Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Winter wonderland

Above: Heavy Rain would have been my pick for the game that definitely won't come out on schedule.

My winter games preview is up now at As you probably already know, it's an astonishing line-up this year, more like a Christmas schedule than a winter one. And, of course, immediately after it was too late to change anything in print, one of the games was delayed. Whoever had Lost Planet 2 in your office pool, enjoy your winnings.

Back to vacation I go. The slopes await!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Games of the decade: Leftovers

In the course of putting together the list of my favorite games of the decade, I omitted several great games. In the spirit of inclusiveness, here are a few that I wish had been on there.

Games that barely missed the cut

Yakuza/Yakuza 2 - A phenomenal series packed with humor, pathos, and bone-crunching hits. News that Yakuza 3 is coming Stateside is welcome, indeed.

Ratchet and Clank (series) - I feel like a lot of people overlook how great this series is, given that Insomniac delivers a fun, visually pleasing game every year like clockwork. That's not easy to do. I'm sorry that I also overlooked it in this list. Tough omission.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare - With a terrific single-player campaign and best-in-class multiplayer, or so they tell me, I left this one off mostly out of spite for the sequel. But it is still terrific.

Games that wouldn't have missed the cut if I hadn't forgotten them

Left 4 Dead - An unforgivable omission, and a total brainfart on my end. I love this game. I feel bad. Actually, several times I thought about what to write in the blurb before realizing that I hadn't actually put it anywhere on the list. Dumb.

Fairway Solitaire - Mainstream bias may have hurt Fairway Solitaire here. I just plum forgot about it. But I can't recommend it highly enough.

Games that seem like they might have made the cut if I'd ever played them

Silent Hill 2 - I've enjoyed other Silent Hill games, and tales of sexual repression and self-loathing are always a good time.

Eternal Darkness - Before Denis Dyack lost his marbles.

Beyond Good and Evil - It's so well regarded in certain circles, I feel like I'm missing something big by not having played this.

Deus Ex - I played the demo. It seemed okay.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Year in review: The best games of 2009

Above: I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Ain't no rest for the wicked awesome.

We're wrapping up our recap of the year that was. Today: the best games of 2009.

At last we come to it. You can click through to the feature on to read the blurbs for each game, but for easy reference, and with all the usual caveats, here's my top 10 of 2009:
  1. Borderlands
  2. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
  3. Batman: Arkham Asylum
  4. Shadow Complex
  5. Flower
  6. Left 4 Dead 2
  7. Red Faction: Guerrilla
  8. Dead Space: Extraction
  9. Street Fighter IV
  10. Prototype
That concludes our coverage of 2009. We're not turning the lights out for the holidays here at Insult Swordfighting, but posting is likely to be light until the new year. As always, thank you for reading. Merry Christmas, and a happy New Year!

Games of the decade: Resident Evil 4

The last of a series of subjective looks at my favorite games of the decade.

Resident Evil 4
(2005, Nintendo GameCube and PlayStation 2; 2007, Wii)

In the five-plus years I've been reviewing games, I've given a score of 10/10 on four separate occasions. Two of those were for Resident Evil 4. No, it's not perfect, in the sense that no game ever could be, but in all the ways that matter, it is my idea of a perfect game.

I had been a fan of the Resident Evil games going way back, but by the time I played Zero I felt that the franchise was more than out of gas. I put about three hours into that game and couldn't summon the will to go on. It was impossible to ignore the positive buzz building around the fourth installment, but even so, I went to Best Buy and picked it up because we needed something to review, not because I was expecting anything earth-shaking.

My blase attitude lasted about five minutes, by which time the game's opening sequence fairly well blew it away. There's a little bit of ominous lead-up to the real opening sequence. First Leon is abandoned by the unfriendly local cops, then he encounters a crazy man in a farmhouse, then he sees one of the cops being burned at the stake in the town square. It is all creepy and very well done. But it still doesn't prepare you for the onslaught that comes next.

Years later, my head still spins when I remember that opening shootout. The designers played me like a fiddle. They showed me Leon pushing a bookcase in front of a window, and so I understood that I could use the other furniture to barricade myself in. I felt very pleased with myself, listening to the plagas struggling on the other side of what I presumed to be sturdy, artisanal furniture, and I don't know why I didn't realize that they could break through it until they did.

So I ran upstairs, where I was again surprised by the sight of plagas clambering in through the windows. Here's where the interface came into play: any time Leon was near an interactive object or location, a button popped up letting me know. So I leaped out the window, darted across the courtyard, and climbed a ladder onto a rooftop. The big button appeared, informing me that I could knock the ladder down. "This is too easy!" I thought. I ran to the other side of the roof and kicked down another ladder. "I'll just stand up here and pop them all in the head."

As I turned back around, ready for the turkey shoot, up came the ladder I had just knocked down. That's when I knew this game had me completely. And that's before the chainsaw guy showed up!

The crazy thing, though, is that RE4 never slowed down from there. It raised the stakes at every turn. More impressively, it finagled endless variety out of a streamlined interface and a limited moveset. Leon couldn't do very much: he could run, aim, and shoot, or he could performed those predetermined contextual actions. From this Resident Evil 4 presented one inventive setpiece after another, never repeating itself, and often exploiting the player's own laziness. You beat the first El Gigante, and later the game sics two of them on you. One is easy to dispatch by dropping into a pool of lava, and if you're like me, you're feeling relieved at this point that you know how to kill the second one. Except, oops, now the lava pool is sealed shut.

In the end, that might be what makes Resident Evil 4 so great.* At every stage, Capcom carefully sets your expectations, and then swiftly knocks them down. Playing this game is like going up against a great poker player: he knows exactly what you're holding, and how to fool you into thinking he's holding something else. Except in this case, you're the one winning the jackpot.

*N.B. I've been trying to explain for almost five years what makes Resident Evil 4 so great, and I don't think I've gotten it right yet.

More on Resident Evil 4:

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Year in review: The worst games of 2009

Above: "It's just me hitting orcs with an axe for an hour and a half. It cost 80 million dollars."

Today through Christmas Eve, we'll be recapping the year that was. Today: The worst games of the year.

For some reason, every year when I go back over the reviews I've written, I'm much more picky about what to include on the list of the worst games than the best. I'm not sure why. I think it stems from a genuine desire to respect other people's opinions. Even though I'm comfortable panning something popular, it seems like a dick move to take the next step and declare something to be definitively bad, especially when I'm in the minority. It's a good thing when people hold different opinions about games, isn't it?

Even so, the only thing people like arguing about more than a list of the best games of the year is a list of the worst games of the year, so here you go.

