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A Reboot Done Right

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A long long time ago I wrote something on the internet about how I really liked the original Devil May Cry games and how I hoped Ninja Theory wouldn't arse its interpretation/reboot of DMC up. It probably contained quite a few epithets and lazy attempts at snark and/or comedy, I honestly can't remember.

Point is, I was wary of DmC Devil May Cry, not least for its intentional omission of a colon. I have an affinity for hack-n-slash games of all shapes and sizes but DMC has always had the best balance of challenge and experimentation. In God of War you can dial-a-combo that is always going to be more effective than whatever acrobatic nonsense you're actually capable of doing and I spend too much of my time playing Ninja Gaiden avoiding being eviscerated to get tricky with my moveset.

DmC should have been anathema to me. Not because of the much-maligned character design, I never had much affection for DMC's story or characters, but the depth of the combat. Ninja Theory, prior to DmC, have never made a mechanically sound game. Heavenly Sword demanded little of you in the skill department and poorly rewarded you for actually employing some finesse. Enslaved was barely a hack-n-slash, but that didn't mean it wasn't plagued with dreadful camera angles and overly simplistic button-mashing when it did ask you to hit things. Ninja Theory tell stories, develop characters and create worlds. Until now, they haven't been that proficient at making stabbing bad guys with sharp things enjoyable.

The new DmC isn't the deepest action game of its type. At first I thought "what was the internet talking about? this game is plenty deep" and then I slotted in DMC3 for a quick comparison. DMC3 is to this day one of my favourite action games of all time. It's poised, elegant, responsive and the most brutal test of dexterity and muscle memory short of a fighting game. DmC is not that. It has a good crack at depth. I soon learned how to properly juggle the larger enemies, how to incapacitate certain types of enemies while dealing with other and how to chain weapon combos together, yet I still haven't come close to mastering all the little tricks. By modern standards, excluding Bayonetta of course, DmC is a pretty complex and enjoyable hack-n-slash. But it isn't in the same league as the games that came before it.

However, I really don't care. DmC has more creativity and imagination in its presentation, its story and its level design than all of the DMC games combined.

I've been playing videogames since I was 8 years of age. In terms of level design, I've seen some doozies in my time. There a sequences and levels in DmC Devil May Cry that stunned me with how inventive they were. It would be bad form to spoil any of them, as you deserve to experience them for yourself. All I will say is that the conceit of the game; that Dante is repeatedly being dragged into Limbo by demons isn't just a narrative justification for you to kill things. It gives Ninja Theory an infinite possibility space to create anything they can imagine and they use it to the best of their ability. A huge part of why this game is fantastic is how it looks. The sheer audacity of the things you see and do eclipses anything more mechanically proficient games in the series have done before. Maybe it's because I appreciate the They Live-meets-not terrible Tim Burton aesthetic more than the heavy metal anime nonsense that defined DMC before, but the reboot has its own look and feel that's distinctive and memorable.

It's also a game that knows so well what it is and what it wants to achieve. The opening scene of the game involves such items as a baseball bat and a slice of slice obscuring Dante's crotch as he flies through his caravan to the sound of Combichrist. DmC plants the tongue firmly in the cheek from the word go, and when it does transition to a more serious tone it does so seamlessly. There's a singular vision on display. It's AAA production applied to a C-Level story and world and it's wonderful. You rarely get this clarity of vision in a game attempting to tackle headier issues, let alone one that's concerned with demons enslaving the world through energy drink.

And DmC does all this while walking a fine line of referencing and subverting my expectations as a DMC fan. The little mechanical references like the stinger, the aerial rave and the fact that the spiders have red orbs in them all harken back to the best of the series' past. Without going into too much detail, you know where DmC is going to end up once certain characters come into play. It's how the game gets there and the way it contextualises what was once vague and poorly explained that impresses. It's at once faithful and subversive, with Dante actively lampooning his old character design while also throwing out the same terrible puns that the old Dante used to. Looking back, it makes the people who were actually concerned about Ninja Theory ruining the fiction of DMC look ridiculous. Ninja Theory do more with this character and these themes in a single game than Capcom ever did in four.

DmC Devil May Cry is Ninja Theory's coming-of-age party. Though they've done interesting work in the past, DmC addresses their greatest flaw as a studio by actually being fun to play, allowing their creative spark to run wild. And if Ninja Theory ever get the chance to do a sequel, they've remade this world and this character in a way that I can completely get behind.

A Review? A Review!

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I haven't written anything in a while, especially not anything meaningful (unless you count my informative recommendation of Divekick on the Steam distribution service), so I decided to write something meaningless. Well, a review of a racing game anyway. I really cannot be bothered putting it into the GS system, and it's easier to read in blog form. Enjoy!

On the arcade to simulation racing spectrum, Codemasters have planted their feet firmly in the middle for the past 5 years and stubbornly done their own thing. Their intriguing blend of accessible racing and precise, technical control culminated in DiRT 2, a game so unabashedly enthusiastic that it injected what is so often missing in a racer: personality. Unfortunately, DiRT 3's problem is its personality. Though the core of DiRT 3 is as refined as ever, its the trappings that constantly remind you that you're playing a game that doesn't quite know what it wants to be.

On the surface, DiRT 3 puts its best foot forward. Though it doesn't offer the same vistas as 2010's Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit or the attention to detail as a Forza, DiRT 3 is still gorgeous from every angle. The lighting is the star, making the night-time races a special treat as glare from your opponent's headlights bathes your dashboard, but the lovely snow and water effects only narrowly take second place. On a decent PC rig DiRT 3 shines at 60+ frames per second and if you have the option, it's probably the best way to experience DiRT 3's visual clout.

 

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That core, the essential nuts and bolts of the racing in DiRT 3, is as excellent as ever. The series trademark floaty-ness to the controls has been tweaked once again and the result is a more technical, grounded form of DiRT's distinct handling model that stills feels snappy and satisfying. You're much more aware of how much grip you have, how much speed you should be taking into a corner and most importantly how you messed up. The differences are superficial at first but the sum of the changes add up to one gaming's best driving models to date and a noticeable improvement over DiRT 2's already sharp controls.

