Amidst the industry currently trending towards a growing amount of exploitive gimmicks that center around the likes of contrived and overpriced DLC bridging annual sequels, online multiplayer being used as a crutch as opposed to a companion piece to a game that actually makes sense having MP, and an overall heavier focus on compromising the integrity of a franchise for the sake of gaining more gullible fans.. it can be hard to avoid becoming disenchanted with how gaming sometimes carries itself.
With that being said, I've always been one of those gamers who sees things health bar half-full. When going over my own picks for the year's best games, I began to realize just how much good still managed to break through the modern industry's often toxic environment.
At a time when the only thing scary about the horror genre is how content most of it is with wallowing in mediocrity while nonchalantly alienating it's core, it's certainly relieving to see one of my other favored genres, RPGs, producing more than it's fair share of faith restoring experiences.
Despite controversy over the eggs genre mainstays like Bioware and Square have laid recently, this year has been proof that the often considered dying genre by the mainstream is more than strong enough to endure those two's struggles. It's a genre that has been thriving across all regions and platforms.The RPG the past couple years has also in large part been a shining example of how it's truly in the best interest of the gamer to avoid stubborn platform loyalty that robs opportunity.
Using the year this genre has had as an indicator, quality releases on everything from the usual suspects to the often overlooked PSP/Wii, I have urged loyalty only to quality to allow the best possible gaming. I feel constantly debating what plays better on what or when something will supposedly be obsolete are distractions that have narrowed perspective as the only real reward.
Most importantly though, the quality gaming I have experienced the past year even beyond the RPG genre has shown me that there is still enough positive to make the negative worth dealing with. Perhaps it is best if gamers collectively reexamine the best use of their time and effort put forth on the medium, and establishing a better balance between dwelling on the industry's antics/platform wars and actually paying attention to what is being done right.
As with anything else in life, don't bother wasting breath complaining about the bad if you're not doing anything to support the good. If you're a part of those gamers who are busy making sure they have all their memberships paid up as they're waiting in line for the midnight launch of the latest generic shooter, but get the likes of a Team Ico game secondhand and torrent copies of titles like The Witcher 2.. look in the mirror when complaining about the way many game companies are currently going about their brazen attempts to milk.
Alright, time for the games of the year themselves. Before I go about my list I'd like to touch on two of the more intriguing GOTY contenders of mine, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and Dark Souls.
Skyward Sword, an obvious point of discussion due to all of the rating controversy that anyone reading this has no doubt come across at least once(this site's own review is an example). The melodrama surrounding the review of a game like Skyward Sword continues to amaze considering how obvious it is that a Zelda review is seen as bait, and will always be one of those statement reviews for critics that allow them the greatest opportunities to showcase their agenda with larger fanfare.. feeding the industry's ever growing review beast(one that certain reviewers realized does bite back).
Why anyone would be personally offended by a complete stranger's view on something as subjective as a personal experience with a game is beyond me. I actually welcome insightful opinions presented in a mature manner and would see the value of the discussion even if the view greatly differed from my own. At the end of the day though, my feelings on a game will be soley based on my own experience and preference.. forcing my opinion onto someone else or having an outside opinion subjugate my own is not a part of the process.
Personally, despite the GC Twilight Princess(the last proper gamepad Zelda for some time) still being my post-N64 era favorite and some early skepticism about the controls and art design.. I still think SS turned out to be a good Zelda game. Am I completely happy with the series motion controlled future? Quite honestly no, but it still didn't stop me from enjoying what the game did right, at least so far.
As far as all the constant commenting on the 'Zelda design', I really couldn't care less. My lifelong Zelda fandom is no secret, but neither is my indifference to critics who routinely poke and prod the series while trying to push their distaste onto those who continue to enjoy the games. My only real point of annoyance with negative reviewers? Inconsistency.
The Zelda design is far from the only formulaic approach leaned on by popular games throughout the industry. I can't help rolling my eyes whenever I notice a given critic breaking out their monocle when a Zelda game hits their desk only to give more of a free pass to flashier titles who have a bit more smoke and mirrors to distract away from worn formulas of their own.
I've never been one for blind loyalty. I'll admit that moderate progression wouldn't kill the modern Zelda franchise, but claims of the series' stagnation tend to be as exaggerated as some accuse it's esteem of being. All agendas and critical antagonism aside, the games are still managing to be legitimately 'good'.
