When EA face criticism, they use numbers and sales in lieu of polls and opinion. Whilst the vocal minority say one thing, silent statistics say another. If EA have such an unhealthy community relationship, why are the figures so high? It’s easy to press “install” on something that claims to be free, and iterative, mass market videogames are always going to sell well. Isn’t that besides the point? Consumers are burnt out on sequels, DLC, and shovel-ware - so what can we do to improve relations?
In the wake of Peter Moore’s ostensibly internal plea, I set about writing this article criticizing the whole thing, dissecting his statement, and trying to work out what it means for both EA and the consumer. What was its aim? Who was it for? I concluded that it vastly understated the importance of EA’s alienation from the “vocal minority” (people with an opinion), and denounced his over-reliance on figures, which he seemed to attribute to the quality and value of their products.
It simply wasn’t right to say that whilst one party has an opinion on something, a second party negates it simply through downloads and purchases. Opinions are more important to the consumer than statistics. Doing well doesn’t mean you’re doing right.
Since then we’ve been collecting community feedback, trying to figure out exactly what EA need to change in order to improve their product, which will invariably improve their image. Some of these are our ideas, and some of them are yours, but something we noted was exactly how cogent and incisive the “sensationalist vocal minority” are when you reach out to them without having condemned them for talking in the first place.
#1 – Nurture extant demographics; stop trying to grow and merge them – it kills them
Need for Speed Most Wanted didn’t need to rehash Burnout Paradise City. Medal of Honor: Warfighter didn’t need to try and scrape up Call of Duty and Battlefield 3 fans. EA are trying to concentrate more money into fewer, more expensive products. In doing so, they’re able virally promote a product through consistent marketing efforts – which are costly – thus churning out downloadable content and “additional” unlockables at an extra price. The more people playing your one product, the more people are hyped about it. This is economically sensible for EA, but it comes with compromises:
a) Addiction exploitation. First person shooters under the EA brand are no longer skill based. They’re designed to offer easy, fast paced, cyclical rewards. It’s easy to kill, and it’s easy to get killed. I’ll do better next time, just gotta get in the game. Because of this, they’re able to offer a host of gimmicky unlocks (IR scope anyone?) that offer players the notion that they can ‘one up’ the enemy. Spacing out these unlocks, whilst making them seem necessary, means they can easily charge a one off fee to unlock them all – especially a while into the games lifespan.
You might not have a problem with any of the above, but it means that any other first person shooter EA might release is a potential competitor to their primary brand. If one is making more money than the other, because it’s now substituted by continual purchases, then why keep it afloat? Hell, why even make it? So whilst you might enjoy Battlefield 3, and the directions they’re going with it, the growth and development of the brand necessarily – and has – kills prospective alternatives.
b) Subject to taste. We don’t all like the same things, and merging similar products into the same product by axing or quelling alternative developments means that products are lacking in subtlety and nuance. The primary game mechanics are the same, but everything is so mass-market that everything lacks quirk or charm. Because of this, the inherent value in a game under their name seems to be defined by its function. As I’ve previously said, they are a functionalist enterprise. Their games are designed to work – both mechanically, and in how they promote the sale of bolt-on content. This ties in directly to my next point:
#2 – You need to take bigger risks
EA will claim they already take huge risks. They sink millions of investment resources into their big releases, which is exactly why they have to appeal to as many people as possible. Populist products are inherently difficult to critique, because of reasons stated above. Often, as I said, the function is the majority of the merit. However, relying on iterative albeit functional products for a demographic of consumers who consume so often, and so analytically, is of course problematic.
You must invest in smaller development houses with bigger ideas. DICE was once one such house. Buying studios with a proven track record quells creativity, it doesn’t grow it. At the moment, EA might argue that risking failure when there are iterative sequels that guarantee sales is senseless. Perhaps a year ago this would be true, but EA killed Medal of Honor: Warfighter by helping to create an apathetic gaming community who care more about senseless progression than story and nuance (queue: give the people what they want), ensuring failures in products that could have been successful if they delivered them earnestly to the demographics who adored them.
There will always be a demographic for fast paced first person shooters, there’s nothing wrong with that, but as it stands you’re creating a culture of gamers who, when presented with something more, say: “this is just a rip off of ___.” That’s not their fault, because you constantly push the line between this, and that. The differences are subtle, but the similarities are overwhelming. One product, as a consequence, seems vastly superior. For more on this, check out this article.
