It’s amazing that half the year is already gone, isn’t it? While we’ve still got five and a bit months to go before we can unveil our best and worst picks of this year, we at Rocket Chainsaw have put our heads together and decided on our best and most disappointing games of 2012 so far.
Best: Max Payne 3 & The Darkness 2
For me, context is key. Sure, complex and addictive game mechanics are at the heart of any great interactive experience, but give me a reason to care and a character or story to invest in, and you have me hook, line and sinker. For me, two games this year have taken familiar (indeed, overly familiar) generic templates and bothered to tell stories which extend beyond future wars, featuring characters more flawed and complex than Soap McDishwasher-Liquid or Buzzcut Space Soldier: those games are Max Payne 3 and The Darkness 2. While neither game boasted a superlative narrative, both excelled in casting the player as interesting characters, with unique, flawed perspectives. Both Max Payne and Jackie Estacado resonated with me, and it certainly didn’t hurt that both of their respective games delivered some of the best and most-exciting combat of the year. Interesting stories, evocative characters, and punchy, unique action made this underrated duo my joint-picks for the best of the year so far.
I should also extend props to two other games which bothered to do something interesting with narrative within the confines and conventions of a well-worn genre: Bravo, Binary Domain and Spec Ops: The Line: you both fell far from perfection, but lingered in my memory beyond your end credits.
Most Disappointing: Mass Effect 3
Right off the bat, let me be clear and say that in no way is Mass Effect 3 a bad game. It is, in my estimation, quite a good one. It’s just so hard to shake the feeling that this series never quite lived up to its potential. For a franchise ostensibly concerned with character and story, the game’s primary conflict with the mechanical nasties felt utterly rote and the character of Shepard indefensibly bland. Couple the uninteresting narrative with bland side-missions, an excess of ropey third-person combat, and some surprisingly weak audiovisual presentation, and Mass Effect 3 gave me plenty of reasons to shrug. The game had its moments (Mordin Solus, you are a god among insects), but as the climactic finale to a major franchise it ranks as something of a creative and technical disappointment.
Best: Gravity Rush
My picks are going to be Vita-centric for this article – after all, if I’m not going to write about the newly-released console, who is? It’s fortunate, then, that I don’t have to make too many excuses to place Gravity Rush as my top pick for the year so far. Original, fun and with style coming out of its ears, Gravity Rush is one of those great open-world titles like Just Cause that transforms the way you think about the game’s space as you play and level up your character. It’s the first truly must-own title for the Vita, and hopefully the start of bigger things for the system.
Most Disappointing: Ridge Racer Vita
This game has the distinction of being awarded my lowest score so far on Rocket Chainsaw. Congratulations, Ridge Racer. It’s not that the core gameplay is bad – it’s the same fun Ridge Racer experience that was a bestseller on the Vita’s predecessor, the PSP. They’ve just torn out the world tour mode, the range of cars, the music and the tracks to sell it back to you piece by piece via DLC. There’s a more complete edition now available on the PSN, but that doesn’t change the fact that the retail edition of Ridge Racer is just one big fat disappointment.
Best: Alan Wake’s American Nightmare
As I’m not a stinky Xbot, I was unable to indulge in Alan Wake until earlier this year. The PC release had me polarised. I wanted to love Alan Wake. Hell, maybe I did love it. But painfully repetitious level design and boring encounters were too potent to ignore, even amidst an enthralling narrative and gorgeous art. Then came American Nightmare. Though short, American Nightmare retained the same self aware, snappy writing of Alan Wake, intertwining themes of mystery and abstraction with playful humour. And best of all a more varied assortment of enemies and weapons, coupled with a handful of beautiful semi-open hubs, each creatively remixed to align with the narrative, showed evidence of a developer that had learned from past mistakes. American Nightmare is a tighter playing and smarter structured experience than Alan Wake, and if this is a sign of Alan Wake‘s future, then colour me very excited.
Most Disappointing: Mass Effect 3
I’m a shameless Mass Effect nerd, having invested ludicrous hours into the series and its expanded universe. Yet strangely, the series is one I’ve never held up to any particularly lofty standard. Each of the three games has a laundry list of design and narrative issues I could rant about for hours. But the enduring qualities, such as my attachment to Commander Shepard and her relationships with squadmates, and the beautifully fleshed out and alluring sci-fi universe, have kept me hooked on anything with a Mass Effect branding. Even Mass Effect 3, flawed as it is, was a game I couldn’t put down, enjoying every passing second. Until the end. The mourning period is over (I think…), and the rants have been done to death. Suffice to say, in summary, Mass Effect 3‘s ending is a perfect example of a narrative trainwreck, one evidently misunderstanding not only the attachment fans have to the series, but the lore and narrative established thus far. Absurdly amateurish, contrived, riddled with plot holes and tremendously underwhelming. Mass Effect 3‘s ending not only made me lose faith in the Mass Effect franchise, but in BioWare’s writing team and game production. And I say none of this with proud arrogance or snide vitriol, as it all legitimately saddens and disappoints me.
Best: Final Fantasy XIII-2
Square-Enix’s surprising announcement of a sequel to Final Fantasy XIII left many people wondering, especially after the first game’s mixed reception. It was hard to know what to expect, as only the second direct sequel in the franchise’s history, it was entering rather uncharted territory. Square-Enix handled the game’s development carefully though, looking at where they went wrong with FFXIII. They paid attention to the criticisms that were levelled at FFXIII, and did their best to address them in a meaningful way. They added towns, NPCs and side quests, and kept tutorials to a minimum while making the game’s environments more open than those in its predecessor. Though the time travel plot was confusing at times, it carried the game well, and for all these reasons I believe that FFXIII-2 is a much better game than FFXIII.
