Hopes for 2015

Last year for the first time in a while, I decided to make some New Year’s resolutions and post them publicly. I’m not normally big on the practice but I thought putting them out into the ether would in some way help me follow through on them. I actually did pretty well on all of them except one (more on that shortly) so I thought I’d so it again. The problem was when I sat down to think about it, I couldn’t come up with much beyond just continuing what I already started. Instead, I’m just going to kind of talk for a while about the year that’s past and what I hope to see in 2015 in a bit more of a general sense.

2013 was a year with a couple of highlights and a lot of downers for me. I had high hopes that 2014 would be better, if for no other reason than I didn’t think it could get a lot worse barring disaster. It was worse. I was laid off from my job in March, very close to my birthday. It was mostly because my employer was badly struggling financially (they still are) but I also found out later that it was potentially because I stated some unflattering things about them online while working there. They knew of this blog and my Twitter. I never named them and my statements were based off information that was publicly available but still, I ruffled the wrong feathers. I’ve long said that having an opinion on a social network account that’s supposed to be yours should be your own business as long as it doesn’t harm anyone (which I didn’t) but that’s just not the way the world works.

I was lucky to have some money keep coming in from freelance work during my unemployment so stuff never got serious. I landed another job in the Summer that’s interesting and pays much better (and I wasn’t badly paid before) but it’s only for a year and has little chance of becoming permanent. I’m happy where I am but I’m bracing for the fact that in a few months, I’ll have to move to something else I may very well not be happy at. There are great IT jobs out there but there are a lot of soul-crushing ones too. I had a resolution to get more training last year and advance my career skills but my unemployment made that not a viable option. I’m hoping I can save enough that if I do end up unemployed this year, maybe I can afford to take a course or two. My girlfriend had a better employment year but had a ton of her own stresses which I hate having to see her endure but it looks like maybe her situation is normalising which is a high point.

I also became a lot more introverted in the last year. A lot of things I’d hoped to do during the year that relied on others didn’t end up happening. Rather than get angry and frustrated about it, I’ve just decided to rely more and more on myself alone to accomplish things because well, I generally know I can count on myself. I’m not sure if this is healthy to be honest but it’s resulted in a lot less disappointment at least. I’ve talked to my therapist about it and her general opinion is that there’s nothing wrong with being introverted and the negativity associated with that is often a result of misguided societal pressures. She says if I don’t feel bad relying on others less, then it’s OK. I’m not certain I agree yet but I guess it’s worked out alright.

There was also a ton of bad shit that happened in the world in general. Ukraine, ISIS, an ISIS-inspired shooting in my home town, Ebola, Ferguson and countless others. I know that in general, the world is a better and safer place than it’s been in a while but one can’t deny that having the instant access to information that we have now can amplify how bad things seem. Honestly, I don’t have a lot of commentary on those subjects because though I try to stay informed, I just am not smart enough to discuss them on a deeper level. Humanity clearly still has a lot of shit to get together and some core problems that many thought were improving still are nowhere near where they need to be. It’s an immeasurable shame.

I also realised during my unemployment that I’ve probably been suffering from some form of chronic anxiety for most of my life. I could never figure out what it was. I just assumed I was jittery and prone to not thinking before I spoke and while both of those things are probably true, it’s become clear that there is something else at work that’s amplifying those issues. I was given some meds to calm me down when I was unemployed but when the issues continued even after finding work, my therapist and I agreed we should get a more regimented process in place. I’ve been off work for two weeks for Christmas and have spent most of that time getting used to new medication.

It’s a Hell of a weird thing to sit through your brain essentially being chemically rewired. The meds I’m taking are relatively light in their class but also one of those that can actually make things worse for a couple of weeks before making them better. I wouldn’t say anything’s been made worse (OK, the occasional headaches and nausea are) but things are definitely different. My girlfriend’s commented on how quiet I’ve gotten and a lot of that is because I just don’t feel the need to hastily respond to every little point someone makes, even when no response is actually needed. I’ve always been that way and it both looks and feels weird to not have that compulsion any more. I still often have a constant background hum of nervousness going on but I’ve been told by several people that this is normal and will eventually dissipate. I really hope so but at the same time, I wonder how I’m going to process not having a negative feeling there that has essentially just been the norm for most of my 35 years.

Then there’s what happened in video games. I talk a lot (i.e. most of the time) about them on this blog and the simple reason for that is that they’re my primary hobby and one of the only activities that allows my over-active brain to shift into a lower gear and relax. There’s plenty of other things I like to do but nothing gives me the mental escape of gaming. This year, I watched the already volatile community around my hobby fracture and shatter in a painful way by the events of GamerGate, a term that’s so rotten, it makes me wince just thinking about it. Most of what I wrote in the linked post still stands but what’s even worse is that GamerGate has accomplished nothing of real value to the medium or the community.

I don’t identify as part of GamerGate but I’ve had many of the same complaints regarding lack of journalistic ethics in gaming, cronyism, flamboyant egos and arrogance for years now, long before GamerGate was a twinkle in any B-list celebrity’s eye. Huge sections of the gaming press are rotten and no, I’m not a misogynist for saying that. If you think I am, close the browser because you’re not someone I care to talk to further. I think audience blowback was a long time coming and frankly deserved but it happened in the worst way possible, galvanising the egos further and making large sections of the audience and anyone who agrees with even some of their concerns look horrible. I haven’t dared even bring up a lot of real concerns I have for fear of getting associated with the petulant anarchist assholes who are using this as a means to harass and threaten others for laughs.

And what positive change has really come out of it? A few sites revamped their ethics policies sure but most of them weren’t violating even their updated ones to a large degree anyway. What else? Sites like Kotaku and Polygon are breaking traffic records. The writers who declared war on large sections of their audience and the clickbait articles they create are more popular than ever. Many of them are now making thousands a month on Patreon to crank out generic tripe. Brianna Wu’s shovelware grade, trope-ridden iOS game went from a failure to a success on the back of the attention she got from inserting herself into the debate with a lot of dubious claims. Zoe Quinn went from a largely unknown, untalented Twine developer to a name everyone knows, with a booming Patreon as well. Anita Sarkeesian has been on The Colbert Report, is also raking in money and has used the harassment she’s received from scumbags to shield herself against the many legitimate criticisms that can be labelled against her work and her statements. Jonathan McIntosh was unheard of before this and now has prominent members of the gaming press starring in videos for him.

You know who else has had huge surges in popularity? MundaneMatt, Sargon of Akkad, TotalBiscuit, Adam Baldwin, Brietbart, Thunderf00t, RogueStar, Internet Aristocrat (before he took his ball and went home) and many others who were considered blood enemies of those who believed in what they deemed to be social justice.

To be fair, I think TotalBiscuit is the only one from that list of GamerGate proponents who has contributed anything of value to the discussions and I think he’s being vilified unfairly but still, every single person I’ve mentioned here on both sides of the dispute is now substantially more popular than they would have been had GamerGate never happened. Most of them are profiting from this popularity as well. Meanwhile, no major reforms of note have happened and no one is satisfied. From my view, it looks like this has enriched a handful of previously mostly unimportant online personalities and little else. People are more entrenched than ever, the community is divided and game journalism is still a mess. What’s the phrase about how the only people that really win in big lawsuits are the lawyers? Kind of feels like that doesn’t it? The worst part is that this is approaching half a year on and there’s no end in sight.

So yeah, a lot of shittiness last year. I had hoped to finally find stability and found anything but. I had hoped the world would calm down some and it didn’t. Even the medium and communities I looked at to get away from that became toxic and hard to handle. It didn’t make for the best mental landscape. 2015 is already looking to have its share of challenges but a new year also brings with it the chance for a fresh start and the potential for change and improvement. What I’d really like to see are larger changes, ones which go way beyond just myself. I can try my best to help them along but they’re bigger than me.

If there’s one thing all of the tragic events of GamerGate and indeed in the world have taught me, it’s that outrage culture has become an epidemic. People love, need to be angry and social media has given us all a dead easy way to be so about anything and everything, even if it has nothing to do with us. This is not to say people can’t be offended about whatever they want but it’s gone from being something you feel and maybe discuss with someone to something you need to scream about in a public venue and rally people behind. The true impacts of issues are multiplied to many levels beyond what they are in reality because of the tools that are supposed to bring us closer together. Being offended has become a hobby, a passion and even a career path for some people. It’s sick and it’s sad and I’ve been as much a part of it as anyone else.