As an addendum to this point, EA are directly contributing to the closure of development houses who fail to meet sales targets. They fail to meet sales targets because they’re not allowed to make the games they wanted to make. They’re forced to make products. They’re forced to appeal, based on iterative mechanics and familiar context. That’s not to say EA doesn’t provide jobs – it does – but they need to make some effort to extend farther than sure fire sales if they want to create some really innovative titles. There are millions of talented people out there who desperately need the work. Just imagine what we could see if their ideas were given the resources to come into fruition.
#3 – You think you’re getting away with free-to-play and freemium shovelware. Stop using statistics to support its popularity.
You’re only getting away with it because the type of people who enjoy social village creators are people who rarely have an opinion on gaming. The figures show that F2P social games are incredibly profitable, but they’re also tantamount to abhorrent. They’re designed to milk people for cash. It’s as simple as that. Either you spend valuable time to enjoy this product to the full, or you buy our gems. Both are expensive, and that’s exploitation. The fact that people are willing to pay is irrelevant. It’s gambling with a 0% chance of the house losing.
EA fully admit that they want to hook people at pivotal moments, in order to maximize the potential for a DLC or “gem” sale. How do you try and engineer a sale? And what does that mean for the product? If you consciously knew that every time you loaded up an application, you were subjecting yourself to a chemically induced sales pitch, would you keep playing? Free-to-play shovel-ware is so aesthetically pretty, and charming, because underneath the graphics, it’s exactly the opposite.
Free-to-play aims to exploit the consumer, and using statistics on the number of downloads to circumvent any ethical quarrels is abhorrent. You need to stop doing that. I can count the number of free-to-play games that appropriately use the model on my two hands. EA produce none of them. There’s a difference between free and free-to-play, and it wouldn’t be so overtly shady if publishers accepted that. Free-to-play will likely cost you more in the long run. Would you rather spend £3 on a mobile game, or £4.99 on an extinguishable in game currency? Anyone who prefers the former is considered a “vocal minority,” whilst the latter are merely people sitting on the toilet, bored.(2)
Gambling is inherently anti-consumer. Free-to-play follows the same principle. The difference is, in gambling, the potential reward is a return on your investment, whilst in free-to-play, it’s a meaningless token, or a false sense of achievement. This, arguably, makes it even worse than gambling. I’d rather have a percentage of my innings back, rather than a charming pixel pizza house. Of course, the argument goes: if people are willing to pay, we’re going to cater to them. Sure, but that’s the same excuse drug dealers use. This is an article about the reception of EA as a corporation.
#4 – Stop the spin
This problem is two-fold. The community are appealing to EA in the wrong ways (this includes myself, since my views on free-to-play are unhelpful in this appeal; they’ll be ignored or deconstructed). As a consequence, EA are appealing to the wrong part of the community. SimCity didn’t help. The fact of the matter is, as I have said numerous times, SimCity doesn’t have “always-on DRM”(1).In arguing that it does, EA are able to brush aside your criticisms. There’s nothing they can do about it. You’re wrong: it’s as simple as that. I won’t go into it here, but you can only fight logic with logic. Yes. You can hack the game to work offline, but it’s clear to anyone with any sense that SimCity is a game about managing towns in an online region with your friends, working towards regional structures. This requires more than one person, and playing alone comes to the detriment of that experience. That is the experience Maxis had intended for its players, and if you don’t like that experience, then you don’t like the game. It’s unfortunate, but I’ll cover criticisms in #5.
That said, EA have to appeal to those who have genuine concerns. Concerns that can be accounted for, and substantiated by evidence. For example, Warfighter is dead. Crysis 3 had a disappointing reception. Dragon Age clearly suffered directional issues. What’s going wrong between EA and its development houses? EA admit when a franchise isn’t doing as well as it hoped, so why not try and explain why that is? My appeal is seen in #1. If you want to make a successful RPG, then make an RPG – don’t make an action game. If you want to make an authentic first person shooter, make an authentic FPS, don’t make a Call of Duty action spectacle. If you want to make a large scale, multiplayer FPS, make one: don’t compromise it by limiting yourself to technology on other systems that can’t support the core ideas.
Whilst it’s true that porting identical products between 3 platforms necessarily leads to compromise that comes as a detriment to the game, there’s not really much we can do about that other than hoping the PS4 era helps to alleviate some of the porting stress. An example of a logical appeal is as follows: EA, would you consider investing in some PC exclusives, from smaller development houses, considering the PC market has had an astonishingly profitable year? EA, since you want to promote Origin as a competitor to Steam, wouldn’t it make sense to show more love to PC users – the primary Origin demographic?
