5. Mass Effect 3
I know, boo, hiss. Everyone should hate Mass Effect because it took a chance and told an actual story. How dare they! As with the much-belabored Sopranos‘ ending, Mass Effect 3′s legacy will forever be associated with the outcry surrounding its final moments. A shame, considering the journey still remains one of this year’s best experiences.
Unlike the lazy Mass Effect 2, which like most middle entries in forced trilogies had nothing to say, 3 delivers on the many promises outlined by the first title: namely the Reaper invasion and humanities final stand. It is as harrowing as it is sad. Comrades will die, Alliances will shatter and choices will need to be made.
At it’s core, Mass Effect always promised an above-average interactive narrative with some alright-shooting elements, and the third entry delivers on its promise. But it’s the impact of the ending, which I adore, as well final character moments and epic set pieces that keep the experience fresh in my find. Considering the title came out almost a year ago that’s got to count for something.
The story of Fez is almost as interesting as the title itself. Caught in development hell for the better part of four years – the brutality of which is captured in Indie Game: The Movie – its release marks an important step for indie game recognition, and a reminder that making art and making money are two very different things.
As for the game itself, its wonderful. A love letter to the 8-bit titles Phil Fish, the game’s creator, grew up with. A smattering of Mario here, a dash of Zelda there, all wrapped up in a smartly executed 3D platformer. Fez will also cause you to use your brain – a rarity these days. Be prepared to take lengthy notes while attempting solve the title’s less forgiving puzzles. And here’s a stunner – the game doesn’t include a single instance of gunplay. Truly the kind of game only an indie developer would dare make.
If there is one knock against Fez, its that the title’s developer, Polytron, signed a brief exclusivity with Microsoft’s XBLA platform. Redmond’s refusal to lower (or hell, waive) the cost of re-certifying patched titles has cost Fez the opportunity to fix several game-crashing bugs. How much money exactly? Try some $40,000*.
So in the end, much like it began, Fez‘s tale ends in development hell. A shame, since somewhere in the middle, lies one of the best games of this year.
3. Forza: Horizon
Previous entries in the Forza series have forced me to coin the ultra-hilarious phrase: Borza**. Get it? ‘Cause its boring. Yet, the same is true of all hardcore simulators. Yes, there is an initial rush of hitting 200 miles per hour on a straightaway, however, the glee is fleeting once one realizes that’s as good as the experience gets. That’s the trade-off with realism.
My preferred virtual driving experience generally mimics the testosterone-fueled world of, say, The Fast and the Furious series. Its not just about going fast – although Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto does live his life a quarter-mile at a time – its about the circumstance leading up to those speeds.
And there in lies the success of Forza‘s latest incarnation, subtitled Horizon after the fictional race-tournament it centers around. The goal of the game is not just high-octane thrills, although those are aplenty, its about shutting out the competition, proving you’re the best, getting the girl, and becoming filthy rich in the process. The American dream, really.
Where Borza 4 suffered from sleeping inducing repetition, Horizon mixes it up. You’re given a large stretch of Colorado to play around in. Streets and side-roads are repurposed for tracks during events, meaning you’ll rarely see the same track twice. Races vary from lap based, point-to-point, and occasionally you’ll even find yourself pitted against a propeller plane or hot-air ballon. Most importantly, events are short and to the point. No fifteen-lap endurances challenges here.
And yet, if none of the above sounds particularly innovative, it’s because its not. Horizon really is the sum of its parts. Together, everything works beautifully: The gameplay, the graphics, the sounds, et cetera. It’s the type of game consoles excel at. The kind of experience where you can sit back on your coach, kick your feet up, and take a shot at being the greatest driver around – until Horizon 2, that is.
2. Sleeping Dogs
My usual litmus test for game quality depends on how quickly I finish. If a title causes me to loose a week of my life, for instance, then it must be good. Considering I beat Sleeping Dogs after three days of relentless playing, and still wanted more, then it must be good.
And it is.
If this was an S.A.T. question, then Sleeping Dogs would be to Hong Kong cinema what Grand Theft Auto III was to Mafia crime fiction. In Dogs, you play as Wei Shen, a Chinese-American police offer gone undercover to infiltrate a Triad organization. Like The Departed, or more accurately the Chinese-film it was adapted from, the story involves much betrayal, sneaking-around, questioning of allegiances and, yes, karaoke.
However, what makes Sleeping Dogs a refreshing entry into the overly crowded open-world genre, is that doesn’t care to be included. Unlike Saints Row or Just Cause which specialize in the ridiculous, or the perennial Grand Theft Auto who watches the throne, Dog’s only interest is telling a good story and entertaining players.
As a result, the title never feels like its over-reaching, or attempting to shove in the kitchen sink. There are plenty of side-quests abound once the credits, although they’re all an organic extension of the universe. It’s taut in a way few open-world games have been lately. It’s also fun as hell. But if it wasn’t, why would it be on my end of the year list?
1. XCOM: Enemy Unknown
The hardest games to write about are the ones that do it all right. When your thesis for why someone should play a title boils down to, “Play this fucking game already, it’s fucking awesome!!!!”… you know you’re in trouble.
What is worth pointing out, however, is that XCOM: Enemy Unknown‘s success comes from a strict adherence to its source material: a frustratingly enjoyable sci-fi, turn-based, shooter from the early 90′s. The core principles have remained intact, save for a few interface tweaks and an obligatory graphical overhaul.
Of course, this XCOM has the benefit of seeing what could go awry in a modern-day reboot of a much beloved franchise. You may have heard of the still lost-to-sea XCOM first-person shooter from BioShock II’s creative team. That title took everything that made the original unique and lovable, and needlessly flushed it down the toilet in favor of modern-day sensibilities.
Thankfully, the folks at 2K wised-up before throwing more money to the wind.
And while I generally dislike reboots, XCOM presents an entirely different argument: that good gameplay trumps brand recognition. That is to say, the reason why we still play StarCraft, Diablo and Civilization after all these years is because they got the mechanics of fun right all those years ago. Graphics get dated, but good ideas don’t.
So trust me when I say XCOM is good. Don’t read up about it, you’re likely to get intimidated by its seeming complexity. Rather, set aside an afternoon aside and prepare to save the world from the threat of extra-terrestrial invasion. You won’t believe the range of emotions you’ll feel from such a silly premise.
* Although, to be fair to Microsoft, Sony’s PSN platform charges similarly outrageous fees.
** To be fair, I’ve also coined the term, Gran Borizmo for the same reasons.