Archives for category: wRPGs


Back before Destiny launched – about three years ago now – I wrote an excitable, detailed piece about the PS4 alpha test. Clearly I was onboard. But if you were to search my blog for more on Bungie’s shared world shooter, you’d turn up a single extra article since launch – an unboxing of the game’s limited edition.

So what happened? Did I hate the game? Did I abandon it altogether? No. I played Destiny for a while, and for a while I loved it. Then I reached the end of the story, and I fell out of love.

My issues with vanilla Destiny are manifold, and I’ll get into them later (indeed, some of them still persist, to varying degrees). But as the release of Destiny 2 looms ever nearer, I find myself getting drawn back to the game I so desperately wanted to love. And so, over the last few weeks, I’ve been revisiting it, now as different an experience as it is similar, to see if I really want to buy in to the sequel.

I’m probably going to get Destiny 2.

To be clear, this isn’t the first time I’ve returned. After walking away from the original game shortly after reaching level 20, and having killed a weird, pulsating cosmic heart that no one cared to even begin to explain, the excitement around the following year’s The Taken King piqued my interest. “It’s got a story now!” people would tell me, adding “there’s a lot more for solo players to do,” and “levelling is much better explained this time!”

They weren’t wrong, to be fair. I swallowed a mouthful of bile at having to re-buy Destiny and its first two expansions to play The Taken King and again, I had a lot of fun with it. And what do you know, it did have a story! A fairly decent one too, even if it still could have done with a touch more explanation (pipe down, Stranger).

Eventually though, I stopped playing again, and it’s at this point I should probably detail what my issues with Destiny were (are?). To begin with, it’s probably worth pointing out why I was so excited for the game; as a huge Halo campaign fan, I’m used to being a bit of a lore nerd, scrounging around for clues about the mysteries of the universe, be they from snippets of obscure dialogue, hidden terminals or even extended universe novels, and I couldn’t wait to get stuck into Bungie’s next big mythic sci-fi setting. What I got was… well, a mess, quite frankly, with a campaign that almost gloried in paper thin characters sending you on inexplicable missions packed with vague objectives against inscrutable enemies. True, the Grimoire card system hinted at a deep, interesting pool of lore beyond the surface, and it’s worth pointing out that some stories are told in those cards that probably wouldn’t work in-game, but the campaign itself exposed virtually none of that storytelling to players, instead choosing to offer up a disjointed, unsatisfying attempt at a narrative that had quite clearly been chopped up and sewn back together wrong sometime prior to release – something that Kotaku’s Jason Schreier later confirmed. I don’t want to sound overly dramatic, but it genuinely saddened me that Destiny‘s story was such a shambles, and I don’t think it’d be unfair to call it a disaster.

Oryx: not a looker.

As mentioned, 2015’s big expansion The Taken King did much to fix that state of affairs, offering a simpler yet more engaging tale told by actual characters, rather than cardboard cut-outs. It also introduced the Books of Sorrow, which remains the best storytelling in the entire saga (even if, again, we see very little of its intriguing detail in the game itself).

Another big reason for my interest in Destiny was my love of roleplaying games as a genre. A Halo RPG, you say? Sounds like my dream game, sign me up! Unfortunately, another of Destiny‘s missteps was the arcane levelling system after you hit the soft level cap of 20, whereupon any further XP earned would be converted into Motes of Light which you then… You know what, I can’t even remember. I barely engaged with it. I briefly tried to wrap my head around it, and then walked away, rather than grind my face against the backside of RNGesus. Thankfully, The Taken King changed things so that every piece of armour you wear and weapon you wield adds to your overall Light level. Equip a better piece of gear and your Light will go up. Simple! Quite why it had to be so mind-bending in the base game, I don’t know. Still, even with these changes in place, I once more walked away from the game partway through The Taken King, just as I had with vanilla, because my main issue with the game still persisted. And honestly, it’s a complaint that isn’t even fair to level at the game.

Each time, what made me walk away from Destiny is the fact that you can only get so far as a solo player. After a while, you need to group up with others if you want to actually progress further and see everything the game has to offer.

Well d’uh, you’re probably saying, and yes, I know – like I said, it’s not really a fair criticism of the game, given that’s its fundamental nature. It’s just that it doesn’t really work for me, as a typically solitary player that happens to jump into a game whenever I have the time; it’s difficult to schedule a raid when you don’t know if you’re going to be free (or if you can even be arsed when the time slot rolls around). I also don’t really want my gaming time to feel like a commitment, like I have to do something, rather than want to, because that way resentment lies.

Yet even with all that said, Destiny has always been in the back of my mind, and I’ve long thought that I’d like to go back to it and see what the end-game is all about. It’d take a bit of effort on my part (and I had once made the effort to get in on a run through the Vault of Glass, the raid that shipped with the base game), but with Destiny 2 on the horizon, and the thought that I’d quite like to get in on the ground level with the new instalment, I managed to ingratiate myself with a group of friendly players and go raiding. And it’s been great! Having recently run through both Crota’s End and King’s Fall, I can finally see what all the fuss is about. Destiny‘s raids really are the game at its very best, and that’s even more evident when you have a good, patient, friendly group to talk you through the often opaque, dense mechanics. I’ve never had a group to play the game with before, which has always made it very easy to walk away from, and it’s really thanks to the guys over at Town Called Malice that I was even able to experience them. It’s also pretty much down to them that I’m almost certain to buy Destiny 2 now, whereas before I was just sort of interested. ONE OF US. Or, them, I guess.

Destiny has always offered some incredible vistas. Sorry this one’s a bit rubbish.

I’m not sure how well I’ll adapt to scheduling playtimes and such, as it’s probably going to take some kind of rewiring of my brain to get properly into Destiny full-time, but I definitely want to get deeper into it this time out. And as much as I’m fully on-board the hype train now (or, well, I at least have a ticket), there are some things that have given me pause lately. Last month, it emerged that Destiny 2 was doing away with the Grimoire system, with Bungie’s Steve Cotton telling Forbes, “we want to put the lore in the game. We want people to be able to find the lore.” On the face of it, this is a really good change; the Grimoire has long been a complaint for a couple of reasons, mainly that it keeps the lore outside of the game, and having more story exposed to players while they’re in-universe is very obviously a good thing. But as I noted above, the Grimoire also plays host to some excellent story content that simply couldn’t be done in the game – unless it was loaded with lengthy cutscenes and flashbacks, which people would also complain about. As a counterpoint to this, how fucking cool would it have been to discover bits of the Books of Sorrow in a mission on the Dreadnaught, where you slowly pieced together the history of the Hive and discovered the means to defeat Oryx? If this kind of storytelling is what Bungie is going for, then consider me all in. But if all the stuff that doesn’t play an active role in the current story, yet manages to provide flavour and context to the universe is gone? Well, that’s probably not great.

More worrying are the recent pieces of news taken from a couple of interviews with Design Director Luke Smith, where he suggests that seemingly important pieces of the Destiny puzzle may not make a return. First, responding to a question from PC Gamer about whether we’d see the mystery of the Exo Stranger cleared up in Destiny 2, Smith explained that “we have a bunch of characters who are interesting, but the Exo Stranger is one that always makes me chuckle a little bit. Because I feel that’s one character where we actually wrapped up the arc. She gave you a sweet gun and then dissolved, presumably off to do something else. So I feel like, of all of our characters we’ve introduced and exited, we actually exited her effectively.”

For those not familiar with the character, the Stranger was a female Exo that effectively led you by the nose through the original game’s campaign, directing you as much as, if not more than, any other character in the story. She never explained herself, her goal, or her reasons for aiding you, and was often heard talking to some unknown ally before abruptly disappearing. At the end of the game, she offered you her rifle, which is seemingly made of parts that shouldn’t yet exist, before telling the player, “all ends are beginnings. Our fight is far from over.” So to consider her story over is odd at best, and to think her arc was ended “effectively” is absolutely ridiculous. Imagine if Cortana just didn’t turn up in Halo 2! I suspect (hope?) that, given the character’s popularity and potential for future storytelling, that she will eventually wind her way back into a future game or expansion, but given Smith’s statement that her arc is done, I won’t hold my breath until I see it for myself.

I don’t even have time to explain why her story wasn’t “effectively” wrapped up.