You'll get plenty of time to learn the nuances of the driving too. Eschewing the 'X-games and energy drink' vibe of the last game; DiRT 3 is a lot more about good old fashioned rally racing. Rather than being just another race type the rally and trail-blazer events of games past take front and centre with the landrush and motorcross events acting as pleasant and destructive diversions. The Head-to-Head races of the first DiRT also make a return, one of many indicators that DiRT 3 is more about perfecting your driving skills than trying to pit-maneuver a race-truck. For my money, it's the best balance of wheel-to-wheel and traditional time trial events in a DiRT game but your mileage may vary depending on your affinity for the more directly competitive events. If you liked barreling down a muddy road in Wales intent on getting the best time in the original DiRT then DiRT 3 caters directly to you.

 

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Then there are the Gymkhana events, and without meaning to sound too harsh, they're emblematic for all of DiRT 3's nagging flaws. Essentially a car-based version of Tony Hawk, the Gymkhana events seem like publicity for Ken Block's vehicular showmanship. You're set loose in a small arena and tasked with pulling off tricks like doughnuts, jumps and drifts to build combos and score points supposedly based on the excitement of the crowd. It's an interesting idea but it really doesn't gel with the DiRT handling model, which is designed for slight adjustments and precise control at high speeds. Even with the trick-assist handling on (which drags you into stunt areas more to make it easier to score) you'll have a hard time not looking like an idiot and when you do manage to pull off a clean run it feels more like the result of trial and error than good car control. Early in the game you get access to the Battersea power station to muck around and try out some of the moves yourself and there are a bunch of collectibles hidden throughout it, but it never amounts to more than a distraction.

Moreover, the Gymkhana events stick out like a clown at a funeral when compared with DiRT 3's slick presentation. Instead of DiRT 2's virtual caravan (which was pretty rad I might add) all the menus in the game are presented in the form of sleek triangular prisms. It's not nearly as fun to navigate as DiRT 2's giddily stupid menu design but it is still striking in its own way. Set against this angular, efficient backdrop the emphasis on pulling off hoon-tricks seem completely out of place, especially when the majority of races take the form of the po-faced rally events of the original DiRT.

 

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Seemingly part-and-parcel with the Gymkhana events are the uniquely irritating announcers who never fail to chime in with lines like "sick tricks amigo, you should post that on youtube" and other gems. Now previous DiRT games, especially DiRT 2, had no shortage of this but removed from the immersive motorsport setting of the last game the painfully upbeat voices never fail to ring hollow. Their banter is grating as it is incessant and is completely at odds with the elegance of the rest of DiRT 3's presentation. Oh and that youtube thing I mentioned? Yes you can actually upload footage to the internet, albeit in 30 second slices. It's a puzzling inclusion that only makes sense when you count how many times the announcers harp on about "the crowd" and "the fans". Codemasters is either obsessed about the prospect of going viral or they think the player is a rabid attention-seeker; either way it doesn't stop the youtube integration seeming inessential.

 

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Similarly the progression system is lumped in with this conceit that you're not just navigating some triangles to get to the next event. The reputation points you earn by completing events no longer go towards purchasing cars and liveries, instead your car and its respective paintjob are determined by the sponsor you choose for each race and more sponsors become interested as you level up. Though a neat idea in theory, in practice it just drains all the fun of unlocking and purchasing new vehicles that was present in previous entries. Once you lose the sense of ownership over your cars you have little reason to experiment and as a result it's difficult to develop any affinity for a particular car.

And that's the problem with DiRT 3. Three-quarters of the game is a focused, slick racing game with an emphasis on skill-based events while the final quarter feels like it should have been part of the exuberant DiRT 2. This inability to reconcile its predecessor's identity with its newfound focus on traditional rally driving makes DiRT 3 feel more like a playable identity crisis than a cohesive product, but that shouldn't undermine what is ultimately an extremely solid racing game.

 

Blood Mages and Mutes: A Dragon Age Origins Retrospective

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Dragon Age: Origins kicked off an oh-so-brief period in this generation where BioWare was getting the credit and attention that it deserved. For about a year, starting in late 2009, BioWare could do little wrong. DAO and Mass Effect 2, the one-two punch that showed us that BioWare could serve both its EA masters and its devoted fans in equal measure.

Looking back through the lens of Dragon Age 2, The Old Republic and Mass Effect 3, its been incredibly difficult for me at least to look back an remember anything about the original Dragon Age with a rosey-tint to everything. I've been doing this on and off with all of BioWare's more recent titles, checking in to make sure KOTOR is still as fantastic as I remember it being and reminding myself that there was a reason why I was never drawn to Jade Empire.

Dragon Age is the first of the games in my retread of BioWare's back catalogue that I've invested serious time into. With Neverwinter Nights, KOTOR, Jade Empire and Mass Effect, I've dived in long enough to remind myself of the flaws, the slavish adherence to the classic BioWare formula and the characters before pulling out in the fear that I might get sucked back in again.

 

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DAO is the exception. I've been ensnared by a BioWare game for the first time since Mass Effect 2, I'd almost forgotten what it felt like. This is partly due to my previous experience with DAO. I'm not a member of the PC master race, but since starting a game with my elven mage "Rad" on the PC I've realised that my playthrough on the 360 was the inferior experience. Textures were rough, the framerate was rougher and one can only see so many radial menus in one game. The PC is the platform the game was designed for; it's prettier, tougher and easy to control, making what should have been a brief check-in a commitment to see it through to the end, all 60 or so hours of it.

Around ten hours in, it's finally dawning on me why Dragon Age Origins is secretly one of BioWare's best efforts. Nothing about the world, mechanics or story is particularly novel or original. Some elements like the relationship between the mages and the Chantry are intriguing, but on the whole DAO is unashamed homage to its D&D predecessors with a healthy dash of Lord of the Rings thrown in for good measure.