First, there are the games that undeniably had their merits. Not necessarily badly made, they were lacking in some crucial area.

New Super Mario Bros. had the classic level design that fans loved, not to mention graphics and sounds that put anybody over the age of 20 on the express train to Nostalgia Land. Thanks to insanely frustrating co-op play, it also nearly caused me to have to spend the night on the couch. Hot tip: Don't play video games with me unless you enjoy profanity.

I covered Brütal Legend already, in the superlatives post, so I won't say much more about it here, except that no game this year disappointed me more, because I expected so much. My own fault, I guess.

Scribblenauts is a terrific idea that works sporadically in a toy-like way, but didn't make for much of a game. I would definitely play whatever 5th Cell does next, but I hope they listened to some of the criticisms of this game.

Wanted: Weapons of Fate was actually a fun way to spend an afternoon, but you've got to be kidding me, charging $60 for a five-hour game that has no multiplayer. I'm all for keeping your game short if the quality is high, but at some point you're just showing contempt for the consumer. (By all accounts, it sounds like Rogue Warrior is a much worse game, and is only half as long, so I kind of wish I'd played it, if only for this list.)

Next are the games I really didn't enjoy, to the point where I actually couldn't understand why people liked them. inFamous is chief among these, with a robust Metacritic score of 85, and many vocal fans. There was almost nothing I liked about it. I thought it was self-serious, I thought the magnetic platforming was sloppy and intrusive, and I thought the combat was dull. Prototype was far superior.

Like its predecessor, Puzzle Quest: Galactrix was a great idea with a horrible execution. The Nintendo DS version especially was ugly, slow, choppy, and all around unpleasant to play. None of the problems from Challenge of the Warlords were rectified. I won't be playing the next one.

Arcade-style sports games are a great idea, but The Bigs 2 was a terrible one. Although the home run derby made for a passable side game, the problem with the main game was that, with all its exaggerations and hyperbole, it lost sight of the spirit of baseball. NBA Jam was great because it took what's enjoyable about basketball and amplified it. The Bigs 2 took what's enjoyable about baseball and threw it in the trash.

We're really into the dreck now. The Godfather Part II would have been nothing more than a lousy GTA clone, if it weren't carrying such an august name. Badly made games are a dime a dozen, but games that crap all over the legacy of one of the greatest American films are rare indeed. Frances Ford Coppola would be furious about this, if he were still alive.

But the worst game I played this year was also the first game I played this year. Lord of the Rings: Conquest was a viscerally unpleasant game to play. It was just bursting with bad decisions. Believe me, I take no pleasure in knowing that a lot of people lost their jobs when Pandemic closed down recently, but if you want to know why it happened, this game is a good place to start.

Tomorrow: The best games of 2009.

Games of the decade: Rock Band

Part of a series of subjective looks at my favorite games of the decade.

Rock Band
(2007, Xbox 360, PlayStation 2, and PlayStation 3; 2008, Wii)

Rock Band 2
(2008, Xbox 360, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, and Wii)

Forget the Wii. For mass appeal, nothing beats Rock Band. And it's got longevity, too, thanks to a forward-thinking business model that ensures several new tracks to download every week. Rock Band is so interesting from a technical and business standpoint that it would be easy to forget to mention the real reason it's such a phenomenon: it's the most fun freaking thing in the world.

Look, Guitar Hero was incredible. I will never forget what it felt like the first time I played that game. That's not the same sensation I got when I first tried Rock Band, where I knew what to expect. But Rock Band has so much more to offer. The satisfaction of reaching expert difficulty on the drums was much deeper than it was for guitar, because, damn it, it really was like playing the drums! The singing component opened the game up to players who felt uncomfortable trying to handle the game controllers, even as user-friendly as they were.

And the tracklists are just great. Money talks, and the massive commercial success of Guitar Hero paved the way for more songs and more master tracks. Here's another place where Rock Band and Guitar Hero diverge: while GH pursued chart-toppers, Rock Band went for quality, showing what Iroquois Pliskin called "a curatorial esteem for musicianship above other factors." I have gotten into more new bands thanks to Rock Band than at any time since college. The game has made me appreciate classic bands I'd overlooked, while introducing me to current artists I might never have heard of.

More important, it has made me a more active listener of music. Used to be that I mostly heard whatever was more prominent in the mix, the singer's voice or a guitar solo. Now I can pick out bass lines, and understand drum parts. In the course of listening to a song I can dissect it and put it back together again. This is an ability I've never had before. When I hear people warning that music games are eroding our appreciation of music, I have to laugh. It's exactly the opposite.

More on Rock Band:

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Year in review: Honorable mentions

Today through Christmas Eve, we'll be recapping the year that was. Today: 2009 honorable mentions.

We may never see another year like 2007 again, when we were treated to one astonishing game after another. But 2009 was no slouch. Like last year, quality was generally high, with just a few stinkers, and even those often suffered more from understandable fatal flaws than from all-encompassing ineptitude. No doubt about it, I played a lot of good games this year.

In chronological order:

Skate 2: Still extremely challenging, Skate 2 improved upon its predecessor mostly by giving you the ability to walk up steps, which was very necessary.

F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin: A mish-mash of styles that didn't all work together, this game had enough high points to be worth playing.

Killzone 2: Graphically impressive and with a fun, team-based multiplayer mode, it wasn't one of the best FPSes ever made, even if you do have a functioning brain. But it was a good one.

MadWorld: Sort of a better idea than it was a game, MadWorld was striking and unusual, and comically violent.

Guitar Hero: Metallica: I'll be honest with you. This, not The Beatles, was my favorite music game of the year.

The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena: This would be here if it were only the high-definition remake of Escape from Butcher Bay. The Dark Athena chapter is not quite as good, but actually better than I thought people gave it credit for.

Punch-Out!!: Absolutely worthy of the name. Extremely fun. Also controller-throwingly difficult. (But what isn't, really?)

Ghostbusters: The Video Game: Funny, breezy, colorful -- the definition of good but not great. It's also my nephew Sam's favorite game to play with me, besides X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Which reminds me...

X-Men Origins: Wolverine: I never wrote about this game, but I played it a little and found it to be a fun, good-looking beat-'em-up with some neat cinematic events. It's also unbelievably gory. Did I mention Sam is four years old?

Tales of Monkey Island: Launch of the Screaming Narwhal: Telltale is doing a fine job with the LucasArts relaunches. Not so fine that I sought out the subsequent episodes, but hey, I'm a busy man.

'Splosion Man: Another challenging throwback to the sidescrolling era, this played like Sonic the Hedgehog mixed with the "Barrel Blast" level of Donkey Kong Country.

