A year is a long time in this industry and Dead Space 2 suddenly seems an age away, but it's only been eleven months since that game hit. I was also quite surprised to find that Dragon Age II came out this year, hunting through the archives for earlier releases to make sure I hadn't skipped over any gems; but then again I'm pretty sure I'd attempted to erase it from my memory after I vented my disappointment at that game upon this very site. Such is the nature of Silly Season. The effect of having triple-A games coming out of the industry ears every week makes for an enormous backlog.
Thankfully, that's what December is for.
Depending on who you talk to, it's either been a great year for the industry or a frankly worrying one. The range of blockbuster titles has been enormous, but we've seen the middle ground suffer a lot, with studios closing left, right and centre, industry luminaries abandoning their grand sweeping legacies for smaller, less risky ventures where they can unleash their creativity without fear of publisher backlash. New IPs have been scarce, with quotes rolling in week after week regarding how dangerous it can be to dump a completely new game onto shelves in the middle of a recession.
It's certainly been an odd year, that's for sure, one I'll cover in more detail in my retrospective editorial at the end of the month, but review scores have been going up. 8 is the new 7, which was the new 5. Content is king these days, alongside production values, with bang for your buck being a crucial consideration. Gamers have aguably never had it so good, with a slew of AAA titles to choose from this year (too many?) and a wealth of creativity to be found in the indie scene. That said, publishers have been looking for sustainable franchises above all else, multiplayer is to be found in nigh on every game, shooters are everywhere and you'd better have a zombie mode...people will bitch and moan if you don't.
The slew of sequels means choosing the lists this year has been easy, but picking a winner less so. We'll be running our revised annual awards later this month, but for now let me kick off a week of staff highlights and personal accounts from the last year.
Game of the Year | L.A. Noire
In all fairness, it was a close call between this, Portal 2 and Skyrim. Portal 2 gave me arguably the most enjoyable multiplayer experience of the year. As I find myself being left ever colder by shooters year on year, Portal 2 provided something I'd missed for a long time: a need for completion. I rattled through the game in co-op in one night with a friend and was laughter, there were many swear words, towers of pizza boxes, rivers of tears, and plenty of relieved hugs and beers. No killing, no cod-COD emulation, just wit and humour and puzzling smarts. And I loved every second of it.
But my personal game of the year nod goes to L.A. Noire. First off, it took serious balls to drop a new IP in a calendar dominated by heavy franchises on their third games (Killzone, Gears, Battlefield, Modern Warfare, Deus Ex, Serious Sam...even Mario to a certain extent, with SM3DL borrowing heavily from Super Mario Bros. 3). Secondly it pioneered literally game-changing technology with its fantastic, unprecedented level of facial motion capture. Looking for tics and tells, watching for that twitch in eye that gives away lies, it was enthralling stuff. Finally, Team Bondi managed to not only bring back the puzzle-adventure with aplomb, but they pointed the way towards a future for the genre. In a twelve month schedule stuffed with projects we'd seen before, this shone and sparkled as something exciting, something technologically advanced, something new.
Favourite Gaming Moment of 2011 | 3DS Streetpassing
Dashing about E3 like a headless chicken, with Jon in the hospital for half the morning and appointments double booked from 10 through to 5 was entertaining. It was an utterly insane week, topped off with The Best Steak I've Ever Had Ever...
...but my favourite gaming-related moment of 2011 was probably the first Streetpass meet. Everyone was a little uncertain, the only game anyone was playing with one another at the time was Super Street Fighter IV, and every person there bemoaned the lack of games on the system, but it was a fantastic throwback to huddling around Game Boys in the playground, trading Pokemon via link cable.
Why wasn't Pokemon Black/White a 3DS launch title Nintendo....WHY?!
Amongst everything else, there was also the shared sense of optimism. We all knew that there were precious few games for the system, but we all had faith...some of which, as it turns out, may have been a little misplaced. But by the year end there are some killer apps for the handheld, and Mario Kart 7 is destined to be a Streetpass meet favourite. Just need that portable version of Smash Bros. now.
Also, racing Jon around conventions, rubbing attendants with a 3DS and wirelessly having one's device copulate with other Ninty handhelds was rather amusing.
Biggest Surprise | OnLive
If someone had told me back in January that by the end of the year I'd be able to play DiRT 3 on my HDTV, pick up the same save game on my netbook, and stop off for a spot of gymkhana trickery on an android smartphone in a coffee shop, I would have laughed. But it's possible...right now, in fact. Announcing their presence by giving away thousand of free kits at PAX and Eurogamer, OnLive has taken the West by storm, even if our UK internet infrastructure is proving a little too archaic in some places.
The demand was unforeseen, OnLive's general manager Bruce Grove admitting that the company was shipping new servers over as fast as possible to deal with the huge demand in the first couple of weeks following the UK launch. It's not perfect, and the service needs to continue to attract more and more top level games to be properly competitive, butthe major console manufacturers have a future-proofed new mover and shaker snapping at their heels. One that's very promising indeed.
Biggest Disappointment | BioWare
My disappointment at Dragon Age II is well documented, but it represents a larger fear: the swallowing up of excellent, creatively pioneering studios by massive corporate entities. The simple fact is that Dragon Age II should never have been released in the state that it was. After kicking up a huge fuss, ramming the unique side missions of Mass Effect 2 down our throats, what did the studio think? Did they think we wouldn't notice the cookie-cutter level design, the fact that there are only about five dungeons in the whole game, or that Kirkwall is a really boring city to explore. What happened to all of the interesting characters from the first game? What happened to creating interesting characters for this one?
Even those who worked on the game thought it was a bit rushed.
But the worst thing was the suggestion that the polarised reaction caught them 'off-guard', that this was somehow a surprise. This is frankly ridiculous. Whenever you finish a massive project, you have step back and afford yourself a little distance to appraise the product with fresh eyes. Doing that, and comparing it with BioWare's own back catalogue would have thrown up a number of qualitative inconsistencies.
There's a reason, though, that BioWare's name is in this subtitle rather than EA's, and that's because BioWare have stressed their autonomy. 'We're not being forced to do anything or told to do anything,' said the two doctors earlier this year. If that is the case, then they only have themselves to blame. I want them to prove me wrong - announcing CnC Generals 2 (Generals being, without a doubt, the most boring entry in the franchise) hasn't done that, it's simply reinforced the idea that BioWare is rapidly losing its identity - but I'm not filled with hope. I'm desperately excited for Mass Effect 3, but growing more and more cautious nonetheless.
Most Anticipated For 2012 |
Bioshock Infi Playstation Vita
And my personal Bioshock Infinite award for most anticipated in 2012 goes to the Playstation Vita. I just can't wait, frankly. The touted launch lineup is fantastic, as is the list of games confirmed for the first six months. Yes, it's a little fiddly, and the face buttons are too small, but having spent a fair amount of time with one in my hands this year, it's also a cracking piece of kit and very well made indeed.
Dual-sticks make a difference, especially with Katamari, Uncharted, Killzone, Final Fantasy X and a whole lot more on the horizon.
You can expect a longer piece on our hopes for 2012 come New Year.
Stay alert, we'll have more appraisals and retrospective looks at the past twelve months from the rest of the team over the next few days before launching into our awards season next week.