 

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That's not to say it's not enjoyable. It's actually shocking how well DAO handles the "there's an unstoppable evil coming and we must unite a bunch of different groups together to help fight it" conceit given how poorly structured and paced Mass Effect 3 was, a game with essentially the same setup. How does one emphasise a terrifying threat? Answer: have it beat the good guys into a pulp in the first encounter. As lifeless and uninteresting as the Darkspawn are as villains, BioWare does a great job in making them seem unstoppable. The devil is in the execution rather than the fiction with BioWare and Dragon Age Origins is a testament to that.

However, you can play a game within Dragon Age: Origins. It's called 'Spot the BioWare cliche.' One point if you managed to predict that the young nubile Leliana would talk about 'forbidden fruit' by your third chat, another if you guessed Morrigan was going to be a party member before she even spoke because someone obviously put a lot of work into that character model. It's like watching a Wes Anderson film, so many elements are exactly the same yet you don't really care because you're enjoying it so much. Then again, part of the reason why I've stuck with DAO for 10+ hours can been because of how deftly BioWare shift between being formulaic and being adventurous. Characters end up joining your party without the obligatory fanfare that leads up to Archangel taking off the helmet or rescuing Bastila, dialogue choices are rarely a choice of altruistic, murderous or painfully unfunny. It's like BioWare knows you're fan, knows you've stuck with them, and is constantly throwing out curveballs that make you smile.

 

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This doesn't mean that any of the flaws get much of a pass. They're generally minor in nature: the hilariously mute rictus of anguish my character's face portrays whenever something dramatic happens, the way a fight with a low-level bandit will cover you with the same amount of bodily fluid as a battle with a troll and the moments were clicking on a spell causes me to move it out of my hotbar, rendering it useless until I pause and dig through the skills menu looking for it. But if you think about the issues previous games from these developers had to surmount, these quibbles are all so very trivial.

For all its merits, Dragon Age Origins is still cut from the same cloth as the developer's previous work. It's just a more lovingly crafted, honed and refined BioWare game than its brethren. Their games' mechanics are generally serviceable, DAO's gameplay is quite fun. Their characters are often well-developed with their own specific dogma that you can help them out with, in DAO those issues are a lot darker without an obvious resolution. It's better BioWare, but for some reason it's not the game that I'm going to remember in the context of their glory days.

Mass Effect 2 is a flawed game. But it balances on a knife edge between being just another BioWare game and utter brilliance. Its shooting mechanics are stiff, the cover-system is awful and almost everything you'd associate with an RPG has been stripped out. It is, basically, the anti-Dragon Age in many ways. But, the highs of Mass Effect 2 are so high, trading the consistency of something like Knights of the Old Republic for a few dramatic moments that stand as some of high points of this generation for me.

 

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Returning to Ferelden in optimal circumstances, knowing now what I didn't know then, Dragon Age Origins seems like the last hurrah for BioWare's past. From that point on, it feels to me like they struck out along a riskier path that involved them trading what they knew in the hope possibility that their writing talent could carry very un-BioWare like games. With Mass Effect 2, they caught lightning in a jar. Dragon Age Origins isn't lightning, it's the culmination of years of hard work, dedication and iteration and damn does it show. A friend of mine adores DAO, and I'm afraid I can't say I share his sentiments even though it has invaded my life in a way that it previously had not. I do however, respect it not only as a piece of art, but as a piece of craft.

Recall at this point, that little mention has been given to its sequel. That's because in my mind, I'm imposing a moratorium on Dragon Age 2 for everything other than discussing the proverbial "beginning of the end" or the analysis of EA's financial position. There's only one real Dragon Age game to have been released and its the one that wasn't churned out in 18 months by the B-team while everyone at BioWare and EA frantically tried to end the trilogy that was bringing home the bacon.

At least going back, I know for sure what can be done with sufficient time, enthusiasm and money in the hands of a studio that seems to have lost its way.

 

What do you want from Gaming Journalism?

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At the start of this generation, I came to Gamespot because it was one of about three websites that did decent video reviews. I wasn't one for reading hundreds of words on games and the sight of Jeff Gerstmann making hand gestures and saying "kind of" a lot satisfied all my requirements for gaming information.

As the generation progressed, so have my 'tastes' regarding the kind of editorial content I like to consume. We've all progressed from the video review to the livestream, from the 40 second gameplay clip to the hour-long demo and long-form writing about games is back in fashion. The question is, does Gamespot or any other gaming site provide what you want regarding gaming-related content?

Come November when the new consoles roll out, do you want a slick set of videos detailing every inch of each console's relative strengths or do you want some guy with an iPhone filming a hasty unboxing of a PS4? Because blogs, twitter, reddit and forums can get you the nuts and bolts of what's going on in video games faster and more efficiently than anything that professionals are paid to provide. If you're coming to a gaming site you're not just coming for editorial integrity and accurate reporting, you want something more than that.

What is that special something? Why are you reading this on Gamespot rather than on Eurogamer or IGN? You obviously came to this site in particular because it does something you like. What is it? And is that the sort of editorial content you want to continue to see in the future?

Personally I spend more time on Giant Bomb than I do on Gamespot because what I want out of my gaming-related journalism and content consumption is getting honest and frank opinions from people I feel like I know. I like to know what those knuckleheads are thinking about and because I identify with their tastes I find what they have to say about games interesting and insightful. The work that Gamespot UK does here also scratches that itch, delivering that same raw slice of personality-infused coverage that's both entertaining and informative that I find so appealing. I like long videos, lengthy editorials and terrible in-jokes in that order. That's what I want out of gaming journalism, but some people may prefer the exact opposite.

When this industry explodes again in seven months time with the excitement of a new generation; what kind of content, editorial or otherwise, do you want from the professionals?

I know how much my tastes and preferences for editorial content have changed over the years and I know what I want from the professionals in the years to come. I'm just interested in what you want from gaming sites in the future, especially when there are so many other ways for you to read opinions and find out what's going on in the industry without coming to a site about videogames.

This is purely a human interest piece on my part. I couldn't find a better way to express "content" so everything editorial or otherwise that a site like Gamespot does I've grouped under "journalism" so hopefully that all makes sense.

This is also technically not an editorial. However, somebody gave this soapbox to stand on so until they yank it out from under me I'll use it to ask these questions because I want answers en masse. Maybe someone important on this site will read your comments and make a few notes, maybe.

