EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OKAY...MAYBE
to a human
magazine cartridge like a typewriter wheel
turns out nothing but what we can feel
words so empty and thoughts half for show
conversation drowning and at long last we go
another turn and we're back as it began
i started out a boy i wish i were a man
and death claiming as often he does
our guides and what's left of those that we love
and backwards and upwards, if only we knew
...but always too shallow
never can do
I'd forgotten how much I missed the last two years of the SEGA Genesis... an odd time of Vectorman, Comix Zone, Earthworm Jim, and Sonic & Knuckles. It's no surprise that the last two years of any console are its most exciting - the treadmill of graphical warfare is over, the genres have been laid out, what will be covnentional has already been refined, and with the core gameplay being coded quickly, developers are free to experiment and execute.
We live in an exciting time. Our arcade games have been freed from the studio systems, top entertainment has become emergent, yesterday's Portal replaced with today's Angry Birds and Minecraft. And while it's tempting for the cynic in me to point out how heavily these titles crib from past experiences, I can truly appreciate the positive impact the grassroots and indie developer movement has on the industry.
Perhaps it's too much to hope, but I'd love to see a return to the glamorous industry - geeks in small groups coming up with creative games, over the modern "500 programmers in a crumbling industrial building, no new carpet because it isn't in the budget".
I can dream.
SKYLANDERS DOESN'T SUCK
The games emerging this holiday season make me smile. The inevitable cash grab (in this case, Skylanders) is well executed, with quality toy figurines and a genuinely playable experience. Sure, it's shallow and expensive, but it's a vast improvement over the games of my childhood. Twenty years ago a publisher would have just shipped broken code and laughed all the way to the bank that whatever license they slapped on the cartridge got them a sale. Today, we have a clever hack-n-slash that's surprising in the quality of its execution.
I'm not sure how I feel about spending the cash to collect another entourage of figurines (been there, done that, thanks Warhammer 40K) but I can comfortably say I'd have fun playing this game on Christmas morning... more than I can say of Garfield, Back to the Future, Ren & Stimpy or any of the other horrible games from my childhood. It's refreshing to see something that could have been slapdash actually done right, and if the sold-out display at my local Best Buy is any indication, it has paid off.
ELITE, CASH GRAB OR BRILLIANT IDEA?
Call of Duty returns with a Modern Warfare that, at worst, can be called a MW1 clone. Shucking the awful mistakes of MW2 (oh boy, nuked again!) a new killstreak system and more balanced weapon perks breath surprising life into the game. I'm the first one to accuse Activision of being formulaic, and make no mistake, this is Modern Warfare 2012 (yes, it's a Madden reference), but it's well executed. Unlike series like Battlefield, which continues to make mistakes with its awful leveling system, I have to give credit to MW3 in delivering something I found, despite all of my hatred of the mainstream, enjoyable.
Yes, I'm gagging too.
ELITE is an interesting idea, and I'm curious where Activision will go with it. We all know map-packs suck. They're a necessary evil to combat the loss of profit from used games, and the cost of running multiplayer services, but at the same time they divide the community. As more map packs are released, you wind up with a fragmented player base, each map pack creating more groups, and eventually players at the "back of the pack" looking at the staggering cost of "catching up" and opting instead to buy a different game.
ELITE offers a possible solution, instead of having several "subscriber levels" as map-packs generate, they could choose to have only two subscriber levels. The normal subscribers would get the "new maps" several months down the road (ala Halo 3), while the ELITE subscribers would get the new map packs immediately, as well as some additional services. In essence, the diehard players would fund their new content, and the masses, myself included, would get it handed to us a few months later.
I don't know if Activision will take that route. The idea of time-sensitive pricing is nothing new, but in the digital age it's reaching an extreme. Free-to-play games essentially work entirely on this model: paying for perks, a piece of upgraded loot or faster EXP, and for ELITE it could be no different. I'll ultimately be watchful, as this is the emergence of something akin to GOSU TV meets WoW, for the FPS audience. Hate as you will, this sort of service is likely the future of most multiplayer games, and, for all its faults, the subscriber model tends to work better than the map-pack model, as micro-transactions on a platform where minimum price content is still fairly expensive (such as consoles) don't work.
