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The Art of the Steal - Grand Theft Auto V Review

Note: I published this review about six weeks ago. Re-posting it as a blog is a test of sorts before I decide whether or not I want to dive into all my usual year-end list-making to see if a decent number of people can still find and read my stuff despite this horrendous new site layout effectively killing off the unified user blogosphere.

Sometimes the desire for more can leave you with much, much less. Such is the theme that resides at Grand Theft Auto V's bleak and mean-spirited core. Rockstar's new vision of San Andreas is a loud and abrasive depiction of a society stripped of any moral decency as its denizens endlessly strive for more money, power, and respect - though they ultimately receive none for all their misguided ambition.

Quite ironically, and very unfortunately, Grand Theft Auto V's central messages apply rather easily to the finished product we have before us after a half-decade of development time. Grand Theft Auto V is bigger than its predecessors, but in seldom few ways is it truly better. The story is nihilistic and ham-fisted, and its unrelentingly harsh depictions of people in all walks of life end up making many of the messages it conveys just as questionable as the twisted culture it illustrates. The gameplay is more multi-faceted than ever, but a number of Grand Theft Auto V's mechanical structures - including new and central conceits like heists - are only satisfying on a superficial level. And Grand Theft Auto Online, though a frequently entertaining multiplayer offering, is poorly constructed and overly complex. Rockstar's insane ambitions are on clear display in Grand Theft Auto V, but the granular details of this vast experience pale in comparison to its broader strokes.

Luckily, Grand Theft Auto V has more than a few exceptional ideas going for it. In a commendably daring move, the game centers around not one, but three protagonists, between whom players are able to switch while out of missions with few restrictions. As you might imagine, this new power lends the game a snappy sense of pacing; Michael, Franklin, and Trevor, the game's three leads, spread themselves out across the gargantuan new map pretty evenly, ensuring that each swap-out will allow you to cover significant ground in short periods of time, getting you closer to whatever activities or locales might interest you in no time flat. Rather brilliantly, most swaps are lead in by short, voyeuristic vignettes that acquaint you with what these guys have been up to when you weren't controlling them, and they're often quite funny - getting a glimpse of some of Trevor's wild antics are a particular treat.

But this conceit isn't merely an inspired way of subverting the lame auto-travel options that pop up in just about every open-world game these days; the game's three protagonists are interesting characters in their own right, and are easily one of the game's foremost strengths.

Michael is my personal favorite, and easily stands as one of Rockstar's best characters. On the surface, he's is a seemingly sensible guy who's resigned himself to a quiet family life after years making a living as something of a master thief. But a chance run-in with Franklin reawakens the volatile criminal within him, and what follows is a compelling story arc that sees him struggling to reconcile his old ways with his new life. Here, Rockstar have finally found a way of crafting a character both possessed of nuance and a bottomless capacity for chaos.

Trevor, on the other hand, is the embodiment of the impulsive, brutish attitude that becomes frighteningly easy to adopt while playing a Grand Theft Auto game. He enjoys causing random havoc just as much as we all do when lost in Rockstar's digital realms, and this thuggish simplicity serves as a welcome change of pace from the likes of Vic Vance or John Marston, whose complexity of characterization never quite felt aligned with the mechanics they were bound to.

Franklin is somewhat bound to this archetype, but his exasperation with the people around him seems to purposefully ring false, as we catch glimpses of him reveling in all the mayhem just as much as the game's seemingly more unstable characters.

The game's story is at its very best when it focuses its attention on this captivating trio. Grand Theft Auto V wisely takes its time in connecting their stories, allowing palyers to get a good sense of how these men operate on their own before seeing the ways in which they influence each other. And once they join together as a formidable crew in the name of pulling off audacious heists, their core drama impresses even more. Grand Theft Auto V makes many attempts at thematic resonance, but the game is most effective when it focuses in on these three men, applying its uneasy and highly critical storytelling lens to their insatiable greed.

In this way, the game is particularly clever in how it handles dishing out monetary rewards. Though your capers would seem to pull tens of millions of dollars on a regular basis, the fruits of your criminal plots are regularly taken from you in various ways. The real kicker here: each character has all the money they could possibly need by about a third of the way through the game. Thus, your desire to put yet more cash in their pockets is pure, unadulterated greed. You may feel frustrated as the fat stacks are regularly kept at a distance, but that speaks to the game's cleverness rather than poor or unfair design; by the game's end, you'll have subscribed to the same delusional lust for meaningless socioeconomic advancement as the three thieves you take control of.

But, being a Grand Theft Auto title, the character arcs that drive Rockstar's latest are wrapped up in a holistic and farcical take on modern American culture that savages everything from social media to border patrolmen, celebrity culture to fitness crazes. Indeed, Grand Theft Auto V possess the kind of narrative that, within the games industry, could be labeled "edgy" or "smart." Truth be told, however, there's relatively little of such nuance to be found. The attitude that pervades the game's storytelling style, conversely, shows Dan Houser's increasingly blunt writing in dumber form than ever. Say what you will about Grand Theft Auto IV's dissonant qualities, but by the time the impossible trinity's stories came to a close, there was an undeniable clarity to what Rockstar was trying to say with these characters, and how their stories were inseperable from the environment they were placed in. Meanwhile,Grand Theft Auto V, though in more desperate search of meaning than ever before, mostly comes up empty when it comes to interesting commentary.

The two aspects of the American identity that Rockstar casts a particularly critical eye on are the depthlessness of modern entertainment (which, perhaps calls for some humble self-awareness on Rockstar's part) and the corruption of counter-terrorist agencies - a match that, as you might guess, isn't exactly like chocolate and peanut-butter, especially once you add in the action-comedy antics that underlie our trio's self-starter missions. The game's critique of the media is perhaps the more pointed of the two, as some run-ins with a strangely principled paparazzo and a sleazy game show host, among others, are brutally funny, as is the absurd degree to which seemingly every character values social media, and the indirectness of text messaging and email. Ultimately though, there's no real nuance here - the superficiality of Rockstar's messaging is more or less equal to the society they're so intent on skewering.

Satire at its finest.

What the game attempts to say about government corruption is far more bothersome. This is chiefly because Houser and co-writer Rupert Humphries try to say meaningful things about far too many exceedingly complex subjects. Private armies, infighting amongst government agencies in the name of glory and funding, protective compromises with criminals, illegal surveillance, and torture are all scrutinized under the falsely intelligent scope of the game's writing, and almost each and every one of the commentaries the game offers fails to be compelling or funny, much less eye-opening. The fact, too, that such weighty subjects are left to such a surface-level satirical treatment is especially bothersome. When one mission forced me to endure an extended cringe-inducing torture sequence, I desperately hoped the game would have something at least slightly interesting to say about it, but this section is book-ended by a weird (though admittedly dark and humorous) monologue that more or less side-steps the issue entirely. The segments of the game that revolve around these concepts ultimately succeed in tying back to the main story in a relevant, and even somewhat striking fashion, but there are a lot of ham-handed punches to roll with whilst the game laboriously brings its themes full circle.

Luckily, there are plenty of engaging side activities to bail you out of the game's insistent and consistently underwhelming narrative whenever it may start to weigh down on you. There are races galore, rampages make a gleefully chaotic return, you can do some yoga (which isn't all that fun), and can hang out with friends much like you could in Grand Theft Auto IV - but worry not, it's always up to you to initiate these meet-ups. The biggest surprises, however, have to be the golfing and tennis mini-games, which feel incredibly well-crafted, and possess a shocking depth that solidifies their unexpected replayability.

When it is time to indulge in the main story missions, it becomes abundantly clear that Rockstar's level and scenario design values spectacle far more than substance. Though robbing trains, chasing down crash-landing planes, or escaping from an abandoned factory after being ambushed by a horde of attackers might all seem incredibly badass, the high wears down significantly once you realize that you're essentially playing a high-stakes game of Simon Says. In spite of whatever cinematic flair is brought to the fold, the vast majority of missions consist of you simply moving from point A to point B, hiding behind walls before popping out to shoot enemies. Grand Theft Auto V quickly becomes unbelievably creative and high-concept in terms of what sort of visual surprises drive its biggest moments, but it never flexes an equal amount of design ingenuity, often leaving you out of its bombastic action, hoping there was some extra level of mechanical depth to get you more involved in the proceedings.

This problem becomes especially glaring when it comes to the game's big heist missions. When scoping out the first big score, for example, I'd been given the instruction to take pictures of things within the store that would be relevant to the upcoming robbery. On my way over to the jeweler in question, I began considering things that would be important to point out - guards, security cameras, alarms, and so on. But no sooner than I had arrived, ready to meticulously survey the things I thought might be of some import does the game simply point out exactly what needs to be photographed, seemingly just to get things over with. Though heist preparation is certainly a novel concept, the whole process becomes immensely frustrating as the game continuously refuses to afford you any significant amount of leeway in how you'd like things to play out - you simply choose one of two general approaches, then proceed to do precisely what the game tells you to do in order to kick off the main event.

Heists don't fare any better as they're actually taking place, as, yet again, you simply do precisely what the game asks of you. Even the character-switch mechanic, which houses the potential to allow so much exciting dynamism during these moments, becomes highly restrictive, forcing you to choose certain roles whenever it's most convenient for the game. Even as robberies begin their inevitable spiral out of control, a back-up plan is instantly formulated for you, leaving you to once more follow extremely specific directions.

