Archives for posts with tag: Games of the Generation

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?

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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.

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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

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ttmban PLEASE NOTE: This is a piece about a heavily story-driven game, and as such it’s difficult to talk about it in any depth without risk of spoilers. That said, I’ve tried to remain as vague as possible and avoid revealing the bigger plot points. It goes without saying that if you haven’t yet played the game and want to go in a fresh as possible, avoid reading any further!

At first glance, To the Moon probably seems like an odd choice for a Games of the Generation list; built in RPG Maker XP, the game is styled like an old-school 16-bit top-down RPG and combines elements of point’n’click adventure, visual novel storytelling and puzzle games. Looking at screenshots, it certainly doesn’t scream “GAME OF THE GENERATION!”. Of course, screenshots don’t tell the full story, and ‘story’ is the strongest attribute To the Moon has. Indeed, the ‘gameplay’ parts are lightweight to say the least, but To the Moon is an experience that will stay with me for years to come.

The premise behind To the Moon is a technology that allows artificial memories to be created and placed in a patient’s unconscious. Unfortunately, as these new memories are permanent, they would conflict with real memories when the patient wakes, causing cognitive dissonance. For this reason, memory creation can only be performed on those that are on their deathbed, and at the start of the game, we meet doctors Eva Rosalene and Neil Watts as they travel to meet their latest patient, Johnny.

Johnny lives in a large house by a cliff, near to a lighthouse and with a clear view of the object of his desire, the moon. Living with him are his cleaner/carer and her children, and through them the two doctors find out a little more about Johnny and his deceased wife, River. Early on in the story, following the children to the lighthouse, Eva uncovers a number of mysterious papercraft bunnies, items which appear often throughout the story.

The doctors need to know the reason behind Johnny’s desire to go to the moon but he can’t give them an answer; he doesn’t know why he wants to go there, just that he does. With no pre-existing reason to build off of, Rosalene and Watts will have to travel back through his memories to insert the desire to go to the moon into a childhood Johnny, and then let his unconscious mind do the rest, creating a lifetime of false memories where he geared his life towards becoming an astronaut and finally fulfilling his goal.

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As the two doctors travel backwards through Johnny’s memories, we experience his life in reverse. We see a bedridden River beg Johnny to finish building their house instead of using the money to treat her illness, and we begin to get a feeling that River is somehow different; she has difficulty relating to and communicating with others, compulsively makes paper rabbits and continually asks Johnny questions about their past, seemingly not getting the answers she wants. Travelling further back, we learn that River has Pervasive Developmental Disorder, and it turns out that River’s behaviour became more obsessive-compulsive after Johnny admits to having approached her in high school because she was ‘different’.

Eva and Neil eventually reach Johnny’s childhood, but things do not go as planned and they are unable to progress any further into his memories; for some reason, a chunk of their patient’s memory is missing or corrupted. With a bit of hard work, the two doctors manage to uncover the mystery behind the blanked-out memories, a childhood trauma that his mother had tried to blot out with medication, creating a void in her son’s mind. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the only event Johnny had forgotten, and Eva and Neil are finally able to discover the source of Johhny’s desire to reach the moon.

This realisation is beautiful yet ultimately heartbreaking because, having moved backwards through his memories, we know what happens later on in Johnny’s life. Suddenly, everything that River had been doing after Johnny’s confession – the paper bunnies, the endless questions, the changes she makes to her appearance – make perfect sense. River tried, to her dying day, to communicate something to her husband in the only ways she could think to, and she passed away before she could make him see. Johnny is left confused, suffering from guilt, but his previously inexplicable desire to reach the moon now makes sense: subconsciously, he’s desperate to keep a promise he once made to River.