Fat Princess: A surprisingly relaxing take on competitive capture-the-flag gaming.

The Beatles: Rock Band: Well, it is the Beatles, after all.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2: A really slick package.

Assassin's Creed II: It takes a good eight hours to get to the point where this game is fun. Once there, it can be, at times, brilliant, but it still gets in its own way too much.

Tomorrow: The worst games of 2009.

Games of the decade: Shadow of the Colossus

Part of a series of subjective looks at my favorite games of the decade.

Shadow of the Colossus
(2005, PlayStation 2)

2005 was a big year. In the spring, the Phoenix started publishing game reviews in print, after running them online for about a year. They kicked it off with a cover story in which I reviewed three of the winter's biggest highest-profile releases (which were Resident Evil 4, NBA Street Vol. 3, and Mercenaries -- in retrospect, only one of those was really worth the ink). For all the talk of digital media being the future, or even the present, hard copy lends a certain invaluable legitimacy.

Feeling the pressure of a bigger megaphone, or at least a more prestigious one, I also started aiming a little higher with my reviews. I wanted to talk about theme, and narrative, and meaning. Only trouble was, most games were impervious to this kind of criticism. (Sadly, this is still true.) Shadow of the Colossus, on the other hand, was a game that seemed to be crying out to be taken seriously. I still know of few other games that manage to synthesize such real emotion out of their digital parts.

Reading my review now (sorry for the formatting), it's clear that I didn't quite succeed in that goal, but it's a pretty significant step forward, even if you include all the ill-advised humor and the cringe-inducing closing sentence. This is one of many games it's easy to point to when people question the legitimacy of games as an artistic medium, so much so that it's almost a cliche at this point. But what else can you call it? Games took a big leap this decade, and Shadow of the Colossus was on the vanguard. It was the first of many impressive games in the latter half of the decade that grabbed players by the lapels and demanded that they take accountability for their actions. In some sense, it did the same for me as a reviewer.

More on Shadow of the Colossus:

Monday, December 21, 2009

Year in review: Year-end superlatives

Above: A winner is you, everyone.

Today through Christmas Eve, we'll be recapping the year that was. Today: year-end superlatives.

Today, we're handing out accolades to the games, systems, and people who made the year so interesting.

Welcome Trend: Co-op for All

Cooperative gameplay isn't exactly new. It's almost as old as video games themselves. But the past year seems to have shown an increased emphasis on multiplayer games that are less about competition and more about cooperation. We're seeing more and more games that want to give groups of players a chance to write their own stories. The Left 4 Dead games may be the ultimate example of this. Borderlands is another. New Super Mario Bros. Wii, though I didn't appreciate it, is another. From Resident Evil 5 to Uncharted 2 to Modern Warfare 2, co-op is everywhere.

There was a time when I preferred single-player gaming to any other type. Today I'm finding myself always looking for the next great co-op experience. Keep 'em coming, developers!

Noble Failure of the Year: Brütal Legend

Everybody roots for Tim Schafer. He seems like such an awesome guy, and his games, especially for LucasArts, are uncommonly literate, funny, and character-driven. Brütal Legend is, too, but unfortunately it's not so fun to play. I was thinking about Schafer's Full Throttle recently, and how much the two games have in common. A beefy protagonist with a strict code of honor, who feels like the world is passing him by. A fascination with a dark but principled subculture. And gameplay segments that feel shoehorned in, and which don't work at all.

In Full Throttle, it was the highway duels, and in Brütal Legend, it's -- well, everything, really. If this game had been a beat-em-up or an open-world action game or a real-time strategy game, and Double Fine had taken the time to polish it, it might have been spectacular. Instead, it's all of them, and it's none of them. I have read that this game is too awesome to be confined in something as simple as genre, but I've said before and I'll say again that I'd rather a game do one thing well than several things badly.

It's too bad because the story is so great, and because I want people like Tim Schafer to succeed. But it can't be a good sign when you're hurrying through the gameplay segments so you can get to the next cutscene.

PR Knuckleheads of the Year: Infinity Ward

Let's first say that Bobby Kotick should probably win this award every year, but since we gave it to him last year, we'll retire him from consideration.

Maybe it's because my memory only goes back six weeks, but even when I think of other noteworthy controversies from the year, I feel like the companies involved acquitted themselves pretty well. Capcom's reps did a decent job of defending Resident Evil 5 from racism charges (even if the game itself didn't), Chair made it clear that they do not hate gays, and so forth. Infinity Ward could only offer lame excuses in defense of the silly things they did. Which, in case you forgot, were:
  • Making a level where you kill a bunch of civilians, and then being proud of it
  • Dropping dedicated servers for the PC players
  • Releasing a viral video with homophobic slurs
I don't envy Robert Bowling having to defend this stuff all the time, and it's not like he was responsible for any of those things, but pretending not to notice the acronym in the grenade spam video was pretty weak. Compare IW's response to any of these things to the way Valve handled the Left 4 Dead 2 boycott, and you start to see what I'm talking about.

I'm sure this post will have everybody at Infinity Ward crying themselves to sleep, on top of a pile of money.

Game Blogger of the Year: Ben Abraham

In the past, this has been an award for an individual blog, but Ben's work across two sites this year deserves notice. On his personal blog, Ben's Permanent Death saga was both a feat of storytelling and a penetrating look at a great game, Far Cry 2. The 391-page PDF, with full-color screenshots and a forward by Clint Hocking, is a terrific package.

Ben also launched Critical Distance, a site devoted to spotlighting the best games writing from around the web. Each week, Ben rounds up entertaining and thoughtful work on a variety of subjects. A spectacular group of writers contributes critical compilations, which are comprehensive lists of links about specific games, and spotlights, which are in-depth looks at individual writers. This is a great site, and long overdue. We're at the point now where the problem isn't a lack of good writing -- it's how to find it all. Ben is doing the leg work.

Developer of the Year: Rocksteady Studios

Here's why: who the hell is Rocksteady Studios? You know what to expect from Valve and Insomniac and Naughty Dog and Infinity Ward and Gearbox. They're all developers that have a track record, and whatever you think of the games they make, they are consistent. Before this year, Rocksteady had exactly one game to their credit: Urban Chaos: Riot Response, a game with a weak 73 Metacritic average, and which I am willing to bet you had not heard of, let alone played.

How they followed that up with Batman: Arkham Asylum, a rich and fully-realized action-adventure game that can fairly be compared to Metroid and BioShock, I have no idea. And how Eidos, DC Comics, and whoever else that needed to sign off on this thing saw the potential in them to make Arkham Asylum is a sign of uncommonly good judgment all around.

Let's put it this way: Will you be paying attention to whatever Rocksteady does next? Of course you will.