Missions like these look cool, but never manage to truly engage.

None of this is to say the missions are outright bad. On the contrary, the hectic chases and white-knuckled firefights that they frequently supply are generally thrilling, and character swapping adds a good dose of variety to the mix. Moreover, it's undeniably true that the missions in the Grand Theft Auto games have always been a hyper-linear counterpoint to the sandbox stylings of its out-of-mission gameplay. What makes this restraint so crippling in Grand Theft Auto V, however, is that many of its central conceits, namely switching perspectives to orchestrate intricate capers, would seem to call for a much greater open-endedness that what we're ultimately left with, and it's a true shame the game's most intriguing concepts remain novelties and set-piece fodder rather than fully-fledged gameplay systems.

Luckily, Grand Theft Auto V's core mechanics are good enough to keep the action engaging even amidst all its befuddling design choices. The shooting structures, though not entirely satisfying, are still probably the best that can be found in an open-world game. Much like they did with Max Payne 3, Rockstar places special emphasis on the animations that underlie on-foot combat; characters don't simply glide into cover, they sprint and stumble their way there; weapons can't recover from recoil at the drop of a hat or be swapped out instantaneously. There's a certain rhythm to get used to here, and it's quite engaging. Furthermore, each character has a special ability that can be quite handy in combat scenarios - Michael slows down time Max Payne style, Trevor flips out and dishes up extra damage, while Franklin can slown down time in vehicles, making drivebys much easier.

Driving around, even when you aren't shooting anyone, is still a lot of fun - better than it's ever been, even. In Grand Theft Auto IV, vehicles had to be wrestled with more than the wild stallions found roaming Red Dead Redemption's vast plains. In Grand Theft Auto V, however, all those issues are remedied. The strange physics and control inconsistencies that formerly made commandeering cars, boats, and choppers a genuine pain are problems of the past. Cars feel especially slick, and helicopters benefit from some extra weightiness to their movements. Submarines make their debut, and planes make a welcome return, offering some uniquely stunning views of the new environment.

And on that note, I'd be remiss not to talk about how incredible Rockstar's new vision of San Andreas is. The city of Los Santos is undoubtedly the highlight, as Rockstar does a fantastic job of compacting the seemingly endless sprawl of Los Angeles, giving players a broad (and of course, exaggerated) sense of the culture it houses. Atmospherically, the city gives off a Michael Mann-esque cool, especially when it lights up at night and the game's brilliant ambient soundtrack (handled by Tangerine Dream and The Alchemist, among others) starts to kick in. The back-country proves equally enthralling, as Rockstar draws on imagery not only endemic to southern California, but also Nevada, New Mexico, and NorCal. The desert flatlands that Trevor calls home are a particular joy to tear through in off-road vehicles, while biking down the stunning new Mount Chilliad is a uniquely breathtaking experience.

San Andreas is as varied and vibrant as open worlds come.

It must furthermore be said that the radio stations providing the backing tracks for all this environmental exploration house top-notch playlists. Of particular note is how well the game represents West Coast hip-hop culture; songs from the likes of YG, Black Hippy, Dr. Dre, and Too $hort abound, while DJ Pooh and Flying Lotus hold down their own stations. Radio Mirror Park, a synth-pop station, and a wonderful soul station (DJed by none other than Pam Grier) are also highlights.

If I were getting paid by the word to write this review, I'd probably be able to retire already, so I'm going to keep my thoughts on Grand Theft Auto V's multiplayer mode, perhaps expectedly titled Grand Theft Auto Online, very brief. In short, free roaming with a group of friends is a huge amount of fun, and the absurd restrictiveness of the game's singleplayer missions is mostly absent. But there are also numerous frustrations, including connectivity issues, save file loss, possibly the most obtuse character creation system ever made, and a laborious character progression system; the grind required of you feels particularly suspect when considering the game's not-so subtle hints toward its many microtransaction options. It's also a huge disappointment that the widely-touted multiplayer heists are nowhere to be seen as of right now. Still, the core Grand Theft Auto experience has always been one that desperately cries out for multiplayer madness, and I find myself glad to participate in the over-the-top hijinks despite all the nagging flaws.

What makes Grand Theft Auto V great is largely what makes Grand Theft Auto III great; moving through a meticulously crafted environment, soaking in the atmosphere and generally doing as you please in an unhurried fashion is what has been this series' central appeal for over a decade now. It is thus easy to take for granted all the things Grand Theft Auto V does so right, from its ridiculous production value to the simple sublimation of just travelling through the world it presents. But even in accounting for these significant sources of immersion and entertainment, it's hard for me to come away feeling overwhelmingly positive about my experience with the game. It simply seems to fall back on its tried and true formula far too much, often only making a minimum effort in branching out into new territory, and its half-baked heists and largely insufferable story highlight this painful problem.

And that's why, flaws and all, I still prefer Grand Theft Auto IV and its episodes to the muddled opus we have before us now. Niko, Johnny, and Luis's stories may not have always been thrilling or consistent, but they reflected a new approach to the open-world genre, one that was willing to sacrifice scope and grandeur in the name of a more cohesive and affecting experience. Grand Theft Auto V is as fun as I'm sure Grand Theft Auto games always will be, but it won't resonate for very long in comparison.

I'll Never Play The Hero

***WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS for The Last of Us, BioShock Infinite, and the film Taxi Driver. MINOR SPOILERS for Tomb Raider, Max Payne 3, Assassin's Creed III, and Spec Ops: The Line.***

Taxi Driver

In many ways, The Last of Us eerily recalls the film Taxi Driver. Both Martin Scorsese's 1976 magnum opus and Naughty Dog's latest are centered around deeply disturbed men suffocated by insecurities and troubled preconceptions as to the true nature of man. Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle is a Vietnam war veteran who finds himself simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by the seedier side of New York City that he's forced to experience working his titular job. He's moralistic but horribly misguided; his detestation of the cold, sometimes abhorrent world around him is reasonable on some level, but this hatred forces him on a descent into offensiveness, aggression, and sociopathy.

Though the setup is quite different, the core of Joel's character is strikingly similar. The first fifteen minutes or so of The Last of Us send Joel's world spinning into ruin. A fungal virus that turns people into rabid zombies sends his hometown into an expected panic. Joel must kill his infected neighbor, abandon his home, and go on the run with his brother and his daughter, Sarah. In the midst of this frantic escape, however, Sarah is killed, and when the game jumps forward twenty years into the future, we see that Joel has dissociated from most everyone around him. In place of true human connection, Joel has a singleminded focus on surviving amidst an unimaginably harsh post-pandemic existence, and we soon learn that he subsists by trading weapons, and generally being as tough and cold a killer as can be.

But their generally bleak, uncaring worldview is only the start of Travis and Joel's similarities. Of much more significance is the driving factor that leads them to act upon their violent nature in the most shocking of ways; both Travis and Joel foster a strong attachment to a young innocent, a light that shines through the grit and grime around them.

Partway into Taxi Driver, a young prostitute named Iris hops into Travis's cab, pleading for a ride away from her pimp, Sport. A moment of hesitation keeps Travis from complying, resulting in her being dragged away by an angered Sport. It's immediately clear, however, that Travis finds some sort of goodness in her that he sees in no one else, and from then on he makes it his mission to convince Iris to get back to her parents.

Joel, meanwhile, is forced into circumstances that require cutting a deal with the Fireflies, a group devoted to seeking a cure for the infection that has devastated the Earth's population. His task is to escort Ellie - a teenaged girl whose surprising immunity to the virus inspires hopes for a cure - crosscountry to the Fireflies' medical center for further research. Though Joel initially treats her coldly, he eventually bonds with her, and she rather obviously begins to fills the familial void left by the death of his own daughter years before.

The frightening ways in which Travis and Joel's simultaneous hatred of people, yet strong attachment to a sole young innocent ultimately culminate is what makes these characters so sickeningly striking. Bickle, on the verge of carrying out a planned assassination, suddenly changes his target and instead goes after the crooks that manipulate and abuse Iris. The resulting confrontation remains one of the most shockingly violent sequences in film. Joel embarks on a similar rampage when he learns, upon successfully bringing young Ellie to the Fireflies, that she is being prepped for a surgery that will inevitably end her life. Enraged, he goes on a murderous march through the heavily guarded hospital to reach his psuedo-daughter, mercilessly killing nearly everyone in his path.

While they are unexpected and utterly brutal in their own right, Travis and Joel's final violent outbursts are made especially horrifying by the fact that some remote semblance of heroism can be salvaged from their bloody acts. Both these men ultimately direct their violent nature towards protecting a young person that would otherwise be left to cruel exploitation. Ellie would have been sacrificed outright in desperate hopes of creating a vaccine, though it isn't known for certain whether the deadly surgery would have resulted in such a cure in the first place, or whether she was even aware she would have to die as a consequence. Iris, meanwhile, would have remained in the destructive spiral of sexual, physical, and substance abuse brought upon her by Sport.