Seeing all of this coalesce makes it clear how incredibly well written To the Moon is. We begin near the end yet still have everything to learn, and it’s fantastically confident stuff from indie developer Freebird, teasing just enough details to make you think “this is important” while still managing to keep the mystery fully under wraps until you uncover the beautiful, heartbreaking, beautifully heartbreaking revelation at the bottom of the rabbit hole that is Johnny’s unconscious mind. Despite the mild sci-fi backdrop, To the Moon‘s story is fundamentally an incredibly human one, a story of a life lived and a love lost, and a story of a very human desire to connect.

Of course, it doesn’t end there. Having identified the reason for Johnny’s wish, the two doctors can then set about making his dream come true. Johnny can finally get his happy ending, yet for me even this is bittersweet. Eva and Neil manage to create the ideal life for Johnny and get him to the moon, but in doing so they must replace his real memories. The real life Johnny and River lived is lost to him, replaced by a fiction. In his mind, Johnny blasts off on a rocket to the moon, River’s hand clasped in his as in the real world he passes away, and while it is a beautiful ending, I can’t help but lament that life that has been lost, that real, tangible, imperfect life.

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To the Moon was released in 2011 but I only got around to it this year. In fact, it was not long after playing through BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us, and it was very coincidental timing. All three of these games are strongly story-based, and focus on an intense connection between two people. All three of these games also have, for me, very bittersweet endings. While they didn’t leave me happy, they did all leave me satisfied, if a bit emotionally drained. I find it interesting that a first-person shooter, a third-person survival game and a top-down visual novel could have so much in common with regards to how they make the player feel. If you’ve played either of those two games, To the Moon should feel like an ideal companion piece.

And I haven’t even mentioned the music yet, that beautiful, emotive score that perfectly fits the mood of the game. The best example of this is ‘For River’, written for her by Johnny and heard at various points throughout the game. The soundtrack as a whole is as much a part of the experience as the story, and I couldn’t imagine the game without it. Just hearing snatches of music from it brings back those emotional feelings I felt upon finishing the game.

There aren’t many games that I would say everyone should play. To the Moon is absolutely one of them, and its simplistic gameplay helps in this regard; not everyone is going to feel comfortable playing BioShock Infinite or The Last of Us and may thus miss out on those stories. But this is a game anyone can (and most definitely should) play. It’s one of the best stories in all of gaming as far as I’m concerned, and if you like strong, emotional storytelling in your interactive fiction, you absolutely owe it to yourself to play it. And if you don’t feel tears welling in your eyes by the time the credits roll, I’d question if you’re even human.

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

theatrhythmcharactersI’ve waxed lyrical about Theatrhythm before, Square-Enix’s curious little Final Fantasy-themed rhythm-action title that saw release on the Nintendo 3DS in 2012. I suppose part of my love for it is that it’s as unexpected a candidate for a game of the generation as I could imagine. Even as a huge fan of Final Fantasy and its music, I never thought I’d put eighty-five hours into a handheld rhythm game.

In the run-up to Theatrhythm‘s Japanese release, I had more or less ignored it – it’s exactly the kind of game I’d expect to never make it out of its home territory. So I didn’t know a great deal about it until a demo landed on the 3DS e-store. I had expected it to be a relatively lightweight affair, and the demo didn’t do a great deal to dispel that, offering a choice of two tracks to prod along to (Final Fantasy VIII‘s ‘The Man with the Machine Gun’ and Final Fantasy XIII‘s ‘Sunleth Waterscape’). But this was just a short teaser of the full game; I wasn’t about to judge the full release on a demo alone, and I’d already long-since decided to buy it – it had Final Fantasy music in it, after all.

It was lucky I did. Theatrhythm is a deep, deep game.

So, for the uninitiated, the basics: Theatrhythm first tasks you with choosing a party of four iconic Final Fantasy characters, before embarking on one of three types of music stages. In Field stages, your first character strolls through an environment made up of areas from the game that the music comes from, so during the aforementioned ‘The Man with the Machine Gun’, you’ll see such familiar landmarks as Balamb Garden and Fisherman’s Horizon scroll past as a note chart comes at you from the left. Do well enough in a specific section of the chart and you’ll summon a chocobo to speed you through the stage. Battle stages look much like a Final Fantasy battle of old, with your team of four standing along the right side of the screen, with various monsters appearing as enemies to be vanquished by your performance across four lanes of note charts. Finally, Event stages are note charts set to a montage of emotional cutscene moments. Final Fantasy X‘s ‘Suteki da ne’ is a particular favourite of mine.