EA know that many of us have a point – but they’re able to ignore the incisive few, using the sensationalist vocal as an excuse to do so.
#5 – Cherish your consumers
This one only really works if the four above are at least improved. If you look at the smaller publishers, such as Focus Home Interactive, Paradox Interactive, Kalypso Media, CD Projekt Red, and Koch Media, you’ll notice how in love with them their consumers are. They’ve all made mistakes: Tropico 4 was basically a DLC pack. CD Projekt threatened to sue everyone in the world, ever. Paradox tried to out Mount and Blade, Mount and Blade, and Koch Media through Deep Silver tried to sell us decapitated tits. You don’t have to be perfect, but there’s one thing all these, much smaller publishers are doing right: they’re creating the games people want, not making people want the games they create.
When you think about an EA game, what do you see? Polish. Spectacle. Chunky, console graphics on the PC. Iterative mechanics. Press __ to perform the following action. All of the trends seen in EA titles seem unavoidably negative. You see a decline in quality with every sequel, and an increase in linearity. Stories get worse, and dynamics grow even more compromised. Every release seems to want to cater to more and more people, and in doing so, caters to no one with an opinion. Gamers know what they want, you can’t keep shoveling out products with expensive marketing, in hopes that people buy into it (ref. Crysis 3 reception).
Learn something from your smaller cousins, and give consumers some figureheads to love. Lead developers are leaving development houses they built from the ground up, and they’re being replaced with no one. Who do we talk to about a game? Or a problem? Who are the characters at EA? Who are the Will Wright’s, Sid Meier’s, Rihanna Pratchett’s, Dean “Rocket” Hall’s? Who made these games? If you want consumers to feel a part of the EA scheme of things, you need to inject some personality!
Gamers want to shake the hands of the people who made their games – but you consistently hide yourself behind your fortress, lock in key, where you talk about how to maximize sales, ignoring any semblance of community.
Reach out; cater to the needs and wants of gamers; stop trying engineer them. Backlash exists for a reason, and an inability to sensibly articulate discontent is worsened by a faceless corporation without any character. Good games are built by gamers, so you’d better start hiring some. At the moment, community and corporate apathy risk jeopardizing the launch of the next generation. We’re not excited, we’re worried. That’s a sign that something’s awry.
(1) The argument is that EA forced Maxis to have “always on DRM” in order to cut piracy rates. Whilst that seems like a logical assumption, that doesn’t necessarily entail that it is true. I have enough faith in Maxis to believe that any attempt to steer their direction so drastically would be met with at least some leakage of discontent. We’d have heard about it. Maxis are a very head-strong developer, and whilst I admit it’s convenient that the game is always on, and that EA were probably pleased with that, I think it’s true that they had envisioned a social MMO dynamic, not merely wanting to recreate SimCity 4 with a better engine. Social games are more marketable now, unfortunately, and it’s just a victim of the current gaming climate – a climate helped created by EA. Still, its intention wasn’t to lock down the game, it was to bring it into the social sphere. Its function is not one of DRM, that wasn’t the intent. I would say “in my opinion,” but I’m convinced that this is a fact.
(2) Free-to-play can be done right, but the mobile market is heavily exploited. League of Legends, Team Fortress 2 et al are not the same as The Simpsons: Tapped Out. There are far, far more free to play games – even excluding the Asian market – which are nothing more than elaborate ploys to divorce you from your money. I’ve yet to try Real Racing 3, but it might be an example of EA doing free-to-play reasonably from what I know about it. However, the model was chosen because it makes them more money. Where does that money come from? You. It doesn’t do the consumer any favors. “But you get some of the game for free!” Yeah, demos were a thing, once.
We continue our exploration of Lee’s darker side. Can Episode 2 secure Lee’s name as an asshole? Let’s find out. Click here for episode 1. If you’re not aware of the rules, McBosspants and Justis play Telltale Games’ Walking Dead making the worst possible decisions in order to convince us that, actually, Lee is just a huge asshole.
This week, Michael, Justis, McBosspants and Chi talk about the “severed torso” statuette given to players as part of an Xbox 360 exclusive collectors edition of Dead Island Riptide. Can a statue really be offensive? Is everyone overreacting? Yes. Basically.
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We had a lot of fun naming and describing the items, so even if you’ve no intention of buying anything, take a look at the creative ways we’ve listed each item.