I cut back how much I use Twitter and substantially reduced the number of people I follow. I became ruthless with the unfollow and mute buttons. I started to use Twitter only on my phone, where I’ve added over a dozen user and hashtag filters. I removed myself from Gamers With Jobs for going on 3 months now because I didn’t like how a certain group were exerting tone influence over the community to suit their personal comforts. I stopped reading any comments sections that weren’t my own. In spite of all this, I still can’t stop getting outrage over something or other appearing in front of my eyes almost daily. Snark on top of anger on top of snark on top of derision on top of snark on top or dismissal on top of snark on top of argument on top of more damn snark. It’s so frustrating to have tried to remove my exposure to it to such a large degree and have seemingly little change.

I fully admit I was a significant contributor to this for many years. Anyone who has followed my personal Twitter feed for the last year but especially the last several weeks knows I’ve tried to cut that down a lot. Every few days, I seriously ask myself if I want to even keep using it at all. The service and it’s outdated limitations really have become the enemies of reasonable discourse. I haven’t quit it yet but who knows, I may still. What I have decided is that going forward, I’m going to consciously try not to post snap judgements and inform myself of things before I say anything about them. I also intend to state my opinions rationally but also to stop being afraid of who I’m going to offend. People have a right to be offended but no one has a right to never be offended. Anyone who knows me should know that posting an opinion different from yours doesn’t mean I see you as my enemy. If they don’t, then they can unfollow me. I’ve been ruthless with unfollowing people, I can expect no less from anyone else. Those who will say, consider me an enemy of women because I think there are legitimate gripes buried in the cesspool of GamerGate is not a rational person I want to talk to anyway. My opinions are my own and I’m tired of being scared of them but I also know I have to be 100% sure I believe in what I’m saying and that I can back it up in some way.

That is what I really hope comes from more people in general in 2015. I hope more will choose to really inform themselves of things they see happening before they weigh in with an opinion or adopt it as a call to war. So much conflict could be avoided if people just knew the facts first. A while back, Patrick Klepek coined the term FOMO, an acronym for Fear of Missing Out. It’s essentially a term for those who jump on things right away because they feel they’re missing important parts of something if they don’t get in immediately. The way social media is structured makes it an intrinsic environment for FOMO but it also leads to countless knee-jerk reactions, formed around lacking or dubious information. People also don’t like to admit when they’re wrong and this causes many to double-down on bad opinions, even when they’ve been proven as such.

People are tried, judged and convicted in trials by social media where the presumption of innocence doesn’t exist and defending one’s self is seen as an admission of guilt, all by people for whom most of these things are none of their damn business to begin with. Tribes are formed, trenches are dug and people are made out to be the enemy so that others can justify attacking them mercilessly while still being convinced they have the moral high ground. Most of the time, this is done in blissful ignorance by people who are convinced that because “The Internet” is saying it, the research into its validity must already have been done by someone somewhere.

This has got to stop if we don’t want our progress as a society to grind to a halt. There are so many bigger, critical problems in the world than whatever is outraging people on Twitter and Facebook today or what the clickbaiting press is fanning the flames of. I don’t know how to solve it beyond leading by tiny example so that’s what I’m going to do. I’m convinced outrage culture has to eventually reach some apex where it’s just going to burn itself out and people just aren’t going to care to listen any more. I don’t know if that’s going to be in 2015 but I hope it is and I hope it leads to better information and better discussion around it. Social media can be the most valuable tool we as a society have. We’ve turned it into a weapon instead and it doesn’t have to be.

So yeah, not much on the resolution front this year aside from just trying to contribute to less of the noise I guess. It doesn’t feel like much but given how I’ve personally used social media over the years, maybe doing that is a big step up for me. Beyond that, I just largely want to keep on keeping on with the resolutions I made last year. Hopefully I can end up with a steady job I like this year. Hopefully I can keep losing weight. Hopefully my YouTube channel will continue to grow and maybe this is the year I can finally have the viral hit that makes it viable. Hopefully I can try some more collaborative projects and have them actually happen reliably. Hopefully all the extremist sides of GamerGate burn themselves out so the sane ones emerge from behind our blast shields and actually try to have real discussions about this medium we all claim to love. Hopefully I can get my depression and anxiety under control in a sustainable way for the first time ever. Hopefully people start seeking out information first and attention later. That last one might be a bit of a pipe dream but I think the rest are doable. I hope so. I’d really like a year that’s more good than bad.

I hope everyone has a fantastic and prosperous 2015. Even if you’re someone I didn’t speak of fondly in this post, I wish you no ill will and I hope the world is better for all of us this year. There’s a lot that needs to be done but humanity’s accomplished far more and I still think we’re up for it. Let’s get to work.

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My Top 10 Video Games of 2014 (Plus Honourable Mentions & Disappointments)

Man, another year has blinked by. It doesn’t feel like it’s been 12 months since I last did one of these lists but it’s time to put my brain to work again. I actually look forward to doing this now as I’ve found it’s a great exercise for my critical thinking skills. It took me quite a few hours of thought to figure out this year’s list. Like last year, I had hoped to do a video companion to go along with this but alas, I’m getting used to some new medication that’s caused me a lot of unexpected down time and has put a kink in a lot of my holiday content creation plans. Figures. I’m still gonna’ get this done dammit! On the plus side, I’ve taken to reviewing games on this blog sometimes and some of the games I covered are in my list so at least there’s those to check out if you’re so inclined.

2014 has been kind of a rough year for me personally (for the world as a whole too) and it certainly was for video games. Numerous broken game launches, even more broken promises, new consoles that are selling well despite a disturbing lack of promised new ideas, outrage culture roaring into gaming in a big way, propped up by a crooked, arrogant “enthusiast” press that refuses to be accountable and profits from controversies they stoke with one hand and decry with the other and people who have turned being offended into a hobby and in some cases, a career. That’s not even to mention the anarchist scumbags who have gone out of their way to get all gamers painted as hateful harassers. The games industry has a long and turbulent year coming in 2015 but despite everything I just mentioned, I’m hopeful things are going to right themselves again. I’ll save a lot of that speculation for my Bold Predictions post later. That said, there were still a bunch of amazing games this year and anyone who says this was a bad year for people who like good games just plain isn’t looking hard enough (and you don’t even have to look that hard.) Narrowing my list down to 10 was harder than I expected and I still have tons of Honourable Mentions this year. In short, I found no shortage of stuff to enjoy this year and yes, much of it was in fact available on or exclusive to consoles.

Alright, let’s get down to it! This isn’t an in-depth critical analysis of the titles. That can be found in any number of places, though there are convenient links to my reviews and videos on titles I’ve covered personally. Each game comes with a little blurb just casually explaining why I think the way I do about them.

As per tradition, let’s get the negative out of the way first. This is exactly what the title implies, games that disappointed me. Some of these games and concepts are bad, some I actually liked but still fell well short of what they were promised to be.

Destiny – As someone who has been at best, ho hum on the stuff Bungie has put out, Destiny’s grand promises looked like something that could finally get me on bored with them. Instead, we got a massively hyped product with a pretentious, impenetrable story, spoon shallow characters, an embarrassing lack of content that was padded out with grinding, dull multiplayer (normally Bungie’s strong suit) and the best content gated off for only the most hardcore players. An epic disappointment all around. I’m done with Destiny unless it gets a major overhaul and truthfully, I think I’m largely done with Bungie in general.

CounterSpy – I like stealth games and the idea of a 2D stealth concept with a ton of style was very appealing to me. CounterSpy is a good idea drowning in bad execution. Poor control response, pseudo randomly generated levels that often aren’t conducive to stealth, a lousy combat system and short length make this feel like it was a crappy mobile game blown up to full size. Given that this has mobile versions, I think that’s likely the case.

Halo: The Master Chief Collection – I don’t even like Halo that much but I bought this at launch to co-op with my friends and get in some multiplayer. It was completely broken then and despite numerous patches and promises later, it still doesn’t really work right. An outsourced nightmare of a product, Microsoft should be ashamed of themselves for letting this ship when it did.