A couple of days after the PC Gamer interview, Smith appeared on Kotaku’s podcast, where it was confirmed that The Darkness, the formless, ancient evil of the Destiny universe, would not be appearing in Destiny 2. This makes sense, as the Cabal are the main focal antagonist of the new game, and they aren’t really allied with the Darkness, certainly not in the way other races such as the Hive or Vex are. What was a bit worrying about this was Smith’s reaction to Jason Schreier’s question of whether the omission was because nobody actually knew what the Darkness was: “So, I think that at a point, just totally candidly? We had no idea what it was. Straight up. We had no clue.”

Hmm. Let’s go back to the earlier Kotaku story, which revealed that Destiny underwent massive rewrites a year out from release. We know that Joe Staten and his team of writers spent years building the narrative foundation of Destiny, and we know that the studio leadership didn’t like how it all hung together. Even if the Darkness wasn’t formally laid out, I find it difficult to believe that there weren’t at least deep hooks written into everything else that strongly suggested where the overarching tale was headed; 343 industries’ Frank O’Connor, himself a Bungie alum, has previously stated that much of the current direction of the Halo series arose from discussions at Bungie around what a potential continuation would be, as an example.

With Staten now back at Microsoft, I wonder how much of the comments surrounding the Stranger and the Darkness are about the current writing team wanting to throw out the last vestiges of the original outline, in an effort to more thoroughly put their stamp on Destiny. Smith’s elaboration perhaps supports this: “We didn’t know what it was, and we, for a period, we chose [that] we’re going to lump all the races [in together], and you see this in the tooltips in the game — ‘minions of the darkness.’ And we had taken all the races and said, ‘Ah, they’ll just be The Darkness.’ But that’s not what the IP deserves.”

That’s not what the IP deserves. That, to me, says the Darkness will return, but only when they’ve decided what the current team want their Darkness to be. I won’t say that’s necessarily a bad thing – it may even free them up to tell better stories – but I have to admit to some level of disappointment that we’ll likely never know how the universe of Destiny was originally meant to unfold. After the good work done on The Taken King, however, in both storytelling and gameplay terms, I’m certainly willing to give Smith and his team the benefit of the doubt, even if he does have a bit of a habit of inserting his foot firmly into his mouth and somehow managing to leave a bad taste for everyone.

inqgroup
It’s fair to say that in the run-up to release, many have approached Dragon Age: Inquisition with, at best, cautious optimism. Others of course, have been downright pessimistic, lingering memories of Dragon Age 2‘s more reductive ideas and restrictive world still playing on their minds.

Some of us have been less restrained than the rest however, so when the game popped up on Xbox One’s EA Access service I couldn’t help myself. Six hours of pre-release Dragon Age fun? Oh go on then. The only problem I had to contend with was what class/race combo I was going to roll. My Warden in Origins was a Dalish rogue, but my Hawke in Dragon Age 2 was a mage, and I had loved both. So I decided to try both, playing the first hour as an elven archer before restarting and eventually settling on a towering qunari mage (don’t call me saarebas!); I have to admit, witnessing every other character in the game craning their neck to look my Inquisitor in the eye was amusing. With that, it was into the game proper.

The first hour takes the form of a prologue dealing with the immediate aftermath of a magical catastrophe at the Temple of the Sacred Ashes in Haven. What was supposed to be a peace summit to end the conflict between mages and templars that began in Dragon Age 2 ends in the deaths of hundreds, with your player character the only survivor. You awake in chains, confused, and you’re soon heading out with Cassandra to attempt to close the Breach that hangs ominously in the sky, and hopefully save your own life into the bargain. Everyone assumes you’re the cause of the cataclysm, so it might be prudent to do something about that.

The prologue is fairly linear, and sees you travelling up frozen mountain paths, battling demons and closing smaller rifts as you head towards the now-ruined temple and the enormous hole torn in the heavens above it. You’re introduced to dwarven rogue Varric (who has thoughtfully brought Bianca along) and elven apostate Solas, and as we battled our way up the mountain, I was immediately reminded of the Sacred Ashes trailer for the original game. This short prologue feels like it gets closer to achieving what that trailer promised than the relevant quest in Origins ever did (sans dragon, obviously), and you’re travelling through the same part of the world, too. I can’t help but wonder if the call-back is intentional.

After fighting your way up the mountain, you reach a forward operating base where you’re afforded your first choice. You need to push onward to the Breach, but do you take a dangerous mountain pass where some of Cassandra’s soldiers have disappeared, hoping to discover their fate along the way, or do you charge through the valley with the bulk of the forces? Ultimately, both sections play out much the same; a small rift battle, and a run-in with an NPC – Cullen, if you storm the valley. Upon reaching your destination, Varric worriedly points out that the Temple is infested with primeval red lyrium, and as you attempt to prise open the rift in order to properly seal it, an enormous pride demon bursts from the Fade to stop you.

Entering tac cam pauses the action at any point. Great for the screenshot junkies.

Entering tac cam pauses the action at any point. Great for the screenshot junkies.

It’s a great first boss battle, an arena-based affair with a huge boss to wear down, a few waves of adds to deal with, and that Fade rift that needs closing. It’s also a good time to get fully to grips with Inquisition’s combat, which neatly blends elements from both of its predecessors. Should you choose to play entirely in real-time, the game plays much like Dragon Age 2, though with auto-attack mapped to a hold of the right trigger rather than requiring constant bashing of the A button. You also have eight quickslots for your talents now instead of six, with the right bumper button added to the previous games’ X, Y and B slots. The left trigger now switches between sets of four talents.

Playing entirely in real-time however means ignoring Inquisition‘s tactical camera, resurrected from Origins‘ PC release and now available on all platforms. Fans of the console titles’ radial menu-based pause-and-play system may mourn its loss (with the radial menu, on left bumper, now offering simple commands like potions and party-hold), but really you’re trading up here. You can enter tac cam at any point during gameplay, which allows you to scan the battlefield before even getting into combat, scoping out enemy positions, strengths, weaknesses and immunities at a glance, and the overhead view makes it possible to inspect the terrain, making it easier to move ranged characters onto higher ground, perhaps, or position a tank in a chokepoint to draw enemies in. And if you’re playing as a mage, the tac cam is invaluable in making the most of your AoE spells.

Much has been made of the fact that mages in Dragon Age: Inquisition have no healing spells, but it’s really not an issue. You have a finite pool of healing potions, but they can be re-stocked at a camp, which you can fast-travel to from anywhere. Moreover, the focus here is on damage mitigation rather than heal-spamming; warriors can generate Guard, a second health bar that protects main health by soaking up some damage, while mages have an area-of-effect spell called Barrier that does much the same, albeit for a period of time. It means that it’s no longer absolutely necessary to have a mage in the party, and should help to encourage more flexible party composition.

After defeating the pride demon and halting the expansion of the breach, you’re hailed as the Herald of Andraste. After a brief 80s TV-style “gettin’-things-done” montage, the Inquisition is reborn and you’re off to the game’s first truly open area, The Hinterlands. A verdant, fertile stretch of land in the heart of Ferelden, the region and its people are under threat thanks to the conflict between mages and templars. The first time you open your map to see a vast expanse of icons littering the Hinterlands, it’s more than a little overwhelming; it can be difficult to figure out where your focus should be, and so you strike out with your party to explore the surroundings. Don’t go too far in one direction though, as you’ll likely get wrecked by a roving group of bandits or maybe even an ill-tempered bear or two.

The best idea seems to be to spiral outward from your starting area, filling in your map as you go and and establishing further camps in the wilderness that you can use to rest, refill your potion stocks and even fast travel between. Doing so also extends the Inquisition’s reach through an in-game currency called ‘Power’ that you will need to accrue in order to further the story and unlock more regions. There are landmarks to claim for your faction and quests to undertake are everywhere. A good few of these seem to take the form of the “kill x of y” template so beloved of MMOs, but if you get bored of monster-culling, there’s always something else to do, like hunting down mysterious magical shards, picking herbs for crafting, or even just exploring to find yet another pretty vista. There’s so much to do – after five hours, I had uncovered what appeared to be less than half of the map of the Hinterlands, and this is just one region out of about ten. This game will eat your life.

Dragon Age Inquisition Hinterlands Map

This was my map of The Hinterlands after five hours.

Dragon Age: Inquisition absolutely nails the sense of exploration that I have always felt the series was lacking; with the exception of the relatively-sprawling Korcari Wilds, Dragon Age: Origins was fairly narrow in its environmental design, and the smaller scale of Dragon Age 2‘s world is now legendary. Inquisition updates Dragon Age for a post-Skyrim world, though you’d be hard-pressed to call it a copy; while you can and will (and, more importantly, should) head off into the great unknown to discover what lurks in that dense forest or over that nearby hill, Inquisition‘s Thedas isn’t one large, contiguous landmass like Skyrim, but rather a number of large zones – again, that impression of an MMO comes to the fore – and though The Hinterlands is the only one I’ve seen so far it is absolutely rammed with all kinds of stuff to find and do, and positively dripping with detail. Just like in Skyrim, you’ll find yourself frequently side-tracked in the middle of a quest by some strange landmark that catches your magpie eye.