Each numbered-series title up to Final Fantasy XIII has its own ‘playlist’ consisting of one of each type of stage, and you can choose to either work through a game at a time in series mode, or pick and choose single tracks to play in challenge mode. However, this being a spin-off from an RPG series, there’s more going on than simply swiping your stylus through fun songs. Each character in your party accrues XP across all modes, increasing both their level and their base stats (strength, magic, agility and luck), as well as collecting equippable skills, items and equipment to help you out in a tough situation. Every character has strengths and weaknesses, which means you need to put some thought into choosing the ideal party for the game’s real challenge: The Chaos Shrine.

This is where you’ll play Dark Notes, special pairs of songs – one field track, one battle – that can be far harder than anything in the other modes (think superfast note charts with spinning arrow notes – you’ll need to figure out which way they’ll be pointing when they reach you!), and it’s through Dark Notes that you’ll get the rare item drops needed to unlock new player characters. Each time you finish a Dark Note you’ll unlock a new one, which will often feature tracks not found in the main game. This is the part of Theatrhythm that will propel your file time into the double-, if not triple-figures. Best of all, if you allow the game access to Streetpass, you might just pick up a new Dark Note from another player – I picked up a ton of them when I took my 3DS to last year’s Eurogamer Expo.

Visually, the game is a real treat. Environments are beautifully drawn and saturated in bright colours, and landmarks and battlefields are easily recognisable from their host games; in Final Fantasy X‘s battle stage you can even spot pyreflies dancing away in the background. But it’s the character designs that are the focus here, with all your favourite Final Fantasy heroes, villains and enemy monsters reproduced in a cute super-deformed art-style. Chibi-Terra is my personal favourite. A word of warning though: this is one 3DS game that I wouldn’t recommend playing with the 3D slider on. While it offers a nice bit of depth to the backgrounds, the note prompts sit on a separate plane on top. This means two separate ‘layers’ are displayed, both moving individually, and trying to focus on one and ignore the other can really wreck your eyes. On the plus side, turning off 3D means you can play Theatrhythm for longer.

The 3DS cart comes packed with more than 70 songs to play through and Square-Enix also supported the game with weekly DLC for a fair while. In all, 52 extra tracks were added and I bought them all. What’s interesting is that they saw fit to add in songs from both Final Fantasy Type-0 and Final Fantasy Versus XIII. The latter has since been shunted to next-gen and renamed Final Fantasy XV, while Type-0 remains unreleased outside of Japan. Perhaps there’s hope yet for the PSP title.

Also stuffed onto the cart is a music player containing all the tracks in the game and a movie viewer, which allows us to watch those gorgeous cutscenes in all their glory, without the distracting note charts drawn all over them. Like the secret characters these all have to be unlocked, though in these cases via ‘Rhythmia’ – an ever-increasing total that you gather by doing well in the game. Also unlockable are ‘CollectaCards‘, effectively in-game ‘trading’ cards depicting characters and enemies. These cards cannot be traded between players, but can be levelled up by getting the same card a number of times as an item drop; at level four, cards become holofoil cards, and at level 7 they turn into platinums. In Theatrhythm, you’re always either unlocking something or working towards something, and it’s a great set of collectibles that keeps you playing for hours.

It’s not all about grinding out those collectibles though. Often, it’s the determination to get a perfect score on every song that brings me back to the game, and no doubt I’ll still be trying to nail down those ultimate perfects when the sequel, Theatrhythm Curtain Call, arrives with new songs, characters and even airships sometime in the indeterminate future.

