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10:38 AM on 12.01.2009

My Unique Snowflake Game of the Year Awards

Let's be honest: most of us place a lot of stock in game of the year awards. We all have our favourites, and in good years, like this one, it's tough to narrow it down to those few games. Which is why instead of just doing a single top X list, I'm changing the game - FOUR lists, each smaller than the last.

5 runners-up.
3 3rd place games.
2 2nd place games.
1 Game of the Year.

Sounds amazing, doesn't it? As a special bonus, at the end I'll throw in this at the end so you can tell me how ignorant I am:

6 best games I never played.

No point in wasting more space rambling, let's get into it!



RUNNERS-UP


Shadow Complex, Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story, Demon's Souls, Assassin's Creed II, Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time

You know it's an amazing year when even the runners-up could be game of the year contenders. Talking up all the high points of each would take five blog posts, so I'm going to limit myself to a few points on each.

Shadow Complex (XBLA)
+ Metroid with a modern twist
+ great power-ups (foam gun!)
+ resurrected a genre

Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story (NDS)
+ made RPGs fun again
+ awesome, giant Bowser battles
+ hilarious dialogue

Demon's Souls (PS3)
+ taught everyone what it means to be a sobbing little girl
+ hard as teeth, and just as satisfying
+ eerie aesthetic

Assassin's Creed II (PS3/360)
+ proved that second time's the charm
+ brought back the collectible platformer
+ when the assassinations work, they work

Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time (PS3)
+ put to shame the claim that you can't teach and old dog new tricks
+ wide open environments
+ challenge planets



3RD PLACE


Torchlight, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor, Flower

Now that we're looking at third place, I can afford to get a bit more detailed.

Torchlight (PC)

Torchlight was by far the hardest game for me to place in this scale. I'm still on Cloud 9; I've only been playing the game a few days and it's in my head every waking moment. I can't decide what I like best about it. Is it the steampunk/fantasy aesthetic? The shitty wizard who gives gifts with one hand and punches you in the eye with the other? The randomly generated maps you can purchase, filled to the brim with boss monsters? Items with fifteen enchants? The list goes on and on and on. Suffice to say, Torchlight is modern man's Diablo 2, with all of the addiction and none of the archaic interface. With a fantastic dev team watching it like a hawk and a community that's put together hundreds of mods already, Torchlight is not only a game for this year - it's the game you'll have installed on every computer you own, "just in case".

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor (NDS)

If there's one thing that always gets me, it's a game that forces you to make hard choices and pay for them. Devil Survivor does that in spades. At any point you have half a dozen options available to you, and in many cases, someone's life is riding on the choice. I've already written a blog on just how poignant the choice and consequence of Devil Survivor is. Mix in a fantastic battle system that blends tactical and traditional JRPGs, interesting art and music direction and a plot that will have you needing to find out what comes next, and you have one of the few DS games I would ever consider for Game of the Year.

Flower (PSN)

Another game I've already written a blog about, I once said that Flower "will be my game of the year". Certainly, time, and a fall filled with games I did not expect, have changed that, but Flower still deserves a strong spot in my list of competitors. I don't believe any person who played through Flower could argue that it's anything but an emotional rollercoaster; a story communicated through visual and auditory cues that is empowering in a way that leaves goosebumps on your skin. Certainly an art game at heart, Flower is the perfect example of why games need to (sometimes) think outside the box, the house, and out into green fields and blue skies.



2ND PLACE


Batman: Arkham Asylum, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

These games were hard to pick, and I feel a bit bad picking them both; on some deeply fundamental level I feel like Arkham Asylum and Uncharted are successful for much the same reason, and it's almost like picking the same game twice.

Batman: Arkham Asylum (PS3/360)

Admittedly as a Batman fan I may be less than objective when considering a Batman game as a potential Game of the Year contender, particularly one that is also a good game on every other level. But even ignoring it's comic book roots, Arkham Asylum provides a complete package quite unique in the medium. On the Arkham Asylum disk, a player will find a compelling single player, nearly-open world game, a bevy of behind the scenes videos and an increasingly-large quantity of challenge maps. The game can be played however the wishes to, whether that be as a linear experience or an open-world collectathon, complete with riddles and hidden items. Combat and Stealth are an example all modern games should look to. Despite being incredibly simple and intuitive to control, both "modes" of the game provide the player with enough options to create satisfying depth. Simplicity and complexity in the same package; this leads me to the next game...

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PS3)

There are a lot of reasons people love Uncharted. Most often cited are the gorgeous visuals, the Indiana Jones plot, the incredibly voice and motion capture cast or the over-the-top setpieces. A less mentioned quality, one that has been very much improved between the first and the second, is the amount of depth the player is offered relative to the complexity of the controls. In the first game, a player might spend their entire playthrough sitting behind cover and spraying bullets - not so in Uncharted 2.

Now, there is reward for using though when entering an arena. No longer limited to mainly corridors and small outdoor areas, Uncharted 2 rewards a player who moves into a position where they can have the most advantage. Weapons are scattered everywhere, ensuring the best tool for the job is always at hand. A new spread of stealth attacks allow a player to eliminate targets beforehand. In one battle, you might eliminate three enemies by stealth, move forward behind a riot shield firing magnum rounds, bunker down with a rocket launcher before switching to an assault rifle, then finally push forward and eliminate stragglers with a shotgun. It's the same principle of freeflow combat as Arkham Asylum, and like the other game, it provides a sneak peak into a future of intuitive, dynamic gameplay.



GAME OF THE YEAR


Dragon Age: Origins

Dragon Age is, quite honestly, a game with many flaws. The visuals are all over the place by modern standards. Some of the voice acting and characterization can be grating. Hell, I found a game breaking glitch that made me end my playthrough forty hours in. Despite all this, Dragon Age is indisputably my game of the year.

I mentioned in my Devil Survivor blurb that I respect a game that makes you make difficult choices. There have been other games like this: Mass Effect, The Witcher, etc. Dragon Age takes this to a new level. There is no good or evil, but there is the impression you leave on your companions, a humanization of good and evil that is much more reflective of reality than a meter ever was. Choices you make early on can rear their heads anywhere - when you leave behind a mess, do not believe that it will not follow you. Ultimately, as a Gray Warden, Dragon Age tasks you with saving the world, and there may be times where you decide in order to do that you must force people to do things that make your stomach twist. But you will do it, because Dragon Age has done such an amazing job of sinking you into its lore that you truly believe that what you did was the only right decision.

