The Year in Review(s)

17 Dec

2011 was a hell of a year. Twelve months ago, I was a fresh-faced blogger who had just taken the reins at Paste magazine, eager to do something new but not quite sure what that would be. Now it’s December again and here I am at Kotaku, looking back at an insane year of writing, debating, critiquing, traveling, and goofing around. I’ve made more friends this year than I made in the ten before it, and have had more fun than any one person ought to have. It’s all a bit difficult to write about, actually.

I wanted to take some time over the next week or so to look back at the year that was. I figured I’d start with game reviews.

It felt like I wrote a lot of reviews this year, but looking back, I see that I wrote fourteen. That’s not as many as most hardcore reviewers, but I hope that by keeping myself to around one review per month, I managed to engineer a quality-over-quantity situation.

Here, in chronological order, are all of the game reviews I wrote in 2011.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent

My first review for Paste as games editor, and still one of the scariest games I’ve ever played. I’m very much looking forward to Frictional’s follow-up.

Frictional Games’ Amnesia: The Dark Descent is designed with a singular purpose—to cultivate fear in its purest form. The first-person horror-adventure seeks to reduce players to twitchy, terrified wrecks, shaking shells of their former selves who cower in the darkness and leap out of their skins at the slightest provocation. It’s a nasty piece of work, and it does what it does quite well.

Infinity Blade

My review of Chair’s iOS swordfighting game Infinity Blade may not be as badassedly groundbreaking as J. Nicholas Geist’s shifting, interactive review at Kill Screen, but whatever. I wrote mine first.

Over time, the strange notion of impermanent death has become something that gamers have come to accept as a simple fact of life. Emergency! Peril! The princess is in danger! Only you can save her! (Oh also you are probably going to die a couple hundred times along the way. Trust me though you’ll be fine.)

LittleBigPlanet 2

I loved LittleBigPlanet 2, though its gameplay has soured for me a bit over time. Particularly after playing the splendid Super Mario 3D Land. But all the same, this game was something special, in large part because of its music, which I actually just wrote about for Kotaku.

Oh, LittleBigPlanet 2. What the hell am I going to do with you? You are a game that is difficult to quantify, much less qualify—larger perhaps than any single console experience out there, built as if by hand by extraordinarily, terrifyingly bright people and brought to life with a kinetic sensibility. An ode to joyous, chaotic motion, you are the toy box and the toys wrapped into one, the Rube to my PS3’s Goldberg. You have music in your soul. You are a spectacularly groovy game.

Dead Space 2

Dead Space 2 was a game I liked more than I expected to, and which has grown on me over time. I recently got the steam version on sale, and started playing again. I was struck by how it pulls you in and never lets go–2011 had a nice crop of competent, well-made action games, and Dead Space 2, while frustrating in plenty of ways, was among the strongest.

Oh, the aliens I have slain. Over the past ten or so hours I have decapitated, reamed, stomped, stabbed, incinerated, frozen, crushed, sliced, airlocked, vivisected, lanced, bludgeoned, impaled, electrocuted, detonated, blasted, buzz-sawed, and flame-throwered more space-beasts than I could hope to count. I have carved myself a horrible path of destruction, leaving in my wake a dripping trail of gore that would make Ash Williams himself a bit queasy. Forget about Doom and Serious Sam; Dead Space 2 is the new king of extra-terrestrial carnage.

Dragon Age 2

Dragon Age 2 was easily my biggest disappointment of the year, which led to the most negative review I’ve ever written. This game did so many things wrong, and while I’ve come to value a few of the ideas that it had right, I cannot value the execution, which was haphazard and unfocused. It was the most claustrophobia-inducing game I played all year, and a singularly unpleasant experience from start to finish. Come on, BioWare. Take your time with Dragon Age 3. Get it right. Redeem yourselves.

Also, bring back Shale?

Time and again it forced me down a series of narrow paths with only the illusion of choice about how I would proceed. As I fumblingly made my way forward, I was shocked to find myself wondering if BioWare had simply made a misstep here, or if we had finally reached the sad, neutered destination towards which we’ve been heading for some time. Maybe I do miss the journey, after all.

The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile

This one was a big surprise for me, and a welcome one. I didn’t get to do too many reviews for Joystiq during my brief tenure as a freelancer there, but I’m glad Justin assigned me this game. I also loved Ryan Kuo’s review of the game for Paste.

The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile is a brilliantly executed, whirling dervish of a game that all but demands to be ripped open and played to death. Grab your kitty-cat, gas up your chainsaw-arm and sharpen your blades. It’s gonna be a bloodbath.

Stacking

Sigh, Stacking. I’m more bummed out by this review than I was when I wrote it, not because I have changed my mind, but because despite all the problems I had with Lee Petty and Double Fine’s game, I think that it’s a visual gem and that its art should be celebrated. But unfortunately, for me, it was a case of style over substance that had the unprecedented effect of making me motion sick. So I couldn’t very well give it a ringing endorsement. At least I got to write a cute gimmick into my review.

After an hour or so, stylistic inconsistencies begin to pile on top of one another. The initially charming vibe became a distraction, and by the time I reached the end of the second level—set aboard a doll-infested cruise ship—I had to concede that playing Stacking was an unpleasant sensorial experience. Its visual hodgepodge had become exhausting, its constant cut scenes were an irritation, and its loping old-timey camera was strange and disorienting. I found myself avoiding the game.