Broken Age & Double Fine – I was among the many who defended Double Fine tooth and nail for years. They seemed to be a virtuous independent developer succeeding in spite of the industry trying to beat them down. This year, they showed themselves to just plain be badly run. Despite earning 10 times it’s required budget, Broken Age was split up, the first part shipped late, the second part is still nowhere to be seen and though I appear to be in the minority, I thought the first part was underwhelming to say the least. It looks nice but it’s boring, slow and has story cohesion issues, despite a great cliffhanger ending. Maybe they should have constrained their budget a bit more instead of paying Elijah Wood who knows how much to completely phone in a lead role. Then there was launching Space Base DF-9, funding it with Early Access and abandoning it, dumping a bunch of customers with half a game while still leaving it up for purchase. Despite all this, they have multiple projects in the pipe and have decided to get into publishing as well. This is a company that needs to restrain itself. I’ve pre-ordered several Double Fine games in the past and backed Broken Age at the $100 tier. I won’t make those mistakes again.

Ubisoft – This once fantastic AAA publisher went full on anti-consumer this year. Multiple big projects shipped broken and some of them are still broken. Watch_Dogs (which I did enjoy) ended up being far less both visually and game play wise than was actually demonstrated to people prior to its release. They continue to show complete disrespect to the PC audience. And let’s not forget the damn Ubisoft open-world formula that is as tired as it has become boring. For Pete’s sake, they figured out how to put world revealing towers in The Crew, a racing game! Enough already! This is a company who is letting the scope of its projects run away with themselves in directions nobody asked for while still trying to keep some of them a yearly affair. They continue to do this despite making it abundantly clear this year that it’s not possible. Slow down and get your heads before you have no customer good will left!

The “Because Random” Genre – What the Hell is this? “Because Random” is a genre term I invented to apply to games that seem to think endless non-sequiturs or just throwing darts to come up with their subject matter is somehow equivalent to clever humour. Games that fit this genre based on what I’ve seen are things like Jazz Punk, Frog Fractions, I Am Bread and Goat Simulator. The two latter ones are also often called “YouTube fodder” because they’re designed to sell copies because lazy YouTubers can use them for cheap laughs. Maybe it’s just my personal tastes but I find this kind of humour to be very lazy and just not funny. It’s Seth MacFarlane, Anthony Burch type humour in that all it involves is pointing at random things and going “Funny rite LOLZ?!” instead of actually formulating and tuning original jokes. You have to make me laugh, not just expect me to because you say so.

Consumers for Failing to Support New Ideas – I’m pretty sure I’ve complained about this before. One of the things you’re going to notice in my top 10 is that there’s at least a couple of games in it that despite being great, were commercial failures. Gamers constantly bitch and moan that there’s no new ideas, everything’s the same and that the new consoles are seeing more safe bets than ever. You know why? Because when new ideas do come out, no one buys them, instead running back to Assassin’s Creed again, even when it’s not only a weak game but completely broken to boot! We as consumers don’t get to demand new things when we don’t step up and support them. Stop buying the same old crap again and again and support something new if you want to see more of it!

These are games that I think had potential to make either my top 10 or my honourable mentions but which I just couldn’t play enough of this year to judge.

Dragon Age: Inquisition – I haven’t played Dragon Age: Origins yet but I intend to and will get to this after.

Assassin’s Creed: Unity – I got this for free with a video card. I’m a big enough Assassin’s Creed fan that despite this being a mess, I will still give it a chance.

South Park: The Stick of Truth – I’m not a huge South Park fan but heard this was great. I just bought it in the Steam sale but I won’t get to it this year.

Wasteland 2 – I actually backed this and have it waiting for me but just haven’t had time.

Divinity: Original Sin – I bought this at launch to co-op with someone and it hasn’t so much as been run once yet. I really do want to play it with another person so I hope I can do so soon.

Far Cry 4 – I’ve just started this so I haven’t played enough to form an opinion. Based on what I’ve seen, I’m sure I’ll love this but because it’s basically Far Cry 3 II, it would probably get an Honourable Mention. You get this one Ubisoft but the next one better change things up.

Honourable Mentions
These are games that weren’t quite good enough to make my top 10 but which I still really enjoyed and wanted to shout out. I’m not ranking any of these and the order they are listed in is just the order I thought of them.

Transistor – The second game by Bastion makers Supergiant Games, this isn’t quite as good as its predecessor title but it’s still very cool in its own right. Gorgeous visuals and music, unique combat system and a good setting, despite the story not making much sense in the end. It also has a rather weird mechanic where doing badly in battle actually made the game harder, a lofty idea but one that also caused a lot of frustration. It’s still a wonderful experience though. Supergiant is a talented bunch.

D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die (Xbox One Exclusive) – I’ve always meant to play Deadly Premonition but haven’t gotten around to it so I’ve only heard of the insanity that is SWERY games from others. After playing D4, I get it now. This game is batshit crazy and doesn’t make much sense, yet it kind of does and it’s really endearing somehow. I can’t explain it but I still really had fun. It’s supposed to be episodic and was apparently a flop so I really hope more comes soon. If you have an Xbox One, this isn’t very expensive and I highly recommend giving it a go to see if you also get it.

Murdered: Soul Suspect – There’s so much that’s wrong with Murdered and yet you can just feel this is a game that’s full of heart and good intentions. It’s one of the rare titles I was able to see and enjoy the good in beneath the layers and layers of problems. This can be found for a song in many places right now. I can’t in good conscience recommend it at full price but for a steep discount, there’s…something here.

Mario Kart 8 (Wii U Exclusive) – Double Dash!! is still the best Mario Kart (yes, it is) but man, this plays wonderfully and looks so good in 1080p/60. Nintendo also brilliantly allowed two people to play online from the same console (which my girlfriend and I love) and they packed an incredible amount of content into the game’s two DLC packs. This is an incredible Mario Kart experience and a good reason to buy a Wii U on its own.

Art of BalanceShin’en Multimedia is this weird little team from Germany who mostly only makes stuff for Nintendo platforms, usually shmups. Their stuff is always solid and Art of Balance is an interesting shift for them into the physics puzzle genre. This little game is a ton of fun, challenging, packed with content and has a great audio-visual presentation. It’s also very simple. There’s no leaderboards, no scoring, no social hooks. you just get a pile of levels and beat them, that’s it. It’s fantastic in its simplicity and even though I’m not a big puzzle guy, I’ve had a lot of fun with it so far.

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes – Yeah, there’s controversy because Kojima dared to offend the perpetually offended. That doesn’t make this bad. Called a paid demo by many (who aren’t necessarily wrong), this is a preview of some of what we’re apparently to see in the next Metal Gear Solid. If so, colour me impressed. It’s gorgeous, runs like a top and completely revamps the mechanics of Metal Gear Solid into something modern that doesn’t require yoga certification to play effectively. And I say that as a long time fan of the series. If you do all the challenge missions, there is more than enough content in this package to justify the price. Just seriously Kojima, bring back David Hayter. Kiefer Sutherland is a bad Solid Snake.

Strider – An old arcade game based on some anime got a new entry on modern systems. This sounds like it should have been a mess but it was anything but. The new Strider rode the middle-ground between the fast, fluid game play of the arcade game and the progression of the most story-heavy NES version and did it very well. It looks great, plays with fluidity and is challenging without being overwhelming and was a small, inexpensive downloadable to boot. I doubt we’ll see another of these but I hope we do. This was the perfect way to revisit Strider.

Threes! – My opinion on mobile games is well documented but Threes! is a simple to learn, brutal to master game about combining numbers to make bigger numbers. They even gave every card its own personality which just keeps you smiling as you play. It’s a shame this got so badly ripped off and crushed in revenue by 2048. This is the original and it’s so much better.

Luftrausers – I’d had my eye on this one for a while and it didn’t disappoint. This game will kick your ass over and over again but you’ll always enjoy it until the moment it does. It’s a shmup that’s free-flowing with physics and is somehow beautiful, despite only using a few colours. It’s not on mobile platforms but can be played so quickly, you almost think it should be. And dat soundtrack! If you like shmups even a little bit, you owe it to yourself to give this a shot in one of the many places you can get it.