University, Sydney and the Terror of Unwashed socks

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It's been a while since I checked in with some of the good old personal stuff here on this blog. I've spent the last few days writing things that draw either extreme malice or congratulation from the users of this site and that's how I generally like it, but now I've worked out the urge to write about whatever comes off the top of my head it's time to organise the last few weeks into words.

If I take a step back and survey the past month, it's easy to recognise the fact that I'm following the trajectory of the educated schoolboy to the letter. Fresh out of high school, complete with long hair and no strong opinions on anything really, I've killed time getting fit again on the streets of Melbourne and Sydney respectively and painting the parent's house out of a sense of long-running guilt for weighing down their social lives for the past 18 years. It's the first time in 5 or so years that I've understood the term "holding pattern" in its entirety.

Leaving home is a strange mixture of excitement and boredom. On the one hand, as the occupant of a small terraced house with three other affable roomates in the centre of Sydney I can do anything and everything. On the other hand, there's very little to do prior to term starting. Of course I could frequent any number of establishments offering cut-price jagerbombs and freeflow beer (the natural habitat of the arts and social sciences student) but going out in search of damaged brain cells alone seems more sad than sitting alone playing videogames. It's funny how that logic works out isn't it?

The drain outside my window is blocked, so when it rains all day after a few successive days of oppressive heat as is often the case in Sydney the splashing of the drain is enough to keep me up at night. On days when it doesn't rain the neighbours fill that role admirably. Each night there are new voices, new clashes and bangs penetrating the plaster walls separating the terraces. As an Australian I'll happily admit that we are no a punctual bunch. As Orientation week starts to fade into the beginning of term, the late-arrivals outnumber all the rest and every door on the street is left open to fascillitate the moving of desks, chairs and 16-packs of Carlsberg.

In Singapore where I spent the last 4 years of my life, the noise of the city was a perpetual hum of air-conditioning and taxis ferrying businessmen from office block to marbled office block. Here, the sound of the city mixes bird calls with old diesel engines. I've come to like this about Sydney. It's a grimier, more down-to-earth city than its south-eastern counterpart with a sense of its own history that the other major cities of Australia lack. Or at least that's how I choose to perceive it. You make the most of your situation. Learn to appreciate the city you'll be spending the best part of five years in or be miserable.

Education, the reason I chose to be here in the first place, has been marginalised by the arduous process of moving. Each day the prospect of studying a set of subjects that I actually care about rather than a set of pre-ordained subject areas is at once exciting and terrifying. Who's to say if I do care once it all starts? Who knows whether all the energy poured into securing a great score was a finite resource, used up in the final push?

These are the questions you start mulling over when you're faced with the insurmountable task of washing your own socks. Why is that they dry slower than t-shirts? You'd think that on a washing line in the full glare of the Sydney sun that the smaller items would dry the fastest, but no! Socks and underwear maintain their uncomfortable dampness for at least an hour after the outer garments that the casual onlooker sees are as dry as a bone. The iron is its own separate issue. Without an ironing board I have resorted to a towel draped over the dining room table. I never notice creases but apparently they make one look shabby according to my mother, maybe she never noticed the curly mop I grew as a signal that scruffiness and I are best pals.

But washing and ironing and shopping and cleaning all need to be done, if only to stay part of the human race. In these new conditions of heightened responsibility for my own wellbeing and my security deposit, videogames have become my enemy rather than my respite. Damn you Civ 5 and your ability to suck hours out of my day. Firaxis are the finest purveyors of videogame crack. A game of Civ or XCOM may as well guarantee that I'll be doing without milk for the next day.

It would be nice to say "who knows what the future holds?" but I'm pretty certain it involves lectures, tutorials and learning to share a bathroom with three other people. As I'm still alive, not showing any signs of jaundice or infection and the house doesn't smell of decaying broccoli I'd say things are off to a good start.

Oh and it's "University". A college is a branch of a university, sometimes academic sometimes residential. Get it right guys.

Chasing the Skyrim Dollar

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In 2006, Epic Games put out version 1.0 of the Unreal Engine 3 with Gears of War. It employed a simple button-in cover system that solved a lot of the problems inherent in third-person shooter design. Over the next 5 years, the "third-person cover based shooter" became ubiquitous as developer after developer thought "we can do that but better!" In 2007, Call of Duty Modern Warfare reinvented the online multiplayer shooter by dangling the carrot of a new perk or weapon in front of the player and the first-person shooters of the world promptly followed suit.

As soon as an idea or mechanic draws a significant audience, the industry iterates on it with a ferocity. Some might call it piggybacking off someone else's successful idea, others would argue that games are inherently iterative and this standard practice has resulted in some truly terrific games.

Now, and I think about 10 million of you might agree, the new "thing" to be copied and iterated upon is Skyrim's brand of world-building and expansive fiction. The idea that one can walk north and find content worth experiencing struck a chord with millions of players in a way that previous Bethesda games have not. So obviously, it should be pinched as soon as possible.

The prime suspects for this first act of creative imitation are CD ProjektRED, EA and Capcom, hoping to bask in some of Skyrim's glory while the name still curries favour with players. The question is: If Skyrim is the new Gears of War, who is going to put out Uncharted?

If I could bet money on anything, I'd bet that EA and BioWare combined aren't going to be the ones to do it. Dragon Age 3 and whatever subtitle the marketing division have chosen for it today is a game that you can be sure will take liberally from the Bethesda playbook with the sole purpose of attracting the newly converted towards microtransactions and DLC plans. As we've seen from Mass Effect 3 and Dead Space 3, the prime directive from the EA management seems to be "appeal to everyone". In practice this probably will mean stripping out the complexity of Skyrim's AI and character building systems to appeal to the kind of people who probably wouldn't play a game called "Dragon Age" anyway. On top of this, it's hard to tell who/what BioWare is at this point. Originally there were two teams, one for Mass Effect and one for Dragon Age, but now a significant number of EA studios have been rebranded as BioWare studios (and subsequently changed to Visceral Games studios following the backlash against ME3). The Doctors are out and after the gradual decline in the quality of EA's products following Dragon Age 2 it's hard to believe BioWare have it in them to produce a worthy competitor to Skyrim while people are still interested in playing more of that kind of game.