Publisher of the Year: Sony Computer Entertainment

That's right. I'm about to dump some more praise on these guys in a minute, so we'll keep this quick. From MLB 09 to Uncharted 2 to Ratchet and Clank, they kept standards sky-high for their most important properties. Well-received exclusives like Killzone 2 and inFamous set the table for future sequels. Games like Flower and Fat Princess and PixelJunk Shooter helped PlayStation Network stand toe-to-toe with Xbox Live Arcade. No doubt about it, Sony had a very good year.

Game Console of the Year: PlayStation 3

Honestly, there were times I thought Sony would have to pull the plug on the PS3. The first few years were a disaster. A company with less deep pockets probably would have given up long ago. But Sony persevered, and in 2009 things fell into place for them. They made a necessary price cut, to $299. They released a true killer app, Uncharted 2. They launched a marketing campaign that people actually like. And all the things that had kept the flame flickering for the beleaguered console -- great downloadable games, stellar first-party properties, Blu-ray -- just kept burning brighter.

Sure, much of what Sony has done this year can be found on other platforms (it's not exactly a coup that the PS3 streams Netflix), but they've finally put their system on solid footing. This was the first year since they announced a $599 launch price* that people have discussed either Sony or the PS3 without using the word "fucking." And the debate -- Xbox 360 or PS3? -- has never been further from a resolution.

Tomorrow: 2009 honorable mentions.

*Yes, that really was the first Insult Swordfighting post.

Games of the decade: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Part of a series of subjective looks at my favorite games of the decade.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
(2003, PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube, and PC)

I can't be sure, but I think Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was the last game I played without the aim of writing about it. There may have been others, but it was right near the end. It was definitely the last game I fell in love with and played repeatedly, content not to rush on to the next big thing (or not so big thing).

A common theme on this list, among the games predating 2004, are games I got for Christmas, because that was the way I got them for the first part of the decade. This was no different. In 2003, I remember seeing TV commercials for two games: this, and Castlevania: Lament of Innocence. When either ad came on, I'd comment about wanting to play them, but when Christmastime arrived and my girlfriend handed me a suspiciously game-shaped box, I found myself desperately hoping it would be Prince of Persia and not Castlevania. I'm not sure why. I don't think I'd read any reviews. I'd been a Castlevania fan in the past, especially Super Castlevania IV and Symphony of the Night, but held no particular affinity for anything PoP. Still, when I unwrapped that gift and saw a sword-wielding Prince leaping out at me, I felt relief more than anything.

As I delved into the game, my relief turned quickly to excitement. Sands of Time is nominally similar to Tomb Raider, a franchise I have never liked because of its unforgiving and slow-paced platforming, but it solves every problem that Tomb Raider had, including some I didn't realize existed. The acrobatic Prince performs one impossible stunt after another, and the beauty of the game is that you don't often have to stop and line up your next move exactly right. Using only two buttons, you can wall-run over a gap, then spring onto a bar, flip around it once before leaping to a pole, then shimmy up it and disembark for a perfect landing, all in one smooth and unbroken sequence. Navigating the game's physical space is thrilling. I had never felt such freedom of movement in a game before.

Smarter still is that magical sand. I can't believe it took until 2003 for somebody to come up with the idea to let you rewind upon making a mistake. There's no such thing as a cheap death in this game. Instead, you learn what you've done wrong and can immediately correct it. That doesn't make the game too easy or simplistic. It makes it fun.

The sand is the linchpin of a surprisingly powerful story. From the beginning, the game is cast as a flashback, with the Prince narrating his incredible story to someone whose identity we don't learn until the end. The writing is fantastic, and so is the acting. Yuri Lowenthal, as the Prince, strikes exactly the right note of raffish charm. His sarcastic asides to himself as he progresses through the game are funny, and his gradual acceptance of responsibility for having unleashed the Sands of Time is both believable and affecting.

(Why Lowenthal was replaced in Warrior Within by some generic gravelly voiced dude, I have no idea. Nolan North did all right in last year's Prince of Persia by playing, as he always does, Nolan North, but Lowenthal is the definitive Prince.)

It's the game's finale that pulls the rug out from under you. Throughout the game, the Prince has been slowly developing a relationship with the Princess Farah, at the end of which they are well and truly in love. Standard stuff. Then, after the Prince topples the evil Vizier and rewinds time, back to before the Sands destroyed everything, it's as though they've never met. When we realize that the Prince has been talking to Farah all along, and not to us, it is a perfect storytelling moment: funny, surprising, achingly romantic. I don't remember if Farah falls in love with the Prince after that, but I did.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Year in review: The best of the blog

Above: Actually the best of Insult Swordfighting.

Today through Christmas Eve, we'll be recapping the year that was. First up: the best of Insult Swordfighting, 2009.

Another year has come and gone, and with it have gone a crapload of blog posts. I continue to be amazed that anybody reads these posts at all, never mind commenting and linking to them. But you do. This year, Insult Swordfighting surpassed 1,000 subscribers, which is a thousand more than I ever would have expected. As of this writing, the count is over 1,100. I'm honored. Thank you for reading.

In the interest of not having to produce any original content, here's a look back at Insult Swordfighting's highlights from the past year.

January: Achievement points are awesome. Fallout 3 is also awesome, as evidenced by posts here, here, here, here, and here.

February: A plea for reader questions from readers results in the multi-part Request Hour series, which I should probably do again sometime. Plus, the argument about Guitar Hero that I never want to hear again, parts one and two.

March: Screw modesty. I think the best post I've done might be "Using the sniper rifle in Killzone 2: A photo tutorial." I'm surprised how well the photographs of my television came out. In March, I also attempted to explain why Resident Evil 5 isn't scary, a post I'm pretty sure Tycho responded to in a Penny Arcade newspost without linking it or mentioning me by name. Not that I am bitter.

April: The problem with casual games isn't that they aren't about shooting people and blowing stuff up, it's that the people who make them don't give a toss about user experience.

May: Have you ever wondered how to make your company's awesome new video game stand out from the competition? Here's a handy guide to writing a killer press release.

June: Morality in games is a great idea, and more and more titles are giving you a chance to decide what kind of hero you'll be. So how come it hardly ever works?

July: My friends got together to play a bunch of old video games. I detailed the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of a nostalgia binge.

August: I ensure that Game Informer will never offer me a job. I meant what I said, and I'm glad I said it. (They did a nice job with the redesign, though.) Also in August, a heartfelt defense of the traditional gamepad.

September: Only seven posts in September. What the hell was I doing all month? Oh, that's right: closing in on the end of an epic fantasy baseball season.