If recent titles became short, lazy, glitchy, or chopped up into DLC maybe I would be more receptive of certain criticism.. the absence of those levels of problems just make habitual critics seem like they are vindictively splitting hairs. It's as if to say, "hey, I've enjoyed too many finely crafted 30-40+ adventures the past several years and you're not making a contrived enough effort to force the latest cliched design conventions into the series to sufficiently distract me between shooter reviews".
Natural change never hurts. I'll give the Zelda team the benefit of the doubt when deciding when and how to bring about the right changes at the right times so long as the games continue to maintain quality. The last thing anyone needs is forced change for the sake of it making way for Zelda's own Metroid: Other M debacle.
Now, I'll come right out and admit that while certainly in the running until the very end, Dark Souls didn't end up being my GOTY. Regardless though, it never fell below 1-A for me. Despite the initial heartache that actually caused me to wonder if I hated it, when I came around to finishing the game after a grueling first playthrough I knew that despite it's pitfalls Dark Souls was near the peak of what an epic action RPG should be.
Unlike so many titles in the action/rpg genre, From didn't undermine their vision by settling on softer, more mainstream friendly formula choices in a vain attempt to overcompensate for the doubled edges of their design. The game world wasn't chopped down to a recolored enemy grind from one enclosed area to another, no hiding a lack of non-linear exploration and sluggish combat behind a compelling yet occasionally hammy story centered around the illusion of choice, and not another example of epic boss battles being relegated to quick time events and other limited mechanics.
I'm not trying to bash games in the genre that do settle with these elements, I'm just saying that glazing over the game's rough spots with these approaches would have been a detriment to the character of the experience. Working through the ups and downs of the design and mechanics is a part of the ride.
It seems to me that a good amount of emotion and impatience tends to lead some towards characterizing Dark Souls as shallow tedium for the masochists of the genre.. a gross oversimplification of a game with it's meticulous design, deceptively deep story and immense open ended scale featuring some of the most rewarding gameplay and novel implementations of multiplayer elements this generation(in a genre where it can be quite difficult to pull off no less)all with a compelling artistry that escapes confinement to typical JRPG/Anime or western cliches.
The game is not without its quirks, the camera and framerate can be problematic at times and the stacking curses is something I can say was taken too far. Like Demon's Souls, new players won't be used to the concept of just one difficulty, with the game not being divided into Dark Souls lite, medium and veteran.. and some genre fans will continue to find frustration in not being able to hide behind the safeguards of typical JRPG or PC RPG gameplay.
In the end the game is stern, but not heartless. Dark Souls, like it's predecessor, is an engrossing experience that brings out the best of those playing and expects nothing out of the player that some perseverance, skill and actual strategy beyond Rambo or camper won't ultimately overcome.
Game of the Year
Nominees - Batman: Arkham City, Portal 2, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Dark Souls, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Winner - [spoiler] The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (multi) [/spoiler]
Multi-Platform Game of the Year - The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Best PS3 Game - Uncharted 3
Best XBOX 360 Game - Gears of War 3
Best Wii Game - The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Best PSP Game - Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together
Best DS Game - Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
Best 3DS Game - The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D
Best PC Game - The Witcher 2
Best Action/Adventure - Batman: Arkham City (multi)
Best Thriller/Mystery - L.A. Noire (multi)
Best Horror - Dead Space 2 (multi)
Best Shooter - Gears of War 3 (XBOX 360)
Best Platformer - Rayman Origins (multi)
Best RPG - Dark Souls (Multi)
Best Fighter - Mortal Kombat (multi)
Best Racing Game - DiRT 3 (multi)
Best Sports Game - NBA 2k12 (multi)
Best Puzzle Game - Portal 2 (multi)
Best Rhythm/Music Game - Patapon 3 (PSP)
Best Strategy Game - Total War: Shogun 2 (PC)
Best Compilation - The Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection (PS3)
Best Downloadable Game - Bastion (multi)
Best Piece of Downloadable Content - Old World Blues, Fallout: New Vegas (multi)
*Fallout 3 may have been the better game overall, but New Vegas clearly had the single best piece of DLC. With a neurotic, mug obsessed mini-securitron and a homicidal toaster.. how could it not be?