CDProjektRED however may be the perfectly positioned to offer up the counterpart to the Bethesda giant. Let's be frank, the PC developers of old took over the HD generation. Epic, Crytek, Bungie and not least Bethesda weathered the storm of the PC slump to come out as the powerhouses going into the next generation and CDProjektRED is yet to have its first console hit. Anyone who played the Witcher 2 on a PC that could run it will attest to the fact that they have the technical prowess to make an amazing open world and the writing chops to back it up. In addition, the Witcher 2 played like a good action game rather than the cludgy mess that Skyrim can be or the mindless amped-up gorefest of Dragon Age 2.

My only personal concern is that their claim that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt will be "bigger than Skyrim" smacks too much a developer who may not know what their target is. Skyrim's world is big AND full of compelling content with a sophisticated AI system that makes it seem like a real place. The one-upmanship of "our game is bigger than their game" suggests, at least to me, that they may have their priorities wrong. In end though CDProjektRED have the experience and a wealth of established fiction to back them up, and they've proven themselves twice already in the RPG-making business.

The same probably can't be said of Capcom. As the first of many to hitch themselves to the Skyrim train with Dragon's Dogma, Capcom have made it clear that they're going after the western style of RPG the only way they know how. Solution: add good combat, seed Monster Hunter mechanics into the enemy encounters and hope that it all catches on. Surprisingly, Dragon's Dogma found an audience and the critical consensus was "Nice combat, this world is boring. Make a sequel and fix that last bit."Everything coming out of Captivate's and E3's of year's past sounded like Capcom were making a huge open world RPG without quite understanding why that style of game was popular. In the end we got a mechanically strong RPG with some neat ideas like the pawn system in a universe utterly devoid of flavour.

The issue here is that the trailer shown at the Sony press conference on February 20th wasn't Dragon's Dogma 2 running in Capcom's new engine but "Deep Down", a game that seems to be Dragon's Dogma in all but it's name. Dragons, knights, dirty-looking men with sharp metal objects? Cmon Capcom, that sounds an awful lot like that last game you made doesn't it? Regardless of whether this is a completely new IP or the tacit admission that Dragon's Dogma is a terrible name for a videogame, if Deep Down does turn out to be a successor to Dragon's Dogma then it's probably the most exciting thing Capcom has going right now. What the expansive open-world do anything subgenre that Bethesda has popularised lacks is consistently fun combat. By all accounts the combat systen in Dragon's Dogma was the reason to play the game and if Capcom takes lessons from the criticism that game received and say, hires a few writers who know a thing or two about lore, then a marriage of those mechanics with that kind of world could be a killer combination.

 Whichever way I look at it, the sudden realisation that there is a large market for the Bethesda style of game can only yield positive results. Competition breeds creativity and innovation in the hope that both will help sell copies and we as players gain nothing but benefit from that. Personally, I think CDProjektRED have the most potential to become a heavy hitter in both the market for that sort of game and in next generation in general with the next Witcher title, but Capcom seems so hungry for a slice of the Skyrim pie that anything could be possible.

With the possible exception of Dragon Age 3 (pay 80 microsoft points to get this Elvish helm), whoever wins the upcoming scramble for a piece of Bethesda's newly found audience, we as the players come out on top.

The Ten Best Videogames of this Generation (thus far)

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Are you excited about the next generation? Hopefully you are, because then we'll get to have another one after that. In the next few months it's going to get crazy in the gaming industry. Tech specs will be leaked, claims will be refuted and hundreds of developers will be hard at work figuring out how to make a guy hide behind cover in Unreal Engine 4.

Now though? It's a dead zone, and even though this current generation of consoles has a few games left in it yet I think now is the time to look back and think about what the last 7 year's worth of gaming experiences have done for us. I'm not a huge fan of lists so the numbering in this list is vague at best and of course this is all highly subjective so don't burst a blood vessel when you favourite first-person shooter doesn't get a look in.

This is my way of internalising which of the experiences I had in this developing medium were the most meaningful/important/enjoyable or a combination of all three.

 

Number 10: Geometry Wars Retro Evolved 2

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When Geometry Wars RE2 came out in 2008 they may as well have canned the twin-stick shooter as a genre once and for all. The phrase "infinite skill ceiling" is one you'll hear bandied about in relation to something like Starcraft or Dota but I can't think of a more skill-based game than GW2. It honed and refined the already superb formula of the first game while setting the standard for leaderboard implementation for the rest of the generation. GW2 made scores-chasing matter again and it did so while at the same time being the most mechanically faultless game on this list. If I was stuck on a desert island with only one game to play for the rest of my life, it would be this one.

 

Number 9: Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots

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Hideo Kojima you magnificent nutter, keep doing what you're doing because Metal Gear Solid 4 is probably the best example I can give for why authorship is important for videogames. Remember how hard the world said it would be to wrap up five years of the Mass Effect universe? Well Kojima tied up 20 years of gaming lore in MGS4 in the most ridiculous and extravagant way imaginable. This is what you get when you give a blank cheque to a gifted madman and tell him to make his kind of game. Even today, few games can match the insanity and audacity of MGS4. From the hours of cutscenes to the stylishness of the presentation to the best damned use of button-mashing in a videogame, MGS4 set the bar for what we consider to be "epic" in games. So far, that bar has yet to be reached by any other game this generation.

 

Number 8: Braid

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The story, gameplay and presentation of Braid are immensely interesting in their own right, but not as interesting as the character of Jonathon Blow and his game's effect on the industry. These days tiny indie platformers made by one guy in his attic are a dime a dozen, just check out Steam some time, but at the time the idea that one man had essentially built this thought-provoking and ingenius puzzle-platformer by himself thrust the very idea of "indie" into our collective consciousness. It helps that Braid is also one of the best puzzle games around, blending a powerful story with puzzle mechanics that kept changing and evolving. Braid made me feel smart, sad and intrigued. Sometimes all at once.