And this is to say nothing of the game’s visuals, which are splendid. Inquisition is absolutely drenched in colour, The Hinterlands coming across almost as a bright fairytale countryside, though torn with strife and infighting. Yet the fields and forests still teem with wildlife, some of which you’re going to have to hunt down to fulfil some of those aforementioned quests. In the snow-covered paths of the Frostback Mountains that make up the prologue, the sun glints off of the cracks in frozen-over streams and characters leave footprints in the snow as the powder kicked up by your party’s feet is carried away on the wind. The environment is so dense that after a couple of hours you’re given a search function (mapped to a click of the left stick) that subtly picks out nearby loot that might otherwise blend into the detail-rich scene. Codex entries and misplaced letters can be found all over the place, filling out the history of the region, and even landmarks inform you of their history when you claim them. You’ll stumble across mages and templars engaged in pitched battles, crafting materials will slowly grow back after you’ve passed through to harvest them, and heaven help you if, under-levelled, you wander into a surly bear’s territory. You get a sense of an environment that exists alongside you as much as it does for you, a world that could move on with or without your input.

After five hours, I can already see I’m going to lose weeks to Inquisition. BioWare has always made games that are reactive, but I’ve long wanted their settings to feel more like a real, sprawling world, rather than an interconnected set of places, and here the fantasy series feels like it’s really reaching to grasp its potential.

This is the most expansive Dragon Age has ever been, the most alive Thedas has ever felt.

witchban_editedIt says something about the The Witcher 2 that it’s one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played, despite the fact I’ve only experienced about half of it.

These days, many games offer choice to their players, yet how far-reaching these decisions are depends on the game; your choices in the Mass Effect series may dictate who lives and who dies for instance, but many decisions tend to be rather binary choices that descend into “if this, then that” scenarios that don’t tend to have a wider impact on the game world than who you take on a mission with you.

But The Witcher 2 goes a step further, one major choice effectively changing the entire course of the game. After a scene-setting prologue in which Geralt of Rivia (the titular Witcher) witnesses, and is subsequently framed for, the death of a king, he sets off with Vernon Roche, head of the deceased monarch’s special forces, to prove his innocence and hunt down the man responsible. His first lead takes him to the dreary riverside town of Flotsam, where he’s tracked down Iorveth, leader of a band of renegade elves that he suspects have helped the true kingslayer to flee.

Of course, this being a world made of numerous shades of grey, things aren’t quite that simple. Iorveth leads a group of Scoia’tael, bands of elven and dwarven guerrillas in a world where non-humans are persecuted, and to many he’s nothing more than a terrorist. As the saying goes: “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”, and so the man you initially set out to hunt down becomes a potential ally. By the end of the first chapter we’re forced to make a quick decision: do we stick with Roche and tend to matters in Flotsam, or do we set off with Iorveth on the trail of the assassin?

iorveth

This single choice leads to two wildly different outcomes. With Iorveth, we end up in the Dwarven town of Vergen, supporting a young warrior facing off an expansionist king’s army while she strives to establish a multi-racial state. If we decide to travel with Roche, we’re on the opposite side of that same conflict, in a completely separate area with different quests, objectives and new characters that you’d otherwise never come across.

Portioning off masses of content like this is great for replayability (I still need to run the Roche path in a second playthrough), but is also somewhat risky; there are plenty of people out there who will only play the game once through and not even know what they’re missing, after all. It shows great confidence in their fiction that CD Projekt RED would offer such differing paths through the storyline of The Witcher 2, and even better is the somewhat-delayed nature of the branching paths in the game. Often, you’ll make a decision and think it’s had very little effect on your adventure at all. It’s only hours later that you’ll see the full repercussions of your actions, and this forces you to own your choices; you can’t reload and try out the other path (unless you want to lose hours of progress), so you just have to accept the fallout and move on, knowing that next time you’ll stop to consider your actions, conscious of the path you want to take through the game’s narrative.

And what a story it is, tackling mature themes such as racism, terrorism and political maneuvering, all through a dark fantasy lens. Following on from the first game’s excellent final cinematic, Geralt finds himself in the employ of King Foltest of Temeria as he attempts to put down a revolt, and later carves a path through the Northern Kingdoms in an attempt to uncover the machinations of a lodge of magicians, the disappearance of his one-time lover and the memories he has lost since he apparently returned from death. It’s an epic tale that plays out in a somewhat-muted manner, lending the tale a very grounded, human feel despite the dragons, the sorceresses and the mythical creatures Geralt earns his coin by slaying. It’s the perfect tone for the game to take, eschewing the usual AAA Hollywood-style theatrics in favour of something that better serves the multi-layered, mature story.

Combat has been overhauled from the first game. Just as in The Witcher, Geralt carries two swords – a silver blade for use against monsters and a steel one for more earthly foes – but here you have either a fast or a heavy attack rather than the previous game’s three stances. Replacing Geralt’s spins and pirouettes is a handy dodge-roll for getting out of trouble, and the first game’s magical Signs make a reappearance here as well. Combat certainly feels more tactile and involving than the previous game’s mouse-clicks-and-die-rolls system, and you really need to know how and when to use each element of the system to your advantage; risk a slow, heavy strike at the wrong time and you could be in trouble. Similarly, you don’t want to allow yourself to get surrounded, as this will lead to Geralt being bounced around like a pinball as all of your enemies take their shot at you, knocking you out of your attack animation.

If this sounds punishing, well… it is. Or rather, it can be. The best thing to do in The Witcher 2 is to play defensively, sussing out the enemy’s weaknesses, finding an opening and then exploiting it mercilessly. It’s exhilarating when you work your way through a group of enemies by sheer skill and quick thinking, because if you just try to hack and slash, you won’t last long at all.

There are a couple of minor irritations in combat, however. I mentioned enemies knocking you out of attack animations, and that’s a symptom of probably the most potentially frustrating niggle in the game – when you make a move, take a swipe or prepare a sign, you have to commit to it. You can’t bail out part-way through the animation to dodge-roll or block, so you really need to know how and when to move. Secondly, you can only use potions (concoctions that confer buffs on Geralt) before you enter combat, meaning you generally have to know (or at least suspect) a battle is coming up ahead of time. This is a change from the first game, where you could down a potion if you could manage to create a bit of space in a fight.

These minor issues wouldn’t really matter if the combat wasn’t occasionally uneven – there are some brutal difficulty spikes in the game, though generally you can get through them by thinking about the situation and trying a different strategy. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to see both these issues either tweaked or changed entirely in the upcoming sequel.

flotsam3

Visually, The Witcher 2 is a beautiful game, even on 360 (the version I played, which seems to be roughly on-par with PC on medium). This is partly thanks to CD Projekt’s impressive tech and partly down to their excellent art direction. I mentioned Flotsam earlier, but it’s the surrounding forest that really steals the show in this early section of the game; dark, foreboding and densely multi-layered, it’s straight out of a Brothers Grimm folktale, with the canopies of huge trees blotting out the light, branches twisted into gnarled curlicues. It’s a fabulously atmospheric setting in a game that’s absolutely rammed with them – just wait until you first spy the quarry near Vergen.

And I haven’t even mentioned the characters, all of whom are well-defined and uniformly deliver excellent dialogue. It’s certainly a clear step up from the first game in that regard, even returning characters like Zoltan and Dandelion seemingly infused with more character. The absolute stand-out for me is the mysterious Letho, a man whose appearance belies his intelligence. In fact, I enjoyed his character so much that I made a decision near the game’s end that I wouldn’t have thought likely at the tale’s start. I really hope we see him again in The Witcher 3.

And speaking of The Witcher 3, it’s probably my most anticipated next-gen title on the horizon right now. All I need to do is play through Geralt’s first two adventures again beforehand, experiencing those paths less trodden along the way. CD Projekt have made it clear that the upcoming third game will bring Geralt’s tale to a close and, looking as impressive as it currently does, I think they’re going to leave us with one of the best trilogies in all of gaming.

