GMotY-Awards 2010

December 2, 2010

The year 2010 is approaching its last days and it´s time to look back at the best stuff that video games offered over the course of these 12 months. However, don´t be mistaken: This is not a game of the year-entry. Rather, it is a gameplay of the year-award, mentioning gameplay mechanics that made for terrific experiences. Even in critically well-received, hyped games, superb gameplay is often something not to be found. The following games went beyond the means of hype and scores and delivered certain elements of gameplay that made me give them this special mention. Of course, I´m only going to mention games that I played myself, so don´t take this as a “these and ONLY these entries are worthy!!1”, but rather give these games a second chance if you haven´t played them, yet. Also, I´d love to see some comments from you about which mechanics you loved.

These are the gameplay mechanics of the year-winners:

Metroid: Other M for its satisfying combat. A game that got mixed reactions, ranging from best to worst. Personally, I loved the fluid, smooth movement of heroine Samus Aran. What especially stood out, though, was this game´s combat. I´m a big fan of the Prime-games as well as the Zelda-series, but both these franchises have obvious weaknesses to their respective combat. Battling enemies in Prime 1-3 boiled down to tedious non-stop shooting, slowly lowering the foe´s health points, whereas in Zelda-games, each boss-monster has to be hit three times (or four, if Nintendo decides to surprise the player!) and that´s it. Engaging in boss-battles in Other M is like the sweet-spot between both of these concepts. It feels more like an actual fight like Prime-series´  bosses, but without the frustrating large amounts of health points. And it has you on the look-out for special weak points, without divulging into feeling more like a puzzle than a fight. It´s also balanced out by having Samus die quickly as well. Together with the auto-evade function, this created a super-fun, dynamic combat mechanic that felt like no other game this year.

Mass Effect 2 for interactive story-telling. Games as a medium are unique thanks to one simple fact: They´re interactive. They let the player change stuff that happens in all-virtual worlds. But while gameplay mechanics regarding character-movement are nothing special, granting the player freedom in terms of story is even moreso. Personally, its predecessor was even better in that it gave you more big decisions, but Mass Effect 2 is one of the few games that actually tackles an interactive narrative, and that over the span of a 30 hours+ title. In a time where games get shorter and shorter, more like watching a movie with in-between action-scenes, Mass Effect 2 is the definitive cinematic experience and handles story-telling just the way a video game should do.

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories for most immersive experience. There a fun games, games that are a great time-waster, games that are all about the “epic scenes”. And then there´s games that try to create an environment so incredible, believable and logical that it pulls the player deeper inside that world. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories for Wii did a fantastic job at exactly that.  It´s probably the most tragic bomb on the Wii-system, even moreso because of Konami actively deciding not to advertise the game. Shattered Memories makes such perfect use of the wiimote´s pointing-functionality and combines that with impressive visuals, all one-upped by the terrific lighting effects. When the Wii launched, people thought that Luigi´s Mansion 2 would be a great fit for that, but Konami was faster than Nintendo and proved how great this control-style suits a flashlight-featuring game. Unfortunately, the game is only six to seven hours long before you see the credits-screen, but everything that you explore within that  never boring, never filler-ish time is immersive gameplay at its finest. On top of that, Shattered Memories gave another example of interactive story-telling for games that are not meant to be grand role-playing games. A special mention goes to Fragile: Farewell Ruins of the Moon, which achieved a similar rich atmosphere and only fell flat due to its less smooth, old-fashioned character-environment interaction.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 for Flip Out Galaxy. Admittedly, this is a title that´s surely going to be mentioned in a lot of goty-lists, but I wouldn´t have put it up here were it not for that one level. I got a little over 100 stars after getting the game on release-day, but then let it rest on the shelve. Some weeks ago I finally decided to go for “all” 120 stars and that´s exactly the only way to see this galaxy. It´s the last one. The final galaxy in the game that you unlock last. So, what´s so special about it? One simple fact: It made my mind go all “they didn´t really do that, right? They can´t! That´s … absurd!“. This level was not like the rest of the game, where although not easy, you always felt like playing a typical Mario-game. This one galaxy, however, was like one of those self-made 2D-Mario games you can see on Youtube. Not all the way like it, but search for “asshole Mario” and you get a feeling of what I´m talking about. That galaxy wasn´t nice, challenging Mario. It was “look, consumer, you complained about lack of difficulty in our games? Suck it!” And how I did! At one point I was close to crying, especially since I wanted to get that medal, too. Getting the medal quickly became really easy, but then there remained the last section of the level: By shaking the wiimote, blue and red objects would switch between back- and foreground. In that final part of the level, you had to wall-jump in-between several red and blue walls, each only being touchable by the player´s tightly chosen controls. Of course, missing a wall or activating it too late would result in a fall to death, no floor underneath. That was the single finest piece of level-design I´ve ever encountered in any video game. And guess what was that galaxy´s second star-mission? The same level, only now chased by shadow Marios that follow your very steps and hurt you when coming in contact. Damn!