 

Number 7: Burnout Paradise

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"Hey guys it's DJ Atomika comin' at ya live this morning from Paraaadddiiiiseeee Citttyyyy." Yes, I went there.

Damn it Criterion make another Burnout game, or maybe just make Burnout Paradise look a bit better and re-release because for my money it's the best racing game of this generation. It's also, surprisingly, one of the best open world games of this generation too. I never do the whole "let's go out and explore" thing that the Skyrims and the GTAs of this world encourage, because there just aren't enough yellow gates and awesome jumps. Paradise City was and is the perfect defintion of a playground, a sandbox, a place where you and your friends can practice ramming each other off cliffs to your heart's content at 60 frames per second with the most incredible crash tech you have ever seen. The multiplayer alone is the reason Burnout makes this list as no game before or since has realised the full potential of an open-world driving game to the same extent. If only there had been a "Restart" option in on day one.

 

Number 6: Mass Effect 2

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Dark middle chapters are always the best. If I had my way all games would be the dark middle chapters, the sequels to games that never came out because the best bits of a trilogy are the middle bits where everything seems awfully dicey. Although I do love Mass Effect 1 despite its clunkiness, Mass Effect 2 is where it's at. Its broad array of interesting, relatable characters was the reason you cared going into Mass Effect 3 and consequently why I at least was disappointed when some of them didn't get the attention they deserved. Sure the combat isn't what it should have been and the main storyline is little more than a sideshow but Mass Effect 2 is the peak of BioWare's writing talents compressed into a playable product. Hang the depth and complexity of RPG mechanics if it means I can get to the next dialogue sequence faster say I and BioWare did just that. The Mass Effect universe was at its richest, its darkest, its most stylish and most self-assured in Mass Effect 2 and as a result I'll always think of it as the defining RPG of this generation.

 

Number 5: Saints Row the Third

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I love videogames. I love them so much I ADORE those that understand that they're a videogame. If there's one thing we've learned from the past 40 years of gaming it's that games are an amazing form of catharsis. Saints Row the Third takes that knowledge to its logical extreme. It's like every time a designer at Volition came up with a crazy idea for a level or a character, the director shouted down any and all naysayers and stated "Yes we can have a text adventure! Because videogames!" There are so many noteworthy moments in Saints Row 3 that could have gone wrong yet came out so so right that you should just stop reading this and play it.  So find a tiger, conquer your fear and embrace the fact that Saints Row the Third is the videogame to end all videogames.

 

Number 4: Bioshock

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Bioshock is so ingrained the pysche of popular videogame culture you might as well replace the Spike VGA's with the Andrew Ryan Awards. It was the first hint at the fact that during this generation, games would become more thematically complex and intellectually stimulating than we could ever have expected. Playing Bioshock is nothing to write home about. Ice hands + wrench = victory. But inhabiting the world of Rapture and seeing how the story played in that setting was its own reward. Bioshock made me think about videogames and how they're constructed, it took philosophical concepts and crammed them into a medium that today is still more about headshots and explosions than it is about exploring ideas. Games are art you guys, it started here.

 

Number 3: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

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Naughty Dog are awesome because they made Uncharted 2. Wait what about Crash Bandicoot and the Jak and Daxter series they we really awes-SHUT UP UNCHARTED 2 UNCHARTED 2. Call of Duty 4 changed how we thought about online multiplayer, Uncharted 2 changed how we thought about the presentation of action in videogames. Before, an action game was branded as such because there were guns and red barrels and if you introduced the two excitement could occur. Uncharted 2 showed us that action could be about leaping from truck to truck while fighting bad guys on a snowy moutaintop, or jumping out of a collapsing building just before it hits the ground. It's a game that takes the best elements of Hollywood: the set-pieces, the snappy writing and the setup, while slyly eating Steven Spielberg's lunch by amping all those elements up as only videogames can. It was so incredibly good that Naughty Dog failed to top it with its follow-up and has now resorted to making smaller games about zombies and homeless people in the hope that nobody will ask them to make something as fantastic as Uncharted 2 again.

 

Number 2: Portal

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Again, you know about Portal. Everyone knows about Portal. For a while I felt super smug about having a wallpaper with "The cake is a lie" on it and soon after I realised that I was officially prat. Nevertheless Portal inspired that kind of enthusiasm because it was so different and unexpected. In a stellar collection such as the Orange Box, who would have thought that a 2 hour puzzle game would rise above the games it was packaged in with to simultaneously become the benchmark for humour and puzzle design in the medium? Portal 2 is undeniably a more polished, more thrilling and more overtly amusing than Portal but it wasn't surprising in the same way. I'm probably never going to play Portal again, I probably don't want to either. For those 2 hours it made me feel like a genius and then took the hardest left-turn a clean, dryly humourous puzzle game could possibly take. If you never had that experience then I feel sorry for you.

 

Number 1: Bastion

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It's no secret that one of my favourite games of all time is Max Payne 2. Max Payne 2 is a game that understands that story and storytelling are not things that need to be separated by a six-foot wall from gameplay, with only a small peephole through which such things as cutscenes can be used to connect the two. Bastion also understands this. It respects your ability as a player to take in the world and fiction of a game while also engaging in combative gameplay. In the space of around 7 hours Bastion introduces its world and develops it to the point where everything seems grounded and believable, something that countless 30 hour RPGs fail to do. Its combat system is deep, customisable and crucially, perfectly responsive to you as the player and yet it's also one of the handful of games that have managed to get me all choked up. It's a seamless, polished package of story, presentation and gameplay that isn't afraid to make you listen to one man's voice from beginning to end. Basically, Bastion is the real deal.

Well thankyou ladies, gents and other lifeforms for getting this far. Do feel free to insult my taste in games at every turn and say "but what about Dark Souls", it won't change my feelings in the slightest. Here's hoping that by the time the new consoles roll out this list will be as obsolete as John Carmack is clever.

Region-Locking Needs to End

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In the days of yore when Japan was the epicentre of game development and buying a PAL PS2 was how you played weird Japanese rhythm games region locking was more of an issue than it is now. In this enlightened age of the twenty-teens you'd think limited access due to the mere geography would be a thing of the past, but of course Nintendo has other ideas.