But given the hours of insight into the corrupted minds of these men that precedes their final, would-be heroic acts of violence, this righteousness ultimately rings hollow. We know that Travis Bickle's vigilanteism is underlied more by a simple need to lash out at the society he's so clearly incompatible with than a desire to act selflessly in the service of others. And while it's clear Joel cares deeply for Ellie, we also know that his bid to rescue her is ultimately self-centered. His main motivation in the game's final stretch is to avoid enduring the trauma of losing a daughter yet again, and his willingness to supercede Ellie's wishes in order to not confront his own insecurities as a failed protector, no matter the cost, illustrate this tragic emotional greed.

TLoU

Indeed, Joel is the Travis Bickle of video game protagonists - a man whose troubled worldview and horrific deeds may be seen as noble, but only if one strains to perceive them in such a way. But while a character depicted in such an unyieldingly stark and disturbing manner as Bickle is somewhat of a rarity within the realm of film, characters as brooding and sociopathic as Joel can be seen many times over just within the past year's lineup of games:

Spec Ops: The Line stars the delusional Captain Walker, a man whose Machiavellian determination and unyielding desire to play the hero culminates in a shocking downward spiral into utter madness; BioShock Infinite's protagonist, Booker DeWitt, is so broken that his transgressions span multiple realities and identities; Max Payne 3 sees the iconic titular character trying to reconcile his brutishly violent ways with his duty to guard an affluent family, a conflict that leads to an expectedly questionable conclusion; Assassin's Creed III's eighteenth-century protagonist, Connor Kenway, retains a marked emotional distance between himself and almost everyone else he encounters to instead focus on upholding some rather extremist ideals and kills most who would oppose him.

The list goes on but the point is clear: video games that deign to present serious narratives have little in the way of heroic, likable, or even remotely sympathetic protagonists. They are instead usually utter madmen whose good intentions shatter under the weight of the immense bodycounts they inevitably tally. And though this fixation on depicting and having players take control of broken, brutal men might well come from the honest narrative aspirations of games writers, I have to consider just how much the mechanics that define modern AAA action experiences inform characterization.

BioShock Infinite, for example, really only features one fleshed-out and pervasive gameplay structure - shooting racists. There are of course, a number of mechanical embellishments that add some density to the experience, but flourishes like skylines, vigors, and tears ultimately exist to simply add variety to the act of shooting racists. That's not to say that engaging in this core mechanic isn't fun, but this singleminded focus on gunning down enemies is inarguably not conducive to establishment of a sympathetic, well-meaning main character. In fact, Booker's psychopathy is mandate - BioShock Infinite is already on shaky ground in terms of selling its story, but it absolutely would not have succeeded in conveying a serious, edgy narrative if its outlandishly violent gameplay loop couldn't largely be written off by establishing that its hero is an assuredly terrible person.

Indeed, insanity and immorality as an odd but functional mechanical justification that allows involved narratives to propel ever onwards without the audience feeling put off are used to varying degrees of subtlety by every game I've mentioned so far, and many more. There are, alternatively, two other common approaches action-heavy games have thus far taken to coupling their bloody mechanics with some sort of plot. This first option is to make the plot as fun and absurd as the gameplay itself; games like Borderlands 2 and Blood Dragon create a goofy atmosphere that can effectively sell you on the idea that you're playing a hero despite delivering carnage on a massive scale simply because it makes sense within the warped, fun logic of their campy narratives.

Killing is Harmless

The other alternative is to simply ignore the influence mechanics have on narrative and hopelessly try to tell a serious story with a protagonist who can get away with remaining sympathetic while violating every last Geneva Convention without so much as a second thought. This, as you might imagine, can never work, and the latest Tomb Raider is a prime example of why that is. Crystal Dynamics' reboot admirably tries to give Lara Croft a harsh but ultimately triumphant origin story, but the game's unfaltering focus on killing people shouldn't give rise to a hero, but rather a psychopathic mass-murderer.

Yet the game's writing never addresses this glaring ludonarrative inconsistency, and as a result, players will have to choose to either accept the game's shoot-and-loot systems as action game convention and ignore them to enjoy the narrative, or look past the story and revel guilt-free in all the shooting, collecting, and upgrading. The creation of meaning in games is at its most effective when storytelling and mechanical engagement work in tandem, so it goes without saying that this conflict is far from ideal.

A number of the many game stories focused on tortured men and their violent ways have been exceptionally compelling despite the numerous and oft-repeated tropes that they entail, and the sheer fact that this storytelling strategy exists clearly shows that the medium has grown much more cognizant of how closely interrelated game structures and game narrative must be in order to make a resounding artistic statement. But this type of story will inevitably get old very fast. Taxi Driver is such an interesting film because it's one of very few to be centered around a character as singularly reprehensible as Travis Bickle. Even games as brilliant as Spec Ops: The Line and The Last of Us risk becoming decidedly boring if we are inundated with yet more of these brooding leads who are expressly formed from the desire to tell a believable narrative within the restrictive confines of the AAA action title.

What is required instead is a dramatic rethinking of how systems and narratives in games can be changed to suit each other in better, more dynamic ways. I want to play a hero, a truly good, admirable person, but unless the industry reevaluates its artistic choices, I may be forever left to walk in the shoes of a monster.

Bullet Heaven - Bleed Review

The twin-stick shooter is perhaps the only genre whose core gameplay and control functions are wholly and perfectly summed up by the name of the genre itself. Unlike the nebulous moniker of the action-adventure genre, for example, whose releases could pull you in any number of directions (though, at this point, most likely towards the nearest chest-high wall) when you buy a twin-stick shooter, you're pretty much guaranteed to spend the next few hours using two analog sticks to shoot things. But despite the fact that a genre's central mechanics are simple enough to be entirely detailed by the name of said genre, the twin-stick shooter has proven to be quite a reliable source of entertainment for those seeking twitchy, frenetic thrills.

A number of titles belonging to the genre are even distinctly superb, such as the bright, ceaselessly riotous Geometry Wars 2, or the conversely dark, brutal Binding of Isaac. Bleed, a one-man indie project and recent Greenlight honoree, is the next in that terrific lineage.

Bleed, unlike many games of its ilk, is locked in a side-scrolling perspective, which is fitting indeed given the game's heavy emphasis integrating tricky platforming into its gleeful bullet-hell run-n-gun action. Wryn, the game's wannabe hero protagonist, can perform three lengthy jumps in a row that can be aimed in any direction you'd like, allowing for the mobility and flexibility you'll undoubtedly need when deadly projectiles are being hurled around every which way. Add in a slick bullet time mechanic, and the young lady is capable of pulling off some truly badass stunts that would put Max Payne thoroughly to shame.

Bleed

The level design that houses all this terrific action is impeccable, allowing for not only a wide visual variety, but some truly novel gameplay conceits. One stage, for example, has you sneaking through a cyberpunk highrise, dodging trip wires while taking out security drones, forcing you to play at a much more measured pace than usual. Another has you running along the top of a high-speed train, gaining as much ground as possible before having to duck down and avoid slamming into an incoming tunnel.

As you might imagine, the balancing act of navigating trap-laden environments while facing down an onslaught of enemies can yield quite a challenge - especially when considering the fact that the game features over a dozen inventive boss battles that require your aim to be even more dead-on and your multi-tiered dodge maneuvers to be even more complex and accurate. But one of Bleed's greatest strengths is that its huge swath of gameplay and difficulty options ensure that it's one of the most immediately accessible experiences in the bullet-hell genre. There are four difficulty settings that allow for an experience to be as breezy and casual or unforgiving as you'd like, and the additional option to play through the game's seven stages with only one life adds an even more hardcore play option for the especially daring.

Bleed

There's plenty more to rave about with Bleed. There are a few unlockable characters that have significant effects on core gameplay, there's an insane boss duel mode that let's you fight three bosses at the same time, and the story, though largely sparse and infantile, comes to a surprisingly earnest conclusion. With a five dollar price tag and a ninety-minute story mode, Bleed might seem a rather humble game on the surface. But the game is a clear labor of love that manages to consistently surprise and impress despite its small scope.

Battlefield of the (Cyber)heart - Blood Dragon Review

Between Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Vice City Stories, Hotline Miami, Scarface: The World Is Yours, and innumerable retro-styled indie games, the 1980s are an era that find themselves heavily mythicized within the realm of video gaming. Perhaps it's because that particular decade was a hugely important time for the games industry, one that solidified the medium's place in culture after a few troubling periods threatened to crash the industry altogether. Or perhaps it's just because 80s pop culture seems so incredibly hokey and fun by today's standards. The overblown action flicks, cheesy, reverb-drench music, and bright, ugly neon colors that have come to define the popular consciousness of 80s entertainment (especially for those of us who weren't around then) is, quite simply, easy to poke fun at. Ubisoft's latest title, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon uses this easy source of laughs to its fullest advantage, elevating a decent shooter to absurd and hysterical heights by embracing and satirizing the now-ridiculous style of a bygone era of media.

But Blood Dragon isn't a good game just because it pokes fun at a cultural period that has already been the butt of many jokes, but because of its own incredibly bombastic nature. It should go without saying that the story of Rex Power Colt, a Mark IV cyber-commando assigned to trek across an irradiated, post-apocalyptic island to find and kill his former commander has absolutely nothing to do with Jason Brody's tropical misadventures from Far Cry 3 proper. Instead of a gritty psychological thriller, we're given a constant succession of hilarious spoofs of action movie tropes, including one of the best-worst montage sequences ever, horribly outdated visions of the future (Blood Dragon is set in the year 2000), and an exceedingly awkward romantic subplot. The sheer audacity of this huge shift in aesthetic, narrative, and tone is as admirable as it is insane, and Ubisoft deserves major props for its willingness to take such a huge risk with a franchise that typically aims for serious, dark drama.  