October: The second annual "Year in swooning" quiz is hilarious once again, and it doesn't even include a Modern Warfare 2 blurb! Plus, Borderlands is a blast, even when you're the most useless person on the team.

November: Re: Dragon Age, I throw myself on the mercy of much smarter gamers. Also, praise for level progression in Borderlands and Modern Warfare 2.

December: The games of the decade series just refuses to end.

Tomorrow: Year-end superlatives.

Games of the decade: BioShock

Part of a series of subjective looks at my favorite games of the decade.

(2007, Xbox 360 and PC; 2008, PlayStation 3)

Apparently there's been a backlash? These things are hard to quantify, but I feel like every time I hear somebody mention BioShock these days, it's to criticize it. No game is above criticism, of course. Still, when I played this game, I was fully swept away in the world it created, in the story it told, and the elegant way it fused shooting with user-friendly RPG elements. BioShock is ambitious in many ways, and wisely restrained in others. Everything it does, it does at the highest level.

One of the criticisms people make is the relative simplicty of the game's morality. Choosing to harvest or save the Little Sisters is a binary choice, and not even a tough one. I saved them, because that's how I play everything, and before long it was obvious that doing so wasn't costing me anything. When you harvest the Sisters, you get some ADAM right away, but if you save them, you'll get even more, provided you have a little patience. So there's no good reason not to save them, unless you want to be a jerk. As roleplaying goes, this ain't Fallout.

But it's not supposed to be. BioShock is an action game, and one of the things that's great about it is that it keeps its eyes on the prize. Nearly all of your powers are employed, whether directly or indirectly, in service of combat. I built my character up as a hacker, and I never got tired of turning the security systems of Rapture against its inhabitants.

One of my favorite memories was the early battle against an insane doctor. I had him on the ropes, and, in one last, desperate move, he sprinted out of my sight to a nearby aid station. Unfortunately for him, I had hacked it, and it dealt him the killing blow. That's the kind of game design I like: you've got nearly endless options for accomplishing your task, and doing it one way doesn't make you feel like you've missed out on another.

The biggest complaint people have about this game seems to be the escort mission at the end. I think it's brilliant. Not so much for the mechanics of it, gathering the bits of the Big Daddy costume and then escorting Little Sisters in a sequence that you actually can't fail, but for the drama. All game long, you've been encountering these hulking beasts. They leave you alone unless you attack them, which you will if you want to complete the objective of saving or harvesting all of the Little Sisters. They are faceless and anonymous beasts. You think of them as just another video game enemy, albeit a particularly cool one.

Then, suddenly, you find yourself one of them. You're protecting the Little Sisters. You're being attacked by selfish, bloodthirsty freaks. This sequence casts everything you've done so far in a different light. Every bit as much as the famous scene with Andrew Ryan and the golf club, this scene makes you stop and think about what you've been doing, and why.

Ultimately BioShock gives me everything I want from a game. I want to explore an interesting and unexpected world, which rewards my curiosity and which makes sense logically. I want my intelligence to be respected, my emotions to be provoked, and my sense of adventure to be piqued. I want to feel, when the game is over, like I did something that mattered. BioShock mattered.

More on BioShock:

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Games of the decade: Final Fantasy X

Part of a series of subjective looks at my favorite games of the decade.

Final Fantasy X
(2001, PlayStation 2)

When I played Final Fantasy X, the earth moved. I mean that literally.

In the spring of 2002, I was itching for a new game. I'd played Grand Theft Auto III to completion, had maxed out my Tony Hawk skills, and, after three agonizing months of one brief and unsatisfying play session after another, I'd finally beaten Metal Gear Solid 2. Being broke at the time, it was important to me to buy something that I could sink some serious hours into, and get my money's worth. FFX seemed to fit the bill, but I was hesitant.

I'd tried and failed to get into some Final Fantasy games in the past. When we were kids, my brother and I had made it as far as the Earth Fiend in the original game before giving up. I sailed right through the SNES era. In high school, I borrowed Final Fantasy VII from a friend and made it as far as the world map before declaring the game boring and dumb. A breakthrough came during my sophomore year of college when, in an attempt to avoid doing anything productive, I downloaded an NES emulator and a Final Fantasy ROM. With the emulator running in one window, and a walkthrough open in another, I breezed my way through the game, gradually learning the systems and tactics that had eluded me in previous attempts. This led to some all-night play sessions, after which I would arrive to class, bleary-eyed, and try to follow along with some lecture about Jane Austen.

So Final Fantasy X was a bit of a gamble, but when you've got nothing, you've got nothing to lose. From the unexpectedly sad piano overture, I was hooked. This game wore its heart on its sleeve, and while that seems silly now, at the time I could relate to Tidus's feelings of alienation and angst. Even his whiny voice didn't bother me.

And while I've read plenty of complaints about this game from RPG purists, I loved all the things they hated. I was glad that most of the game was on rails, or close to it, so that it kept me moving. The sphere grid was a simple way to seem like I had control over my character builds, without really giving me too many options. And the storyline, in all its silly and melodramatic glory, connected with me.

One Friday night, I settled in for a long play session starting around 10 o'clock. At almost 7 the next morning, the bed shifted beneath me. From somewhere in my dorm, an old building in Boston's Back Bay, I heard a loud crack. For a few seconds, everything was wobbling ever so slightly. I was so tired from a nine-hour play session that I thought I must have been hallucinating. Next to my TV was a tall and rickety CD tower. I rubbed my eyes. It was swaying back and forth like a drunk person.

Sometimes you play the right game at the right time. If not for Final Fantasy X, I never would have been awake at the time. That's not all I have to thank it for. Although I never became a full-bore RPG guy, that was the springboard to successful playthroughs of Final Fantasy VI, Final Fantasy VII, and Chrono Trigger -- all great games in their own rights. And it reminded me that games do have the capacity to make you feel something, even if it's a 5.1 magnitude earthquake.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

Christmas is just one week away, which probably means this will be the last Friday links post of 2009. Better make it a good one!

-All 12 parts of Slate's Gaming Club are up now. At over 1,000 words a piece, that's a lot of debating. I hope it was worth people's while to read. I had a great time writing it, and interacting with Chris, Jamin, and Leigh. The blogosphere is a conversation in some ways, but it's so indirect that it can still feel like you're just talking to yourself. I always enjoy a chance to do something like this. I also want to mention the editor of the piece, Josh Levin, who worked as hard as any of us and did a great job putting it all together.

-In a decade-in-review piece, the Phoenix's Ryan Stewart says that now that games have reached critical mass, it's time for some anti-establishment developers to rise up. He says gaming needs its "Nirvana moment," a phrase he tried to resist using but which sums it up too well not to. As is often the case when people say "Why don't we have x, y, or z," I'll say that they are out there somewhere, but he's right that popular games are still sort of in a hair-metal phase.