Previous entries in Games of the Generation:
Dead Space 2
Tales of Vesperia
Halo 3
Theatrhythm Final Fantasy
To the Moon

CD Projekt RED have torn the veil from a new trailer for upcoming dark fantasy epic The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. In it, we see Geralt of Rivia on horseback (along with a companion) collecting payment for a monster contract. His employers, Nilfgaardian soldiers, are a bit busy sentencing a young woman to death, and Geralt initially decides to take his coin and go on his way. But deciding that “evil is evil”, no matter to what degree, he intervenes.

Our white-haired hero also makes note of his famous neutrality (“If I’m to choose between one evil and another, I’d rather not choose at all”), suggesting we’ll again have some tough decisions to make in the third and final chapter of The Witcher saga.

It’s interesting to note that the Nilfgaardian soldier remarks to Geralt, “knew you witchers wouldn’t scorn Imperial gold”, suggesting that the other rider is also a witcher. Listening to him telling Geralt not to meddle, I think it might be Vesemir, and it’d be good to see he and some of the more minor characters from across the first two games return in Wild Hunt.

I recently finished The Witcher 2 (yep, I’m finally making some headway on my backlog), and I have to say it’s one of the best games I’ve ever played. Having reminded myself of some plot points from the first game and reading up on a little lore on the Witcher wiki, I feel confident I know what the main thrust of the third game’s plot will be. I can’t wait to get my hands on it, but seeing as it’s not due out until sometime next year I’ll have to content myself with reading Andrzej Sapkowski’s books – a couple of which I’ve just ordered from Amazon.

Who else is excited for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt? What do you make of the trailer?

The Torment: Tides of Numenera Kickstarter ends tonight. It has currently amassed a huge 3.9+ million dollars in pledges, over 400% of its stated goal.

Started by InXile Entertainment, a studio formed by two ‘exiles’ from Interplay, Torment: Tides of Numenera is a spiritual successor to Black Isle’s cult hit Planescape: Torment. Though it is not set in the D&D campaign setting of Planescape (InXile were unable to obtain a license from Wizards of the Coast), the new game takes its setting from game designer Monte Cook’s Numenera tabletop RPG, which was itself funded on Kickstarter last year. The setting takes place in the distant future, after a number of civilizations have risen and then fallen again, leaving remnants of their technology, relics known as numenera, scattered across the world. The current age is referred to as ‘The Ninth World’, as its scholars believe eight great civilizations have passed.

tormentsagus

In Torment: Tides of Numenera, the player character is called The Last Castoff – a vessel previously used by an ancient human who found a way to transfer his consciousness from one host to the next, casting off the shell when he moved on. However, without this ancient’s knowledge, each host awakens with a new consciousness of its own when he moves on, with no memories of what has transpired. The ancient’s actions have awoken an age-old guardian intent on destroying him and his creations – including The Last Castoff. And so, the player sets off to find their creator and learn the mysteries of their creation and the meaning behind their existence.

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Kickstarter members have been throwing pledges at this title in droves. It currently holds the record for quickest project to hit one million dollars (which it accomplished in a mere seven hours, after achieving its $900,000 funding goal in six, beating the previous million dollar record, Ouya, by an hour), and it’s closing in on becoming the biggest Kickstarter success so far – at time of writing, with eight hours remaining, $3,901,337 has been pledged. This is likely down to the cult status enjoyed by Planescape: Torment, which many fans hold up as the greatest RPG ever made. Numenera is being helmed by a number of the people that worked on Planescape at Black Isle back in the late 90s, and the $3.5m stretch goal was the inclusion of Obsidian’s Chris Avellone, lead designer of the revered 1999 philosophical role-player. Hopefully Numenera can live up to the legacy of the game that inspired it.

Over the last couple of days, InXile have released a couple of in-engine images from the game, which you can see above, as well as lighting and effects test videos that you can view on the Kickstarter project page. As you can see, the game uses pre-rendered backdrops, similar to Planescape: Torment, and the environments look very nicely detailed. The team has been showing quite a lot of concept art over the course of the Kickstarter period, and much of it has been absolutely beautiful; it really makes me want to explore these areas and discover what mysteries lie within these strange environments. Have a look at this piece of art, for instance:

tormentcaNow there’s a place I can’t wait to look around!

I’ve been considering for the last few days whether or not I would make this my first ever Kickstarter pledge. I suppose I’d best make up my mind soon. Everything I’ve read sounds very interesting, and the concept art intrigues me and draws me into The Ninth World. Planescape: Torment was, until recently, one of those games that I’d always heard about but never played, but after finishing The Witcher a couple of weeks back, I decided to start playing it, and so far I’m really enjoying it – especially the more narrative-focused, talky nature of it. It’s been a bit of a challenge trying to figure everything out, but it’s also a nice change of pace as I am able to dive headfirst into the world and work things out for myself, rather than have everything pointed out to me as many games these days are wont to do. If Torment: Tides of Numenera is going to offer a similar (yet different) experience, then I guess I’m going to have to throw my money at my screen.

It’s going to be a bit of a wait for the finished game, however; the enormous amount of contributions have allowed InXile to blow past the majority of their stretch goals (most of which were to add more content, areas, dialogue choices and extra staff). This obviously means that the team will need a bit more time to complete everything, so the estimated end date for the project has been pushed back a few months from December 2014 into early 2015. Let’s hope it’s worth the wait.

Follow the links at the bottom to find out more about the game – visit the project page, InXile’s tumblr site, watch some videos, read some interviews and view some concept art. Then go and throw a bit of money at the InXile guys. I think I’m going to do just that right now; let’s help Torment: Tides of Numenera break another record and blow past $4 million!

Links:
Kickstarter project page:
http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/inxile/torment-tides-of-numenera
Torment Tumblr:
http://tormentrpg.tumblr.com/

wit3wh
Game Informer magazine have shown off their March cover, and with it revealed a big new title in the works. That game is the third in Polish studio CD Projekt RED’s monster slaying, politically-minded fantasy RPG series The Witcher.

The third game in the series sounds as if it will be just as impressive as the previous two titles, but in different ways; The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt will be an open world game in the vein of the Elder Scrolls series, and its world is said to be 30 times larger (!) than that of the previous game, 2011’s Assassins of Kings, and also larger than the realm of Skyrim from TESV.

There is also a short video introducing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt from developers at CDPR, which I have embedded below. In it, we can see some of the motion capture sessions for Geralt’s swordwork, and we hear that the story this time around will be more personal, less political, and that Geralt will have a “personal nemesis” who will be a threat to the Witcher and those he holds dear.

Now, I’m still only about halfway through the first game, but I’m not entirely sure how I feel about The Witcher as an open world game; it’s one of the main things I love about Skyrim (160 hours and still going strong!), but The Witcher is a rather more focused experience, and while the environments are quite large, I wonder how transposing the gameplay of a Witcher title to a full, expansive, streaming open world will affect the narrative flow. I’m hopeful that CDPR won’t really have to sacrifice too much (going by how much back-tracking I’ve had to do so far in the first game anyway), but I usually find myself returning to the main quest sooner rather than later, whereas in Skyrim I abandoned the main quest halfway through and eventually returned to it after about a hundred hours. What facilitates this is the ability to explore for hours and always come upon something new, something that catches your attention and leads to you crawling through a dark cave for half an hour to see what lurks inside.

I’m really interested to see how The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt handles similar instances, even with my handful of doubts – put me down as cautiously optimistic. I think it’s great to see that CD Projekt RED are willing to take risks in order to build up the scope of their already-impressive games, and I have faith that they will be able to do so while retaining the unique flavour expected from their work. That they are currently working on both this and Cyberpunk 2077 shows how far they have come since the days when they were all about localising games like Baldur’s Gate for the Polish market.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is due to launch in 2014 on PC and “all high-end platforms available”, so I think it’s safe to say that the expansive RPG will be a next-gen console title at this point. While we know very little of the new machines from Microsoft and Sony (and even less of what games we can look forward to), it’s comforting to know that we have a massive, involving RPG to get stuck into, hopefully fairly early in the new console cycle. Follow the link to see the full cover image at Game Informer.

Image and video courtesy of Game Informer:
http://www.gameinformer.com/b/news/archive/2013/02/04/march-cover-reveal-witcher-3-wild-hunt.aspx

BioWare’s Casey Hudson, exec producer of the Mass Effect series, and producer Michael Gamble have each tweeted an image from the forthcoming next piece of downloadable content for 2012’s Mass Effect 3.