Mark IV Style

It's a good thing, too, that Blood Dragon's narrative stylings (and mere existence as a commercial product) take the experience to such entertaining heights, because Far Cry 3's core mechanics continue to underwhelm. Though the weapons all feel appropriately weighty and some truly extravagant stealth kills never fail to entertain, numerous flaws keep the game from being consistently fun. Movement continues to feel clunky and rather slow, especially considering how much ground a player needs to cover in order to navigate Blood Dragon's sizable open-world. Aiming also feels off, the default sensitivity seems built for the pinpoint accuracy of mouse aiming rather than the broader movements of an analogue stick, but dipping to much below the standard aim speed results in a sluggish feel. The game's strange compromise between regenerative health and the need for med packs is also frustrating, as it calls for a needlessly persistent mindfulness of whether or not to duck down for a few seconds to regain a bit of life, or gain some real distance from your foes to slog through a lengthy med pack application animation.

Side activities have also lost their luster. Even though they provide some interesting rewards in the form of weapon upgrades, the slew of barebones missions calling for the deaths of a well-guarded human target or a bunch of irradiated animals simply isn't all that engaging, not just because Blood Dragon's mechanics are so unremarkable, but because the game reserves most of its delightfully dumb humor for its more involved campaign missions. 

Luckily, the riotous narrative and presentation that embellishes the game's nine campaign missions provides more than enough entertainment to justify Blood Dragon's relatively low asking price. The game sets the tone nicely with its self-aware tutorial that transforms many games' inevitable initial period of treating players like idiots into a sort of art form rather than a frustration; within five minutes you're hit with one gameplay-halting pop-up instruction after another, blatantly restricted from using basic control functions, and even called a "nerd." As strange as it sounds, Blood Dragon's tutorial is one of the best there's ever been. 

Blood Dragon

That glorious meta-cognizance pervades every last bit of this excellent set of missions. Taking a page from Metal Gear's playbook, cutscenes unfold across tiny portion of the screen and are barely animated, and the story they tell - a ridiculous and parodic amalgamation of action movies cliches - is bolstered by the utterly ham-handed acting, most of which coming courtesy of Michael Biehn (of Aliens and Terminator fame). The pounding, reverb-soaked drums and cheesy analog synths that comprise the game's soundtrack yield a similarly effective so-bad-it's-good experience. And though most are too good to spoil, the handful of setpiece moments featured in the game - most of which are centered around the titular laser-shooting dinosaur beasts - are as idiotic as they are awesome. 

Though its core mechanics never fully click, the satirical admiration of an older era in entertainment that shines through in Blood Dragon's narrative and presentation is joyous in all its self-aware bombast. At a time when most AAA first-person shooters are devoid of any soul and personality, a game like Blood Dragon - one the provides a distinct and memorable atmosphere - is a welcome breath of fresh air, even if it has to ignore its peers and reach back to the past to inform its vivacious identity.

Fear of God, Wrath of Man - BioShock Infinite Review

Who dares doesn't always win, apparently. BioShock Infinite is a game that far too often goes only halfway in realizing its many grand ambitions. It dares to speak on ever-relevant issues of racism, classism, and nationalism, but in an odd twist of irony, it marginalizes these plot elements that, in the real world, often lead to oppression and marginalization to instead focus on some good old-fashioned mind-bending speculative science fiction. It admirably deigns to not fall back on jarring cutscenes, but predicates most of its major mechanics on familiar shooting structures, leaving most of its truly affecting moments to be navigated through singular button-presses, that is, if you are given the opportunity to have any real input in these moments in the first place. It wants you to lose yourself in the visually engrossing but philosophically abhorrent world of Columbia, but many of the floating city's major players are paper-thin caricatures, and the game's wealth of audiologs feels cheaper and more overly-convenient than ever. 

Still, it must be said that the fact that Infinite even partly accomplishes any of the tasks that it sets out for itself is hugely impressive. Considering many games have difficulties spicing up even the most rote shooting mechanics, unleash a deluge of cutscenes and quicktime events on players at every possible opportunity, and often struggle to not, themselves, be racist, BioShock Infinite stands out as an important step forward for big budget games that strive for serious artistry and drama. Irrational's latest isn't the gaming medium's magnum opus of cultural expression that one might expect given the game's self-serious artistic posturing, and huge critical acclaim, but it's still an utterly important release, and a damn good one too.

Columbia 

This is because there are plenty of things that Infinite gets totally right. The game's astounding audiovisual presentation is perhaps the foremost place to start. The game doesn't overtly flex any technical wizardry in the way an id or Crytek release might, but its sheer artistic splendor makes it one of the very best looking games of this console generation. At the root of this is no doubt the game's stellar environment, which ranks among the pantheon of gaming's greatest settings. 

In the game's opening hour, players are slowly, calmly introduced to the seeming utopia of Columbia, an opulent, sun-drenched city above the clouds defined by exaggerated American expressions. Bright, idyllic gardens surround grand Palladian building; a peaceful stillness remains pervasive even through bustling storefronts and chatting citizens, only to occasionally be interrupted by enticing music selections (seriously, pay attention to this game's soundtrack), or - as players will encounter soon after arrival - a gleeful carnival complete with silly games and booming fireworks.

The game is wise to devote such a long period of time to simply navigating and luxuriating in its enticing environment, as Columbia is a true marvel that demonstrates the fact that Infinite's surely ungodly budget was put to good use - Irrational's hugely talented art team seems to have been truly unleashed. And though the game reserves for itself a few more simple moments of quietude, players will also soon discover their chief motivation for the rip-roaring action that consumes the vast majority of Infinite's running time. 

Lead by the self-righteous and disturbed Father Comstock, most of Columbia's denizens have adopted a worldview that takes notions of American Exceptionalism to ridiculous but no less frightening extremes. Here, other religions have been extinguished in favor of a faith that idealizes America's founding fathers, as well as Comstock and his family, and all but the Anglo-Saxon adherents to this dogma are marginalized, reviled and exploited. This, as you might imagine, is causing some problems within the floating city, and tensions continually escalate from the moment you arrive.

Racism 

But don't ready your spinning skyhook just yet, as there's quite a bit to dissect with this hefty plot setup. As mentioned before, Infinite has no qualms about diving headfirst into seemingly risky storytelling territory. But, much like the original BioShock's awkward and contradictory critique of Randian Objectivism, Infinite handles its set of sociopolitical critiques in a rather bumbling, heavy-handed, and ultimately ineffective way. For most of the game, these heavy themes of discrimination are mostly shock with little substance. Early on, for example, players will find themselves in the headquarters of The Fraternal Order of the Raven, an environment whose every last bit of iconography - including statues of John Wilkes Boothe, and enemies garbed in darkened Klu Klux Klan robes - spews bigoted filth. Troubling, to be sure, but this environment is never explored to a satisfactory degree in a narrative context. We are never told what drove the Order's members to this disgusting mindset, or what function it plays in Columbian society as a whole; instead we're instructed to simply tear through the environment, dismembering every racist we can find. Indeed, almost every one of the game's on-the-nose explorations of racism and jingoism seems to exist as more out of a desire to simply justify Infinite's absurd level of bombastic violence than a willingness to earnestly and cerebrally comment on these weighty issues. 

It's a true shame, but again, the fact that the game is willing to go to these dark places in an upfront and confrontational manner when most games dodge around similar issues or make heavy use of metaphor and allegory in order to indirectly speak on them is commendable, even if it keeps Infinite's apparent daring from being something to truly celebrate.

But there is a second major component of Infinite's ideological critique, one that is much more subtly woven throughout the game, and one that ultimately cuts much deeper. Forgiveness and rebirth, in regards to its inherent inclusion in many major religions, is relentlessly examined and scrutinized over the course of the campaign in some truly unsettling ways. This side of the game's narrative might be so uncomfortable, in fact, as to offend adherents to the faiths that Infinite draws some heavily parallels to with its own disturbing belief system. The fact, however, that these themes aren't merely dabbled in, as are the game's superficial commentaries discrimination, but rather made absolutely integral to the core narrative and explored fully and fearlessly leads Infinite, in this instance, to fully live up to its grandiose goals. This is the moment where Infinite's narrative triumphs, and I can only hope that more games follow in its footsteps in bringing to light serious thematic content in a more direct manner, as can be seen so often in other media yet so rarely within video games.

Damn

Alright, here's where you can start revving up your skyhook. As he progresses through the carnival that greets him as he first steps foot in Columbia, Booker DeWitt, the game's playable and decidedly not-mute protagonist, begins to fully unravel the noxious worldview of Columbia's inhabitants. On his way towards a strange raffle that serves as the fair's main event, Comstock's voice booms over a loudspeaker, warning the citizens of Columbia about the arrival of the False Prophet, a man who has the letters "AD" burned into his right hand. Sure enough, our anti-hero holds his hand up to reveal that exact marking. And sure enough, during this eerie raffle event, the Columbians take notice of the mark, and Booker DeWitt swiftly digs a spinning hookblade into the skull of the first police officer that attempts to apprehend him.