Legend of Guardians for Flying. A rather odd choice, I realize, but not a wrong one either. The license game about owls is nowhere near being a special game, a must-play, so to say. But it manages to do one thing very right. That one thing being the feeling of flying through mid-air. A lot of video games that take place in the sky exist, but only a vast minority gets “it” right. Legend of Guardians made it, and has you experience overseeing gigantic areas from high above, rushing downwards at enormous speed, only to make a sharp turn upwards to glide over the ground. It combines a satisfying feeling of being up there with gorgeous environments (that, unfortunately, lack interactivity). I really hope to see the day where a big, epic action-adventures includes a fun, dynamic, rich flying-mechanic. Until then, Legend of Guardians does a great job at giving you that.

That´s it. Sure, I played a lot more games this year than just these five, but these five examples of gameplay mechanic stood out the most to me. Maybe I forgot something, then I won´t hesitate to update this article. Either way, I hope to have shed some light on games that did something very right and maybe you feel like wanting to share your own GMotYs in the comments. Thanks a lot for reading The FlyingFisch and merry christmas and a happy new year!

True Freedom in Games – Non-mandatory content

March 7, 2010

A lot of gamers love games that allow for a lot of freedom. Freedom in choice, freedom in where to go, freedom in customizing the ingame-avatar. All the concepts indeed help to make a game experience more open, putting the player into the game as if it really was his personal adventure. But there is one aspect that developers (or publishers?) are either too afraid or too unwilling to take on. There exist obvious counter-arguments to using the following concept, but it really goes against the sense of freedom within a video game. I´m talking about mandatory content.

Mandatory content means that no matter what you choose to do, you WILL see said content. One example would be old point’n click-adventures, where you have more than one solutions for a puzzle, but in the ends it will lead you to the same goal. Another example would be The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, where you can decide if you want to tackle the shadow temple before the spirit temple, or the other way round. It gives you that choice, increasing freedom within the game, but at the same time it doesn´t matter, because no matter how you decide, you WILL see either temple. There are more, much more examples, but almost every modern game that, at some point, gives you the choice to decide where to go, is doing the same.

So what is that true freedom that this article´s title points towards? That true freedom is not about having the choice to go to or do whatever you want. It is the choice not to do something, full stop. There are two recent games that greatly demonstrate that concept, even if it could be much more expanded. One is Mass Effect 2. Of course, you´ll find your typical mandatory scenes that you have to see. But depending on how you decide, you will not see half of the game. Or even less, if you consider sidequests. Some people will finish that game in under 20 hours, whereas other gamers will take well over 30 hours. It is totally up to your own decision of how much you experience. The other recently released (in Europe) game that shows of the concept of non-mandatory content is Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. The game uses a very fascinating psych-profile where, depending on your answers, the ingame-content changes. To give a harmless example from the very beginning of the game: Depending on your answers, you´ll either enter a diner and talk to a police officer, or, you will visit a small pub and talk to some middle-aged woman. However, you will not see both. That´s because either the other building isn´t there at all or its door is locked. There are many more of such content-altering choices, but the point is: You will not see all the game´s content in just one playthrough.

These superior concepts for freedom in videogames are, of course, a tough choice to make for developers. That is, because these guys basically have to put effort into creating assets and scenarios that many gamers will probably never see. It is both stressing on a personal level (“man, there I created this beautiful piece of story, and not everybody will see it. Why create it at all?!“) as well as expensive on a financial viewing (“why pay someone to create something that won´t be seen by everyone?!“). That is also exactly the reason why it almost never happens. The only non-mandatory content you´ll often find are smallish sidequests that bear no relevance to the overall plot. But non-mandatory content that heavily inflicts the main plot of a game? Very rare.

It is a pity that so few developers/publishers take the risk of creating this true sense of freedom, as it makes a gaming experience much more meaningful. It feels completely different when you know that you explored something by free will…or chose not to do so. I talked about a rather futuristic solution for that concepts problems, but it really is possible even today. It just takes the will to create such a unique experience. Until we get something better, you´ll come closest to true freedom by playing Mass Effect 2 and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories.

Ratio: Mass Effect 2

February 15, 2010

The first Mass Effect-game was a milestone in terms of cinematic video gaming. Unlike other so-called cinematic games, Mass Effect actually managed to turn the cinematic part into gameplay. No passive cutscenes, no flashy over-the-top action only to return to ingame-gameplay that is a lot more toned down. Mass Effect throws you into an original world (actually, universe, haha) and leaves any further decision to you, the player. Of course, the realm of choices isn´t as open as some fans sometimes make it sound, but that´s maybe why Mass Effect works that well: You´re given a linear path that you have to follow. But what you experience on that way is totally up to yourself.

