representative? Some also complained about the lack of other strong female characters although I’d argue, where are the strong male supporting roles as well? The point was that the three protagonists were being emphasised, as it was their stories that Rockstar was trying to tell.
The thing that really got to me about Grand Theft Auto V was that it consistently surprised me. At quite a few points in the game, my reaction was, “Holy shit they’re not reall– Oh my hat, they actually did that!” The unfiltered bliss of every surprise was what made the game feel so fresh and unique, even though we’ve had how many GTA titles now? Certainly more than five. And what was even more amazing for me was that each time you changed characters, it felt as if the entire style of the game changed to accommodate one of the protagonists. Play as Michael for that white collar, high class criminal vibe, or play as Franklin for something a little more streets and ghetto, or fuck it, why not go full blown mental and play as Trevor for a while? You know you all want to.
In summary, 2013 was something of a disappointing year for gaming, insofar as, there was nothing that really stood out and attempted to shift our paradigms or redefine the way we thought about gaming. It was a sea of mediocrity, a cacophany of average, a… uhm… assortment of underwhelming experiences exacerbated egregiously into overrated obscurity. *cough* That is to say, although some games stood out and some others were okay but not great, I cannot look back on this year and think of anything but three games; BioShock: Infinite, The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto V. These will win the various GotY titles, this year. These will be the talked about games. These will be what we define 2013 as, in terms of games, the same way we define 2011 as the year of Skyrim, Uncharted 3, Batman: Arkham City, Gears of War 3 and the last Battlefield versus CoD battle. I’m forgetting a few, I know.
But also, this year will be remembered as the year that a lot of developers released games that were only mostly there. Whether it was them holding back or them trying their best and ultimately failing to fully capture a gaming audience that is now wise to their ways, I cannot sincerely say that there are many games this year that I played with the sense of wonder and fulfillment that I felt in previous years. And it’s not to say that I am simply jaded about things — when we were planning our Awards for this year, the entire eGamer collective came to the realisation that this was just a bad year for gaming. Where are the great FPS games, or the RPGs (so many last year, so little this year) or the third person shooters?
The only real answer is that it’s all in the works and coming, next year, when the next generation of consoles have firmly established a foothold in the gaming consumption market. Until then, it seems we are destined to get some ‘almost’ games. Some ‘close but no cigar’ games. I’m not particularly sure how to feel about that but I will say one thing: In hindsight, sure I’m mildly disappointed, but it wasn’t actually that bad of a year for gaming, was it? I just wish some people weren’t so quick to hand out the ‘Perfect’ ratings. Still, we got some solid experiences in 2013 and for that, I am happy. Well, appeased. Sated. Looking forward to 2014, I have just one thing to say: It had better fucking rain amazing games.