With this, BioShock Infinite reveals its heavy emphasis on twitchy shooter gameplay and ridiculous amounts of gore. Engaging in the game's slick shooting mechanics feels no different than it might in the latest Call of Duty game; guns have a fantastic sense of weight to them and the responsiveness and ingenuity of the game's heads-up display ensures steady environmental awareness despite the over-the-top freneticism of many of the game's combat sequences. But where Infinite's combat truly shines is in its surprising mechanical density. Vigors that grant Booker special powers like the ability to shoot electricity from his fingertips or absorb bullets and toss them right back at foes serve as the first extra layering. For those familiar with the series, these powers might seem quite like the Plasmids introduced in the first BioShock, and though they do perform the same function, they're implemented in a far more balanced way in Infinite than they are in its predecessors; they're powerful and readily available but must be dealt out conservatively, as the mana pool they run on is rather restrictive.

But as gleefully destructive as they can be, Vigors are decidedly uninteresting in the face of Infinite's more inspired new mechanics. Booker's ability to latch onto the aerial Skylines running throughout Columbia is perhaps the most mind-blowing gameplay feature of them all. Though the mechanic seemed rather unbelievable during its first E3 showing a couple years ago, it speaks to the ingenuity of the game's level design that fluidly navigating Skylines that weave throughout many of the game's rather conspicuous battle arenas while taking shots at enemies, a potentially disorienting feat, becomes effortless after only a few encounters. The verticality and freedom of movement this system grants the game is awe-inspiring, and almost attaches a sense of childlike wonder to the act of mass-murdering racists.

Combat

For the first few hours of gameplay, these are the mechanics that Booker is limited to. It's during this time that he seeks to accomplish a seemingly simple direction mandated by a mysterious client: "Give us the girl, and wipe away the debt." Though this phrase ends up holding more significance than an uninitiated player could possibly know, it nonetheless serves as the impetus for finding Elizabeth, a young woman whose power to tear holes in the space-time continuum has, perhaps expectedly, lead her to be sequestered on the looming, Statue of Liberty-esque research facility, Monument Island.

So, as one might expect, this ability of hers adds more than a few layers of complexity to what might've otherwise been a rather straightforward plot. As the extent of her powers is gradually revealed, a suitably mind-bending narrative begins to form that comments, among other things, on the frail nature of identity and the profound ways in which a single choice can influence personhood, for better or worse. Though the introduction of converging space-time might seem to risk devolving the story into an Inception-esque exercise in overly complex authorial self-indulgence, BioShock Infinite uses this storytelling conceit to build a truly tragedian narrative.

But Elizabeth isn't merely a means for crafting a brain-melting metaphysical storyline. Nor is Booker DeWitt a stupefied on-looker who hails from the same lineage of horribly flat shooter protagonists as Gordon Freeman, or Corvo Attano. They are both memorable characters whose defined personalities infuse the plot's affecting tragedy with a true sense of humanity. Elizabeth, on one hand, starts out as a surprisingly cultured and self-aware inversion of the classic damsel-in-distress trope, and her evolution over the course of the game's ten- to twelve-hour campaign is astonishingly well-paced and believable. Her exaggerated features and expressive animations that pay homage to the distinctive style Grim Natwick invented for Disney solidify her as one of the most memorable and empathetic characters in gaming. DeWitt, by contrast, is predominately a closed-book, limiting himself to practical, yet charismatic antics strongly reminiscent of classic swashbucklers like Han Solo until his dark past is fully revealed during the final act. When that happens, he extends far beyond his narrative role as a foil to Elizabeth, and the resulting revelations cut to the bone. Major compliments are due to Troy Baker and Courtnee Draper, who faultlessly brings this odd couple to life even through all the mind-blowing turns the story takes.

Liz

The duo also serve as a great team during Infinite's huge combat sequences. Though Booker, as mentioned before, is in charge of most of the direct combat, Elizabeth is a key ingredient in what makes the game's massive shootouts so dazzling. Most significantly, she uses her ability to alter time and space to bring objects into the battlefields that didn't previously exist. Asking for a wall of cover to hide behind when a dozen enemies are facing you down, or perhaps a Skyhook that lets you access a sniper perch adds an exciting tactical dynamism to combat that feels especially important considering the sheer number of foes the game throws at you. Since you can only select one object to tear in at a time, more heated battles require a constant mindfulness and economization of Elizabeth's power that is as exhilaratingly strategic as the best of tactical shooters.

A smaller, but no less genius touch is the fact that Elizabeth tosses you mana and ammo when it feels clutch. Even when it becomes obvious that she's scripted to do so whenever your resources are running low, the notion that an AI is looking out for you is relentlessly fulfilling, especially in a game that constructs a scenario that might've so easily fallen into the dreaded escort-mission trap. Indeed, going back to other first-person shooters has become tough, as Elizabeth is not just a delightful companion in a narrative sense, but she's also integral to the satisfaction of Infinite's moment-to-moment combat proceedings.

Each of the augments to the core shooting experience are satisfying in their own right, but once they all start working in tandem, Infinite's combat scenarios reach the upper-echelon of FPS sublimation. Not since Half-Life 2 has a shooter married pulse-pounding twitch thrills to a deeply strategic core so seamlessly, and while leaving so much room for experimentation. The gritty sound design that punctuates the action is equally superb; a combination of abrasive string stabs, impactful weapon sound effects and some truly horrifying enemy damage reactions unfailingly sell you on the weighty ferocity of the mayhem you cause.

All this, of course, sounds amazing, and on some level it truly is. But consider this: for all its fast-paced entertainment, Infinite's combat never fully works. In a mechanical sense, it's pretty much as polished as can be, but the game's massive amount of carnage doesn't quite work within the context of the story. In fact, story and gameplay don't feel merged at all. While there's a fair amount of narrative justification for the heavy degree of violence, the fact that shooting people and ripping their heads of with a spinning hook is pretty much Booker's only way of interacting with the world undercuts much of the arresting emotionality of Infinite's narrative.

Songbird

Highlighting this problem is the fact that many of the game's most powerful moments either preclude player input, or limit interactivity to the push of a single button. Elizabeth's ability to tear holes in the space-time continuum, for example, may have been the basis for some ingenious puzzle solving and narrative interaction, but players are instead left to simply push a button to demand entry into a new reality where they can proceed to shoot more people in the face. Again, this feels like BioShock Infinite going only halfway in bringing its many fantastic ideas to life; some truly inventive mechanical structures may have been borne out of the game's central narrative conceits, but Irrational has disappointingly opted to instead rely on more comfortable and pre-established action gameplay. 

This disconnect is furthered by the game's odd focus on scavenging between each firefight. While the opportunity to really dig into and appreciate each environment, as well as get a break from the nearly nonstop action is welcome, the context of the narrative doesn't really support these detours either. Booker's mission is given an impactful sense of urgency, so the fact that the game encourages you to stop down for long stretches of time to eat random food items littered about and try to uncover Columbia's many secrets is rather off-putting. Early on, for instance, Elizabeth finds herself in immediate danger. An objective indicator flashes on-screen telling you to go rescue her, yet you find yourself surrounded by lootable objects designated by a pulsating golden glow. Of all the moments to try and fish pieces of cake out of a trashcan, this may be the least opportune, but Infinite's structure, which evidently values narrative over gameplay in terms of pacing and logic, continues to tempt you astray regardless. This might all seem a bit nitpicky, but considering the fact that Infinite is so intent on being treated as a significant work of art, these small annoyances can't be ignored, as they gradually undermine the meaning the game tries so hard to construct for itself.

BioShock Infinite is a game worth any mature player's while, but it has come at an unfortunate time. Within the past year alone, the industry has been treated to games like Spec Ops: The Line, The Walking Dead, and Hotline Miami, just a few titles that are capable of eloquently and expertly exploring dark themes while being cognizant of their respective mechanics' impact on the narratives they try to weave, making a game like Infinite - one that never fully accounts for the ways in which its gameplay influences the meaning and effectiveness of its story - seem a bit clumsy by comparison. David Jaffe, the brilliant designer behind games like God of War and Twisted Metal once deemed the relationship between gameplay and narrative as being like the combination of "chocolate and tunafish." I would argue that this claim isn't necessarily true, and games like Spec Ops are perfect demonstrations as to why that is. In the case of Infinite, however, Jaffe's argument has a haunting validity. But take heart, the chocolate that is BioShock Infinite's gameplay and the tunafish that is its story are pretty much premium grade when enjoyed separately. Just accept the fact that the combination is going to taste a little odd and find something to savor within it.

A Destiny Unfulfilled

What an odd and off-putting way to officially reveal such a massive and potentially significant game. After a few rather minimal leaks, Bungie's supposedly grand debut of their latest sci-fi shooter opus, Destiny, felt more like an amalgamation of a few more mysterious leaks than an event that might truly generate some hype for their new multi platform action title. All the developers did was insist they were accomplishing a bunch of wildly ambitious game design feats, bringing only concept art and a short, insubstantial gameplay clip in tow to back up their claims.