Smash Hit– Two mobile games?! I know! I found this on some Best Android Games list and I’ve played it every day since. It’s really just an endless runner but it’s combined with constantly smashing glass objects in your way, something we all wanted to do as kids and couldn’t. That wasn’t just me, right? It’s free but I paid for the pro version just to throw the developer some money. It’s the kind of mobile game I like, one that’s fast with a cool idea and isn’t packed with scummy mechanics.

One Finger Death Punch – The developers who made this were famous for cranking out nothing but crap on Xbox Live Indie Games. They claim they bet the farm on this game and I hope it went well for them because it’s some of the best raw fun I’ve had in a while. A two button reflex game where you’re a stick man ninja brutally slaying hundreds of other stick men ninjas. It sounds stupid and in concept it is but it’s crazy fast and so satisfying. It’s packed with levels and I’m still working on it to this day. Get it on Steam, you won’t regret it.

My Top 10 Games of 2014
Here it is, the meat of this tasty, tasty gaming sandwich. As usual, this is the ordered list. I think any of these games are well worth your time but I order the list in the order of how I would buy them if I didn’t have the money to buy them all, from least likely to most likely. I still consider myself very fortunate to have the means to buy any games I want right now but if I wasn’t, this is how I’d do it.

10. InFamous: Second Son (PS4 Exclusive) – InFamous will never win any awards for its story or characters but I’ve always loved them because they’re open world games with superpowers and play fast and fluid. Second Son is no exception and it shows off the power of the new consoles on top of that. You get to fly around blowing up an evil military in a representation of Seattle that’s bright, colourful and full of stuff to do without being too sprawling for its own good. This is one of those open world games where an afternoon will pass by without you noticing.

9. Wolfenstein: The New Order – Based on pre-release coverage of this, it was sounding like a cheap cash-in on a beloved retro property by a publisher that was squandering great potential. Everyone was wrong. Made by Starbreeze veterans, they actually took a series with a flimsy premise and characters with literally no depth and made something dark and compelling while still managing to bring all the whackiness and visceral fun of the original idea of Wolfenstein. They didn’t waste resources on a multiplayer mode that no one would play, they just made a long single player experience that was packed with content, gore, spectacle and even a few laughs here and there. Easily my most pleasant surprise this year. I can’t wait to see what MachineGames does next.

8. Dark Souls II – I always respected Dark Souls but even after playing it for Extra Life in 2012, it was just too nuts for me. With Dark Souls II, what’s awesome about this series finally clicked. Many say this doesn’t hold a handle to the first game but I still found it a great time, though I did a lot of it in co-op like a wimp. Unlike the first game, the PC port wasn’t a hot mess and was in fact pretty good. I don’t know if I have it in me to do a New Game Plus run on my own but I still intend to finish all the DLC. I really don’t understand the story of these games but it’s not the point. The worlds are amazing, the combat is complex and strategic, the depth of character customisation is mind boggling and if you’re willing to, you can put hundreds of hours into these games and still not experience everything they have to offer. I not only respect Dark Souls now, I can’t wait to dive into Bloodborne when it comes out.

7. Shovel Knight – A Kickstarter success story that I somehow completely missed prior to its release, a bunch of ex-WayForward developers decided to make their own version of a Mega Man game but with their own ideas borrowed from some other notable titles of the past. Then they wraped it up in an audio-visual package mostly based around the NES but with just enough of the SNES thrown in to make it pop, combined with one of the best chiptune soundtracks ever. I finished this tough but not crazy tough platformer and immediately started a New Game Plus. Yacht Club Games hit all the retro game points they needed to while still making something that didn’t feel dated, even though it was made to look it. I hope this isn’t the last of these games we see.

6. This War of Mine – I may yet do a video series on this incredible title. The previous two games by its developer were reverse tower defense titles that I actually liked a lot but this is miles away from that. You play the survivors caught up in a fictionalised version of the siege of Sarajevo, trying to do what you can to wait out the war. It’s a strategy and resource management game combined with The Sims, mixed with war-time horror. It constantly demands brutal choices from you where there is no right answer but one has to be given nonetheless. I’ve only played this game once and I knew how good it was because I felt genuinely bad with what I was having to put these characters through. Much like Papers, Please did, this is a game that conveys emotion and meaning through proper game play mechanics, rather than just leading you around by the nose through cliché like Gone Home does. It’s not for those who are easily upset, or maybe it is. It’s a unique game and one everyone should try but it’s not “fun” in the way many think of games.

5. Forza Horizon 2 – I like racing games and I finish most games I play but I always burn out on racing games before beating them, usually because they either get too hard or too repetitive. What I love about Forza Horizon 2 is that because it’s takes place in a fictional festival environment that’s wide open, you aren’t just racing on the same tracks with the same progression of cars over and over. Nearly every event is different and some are really varied because this isn’t a game concerned with simulating anything, only with having a great driving experience like you can really only get in your dreams. Playing this game is actually relaxing to me because it’s challenging but never feels tense during races and the world is just so pleasant to hang out in. I haven’t finished this yet but I have every intention to because I can just zen out to it and that’s rare.

4. Elite: Dangerous – This came out in mid-December so none of the major places got to talk about it which is a shame. I love space games to death and have been so happy to see this genre make a comeback. However, I didn’t back the Elite: Dangerous Kickstarter because it didn’t look like Frontier Developments was in good health at the time and I decided to wait until release. I never touched it until it came out and well, I have a brand new flight stick that I bought just for this. In reality, this is a game that has a lot of customisation but due to its instanced nature, is very shallow. There’s a huge galaxy but there really isn’t a lot to do in it, there’s no story and no end game. The goal is just to keep playing in this somewhat sparse galaxy and advancing yourself until you decide to stop. The thing is, that’s perfectly fine. This is another game I can lose hours in and walk away from completely relaxed and chilled out. Just cruising around space, running missions with some ambient music on in the background is a great experience and if you want to get down and fight, there’s definitely ways to do that too. This is a great way to kick off the revolution of the space genre and even though I was maybe hoping for a bit more, this is another way to me to just shut off my brain and cruise and the $100 I spent on the game and the flight stick was well worth it for that.

3. Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor – A licensed game that was apparently originally supposed to be a Batman title from a company that had never made an open world game before. How could it be good? I don’t know but man, Monolith landed something amazing with this one. It’s an open world game but they didn’t bloat it out to ridiculous proportions like Assassin’s Creed or Grand Theft Auto. They kept it big enough to merit exploration but small enough to be focused and not take a decade to make. They also introduced the incredible Nemesis System, which gave you a huge army of enemies, each of which had their own personalities, memory, all apparently ran in real-time and which could be manipulated behind the scenes to do your bidding either directly or indirectly. It was about causing internal strife as it was about it’s brutal, graphic, satisfying combat and this system could only have been done on the new hardware. Monolith has been a company that’s made incredible games that don’t sell. They deserve a hit and I hope this gives it to them.

2. Bayonetta 2 (Wii U Exclusive) – Bayonetta is an absolutely insane, fast, insane, intense, insane, tight and insane character action game that’s still widely regarded but which didn’t sell enough to warrant a sequel from the creative cowards at Sega. It’s a testament to how incredible games can be when you don’t care about realism at all. Everyone was stunned when Nintendo announced that not only was a sequel coming, not only was it Wii U exclusive but that they were also funding it. They clearly let PlatinumGames have the freedom they needed because Bayonetta 2 improves on the original in basically every way. It looks better, plays better, they’ve given multiple difficulty options to make it more accessible, added a weird online co-op mode and they used the Wii U’s bit of extra juice over the 360 and PS3 to amp up the insanity to 11 and beyond. Seriously, go watch some videos of this game, it has to be seen to be believed. The story is barely understandable and it’s too heavy on the cutscenes (well staged as they are) but this is one of the best action series I’ve ever played and I intend to beat this one at least once more. And if you never played the original Bayonetta (shame on you!), you get a Wii U port packed in for free! This is seriously worth buying a Wii U for and if you already have one, just go buy this so we get another one!

