While everyone is working on and debating their Game of the Year choices for 2014, I'm going to be turning the dial back a couple notches and looking back. Partly because I didn't write a single blog in 2012, and partly because of my New Year's Resolution. My goal this coming year is to identify some key factors in games I enjoy and continue to play long after I've beaten them, and use what I find to narrow down my game purchases. In keeping with that general theme, I welcome you to Hat Trick, a blog series where I'm going to be examining a year of game releases and purchases, and identifying three games from that year that I'm still playing today, or I'm still captivated by the original experience of playing them.
2012 was an interesting year for me as far as gaming goes. I played one or two of the "Game of the Year" titles in 2012, but frankly the games that have stuck with me the longest weren't on that list or anywhere near it.
I'm just gonna say what everyone is thinking (or should be thinking): "Mech suits are awesome."
Armored Core V gets on this list because, frankly, the time I put into that game was worth three or four times what I paid for it. The sheer volume of entertainment I got out of Armored Core V is hard to quantify, but why did it capture me so? Was it purely mech suits smashing eachother to bits? Autocannons the size of school busses? The endless possibilities of dick/ass jokes inherent in a rudimentary version of MS Paint?
Armored Core V was a landmark of the series in many ways, but perhaps more than anything else, the shift into a team-based multiplayer arena shook up the Armored Core formula and took it somewhere new and interesting. Along with that shift came something of a return to form in the gameplay, by dialing back the breakneck speed and flight mechanics present in its predecessor, Armored Core 4. Armored Core V also changed up some of the series traditional customization and building, and allowed for the placement of custom emblems physically on the parts making up the AC, giving the player the opportunity to truly visually design their personal walking death tank in an entirely new way. The end result of all these changes was mechanical magic.
I spent more time than I really care to think about fine tuning everything about my AC, and everything from the booster, generator, weapons choices, to the very last decal I put together and carefully placed on it, had a purpose. It took almost six months of tinkering before I was able to really create exactly what I wanted, and then another three weeks to design logos and emblems to compliment what my design turned out to be. It was an unweildly and difficult to use hunk of battle steel, with a weapon selection that wasn't terribly effective, but I loved everything about that damn AC. Even today, I'll boot up Armored Core V (or its follow-on expansion, Verdict Day), just to look at the end result of all that tinkering and testing.
Looking back, I think the reason Armored Core V captured so much of my attention and my time had a lot to do with the visual design of the game. The shift from AC4's lightning fast, sleek designs back to something more like a walking tank appeals to me on an aesthetic level, and the sense of weight returning to the series was something I greatly appreciated. Beyond that, Armored Core V provided almost unprecidented levels of customization even for an Armored Core game, and once I dug into that, there was no turning back. A trend I find in many games I play long after I've beaten them is customization, and I've come to value the trend in modern games to allow the player to really create something unique of their own to utilize in the game's environment.
I feel like Dragon's Dogma is a game a lot of folks forget about. It was a title loaded with style, epic fights, interesting mechanics, and a decidedly odd take on the cooperative experience.
My love affair with Dragon's Dogma began with the demo, where I was screwing around in the character creator prior to the game's release (my love of customization strikes again), when I crafted a character that would transcend Dragon's Dogma and find an iteration in almost every RPG I played from that day forward: Jack Danger. Battle Ranger.
The concept for Jack was pretty straitforward. Jack is sort of a Don Quixote analogue; not the true hero of our story, but a man who is utterly convinced he is the savior of the world and must meet the challenges set before him with zeal and courage, and almost no sense of self preservation. Because those are not windmills, those are giants and chimaeras and dragons. Oh, and goblins, Arisen. So many goblins. Jack's pawns were actually real adventurers who chose to look after him in his mad quest to save the world, whom he steadfastly ignored/misinterpreted, as "pawns" are all a figment of his overactive imagination.