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2012 hasn’t been the best year in the AAA arena for PC gamers looking for something new, pretty, and competent, but indie developers and European publishers have come out of the woodwork releasing some really mechanically unique and brilliant titles. Strategy fans and fans of space strategy titles in particular have had a very good year, and anyone who’s a fan of isometric gaming or 2D top down games has had something to dig their teeth into almost every month.
It seems as though ports to PC are getting worse, and our expectations getting lower, with the exception of Square Enix titles this year. 2009′s Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Dark Athena was recently on sale over at gog.com for a mere $3, and compared to the janky and ugly efforts from 2012 publishers, that even now blows a lot of the offerings out of the water. We’ve looked at Far Cry 3and even launched a YouTube channel to discuss the years games so far, but what do we think are 2012′s best PC games? Note that this isn’t PC exclusive games, so much as games that meet our standards of porting, mechanics, story and visuals.
#10 War of the Roses – Developed by Fatshark, October 2012
I enjoyed War of the Roses enough to call out to two local historians who literally wrote the book on The Wars of the Roses, and the Battles of St Albans in particular to see what they had to say about the details. As it turns out, it’s not historically accurate at all, and despite countless hours arguing on line over the fact that there’s “no evidence crossbows were even used” during The Wars of the Roses, there’s always something for history buff’s to fight over. Thankfully, this is indeed a fighting game and when you’re done tearing it up online, there’s a beautifully rendered world to cut into.
The War of the Roses isn’t even close to being a perfect game, which is perhaps why it’s in my number 10 spot, but it is a valiant effort Paradox Interactive and Fatshark to bring us a highly polished, AAA medieval combat experience where once it merely fit a niche. Since launch, net-code issues have died down and things are generally a lot smoother, and whilst some still argue that Mount and Blade is the better game, the depth, scale and beauty of War of the Roses suffice enough to allow you time to get used to the differences. What’s true indeed is that War of the Roses is an enormously fun game to play with friends, and it is an unparalleled experience on the PC or any gaming platform. Chivalry emerged the next month, which saw two medieval games pitting it out against each-other, but it’s not for me to decide which you prefer – it all depends if you like spit-and-polish, or some janky, wild testosterone fueled brawling.
For us, War of the Roses is the ultimate medieval combat experience – and hey, new content today!
#9 Dota 2 Beta – Developed by Valve, playable to the masses throughout 2012
I was new to playing MOBA’s in my spare time before Dota 2. There’s something about eSports that intimidates me enormously. Given that jumping into a game you don’t know how to play online is a scary experience anyway, I was about ready to take a torrent of abuse from players who’d enjoyed the game for longer than I had. That didn’t happen, though, and my sluggish and apprehensive performance was met with support or indifference, and after a mere 2 games I had understood the basics and learned to use my chosen Hero: Sniper.
Build for newcomers, Sniper sits back and issues CC and finishers. I can handle that, I thought, but with 95 of the 110 that will eventually appear, there’s plenty more to learn. Dota 2 may be accessible to newcomers of the genre, but that doesn’t make it a simplistic game. You can argue for hours over the competitive edge between LoL and Dota 2, but the fact of the matter is they’re both enormously different. Each to their own, and no more than that.
The elegant ballet of lane camping at the start of each game as you gently pace back and forth carefully keeping an eye on the enemy in front of you, barely an inch apart, and the timing of each Hero for that all important last hit makes Dota 2 so meticulously crafted that the subtleties are comparable to that of one of the better board games. It’s a game that looks deceptively simple, but then, no one ever claims that when they’re losing, do they?
#8 XCOM: Enemy Unknown – Developed by Firaxis Games, October 12
For about 2 weeks, I woke up every day at 6am and jumped on my PC to play XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It’s not the story, visuals, art style, mechanics, or any sense of rose tinted nostalgia that brought me back to this game every day – it’s the fact that I was managing an underground salvation of humanity, as I watched teammates I grew to recognize and love die every time we went into the fray. Unfortunately, I only recognized their faces, because 2K limited further customization to special and deluxe editions, which would have enormously increased my attachment to my unit, but that’s just how it is.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a fantastic game – and that’s why it gets my number 8 spot – but it isn’t necessarily a fantastic strategy game. With the wake of the console generation comes limited, but not a tragic watering down of the franchise. Squad sizes are limited to 6 players, and many PC gamers felt it necessary to put the difficulty all the way up to the hardest to give them a fair challenge. Like most of Firaxis Games’ products now’days, depth and scale are tremendously cut-back, but they’re substantially supplemented with “fun-factor”, for better or for worse. There’s no denying that XCOM is a consistently enjoyable, addictive experience, but as strategy games go, it’s a little predictable, and consequently a little repetitive.
