Look, I don’t think it’s exactly newsworthy when a publisher announces a special collector’s edition of a game is coming, so you can imagine how little it interests me to hear there will be No Heavy Rain Collectors Edition for US. You mean to say the thing never promised isn’t happening? How is this news, again?
Most other publications spent much of their run up to the Christmas break publishing lists of their top games published in 2009. Some have even been working on “games of the decade” articles looking at the medium going back to 2000. We here at Gamer Blahhhg find the division of time into discrete units rather silly. I, for one, have no respect for what constitutes a “day” or what others might believe is a “healthy” sleep schedule.
To that end, our list of the top games in 2009 is not restricted to titles published this year. You may find the following list capricious and without purpose, but that’s no less true of any other top ten or games of the year list out there. Without further ado, GamerBlahhhg.com is proud to present our favorite games of 2009 (played).
Final Fantasy 12 (PS2) – 2009 ended up being the year I finally put a ton of time into this game. I have a tendancy with big RPGs like this to play a bunch when I first buy them, get burnt out and then leave it on the shelf for a long time. The story is really big and the different systems so complex that it can be intimidating to try and pick up where you left off. I had to do a bunch of reading to get back up to spead, but I was able to reorient myself enough to bring my party to the brink of the final battle. I love the game. It has great graphics for the PS2, I love the gambits both in theory and in practice. I’m having enough fun that I’ve put off heading into the final battle to putter around doing a bunch more hunts.
Torchlight (PC) – Currently on sale for $9.99 on Steam (and briefly at $4.99), even at the full price of $20 this is one of the best values of the year. It’s an amazingly refined take on the Diablo style action RPG. The 3D graphics are simple, but expertly crafted and delightfully colorful. The pet mechanic is a blast and the developers have perfectly balanced the character progression and loot acquisition. Top it off with a wonderful score and environments that never wear out their welcome and it’s hard not to be in love with this game.
Need for Speed: Shift (PC/PS3/360) – I’ve never really been a huge racing game fan. I’ve owned a few Gran Turismo games and mostly played the rally modes. Hardcore simulation has never been my thing. But NFS: Shift does an amazing job rewarding your time with experience and money for better rides. I didn’t mess around too much with the tuning, but the upgrading did have a nice RPG feel to gaining improvements. And I actually had a lot of fun with the racing. There was a good variety of competition types allowing you to level up how you wanted to and the invitational races giving you an early glimpse at higher class hardware was a nice touch.
Dragon Age: Origins (PC/PS3/360) – When this game was finally released this fall I devoured it rather ravenously. I don’t think I even realized how strong my craving for a high production value spiritual follow-up to the Baldur’s Gate was. But DA:O just hit the spot sooo good. Great combat, interesting story, fun characters, fantastic voice work and, overall, some really strong graphics. Obviously the engine Bioware created for the game didn’t handle wilderness areas too well, but castles and dungeons were realized in gorgeous fashion. When I finally beat the game after some very long sessions I found I was still eager to go back, try a different race, a new origin and see how the game changes based on the various tough decisions you must make in the story.
Titan Quest (PC) – Another older game I’ve had for a long time but never really gotten into until this year. This was a big game more me in the spring. It’s actually impressive how well the graphics hold up. The levels are huge and gorgeous and streamed seamlessly. The music is very good as well. I really enjoyed the ancient setting, as opposed to the commonly used medieval one. In fact, I had far more fun playing Titan Quest than I ever did playing the vaunted Diablo 2.
Defense Grid: The Awakening (PC/360) – I’ve only owned this game since the beginning of the Steam Holiday Sale about a week ago. I just beat the story mode tonight and Steam tells me I’ve logged almost 23 hours. Not a bad value when you consider I only payed $2.49. Just a blast of a game in the tower defense genre. It looks great, plays better and offers all sorts of great strategic potential. I’ve been playing the crap out of it and loving every minute. Some of those levels are hard!
Borderlands (PC/PS3/360) - Unfortunately, this is one of those games I’ll need to get back into next year. I played a bunch right when it came out, fell in love with the shoot and loot gameplay and their distinctive art style but set it aside to play Dragon Age and Torchlight. Still planning to go back because, despite some flaws, it is just flat out FUN!