Hudson’s twitpic, below, shows a casino environment, and it looks as though Shepard and Wrex are conversing in the background. Hudson said of the image, “Looks like a nice place for some R&R…”
shepwrex

Meanwhile, Gamble’s image showed a fully-armoured krogan warrior wielding something that looks like a Halo-style gravity hammer. Gamble’s line accompanying the image was, “Does not look like a guy you’d want to mess with…” Seems like sensible advice to me.
kroham

Speaking about this latest slice of DLC, BioWare has previously stated that “It’s all hands on deck for this one.”, with apparently eight writers working on the content, and both Seth Green (Joker) and BioWare voice work veteran Raphael Sbarge (Kaidan) have let it slip that they’ve recorded lines for it. One of the composers, Sam Hulick (who scored the ending themes of the main game) also confirmed he was onboard for the as yet unannounced content, stating, “Tossing in piano and muted strings for this one particular piece. High potential for tears.”.

I’m interested to see what this next piece of DLC will be about, but as things stand I’m far behind on that front; I named Mass Effect 3 at number 3 in my GOTY article a few weeks back, but I played it at release, when the only available DLC was ‘From Ashes’, which introduced a Prothean party member to the roster. I have not yet seen the ‘Extended Cut’ ending, nor ‘Leviathan’ or ‘Omega’. I’m not fond of launching DLC from a save point of a completed adventure, so I’m saving these for a future playthrough – perhaps a full trilogy run-through? Though this will mean playing Mass Effect for a fifth time and Mass Effect 2 for a fourth time… and still my backlog grows!

BioWare Montreal are currently working on a new title in the Mass Effect universe, and while I really can’t imagine where that is going to slot into the fiction, I am interested to see what else can be incorporated into the third game. When I come to play Mass Effect 3 again, there should be a fairly large amount of new content for me to get to grips with, including this new, apparently meaty DLC. What are your thoughts on more content for the trilogy finale?

Sources:
Casey Hudson’s tweet

Michael Gamble’s tweet

Eurogamer – ‘BioWare “all hands on deck” for new Mass Effect 3 DLC’
http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2012-12-05-bioware-all-hands-on-deck-for-new-mass-effect-3-dlc
Push Start’s Games of the Year: Part Two – the Editor’s reckoning!
https://pushstartgaming.wordpress.com/2012/12/31/push-starts-games-of-the-year-part-two-the-editors-reckoning/

Welcome back to the second and final part of Push Start’s Games of the Year feature! A few days ago my good friend Dan gave us his top five picks, as well as a handful of this year’s games that he hopes to catch up with in 2013. I’ll be doing the same, and I’ll also be throwing in an honourable mention or two before I get down to my own personal top five. So let’s start off with those that I need to catch up on.

FarCry 3
I’m actually playing this one at the moment, but I’ve not played enough to really give it an honest appraisal. Like Dan, I checked out the demo at September’s Eurogamer Expo, and found it fairly similar to its predecessor – in general, this is a good thing, as I loved and hated FarCry 2 in equal measure. I loved the world, the gunplay and the way fire spread outward to consume the unwary; I hated the respawning checkpoints, the enemies that could see you hiding in the long grass from a mile away and snipe you with a rusty AK47, and bloody weapon jamming!

A fifteen minute demo was too short a time to see if these problems and issues had been excised, but after a few hours with the game, it seems to be the case. Detection is now made clearer by a bar showing how close you are to being spotted, taking an enemy encampment now means you keep it (hooray!) and weapon jamming is gone, seemingly in favour of a paucity of ammo. The result is that FarCry 3 is more or less the game I always knew FarCry 2 could be, but it’s also been weighed down with scavenging, hunting, crafting, and an XP/skills system, and I’m not entirely sure these mechanics are to the game’s benefit. It makes it feel like Skyrim with guns at times, which might sound amazing, but I’ve found that, for me, all this detracts somewhat from the main thrust of the game. I’m also yet to find any sidequests which don’t just boil down to fetch quests, and I wish there wasn’t any forced stealth in it – I like being a sneaky git, but it should be an option, not an instant fail if you’re spotted. Still, it’s early days yet, and it’s as easy to lose hours in this game as it is to do so in Skyrim.

Dishonoured
Like FarCry 3, I also played the demo of this at EGX, though I didn’t really enjoy it. I liked the idea of it, but it’s just not a game that demos well in a public setting, I think. For a start, you’re dropped into a mission without much explanation of what you’re doing and what your abilities are for, which does leave you free to experiment, but I didn’t really feel able to mess about considering it was a public demo in a gaming con. Perhaps playing the demo at home would’ve allowed me to get into it at my own pace.

As I said, though, I liked the idea of the game, I liked the art direction, and I did enjoy what I played – I just felt a bit out of my depth. A good friend was kind enough to get it for me for Christmas, so I will be playing it. I’m sure I’ll love it when I can play it at my own pace.

The Last Story
I really, really want to play this. I can’t say for sure why I’ve not yet done so, as I was massively looking forward to this, the latest console jRPG from one of the grand masters of the genre, Hironobu Sakaguchi – the man known as the Father of Final Fantasy. It should be apparent by now that I’m a massive fan of Final Fantasy, and of Sakaguchi (Lost Odyssey, created by his Mistwalker team, is one of this generation’s best jRPGs), and I of course pre-ordered the limited edition version of The Last Story, which came with a gorgeous, richly-coloured artbook and a lovely soundtrack CD composed by fellow Final Fantasy stalwart Nobuo Uematsu – which I wrote a Musical Mondays piece on a while back. It’s a beautiful set, complete with a golden steelbook case, and I confess I pick it up and look at it every now and then.

So why haven’t I played it yet? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s because I played a lot of RPGs last year and needed a break from the genre. Yet here I am, knee deep in The Witcher, and planning to play through a slew of other RPGs afterward. Maybe I should bump The Last Story up to the top of the list?

Tales of Graces f
I’m a bit of a latecomer to the Tales of series – a good friend recommended Tales of Symphonia to me back on the GameCube, and he tried again when Vesperia came out on the 360. To my eternal shame, I didn’t take on board his suggestions, but I did make sure to grab a copy of the 3DS remake of Tales of the Abyss, and I absolutely loved it. I then made sure to hunt down a copy of Tales of Vesperia and loved that too… well, I’ve not quite finished it yet, which is why Tales of Graces f still sits unloved on my gaming shelf.

I pre-ordered ToGf on the strength of those other two Tales of games, and ended up with the lovely Day One edition that Namco-Bandai put out (of which I posted an unboxing video here on Push Start), and I am really looking forward to playing it eventually… But with Ni No Kuni coming along in the next few weeks, I think it’ll have to wait a little longer.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings
I’d heard great things about both of the Witcher games since each was released, and bought the Xbox 360 version of the second, Assassins of Kings, intending to check out the main narrative beats of the original title on Youtube.

Instead, I ended up buying The Witcher on Steam, despite my PC only having integrated graphics. So I bought a new PC and I am currently playing The Witcher: Enhanced Edition, and will then get around to The Witcher 2… Hopefully. As I hinted at above, I’m also getting massive urges to play a ton of RPGs like Baldur’s Gate, Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, Planescape: Torment and Knights of the Old Republic… Maybe I should put it to a vote!

Oh, and I also missed Assassin’s Creed 3 this year, but as I’m yet to play Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, I’m not too fussed about that…

Honourable mentions:
I want to give a quick shout to Resident Evil: Revelations, a 3DS exclusive that I loved a lot more than the more recent Resident Evil 6. It looked so good that it deadened the impact that Uncharted: Golden Abyss had on me when I got that shortly after, and it played beautifully with the Circle Pad Pro. I enjoyed the slower place of play and the scanning mechanic reminded me of Metroid Prime to a degree. Sure, the story was overblown hokum, but again it turned out better than Resident Evil 6 in that regard.

One more shout out before we get to my top five: Final Fantasy XIII-2. While I’m one of the five people that really enjoyed Final Fantasy XIII, it cannot be argued that it was stripped back to the bone in gameplay terms. Spreading the party out into groups of two and shifting between them every now and then helped mitigate the relentless forward momentum, and an excellent battle system kept the pace up. Its sequel did some things better, and some things worse. Firstly, it was decidedly less linear, thanks to both larger environments with occasional branching paths and a time-traveling mechanic that meant you could go back to previous areas whenever you wanted.