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As some of you may know I'm the recent owner of a Nintendo 3DS and am currently traipsing about the British Isles. It should be a match made in heaven.

Unfortunately, I've run headlong into the solemn realisation that Nintendo has spent the last six years with its head buried in the sand in stern denial of the existence of the internet. My 3DS is a US model, which means that UK 3DS games are unplayable due to the region-locking firmware baked into every 3DS console. This wouldn't be a problem if the Nintendo eshop could provide games via the miracle of the internet but sadly Nintendo have screwed it up on that front as well.

You see prior to my spint in the UK I was living in Singapore and thus have a Singaporean credit card. The way the eshop works is that you can't buy anything unless the postcode your card is registered to matches up to the region you've chosen for the eshop. However, Nintendo is convinced that only the US, the UK and Japan buy games via the eshop because the Singaporean eshop front is a joke. There are no games available for purchase, only a selection of game pages are up telling you to go buy said game at retail. No virtual console, no Pushmo, no nothing. Although funds can carry over from adding cash then switching to another region, the region from which all my money plastic originates prevents even the addition of e-money to my account.

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Singapore isn't a swamp anymore Nintendo. It gets the internet there too.

Unless you hadn't realised Nintendo, the 3DS is a portable system. It's a platform designed to be taken, for example, on a trip to England. Perhaps someone who was undertaking such an expedition would want to purchase a 3DS game, both physical and digital, during his/her travels? It's not what one might call an unlikely scenario is it?

Of course I understand the reasons behind region locking. The internet gives players an uprecedented access to online delivery services that allow them to avoid the mark-ups on game prices in their region, thus undermining the profitability of a branch of a large publishing company. Nintendo obviously wants to protect its cut of every game sold for its platform and the lack of region-locking on the DS caused them no end of problems.

Nevertheless Nintendo has done an atrocious job of populating the eshops for each country with games to compensate 3DS owners for this inconvenience. It's also hard to condone region-locking in general when Sony has opened up the PS3 and the Vita to games from all regions and hasn't exactly suffered for it. For the limited number of consumers who actively exploit price differences in different countries that region-locking combats there are hundreds of consumers like me who are prevented from having a optimal experience. If Nintendo insists of using anti-consumerist measures then they need to provide sufficient digital services for every single region where their handheld is sold.

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Luckily DS games aren't region-locked and I seem to have missed out on a generation of handheld games. I'll probably buy them used. I'm not feeling benevolent enough towards Nintendo to pay new game prices to reward their backward approach to the eshop, digital services and ensuring that consumers such as myself who would happily support Nintendo and its partners have the opportunity to do so.

My 3DS and Me

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It wasn't my fault officer, honest. It winked coquettishly at me from the electronics cabinet with its "Sale!" sticker like the family-friendly strumpet that it is. I wasn't going to get a better deal anytime soon and it came with an SD card and Super Mario 3D Land. I couldn't help myself.

So yes, I bought myself a Nintendo 3DS after quietly promising myself weeks prior to give up on trying to own every console and just stick to playing most of my games on PC. But I'm a sucker for a deal and once I haggled the price down even further I realised I was going to walk out of that store with Nintendo's handheld so I may as well embrace it.

Things didn't work out as well as planned as the 3DS that I ended up with had obviously been used by the store owner to demonstrate the wonders of handheld 3D technology to the uninitiated window shopper and in doing so had engaged parental controls, complete with a pin number. After discovering this, returning to the proprietor and doing my best to look angry and imposing I got the intended black model swapped for a properly brand new 70's bathroom blue model. It was that or one emblazoned with pokemon. I think I dodged a bullet there.

This all played out five or so hours before a 14 hour flight to the UK. An excellent opportunity, I thought, to test out the promise of bite-sized gaming that had been missing from my life ever since I packed up my GBA with the solemn conviction that old ladies would never again be freaked out by the sight of me playing WarioWare on the bus.

The 3DS held up remarkably well. Although I spent the majority of the flight watching films with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is apparently is essential to the making of all action movies requiring stoicism and a winning smile, the 3DS had itself a workout. Of course I wouldn't have been so enamoured with my rash purchase if not for the game I bought to accompany it.

Super Mario 3D Land is a great reminder that Nintendo is still capable of inventiveness and imaginative design in a time when other Nintendo products go back to the well of nostalgia so often they may as well install a pipeline. It's obvious that 3D Land is a product of the Super Mario Galaxy team. Like Galaxy and its sequel, each level layers on a new gameplay mechanic that you haven't seen before and then later on the game picks out the best ideas and sandwiches them all together brilliantly. 3D Land also plays to the strengths of the system; the 3D effect is used in numerous ways to enhance each level and provide a sense of scale that you generally wouldn't expect from a handheld game. The levels are nice and short which meant finishing a couple of levels satiated my desire for entertainment in about 10 minutes, as it turns out that's a fine way to break up your in-flight marathon of depressing Oscar winning-dramas and manic action flicks. So if you have a 3DS, it goes without saying that this is the game to get.

My one gripe so far is that the battery life isn't stellar. Super Mario 3D Land with the 3D slider all the way up will chew the battery up in around two and half hours and even in normal 2D mode the 3DS manages the battery life of a modern iPhone. I'm curious to see the demands that other games place on the battery, because I'm going down to the wire almost every day.

As for the hardware itself, it's smooth, elegant and compact. I chose the ordinary 3DS over the XL purely because it weighed less and could fit nicely in my pocket, as far as I'm concerned I made the right choice. It's a slick-looking system and the interface is as user-friendly and dumbed-down as it is on the Wii which is just how I like it. I may not need a tutorial for setting up a wi-fi connection but it's nice that it's there.

Right now the jury is still out on whether the 3DS will become part of my regular gaming ritual or just an amusing novelty. It's still down to the games that Nintendo has planned for the system, because 1st party titles make or break Nintendo hardware. Crashmo is next on the list of intended purchases, and there's always the allure of the Virtual console for some hot NES and SNES games that I've neglected to play. The coming weeks of freezing temperatures and solitude will determine my future relationship with the 3DS and Nintendo overall, so far it's off to a good start.