Mass Effect 2 took that concept and improved upon it. The moment you start Mass Effect 2 is like beginning to watch some epic scifi-movie. Only seconds later, you´re given control over your character. The whole entrance scene, which I am not going to spoil, is brilliant. The mood, the visuals, the sound, the plot contents of  just the very first minutes grab your brain and won´t let you go for hours. It´s one masterful cinematic game experience. You never feel as if control is taken away from you. Yet, every single moment could be from a movie. Where Mass Effect 1 was a great start of a new franchise, Mass Effect 2 simply feels so much more massive, polished. The way your character moves, the way you fire your weapon, the way you talk to people. The basic mechanics are all there, but they´ve been improved upon tenfolds.

Mass Effect 2 is the second act of a trilogy. That means that the game functions as a preparation for the grand finale that will be Mass Effect 3. While Mass Effect 2 is very well capable of existing by itself, the man plot is this game´s weak point. Mass Effect 1 gave you a clear enemy, Saren. Each and every mission in that game built up to a final confrontation with the corrupted Turian. Such an arc nemesis is missing in Mass Effect 2. There is a main plot, but it isn´t until the end part of the game that you get a feeling for that story. But Mass Effect 2´s strength is somewhere else.

The first game within the franchise introduced some characters to the player, but neither of them was worth more than an optional sidequest that didn´t feature much story in itself. In Mass Effect 2, your crew is the star of the game. Instead of the five long main missions in ME1, now you have a vast variety of shorter missions awaiting you. Each of these new missions won´t take you much longer than thirty minutes each. That comes with both positives and negatives. On the one hand, many missions lack the variety of decisions that you had in ME1. Just think of all the different possible outcomes on Noveria. Everyone that finished ME1 several times will know about that. Mass Effect 2 still features important story within these missions, but they´re more to the point. You´re fighting your way through enemy-contaminated areas, then you reach a check point where a cutscene (again, “cutscene” within the ME-franchise means that some talk is going on) starts and where you might be presented with making one of several decisions. That´s due to the linear structure of these missions. Mass Effect 2 is less about exploration than ME1, and more about decision-making. The whole way the game is made really invites you to replay it many more times. You still have your Paragon- and Renegade-options, your “gray“-options, and sometimes a newly introduced action-option, where Shepard will do something, like pushing an enemy through a windows as one early trailer-video showed.

What greatly helps to make the more linear missions fun is the completely new combat-system. It is also where Mass Effect 2 decided to become a real role-playing game. Instead of relying on skill points, combat now feels more like that of a real shooter-title. You´re aiming by yourself, no skill points for higher accuracy. Duck and cover-mechanics have changed. It´s a bit disappointing that you cannot crouch at will anymore, but the new cover-system couldn´t be that much better. Hiding behind objects to avoid enemy fire works very well, as does jumping over these objects by double-clicking the A-button. The quick-button inclusion for biotic-attacks also comes in handy. Using “Burn” on an enemy feels great, especially if you have it leveled up that much that it one-hit-ko´s him. What really makes the difference, though, are the weapons. Instead of four weapons that only differ in terms of dealt damage, Mass Effect 2 features a relatively enormous arsenal of guns, rifles and other awesome stuff. My favorite item is the fast-firing sniper rifle. To give an example of how full of love for detail the game is, if developing it far enough, you gain the passive ability of getting a short slowmo while aiming with the sniper rifle. And not only is the slowmo-effect nice visually, it also takes effect on sound effects. Which at times is annoying if you wanted to listen to your crew members.But it really emphasizes the feeling of being a badass sniper that enters his own world where there´s nothing but himself and his target.

Mass Effect 2 let´s you visit the home planets of some of the alien races. Where the game still fails is to finally show us how female Krogans, Turians and Volus look like. And that´s not the biggest tease, without giving any more hints. Yes, Mass Effect 2 feels a bit too humanoid just about everywhere. The crazy alien worlds are missing. Still, the locations you get to visit are built with a high level for detail. Omega alone is such a varied place, stuff going on at every corner. Then you have the old citadel, that is a lot smaller than the original citadel, but still features nice scenes. And then there are more planets. A lot more. There are no more open planets like the ones in ME1. This doesn´t give monotony a chance, but surely it takes away from the fascination of space and the unknown. To find new, optional planets to land on, you have to use the new scanning-feature. Using it, you can mine different minerals that you´ll need for upgrading your equipments. Mass Effect 2 doesn´t have loot in the sense of its predecessor. You don´t pick up new weapons and suits all the time. Instead, you collect minerals and money and buy add-ons later on. These add-ons have to be attached manually. Again, stuff like that is what makes Mass Effect 2 feel more massive. you´re really adding this new stuff by yourself. And you can see the differences.