Even within what details they did reveal, there exists a distinct lack of clarity. The game is said to have many MMO elements, for example, including "raids" and what have been described as player hubs. This would all, of course, demand some intricate server setups on Activision's part, yet subscription fees were immediately deemed out of the question, though no alternative revenue stream was brought up. While I'm quite confident that some other form of monetization would need to be utilized (perhaps micro transactions or a heavy emphasis on DLC), it's a bit odd to get no indication whatsoever of what that might ultimately be. Sure, such a detail might seem a rather mundane and unappealing point to speak on at a buzz-building reveal, but knowing how the game might operate from a business standpoint would've at least done something to establish a clear identity for a game that - based on Bungie's odd demonstration - doesn't seem to really have one.

Destiny

This uncertainty further extends to the game's design foundations. Simply put, the game's colossal aspirations go far beyond those of any FPS or even console MMO that has thus far been made. While I would love to believe that a shooter could pull off potentially large-scale and entirely emergent online gameplay, huge open worlds, space travel, and class and loot systems that don't tamper with frenetic shoot-em-up mechanics, the thought that a game could come out of nowhere and revolutionize seemingly every last facet of its genre without any remotely similar FPS titles to draw from from is pretty preposterous. If any studio can pull all this off well, it's probably Bungie, but the fact that they've put forth such monumental goals for themselves without giving the press any indication of their success in meeting them is worrisome indeed. 

Frankly, the Destiny reveal had a suspicious quality to it that reminded me of the audacious interviews given by Peter Molyneux before the release of the original Fable. In fact, Bungie cofounder Jason Jones is reported to have claimed that "if you enjoy shooters, Destiny will be the best game you've played," a quote that's troublingly similar to Molyneux's claim that Fable was "gonna be the best game ever." If Destiny ends up being anything close to what Bungie says it is, then it may well be the most significant, forward-thinking shooter to come along in years. But the extremely ambitious nature of the concepts they laid out, coupled with the lack any sort of substantiating proof makes their big reveal feel pretty disingenuous. Not delivering on overblown promises is one of the worst and most easily avoidable mistakes an artist can make -- we all know how Molyneux's boasts turned out, after all. In the cases of a few recent and notable releases, developers have resorted to PR smoke and mirrors in order to convince potential customers that the experiences provided are far more fleshed out than they truly are. I sincerely hope that's not the case here, but Bungie didn't exactly provide the level of reassurance that they should have.  

They did, however, provide pre-order availability. I think I'll hold off on that for now.

2012 Game of the Year


It took me a while to formulate my thoughts on this game. After all, how much can be said about a game that has inspired a 150-page book that hasn't been said before? After a while, however, I got down to the root of what the following game means to me. So, without further ado, here's my 2012 Game of the Year:

1. Spec Ops: The Line

Spec Ops

It seems rather blasphemous that the least fun game on this list should sit at the top spot. Popular consensus, after all, deems that video games should have an unshakeable focus on entertaining their players. There's obviously nothing wrong with this notion, as the vast majority of truly great gaming experiences are a lot of fun, but in recent years, this dedication to entertainment-at-all-costs has rather visibly come to the detriment of video games as an art form. Fun is often a game's greatest asset, but it can also pose a huge problem in that it restricts the kinds of interactive experiences developers can create. In the past few years, for example, most big-name games blatantly pander to their players, going out of their way to make the audience feel special and cool regardless of whether or not it's warranted. Skyrim, for example, allows the audience to take the role of the Chosen One fifty times over, as the player character is able to fulfill about twenty different prophecies and hold half the seats of power in the titular land. It probably would've been much more interesting to take the role of a more limited sort of hero, but Bethesda's decision to go for broke in constantly making the player feel fulfilled sacrifices what might've been a vastly more interesting (or at least atypical) narrative in the process. Modern Warfare 3, likewise, casts players as a whole host of Machiavellian super-soldiers who wreak nonstop havoc in an effort to complete their mission. Conveniently, the audience is rarely left to look upon the horrors of the war they're embroiled in - as long as they feel "badass," nothing else matters.

Yager Development's Spec Ops: The Line is such a remarkable game because it never allows us to get caught up in an infantile power-fantasy the way many other games do. By painting a stark, terrifying picture of the inhumanity that lies at the heart of the archetypical video game hero, the game constantly demonstrates the brutal consequences of our actions. You don't get to snipe enemy lookouts, launch white phosphorous shells, or go crazy manning a helicopter's gatling gun without being subsequently forced to gaze upon the unsettling destruction you've caused. Killing a foe in most games is just a step towards the next mission and perhaps a few Achievement points; gunning down enemies in Spec Ops: The Line gradually builds a sense of regret that culminates in one of the most haunting and meaningful endings in gaming history.

It's for these reasons that Spec Ops is thoroughly devoid of entertainment. Though it suffers no major glitches or broken mechanics, the experience is expressly built to instill anger, confusion, and ultimately, guilt in the player. Nevertheless, as a gamer, there is much to be gained from the game's subversive deconstruction of nearly every trope that typifies modern action titles. Namely, it allows the audience to consider what it is they desire from these kinds of experiences, and question whether or not those kinds of games truly align with what they would consider tasteful entertainment. Should gunning down waves of soldiers in realistic war zones and committing one atrocity after another really feel as weightless and mindnumbing as it does in most other shooters? Probably not. In fact, Spec Ops' elucidation of the cost of pandering within modern military shooters has lead me to lose interest in many of the genre's flagship releases.

Spec Ops: The Line has many tremendous qualities, but its willingness to impact players and ask them to think critically, even in spite of the fact that its confrontational nature inherently eschews entertainment, is what makes it the best game of 2012. Indeed the only way to feel fulfilled - to feel as though you've "won" - while playing Spec Ops is to turn your console off and walk away. Though it may not seem entirely desirable, the fact that a game is able to consistently inspire such powerful negative emotions in its audience ultimately makes it a massive success in bringing video games ever closer to realizing their full potential as a dynamic and vital form of art.

Burj

"This is all your fault."

Top 10 of 2012 Part 3

We're now getting down to the best of the best. Hit the links to check out my 10-8, and 7-5 picks if you haven't already, but without further ado, here are my 4-2 picks for the Top 10 of 2012:

4. Hotline Miami

Hotline Miami

Games that get deemed "repetitive" are usually seen as lazily made and generally dull, and thus find themselves docked in reviews and played sporadically rather than through to completion. Aside from the inevitable change in stage layout from level to level, Hotline Miami adheres to a very strict pattern that loops over and over again, much like the infectious and off-kilter grooves that populate its addictive soundtrack. But this is not at all due to poor game design. Hotline Miami uses the cyclicality of its gameplay as means of artfully and eloquently making a statement regarding the very nature of video gaming.

The game can essentially be broken into two halves. The first is the high - the running, stabbing, and gunning gameplay that serves as the game's brutal hook. Hotline Miami's fast-paced, gruesome gameplay is as entertaining and addicting as it is violent. And it's quite violent. The twitchy action, eye-popping pastel colored environments, and noisy grooves put you in a trance state, which is again furthered by the game's instant retry mechanic that lets you continue your rampage hassle-free once you're met with a one-hit death of your very own.

Once you shoot, maim, and dismember your way through one of the game's multi-tiered stages, Hotline Miami's more sobered half jolts you back to your senses like a splash of freezing cold water. The very second your last opponent is dead, the sickly beats cut out, and you're forced to walk back through the entire level, gazing upon the destruction you've wrought until you reach your DeLorean and quietly slink away into the darkness. The pair of interludes that precedes each level confront you even more directly, daring you to search for subtext in scenes that may not contain one bit of it, or flat out asking: "Do you like hurting other people?"

The fact that these distinct sections repeat predictably and ad nauseum leads the game's simultaneously mesmerizing and off-putting nature to come to the forefront of your attention on a consistent basis, eventually leading you to possess a sort of cognitive dissonance. Though the dark mysteries that lie beneath Dennaton Games' twisted vision of a drug addled, neon-soaked 1980s Miami are ones that you'll desperately want answers to, something deep down in your consciousness wants nothing more than to endlessly indulge in the game's hyper violent predatory stealth gameplay.

By the time you reach the game's end, all the various means of playing through and interpreting the game fold back into one solitary path. If you just wanted answers, then the game's open-ended finale will give you plenty of room for analysis, but the only way you can reach that point is by way of one last merciless double homicide. If you only wanted to cause one bloodbath after another, you'll certainly be able to, but not without being forced to feel the weight of your uncompromisingly brutal actions. Regardless of how you approach Hotline Miami's understated themes, you'll still be hit with the same conflicted emotions by the time the blue helmet biker speeds off into the Miami night, and a strong inkling to dive back into this impossibly deranged Floridian underworld will undoubtedly begin to develop as the credits roll.

3. The Walking Dead

TWD

I hate zombies. For the past few years, every popular entertainment medium has been positively inundated with stories about the living dead with no creativity to be found. The creative ingenuity that was formerly found in this monster fiction subgenre in films like 28 Days Later or Shaun of the Dead, or games such as Silent Hill 2 and Resident Evil 4 has been eschewed in favor of the most tired, cut-and-dry storytelling and atmosphere imaginable. It seems that even an undead apocalypse can be made mundane if left too long in the hands of untalented artists simply looking to capitalize on current trends.