Best Graphics, Technical - Battlefield 3 (multi)
Best Graphics, Artistic - Ni No Kuni (PS3)
Best Story - To The Moon (PC)
Best Ending - Portal 2 (multi)
Best Atmosphere - Batman: Arkham City (multi)
Best Writing/Dialogue - Portal 2 (multi)
Best Voice Acting - Batman: Arkham City (multi)
Best Sound Design - The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (multi)
Best Original Music - The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (multi)
Best Licensed Music - L.A. Noire (multi)
Best Competitive Multiplayer - Battlefield 3 (multi)
Best Cooperative Multiplayer - Gears of War 3 (multi)
Best Original Game Mechanic - Advanced facial animation tech, L.A. Noire (multi)
Best Boss Fights - Dark Souls (multi)
Best New Character - Wheatley, Portal 2 (multi)
Best Use of a Creative License - Batman: Arkham City (multi)
Best Original IP - Minecraft (PC)
Most Improved Sequel - Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Multi)
Most Surprisingly Good Game - Catherine (multi)
Honorable Mentions - The Last Story (Wii), LittleBigPlanet 2 (PS3), Alice: Madness Returns (Multi), Outland (Multi), Super Mario 3D Land (3DS)
*Xenoblade = 2010 release
Most Surprisingly Good Game - Driver: San Francisco (multi)
Best Downloadable Game No One Played - The Binding of Isaac (PC)
Most Disappointing Game - Brink (multi)
*A shallow technical mess that launched with a horrific amount of online lag and bugs.. falling well short of it's potential.
Least Improved Sequel - Stronghold 3 (PC)
Worst Game of the Year - Hulk Hogan's Main Event (XBOX 360)
*The Kinect library has managed the impossible by securing a circle of gaming hell lower than Wii shovelware.
Worst Level - Blighttown, Dark Souls (multi)
*Have I mentioned the suspect framerate of Dark Souls? Nowhere is it more unbearable and dangerous than in Blighttown. Mixing in a slideshow with the level's design and it's brutal array of enemies will make the first few runthroughs an unrelenting nightmare. My chosen undead had to sit on an icepack for a week after my first attempt.
Worst Cover Art - Jimmie Johnson's Anything With An Engine (multi)
Worst Piece of Downloadable Content - Horde Command Pack, Gears of War 3 (XBOX 360)
*More unlocked on-disc content garbage. Epic wasn't winning me over with it's obnoxiously priced weapon skins as it was, then they decided to pass this insult along.
Clumsiest Major Release - Battlefield 3 (multi)
*Needless Steam drama, a glitchy beta that raised far more concern than hype, official forum mods calling the game's community ungrateful, and an executive producer questioning the darker side of gamers.. all topped off with numerous server issues launch month? EA is going to need both a new PR team and better executed gameplan before it can truly threaten CoD's sales dominance.
Year In Review
Best Trend - Comprehensive 'free' updates/DLC (Portal 2, The Witcher 2, etc.)
Worst Trend - Online Passes Restricting Single Player Content
*I was set to give these 'season passes' the nod, but after seeing games like Rage and Batman: Arkham City(games with little to no online elements) take the wretched online pass to it's inevitable step of progression by locking out single player content, I was thoroughly disgusted. At the rate these passes in all their forms are gaining momentum and being largely met with indifference by far too many consumers.. I would not be shocked to see even the endings of games being at risk in a few years.
Most Surprising News - Nintendo slashing the 3DS pricetag by 40% within 6 months of release
*The surprise wasn't that it happened, but when it did. It was a given that the original 3DS pricetag was far too bloated for it's intended demographic, but sluggish sales forced Nintendo's hand quicker than anticipated. This led many to claim that cheap iOS/Android games to be the primary factor hampering demand, but any unbiased analyst would tell you that the price, Nintendo saturating the market with several versions of its previous handheld leading up to the 3DS release, and a very underwhelming launch lineup were the true culprits for the slow adoption rate. A 200% sales increase post-price drop leading in a holiday slate of games helped show that.
Least Surprising News - A shaky start for Zynga's hyped IPO
*While Zynga certainly made a good chunk of change.. investors recognized the same concerns many within the industry have been pointing out for some time. Zynga is far too reliant on Facebook, and a growing number of competitors to go along with FB's fickle handling of it's game policies make the company a questionable longterm investment. Much of current social and mobile gaming design seems great in theory, but when you try to bring money and inevestor's into the equation one starts to realize how long that part of the industry has to go towards creating a proven and sustainable market for consistent investment.
Most Anticpiated Game of 2012 - Bioshock Infinite (multi)
Most Anticipated Hardware - AMD/nVidia 28nm GPU's
Thanks for reading folks, happy holidays.
(2010 & 2009 awards)