Previous entries in Games of the Generation:
Dead Space 2
Tales of Vesperia
Halo 3

vesperiacastI’m a relative newcomer to the Tales of series. My first exposure to the series was the 3DS port of 2005 PS2 entry Tales of the Abyss (which, if you haven’t played it, is fantastic), though a friend had previously urged me to buy a copy of Tales of Symphonia (the UK’s first entry in the long-running series) in 2004, and again in 2009 when 360 exclusive Tales of Vesperia launched. Both times I thought to myself that I’d pick up a copy at some point, and both times that proved impossible, as the meagre launch quantities sold through very quickly and no more copies were printed by publisher Namco-Bandai. The message was clear: buy Tales of games at launch or not at all.

Happily, the growth of download services this gen meant I got a chance to play Vesperia after all as it appeared on Xbox Live’s Games on Demand service in 2011. I finally got around to buying it around the beginning of 2012. And then, in the middle of last year, it suddenly appeared on the virtual shelves of various online retailers; after the success of Tales of the Abyss‘ 3DS port, and with Tales of Graces f on the horizon, Namco-Bandai apparently had renewed confidence in the series’ chances of success outside of Japan. When I saw the game available online, I was part-way through it and absolutely loving it. So of course I bought a physical copy too.

Tales of Vesperia begins in Zaphias, the imperial capital in a world called Terca Lumireis, and it’s here we’re introduced to protagonist Yuri Lowell. Yuri’s adventure begins with a crisis in the lower quarter, the part of the city set aside for the common people. Tellingly, the imperial knights don’t much care for the travails of the commoners, and so, when the power source for the quarter’s fountain is stolen, Yuri sets off to find the culprit by himself.

Yuri himself is a big reason behind my love for Tales of Vesperia; voiced by the now ever-present Troy Baker, he’s not the usual teenage male jRPG protagonist that gets in over his head before finding his inner strength and resolve to save the world. No, when first we meet Yuri he’s a twenty-something ex-Imperial Knight, already skilled with the use of various weapons and disillusioned with the way the world works. Instead of working within the restrictive confines of the system, Yuri wants to change things for the better, helping out those less fortunate along the way, regardless of the law or the personal consequences. This brings him into frequent conflict with his old friend Flynn, a knight rising through the ranks who wants to change the system lawfully from within.

Yuri’s a confident guy, though not to the point of arrogance, and has a cynical, sarcastic streak that plays beautifully with his sweet, charming yet endearingly naïve female counterpart Estellise. The interplay between the two leads becomes the game’s heart, the nexus around which the plot revolves, and the supporting cast that comes together around them is just as memorable; Rita, the teenage mage with an attitude problem, and Raven, the shady, unreliable guild member with a mysterious past are particular favourites, lighting up the frequent, and frequently hilarious, skits that pepper the game with funny one-liners and the occasional barbed quip.

The story concerns the overuse and abuse of a natural power source called aer and the secrets behinds it. Unbeknownst to most of the inhabitants of Terca Lumireis, the use of this power source, controlled via devices called blastia, led to calamity in the distant past, the specifics of which have been lost to time, even amongst the elf-like Kritya, whose ancient ancestors both created the blastia and sealed away the cataclysm its abuse wrought. Now, some thousand years later, forces in the empire seek to uncover the powers behind the blastia and use them for their own ends. There’s a strong environmentalist message throughout the game, a theme which is not only at the heart of quite a few games in the series, but also shared by many of the works of acclaimed animation director Hayao Miyazaki and his studio Ghibli.

Mechanically, the game is very similar to its direct predecessor Tales of the Abyss – unsurprising as much of the same team developed both games. So we get a refined version of Abyss‘ real time ‘Flex Range Linear Motion Battle System’, albeit with some embellishments; continually attack an enemy with a succession of similar strikes and a coloured circle may appear over the enemy offering the chance to do massive damage – especially handy when it comes to those boss battles with hundreds of thousands of HP to whittle down. The progression from Abyss also means we get a world map, something which later entries Tales of Graces and Tales of Xillia have excised. While I feel Xillia‘s field areas were vastly improved from Graces empty corridors, I’d still prefer a nice big open world map – you just can’t beat flying through the air on a boat carried by a whale-dragon-thing.