Most Disappointing: NeverDead.
When Konami first announced this game, it caught my attention almost immediately. A third-person action game where you play as an immortal guy called Bryce, who can use his limbs as weapons? I like it. The game had all sorts of interesting ideas, including a damage system where Bryce loses a limb each time he’s hit, to the point where you can play as nothing more than his severed head. Rolling around as a severed head made for some unusual platforming sections, and watching Bryce hopping around the level with one leg, after having the other one blown off was certainly entertaining. Unfortunately, the gameplay itself was not. What we ended up with was a highly repetitive game, where you clear area after area of the same enemies in the same ways again and again. The immortal novelty quickly wears off, and I was left highly disappointed.
I’ve got to be honest – no game so far this year has truly wowed me. Perhaps I haven’t been exposed to enough titles, or I’m still trying to get over the final quarter of last year which was filled with some truly incredible games. In any case, nothing has truly struck me as a must-buy for everyone out there. Perhaps that makes me a pessimist among the staff this time around, but I’m open to the rest of the year being much better.
Most Disappointing: Ninja Gaiden 3
Oh, how it pains me to write about this. The Ninja Gaiden series is one of my all-time favourites since the original trilogy for the NES, and its revival looked as if it was going strong. Then Ninja Gaiden 3 came out and it brought the mood down on the series significantly in the eyes of many. From a technical standpoint it’s a fine game, but lacks so much of what made the revived series a joy to the fingers every time one’s hands grasped a controller to play it. Lack of weapons, a deluge of unwanted quicktime events, uninteresting bosses and simply too easy and too simplified that it doesn’t feel like much of a Ninja Gaiden game at all. Not even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Robert T.S from the original Ninja Gaiden II could save it. If this was someone’s introduction to the Ninja Gaiden series, they would likely be soured by the experience, and if this is the last game then it will have finished up the series on a very low and surprisingly disappointing note.
Best: Mass Effect 3
Honourable Mention: Binary Domain
Countless hours, and years of playing invested me in the anticipation of Mass Effect 3. The culmination of the Mass Effect series brought together all the trilogy’s advancements into an exhilarating and poignant finale. The ties formed with our comrades over several games deepened further, as we faced a onslaught of immeasurable odds. Racing to save students at a space academy, preventing a coup on the galactic council and curing a dying species rate as some of the most memorable moments in Commander Shepard’s final adventure. Some of the finest voice-acting and a faultless score served to further drive home the impact of Mass Effect 3.
Another title that genuinely surprised me in the first half of 2012 and should not go without mention is SEGA’s Binary Domain. Mixing elements from Gears of War, Minority Report and Battlestar Galactica, the Yakuza team crafted an entertaining third-person shooter with a genre-busting excellent narrative and astonishing production values. And it all goes for far longer than two hours.
Most Disappointing Game So Far: Mass Effect 3
Sure, Mass Effect 3 had its share of gameplay blemishes, such as a poor journal system and repetitive side-quests, but all of these could be very easily be overlooked. The nonsensical and now infamous starchild, however, cannot be so readily forgotten. I expected a climatic final battle with my close-knit squad, or at the very least, a logical explanation for the Reapers’ existence and some medium of choice in how to bring the conflict to end. Instead, I was presented with an absurd ending that single-handily destroyed both the series’ subject matter and the significance of my choices over the course of the trilogy. The newly released Extended Cut has repaired some of the wounds, with explanations for several plot-holes and a decent epilogue. Nevertheless, the narrative bookend of Commander Shepard’s adventure was responsible for souring what was otherwise one of my best gaming experiences.
Best: Binary Domain
I have to admit, in a world where third-person shooters seem to dominate the video game market, I did not expect Binary Domain to be as good as it turned out to be. Instead of being yet another “Gruff Soldierguy and his other Dudebros” shooter, we got a game that reinforces and implements the relationships between your character and your team mates, which in turn influences the surprisingly deep storyline. The gameplay is great too, taking on a more arcade-esque style of rewarding the player, while still retaining the heart-pounding excitement of a fast-paced action game. And don’t tell me having an acrobatic French robot as a squadmate isn’t awesome.
Most Disappointing: Yakuza: Dead Souls
It’s odd that Yakuza: Dead Souls would be my choice for two reasons. Firstly, it’s a nice coincidence one of the major drawcards for me when deciding to pick Binary Domain up was that I had heard it was by the team behind a few titles in the Yakuza series. Secondly, Dead Souls was, hands down, the game I was the most excited for this year. Oh boy, was it crushing. The story basically made a mockery of everything I know and love about the Yakuza series; it almost seemed like all the developers wanted was to get a slice of the (oversaturated) zombie media market. The open-world Kamuro-cho was a great choice for a setting during a zombie outbreak, but the poor enemy placement, level design and game controls meant that I was wanting to get the game over and done with as soon as possible. On the plus side, the most badass characters the series has to offer are all playable… but it’s still not enough.
So there you have it: our picks for the best and most disappointing games so far this year. Agree? Disagree? We’d love to hear what yours are!