Mass Effect (PC/360) - Admittedly, the sequel is just around the corner, but I only managed to get around to beating Mass Effect 1 early this year. I had a ton of fun with the game, but there are some serious areas of improvement I’m hoping the sequel addresses. It’s funny how much I enjoyed playing despite so many glaring flaws. Issues with texture pop in, half baked gun play, horrible, horrible vehicle controls and pointless side quests all seem to fade away thanks to a very engaging stories and a well realized universe.
Fallout 3 (PC/PS3/360) – As a big fan of the first two Fallout games I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed a bit to see Bethesda pick up the license and create a sequel. I wan’t an isometric 3rd person follow-up. But there’s a lot to love in the game Fallout 3 turned out to be. There’s so much to do. The wasteland is just epic in size and the environments are incredibly rich with detail. I’ve never been a fan of Bethesda’s Morrowind games, but placing that style of game in the more interesting fallout universe with the more interesting S.P.E.C.I.A.Ls character system was a big improvement.I sank a ton of time into this game last winter so I guess my disappointment wasn’t too great.
Far Cry 2 (PC/PS3/360) – This was the game of summer for me in 2009. Forget that piece of crap Avatar game built on its engine and play the original in a beautifully realized, seamless African landscape. Well, sure you get a load screen when you go in a building, but you can walk or drive from the jungle to the desert no problem. The gun play is also great. With a huge variety of weapons to procure you are afforded a ton of freedom in how you tackle enemies. The game has issues, mostly in the way it fails to deliver on the promise of two rival factions in the actual gameplay. But it offers so much it’s hard for me to fault it too much. I have high hopes for the sequel.
So that’s it, our top ten in no particular order and adhering to no particular release window.
While the North American version of Final Fantasy XIII from Square Enix is not scheduled for release until March next year, the game has just come out for the PS3 in Japan to much fanfare. Most English publications are waiting for a localized version to be completed before publishing their own reviews of this highly title. GamerBlahhhg.com is lucky enough not to be constrained by such editorial limitations. Please enjoy our patented Blind Review of FFXIII.
Final Fantasy XIII: Fashion Dolls in Space City
As the first new Final Fantasy of the current generation, expectations are running very high for FFXIII. Square has long been known for their technological prowess and CGI artistry. They have also been known for incredible world building and their subtle, effective animation. XIII does not disappoint in any of these areas. But Final Fantasy XIII makes some very strange choices in story and gameplay.
You, as in any jrpg, play teenagers trying to save the world. The method you use is what’s so strange. The game begins on the floating sky shard island city, Cocoon. Snow, one of the main characters, is in class being teased by a bully about his wardrobe. Determined to show them up, he heads to the local mall after school to find more fashionable attire. This mall functions as a tutorial, introducing the main combat and character advancement systems.
For you see, the economy in this world is in shambles. Despite the glistening, futuristic exterior of Cocoon, the shopping centers are festering cesspools of monsters and villainy. Snow, along with the companions he collects along the way, are both warriors and economic stimulus. They go from mall to mall reinvigorating local trade with their spending, starting new fashion trends and clearing out the local riffraff.
This theme carries into the level progression system. Character skills and abilities are advanced as you upgrade your clothes and accessories. Enemies are also intimidated by fashionable dress and expensive designer labels. Square has seemingly employed an army of fashion designers to create exclusive lines of virtual clothing, jewelry, shoes, cell phones. You will spend hours browsing in clothing stores for your next outfit. The possibilities are virtually endless and the game world reacts to your dress and success. You will even begin to see NPCs dressing like your more powerful party members.
In a first for the series, XIII also features an alarming amount of product placement. As previously reported here, instead of traditional summons like Odin or Shiva, your party is able to call on Transformers from the Michael Bay movies for help in battle. There is an entire subplot involving the Transformers having their own agenda to recover a Cybertronian artifact and produce Energon. The quest line ends with an unskippable teaser for Transformers 3 literally playing in the middle of your game, followed by a 13 minute behind the scenes featurette (also unskippable). In addition, the malls/dungeons in the game all feature Hot Topics, Cinnabuns and Gamestops. The characters also use Verizon as their wireless carrier and eat at Applebee’s. It’s pretty strange to see in a universe emphatically not our own.