-Tom Armitage has some ideas to fix "No Russian." I think they're really smart, and would have gone a long way toward alleviating some of the problems I had with it. Still, though, the biggest issue is the tonal clash with the rest of the game, and that wouldn't be solved unless they changed everything else.

-Thanks to my new Kotaku features feed (thanks, Sal Paradise), I didn't miss Leigh Alexander's piece about developers getting appropriate credit for games. This is an issue that goes back to the very beginning. It's why Activision started in the first place. Things are better now than they were then, sure, but it's nuts that you have to basically be enslaved for the duration of a development cycle if you want to get credit for your work.

That's all I've got for this week. Have a great weekend!

Games of the decade: Okami

Part of a series of subjective looks at my favorite games of the decade.

(2006, PlayStation 2; 2008, Wii)

I have a hard time talking about Okami without sounding mushy. This is, after all, a game where you play as a god who takes the form of a white wolf in order to defend nature. If you're going to extol the virtues of a game in which you feed woodland animals, cause trees to bloom, and shrink to microscopic size to fight germs, then you are naturally going to come off like somebody who wears sweaters with images of kittens knitted on them.

Well, I don't care. I love this game. I love everything about it (okay, everything except for Issun's chattering). I love how unapologetically Eastern its philosophy is. I love how gentle it is, even as it pits Amaterasu against some pretty funky demonic foes. I love that it looks like a watercolor painting on rough parchment. I love that it's a game about life and regeneration rather than death and destruction. When I think about Okami, I feel like somebody's hugging me.

You could certainly point to some flaws: Issun's voice, button-mashing combat, three identical battles against Orochi. But though these are the things that make up the skeleton of the game, the meat of it is traveling across the massive gameworld, bringing a blighted land back to life with the power of your celestial brush. The brush is an inspired bit of design. Bringing it up freezes the action onscreen, whereupon it seems to tilt away from the screen, as though it's just paper wrapped around a wooden block. With a simple brushstroke, godlike, you alter the world in dramatic ways. You complete a broken bridge, or summon the sun, or strike at foes. The celestial brush ties everything together. (Although the Wii seemed like a perfect fit for this, I actually preferred using the brush with the PS2 controller).

Okami can most closely be compared to the Zelda series, but for my money it blows away any of the 3D Zelda games, which have been repeating themselves for over a decade now, and which always balance brilliance with boneheadness.* It lets us explore a rich and beautiful world, and to make that world even more rich and beautiful. It has humor and heart. It turns cranky critics into big ol' softies, who will surely regret this post in the morning.

*No, I'm not prepared to back this up right at the moment.

More on Okami:

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Tapping that Assassin

Above: All the action you'll see in an hour of Assassin's Creed II.

My review of Assassin's Creed II is up now at If I seem to hold contradictory opinions of the game, it's because it has contradictory opinions about itself. Unlike, say, Uncharted 2, which was so good because of what it left out, Assassin's Creed II leaves everything in, and the result is a little too weighty and ponderous. There's great stuff in here, but it feels a little like panning for gold: you have to wade through a lot of muck to find those little shiny flecks you're looking for.

The setting is so good that it would be nice if you could simply explore it, without having to fend with rooftop archers and pickpockets who target you, and only you. These things feel less like gameplay obstacles and more like annoyances. Often you wish the game would get out of the way and just let you play.

Yet part of the problem is also a lack of focus, and not enough game. In numerous repetitive side missions, you really aren't doing much at all. One side mission type is to find what are called codex pages, which are always heavily guarded. Once you realize that you can always acquire them using exactly the same methods, by hiring a faction to distract the guards, it ends up feeling like you're doing no more than purchasing the pages. But you go through the dance every single time, hiring a group and leading them to the guards.

I struggled with the platforming for the first few hours of play, because I didn't realize how much the game was doing for me. I kept hitting the A button to jump, when that action actually happens automatically whenever a jump is possible. Like inFamous and Prototype earlier this year, the control system of Assassin's Creed II works very well in some respects, and falls way short in others.

For one thing, the number of inputs is just silly. Ezio can walk (left analog stick), walk quickly (left analog stick and A), run (left analog stick and right trigger), and sprint/free-run (left analog stick, right trigger, and A). All of these except free-run could be accomplished with only the left analog stick. That is, in fact, the very purpose of an analog stick.

The "puppet" control system is also a little hard to get used to. Ostensibly, it maps the four face buttons to Ezio's head, arms, and legs, but the logic isn't always there. The B button on the Xbox 360 pad is responsible both for making you grab onto ledges and drop off of them, and though it makes sense since you'd be using your hands in both cases, it doesn't make sense according to industry standards. In the same way, it's not a huge problem that you use a different button to talk to NPCs than to interact with objects like doors and treasure chests, but it's unexpected and doesn't seem to confer any particular advantages.

Last thing I'll mention -- and it's a sign of how much there is to discuss in this game that, between the review and this post, I still haven't covered it all -- is an unfortunate byproduct of such a painstakingly realistic setting. Walk the streets of Florence and Venice and you may think, as I did, that this is one of the best and most fully realized game environments around. But when some things are so convincing, it raises the bar for everything else. When Ezio gains notoriety, authorities respond by putting up wanted posters. Ezio can reduce his notoriety by ripping them down. Makes sense. So why do the guards put them in high, out-of-the-way places, where Ezio is the only person who could even see them? And another mechanic, "blending," by which you can walk with a group of citizens to elude the guards' gaze, is pretty fun from a gameplay standpoint, but I always wondered why the people I was walking with didn't notice me, either.

All this being said, I have found myself going back to Assassin's Creed II even after somebody was paying me to do it, and that's got to count for something. At times, it can be spectacular.

Games of the decade: Burnout 3: Takedown

Part of a series of subjective looks at my favorite games of the decade.

Burnout 3: Takedown
(2004, PlayStation 2 and Xbox)

One of the first games I reviewed for the Phoenix was Burnout 3: Takedown (ignore the dateline; it actually went up in the late summer of 2004). It was also the first time I would experience what is, hands down, the worst part of this job: having to immediately move on from a great game to whatever the hell is next. Since I had rented the game from Blockbuster rather than get a review copy, I couldn't even run a race or three in my spare time. For the next three months, I kept talking about how great Burnout had been, and how much I wished I was playing Burnout right now.