Of course, with choice comes consequence, and Dragon Age weaves an illusion of consequence quite unlike anything done before. While, ultimately, most choices will eventually lead down the same path as another player, Dragon Age makes you always feel like it was your choice that brought you to where you stand. At the end of it all, your decisions form the threads of a grand story that you will find yourself invested in.

Gameplay meets story stride for stride. The combat in Dragon Age takes all of the best bits from it's spiritual ancestor, Baldur's Gate, and it's more direct influence, World of Warcraft. The delicate balance of tank, DPS and healer is here, but it's less cut and dry and leaves much more room for moving outside those boundaries. The variety of spells and attacks echo that of a Dungeons and Dragons-based game while being very clearly designed for a video game from the beginning. Micromanaging each party member is the key to success, and each battle is interesting. In my playthrough on Normal, I found the battles roughly evenly balanced between easy, challenging and difficult, a balance which was as compelling as the combat itself.

It may be difficult to understand why Dragon Age is a clear Game of the Year winner from just reading this. After all, other games have had good stories, gameplay, and even graphics to boot. To really understand Dragon Age, it must be played, preferably for long stretches of time and in an absorbing environment. Normally, it's difficult to pick the best game of the year, but in the case of Dragon Age, it took no time at all.



Best Games I Didn't Play, and Other Caveats

Well, obviously there are a few things missing here. There are some high profile games I didn't touch with a ten foot pole, and I'm writing this December 1st - there are still games to come out. However, as it stands, I have played every game I plan to this year and more. So here is a short list of the "best games I never played" of 2009, so you can tell me obviously Borderlands was GOTY and I am an ignorant fool.

Borderlands
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers
The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena
Halo 3: ODST
Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks
Brutal Legend



Final Thoughts

When we were approaching the fall season, I thought it would be pretty empty. I had planned on only Uncharted 2 and Ratchet 2; Dragon Age wasn't even on my radar. I had already figured Batman was going to be game of the year and thought that I'd have trouble entertaining myself until the Q1 2010 rush. Turns out I was wrong. Of the 11 games on my list, 7 came out in Q4.

The other thing I'm surprised about is how few games came from Japan. Only 3 games are Eastern. I have in the past been more a fan of Japanese games than American, but as this gen goes on it's increasingly clear that the East hasn't been able to keep up with the West when it comes to game design and execution.

I was also surprised I didn't end up picking any PSP games, as I'm a Sony-addled fanboy who can barely identify my Xbox since it spent the last six months under a blanket.That being said, three of my games were Sony exclusives, so I guess I still am kind of a blind follower.

Finally, it's been an amazing year for games. Possibly better than 2007, the best year ever. I hope everyone had as much fun as I did.   read


4:40 PM on 10.21.2009

The Modern Warfare 2 Dedicated Server Complaint is Legitimate

A large proportion of Destructoid readers and writers are predominantly console oriented. This isn't a problem, but it has caused some pretty harsh things to be said about the PC community's outrage regarding the dedicated server issue. I'm not trying to be condescending towards console gamers when I say that many of you may not understand what the benefits are of the dedicated server model. Many of these have been posted already in comments; I just want to consolidate some points here to make it clear to everyone.

Advantages to dedicated servers:

Community

While Activision is right in saying that we can still "party up" to play with clans or friends, this is not equivalent to a dedicated server model. With a dedicated server, friends can have a "hang-out" - an always-on gameplay destination where like-minded friends play together, no inviting required.

In a server where the people have gotten to know eachother, voice chat is used for team-building and co-operation.

Lag

This point is pretty obvious - lag is worse with peer-to-peer connections, and the host has a definitive advantage.

Matchmaking

One common thing with the "voting" matchmaking model is that certain maps and gameplay types take the foreground. This is, democratically speaking, a great model, but with servers admins can ensure that a proper rotation is in effect and, every once in a while, the lone person who's interested in ctf_2fort gets to play what he wants.

It's also much easier to find a server with the maps and gameplay types you want when you can scroll through a list.

Mods

Mods are a huge part of the PC gaming community. Mods create dozens of great game modes that otherwise would not have existed. Maps are also a big part of this - TF2 is a great example of a game where community made maps are not only available, but excellent, eventually being integrated into the "official" rotation.





Dedicated servers obviously have some disadvantages as well. They don't allow for "balance" matchmaking, admins have a lot of power, and sometimes its hard to know where to start. But for many PC gamers the advantages listed above are a huge part of why they choose the platform, and taking that away is a serious change that is not as trivial as a 10$ Activision tax or a yearly release schedule. Please keep in mind that the people who are up in arms over the MW2 debacle are not just crazed nerds, they have legitimate complaints.   read


3:58 PM on 10.07.2009

Nothing is Sacred

For this month's monthly musing, I decided to compare Halo, Gears of War, Killzone 2 and the Legend of Zelda and come to an ultimate conclusion about the nature of things. These games are so strictly defined by their...

Okay, that should be enough text to fool the blog summary. Here is my real post.

Top things that aren't Sacred

Diablo 2



This game is totally not Sacred! It's like, the older dead brother of Sacred. Because Sacred has shinier newer graphics and also a patch for armor to make naked the ladies heh.

Titan Quest



this game isn't Sacred because it's more based on real life Greece in the old days. EVEN THOUGH REAL LIFE GREECE DIDN'T HAVE TITANS. I bet you didn't know that.

Sacred 2



As you can see by the 2, Sacred 2 is more than sacred. It is in fact a sequel (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sequel) which means it's not as good even though it's shinier and has more consumer interest.

Torchlight



Torchlight isn't Sacred because you can't do this spinning thing in Sacred so far as I know, my friend told me you can't which I why I played Warcraft III instead.




So there you have it, the top things that aren't sacred. Please support my blog at www.paypal.com Thanks!   read


11:44 AM on 10.05.2009

Three Reasons you NEED to be Carrying a PSP

Back in the PS1/early PS2 eras, I was an unabashed Sony fan. I was a product of the "can-only-afford-one" mentality of superiority; a raging fanboy with little care for the logistics. Later on, I bought my DS before my PSP and my 360 long before my PS3, ending that. But as time goes on, I find myself spending larger and larger percentages of my gaming time on Sony platforms. So if this simple, best-of list comes across a little gushy, it's because I feel like I'm holding the future in my hands when I play my PSP.