1. Sunset Overdrive (Xbox One Exclusive) – This was honestly a neck and neck fight with Bayonetta 2 but the open world, replayability and unique online mode in Sunset Overdrive pushed it over the top for me. I can honestly say I’ve not had more fun with any single game this year. Yeah, the game tries too hard to have an attitude and takes too long to click because of how it doles out new mechanics but when that does eventually click, this is a fast zombie shooter mixed with Tony Hawk and it doesn’t give a shit about realism, just about being as fun as possible. I love Insomniac’s work and am a huge Ratchet & Clank fan. I liked Resistance a lot too but Fuse was a horrible misstep for them. This takes something more realistic than Ratchet & Clank but retains all the mechanics and design elements of that series that makes it so fun. Like Bayonetta 2, this game isn’t selling well either and that’s a crime. We’ll never see this on another console but I do dearly hope it comes to PC like other former Xbox One exclusives Ryse: Son of Rome and Dead Rising 3 did. More people need to play this. It’s just so much damn fun!

Well, there we are. I think when you look at the whole picture, I’ve got a fairly varied list this year. I tried to condense things a bit so I’m only at 4,600 words as opposed to last year’s 7,000. Yay for compression I guess? Like I said above, gaming had its troubles this year but there was still a ton of incredible stuff to play and there’s more than enough fun in this list alone to occupy anyone for months. I hope 2015 is better for everyone and that we get even more cool stuff. Nothing would make me happier than this list being even harder to figure out next year.

I hope you all had a great holiday and I wish everyone a fantastic 2015! I would absolutely love to hear what your favourite games were thus year. Feel free to let me know in the comments. Stay tuned for my Bold Predictions post and as always, my YouTube efforts soldier on. Have a great year everyone!

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Late Review: Destiny

Compelling Disappointment

Back when I reviewed the Destiny Beta, I spoke at length about the arrogance of Bungie as a studio. I’m not going to reiterate that here but this review is best consumed with the context of that one in mind. I said that the beta showed a lot of potential but little of what was contained within it was very compelling and hopefully the final game would flesh out the supposedly epic 10 year vision Bungie was promising. What we got in the end was just more of what was in the beta, including all the problems, only multiplied, plus some perplexing new ones thrown in to boot. In so many ways, this is not a good game and it really makes you wonder how much of it’s supposedly $500 million budget actually went into development.

Yet in spite of this, I put at least 30 hours into Destiny, as did many of my friends who also agreed it was full of problems. For the life of me, I can’t really tell you why.

Destiny is broken down into several different game types: Story missions, patrols, strikes, the multiplayer suite and raids, which are considered the big deal of the game but more on that later. The non-multiplayer stuff takes place on several planets within our solar system, all of which consist of one large map that has different start points you’ll be dropped at depending on the mission. Despite this being hundreds, if not thousands of years in the future, humanity has apparently never ventured into deep space. Everything revolves around the standard first-person shooter and light MMO ideas: Shoot various generic alien enemies in the face, get experience, occasionally get loot. Bungie knows how to make a solid, engaging core game play loop and they definitely do that with Destiny. The combat is solid and seeing numbers go up as you get more and more kills is as satisfying as ever. Everything looks real pretty while you do it too, even on the old consoles. That’s really where most of my compliments end though.

The rest of Destiny is a mess and in many ways, it feels as though this game that is technically very polished and was in development for 5+ years was rushed out the door to hit a deadline. In my beta review, I called out the total lack of any context or meat to the story and that hasn’t improved one bit in the final release. Humanity is on the brink again and your job is to save it but you’re given no real back story or motivation for your actions and by the end, it doesn’t feel like you’ve accomplished anything or even learned more about what you were fighting for. As you play, you’ll earn Grimoire Cards which are supposed to explain more but they can only be accessed through Bungie’s web site or the game’s mobile app and only contain a small paragraph of further nebulous text that explains nothing.

Despite pitching itself as an MMO of sorts (right down to the pointless dance emotes), there is no sense of massive scale in Destiny. In the starting areas of missions, you can see a bunch of other random players running around that will help you kill mobs but don’t interact with you in any other meaningful way. When you get near your objective, you enter a never-explained “darkness zone” where things restrict to yourself and the up to 3 friends you can have in your Fire Team. At this point, it’s just another co-op shooter. There’s also a hub area on Earth that you have to go to frequently for various reasons and it’s also full of players but again, it serves no purpose as people only go here to interact with various kinds of vendors and leave again. This would be fine if the missions themselves were in any way interesting but that’s not the case.

Here’s how the majority of story missions in Destiny play out:

  • Pick a mission, get a confusing briefing during the agonisingly long load that explains nothing of value.
  • Spawn on map you’ve likely seen several times before. Receive additional details from your pointless and hyper phoned in Peter Dinklage voiced robotic companion (henceforth known as RoboDinklage).
  • Head to objective as fast as possible as most of the mobs on the map are well below your level and won’t get any experience for killing them.
  • Objective almost always consists of having RoboDinklage hack something while you fend off waves of enemies. It always takes him exactly until the end of the last wave to complete his task.
  • Do this a couple more times. Sometimes, the end of the mission will have a boss fight.
  • Receive another pointless bit of exposition from RoboDinklage while you look over the spoils of your efforts, most of which consists of gear too low level for you to use or nicer gear that’s probably not for your class (even though the classes you can pick from have largely superficial differences.)

You do variants of this for 10 hours or so and you’ve finished the story, likely as confused as when you started. You will level up your character as you go but all of the upgrades are simply tiers, some of which have multiple choices. The amount of actual customisation you can do to your character’s skills, abilities and gear is wafer thin, even compared to a lot of free-to-play MMOs.

Beyond the story, you have strikes which are specialised missions that are co-op focused and very challenging but in theory, more rewarding and patrols which just drop you onto a map to tackle a series of small missions you pick up from beacons lying around, usually involving killing a certain number of things or exploring somewhere. These are little more than padding and aren’t interesting or particularly fun.

Where Bungie has historically shined is in multiplayer, especially with the number of kooky and different modes they come up with. Destiny’s multiplayer is as bog standard as they come with only the usual Deathmatch, Capture the Flag and Domination types available. More modes are supposed to come later but there is nothing interesting to be found here and it’s made worse by the fact that most modes allow people to bring in their gear from the campaign which often sends any sense of balance off a cliff.

All of this however, is supposed to lead up to raids. The base game of Destiny has only one raid and more are supposed to come in DLC (one of which is out at time of writing but which I haven’t played and won’t be.) This is a classic example of the kind of bad design where the best part of the game is the part that requires hours and hours of slogging through lesser content to get to it. You have to be fairly high level for the raid to even unlock and you have to have a nearly maxed out party of 6 people you know and at least several hours to even have a chance of completing it.

Your character in Destiny maxes out at level 20 which you’ll hit in no time but can go up to level 30 by wearing specialised gear that contains “light points.” Obtaining the gear you need for this involves hours and hours of grinding the same strike missions or multiplayer matches in the hopes that high-level gear will either drop randomly (which happens very rarely) or earning enough of one of the games 5 different currencies to buy the gear you need. I had intended to do a run of the base game’s raid for Extra Life and after at least 15-20 hours of grinding, I hadn’t earned enough to buy one of at least 3 pieces of gear I would have needed to not be a burden to my team. From what I’ve been told of the raid, it’s far and away the most interesting content of the game, yet it’s been locked away behind barriers so daunting that only the most hardcore players are going to bother trying to reach it. In an era where AAA games have to sell millions to make a profit, gating off the good parts in such a way seems like a recipe for failure. There is no scenario in which you can convince me that “It takes X hours but then the real content opens up.” is good design.

Once I realised I wasn’t going to be able to make the Extra Life raid, I’d had enough and never touched Destiny again, nor do I plan to. The thing is though, much of that 20 hours didn’t entirely feel like the kind of grind I despise and that’s what I’ve heard from a lot of people. So much of Destiny isn’t just not great, it’s out and out bad, yet the core of the game play felt so good that I tolerated a lot more of what was bad than I would have from most other games. So many people agree that Destiny is at best, an extremely flawed product, yet many of those same people but way more time into it than they would almost any other game with similar problems. This is something only a handful of developers could pull off. It’s a weird perversion of the idea of flow and engagement, yet it’s really quite an accomplishment when you think about it.

The problem is, once I got free of that core loop, I realised just how thin everything else in this pretty looking package was and I’m now soured on Destiny pretty bad. Unless the inevitable Destiny II is a massive improvement, Bungie has lost me on this one and I don’t think I’m alone in saying that, especially now that people have seen how little content is in the $20 first DLC…I’m sorry, “expansion” because of course, it’s different when Bungie does it.