Visually, Tales of Vesperia is a beautiful game – I think it still looks better than the latest game Xillia. Like all entries in the series, both games go for an anime aesthetic, but I think Vesperia does it better. The flat shading and block colours make it look more like an anime than an anime-styled game (if that makes any sense at all), and Vesperia is also a more colourful game, saturated in vibrant greens, clear blue skies and the candy-pink of Estellise’s hair. Xillia, meanwhile, goes for a slightly cooler, more muted colour scheme that leads to a more natural look, albeit still in keeping with the anime aesthetic. Four years on from its initial release, Tales of Vesperia is still a visually striking game.

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The future is looking very bright indeed for the Tales of series. In the last couple of years, we’ve had Tales of the Abyss for 3DS, a reprint for Vesperia, Tales of Graces f‘s day one edition and a gorgeous collectors edition for Tales of Xillia. Next February, we’ll be treated to Tales of Symphonia Chronicles (which will have its own limited edition) and later in the year we’ll be getting the sequel to Tales of Xillia. It’s a great time to be a fan of the series, whether you were there from the beginning or just jumped in this year. I’m currently playing through my fifth game in the series, the PSP version of Tales of Eternia, and I’m really enjoying that too.

But it’s always Tales of Vesperia that I come back to when I think of the series, and it’s always the characters and skits that I think back on when I remember how much I loved my eighty hours in the company of the game and its cast. Well, that and Yuri’s Savage Wolf Fury mystic arte.

Tales of Vesperia. A game so good I bought it twice. And then got it signed by Troy Baker.
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Previous entries in Games of the Generation:
Dead Space 2

It’s November 1st. Later this month, Microsoft and Sony’s next generation consoles will be hitting the shelves and we’ll all be neglecting our previous gen workhorses as we get pulled in by the new shiny ones. I have been planning a Games of the Generation article for a while, and the original idea was for it to have a similar structure to my Games of the Year piece from last year, listing a number of games and writing a couple of paragraphs about each. The more I thought about it, the more obvious it became that that concept wouldn’t work; there’s just so many more games to choose from that I’d probably end up writing tens of thousands of words, and that’s just too much for a single article. No one would read it, and I wouldn’t blame them.

So I’m going to pick a game every couple of days (or so) and write about that. I’ll then link to previous entries in all of the following articles so that you can keep track of them all. Some ground rules: I’m counting games on 360, PS3, Wii, 3DS and Vita as well as any PC games that have been released since the 360 launched (I know the PC doesn’t have ‘generations’, but I want to include a couple of games from that platform). I’m not counting Wii U for two reasons: firstly, it’s Nintendo’s challenger to PS4 and Xbox One, and secondly, I don’t even own one yet. If the mood takes me, I might even throw in a PSP or DS game (provided it saw release after the Xbox 360 – that’s my cut off point).

One last point: I’m not putting these in any kind of numerical order. I’m listing the games I’ve loved throughout this generation of gaming, not ranking them. It’s often hard enough to rank the best games in a given year, let alone an entire generation.

So, without further ado, here’s my first entry. And considering what day it was yesterday, it’s a very apt pick.

Dead Space 2
ds2banI loved Dead Space when it launched in late 2008. Loved it. A stunning-looking new IP that melded the best bits of Alien, The Thing, Event Horizon and Resident Evil 4? Count me the hell in! It ended up being my second favourite game of 2008 and I immediately began pining for a sequel.

Dead Space 2 launched at the start of 2011, and unfortunately I couldn’t afford it at the time. Releasing it right after Christmas possibly wasn’t the best idea, and I had to resign myself to waiting a few weeks until I could get my hands on it (on the plus side, waiting three weeks meant I only paid £24!). In the weeks that followed release, I got to read a lot of other people’s impressions and it seemed that EA and Visceral had stuffed up. Apparently they’d taken out the horror and turned Dead Space into an action shooter! Dead Space 2 was Resi 5 in space!