The PSP is in the middle of a renaissance. For quite possibly the first fall ever, there are more PSP games worth getting than DS ones. There are three recent releases that I've been playing the hell out of; the only reason I put one down is to play one of the others. Here they are.

Monster Hunter Freedom Unite - 29.99



Monster Hunter is a series that goes woefully unappreciated in North America. The premise is jaw-drop-ening-ly cool: you hunt giant monsters, slay them with a combination of skill and tactics, then skin their bodies and make them into armour. Just playing a demo or the first few hours of the game don't do it justice; Monster Hunter is for the long haul. It will take every shred of your ability to beat the first wyvern you fight, and when you make that Khezu Shock Sword you've been hankering for, you'll feel like you deserve it.

Not only that, Capcom has made a real effort with this entry to bring it to a North American audience. The localized version features better beginner training, and since North Americans are woefully antisocial when it comes to portables, provides Felyne companions to help you solo.

Even as a re-release of a year-old title, Freedom Unite looks beautiful on a PSP screen and reminds you what the platform promised in 2005: console quality experiences everywhere you go.

I know Demon's Souls gets a lot of hype around here for it's unique, hard-as-nails skill-based progression. As far as I'm concerned, that's an experience that's been available in Monster Hunter for years... IN YOUR HANDS.

Soul Calibur: Broken Destiny - 39.99


The game actually looks this good.

I know Soul Calibur is one of the less popular fighting franchises these days. Street Fighter is forever; BlazBlue is beautiful; KoF is... excessive? But to me, Soul Calibur is first and foremost. For the first time, you can play Soul Calibur on your handheld. Not a port of the PS1 version of Soul Calibur Alpha 2 Climax, or some such nonsense - no, this is a bona fide entry in the series, taking everything great about IV to the next level.

First, Broken Destiny has the best AI in the series. Quick Match opponents actually have strategies, combos and tells. Second, it has a new mode, The Guantlet, which is the most effective character training tool I've ever seen. It fixed 8-way run from IV and makes it genuinely useful. It looks gorgeous on a PSP screen.

Finally, the new characters are amazing. Running out of standard weapons has forced the SC devs to be clever with their weapons; first there was Tira with the hoop, then Hilde with sword and spear. Now we get Dampierre with hidden blades and an element of chance to his fighting style. Kratos' Blades of Chaos fit perfectly into the Soul Calibur roster. Both characters have genuinely interesting new stances and combat styles that change up gameplay significantly.

This is the definitive Soul Calibur experience and it's only on PSP. Do yourself a favour and pick it up.

Motorstorm: Arctic Edge - 39.99



It's hard to believe Motorstorm could make the transition to the PSP. Now that it has, it's hard to believe the entry could be a good one. Contrary to all disbelief, Arctic Edge is more than just adequate - it's excellent. Much like Broken Destiny, it's not just a port either; it's a progression of the series with new mechanics and elements that will no doubt make their way to the next console version.

Using it's frigid setting for inspiration, the environmental effects of Arctic Edge are the major game-changer. You'll find yourself sliding across an ice field, falling through a collapsing ice bridge and narrowly escaping avalanches. In general, Arctic Edge is more slippery and chaotic than Pacific Rift; crashing is an omnipresent risk when you're barely in control, sliding across the ice with a tanker soaring over your head.

The courses are obviously the most important part of the Motorstorm experience. Arctic Edge delivers in spades. Some of the tracks have already become series-favourites of mine. Particularly, The Chasm and Vertigo are as good as the best of Pacific Rift.


Honestly, it's an amazing time to be a PSP owner. These three are just the games I've been playing now - I have eight more loaded on my Memory Stick and more tempting me from the store. Honorable mentions worth playing now include Persona, Disgaea and the Peace Walker demo (yeah, the demo is that good). In 2004 Sony announced the PSP and promised I'd be playing the best of my console games wherever I went. It took five years but it's finally happened. It's an exciting to be a gamer - anywhere you go.   read


11:01 AM on 09.29.2009

An ABSOLUTE and UNDENIABLE Ranking of Final Fantasy

As we all know, video games are a medium of absolutes. Subjectivity has no place in a world where Metacritic is the highest authority, nor in one where our every opinion is dictated to us by crowd-appointed journalist-gods. Indeed, in the modern day it seems criminal to hold fastidiously to one's beliefs. A human being's entertainment, much like his very soul, requires an absolute and unwavering measuring stick against which to be valued. I hope to provide that very same measuring stick for a series that once was loved by all (and since has - by popular demand - been re-categorized as a plague of corporate shilling), Final Fantasy. Without further ado: Final Fantasy, ranked.

TLDR version: 9 > 6 > 10 > 12 > 5 > 3 > 8 > 1 > 7 > 4 > 2

#12: Final Fantasy II



Why it's the worst:

Final Fantasy II is the commonly accepted black sheep of the series. It attempts to tell a comprehensive story on a platform not ready to accept it. This leaves it with a tale too grown-up to feel retro and too clumsily executed to be grown-up. Square ambitiously tried to change things and as we all know, it did not work out. Ultimately the game is downright forgettable and there's not that much that can be said about it.

#10: Final Fantasy IV



Why it's the better II (get it!? HAHAHA):

It's not hard to be better than Final Fantasy II. IV manages to do it. The first Final Fantasy to provide a real story, IV features characters who develop in a way that you could (almost) sympathize with them. The dungeons are also more interesting than those in II, with some genuinely intriguing boss battles tossed in for good measure. In many ways, Final Fantasy IV is the baseline against which all Future Fantasies would be (and are) measured. It sets the tone of the series and every change (for better or for worse) will be noticed.

#9: Final Fantasy VII



Why it's better than IV:

While IV is a good game in it's own right (and it's low position on this ranking should go to suggest how good the Final Fantasy series is) it definitely has some flaws. It was Square's first real attempt at telling a proper story, and without rose-tinted nostalgia glasses it's hard not to notice the weaknesses throughout. VII's story is much more interestingly told if not necessarily more mature. The characters have motivations and seem to meet up more through coincidence than fate. While it may be melodramatic, the identity-crisis theme of the game relates to the teenage audience for whom the game has had long-lasting impact.