However, your main characters were a duo consisting of a bit part player from the first game and a total newcomer – Lightning, the previous game’s stern heroine is curiously absent for much of the game. The story was also weaker than the first part, and the battle system has been somewhat compromised, making the stagger mechanic, the beating heart of XIII‘s combat, almost worthless outside of boss battles. With Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII now in development, I’m hoping Square Enix can take the best of both, add some new stuff and give us something really great

And so, here we are: Push Start Gaming’s Top Five Games of the Year:

5: Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed
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“A Sonic title in a list of the year’s best games?? Surely not,” I hear you cry. Well, yes. I can understand your scepticism. The old blue chap hasn’t had the best of times since bursting out into the third dimension in the late nineties, but his more recent games have been getting steadily better. The Wii exclusive Sonic Colours was a very good start (even if at times it resembled a high-energy rollercoaster), while last year’s Sonic Generations was a perfect evolution of the Colours formula and served up an excellent 2.5/3D Sonic adventure that offered a good, hearty helping of nostalgia for the errant Sega fan, and became one of my favourite games of 2011 as a result.

This form has continued into Transformed, a sequel to 2010’s well-received fan-service racer. This time, some characters have been excised (no more Ryo Hazuki!) and others have been added to the star-studded roster, which now features the likes of NiGHTs, Jet Set Radio‘s Gum and Skies of Arcadia‘s Vyse. The big gameplay hook this time is rather obvious from the title; as you race around beautiful racecourses inspired by various Sega games (some of which are utterly, brilliantly mental), both course and vehicles transform, allowing you to drive, sail and fly around the environments.

Handling is uniformly excellent across all three modes (to be expected from Sumo Digital, of Outrun 2 fame), though if I have one complaint about the transforming aspect, it’s that boating feels a bit too slow. Karting absolutely flies by comparison, especially if you nail the drifting mechanic, which allows you to build up a boost of up to three levels should you hold a long enough drift. And trust me, you’ll need it, as this is a tough game even on ‘normal’ difficulty. It’s probably worth your while to start out on ‘easy’ and work your way up once you know the tracks.

And know the tracks you will, given the generous amount of modes on offer. You have five cups consisting of four races each, reminiscent of Mario Kart‘s GP mode, as well as a world tour mode that throws standard racing at you along with specific challenges, such as drift zones (I’m sure I remember one of the PGR games doing this years ago, but it’s still great fun here). The requisite single race and time attack modes are also catered for, as is a multiplayer matchmaking mode that I’m yet to try out.

All this stuffed in, and yet the game was released at a lower than usual price. As far as I’m concerned, it’s at least up there with recent entries in the Mario Kart series, and I’ve no doubt I’ll be getting more out of it than last year’s MK7. Put simply, if you like kart racers, you owe it to yourself to get this one.

4: Theatrhythm Final Fantasy
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If you checked out Dan’s list the other day, you’ll notice some cross-over here. That’s because I all but forced him to buy this game (it’s not as sinister as it sounds; I knew he’d love it, so it was for his own good, really!). I’d had my eye on this Final Fantasy-themed rhythm-action game for quite some time before release, and expected it to be a somewhat limited, yet fun little curio. If you’d have told me before release that I’d end up putting 80 (yes, eighty) hours into it and naming it as one of my favourite games of the year… well, I doubt I’d have believed you.

Theatrhythm is, as I said above, a Final Fantasy-themed rhythm-action game. On the top screen of your 3DS, you’ll see your note chart, characters or backdrop (depending on the type of music playing), and you’ll furiously swipe along on the bottom screen with your stylus. Very furiously, if you’re playing some of the harder songs on Ultimate difficulty (damn you, ‘Battle with the Four Fiends’!). There are three types of track to play along to: battle themes see a party of four characters of your choosing arranged alongside the right, with enemies on the left like Final Fantasy of old, and four lanes of notes rushing toward you; field themes are your world map traversal analogue, where one character at a time walks along in time to your swipes and slides; event themes are played to the backdrop of cutscenes or gameplay segments, and can occasionally catch you out as you stare at the pretty pictures instead of watching the note chart.

Each of the numbered series titles has a playlist, consisting of one of each type of theme, and there are a number of unlockable songs that can be played singly in challenge mode, which is also where you’ll find any of the DLC tracks you might choose to add to your game. Other collectables and unlockables include upgradable ‘trading’ cards, options for your personalised profile card, songs and videos for the two media players, and items and equipment that you can use in gameplay.

These last two come in very handy if you’re trying to tackle the game’s challenging Dark Notes or find the crystal shards that unlock additional characters, as they add modifiers to your character’s base abilities, level them up faster or increase the likelihood of rare item drops. It’s a lot deeper than you’d expect, given its genre, and even after 80-odd hours, I’ve not unlocked everything. It’s certainly not exactly the game I was expecting, and this is all to the good. Theatrhythm Final Fantasy is the perfect companion for someone who loves the music of the venerable jRPG series

3: Mass Effect 3
gsl
Sometimes the internet makes me wish I had Asura’s extra arms, so that I might be able to act out the world’s most over-the-top facepalm.

Now, I understand some people were disappointed with Mass Effect 3’s ending. I get that. I was somewhat indifferent to it myself (which I guess is damning it with the faintest of praise, considering it was the ending to a galaxy-spanning trilogy), but by no means did I hate it. I understand that people disliked that the final few moments did away with your party and that the ending itself came down to a choice of three seemingly interchangeable decisions. Even though I felt like the entire game was in itself an extended ending (and that, for me, the final cutscene left it open for the player to imagine the state you leave the universe in for generations to come), I get why that would annoy people.

What irritated me was the ridiculous escalation that then took place. First, it was “Mass Effect 3’s ending sucks!”. Then it became “Mass Effect 3 and BioWare suck!”. Not long after that, I began to notice comments popping up all over the ‘net proclaiming that the entire series sucks and always has. I understand that the internet seems to foster a culture of rampant (frequently idiotic) one-upmanship, but man, it’s so depressing at times.

But anyway, I’m not here to lambast the internet-at-large, this is supposed to be a celebration of my favourite games of the year. Mass Effect 3 is certainly one of these. I confess, I find it the weakest of the trilogy (I had hoped some of the RPG mechanics would find their way back in in the style of ME1, rather than the more streamlined mechanics of ME2 – though at least they did away with those horrid post-mission result screens!), but even so, some of the series’ most emotional moments are to be found in Mass Effect 3, and it’s down to that feeling I mentioned earlier – that the game as a whole feels like an ending. Who can forget (SPOILERS!) Mordin’s heroic sacrifice; Thane saying a final prayer, not for himself but for you; shooting the breeze and shooting cans with your best buddy Garrus high above the Presidium (oh and just for the record: Shepard doesn’t miss). Who can forget ordering Grunt to stay behind and hold off the Rachni/Reaper assault, and being sure that you’d lost him, only for him to come swaggering out of that cave, covered in gore. Who can forget the relief? Every other mission, it felt like you might lose someone, and that made every survival all the sweeter, every death a grand tragedy.

Mass Effect 3 also has some of the series’ greatest moments of spectacle, such as the opening on Earth as Reaper forces invade, laying waste to all before them, or the assault on the moon of Palaven, with gigantic Reapers hanging in your peripheral vision, in orbit over the turian homeworld. That’s without even mentioning the galactic showdown near the game’s end, except that I did just mention it.

The game does have some missteps, of course. There is, of course that ending, which at it’s best is a touch unsatisfying (though I’ve not yet tried out the extended ending DLC that appeared post-release, as I’m waiting to do a second, all-DLC playthrough), and the journal bugged a few of my sidequests to the point that I couldn’t finish them, while others disappeared entirely, leaving me to wonder if they were time-sensitive. N7 quests were few and far between, and the less said about Galactic Readiness being tied to multiplayer, the better.

Still, some things, such as skill-trees, were improved from ME2 (though still not as granular as ME1’s system), and the level of graphical and presentational polish was higher than before, and coupled with those earlier-mentioned moments of emotion and grand scale, combined to create a trilogy closer that kept me enthralled throughout, determined to keep everyone alive, before realising that it was never going to happen, that this was what they had all joined me for, this fight. It wasn’t do or die; it was do and maybe die anyway. I had to accept that, in order to complete my mission, losses were inevitable, and that epiphany had two effects: it freed me up to do what I had to do, and it filled me with a sad sense of finality – just the atmosphere a final chapter needs, in my opinion.

Production has recently begun on a Mass Effect 4, but I really don’t know where they might take the series. A game based on the human-turian First Contact War would be too limited in scope after saving the galaxy from annihilation, and any sequel would surely have to be far enough in the future that it may as well be a new IP. I love the Mass Effect series (I have all three collectors editions, after all), but I think it should remain a trilogy. And it’s a trilogy I know I’ll be playing for years to come.