Destiny is a pretentious game from a pretentious studio. I can’t see it as anything else when it was hyped up as such a massive thing and the response to most of the criticism hasn’t been “We’ll do better.” but “Just wait for this other stuff we have coming, though you’ll have to pay for it.” It’s nothing less than hubris to think that what they put out is even complete, much less cohesive. Yet, Destiny was still a lot of fun in many ways and it’s really perplexing how they managed to do both at the same time. Fool me once, shame on me but I won’t get fooled again by Bungie and I bet a lot of others won’t either. There’s a good framework for something cool here, now they just need to finish it before asking for more of my money. If you can get Destiny cheap at some point, I think you’ll have fun with it but $60 plus $40 more in “expansions” for a game that leaves you with more questions than answer is a bad deal in my opinion.

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Sunset Overdrive Review: Because It’s A Damn Video Game!

Insomniac Games is one of my favourite developers. Even when they were making pretty much nothing but Ratchet & Clank games, I still loved them because all the games were so polished, funny and mechanically amazing. They were famous for their sense of humour, tight platforming and wacky weapons. Overstrike looked like it was going to be an evolution of that, until EA gutted its soul and turned it into Fuse, yet another bland shooter devoid of anything interesting or memorable. When Sunset Overdrive was announced back at E3 2013, it looked like more of a return to form with colourful visuals, a wacky plot and something that looked akin to a Tony Hawk game meeting a zombie shooter.

I beat Sunset Overdrive and straight away, wanted to go back in for more but not before I immediately bought the DLC season pass. If that doesn’t give you a preview of my opinion, I’ll make it plain: This is among the most fun I’ve had with a game this year.

The plot of Sunset Overdrive is suitably nonsensical. It’s 2027 and an energy drink company called FizzCo has become the dominant corporate force over a world that seems pulled straight out of Idiocracy. A new drink gets its initial release in Sunset City. The problem is, FizzCo bribed their way out of health regulations and testing and unbeknownst to them, the drink turns anyone who consumes it into murderous, addicted mutants. The protagonist is one of your own making, created using the frankly incredible levels of customisation available. He or she works basically as a janitor for FizzCo but after all Hell breaks loose, ends up inheriting the task of saving the city from destruction by a company trying to cover up its epic mistake. You do this with a variety of wacky weapons, power ups known as amps and overdrives and by zipping around the open world by bouncing off cars and air vents, grinding on rails, hydroplaning and more. You’ll have to deal with the mutants but also squatters and eventually, FizzCo’s robotic army, with some other special encounters thrown in for good measure.

How are you able to do all this? What’s the crazy back story of your character that makes him or her knowledgeable of such things? How does a janitor end up saving the city by being Tony Hawk with guns? It’s never really explained. Realistic this ain’t but neither is anything else in Sunset Overdrive and that’s only to its benefit.

So many games try to be realistic and so many of the ones that aren’t still have an inherent need to explain the plausibility of everything they let you do. Sunset Overdrive has no such pretensions. It’s a save the world story but it doesn’t take itself remotely seriously. It doesn’t care whether it’s realistic or whether anything is relatable. Every time it introduced something new, I felt like it was silently proclaiming “Go with it because it’s a damn video game!” Why do you get around by grinding on rails and bouncing 50 feet in the air off cars and A/C vents? Because it’s a damn video game! Why are you using guns that do things like shoot explosive teddy bears or spray acid from dolls? Because it’s a damn video game! What exactly are amps and how are you “equipping” them to yourself? Because shut up, it’s a damn video game! I grew up on games that didn’t need to justify themselves, they just had good ideas of what was fun, made a platform for them and told you to enjoy. That’s exactly what Sunset Overdrive is about and in this era where even goofy games try to play things serious for fear people might actually–gasp–not take them seriously, this is so refreshing. It doesn’t care to explain itself to you, it’s just going to show you why it’s fun.

Much like Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor (another highlight for me this year), Sunset Overdrive’s open world is big but not so big that you need to pack a lunch to get from one end to the other. Sticking to the ground will get you killed in a hurry and you’re expected to move around the way the game wants you to. Figuring this system out is tricky at first and I think a better job could have been done at getting you used to it. I know I’m not the only one who ended up pretty frustrated for the first hour or so. Stick it out though because once it clicks, you’ll be moving super fast and wreaking havoc while you do it. Few games in recent years have so expertly made use of flow engagement theory. This is one of those games that you’ll sit down to play for half an hour and not realise when you get up that you’ve spent the day with it.

The campaign is a good dozen or more hours, especially if you do the side quests. Beyond that, there are a bunch of challenge missions (with online leaderboards of course) and a frankly insane number of different collectibles, many of which require mastery of the traversal systems to get. I can’t imagine how many hours it took to place all these in the world. These are all optional and if you choose to partake, I could see that easily tripling the length of time you’ll spend with it. Most of the missions have a decent variety of objectives and come attached to some hilariously different factions. Some are more interesting than others but aside from one really tedious series of side quests in the last act, I enjoyed basically every mission. There are only a handful of boss fights but without spoiling anything, they are all very memorable not just in terms of characters but in sheer scope.

Your character can be customised well beyond their appearance, with an huge, Insomniac-esque arsenal of weapons available, all of which are crazy in their own ways and play uniquely. Everything can be leveled up with use and you’re encouraged to experiment and there’s such a variety that it’s easy to ignore the ones you don’t like. You can purchase and equip amps and overdrives which are modifiers that boost the effect of certain types of weapons or traversal moves. It’s a deep system but the amps especially don’t provide significant benefits (it’s usually +1-3% to each statistic modified) and while I kept them up, I think you could easily beat the whole game while ignoring them altogether, especially since buying more requires grinding collectibles. Money is pretty common but some of the stuff you can buy is pricey so if you want some of the bigger ticket items, you’ll have to do some free roaming.

There’s also an online mode which I plan to spend more time with that pairs you up to an eight player party and throws various missions at you that are co-op in nature but can also have a friendly competitive element through the scoring system. These missions build up various team statistics that are used to determine how a night defense mission in the end plays out. The defense missions are absolute bedlam and a ton of fun. At the end of it all, your score is tallied and various bonuses are applied based on secondary objectives in the missions from your session. You get to spin for customisation loot and get more spins for hitting certain score milestones. Multiplayer can be jumped into at any time from the story mode and your same character with all their stats and weapons carries into multiplayer and anything you earn comes back out with you. This is an awesome design trend I hope we see more of.

The writing, humour and attitude of Sunset Overdrive has been divisive and I can see how it’s not for everyone. Everything’s presented with a very “punk” aesthetic from the art which has a very bright, graffiti-like colour palette to the hard punk soundtrack, which features several songs custom written for the game. I’m not normally big on punk music but I loved the energy this brought to things, even if there were far too few songs that resulted in a lot of repetition. If you don’t like rock music at all though, you’ll probably find it aggravating. Every character is unique and has their own distinct personality, making them all memorable, even if it’s for being annoying in some cases.

Many fourth wall breaking jokes are made, including making fun of video games themselves (there’s even a NeoGAF reference) and some even poke fun at what you’re doing in the game itself. There’s a school of thought I normally subscribe to which is that if you’re making fun of bad game design while making someone play it, you’ve missed the point. I get that but this game never really does that and often, it’s making fun of something by giving you the means to subvert it.

I’m also not normally a fan of referential humour, I find it lazy and unoriginal. Where Sunset Overdrive succeeds over say, Borderlands 2 is that it largely uses references to real life pop culture as a basis for original jokes of its own. Borderlands 2 doesn’t, it just points at pop culture references and Internet memes and goes “Remember this? Funny, amirite?” Sunset Overdrive may make a NeoGAF reference but it’s one part of a broader joke, not the entirety of it. This has been a staple of Insomniac Games for many years and they haven’t lost their touch. Anthony Burch should play this game and take notes, maybe one day he’ll learn how to actually write original jokes rather than just being the Ebaum’s World of video games.

This is a world that definitely needed the power of the new consoles to pull off. The draw distance is massive and some battles can have dozens or more enemies on screen at once and I never saw a dip below its locked 30 per second frame rate. Could this have been done on old hardware? Probably but it wouldn’t have been as fun. The load times are also quite short, something notable on the Xbox One which has become famous for making you wait. I never had any technical problems or even any real glitches. Given that this is Insomniac’s first open world game, that’s pretty impressive.