The battle system is also worth noting. Though not better than IV's, it is one of the few entries on 3D platforms to capture the same fast paced combat. The Materia system of character is advance is also one of the best in the series.

With so many plusses, it might seem odd that I rank VII so low on the list. There's a reason for that...

#8: Final Fantasy I



Why it's better than VII:

VII had a passable story and great mechanics. However, when out of cutscenes and battle screens, the game was tedious. Filled with useless fetch quests, mini-games and uninspiring locales, slugging through the day-to-day of VII is more of a chore than a joy.

The original Final Fantasy has none of this. It still has a passable story, it still has great combat. It also has a fast-paced and interesting overworld to match. Despite being rendered in eight-bit graphics, the locations of the original Final Fantasy stick in the mind, as do the dungeons. This comes in no small part from the game's obvious spiritual inspiration, Dragon Quest. The same sense of exploration pervades Final Fantasy, coming through as much through dungeons and landscapes as through dialog. It is pure adventure, and better for being so.

#7: Final Fantasy VIII



Why it's better than I:

Final Fantasy I is, above all other things, a typical JRPG. While this is nothing to hold against it - it did help define the genre - it does make it feel slightly rote when held up against modern competition. The first failed attempt to differentiate the series came in II. The second, while still a failure, found a little more resonance with the fanbase: Final Fantasy VIII.

Once again doing away with levels, VIII allowed players to use magic to customize their characters. In many ways it was an extension of the Materia system in VII. For those who took the time to understand it it became an interesting type of character advancement that tied a character's combat role and skills together like never before. It still allowed for the player to define character roles, but avoided the side-effect present in VII and XII of jacks-of-all-trades. Additionally, the Draw system provided the single most mechanically interesting battle in the history of the series: the final fight against Ultimecia where every mechanic of the game affects the outcome.

Of course, VIII is no slouch in other departments either. While the story is little more than passable, the world is one of the more interesting Final Fantasy environments. The Gardens set a theme of war and it comes through in decidedly militant theme music which is some of the best of the series (fans should really check out the piano collection, by far the best album with the words 'Final Fantasy' on it). Summons are hidden in every corner and only the most rigorous of explorers will find everything there is.

#6: Final Fantasy III (DS version)



Why it's better than VIII:
Okay, maybe I gave the story of VIII too much credit in the last paragraph. It was pretty terrible, and ruined the game for a lot of people. To be quite honest, III's story isn't any more complicated or developed. But much like Final Fantasy I used simplicity to provide a better experience, III also does away with the trappings of story or characters. Instead, it provides an extremely interesting alternative for character development: the job system.

Instead of taking characters on predefined story-driven paths, the role of the party members is up to the player in III. The first game to feature the job system, III defined the main classes that still pervade the series today. Developing the roles of your characters leads to a type of attachment not found in other entries to the series. Of course, a fully developed and interesting world backdrops this personal story and once again a Dragon Quest-like tale takes the player on a journey that's less about melancholy and melodrama and more about adventure. It's easy to lose yourself in this game to that "one more job level" mentality.

#5: Final Fantasy V



Why it's better than III:

Ultimately, it's harder to find reasons why V is not better than III. The world is just as interesting, except this time it has characters who can speak and provide exposition (<3 Gilgamesh). The combat system is just as interesting, except this time the more dynamic ATB from IV is present. Most importantly, the job system is just as interesting, except this time there are more jobs and they're harder to find. In many ways, Final Fantasy V takes all the themes of III and decides on a do-over. It works out fantastically.

#4: Final Fantasy XII



Why it's better than V:

I've argued a lot for the merits of simplicity over complication in this list, Final Fantasy V being a prime example. Final Fantasy XII isn't an exception to the rule. Instead, it expands the idea to encompass a game with a truly mature story to tell, and a mature way of doing it.

In Final Fantasy XII, at least for one game, the theme of melodramatic tales with heavy exposition set by Final Fantasy IV was broken. Instead, the player is present with characters who's personal issues - if any - are merely reflections of the world at large. There's the princess who is uncomfortable with the responsibility of freeing her Kingdom. There's a loyal guard. An orphan boy who wants adventure. A sky pirate. It's rare for these characters to have scenes where they line by line describe their feelings to a glass-eyed player. These inflections are left to facial expression and the player's understanding of the characters. It's hard to describe how well the story of XII is told and how believable it is within the context of Ivalice. As Shakespeare wrote, "There is nothing either good or evil, but thinking makes it so." (a line which Versus XIII has taken to heart, apparently) and XII is really a tale about people fighting for what they think is right.

Outside of it's stellar story and characters, XII has other claims to fame. It was the third attempt to revolutionize the series and the most successful. Taking combat into real time and out of the battle screen, it removed the monotony of "trash" battles, leaving bosses to be the same thrilling encounters they always have been. It is also one of the largest, longest Final Fantasies to date, with an attention to detail unmatched in the industry.

#3: Final Fantasy X:



Why it's better than XII:

As with most "first-ofs" Final Fantasy XII had some severe weaknesses. The pacing was all over the place, much of the game could be run on autopilot through the AI system and some of the world characterization was lost when all the dungeons were hallway-based affairs with random treasure. XII is a masterpiece of story in Final Fantasy. X, on the other hand, is a masterpiece of gameplay.

Easily the best combat system in the series, battles in Final Fantasy X are fast-paced affairs that can be approached from a thousand different angles. While the game teaches you to use your characters' specific roles to combat specific enemies (a mechanic which is interesting and fun enough on it's own merits) those same combat roles also provide huge opportunities for freedom within combat. On one playthrough, the player might use Auron as a Zombify/heal machine. On another, they might have Rikku as their main damage dealer, tossing out three amazingly high damage dealing items for every one turn that the enemy takes.

The character development system, the Sphere Grid, is also a series best. Perfectly straddling the line between characters with personality-defined roles and player based advancement, the Sphere Grid lets the player decide how to evolve their character into virtually any combination of the predefined roles with a flexibility no kind of "job system" has ever matched - all while still making sure that the character's background is firmly rooted in their history. An item crafting system allows the player to eventually "break" the system, eventually dealing 30000 damage in one hit and casting spells for 1 MP.