Portal 2

This was a big one. I loved Portal 2, but after watching reviewers write on and on for a week, I decided that if I was going to add anything to the conversation, I’d have to get creative. So, I broke out my dominoes and did so. I was thrilled with the reception this piece received, and happy to see creativity get recognized by so many writers I respect. To this day I wonder if Stephen Merchant ever saw this review. Probably not.

Playing Portal 2 made me feel good about myself, and good about the people who designed it. What’s more, I couldn’t shake the sense that the designers felt similarly about me, about the players for whom they designed the game. It’s odd that a videogame should earn special recognition just for respecting its players, but Portal 2 does exactly that.

L.A. Noire

Another review that got a lot of positive attention was the paranoid freakout review of L.A. Noire that I did for Kill Screen. I had such a strange reaction to this game that halfway through, I realized I had to write about it. Thanks to Ryan Kuo for working with me on the piece, and helping it be as focused as it is.

I’m happy to see more and more of my peers adopting this sort of narrowly focused narrative style when critiquing games. I think that it is important to keep in mind that even when writing in this style, your review should have something useful to say about the game. (In this case, how the world and ambient dialogue are emblematic of the game’s empty strangeness.) Creative, provocative writing is perfectly fine on its own, but a review can be both creatively interesting and analytically useful at the same time. I think (or at least, hope) that this one pulled that off.

Midway through the game, my vice-squad partner herded me from a crime scene to our car, smoothly instructing me as to where we should go next. But I was on to him. This wasn’t real; none of it was real. There was no case, there were no drug dealers. This conspiracy was bigger than narcotics, bigger than the police department, bigger than this whole damn city. I made as if to open the driver’s-side door, but at the last moment, I turned heel and ran.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

This was my first review after taking the gig at Kotaku. I loved this game, and played the living crap out of it. A lot of our commenters freaked out when I wrote this, since it was a significant diversion from what they were used to. What’s funny is that looking back through my reviews, this was easily the most experimental (and the most disliked), yet it also did the best traffic. Hmm.

To enter the world of Human Revolution is to discover a dusty box filled with letters and love, a collection of correspondence painstakingly addressed to a dozen of the greatest games of all time. It’s fitting, then, that the game it channels most of all is its own progenitor Deus Ex, the one that set the rest of them in motion. The strengths and flaws of its design and story become interlocked to the point that they are oddly indistinguishable. Human Revolution doesn’t make gaming history so much as re-create it note for note, a transcription so flawless that my appreciation of it is as much about the quality of the recreation as it is about the contents of the work itself.

Gears of War 3

This one was difficult to write, for whatever reason–there was so much to this game, and I really wanted to talk about all of it. I think that I fell into the reviewing trap of attempting to address every aspect of a game, and as a result the whole thing is about three paragraphs too long. That said, I think I articulated what I like about this game well.

So here we have Gears of War 3: Maniacally refined mechanics and design, a clunky campaign that works more often than it doesn’t, and one of the more varied and enjoyable multiplayer suites I’ve ever encountered. Even as the culmination of the series, Gears of War 3’s high level stuff—its story, themes, characters, and drama—never quite manage to get where they were going. But then, this game doesn’t do “high level.” It makes its home in the dirt, hugging the ground as incoming bullets kick up chunks of cement, as rattling bursts of gunfire are drowned out by the roars of enemies and friends alike.

Rocksmith

Rocksmith was, surprisingly, the first music game I’ve ever reviewed; too bad I disliked it so. Several commenters and readers pointed out that there are ways to minimize lag in the game (this is also detailed in a pamphlet in the game’s box). But if they think that I would have enjoyed a low-lag version of Rocksmith, I fear they missed the larger point of my review. Leaving aside the fact that I don’t want to rewire my PS3 every time I play a certain game, Rocksmith itself is a weird, soulless guitar teacher that fails both as a videogame and as an educational product. I said it in my review, so I won’t repeat myself here.

Teaching music is a fundamentally human act, and it can only be properly done with soul and love. This joyous humanism is something that Harmonix managed to capture in Rock Band, but it’s something that Ubisoft has forgotten to include in Rocksmith. Their game’s experience is a hollow one, far removed from the grit and the pulse and the noise of the electric guitar.

Saints Row: The Third

Here was a game that I liked more (much more!) than I thought I would. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that I loved it. I had fun writing this review, and think that I captured everything that made it work for me.

Saints Row: The Third is a celebration of the player’s ego and of his or her power—it’s a joyous, wholehearted embrace of the “you” as it applies to video games. Who is the most important person in the world? You are! Who gets all the toys? You do! Indulge yourself, this game tells us. Stop tripping. The world’s ours.

Mario Kart 7

My final review of the year was of Nintendo’s Mario Kart 7 for the 3DS. I really liked it and still play it a lot. I played it today. I think it’s a good review with which to bring 2011 to a close.

There’s a spot on the couch where Mario Kart 7 sits, a well-worn seat where the pillows and cushions have been arranged just so. Over the years, a multitude of previous Mario Kart games have all occupied that spot, and so Mario Kart 7 knows just how to hold itself, just how to sit, just how to remain comfortable. This game feels so confidently Mario Kart—every aspect of its design and presentation is just in there.

And there you have it: all of the video game reviews I wrote in 2011. Thanks to everyone who read them, said kind things, and helped spread them around.

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