Providing me with yet another reason to eventually marry her, or maybe just to shut me up, my girlfriend got me Burnout 3 for Christmas. Since then, circumstances have evolved to the point where the last thing I need for Christmas is another video game, but at the time it was the best present I could have gotten. I poured myself into that game, playing for hours at a time. I've come to think it's the best racing game I've ever played. It has everything: the dizzying speed of F-Zero, the intuitive handling of Daytona, the over-the-top carnage of Twisted Metal. Spectacular, clear graphics. Tons of tracks. Numerous game modes. On and on.

The inclusion of aftertouch control, which lets you steer the flaming wreckage of your car into the paths of oncoming racers for a takedown, is one of the smartest game design decisions I've ever seen. It transforms crashes from a simple failure state into an integral part of the gameplay. Between the speed and the road rage, it's very easy to crash in this game, but it's almost never annoying, because aftertouch keeps the race moving forward. That's important.

Everything here is about making you go faster. You won't win without using boost, and you earn boost by doing the craziest stuff imaginable, like going off jumps, drifting, driving in the oncoming lanes, and, yes, using boost. But nothing fills your boost meter like a takedown, and forcing your opponents to crash is one of those game mechanics that works absolutely perfectly. You can tell when your momentum will bulldoze somebody off the road, or when you'll need to duel for a good quarter-mile or so until somebody gets the upper hand.

When you do take someone down, the camera angle cuts to a Matrix-style slow-motion shot of their destruction, before returning you to your car, still racing the course at top speed. How does this work? Why do the takedowns seem fresh and exciting every time, without ever growing repetitive? How is it that you're never disoriented when you're back behind the wheel? As with how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie pop, the world may never know.

More on Burnout:

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Program note

Two years ago, when introduced their inaugural year-end Gaming Club, a roundtable discussion that featured Chris Suellentrop, N'Gai Croal, Stephen Totilo, and Seth Schiesel, I joked that I didn't want to be in their stupid club anyway.

Two years later, somehow, I am in their stupid club, though the membership is slightly different this year. This year's Gaming Club also includes Suellentrop, Jamin Brophy-Warren, and Leigh Alexander. We're having a pretty rollicking discussion that touches on several topics. Posts will continue through the rest of the day today and wrap up tomorrow. I'd enthusiastically invite you to click over and check it out.

Games of the decade: Portal

Part of a series of subjective looks at my favorite games of the decade.

(2007, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC)

The Orange Box was a whole lotta game, including as it did a brand-new Half-Life 2 episode, the long-awaited Team Fortress 2, and complimentary copies of Half-Life 2 and Half-Life 2 Episode One, but it was the quirky puzzler/platformer/dystopian-nightmare Portal that made the biggest impact. I was tempted just now to describe Portal as something nobody saw coming, but it's not really true. It looked spectacular in previews, and I'm probably not the only person who fired it up first after putting the disc in the drive.

Still, I don't think anybody expected just how good this game would end up being. The possibilities of teleporting all over the place with a portal gun was sufficient to stoke my interest, and on this count Portal is plenty successful. Most puzzles can be solved with the same basic trick, in which you build up your momentum by falling from floor to ceiling a couple of times in one smooth motion, but there are plenty of surprises. One segment in particular, where you bounce up and down between floating platforms, opening a new portal at each successively higher one, was the closest I've come to getting motion sick from a game. That's intended as high praise.

The deft storytelling was something I don't think anybody anticipated, particularly via the hilarious and menacing dialogue of your robotic overseer, GLaDOS. So much ink has been spilled in praise of the writing team that I almost hesitate to add to it, but let's be honest here: this is genius-level stuff. For awhile you might not even pay much attention to what GLaDOS is saying, between her boring instructions and your sterile environment. When she starts slipping subtle threats and sarcastic asides into her speeches, you may wonder if you've heard her right. By the time you encounter the weighted companion cube, you start to realize what you're dealing with. No doubt Portal would have been fun even without the story, but would anybody still be talking about it today?

Portal is important for another reason, which is that it proves that a game doesn't have to be 40 hours long to be complete and satisfying. It takes no more than 3-4 hours to beat it, and probably less if you're good at it. Yet it's hard to imagine how it could possibly have been improved. This was a triumph, indeed.

More on Portal:

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Games of the decade: The Darkness

Part of a series of subjective looks at my favorite games of the decade.

The Darkness
(2007, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3)

Playing The Darkness was the best kind of gaming experience to have. I went into it with no expectations, was impressed from the start, wondered how it would screw up, and gradually realized, to my delight, that it wouldn't. We reviewed it for the Phoenix because it was June, and it was a shooter, and what the hell else were we going to do? Certainly the game sounded stupid: you play as a hitman, Jackie Estacado, who's possessed by a demon. That was all I knew, and it didn't seem necessary to know more.

From the start, you realize something a little more is happening. The Darkness throws you into an action scene -- you're sitting in the back of a convertible, speeding through a tunnel away from the cops, and a compatriot hands you a gun and directs you to start shooting. This sets the tone for the rest of the game: you're in control of your actions, mostly, but at crucial points someone else is calling the shots.

The surprises don't stop. The Darkness gives you quiet moments, such as the famous scene where you sit down with your character's girlfriend and can watch the entirety of To Kill a Mockingbird on television, if you choose. And there's the walk through a burned-down orphanage, where ghosts of Jackie's past are literally all around. Twice, Jackie dies and visits this game's version of Hell, a supernatural, World War I-like landscape, where the tormented soul of his grandfather struggles to free Jackie from suffering for his sins. This is a game suffused with sadness, memory, and regret.

Maybe the best thing about the story is how small-scale it is. The plot is essentially one of macabre one-upsmanship, with characters taking increasingly brutal revenge on one another for a perceived personal slight that happens before the game even begins. The fate of the world doesn't hang in the balance, and Jackie has no interest in saving anyone -- not once that option is removed from him, anyway. This is a story of two people who hate each other, and who will go to any lengths to destroy one another, even at the cost of their own souls.

Then there's the Darkness itself, a fascinating creature voiced with ferocity and intensity by Mike Patton. It makes its intentions clear from the outset: it wants Jackie's soul, and will stop at nothing to acquire it. It will help him pursue his own goals in exchange, but its self-interest is never in doubt. Even as its tentacles feast on the hearts of his enemies, it gives him nothing, and takes from him everything.*

One of the markers people who don't understand video games like to throw down for the legitimacy of the medium is the question of when a game will make somebody cry (never mind that many games already have). I won't go so far as to say that The Darkness made me cry, although it did make things a little dusty in my apartment. But it definitely made me feel something -- many things. I felt sadness and rage. I felt genuine affection for a virtual character, every bit as much as I have for characters in books and movies. I felt, when it was over, like I'd experienced something I would never forget.