Finally, the world of Final Fantasy X is among the best. The mix of the steampunk/techno world of Zanarkand with the colourful fantasy of Spira ensures that every locale is interesting. The side quests are genuinely intriguing to follow and reward the player with concrete, useful character advancements. While the story isn't a highlight, some of the characters (particular Aurun, Rikku and Wakka) bleed personality right out of the screen. The music is right up there with VIII for the best-composed soundtrack in a Final Fantasy game.

#2: Final Fantasy VI



Why it's better than X:

I just told you that mechanically, Final Fantasy X is the best game in the series. However, story and character are both equally important to a Final Fantasy. While VI may fall just shy of the lofty mechanical heights of Final Fantasy X, in every other way it surpasses it's distant younger cousin.

In VI, there is a story and characters worth caring about. With the highest character count in the series it's difficult to believe that each could be interesting, but they are. In fact, many of the characters in VI have set the standard for their archetypes in future Final Fantasy titles. Each character (except for the bonus ones) has their own detailed introduction that the player gets to see before they all come together in the "end" for the all-important combat for the fate of the world. Their characterizations also come through in the battle system. Each character has a unique special set of moves as well as a unique way of finding them. The pure effort that went into making each character a unique combatant is astounding, and the fact that one must travel the world to track down the ultimate moves for each of their characters lends an astounding credibility to the setting. It's impossible to journey that far across a planet and not fall in love with it, and equally impossible to not (spoiler) feel devastated when the party fails to save it.

It's very difficult to describe Final Fantasy VI's story without spoiling the moments that make it so enjoyable. So much of the love for the characters comes through the little moments that crop up unexpectedly through a playthrough. I could spend another paragraph describing the detail in the world, or I could just say it's better than Final Fantasy XII. I could spend a paragraph describing how well the story is paced, or just say it's the best in the series. I could spend a paragraph telling you that after you play this game, one of the characters *will* be your favourite in the series, and that that character will be different than your friend's choice. The game has so much to offer.

#1: Final Fantasy IX



Why it's the best:

It doesn't have the best combat. Final Fantasy IX is slow and ponderous compared to other series entries, and doesn't require the same tactical breadth.

It doesn't have the best mechanics: character's advance by learning abilities from equipment. It's simple, it's elegant, but it doesn't give you flexibility of the Sphere Grid by any means.

It doesn't have the story: it's rote and predictable, but the way it is told leaves you constantly waiting for more.

What it does have, and in such magnitude to overwhelm any lacking in the previous qualities, is the best world ever presented in a Final Fantasy game.

From the initial foray into the Ice Caves to the final confrontations in Memoria, every single location in Final Fantasy IX sticks into your mind forever. Every city has a unique feel and presence. NPCs that appear only briefly are memorable. Dungeons have as much identity as the cities (in some situations, they are the same). Even if a player were never to stray from the linear path towards the game's conclusion, the sense of identity for the world would match any other Final Fantasy game.

Of course, stray from the linear path and there is much more to discover. There are chocobo grottos with hidden treasure that allow you to propel your characters beyond their current rank. Enemies and bosses have genuinely unique and improved items to steal long before they would appear otherwise. A set of friendly enemies begins a trading quest that spans the world. The hidden city Dagguererro hints at the countless hidden items in the world and is home to the nameless treasure hunter. Stellazio coins are spread across the world, each inscribed with a bit of lore than leaves a player curious for more. The world-wide mystery of Mognet. Secret magics like Doomsday that make your party all-powerful. Optional bosses lurk in libraries and in the sky.

And while Final Fantasy IX doesn't boast the best cast of characters, it does communicate them on a level that is rarely matched in the series. The main characters are all endearing and lovable. In fact, some of the NPCs (Blank, Beatrix especially) are just as intrinsic to the experience.

It's difficult to encapsulate in words what makes Final Fantasy IX the best Final Fantasy. It has the strengths of the old and the new, and while it does have one weakness (slow combat) it makes up for it in every way. What I can say about this game is that it is the best representation of the series on the whole of any of the titles; IX, more than any other, is Final Fantasy.   read


2:03 AM on 09.24.2009

Stepping Off the Go Train

My relationship with the PSP Go has been a tumultuous one. Since it's announcement, I have gone through several phases:

1. That thing is ugly as sin
2. That thing looks sex
3. I love digital downloads
4. I'm worried about how Sony will handle digital downloads
5. I need a new PSP, Go Go Go
6. I'm worried about how Sony will handle digital download, maybe I won't get one
7. I trust international corporations to be fair, I'll get one

Tonight was the straw that broke the camel's back. Was it the fact that Sony has no UMD-to-DD transfer program? No. Was it the fact that I'm worried about owning my digital games in ten years? No. Was it the fact that the PSP Go looks like a bitch to hold? ...Well, kind of.

But ultimately, the reason I decided to skip the Go? This right here. Regardless of how "ready" I am for DD, how I support it 100% on Steam and PSN and XBLA, when it comes to fucking Metal Gear, Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, etc, I want my game on a disk.

Now I hope my new PSP will display Disgaea and Persona alright.

P.S. The Peace Walker demo looks gorgeous and has controls to match. I am so EXCITE.   read


9:23 AM on 09.16.2009

PSP Go or No

While we all have a different opinion on Sony's forthcoming PSP Go, we can all agree on one thing: this is a great year for the PSP. Here's a short list of some of great-looking games on PSP and PSN in 2009:

* Disgaea 2
* LittleBigPlanet
* Monster Hunter Freedom Unite
* Warriors Orochi 2
* Motorstorm: Arctic Edge
* Persona
* Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero?
* Soul Calibur: Broken Destiny
* Assassin's Creed: Bloodlines
* Jak and Daxter: The Lost Frontier

With a lineup like that, it's hard to argue the PSP is still the black sheep of the industry it was when it launched in 2005. Show somebody a PSP 3000 and you won't be laughed at - they'll ask you what you're playing.

Show somebody a PSP Go, and well... that's a different story.

When the Go was announced, I immediately planned to purchase the console, even at Sony's high price. I've been loving DD on the PC with Steam and spend more time on my consoles playing download games than I do full retail releases. I've never felt anxious about a DD future until now - since announcement, Sony has taken every step possible to make me afraid to buy their console.

They announced a UMD transfer program - two weeks to launch, and there is no information on just what this means to consumers.