Sunset Overdrive is a breath of fresh air in a Fall release season that has largely seen rehashes of the same old ideas, many of which launched broken as well. This game is polished, runs like a top and is chalk full of original ideas and a personality that any gaming veteran can tell has Insonmiac Games written all over it. The rumour is now that publishers have been shown that tablets and phones aren’t taking over gaming and that people do still want AAA experiences, we’re going to start seeing more original ideas in the next couple of years. I certainly hope that’s true and that Sunset Overdrive is only one example of what’s to come. This is one of the best games I’ve played this year and honestly, I think it’s worth buying an Xbox One for on its own. It’s not getting the attention it deserves but if you’re someone who still plays games for raw fun first and realism second, you need to try this. Why? Because it’s a damn video game!

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Atari: Game Over Review: Big On Fun, Light On History

Much of the gaming world was perplexed when Microsoft announced back in 2012 that they were getting into the film and TV business. It seemed like yet another move by a directionless company to blur their focus, something many consider the Xbox One the personification of. Since the console’s tumultuous launch lead up and subsequent trouncing by Sony, Microsoft has refocused their efforts largely back on games and Xbox Entertainment Studios was dissolved barely a month ago. They hadn’t released very much but one thing was far enough along in production that they decided to let it see the finish line. What we got is a free documentary (to Xbox owners and Xbox Video users at least) called Atari: Game Over, which has little to do with the Xbox at all but is supposed to chronicle the incredible rise and demise of one of the gaming industry’s pioneer companies and the infamous E.T. tie-in game many use as a symbol of the the early 80s game industry crash. I gave it a watch this past Saturday and while it’s an entertaining and well produced hour and a bit, it’s less than stellar at showcasing a pivotal event in the life of the still young game industry.

I won’t recount the entire 80s game industry crash but here’s a quick rundown: The industry flooded the market with too many games, many of which were garbage. This killed consumer confidence and the console side of the industry experienced an almost overnight crash in the early 80s. Many companies went from flying high to cratering, one of which was Atari who were among the first to bring video games into the home. The game that was one of their biggest coffin nails was E.T., a tie-in to the film that ended up being an abysmal game made on an unrealistic deadline and which they manufactured millions more units of than they could sell. Unable to get rid of them, Atari supposedly dumped them in a New Mexico landfill before they went bankrupt shortly after.

Atari: Game Over is centered around the efforts of a few people to find and dig up the mythical dump site. Much ado is made about the noble, supposedly archaeological motivations behind this but even when this film was first announced, I never understood why this was necessary. Despite being a terrible game that bombed, copies of E.T. are plentiful and can be found for peanuts. It’s not like they’re digging up a relic previously thought lost to the ages. The mystery is that the dumping was always portrayed through history as a rumour and something no one’s really sure happened. It’s easy enough to confirm that it did but really, this something some hardcore enthusiast nerds are doing for curiosity’s sake and as one of said nerds, I can respect that. Director Zak Penn is clearly into the idea of digging the site up but he also doesn’t take it super seriously and that helps to keep the film’s tone light and fun. A few “nerd celebrities” are tossed in along the way and it’s entertaining to see them talk about this stuff and what Atari meant to them growing up, though it probably is more meaningful if you can directly relate like I can.

The dig serves as the focal point for what is supposed to be a history lesson of Atari’s almost overnight rise to a household name and its demise which happened almost as quickly. In this regard, Atari: Game Over kind of succeeds but it doesn’t go nearly deep enough. Perhaps the one hour length was a hard limit Zak Penn had to work with but the film really doesn’t do justice to the history and true complexities of the industry crash. Anything related to historical elements feels rushed and huge amounts of detail are given a quick drive-by treatment or glossed over entirely. Many important figures from Atari’s past make appearances and are given plenty of opportunities to speak but as someone familiar with the crash, it just doesn’t feel like it was explained well enough in a film that’s ultimately supposed to be all about it. I get that this is a presentation “for the masses” and you can’t go too deep down the rabbit hole but a lot was missed that I personally think it very important to having a true understanding of what really happened.

Where I will give Atari: Game Over massive props is in the amount of respect it pays to Howard Scott Warshaw. Many (myself included) would consider him not only Atari’s most decorated game designers but indeed, one of the most important figures of Atari period. I know a lot about Warshaw but one thing this film taught me was that he never made a title at Atari that wasn’t a million seller (yes, including E.T.) That’s an incredible statistic as selling a million copies back in the Atari 2600 era is the equivalent of a Call of Duty blockbuster today and it’s a record only Warshaw holds. E.T. was a bad game but he had less than 1/6th the time to make it that he normally did and titles like Yar’s Revenge showed what a talent he truly was when given the time he needed. I was very pleased to see him get so much screen time and get the opportunity to talk about what he did and the interesting life he’s led since.

Rather fittingly, one of Howard Scott Warshaw’s career changes was into that of a documentary filmmaker and long before this film, he released his own amateur chronicle of Atari’s history called Once Upon Atari. I bought it on DVD almost a decade ago and while the production values might be a little cringe-worthy today, it does a great job of going deep on the company’s rise and fall, far better than Atari: Game Over does. I would say it’s geared more towards retro enthusiasts but it’s easy enough to understand for non-gamers as well. If you want a much better history lesson, I highly recommend picking it up for cheap on GOG.

Despite the rather silly premise of Atari: Game Over, you can’t help but root for the efforts of these guys to find their buried treasure. It was well known before this came out that they succeeded so that’s not really a spoiler and the film’s ultimately more about the journey. A surprisingly large crowd gathered at the dump to watch the dig unfold and I did have a pretty big grin on my face when they uncovered the stash of games and everyone cheered. Even if it’s not necessarily the most fruitful endeavour, watching people achieve victory is always enjoyable. As it turns out, they ended up finding more than they bargained for and I won’t spoil that but for someone who is a gaming history nut, it creates a bit of a poignant moment that I didn’t expect and gives more insight into what really happened in the early 80s.

Despite the lack of deep history in Atari: Game Over, it rightfully points out how wrong the common viewpoint of E.T. is. Many people place the blame solely on it for the industry crash and some by extension, blame Warshaw for that, arguably one of the best designers of the era. E.T. and Atari did not cause the crash, they were simply the biggest and most publicly visible symbols of an industry that was deeply in peril already. This film makes this point with a level of bluntness I think is necessary and tries to set the record straight. The myth of E.T. is strong though and I don’t think the truth will ever eclipse it but it’s nice to see the truth stated plainly.

Atari: Game Over isn’t bad by any means, it’s just a bit thin. But hey, it’s free so if you have an Xbox 360, Xbox One or access to Xbox Video, you should take an hour out and decide for yourself. The story around the dig is ultimately fun but the problem is that it only serves as a central point for a history lesson that ultimately falls short and just doesn’t cover enough to tell the whole story. Had it been able to just be 90 minutes instead of 60, I think it could have succeeded fully. If you want the in-depth lesson, Once Upon Atari is worth the cost to get that. If you just want an entertaining hour around a goofy and oddly admirable nerd adventure with some gaming history thrown in, this is a fun time and still miles above the abysmal Video Games: The Movie from earlier this year. I still find it odd that one of the only things to come out of Xbox Entertainment Studios is a documentary about Atari but films about the history of video games are few and far between so I’ll take whatever I can get. As the industry continues to age and the audience grows, I hope we’ll see many more attempts made at this kind of thing in the future.

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Outlast & Whistleblower Late Review: It’s All About Journalistic Terror

I played Outlast and Whistleblower live in a single sitting for Extra Life 2014. You can watch my edited Let’s Play series here.

I’m a complete weak sauce when it comes to anything horror. I’ve never understood the concept of purposefully terrorizing yourself for entertainment. Obviously, a lot of people feel differently as it’s a successful, if niche genre in the scope of gaming. When I do Extra Life, I always make a stretch goal to play through a well known horror game, partially for the hilarity of watching me try to do it but also because it forces me to play a type of game I normally wouldn’t and helps broaden my experience. Two years ago, I played through Amnesia: The Dark Descent and while I found it interesting, it didn’t leave the impression on me it has on many others. Most people I read considered Outlast good but not in the same league. What I discovered was a game that not only scared me more but one I found much more enjoyable.