That said, it’s fantastic to play on Steams Big Picture with a game-pad (calm down), or via Splashtops’ THD gamepad, which allows you to run games on your PC, and stream them to your tablet. XCOM: Enemy Unknown has just about enough depth and challenge – or strategy – to pass as a good strategy title, but for those of you looking for something a little more complicated, it’s not the best choice.
#7 Wargame: European Escalation – Developed by Eugen Systems, Feburary 23
What, you thought like most places this would merely be the last 10 big releases? Feburary 2012 was most certainly a period of time this year, and with that comes the release of my personal favorite RTS/Strategy game of the entire year. Eugen Systems sounds like some security corporation from a Bond film, and whilst I hadn’t heard about the European developer until this release, I was blown away when I tried it.
The problem I have with most RTS games of late is that whilst they aim to be balanced with regards to each unit, they end up being completely rock-paper-scissors. And it’s not only unit balancing alone that developers are obsessed with, it’s the layout of the maps. Now’days, maps barely resemble anything at all, other than a perfectly symmetrical concrete patio clearly designed for war. Nothing seems to make any logical sense, and it’s all about knowing what kills what with regards to the game mechanics. Then there’s the map exploits, oh God, it never ends.
Wargame: European Escalation washed all that away, and when it first released it forced you to jump right in online. With 361 painstakingly realistic units, no one knew what the hell they were doing. It was chaos: the chaos of war. Perfect. Sure, you can claim it’s rock-paper-scissors, but in war Apache beats Hind – its all about the ammo, the armour, and the range. Wargame is a lesson in Cold War technology before it’s a game, and several content updates later, it’s better than ever. For me, no strategy series has beat the depth and meat of Wargame: European Escalation, and it’s a must own.
#6 Planetside 2 – Developed by Sony Entertainment Online, November 20
John Smedley is watching you. He’s always watching.
Ever since free-to-play farted its measly way into the industry on the pretext of “oh, hey, here’s a game for free – and if you like it, you can just give us a couple of bucks to say thank you!” which we all know is complete bullshit, I have been cogently cynical as to the actual intent of companies who implement the system. For some, it’s their saving grace, allowing their games to survive on lower subscriber levels, and opening up the title to a larger market. There’s no real doubt that it saved APB, Star Trek Online, Age of Conan, and, more recently, The Secret World, but it’s also been used to unnecessarily re-boot franchises such as Theme Park on Android and Age of Empires on PC and consoles. In a nut-shell, F2P is largely: “Here’s a game, play it until your addicted, then we’ll milk you for cash.”
Exceptions to the rule are few and far between, and arguably the only truly acceptable title in my eyes was League of Legends, who charge for cosmetics only. They can afford to do that, though, and 99% of other developers cannot. Therein lies the problem with free-to-play.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, John Smedley’s watchful eye happened. He said “Guys, sriously, F2P or subscription? Who’s in?” and the community replied “F2P please, but here are the conditions” and John Smedley made it happen. It’s that simple. As discussed in our review linked under the trailer, Planetside 2 is a completely free experience which doesn’t limit you in any meaningful way. You can compete effectively without paying a single penny. Because of this, and the fact that the game is both fair and awesome, people have been buying cosmetics. Why would they do that? Because Planetside 2 is a fantastic and enormous game – it is a truly unique experience on the PC, and a nice way to make that even better is to pimp yourself out. All upgrades and side-grades are unlock-able with earn-able points, but if you’re of an impatient disposition you can go ahead and buy them with SC. Something that EA are no stranger to with their $60 packaged games. Good guy John Smedley – just don’t let him catch you cheating!
#5 The Walking Dead – Developed by Telltale Games, April 24
I’m not going to patronize Telltale Games and claim that The Walking Dead was so great because it was a “surprise hit” from an incompetent developer. The fact of the matter is that The Walking Dead isn’t a surprise hit. Why should it be? Telltale have always been a troubled developer, but they’ve also always been a very talented one. They’ve a great team of writers, artists, and story writers who, given an out-let for a higher budget, have really come into their own on this release. I’m not one of the people who saw the initial concept of this game and thought it would suck. I enjoyed Tales of Monkey Island, the Sam and Max series, and I even enjoyed Jurassic Park.