They announced day-and-date UMD and PSN releases - since the announcement, not one game has seen this reality. Even a company like Nippon Ichi, releasing it's entire back line-up on the PSN for the Go launch, did not release Disgaea 2 for day one.

Last, and most important, they've failed to give me the sense of security that's necessary when purchasing DD. With Steam, I know that's it's a proven success - I can always re-download my games and backup is a drag and drop affair. With the PSP Go receiving backlash from retailers and gamers, I don't have that confidence. For all I know, the PSN store for PSP could fold under the weight of a failing platform, and I'd be left up the creek with nothing to show for it.

At this point, I almost feel like taking an entirely different route - buy a PSP Go at launch, buy all my games on UMD and wait for the console to inevitably be hacked. I've gone from Go to I-Don't-Know in the space of a few months.

Are any of us ready to trust Sony?   read


8:18 PM on 09.01.2009

My Plea to Developers: Baby, Give Me the Whole Package

Side note: Arkham Asylum is so awesome, it is the first game I got platinum on.

Entertainment shifts with its medium. One of the most significant of these shifts was the move from VHS to DVD. We got a massive increase in picture quality, multiple audio tracks, subtitles. Personally, my favourite aspect of the current paradigm for DVDs is the presence of the extras: special features, audio commentary, bloopers and all.

We've all been playing games since we were kids. We grew up expecting only the barest representation of a video game: a cartridge containing the whole experience, right there. But, just as with the move from VHS to DVD, the modern mediums of video games have potential to grow. Regardless of console, the absolute minimum amount of space available is 4.7 GB - that's a lot of bits to fill, and in many cases, there's room for more. Often, it's filled with dummy data. Sometimes, developers throw on an original Japanese audio track. Rarely, a developer fills that extra space with content, enriching the experience by providing a complete package.

My first experience with the "complete package" was God of War II. In addition to the game - which we all know was a fantastic epic experience well deserving its review scores - the disk had on it:
- extra costumes for Kratos
- a set of challenges for the player to undertake
- a series of well produced behind-the-scenes videos describing the development process

God of War II brought the DVD era to video games. While this sort of content had certainly been done before, it was rarely this complete. Best of all, it was all on one disk.

[embed]147157:22040[/embed]
Not actually God of War II - couldn't find it online...

Valve took the idea in another direction with the Orange Box. It's no surprise that the studio famous for showing us how to tell a story without cutscenes also showed that there needn't be anything "behind-the-scenes" about developer commentary. Throughout any of the products in The Orange Box it was possible to listen to the developer describe in detail the thought and work behind the very part you were playing, in real time.

Uncharted was an evolution of the God of War formula. Instead of simply including the content in a menu, Uncharted had the player unlock it all by finding treasures throughout the environment. The treasures changed up the game significantly. There was the strong single player campaign to entice the players who were into it for that and running parallel to that the optional, freeform explorative treasure hunting. With very little overhead work, the developers built a game that had multiple experiences in one. The degree to which the treasure hunting affected the player was solely at their discretion - but devoted treasure hunters were rewarded with bonus content.

The costumes and weapons were a nice bonus, but the behind-the-scenes videos were what really shone. Uncharted showed that having Blu-ray as the delivery medium for video games means more than wasted space and slow read times - it can mean large quantities of high definition developer discourse right on the disk.

[embed]147157:22041[/embed]

Perhaps the best example of a complete package in gaming is this year's Batman: Arkham Asylum. It's been well documented that Arkham Asylum provides one of the most engaging single player experiences of the year. What is more interesting to me however is how it manages to provide so much content beyond that.

Firstly, we have the riddler puzzles. Putting the "open world" in "linear experience", the puzzles perform the same function the treasures did in Uncharted, but with a degree of variety and sophistication not found in the former. They come in four varieties:
- trophies: simple collectible to find hidden throughout the environment
- word puzzles: short sentences describing a scene in the environment which a discerning player can find
- ? puzzles: challenging puzzles involving searching the environment for the two parts of the Riddler's elusive question mark
- audio logs

Of course, this game being the poster child for a complete package, the Riddler puzzles have their rewards as well. The player has full flexibility in deciding to which degree he wishes to pursue:
- experience to level up Batman
- character biographies, which can be viewed from the game or menu and provide interesting background on the characters
- character trophies, which allow the player to view the in-game models
- audio logs, which build atmosphere
- challenge rooms

The last of these brings me to another excellent aspect of Batman's package. The challenge rooms take the best parts of Batman's gameplay and give the player an environment in which to test their skills. While the combat challenges are straightforward score-based affairs that aren't particularly interesting, the Predator challenges are a different matter entirely. Here, there are some very real gameplay scenarios asking the player to use skills they didn't even know they had. These challenge rooms provide an experience that not only complements the single player Batman experience but in some ways exceeds it. All of this at a seemingly low cost to the developer - they all use game assets.

For the PS3 players, there are also the Joker challenge maps, which provide even greater variety and challenge.

Finally, the game has the same set of special features that first introduced us to the concept that video games could be more. Three behind-the-scenes videos are included on the disk and (at least on the PS3) viewed directly from the XMB. They are tastefully produced and interesting. While I personally would have hoped for more, I can only assume that purchasers of the Collector's Edition are enjoying the likes of which I missed out on.

[embed]147157:22043[/embed]
Again, couldn't find exact videos online.

After playing all of these games, I find it hard to understand why more developers don't invest in expanding the supplementary material for their products. While it's true that not every game is suited for hidden items or challenge rooms - and in cases like Assassin's Creed and Wolverine, it's certainly possible to mis-implement them - it's hard to imagine that there's a type of game that couldn't benefit from a little developer commentary. There have been mis-steps in this direction; the special features in the Final Fantasy XII collector's edition were downright terrible.

Nowadays, every DVD comes with at least a few minutes of special features. It's my personal hope that the same is eventually true of video games. I've really appreciated the effort the developers put into these and it's a clear example of a little work going a long way. The modern age of video games has been defined a lot of ways: crisp graphics, unified control schemes and an overall increase in quality. Why not add attention to detail to the list? Dear developers: MOAR.

P.S. If anyone knows any other games with similarly expansive sets of extra content, please let me know!   read


5:05 PM on 08.11.2009

News!? TF2 Getting Classless Update

The next in the line of updates for TF2 has been revealed, and it's not what I'd think anyone would expect. Soldiers, engineers and demomen will have to wait for their upgrades as the next update shall heretofore be known as:



The first day's details are up as well: 18 new hats, two per class.