Despite my concerns over the crash commercialization of the franchise, the game still has many charms. The graphics are wonderful and the fast paced combat is incredibly engaging. I found myself laughing at Snow, crying with Lightning and wasting hours and hours on the Chochocobo Roundup minigame. The music and cutscenes are, as always, unmatched in the medium. I would not hesitate to recommend the game to fans of the series. It will be very interesting to see the reaction when the game comes state-side next year.
Score: My God, it’s full of stars…
Obviously, the enthusiast press that covers videogames is no where near the standards of real, big boy journalism. One good indication of this fact is that most of the big sites spent most of the last week publishing stories about where to buy which games for a discount and not much else. Can you imagine your local paper running random stories about a shoe sale or toy clearance to fill pages whenever they had a slow news day?
But this story by Frank Rose published on Wired’s Game/Life blog about the Avatar movie tie-in game is even embarrassing by those standards. The author, or more accurately the marketing professionals in charge of feeding the press this kind of garbage, would have us believe the game being released this week by Ubisoft constitutes some kind of game changer. The best thing I can say about the game is that it’s just about as revolutionary as the film itself. That is to say, not very much.
If you haven’t already put two and two together from watching the trailers for Avatar, the movie is basically a big budget, sci-fi retelling of FernGully: The Last Rainforest. The bad guys are the humans who want to pillage this alien planet. The hero starts out working for the bad guys, falls in love with a native princess and fights against his former employers having gained an appreciation for nature. It’s also the basic story of Disney’s Pocahontas and any number of films and books about a white man going native and fighting against imperialists.
The hook is supposed to be the world building Director/Writer James Cameron has done in creating the planet Pandora and the life that inhabits it. That would be more convincing if the game demo didn’t expose that aspect as well. The game drops you into a Space-Jungle where flowers glow for some reason, where you must fight your way through against Space-Rhinos and Space-Wolves and the occasional Space-Plant that spits Space-Ferries at you. Yes, you literally have to shoot foliage. Sadly, I think the developers and Mr Cameron actually think of this as clever subtext.
The real problem with Avatar, writ large, is the way Cameron has made the subtext the text. Even that wouldn’t bee so bad if his understanding of environmentalism wasn’t so completely juvenile. Like other people who don’t know what they’re talking about, James Cameron is under the mistaken impression that Native Americans, upon which the humanoid aliens the Na’Vi are based, lived in “perfect harmony” with the environment. Such a romantic notion, likely born out of the brevity of our observation, is a pervasive and popular fiction espoused by many people who really ought to know better. Ironically, the science of evolution tells us pretty clearly that all organisms are in constant competition with all other forms of life over limited resources. There are winners and loser. While you may not be able to see this clearly in a day, or even over a lifetime, it’s how the “selection” part of natural selection works.
Perhaps the most interesting revelation in the article comes with the explanation of how Ubisoft got the contract.
“When we approached Avatar,” Mallat says now, “the very first question we had was, ‘What does Jim want to express?’ The true meaning as we understood it.” He looks about, grasping for the word. “Cupidité en anglais? ‘Greed.’ Greed is the cancer of life. In one sentence we defined it: What are humans doing on Pandora?”
It would seem the best way to get in Jim Cameron’s good graces is to stroke his ego just so. Tell him, “yeah, we get it,” no matter how ludicrous and absurd “it” is. But maybe I give Ubisoft and the developers too much credit. They may be true believers, after all.
It was their idea to create a “Pandorapedia” cataloging the minutia of Cameron’s cliche-filled universe in game. Jim was so tickled pink by the idea he hired a team of writers to generate this encyclopedic understanding of his creative vision.
The resulting compendium provides a detailed guide to every creature on Pandora and every RDA war machine, as well as such critical info as the cost of a phone call to Earth ($78,000 per minute).
Clearly, Cameron’s egotism knows no bounds. One has to wonder, given how derivative Avatar is, if he believes his own press, this article included. It’s hard to imagine the delusion necessary to lift ideas from other creators as freely and completely as he does and maintain the self image of visionary creator. In most people we’d classify such levels of cognitive dissonance as a mental illness. But he may just be full of shit.
As for the game itself, the demo released on PC is pretty bad. The graphics are serviceable, but the controls, especially for vehicles, are atrocious. The levels are extremely linear and the objectives meaningless. You don’t even need to fight to beat the included level in the latter half. Once you reach the Na’Vi village you can pretty much walk past the battle, let the AI enemies and allies fight each other until you reach the “finish line” and get a mission complete message.