The best way to describe Mass Effect 2 is in saying that it is what it is: The dark, second act. Unlike Mass Effect 1, where you had to explore space in search of evidence for the danger that the Reapers are, you already know about that danger in Mass Effect 2. It´s all about preparing for facing off this known danger. By doing that, the game will introduce one of the greatest casts of characters and propose you to some of the most spine-chilling decisions you ever made in a video game. And so much more than the first game, or any video game at all, Mass Effect 2 makes you permanently think:

What if…?

And that is probably what makes Mass Effect 2 the greatest of modern gaming: With all its cinematic presentation, it induces the player´s curiosity to play over and over again. Where all the usual big, hyped “blockbuster games” are lacking in the end, Mass Effect 2 proves that lacking in content and interactivity is not the medium´s fault. And to think that a thirty-hour game features such a level of replayability is remarkable – and embarrassing for most other developers.

And that´s just the start. A new crew-member is announced for the near future, as well as the so-called Hammerhead-DLC, the successor of ME1´s Mako, including a set of missions designed for this vehicle. And besides all the new content upcoming, don´t forget about the sheer variety the game features as is. Not only can you decide within cinematic talks, the game also heavily changes depending on what class you chose. Each class has special abilities. My favorite, the Infiltrator, can turn himself invisible for a short period of time. And that´s really just one class you can choose.

To conclude: Even if the main plot is weaker than its predecessor´s, Mass Effect 2 is the single popular video game that puts emphasis on the medium´s strength: Interactivity. A piece of advise: Do never reload a previous save just because of a seemingly wrong decision. When the credits start rolling, it´ll have been your own adventure. With all the personal decisions you made. In that respect, Mass Effect 2 has become a real role-playing game.

New year – New hopes

January 2, 2010

An old year ended, a new one began. The gaming industry isn´t developing exactly the way I´d want it to, but every now and, you find these little, underhyped gems that cannot get any of the spotlight. A game I´m totally into right now is Drakensang, a western RPG for the PC. I usually don´t like these classic Dungeons and Dragons-games, with their rather weird combat-system, but Drakensang does a great job at putting the player into this medieval fantasy-world, so it doesn´t make the game any worse at all. Did a little research, and seemingly the game sold about 100.000 units in Germany, which the publisher considered a big success, which makes me wonder how such a gorgeous, depth experience can make money with only that low sales numbers. It´s classic Pen and Paper, set in the world of Aventuria from the famous DSA-series. Which means that there has not made up yet another random fantasy-world, but used a rich, already existing setting. I´ve played the game for about 25 hours and I´m nowhere near the end. To summarize, I´d compare the game to Mass Effect, with less focus on cinematics.

Now, for the year of 2010. Most games I´m looking forward to are Wii-titles. Other than the obvious one (Super Mario Galaxy 2), there´s a bunch of third party-titles coming that could turn out being must-haves. If you ever clicked back to this blog´s very first entry, you´ll know that I´ve always been looking forward to that game: Fragile. The action-RPG is finally being released this spring. From everything we know this game appears to feature clunky combat and a heavy reliance on rich atmosphere. In other words: ICO 2. It has to be seen if Fragile: Farewell Ruins of the Moon can live up to these expectations, but as gaming enthusiast, you should keep an eye on that title.

The biggest release in early of 2010 is obviously Mass Effect 2. It´s also when the biggest niche-title is released, Endless Ocean 2. Mass Effect 1 and Endless Ocean 1 tied as my Game of the Year the year they came out, so it´s an awesome start. I have no idea about what exactly Endless Ocean 2 is going to offer – new locations, actually dangerous animals, etc. – but I´m hoping for more mind-cracking locations like the Deep in its predecessor.

These two games have no release-date yet and it´s not even sure if they´ll be released at all, but from the little footage that was shown, I´m interested. Monado and Cosmic Walker. Monado looks like a more anime-esque Final Fantasy 12, and for all that´s worth, it looks like a great, classic RPG with a neat combat-system. Cosmic Walker was shown for like three seconds and never mentioned afterwards. The little we´ve seen, though, gets up my hopes. The game could turn out being this and that, but above anything else, it could turn out be a Endless Ocean in space-like game – which I´d die for.

That´s it so far. There´s a lot of big, hyped games coming out in 2010 as well, but you most likely have  heard enough of those by now. The one big game that isn´t announce yet is The Legend of Zelda Wii, but god know if that sees its release in 2010. Maybe if Nintendo follows my previous predictions of launching the Wii-successor in late 2010, and Zelda becomes the first hybrid-title for both Wii and Wii Too. Oh, and just before finishing this entry: Let´s hope 8ing comes back to senses and develops a proper Naruto: Gekitou Ninja Taisen! EX4…and finally improving the game-series as a whole.

Happy new year, everyone!