Since obviously it would make no sense to make a blog post every day of the update, I will refer you to the more official source:

http://www.teamfortress.com/classless/   read


3:56 AM on 08.10.2009

The I Suck at Games Post of Monthly Topic Notwithstanding

A few days ago I popped on Destructoid to scan the blog selection and was greeted with a not unfamiliar sight: rows and rows of blogs with the same header. This month - "I suck at games". While usually this would not irk me, I could not help but feel unsettled at this. You see, I myself had been planning - indeed, penning - such a blog for a good deal of time. Only one fact could be drawn from the Dtoid staff's choice of topic for the month: my mental space is no longer safe. As such I have completed the blog wearing only a tinfoil cap. Who knows what secrets my clothing holds?

I think while every gamer has different tastes, we can all agree that we have a line of tolerance. For each of us, there's an exact difficulty that we find to be perfection. Below this line a game is too easy. Above it, it becomes frustrating. On the line we find the sweet spot: a point of difficulty that provides a rewarding challenge while not tearing down the moral fibre of our beings. Aside: Fuck you Firefox, I will spell fibre the British-Canadian way.

I have always been a Carebear when it comes to video games. For many years I played mainly JRPGs, a genre notable for the ability to let perseverance overcome skill with regularity. But occasionally I have fallen into a deep, dark mood the likes of which no man should ever delve. I have hit what I can only describe as a breaking point.

I remember the very first time I hit this wall. I was playing a game called Crash Bandicoot. After much practice, the child-me had managed to reach a point well into the regular progression of the game, garnering over 70 lives in the process. Indeed, it seemed nothing could stand in his way - nothing, that is, except the jump.



While I would normally discourage making excuses for oneself, I must make allowances for myself on this occasion. For, the child-me, after losing 70 lives on one jump, did not know how to deal with it. Never before had he been exposed to such a jarring denial of a goal. It was my first experience with abject failure and it taught me that perhaps skill based games were not for me. Suffice to say, I wasted hours in front of the television and screamed and ranted and was, as they say, grounded.

It did not stop there.

This first betrayal of video gaming had taught me to avoid genres that were not suited to my young and imbalanced temper. I played only RPGs and Final Fantasy IX had quickly become a favourite of mine. At a certain point in the game there comes a sequence of three boss fights which one must defeat in quick succession with no opportunity to heal or recover. In addition, the save point directly prior offered no chance to level. There was only forward - through the three bosses.

The child-me attempted to defeat the first. After several tries, he grew irritated. Finally, he won and with great jubilance.... lost to the second boss.

The child-me grew angry.



By the third boss, I not only coined the term rage-quit, but I also ensured that in every future video game, the future-child-me would keep multiple save games.

After this there was a long period of calm. I learned to play games for fun, not for challenge. I continued to play near-exclusively JRPGs. I got into the habit of progressing slowly such that I was over-levelled for every challenge that presented itself.

Around 2005 I started to take a passing interest in the rest of gaming again.

It took four years for the anger to return.

The year is 2009, and future-child-me is indeed now me. I have learned nothing from my previous mistakes, apparently. Two months ago, I spent three hours attempting a single time trial of Motorstorm: Pacific Rift. Each time I came within second of the time I needed, but never could I actually accomplish the goal. I rage quit. It's amazing how much profanity can come out of my mouth as I sit there, convinced that I can do something which I cannot, feeling inadequate because I just cannot accomplish this one simple thing.

Motorstorm was pretty tame compared to my most recent escapade.

Right now, the indie gaming scene is big on pixel art. Synaesthesia is always cool. Pong is timeless. When they come together in Bit.Trip.Beat, they create a game that is compelling on almost every level. Until the last boss, that is.



A simple game of Pong, the last boss of Bit.Trip.Beat made me angrier than I had been in the last six year. Imagine, if you will, perfecting a game. Meeting every challenge a level throws at you, setting high scores, all through practice and hard work.

And then being defeated by Pong.

Again.

And Again.

And Again.

Each time, being forced to repeat the level you've mastered. A level you can complete while barely missing a beat, a level that proves that you are in fact skilled at the game. But in the end, it doesn't matter if you're good at Bit.Trip.Beat.

It matters that you're good at Pong.

It matters that you're good at the father of all video games.

It matters that you're, simply, good at games.

And when you aren't, well...


You just suck.   read


4:18 PM on 08.01.2009

Backlogs and Broomsticks: Some Rapid-fire Opinions

I like video games. Quite a lot, actually. So much so that I like to keep specific track of the games I own, which I've finished and which I want to play next. And thanks to the wonderful website known as The Backloggery, I've got the perfect means to do so. Over the past week or so I've been tearing through some of my backlog and having a hell of a fun time doing it. While I'm certainly late to the party on these titles, I feel like laying it all out on the proverbial bedspread and sharing my glorious opinions with you, the similarly bored masses of Saturday afternoon.

WipEout HD

Anyone who's anyone [and owns a PS3] should be playing Fury right now, as it's a rip-snorting adventure through a world of awesome audio-visual glory. After finishing the new campaign, I decided to finally go back and finish the original and boy, was I missing out.

The original tracks are gorgeous. They're better to look at and play than the Fury tracks and twice as memorable. While the campaign is much more repetitive than the sequel (I really do get tired of time trials after a while) it's brilliant fun and even better challenge. Even after this morning, when seconds away from a gold on Phantom I was send flying back to last place, I know I'll be going back to finish this - probably tonight, even. Can't stay away from that funk atmosphere.



Soul Bubbles

I didn't really like Loco Roco. Rolando didn't do it for me either. But apparently the amorphous blob moving through an environment genre is not entirely lost on me; Soul Bubbles is terrific. While it is many of the things the previous titles were - repetitive, simple, easy - it also has an ease of control that makes it fun to play. The collectibles are hidden in a way that take just the right amount of work to find and the art style and music create one of the most relaxing experiences I've played since Flower.

But what I really like about this game (which I play for relaxation more than anything else) is the way the puzzles are set up. The first time any obstacle presents itself, it always hides a bonus item. If you solve it yourself, good. Then the bonus item is yours immediately. But if you can't solve the puzzle you can just move on. In no time at all the puzzle will repeat as part of the main progression and the answer will be handed to you on a silver platter. It's an intriguing game where it's never harder than you want it to be. Just lovely.