Outlast comes from small Montreal indie studio Red Barrels which is apparently largely seeded with talent from the AAA industry who are horror fanatics. Outlast was their passion project. You can certainly see that this is a game with a lot of love put in it, if by love you mean mental anguish that probably needs years of therapy. To put it mildly, this game and especially its Whistleblower DLC are fucked up, both in general subject matter and what your characters end up enduring through their different, yet parallel quests to discover the truth.

In the base game, you are playing a journalist who receives a tip from your character in Whistleblower that some seriously deranged science is going down at the Mount Massive Asylum by Merkoff, a stand-in for any number of real-life evil megacorporations. You arrive with little more than your infrared equipped video camera and a determination to expose and take down Merkoff. The story is not overly complex and your progression through the it is very linear but it sets a good tone and fiction for horror set in modern day. It’s peppered with plenty of deranged but unique characters and a twist at the end that surprised me, despite my thinking afterward that it was rather predictable. It’s also relatively short at about 5 hours (plus another 2.5 for Whistleblower) and doesn’t overstay its welcome. You can get the nuts and bolts just by watching cutscenes but there are collectible files strewn about the levels that flesh out the details and back story. You can get by without them but they’re a good way to learn more and best of all, they make collectibles useful and worth finding, as opposed to just something you grab to see some lame concept art.

Like many other popular horror games, you are alone most of the time and your interaction with other characters is only in cutscenes, after which they promptly take off. There are plenty of inmates to be found but not all of them are hostile and while an enemy will sometimes be clearly designated, you’ll sometimes get jumped by someone you thought was passive. Since you’re a journalist and not a supersoldier, all you can do when spotted is run and hide. On the normal difficulty, you have regenerating health and can take a few hits but this doesn’t diminish the terror you feel when running for your life, especially when the route to safety isn’t often clear. Sometimes, enemies will also check hiding spots and find you at random. Some areas of Mount Massive are lit and others require that you use your IR lights on your camera, which have a limited battery supply that depletes fast. Batteries are found randomly about for no particular reason other than “it’s a video game” and at least on normal, they’re common enough that I never ran out. I’ve been told that on higher difficulties, they’re both harder to find and you can carry fewer of them.

Where I feel Outlast really excels over Amnesia: The Dark Descent is in its pacing and the fact that it’s so linear actually helps this. What really bugged me about Amnesia was that too much of the game had nothing going on. There were large sections where there were no enemies (and you always had a clear telegraph when one was nearby) and beyond that, there were large puzzle levels where it was made crystal clear that you’d never be in any danger. The best kinds of horror are ones that keep you riding up and down from terror to calm but Amnesia had too much calm and made it too obvious. Outlast does rely a lot more on jump scares than tension (though it has plenty of that too) but it never lets you relax for very long. Even during some of the calmer areas, there are things that kept you on edge, like a passive enemy that just follows you around or bigger goons behind a locked door, chatting about what they’ll do to you when they catch you later. Even when there’s not much happening, you always feel a need to look over your shoulder. It’s this ability to calm you but still keep you vigilant that really makes Outlast a more enjoyable experience for me over Amnesia, even though I still think that’s an excellent game in its own right.

What I did find frustrating were its attempts at puzzles. These consisted of several points where something had to be activated and it always involved going to two different extremes of the level, doing the same thing in both locations, then returning to the middle and doing something else, all while avoiding patrolling enemies. The tasks you were given often didn’t make a lot of sense a real world context and these sections really felt like padding. They served their purpose as it was still terrifying to be spotted and hear the music swell but they also broke the immersion for me a bit. Some of the later objectives also involve meeting up with someone who refuses to stay in one place and keeps going on ahead, through areas that would really be easier to traverse as a pair. It fits with what the story is trying to do but it’s also kind of silly when you think about it.

The Whistleblower DLC thankfully doesn’t have any of this. It’s a shorter and further focused experience that I enjoyed even more than the base game, though the amount of seriously disturbing subject matter and imagery in it (even compared to the core story) made me really glad it wasn’t longer. The core mechanics are the same (though how it narratively justifies giving you a video camera is kind of hammy) but it’s a very different tale. Without spoiling anything, what I think really sets it apart is that it starts as a prequel to the main story but through some clever narrative tricks, ends up becoming a parallel story and concludes in what I would call a nice full circle with a great “Fuck yeah!” moment near the end as well. It doesn’t give full closure to the Mount Massive story but it does conclude nicely and isn’t a pure setup for a sequel.

Technically, Outlast isn’t state-of-the-art but looks good nonetheless. It’s an Unreal Engine 3 game and while it shows that it was made by a small team, they did well with what they had available to them and still created a dreary and terrifying environment. I played on PS4 and being based on older tech means it ran at 60 frames per second which is a welcome rarity on a console. There were infrequent but very jarringly placed and long load times that reminded me a lot of Half-Life 2 and it twice froze during these, requiring a force close and restart of the game. I would have liked to see these handled more elegantly. The sound design is top notch which I believe is a must in games like this and while the music isn’t something I really remember, it was well done and critical to the “tension and release” cycle they so masterfully executed.

I went into Outlast not really knowing what to expect and though it still hasn’t made me want to play horror games unless I have to, I think it was not only a good horror experience but also a good video game besides. Amnesia: The Dark Descent was good but had pacing issues and was too open for its own good in places. Red Barrels knew what their limitations were in making Outlast and they stayed focused within them, making the best game they could with what they had. What we got was something that played well despite some pacing annoyances, had a simple yet memorable story and without a doubt, scared the shit out of me many times.

Outlast 2 has been confirmed since I played through this and I can’t wait to see what they can do with a bigger budget and maybe newer technology like Unreal Engine 4. If they can get it out by next Fall, it’s definitely going to be my next Extra Life stretch goal. I don’t know if I’ll ever become a horror enthusiast but if stuff like Outlast keeps coming, I think I will enjoy the times I have to partake. If you actually dig horror, this is certainly not one to be missed.

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Watch Me Play Outlast & Whistleblower Like A Wimp for the Kids

Follow the series playlist here.

At last, the time is upon us! My edited version of my November 1st live stream playing through Outlast and its Whistleblower DLC in one sitting for Extra Life 2014 is now on YouTube! Getting this edited down was a bigger process than I thought and pretty much took two weeks of lunch hours but I got er’ done! You can watch the first episode above.

I was a little worried that my “performance” wouldn’t be all that entertaining but having watched almost the whole thing in editing, I think I actually did OK and I laughed at myself getting terrified more than a few times. I’m not sure how well the series will do as this is an older game but I’m hoping people enjoy it. For now, there isn’t just a highlight video of all the times I freaked out as it’s a fair amount of work to put together but I may look at making one later.

Now for some more nitty gritty details. It’s going to be a 16 part Let’s Play series with the first episode going up today and one per day going up at noon for the following 15 days. Each episode is more or less half an hour in length (except a single episode that’s only about 10 minutes cause I couldn’t find a better cut point) and the away breaks I took and whatnot have been edited out. It’s only in 720p at 30 frames per second in lower quality than I’d like because I had to recording using Open Broadcaster and it will only record at whatever settings you’re also streaming with. I hope I can figure out a better solution in the future. I also interacted with my Twitch chat throughout and I wasn’t using an overlay plugin so you can’t see what they were saying but you can guess a lot of it from my responses.

If you want to keep up with the series, you can follow the playlist which will get new episodes as they’re added or better yet, just subscribe to my channel and follow all my stuff! I will still be doing videos from my other on going series as this one rolls out so if you already watch my other content, don’t worry, that’s not stopping.

I hope you all enjoy this. If you do, please thumbs up the videos, comment with your feedback, consider subscribing and more than anything, please tell others. I love doing my YouTube stuff but my channel is still tiny and growing at a snail’s pace given how much content I have and I hope this can push it forward. As terrifying as making this was, I actually had fun and I really enjoyed Outlast. I plan to do a late review blog post of it here before the series concludes. Outlast 2 is apparently in development so who knows, maybe that can be next year’s Extra Life stretch goal!

Thank you once again to the myriad awesome people who donated $1,580 at time of writing time to my Extra Life 2014 campaign. It means an immense amount to me and to sick kids at CHEO. I can’t wait to do Extra Life again next year!

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