While I was playing Dragon's Dogma, I shared certain events that happened with friends and family in the form of Jack Danger's Adventure Journal, Jack's recounting of events which were worth discussing. The most memorable of which I'll share here:
We have word that there are a group of bandits hiding out at the ruins of a watchtower up the mountain path. Alice (Alice was Jack's main pawn, actually an old friend from his village trying desperately to keep him out of trouble) thinks we should leave them be, but there will be no raiding of honest commerce on Jack Danger's watch!
Arrived at the ruins. They appear to have either tamed a cyclops, or they have one man who is the biggest, ugliest gentleman I have ever laid eyes on. If it is a man, I wonder what they fed him to do that. And where I can get some that won't make me look quite that ugly.
First attempt was less than successful. We did learn that it was a cyclops and not a man, and I would be lying if I said I wasn't a little disappointed. The battle was going well, with the bandits dispatched by my extremely talented hands from a distance, though it was difficult with Hector (My brother's pawn; he killed Death once) carving them up like Christmas hams. We were able to set about half of the cyclops on fire with some oil and a bit of fire magic, but then it punched me off the cliff.
Alice seemed mildly upset while I was falling. I don't blame her, if I'd been in her position, I would have expected me to die as well, and a world without Jack Danger is no world I'd want to live in. But she forgot the little trinket I spent all of our grocery money on the last time we were in Gran Soren. "That's worthless," she said. "We need bread and meat, and you buy a yellow stone from a man who specializes in forgeries?" Well, once again, Jack Danger is right, and she is wrong, for when I finally struck the ground, my "worthless little forgery trinket" shattered and all was well in Jack Danger's body. I admit, feeling my ribs and spine re-assemble was a little disconcerting, but everything seems to be back where it was supposed to go.
To celebrate my survival, Hector jumped off the cliff to assist me with (save Jack's life from) the chimaera I landed next to. Tomorrow, we'll see about that cyclops. I need to go sleep off a death hangover.
Stories like that are what made Dragon's Dogma such a wonderful game for me. I have so many memories of the adventures of Jack Danger, Alice and Hector that it's still a surprise to me that I haven't spent even more time with Dragon's Dogma than I already have. Jack Danger, Battle Ranger, has since made appearances in Skyrim, FFXIV, Dark Souls, and just about anything else I can wedge him into. He remains insufferably sure of himself, and on occasion still gets punched off of cliffs.
The most surprising of my Hat Trick for 2012, Mark of the Ninja came completely out of nowhere as one of the most memorable side-scrolling experiences I've ever played.
I still remember with remarkable clarity the exact thought I had when I bought it and downloaded it: "How are they going to do a stealth side-scroller?" Several hours later, when I'd finished the story and sat back with a sense of intense satisfaction, I knew I'd just finished something truly special and unique. And promptly went back to play it all over again, varying up my playstyle from mission to mission with every combination of ninja outfit and equipment I could imagine, and no matter what selection I used, it all pretty much worked and worked well.
Since then, I've gone back and played it over again several more times and each time I come away impressed by what this little title brings to the table. Like the other two games on my Hat Trick 2012 list, Mark of the Ninja has customization, but it's a game which focuses almost exclusively on making the gameplay itself adaptable. The player decides how, and the game offers every opportunity it can find to grant the player their own unique experience. It was a unique and sublime experience that I will remember as long as I can, and continue to play as long as I have access to it.
Even more impressive is that, despite its meager price tag and short story, I still consider it to be one of the most fully realized games I've ever played. The emphasis on gameplay is what really cements this title in this list, and is a reminder for me that while a so-called "Triple-A" title may have a bigger budget to throw around, what makes a game good is the underlying philosophy of its design team, and how well that team can bring the ideas in their heads out into a functional, playable, fun experience. It's well worth it to remember going into 2014 that some of the best games being made aren't necessarily coming from major studios or development companies, and some of the best ideas won't come with a $60 price tag on them.
So, that's Hat Trick 2012 all wrapped up. You've seen mine, now show me yours: tell me three games from any year that put a major mark on your library, and if you don't have enough space to do it in a comment box, write up a blog with Hat Trick in the title and link it in the comment section.