Hey 2012! I liked some of your games!

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This year has been a weird one when it comes to the videogame industry. We're stuck in this holding pattern where our tired and sputtering old consoles are still at the forefront and everyone is on tenterhooks for Microsoft and Sony to elaborate a bit on words like "Durango" and "Orbis".

However, the death-throes of a generation often throw up some of its most interesting games and 2012 has been no different. Although little in 2012 matched the glorious heights of last year's Portal 2, Dark Souls, Bastion and of course; Saints Row the Third, I don't think I've ever experimented with new ideas and different genres more than during this year.

So here is a list of games that I enjoyed from this year in no particular order, let's imagine I love all of them equally. I didn't play a lot of this year's releases, so here's what I've got.

Max Payne 3

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As a fashionable latecomer to the series from March of this year, I was simultaneously enamoured by Max Payne 2 and immediately curious as to what Rockstar would do to a sequel to a series with such a singular sense of style and personality. The answer was: Mechanically? Not much was changed. Stylistically though? Everything that makes Max Payne as a character who he is has been altered to fit the Houser Brother's desire to deconstruct a gaming icon. The gunplay was strong, the character work was stronger and Max Payne rocked Tom Cruise's grey suit from Collateral like only Max Payne could. I eventually realised that playing the game with a controller wasn't ideal and a few of Max's quips miss the mark, but it's still the only shooter this year that lived up to my expectations.

Syndicate

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Syndicate is not how you do a classic revival. Deus Ex Human Revolution is a more faithful follow-up to the Bullfrog classic than Starbreeze's latest, but it doesn't mean Syndicate didn't satisfy on its own level. There's a lot to criticise about Syndicate, from the insipid story to the dearth of actual content, and rightly so. There's also quite a bit to love as well if you're looking for a fast-paced shooter with terrific AI and a great co-op component. Syndicate is the first game I've played that has managed to take the Left 4 Dead formula and do something interesting with it. The way the game enforces interdependence between players is genius, eliminating the frustration of playing co-op with strangers elegantly and intuitively. It's not an amazing game by any stretch of the imagination and it's a shame that Starbreeze's most mechanically confident game didn't reach the audience it deserved because it's still plenty of cold, corporate fun in its own right.

FTL: Faster Than Light

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I don't like roguelikes. I want nothing to do with space-sims. I love FTL despite its inclusion of elements from both. What initially appears to be a simple game on the surface unfolds into nailbiting battle against unknown dangers waiting beyond the next star system and more often than not I watched with equal levels of horror and excitement as fires started in life support and evil space spiders beamed onto my ship to butcher the crew after about 20 minutes. Then I would exclaim "Damn that was fantastic" and start over. The fun in FTL is banging your head against a solid wall, it just so happens that doing so is immensely fufilling. Rest in Peace the crew of the Kestrel, the Torus and the twenty other namesakes whose crew never made it to the medbay in time.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

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I have no nostalgia or reverence for the original XCOM games because they were released when I was an infant whose mind would surely be corrupted by the presence of all those pixels. Similarly I've never been hooked by a Firaxis game as they've always seemed wildly impenetrable to someone raised on a dualshock. XCOM: Enemy Unknown was consequently a revelation for me. The feedback loop; be it positive or negative in its reinforcement, is constant. There's not a moment in XCOM where you don't feel like you're having a meaningful impact on the events occurring in the game, which makes it even more heartbreaking when you lose your best soldiers to the alien foe (Sgt Stephen "Hulk" Gillespie may you never be forgotten). What's more, XCOM handles beautifully with a controller, it's 1950's sci-fi aesthetic is delightful and there's a tangible feeling of empowerment as your green rookies grow up to battle-hardened colonels who can take out Sectopod in two shots. Be warned, bugs and performance oddities abound in Enemy Unknown, and that's about all I can say that's genuinely negative about my 40-odd hours with XCOM. It's a classic revival done right, so much so that I can see myself dipping into old XCOM to see what's what.

Mark of The Ninja

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Stealth games suck! They really do! People have this fascination with being the silent assassin and for some reason that gives the cludgy stealth mechanics of games like Assassin's Creed and Metal Gear Solid a pass. Mark of the Ninja is crisp and responsive where the competition is sluggish and imprecise. "Mark" as I choose to call him is a tad too sticky to most surfaces for my taste and I feel the level design is a proof of concept for a Metroidvania-styled sequel which dragged some missions down for me, which just makes me more excited for a new iteration. The way the game conveys information is revolutionary. You always know whether your actions will alert guards, how far sound is travelling and whether you're visible or not. It's a fantastic example of intelligent design and anyone with an affinity for stealth games should dive in as soon as possible, you'll be in for a surprise.


Journey

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thatgamecompany are a sly group of artistics. Knowing full well that I was unlikely to buy a game where you play as a flower petal, they made a third-person adventure game that could at a glance be considered somewhat conventional. Journey is anything but conventional. It has that indefinable quality of being able to inspire emotion yet I don't quite know why. The wonderful orchestral soundtrack and the raw technical achievement that is the visual design manage to take you from bewilderment to joy then back down to despair in the space of 90 minutes. If there's a game that deserves to be branded transcendental, this is it.

Hotline Miami

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Wow Hotline Miami you are messed up. You're a gritty haze of murderous violence set in a 1989 that makes me glad I was born in the early 90's. Hotline Miami is a murder simulator, it makes you think long and hard about how you're going to kill everyone in a building. More of a puzzle game that a proper shooter, Hotline Miami teaches you how to concoct a plan and then improvise when it all goes to hell as it most assuredly will. Not to say all the murder doesn't get tiring as you progress through the game, but by the time you start getting fatigued the oblique and utterly surreal story will make you want to see it through to the end. I can't say every moment I played of Hotline Miami was enjoyable. I can however say that it was intensely memorable, and that the soundtrack will be played long after the game itself is forgotten.

So that was 2012. I played a bunch of games that were released this year that didn't make it on to this list and that's mainly because most of them were disappointing experiences. Luckily the games above redeem this year's evident shortcomings.

Roll on 2013.