*Wasn't that a line in 300?

More on The Darkness:

Monday, December 14, 2009

Games of the decade: Fallout 3

Part of a series of subjective looks at my favorite games of the decade.

Fallout 3
(2008, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC)

I tried so hard to be a curmudgeon and hate Fallout 3. Western RPGs have been my downfall for so long (and continue to be). Fallout 3 seemed like any other. Lots of choices about character builds that seemed to matter greatly, and even more choices about character appearance that didn't matter at all. A severely limiting inventory. Quests objectives that are, at times, downright stupid. The notion of guzzling irradiated water in order to help an NPC with her book was almost enough to get me to quit playing after the first couple of hours.

Why did I stick with it? I wasn't reviewing the game. Nobody was forcing me to play it. I could have stopped whenever I wanted. I kept playing, in those early hours, for the setting. A post-apocalyptic wasteland seems like such an unimaginative setting for a video game that you might forget how stunning it can be when it's done well. And it may never have been done better than in Fallout 3.

The moment when you step out of Vault 101 for the first time is one without compare. The screen turns blinding white for a second, to show the effect of natural light hitting your eyes for the very first time. Shapes and colors come into focus, and on the horizon you see the devastated ruins of Washington, D.C. It is a perfect moment. And though you'll never have that sense of wonder again, the map is constructed so that, at all times, you can see at least one other point of interest, and usually more. Resisting the allure of so many historic buildings and sites is impossible.

Even better, the stories within these buildings almost all stand on their own. While the main quest line is interesting enough, the subquests and side stories are the most compelling part of the game. Some of them are silly -- I still cannot get over having to steal the Declaration of Independence for a robot wearing a powdered wig. Some are strangely affecting, like "Agatha's Song," and some are terrifying, especially the trips into the other Vaults. None affect the central thrust of the storyline, and yet, without them, the main storyline wouldn't matter so much. Lots of games tell you that you're saving the world. Fallout 3 is the one that truly gives you a world to save.

More on Fallout 3:

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Games of the decade: God of War

Part of a series of subjective looks at my favorite games of the decade.

God of War
(2005, PlayStation 2)

God of War II
(2007, PlayStation 2)

God of War was one of those games I missed out on the first time around, only to pick it up for $20 a year later and feel dumb for having waited so long (but not, it should be said, for saving $30). My memories of the game are actually a bit hazy, because I was drugged out of my mind at the time. I'd gotten my wisdom teeth out, and with several days in front of me with nothing to do, playing a video game seemed like a great idea. Well, it was, and it wasn't.

On one hand, God of War is trippy enough visually that you don't need the aid of powerful painkillers, but it certainly doesn't hurt. Massive boss fights, especially the opening battle against the Hydra, set a standard for PlayStation 2 visuals that were never surpassed, except possibly by the sequel. Your standard fights were hectic, button-mashing affairs, with tons of enemies onscreen at all times, and seamlessly integrated quicktime events, in which Kratos dished out his most brutal punishment. And the environments were terrific, especially the descent into Hades, which looked agonizingly painful.

On the other hand, God of War is an extremely difficult game, especially during certain platforming segments, and when you're not in full possession of your faculties, trying to walk on a spiky, rotating log across a pit of fire is not the easiest thing to do. You would think, given my incapacitated state, mouth stuffed with gauze and all, that I would not have been able to scream and swear and throw my controller. You would be wrong.

Often I hear people talking about a game that is difficult but fair, and rewarding when you beat it. It's something I appreciate in theory but have a hard time dealing with in practice. God of War is as close as it gets, though. It's not insurmountable, although I do seem to recall accepting an offer to dial down the difficulty. And it has a great story, with a character whose actions mesh with his personality, unlike the genocidal everymen who populate so many action games.

God of War II I played stone-cold sober, and I loved it, although by that time I was starting to wish the game would stop sealing me into rooms with dozens upon dozens of enemies. Hopefully God of War III keeps things moving more briskly, or I might be in the market for some percocets.

More on God of War:

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Games of the decade: Half-Life 2

Part of a series of objective looks at my favorite games of the decade.

Half-Life 2
(2004, PC; 2005, Xbox)

Half-Life 2: Episode 1
(2006, PC and Xbox)

Half-Life 2: Episode 2
(2007, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC)

Half-Life 2 may have saved my life.

In 2004, my 1999-vintage PC was starting to show its age. I'd gotten a beastly Alienware machine as a high school graduation gift, which had served me well for most of its lifespan, but it wasn't up to the task of running two new games I desperately wanted to play, Doom 3 and Half-Life 2. Unfortunately, I was dead broke. And even as the word on Doom 3 was less than stellar, by all accounts Half-Life 2 was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of a game. Still I put it off.

By winter of 2005, things had gone from bad to worse. My computer was infected with malware and viruses, and had become all but unusable. I needed a new one, but my budget was tight. I couldn't buy a new one. I couldn't even pay it off in installments without cutting something from my monthly expenses. After I ran the numbers, there was only one conclusion: I would have to quit smoking.

I finished the pack of cigarettes I was on, and ordered the computer. Somehow, seeing the cost in such stark terms made it -- well, not easy to quit, but not that hard, either. And by summertime, when I saw Half-Life 2 on the shelf at Target and remembered how important it had been to play it, I could even afford that, too.

And, as you know, it is so good. The original is still a masterpiece of self-contained B-movie storytelling, but the sequel broke ground with its more ambitious and ambiguous narrative. Gordon Freeman has gone from a plucky survivor to an unlikely messiah figure, and the threat has shifted from icky creatures to a totalitarian occupying force. Half-Life 2 is creepy, both in ways that make your skin crawl, and in ways that poke at your conscience.

It is also, at its most basic level, one of the most deftly engineered action games ever made. The optional commentary tracks on the later Half-Life 2 episodes are illuminating, and dispel any notion I may have had that the team at Valve had somehow lucked into the quality of their games. No other developer is better at tricking you into doing exactly what they want, while making you think that you're the one at the wheel. Half-Life 2 is chases, shootouts, and everything else exciting you could want from a game, all performed at the highest level.

In subsequent chapters, Valve has added new twists without taking away from what made the first game so great. The culmination of Episode Two, a massive battle sequence against the beastly striders that makes heavy use of both driving and the gravity gun, may be the series' high point. I expect even better from Episode Three.

So thanks, Half-Life 2. This January will mark five years since I stopped smoking. When I'm not dying of lung cancer at age 60, I'll play this game, and I still won't be able to breathe.

More on Half-Life 2:

A New Taxonomy of Gamers: Case Study: The Orange Box
Half-Life 2: Episode 1
Half-Life 2: Episode 1 user stats