Zombie stories are particularly troubling within the realm of video games, as most recent undead action titles have had a single-minded fixation on humanoid dismemberment, often doing away with any semblance of interesting narrative, mechanics, or characterization in favor of chopping dead people to bits (see: Left 4 Dead, Dead Island, The War Z, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Killing Floor, Lollipop Chainsaw, Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare, ZombiU, and - well, perhaps I'm getting carried away).

It should say something then that I found Telltale Games' zombie opus, The Walking Dead, to be a consistently captivating, even surprising experience. This is simply because the game is more concerned with its still-living protagonists than the walkers that shamble around them. As the group contends with not only the hordes of undead, but also the increasingly disturbing makeshift societies that have formed to ensure their members' survival, you're hit with one brutal twist after another. And as Lee Everett - the gang's de facto leader - you're forced to navigate these ever-escalating situations by making harrowing choices that will haunt you well after each episode come to a close.

Furthering the episodic downloadable game's power is its refreshingly simple gameplay. The Walking Dead never relies on the faulty adventure game logic that forces you to combine say, a jar, a lighter, and a a piece of paper to make a key. Instead, you should probably just look around for a key. The game's snappier, action-oriented sequences feel similarly naturalistic; every combat scenario is based around gut reaction, and thanks to the game's control consistency, following your gut and thinking fast will undoubtedly lead to success. This lack of unneeded (and, within the adventure genre, commonplace) deviousness is commendable as it keeps the game from basking in a false sense of its own cleverness, and ensures that each episode moves at a breakneck pace.

I also have to admit that the environment I played the game in contributed to the fun I had with it. Every time an episode came out, my roommate and some of our friends would all crowd around as I played. While the hard choices were technically in my hands, we would hold split-second conferences to decide what route should be taken before the game's fleeting decision timer was up, much like our band of digital survivors were doing on the screen before us. The choices that were ultimately made might not have been arrived at unanimously, but we had to live with them regardless and move ever onward toward the series' powerful finale.

That, I think, encapsulates the greatness of The Walking Dead. Despite its subject matter, the game demands to be taken seriously, and constantly forces its players to look inward and examine how their beliefs and principals would apply to its hellish scenario. This game is the exact opposite of the juvenile, asinine pieces of escapist "entertainment" that typify the rest of its genre. Such games are stagnant and lifeless. The Walking Dead, conversely, uses its focus on death and the undead to craft a narrative that's thrillingly alive.

2. Journey

Don't Stop

Online gaming brings millions and millions of people together every single day, but rarely do these multiplayer experience truly capitalize on their capacity to form connections between players in a substantive way. Most online game design is built around nerd-rage fueled competition, and if cooperative play is involved, character progression systems are typically around to ensure that selfish actions are still rewarded. Even MMOs, the genre most associated with the formation of online camaraderie, mostly rely on chat functions rather than actual mechanics to establish a sense of kinship with fellow players. Journey is the best multiplayer experience of 2012 because it stands as an exceedingly rare game whose online functionality avoids the pitfall of simply putting a group of players together and calling it a day. The game's every facet actively seeks to build an unspoken bond of fellowship between you and your anonymous companion.

This anonymity is perhaps one of the most important reasons for the game's success in building an utterly memorable multiplayer component. With seldom few customization options, an extremely basic method of communication, and no opportunity to see the other player's screenname until the ultimate destination has finally been reached, Thatgamecompany tastefully restricts people's interactions with each other. They instead go on to set their focus exclusively on building on building scenarios and mechanics that will have players wanting to stick together and help one another.

This is precisely where Journey's expert gameplay comes into the fold, never mind the fact that it's so often ignored and written off. The game's jumping mechanic is the perfect example of this intelligent craftsmanship. By limiting how often the player can jump, but giving their partner the ability to quickly recharge this ability, the two expeditionaries are strongly encouraged to stay by one another, and have a constant willingness to lend a helping hand. More impressive than this, however, is the vast array of upgrades, and hidden moments of narrative the game tucks away. One player couldn't possibly hunt down all these secrets on their own, leading the game's strong community to possess a desire to pay it forward; veterans show newbies where to find these hidden goodies in hope that one day they might do the same for another overwhelmed player. Journey's online conceit doesn't involve one player succeeding while the other fails, it's one in which everyone can succeed, which, contrasted to the hyper-competitive environments of most other multiplayer games, is quite a beautiful notion.

The most important key to understanding why Journey's cooperative gameplay is so powerful is found in examining how a solo playthrough feels. The games vast and varied landscapes, while awe-inspiring, have a lonely ambience about them, and trekking through them on your own can often take a while, as Thatgamecompany wisely and daringly restrains the aforementioned jump mechanic. This slow emptiness recalls Shadow of the Colossus's sprawling, but forgotten realm. Despite the serenity of experiencing Journey's sandy dunes, imposing underground dwellings, and snow-drenched cliffs, the feeling of isolation is overpowering, and the game's inherent design would almost seem to call out for some form of interaction and companionship regardless of whether or not online functionality was actually supported. Luckily for us, it is, and the game's would-be solemn, solitary pilgrimage turns into an impactful, interactive tale of loyalty and friendship. The fact that this narrative is also able to be conveyed while forbidding players to access their actual friend's list makes its this achievement even more stunning. The epithet-laden chatrooms of many online games serve as perfect proof for how effectively and frequently multiplayer gaming seems to bring out the worst in their participants. Journey's superbly-crafted mechanics and presentation, conversely, bring out the absolute best in people, encouraging us to treat fellow players like good friends rather than headshot fodder.

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That's it for now. As you can see, I've ended up writing quite a lot about each pick, so it might take me a few days to formulate my thoughts on my 2012 Game of the Year, but keep an eye out.

Top 10 of 2012 Part 2

Acouple days ago I posted my first few picks for my Top 10 of 2012, but the list continues ever onward. Here are my 7-5 picks:


7. Far Cry 3

FC3

Even though it's been over a decade since Grand Theft Auto III defined what a great open-world game should be, the genre has always struggled in its attempts to transfer over to the first-person perspective. In most cases, open-world shooters have fallen into the strange trap of having worldbuilding and solid mechanics fighting for development attention. Games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Operation Flashpoint, and Fallout 3 sacrifice the polished shooting mechanics provided by more linear experiences in favor of building an immersive sense of place, while other titles like Crysis and Rage choose to forgo a certain degree of player freedom in order to focus on core combat systems. Far Cry 3 is, oddly enough, the first sandbox shooter that realizes that an absorbing setting and great gameplay aren't mutually exclusive. Though the activities available on Rook Island are more or less limited to climbing radio towers, hunting animals, and shooting pirates, it's easy to put up with the lack of gameplay variety simply in order to explore more of the sprawling locale's magnificent vistas, bombed-out batteries, and deep, dark caves.

Even despite the fact that the aforementioned objectives repeat over and over again, Far Cry 3's shooting mechanics are superb. The weapon handling and aiming feels straight out of Call of Duty, but the game's swath of upgrades, crafting items, and skill trees all add a meaningful sense of progression that isn't often found in more straightforward FPS titles. This sense of character advancement may, in fact, be Far Cry 3's greatest strength, as it works so well in tandem with its open-world and its story campaign. The college-chic Jason Brody starts out as just a normal dude, but working your way through the game's huge number of missions, story beats, and upgrades turns him into a menacing (and tattoo-ridden) warrior. By the time all's said and done, you, the player, might just feel the same way (minus the tattoos, anyway).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Far Cry 3, like many of last year's most violent games, takes some time to ask players if indulging in all the bloodshed was really worth it. In contrast to some of those other games, however, when this question is posed here, not one moment need be given for pause and reflection. The brutal action was most definitely worth it. To not take part in it would simply be foolish, as Far Cry 3 is 2012's most gleefully liberating action blockbuster.

6. Fez

Fez

In an age where overeager game developers, marketers, and journalists give up way too much information about a given title before it actually releases, Fez stands out because its willing to keep a vast number of enthralling mysteries to itself, leaving you to discover and wrap your brain around the unknowns it ever-so-subtly hints at all on your own. The greatest genius behind the complex cypher that lies within Fez is the fact that it's so well obscured by a simpler, but no less entertaining set of challenges. Though an entirely different set of collectibles lurk beneath the game's surface, the golden cube pieces that serve as the game's more overt objective are a lot of fun to track down despite their relative ease of acquisition. This is largely thanks to Fez's exemplary showcase of mechanics and presentation working in tandem. The game's beautiful pseudo-3D environments are begging to be explored, and the Super Paper Mario-esque perspective-switching system ensure that treading every last pixel of each locale is engaging and challenging. Add to that a hypnotic soundtrack that plays out like a bitcrusher-drenched clash between ambient electronic and post-rock, and it's pretty much guaranteed that even tackling the game's easiest challenges is completely and consistently captivating.

I don't want to delve too much into the cryptic secrets that Fez houses for fear of spoilers, but I will say that the slow realization that the game holds far more than it lets on was one of my favorite (protracted) gaming moments of 2012. It should say something, too, that even though I missed out on playing Fez within its first few weeks of release - which was when many gamers were coming together to try and feverishly crack its many mysterious codes - that I was still blown away by its complexity and subtlety. In the hands of most other creatives, the game's more in-depth puzzles would be presented front and center so that the developers could bask in their brilliance, but the fact that Phil Fish exercised such restraint in presenting these challenges leads Fez to possess a wondrous sense of discovery that went unmatched in 2012.