Except it wasn’t. When I eventually got my hands on the game, I found these claims to be massively overblown; Dead Space 2 is largely more of the same, and that’s ok by me. The game begins with Isaac regaining consciousness and finding himself straitjacketed in the midst of another Necromorph outbreak, a horrifically gruesome scene playing out before him. Unable to defend himself, Isaac is forced to run, and we’re immediately back into familiar Dead Space territory; dark futuristic corridors, ambient lighting and sheer bloody horror. The first game’s excellent, immersive in-game HUD is back, as are the static-y, hurried radio communications we remember, and it’s not too long before we’ve recovered the now-iconic plasma cutter.

Sure, there may be a few more necromorphs here and there trying to tear your face off, and sure, there are some impressively huge Uncharted-style set-pieces such as that train ride or Isaac’s frankly insane space jump through a debris field, but they fit in with the tone of the game. Dead Space 2 is all about escalation; we’re not on a derelict ship in orbit around a distant world this time, we’re on The Sprawl, an enormous space station built on the remains of Saturn’s moon Titan, meaning that the threat in this sequel is right on Earth’s doorstep (relatively speaking). The Sprawl is a civilian structure, so it presents a number of different environments from the moody mining installations of the previous game, taking in shopping malls, hospitals, an elaborate gothic, almost Giger-esque church and even an elementary school. God, that school… For anyone thinking that Dead Space had given up it’s twisted horror roots for the second game, that school will quickly set them straight. And then promptly live in the space at the back of their minds where nightmares come from.

The atmosphere is there, too. That thick, cloying, suffocating mood backed up with excellent audio design and that maddening quiet-loud mechanic that spends as long as it needs to to get every hair on your body standing on end, your skin prickling in anticipation. Just like Dead Space, this is a game that you will play constantly on edge (especially if, like me, you play it in the dark with surround sound…). Like anything in the horror genre, familiarity can lessen the fear, and that does hold true for Dead Space 2 to a certain degree; you’ll never relive the first time you saw a Necromorph tear an NPC limb from limb, or disappear from sight only to emerge, slavering from an air duct behind you. But this is where the atmosphere and audio design come into their own, backed up this time by a greater focus on psychological horror; Isaac spent much of the first game searching for his missing girlfriend Nicole, only to learn she had died before he had even arrived. In Dead Space 2 he is haunted by crazed visions of her, and it is apparent that he is mentally suffering, visions seemingly seeping into the real world and making both player and protagonist sometimes question what’s real.

So Dead Space 2 isn’t the full-on horror-free action game I had been led to believe, and now, post-Dead Space 3, these claims do look rather overblown. I’ve since seen a parallel drawn between the Dead Space and Alien franchises; people claim that as Aliens was to Alien, Dead Space 2 is to Dead Space. I don’t entirely agree with that either; while both Alien and the first DS were claustrophobic sci-fi horror experiences, Aliens took that template and made a suspenseful, dark action movie out of it. Sure, there are more monsters and bigger set pieces in Dead Space 2, but it’s still a claustrophobic sci-fi horror experience.

There are a couple more things worth pointing out. Firstly, the original game’s zero-gravity sections return, but here they’re much more playable. Zero-gravity in Dead Space meant jumping from point to point and was handled almost entirely by the game; you aim where you want to go, press a button and zoom straight there. In Dead Space 2, you are completely free to roam around in 3D space thanks to the small boosters on Isaac’s suit, and it makes moving around the game’s zero-g spaces not only much more enjoyable, but more creative too. Secondly, though Dead Space was already a very good looking game, the sequel is an utterly spectacular visual feast for console players – it’s easily one of the best looking titles of the current generation, and I’m very interested to see what Visceral can manage in the coming generation.

Oh, and one final thing: Ellie Langford is a friggin’ badass.