2: Gravity Rush
grk
I knew this was going to one of my favourite games of the year from the first time I fired up the demo. As far as I’m concerned, Gravity Rush is the Vita’s best game, and worth buying the handheld for alone. But then, I am absolutely in love with the game.

Like Theatrhythm, before release I had thought this might end up as perhaps an enjoyable curio. The resulting game is as close as you’re likely to get to playing through a Ghibli film (at least until Ni No Kuni arrives next month) – a mostly light-hearted journey of discovery and inner strength. The game’s protagonist Kat is one of my favourite characters of the year; at once cheeky, cheerful and petulant. She doesn’t spend vast swathes of the game feeling sorry for herself for having lost her memory (which she never even regains over the course of the game), she just gets on with the business of saving the world, and genuinely enjoys the powers her sparkly feline sidekick ‘Dusty’ thrusts upon her.

It’s also an absolute joy to control Kat, flinging her around the gorgeous island cities that make up the game’s mostly open world, especially when you’ve powered up her abilities enough that you rarely have to touch the ground. Many open world games offer you a large square-footage of ground to run around in; Gravity Rush gives you the same, but allows you all that space above and below to explore as well, meaning you can spend hours just searching out the gems you need to upgrade Kat’s powers. These are often hidden underneath the floating islands, leading you on extended scavenger hunts as you run along the underside of the world. Combat is just as fun, with Kat drawing nearby objects into her own gravitational pull and flinging them at the gelatinous Navi that are threatening Hekseville.

It’s an absolutely beautiful game as well, the draw distance masked by a lovely painterly effect that gradually resolves more detail as you get closer, and the cities each have their own distinct flavour, with great music helping distinguish one from another – even now, months after I finished the game, the music from the first area pops into my head every few days and makes me smile. There is a little room for improvement, though; Kat’s gravity slide ability is unwieldy, meaning I rarely used it, and the cities could do with a bit more to do in them than just story missions, challenges and gem harvesting. Some things for a sequel to address, perhaps

Speaking of a sequel, it certainly seems to be on the cards: the story, while fairly easy-going, does make you pause for thought at times, and towards the end you might find yourself questioning whether the events taking place are real or someone’s beautiful fever-dream. Though much is left unsaid, and many questions remain unanswered, it’s a very satisfying tale that has me really praying for a continuation – not just to clear things up, but also because I loved the game so damn much. I truly hope SCE Japan Studio will get around to it sooner rather than later, and in the meantime, I’m looking forward to their next handheld title Soul Sacrifice.

1: Halo 4
chiefcort
Since its unveiling at last year’s E3. I had been hoping that this would be my Game of the Year for 2012. However, with series creators Bungie stepping aside to build a new universe from scratch, and Microsoft putting together a hand-picked team of the industry’s best to continue their blockbuster sci-fi series, I had genuine concerns that 343 industries might not be able to match that trademark Halo feel, that “thirty seconds of fun, over and over again” mantra that has been at the core of the games since 2001.

When I finally had the game in my hands however, all my fears evaporated. 343 know their Halo, that’s for sure. Right from the off, it’s reassuringly familiar, as Cortana wakes the Master Chief from his power nap to deal with a Covenant boarding party that have overrun what’s left of the Pillar of Dawn. The new team have gone to town in ramping up the epic scope and scale, and this is, again, immediately obvious; towards the end of that first mission, you’re out in space, on the hull of a starship fighting Covenant as an enormous Forerunner planet looms above, threatening to swallow your almost insignificant conflict whole. And it just gets bigger and bolder from there.

Story takes a more central role in Halo 4 than it has in previous instalments, which has led to criticism that the game is too reliant on knowledge of the lore, particularly from the extended universe. I suppose it’s a valid criticism, but the story stands well enough on its own merits, while bundling in a ton of fan-service for those (like me) who’ve scoured the series for clues, read all the books and trawled Halopedia for hours on end. That’s not to say that the narrative ever overpowers the gameplay though, and this latest entry gives us a whole new class of enemy in the Prometheans: small, dog-like crawlers that clamber all over the environments and seek to overwhelm you with sheer numbers; watchers, the aerial power of these Forerunner constructs, with the ability to catch your grenades before flinging them back at you, shield comrades and even resurrect them; and a whole slew of massive Promethean Knights that tower over both the Chief and Covenant Elites, teleporting about the battlefield to cut you down with their arm-mounted hardlight swords.

Fighting the Covenant is as enjoyable as ever, and allows you to fall back on years of hard-won battle tactics, but the Prometheans will punish you if you go in expecting those same strategies to work. I play Halo on Heroic difficulty (it really shouldn’t be any lower if you plan on truly appreciating it), and in my first few encounters with the Prometheans, I got utterly annihilated. It’s not uncommon to feel out of your depth, perhaps a little hard-done-by, but it soon becomes apparent that you need to prioritise targets more ruthlessly than you might with the Covenant, and once you figure out your strategies for this new class of antagonists, they slot nicely into place.

Over on the multiplayer side, fans were even more worried. Everything 343 announced about the new modes seemed to lean towards a more Call of Duty-style XP ranking system, and that is not what Halo fans want. One of the main reasons that Halo‘s MP playerbase keeps coming back is because it’s always a level playing field – no matter whether you play every day or once a month, it’s always a level playing field. Ranking up is the very antithesis of this, a mechanic intended to keep people playing, which is all well and good, but we already have that in Call of Duty. That series also already has perks. No Halo fans wanted these features implemented. Thankfully, the way 343 have inserted these mechanics hasn’t impacted the game much at all – ranking up offers you more load-out options, but doesn’t affect base health or damage output (and at any rate, most players seem to favour DMR/pistol load-outs), and ordnance, Halo 4‘s perk system, tend to be either limited-ammo power weapons or very short-term buffs like a constantly-draining overshield or speed boost. All of these give you an edge, provided you know what you’re doing, but none of them allow you to dominate for more than a handful of seconds.

Another impressive aspect of Halo 4 is that, on its first try, a brand new studio has created possibly the best-looking game on the 360 to date. If it’s not the best, it’s certainly up there with the rest of them, and the hi-tech Forerunner world of Requiem is swathed in impressive lighting effects that further add to the game’s graphical potency. Some have complained that all this eye candy is at the expense of Halo‘s trademark expansive battlefields, and I don’t really agree. Some areas are as vast as those in any other Halo, and though there are plenty of indoor environments, those too can often be cavernous. If there is a trade-off (which I’m not so sure there is), I think it’s worth it as a showcase of what the seven-year-old Xbox 360 is still capable of. I cannot wait to see what 343 industries will be able to do with Halo 5 on next-gen hardware, and I can’t wait to see where the story goes from here.

So there you have my favourite games of the year. Leave me a comment, let me know what you think of the games I’ve listed and let me know what your favourites of 2012 were. In the next few days, I’ll be writing about what I’m looking forward to in 2013, so make sure to look out for that. For now, I would like to wish everyone a Happy New Year and hours of happy gaming!

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With the year all but at an end (and the world apparently still in one piece), it’s time to cast a critical eye over the last twelve months in gaming. It may seem a little egotistical for a small blog with perhaps a handful of transient readers to publish GOTY lists, but screw it – we’re going to do it anyway. Because it’s fun.

First of all, this piece will serve as an introduction to Mr Dan “The Marathon Man” Bushell, a good friend of mine who will hopefully be contributing to the blog a lot more in the coming year. Anyone who has watched my ‘Unboxing The Sky: The Art of Final Fantasy’ video should already be somewhat familiar with him, and this list of his favourite games of the year should give you a better insight into the man and his gaming habits. I’ll be publishing my list in a couple of days, and I encourage any readers to leave a comment and let us know if you agree or disagree, or even give us your list.

So, without further ado, I’ll hand over to Mr Bushell to detail his games of the year:

So here we are, the end of the year, and it’s time to reflect back on some of the gold the gaming industry has given to us in 2012. Unfortunately I don’t have huge amounts of money with which to buy every title I wanted, so first off I’d like to mention a couple of games that I think would stand a chance at making my list had I been able to get my hands on them, both of which I managed to get my hands on when I went to this year’s Eurogamer Expo at Earls Court.