5. Max Payne 3

MP3

Ludonarrative dissonance' is a term coined by former Ubisoft designer Clint Hocking to describe games whose story and mechanics don't work in tandem. A prime example of this is the Uncharted series: Nathan Drake, shown in the game's cutscenes to be a witty, effortlessly charming hero also happens to be merciless homicidal maniac during gameplay. Ludonarrative dissonance is something few developers who try to present even remotely complex narratives in their games are able to successfully avoid; everything from BioShock to Red Dead Redemption, Dragon Age II to Gears of War, suffer from this design problem. Thus, playing the rare game that presents an intricate narrative and still triumphs over this game development roadblock is a truly special experience. Max Payne 3 is such a game, and between its ferocious Bullet Time shootouts, it presents quite an interesting conundrum:

Being that he's the player character in a trilogy of over-the-top shooters, Max Payne's skills lie solely in death and destruction, which come courtesy of the series' fine-tuned shooting mechanics. In the first two games, he exercised his considerable "talents" without much restraint; though I won't spoil anything here, the second game sees Max do some particularly heartless things in order to accomplish his mission.

In Max Payne 3, however, our titular anti-hero quickly sets out to change his ways. So what happens when a man whose skills only lie in death-dealing has a sudden need to do good? As the game tells us, he fails. A lot. As players, this can be a hard fact to stomach because we're so used to receiving constant rewards for our attempts at heroism. Even if we don't succeed with much grace, character progression, Achievements, unlocks, and all other sorts of digital back-patting makes us feel fulfilled. Max Payne 3, on the other hand, uses its narrative and often punishing difficulty to actively disempower its players on a consistent basis.

What pulls us through is the fact that there's something truly thrilling about taking control of a protagonist who's so self-aware, and thus cognizant of the very mechanics that drive the game itself. Max grows to expect that bloody shoot-outs will follow him wherever he goes. He knows is mission is futile. He knows of his inner demons that arrive in the form of alcohol and painkiller addiction. But watching him gradually own up to his tendencies and decide to put them to good use to try and stop those who would oppress others makes him and his cause easy to root for. Max's bloody campaign to stop the corrupt forces that wreak havoc in Sao Paulo gives 2012 one of its most impactful game narratives.

In many ways Max Payne 3's story is one that could've only been crafted by a fresh set of eyes. Taking the helm from Remedy, even a studio as legendary as Rockstar had a lot to live up to on every front. But even beyond its surprising and self-aware narrative, Max Payne 3 iterates and improves upon the franchise's acclaimed foundations in every conceivable way. The gunplay - an incredible combination of mechanics new and old - is perhaps the best representation of the game's simultaneous acknowledgment of its roots and willingness to branch out. The bloody Bullet Time ballets and run-and-gun recklessness of games past is seamlessly combined with new-school mechanics like cover-taking and limited weapon counts. The linear, cutscene heavy campaign, while reminiscent of recent games like Uncharted, still allows for the understated exploration and experimentation the series is known for.

The theme that seems to pervade every aspect of Max Payne 3 is the combination of new and old, seen most strongly in the minute-to-minute gameplay, and in the engaging plot that sees Max trying to reconcile his old bad habits with a strong desire to change (which, not coincidentally, strongly mirrors Dan Houser's evident desire to turn Max Payne into a character of his own rather than a continuation of the persona crafted by Sam Lake). All of this adds up to a game that eloquently demonstrates the coexistence of development philosophies of past and present - quite a significant statement at a time when the resurrection of so many longrunning series possess a shaky (at best) adherence to the vision that initially guided their given franchise. This even extends to the game's presentation which, despite ditching its former neo-noir trappings in favor of an audiovisual style that's more in line with the films of Michael Mann or the late Tony Scott, still provides plenty of the hard-boiled, deeply cynical attitude that defined the look and feel of Max Payne and its sequel. With a respect for its past identity as well as an awareness of the best recent gaming trends, Max Payne 3 is the epitome of series modernization done right. Other developers seeking to resurrect long-dormant franchises had best take note, Max Payne 3 sets a new standard in terms of how old series can be given new life.

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That's it for now. Check back soon for my 4-2 picks.

Top 10 of 2012 Part 1

I kicked off my annual list season last week with my most disappointing games of 2012, but now I'm on to the fun stuff with the first part of my Top 10 of 2012 list. Here are my 10-8 picks:

10. Dishonored

Dishonored

Last year's Deus Ex: Human Revolution was something of a half-baked revelation. Truly emergent, open-ended FPSs had, up to that point, been few and far in between since the early aughts. But if Human Revolution served as a merely decent reminder of why this first-person subgenre is worthy of exaltation, then Dishonored makes a full-blown, inarguable case for it. This because Arkane Studios - a developer filled to the brim with veterans of this particular type of game - is so uncompromising in their delivery of a campaign driven by player creativity. Beyond its opening mission, the game is practically defined by its distinct lack of handholding. There are no restrictive setpieces to be found, and players are generally left to do whatever they please with a litany of cool gadgets and powers that are all backed up by rock-solid mechanics for both stealth and combat scenarios. This all goes to ensure that each and every approach to the game's free form missions will not only work, but feel uniquely satisfying in their self-authorship.

Dishonored's greatest asset, however, is its setting: the marvelously grim city of Dunwall. The compelling, largely implicit lore and eerie art direction gives this dying city surprising vivacity, making it a joy to explore its every nook and cranny. More importantly, however, this triumph in narrative and visual realization furthers the power of the game's sandbox level design. By filling every part of the city with wondrous secrets, Arkane succeeds in slyly encouraging players to go off the beaten path, avoiding the most obvious route through the game's environments at all costs.

Playing through Dishonored is a simultaneous display of developer and player ingenuity. Though the game's creators are the ones who expertly devised a superb set of missions and the tools with which we, the audience, navigates them, they wisely and humbly choose not to tell us exactly what must be done in order to accomplish impressive feats. Instead, it's up to us to figure out how to discover and use the game's innumerable possibilities to our advantage. Though this can sometimes lead to frustrating fumbling and failure, the feeling of finally executing on a master plan of your very own simply cannot be matched by an action game that simply funnels you from one soulless, made-to-be-cool construct to another, giving you no input in the proceedings but expecting you to be impressed nonetheless.


9. Mass Effect 3

ME3

A simple fact of life is that we aren't always who we want to be. Mass Effect 3 shows video games' capacity to eloquently speak to this inevitable facet of the human condition by sidestepping it entirely. Commander Shepard quite simply is who we all want to be; s/he is a person with immense wisdom, influence, and fortitude who everyone gravitates toward, seeks help from, and is willing to go to great lengths to assist. And if, at any point, Commander Shepard isn't representative of our most potent power fantasies, all it takes is a fresh save file and a new, decision-influencing worldview to get things back on track. Though players are given free reign to explore untold numbers of star systems, each with their own centricities, it's really Commander Shepard, and in turn the player themselves, who's at the center of the universe. This is an immensely powerful feeling, one that can't be replicated in any other entertainment media. And though the game's lackluster ending muddles this core ethos, Mass Effect 3 succeeds in showing just how thrilling, and occasionally devastating it might be to walk in the shoes of the most important person in existence.

Mass Effect 3's Horde mode derivative is pretty inelegant by comparison, but it succeeds in once more proving how fun it is to grab a few friends and shoot aliens in the face.


8. Mark of the Ninja

MotN

2012 has seen stealth mechanics make a comeback in a big way. Games like Dishonored, Hotline Miami, Far Cry 3, Hitman: Absolution, and Assassin's Creed III all deftly blend classic stealth gameplay with more action-oriented structures. But Mark of the Ninja doesn't even bother managing a balancing act. This is pure, unadulterated sneaking that pays homage to many of the genre's best while adding a dimension entirely of its own.

Actually, "taking away a dimension," is a much more fitting way of describing what makes Mark of the Ninja so distinctive despite it being an amalgamation of preexisting stealth game tropes. The only other 2D side-scrolling stealth game I can think of is the GameBoy Advance version of Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell, and though that game may have served as yet another one of Mark of the Ninja's influences, it certainly didn't pull off its central conceit with the same degree of self-assuredness. Seeing the stealth mechanics we're all familiar with - be it zipping from one vantage point to another a la Arkham City, or hiding in a cardboard box Solid Snake style - go off without a hitch in this atypical perspective is hugely impressive. One would think sneaking mechanics almost require a 3D or at least isometric space as the genre is entirely predicated on examining your environments and finding openings in cyclical patrols, but the game shows us otherwise in an extremely compelling fashion. How all these mechanics are able to function within this space would require some pretty thorough analysis, but that simply goes to show how impeccably designed Mark of the Ninja is.

Though the team at Klei Entertainment are clearly students of the genre, their entry into the once-again hip stealth game market outdoes many recent competitors. Every gameplay concept presented not only functions exceedingly well, but does so within a set of parameters that few other developers have even attempted. Mark of the Ninja is thus groundbreaking in a quiet - one could even say "sneaky" - way. Quite fitting, don't you think?

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That's it for now. It's been taking me more time than usual to write up my top 10 picks this year since I have quite a bit more to say about most of them than I have with my selections in years past, so my next entry on the list might not get posted for a couple days or so.