Lumines

I don't know how I missed this puzzle game so long. While at first the music sounds janky and you can't make squares for the life of you, soon you're playing to the rhythm and stringing massive chains. All the progress comes unconsciously and the high scores are set up so you're not competing against an artificially high standard. I started playing the Steam version and have moves on to Supernova on the PS3. For any fans of music or puzzle games this is a must have.

On a side note - Dear Q Entertainment: Please bring Rez HD to PSN so I can finally sell my 360. In addition, find some way to make me stop seeing squares in my sleep.



Sly Cooper and the Thievius Racoonus

My favourite two parts of inFamous were both platforming sections (for those interested, the prison and the tower, both on the second island). So after finishing that title I of course decided to move on to the pure platforming games of Sucker Punch's past. So far the first game hasn't really provided. It's just a lot of collectibles spread about a linear environment where platforming doesn't much come into it. But I'm hopeful for the future and will be keeping with it - hoping to find something there to love.

Bionic Commando Re-Armed

I played through this co-op with a friend quite a while ago. We got to the last level, the albatross, and after many tries got to the very last boss and died. Both of us were disheartened that we' have to go through the entire last level again and we quit - never to go back. But thanks to a patch that makes "normal" mode synonymous with infinite lives and brisker checkpoints, I decided to put back on the proverbial bionic arm and jump (or I guess, technically, never jump at all) in.

This game is amazing. The swinging mechanic feels oh so right and the pacing with the new patch is perfect for those of us who don't like our games to be punishing. I felt the entire time like I was in control, even, finally in the last level where I was able to lose a dozen lives and still win. I high recommend this to ANYONE with a PS3, 360 or PC. At 10$ it's a steal.



So, this is the end of my misguidingly-titled what-you-been-playing post. And while I think I've provided suitable exposition on my backlog (and hopefully inspires some of you to check out these gems) I haven't at all provided broomsticks.



There.

P.S. Does anyone know how to fix images being the wrong horizontal size when uploaded to Dtoid?   read


2:39 AM on 07.26.2009

The Games We Enjoy and the Games We Destroy

There are no pictures in this blog. Honestly, I like writing them but I hate searching for images to put in and caption and whatever. I won't be offended if you don't like reading a wall of text.

Kind of a serious title for a blog, don't you think? Sometimes we all take video games a little seriously. So, before getting into the meat of my ramblings, I thought I'd take a little bit of a side-road and talk about something we all know and love: Christmas.

Growing up, Christmas was the 25th of January, when a new video game sat under the tree. Once I discovered the internet, Christmas started taking place in May or June - E3, the big and shiny event when all of the greatest things in the coming year would be revealed. Currently, Christmas is in a better position than either of those. It's every Thursday and it's provided by Sony's PSN update - a lovely mix of quirky titles, retro love and only a tiny hint of corporate greed.

This last PSN Christmas, as I now call them, was one of the best of all. It brought with it a Bionic Commando patch for the carebear in all of us, updates to Rock Band music, a PS1 classic for the ages and of course a few new PSP games. Obviously to those of us in the know, those were just icing on the cake in relation to the real prizes: WipEout Fury and Shatter.

Being the brain-washed consumer that I am I picked up both. Since then, I've spent every day playing both. Both have received critical acclaim and are hot topics of discussion on all but the most prejudiced of gaming boards. I've put the same amount of time into each of them.

It's strange then, that thinking back on it, that one of them I really don't like.

The Meat of It

Hardcore and casual. Good and bad. We use a lot of relative terms to describe our games. But when it really comes down to it, there's one classification that supersedes them all: liked and didn't. Despite the critical opinion or classification of it, when it comes down to it there are games we personally love and games that fill us with disdain. Most of the time, we only play the former. But the latter are the ones that are fascinating, because they describe to me a part of gamer culture that is astounding and unnerving.

We play games we don't even like.

And of, course, there follows the question:

Why do we do it?

I thought on this for a while and came to a strange conclusion. For even the most committed of book, movie or television enthusiasts, the hobby is simply that - a hobby. The hobby of playing video games, however, for many of us is anything but - it's a lifestyle.

It sneaks up on you. You play a few games and you realize that you love them. That's fine and good. Then you start reading news sites and keeping up with what's available - just as good. Now you're an educated gamer. Soon you're spending time on forums and other social networks, which is fantastic. You're taking advantage of the web to form a social bond with others who share your hobby. And, while this is delightful and pretty and correct in every way, with video gaming, it doesn't end there.

You start to play every AAA release.
You need to own every console.
Your backlog grows and grows.
You start to play a game not because you necessarily wanted to, but because it was there.
You start to play a game not because you wanted to, but because you had free time - and by tradition, every moment of free time is spent playing video games.

Obviously this isn't true of everyone here. Most gamers play only a subset of big releases, stick to what they're interested in. But for some reason, some of us feel the need to do more. We feel obligated, like it's important that we remain aware of every aspect of the industry and follow all the big titles.

In the past few months, I've done a few things that, looking back, were simply ridiculous:
I ruined Killzone 2, playing it only because I had to.
I ruined inFamous, playing it only because I had to.
I ruined Shatter, playing it as though I had to achieve an artifical goal.

These are all games that some people take great enjoyment from. But for me, personally, they are not successes. Yet I played every minute of them, having no fun in the process; just wasting time.

Now I come back to my opening point. There are games we like, and games we don't like. For some reason, more gamers than seems proper feel the obligation to play the latter in addition to the former. It's hard to put away a game knowing that you paid full price for it and didn't enjoy it - but that's what the wonderful service of Goozex is for. And when it comes down to it, video gaming is about an experience. It should be a good one.

So, when the PSN Christmas comes with Fat Princess in tow, I'll skip it because I know I won't enjoy it. Next AAA Sony title that honestly doesn't seem that appealing, I'll skip it. And while I'm not wasting time playing those games, I'll enjoy some more WipEout Fury, or whatever game I'm enjoying at the time. Video games are a huge part of my life, for better or for worse. Some of you may feel the same way. If you do, I hope, like me, you'll keep this in mind: if they're going to be a part of our lives, they should be a damn good part.   read


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