FarCry 3
I only managed to get a fifteen minute demo of what looks to be a much improved game from FarCry 2. Straight off the bat, it gave the feeling of freedom and there appeared to be a lot to explore. It handled very well and felt like I knew the controls from the start – it’s been a while, but they seemed to be much the same as the previous game. It was hard to get an overall impression from such a short demo, but it certainly gave me enough to want more – imagine playing a fifteen minute demo of, say, Skyrim – it couldn’t hope to do any justice to how big the game really is, and this is the impression FarCry 3 gave me. It’s a huge game this year and looks like it’s doing very well for publisher Ubisoft.

Assassin’s Creed III
I was also lucky enough to play the demo of AC3. I am a huge fan of the Assassin’s Creed series and am looking forward to spending some quality time with the new release. With a new character and new surroundings I hope this will give the series a bit of much-needed freshness – by the time I finished Revelations, it felt like I had already played it a couple of times before. This didn’t stop me from loving the stealthy series, but I’m hoping that with a new start, Assassin’s Creed 3 will have greater impact.

There’s also a couple of other games that I am eager to play and add to my collection, most notably Borderlands 2 and The Last Story. In the case of Mistwalker’s The Last Story (which, being a massive Final Fantasy fan, I really must get my hands on), this one came out fairly early in the year, but a combination of lack of funds or other games that I have had a higher craving for mean I am a bit behind the release schedule. Which leads me nicely onto my top five games of 2012. Strap yourself in, people!

Dan “The Marathon Man” Bushell’s top five games of the year!

5: Call of Duty: Black Ops II
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Truth be told, before release I was hoping this would not make my top five. I have something of a love/hate relationship with the CoD series, as recent releases haven’t been that great. Don’t get me wrong, they have all been well made games but they just haven’t really done much for me. It never takes long before people start hacking the game and using lag switches, making the experience… well, not much of an experience at all.

Then Black Ops II arrived. I wasn’t very excited about this sequel, but jumped on the band-wagon as I knew the majority of my online friends would be playing. Happily, Black Ops II is a very well-made game. I was honestly a little shocked when I first loaded up what I thought was just going to be another CoD. I was wrong! It plays extremely well, and the excellent maps help the game flow at a good pace. I have found myself lost, playing for hours at a time, and losing huge portions of the day. For this reason, it’s propping up my top five.

4: Theatrhythm Final Fantasy
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Ah, Final Fantasy, the famous game series that made me the gamer I am today. This of course is not a standard Final Fantasy game, but Theatrhythm gives you the joy of reliving all the greatest pieces of music (and some of the visuals!) that the main ‘numbered series’ titles have given us from the franchise’s early days up to the recent Final Fantasy XIII. I have been a huge fan of all the music from over the series, and could not ignore this title. I have lost entire days on this game, playing songs to try and beat my previous score, or even just to hear some of the fantastic music featured on the cart. There’s also a huge amount to unlock, from playing cards, to songs for the music player or even videos, so it’s safe to say you get your money’s worth with this beautifully-made game, and the hours you can spend on it can easily stretch into dozens.

3: Tales of Graces f
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I mentioned above that Final Fantasy has had a massive influence on my gaming habits, so you’ve no doubt guessed that I’m a huge jRPG fan. Tales of Graces f, a PS3-exclusive title from Namco-Bandai, is my first experience with a Tales of game, and with the impact it had on me, I couldn’t exclude it from my list. With solid characters that all are very different in personality, and an extremely fun combat system this game is a must for fans of the genre. It offers you laughs, tears and much, much more besides. I am already massively looking forward to next year’s release of Tales Of Xillia.

2: Dishonored
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Right from the announcement of this game all the way up to its release I was pretty much glued to it and it turns out my anticipation was well-rewarded. Dishonored offers so much, in gameplay terms – if, like me, you enjoy being sneaky and stealthy in a game then Arkane’s latest is pure gold. With so many different options for making your way through the game, from liberating heads from bodies all over the shop, to not killing any one at all and sneaking through unseen, you’re spoilt for choice in developing your own play-style. The story is as solid as the gameplay, and you can certainly get a lot out of Dishonored –  I’ve already played through it twice and am now contemplating a third playthrough. Few games have grabbed me to the extent that I’ve restarted it as soon as the credits have rolled, and this is a good sign that, for me, Dishonored is one of the year’s best games.

Aaaand, drum roll please…

1: Mass Effect 3
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Yes, my game of the year is Mass Effect 3. Even with its controversial ending I don’t think this game could have done much wrong. I do have to admit that it’s not the strongest of the trilogy, but it’s still an absolutely fantastic game. I was a bit late in coming to the Mass Effect games (I had never played any of them before this year) so playing them all for the first time one after the other, I felt I got the full emotional effect from the trilogy-closing Mass Effect 3. Like the previous two games in the trilogy it offers much in terms of gameplay, and the story has to be one of my favourites of all time, be it from games, books or film.  There are so many moments that can choke you up in this game, and with the knowledge that everything is coming to an end, you realise even more how powerful the characters and their relationships are, and how amazingly-written the story is. For anyone who hasn’t played the Mass Effect trilogy, I demand you to stop what you’re doing and start it now! It’s even easier now, as BioWare and EA have recently released a trilogy boxset for those that are a little behind the curve. Go get it!

So those are my top five games of 2012! It’s been a great year for games, and next year is already looking to be a whopper. With titles like The Last of Us, Ni No Kuni,  Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider reboot, a new Splinter Cell, Beyond: Two Souls and many more, next year’s list may wind up being more of a challenge than this year’s! Until then happy gaming!

Dan Bushell

Thanks Dan! I’ll have my list up in a couple of days, and we’ll be seeing more of Mr Bushell in the new year. Please feel free to leave a comment below and let us know what you think of Dan’s selections, and be sure to tell us what you’ve been playing this year.

geralt

I haven’t been terribly active on here recently (thanks, build-up to Christmas!), so as I sit here, up early with nothing to do but await a UPS delivery, I decided I’d relate another tale of my epic (read: ridiculous) backlog. This one’s a two-for-one deal.

Like a good many gamers out there, I have a Steam account, and any Steam member knows what a dangerous proposition the Steam sales are. For the uninitiated, games frequently go for little more than £1 in these seasonal extravaganzas – I’ve previously bought games like Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, BioShock, and the subject of this piece, The Witcher, for between £1-£3 each. Unfortunately, and also rather stupidly, I don’t own a PC with even a half-decent GPU.

Now, before you double-facepalm, hear me out: about four years ago, I bought a Core2 Quad-based desktop with a cheap GPU, intending to replace the graphics card at a later date for something a bit beefier. Obviously, that didn’t happen, and the PC went mostly unused, save for loading music onto my trusty iPod Classic. More and more, I’ve not wanted to sit at a desk staring at a monitor for any length of time, and seeing as the desktop came with only a DVI output, I can’t simply link it to my living room TV without also needing to set up an array of speakers.

My main PC for the last 18 months has been an Asus EP121, a 12.1″ tablet PC running Win7, which is great for daily use, but awful for gaming, given its Intel HD Graphics solution. It’ll run Half Life 2 pretty well, as well as Portal at an acceptable frame rate, but Source Engine games tend to be fairly lightweight, and HL2 itself is now pretty old. Attempting to load up The Witcher on the EP121 (an exercise I fully expected to end in failure) resulted in a slide show at even the lowest settings. So I went temporarily insane and ordered a laptop.

Based on the work of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, The Witcher was released back in 2007 to positive reviews, and a sequel, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings followed on PC in 2011 and Xbox 360 earlier this year. As I’d wanted to play the original title for some years, I eagerly pre-ordered the 360 version of Assassins of Kings (getting a signed version into the bargain), intending to YouTube the major events of the first game. As so often happens, it ended up on ‘The Shelf’ and has not been touched since.

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So what makes me suddenly want to play these games? And badly enough to buy a new PC? Well, I’ve been reading George R.R. Martin’s ‘A Game of Thrones’, the first book in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. I’ve been meaning to watch the HBO adaptation, Game of Thrones, for a while, but decided I’d read ahead and then see how the television series fares. I’ve been wholly sucked in to its world of clouded morality, medieval intrigue, double-crossings and ruminations on honour, loyalty and the divine right of kings, and The Witcher series seems like a pretty good gaming companion piece to it – especially the sequel, which apparently revolves around the mysteries surrounding the murders of kings.

My new plan is to play through The Witcher on my new laptop before settling in to enjoy the sequel on my 360. I’ve almost knocked one game off of my backlog (Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, which I’ll be finishing up this morning), so by the time that UPS van arrives I should be about ready to dive headfirst into the adventures of Geralt of Rivia.

Are you a big fan of The Witcher? Or do you have an equally stupid backlog? Leave a comment below and let me know.