KILLING SO MANY DRAGONS IN SPACE
There are four holiday presents under the tree for RPG fans this year: Skyrim, Dark Souls, World of Warcraft: Dragonsoul and Star Wars: The Old Republic. The first, Skyrim, is the most obviously well executed, as it's the only one currently released as of this posting. I've been critical of Bethesda since their decision to neuter Fallout for the mainstream audience, and I'm not certain I'll ever forgive them for Oblivion's absolutely idiotic leveling system... but if Skyrim is their apology for their past mistakes, it's a damn good one. The leveling system makes sense, areas lock to the level you entered them (so you actually feel more powerful as you level up) and the epic dragon battles are, well, it's dragons. The number of hours that Skyrim will claim is uncanny.
Dark Souls is, once again, amazing, beautiful, well-executed and wonderfully challenging. It's everything Demon's Souls was, refined into a package that makes you feel even more lonely (no more hub world abuse ala 4-1 / 4-2 farming in Demon's Souls). Difficulty wise, the intro area makes things slightly more accessible to a broader audience, but overall the gameplay remains appropriately punishing. If you're an awful cynic like myself, or someone who remembers when games like Rogue, ANGBAND and the original Ultima series actually demanded thought and patience, you'll appreciate this game over the "sword happier" Skyrim. I'd actually have to recommend both, so consider telling your family you have hyper flu and can't visit.
In the MMO realm, the battle for subscribers is about to begin, with the hotly anticipated Old Republic entering its final betas, and fast approaching the pre-order open beta... going up against World of Warcraft's upcoming Cross-Realm Raid Finder and epic Dragon Soul raid encounter. In much the same way that the introduction of the dungeon finder and PUG-friendly raiding caused an explosion of subscribers (not to mention a surge of popularity for WoW) in Lich King, the upcoming cross-realm raid finder for WoW is an essentially game-changing move for the genre. Raiding, previously only accessible to players in guild, or people willing to subject themselves to the trolls of trade chat on their server, is now open to qualified toons.Players queue up alone, or with friends, and the system does the rest, combining an appropriate 25-man group to take on the upcoming Dragon Soul encounter
It's an interesting gamble, and one that's likely to have a major impact on the future of the MMO industry. With an aging gaming population and fewer players looking to dedicate huge chunks of time to one specific game, tools that allow players to find good groups at any time, anywhere are at a premium. If Blizzard's tool is successful, I expect it to become the norm for all MMOs.
As for success, Old Republic is shaping up to have an interseting launch. While it's impossible to say if an MMO will survive past its launch (promising titles like Conan, Tabula Rasa, Lord of the Rings, and Rift have all suffered from being unable to sustain large populations long term), if any title is going to give WoW a run for its money, Old Republic is that title. Featuring heavily voiced and animated leveling, a Mass Effect-like storytelling, heavy player involvement in the game and one of the most popular franchises of all time at its core, it's a strong contender for offering the gameplay that the casual MMO audience (the majority of subscribers) can enjoy.I'll personally be waiting to see what end-game experience emerges before I can pronounce SWTOR a success, but the fact that it's a game I know I'll have to play just for the story alone is enough to convince me it has a real chance.
I'M NOT A GRINCH, SO WHAT?
I actually like this year's holiday lineup. Sue me! They're good games! Whether you like Halo, Battlefield, Modern Warfare, Gears, Dark Souls, Skyrim, Spyro, WoW, Star Wars or gad help you Zelda... (okay, maybe not Zelda, that one is pretty awful, what did you expect? Do people still own the Wii?) I have to say, despite looking a little dated, despite being polished re-takes of what we've been doing this generation, these games are good.
Yes, it's another Saint's Row, yes it's another Assassin's Creed. Yes, gad help us, it's another Call of Duty. But it's a decent Call of Duty. It's a fun Call of Duty, and as I slip away into an eggnog induced coma, it's a Call of Duty I don't mind too much finding under my Christmas Tree. Gad help you Bobby Kotick, you get to live another year.