Their eclectic mix of long dialogue, classic point and click influences and some recycled mechanics from the third shaky Broken Sword game always felt like a rebirth of the classic adventure game genre, but with April’s The Walking Dead which had a considerably larger budget than prior titles, and a new and interesting business model, Telltale Games raised a massive middle finger to the naysayers who always acted as though they weren’t a proper developer. Hell, Treyarch started with Wii ports.
The Walking Dead isn’t without its problems, though. If you’re not feeling for the characters, and you’re not a fan of the slow, drudging zombie like pace the series moves in, you’re gonna’ have a bad time. But for the rest of us, The Walking Dead is a touching and beautiful masterpiece that came in a £20 package with a whole bucket of feels. Spanning 5 episodes with another series announced, The Walking Dead is a show of its own. It doesn’t supplement the TV series, it bests it.
#4 Hotline Miami – Developed by Dennaton Games, October 23
The Hipsters may have ruined Drive for us, but they’ll never catch on to Hotline Miami. That’s ours.
Heavily influenced by the film Drive, which sees a vapid and vacuous Ryan Gosling prancing around to a pseudo-80′s soundtrack and smashing peoples faces in because he loves Carey Mulligan but is too embarrassed to ask her out, or something, Hotline Miami takes lashings of the ultra-violence and applies it to tight controls on masterfully created maps. Hotline Miami is what all indie games should be. A vision from a very small team (in this case two) with a heavily stylized and well executed concept. The title differs from other indie games in that it isn’t just all about the visuals. All too often games feature the same generic platform or puzzle mechanics, only with some new unique art-style to differentiate it from the crowd.
Hotline Miami’s art complements the game-play mechanics, and they’re woven into something of a masterpiece. What’s more, it’s a damned hard game, and the sense of humour and referenced albeit tasteless brutality transcends mere video-game violence into an art project of both visuals and coding. From picking your named mask to emptying out the various levels of enemies using mostly melee weapons, Hotline Miami is an addictive, consistently good experience that, for me, sets a new benchmark for small indie teams. I’m not saying that no indie game matches Hotline Miami for style and substance, only that Jonatan Söderström and Dennis Wedin seem to have done it with a breeze of cool calm, and an air of “you like the game? Cool. F**k you” that’s refreshing in this climate of people begging to buy and support their games.
#3 Assassins Creed III – Developed by Ubisoft Montreal, November 23
The ending may have enraged me to the point of writing this article, tweeting @assassinscreed and @ubisoft about 17 times and eventually crying into the palm of my hands for a week straight, but my emotional torment alone didn’t negate the fact that Assassins Creed III is a superb game. It’s not the most challenging game on the planet, and it’s even probably the easiest Assassins Creed game in the franchise, but have you ever been told a story so well? A story so rick and exotic with characters that sucked you in and dialogue that took time to actually explain itself? Conner might be a little wooden, but there were subtleties to the context that allowed him, as a blank slate, to learn with you as you traversed 18th century America, in its very European state.
Conner wasn’t as bold as Ezio, but we have to remember that Altair wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs. Perhaps Conner was that awkward third album, but withHaytham Kenway making appearances throughout the game – who was a truly sublime character – and other numerous important key figures, Assassins Creed III was the first in the franchise that felt more about the world as a state than about either the Assassins or the Templars, or those in their ranks. Ubisoft Montreal tackled the political climate with a keen eye for detail, and whilst there are those who jest that Assassins Creed III is all “Murica’!” I have to wonder if they’ve even played it. In the end, all the political leaders are stripped of their glory and grandiose, and what we finally see is that every silly man on a horse is just as corrupt as the last. Conner wasn’t fighting for America, he was fighting firstly for his own people, ending in total and complete apathy. That’s kind of the opposite.
Because of this, and the fact that it develops on the structure of all the prior games with enormous depth, Assassins Creed III is one of my favourite in the franchise. The multiplayer, however, was a total sham, which played like Tenchu designed for drunk children. Connectivity issues plague connecting to friends to this day, and when we did finally get to cover it in an up and coming let’s play, we were totally underwhelmed. Still, none of this deters away from the fact that Assassins Creed III pushed developmental budgets to the limit.
Ubisoft Montreal managed to market an historical period drama with a keen eye for political details and a cogent and incisive attitude to millions of Call of Duty players. That is absolutely genius.
#2 Natural Selection 2 – Developed by Unknown Worlds Entertainment, October 30
If you’re like Eric Neigher, who can’t be bothered to properly play a complicated Indie FPS for whatever reason, then you probably won’t enjoy Natural Selection 2. In an age of Call of Duty and Battlefield, brainless instant gratification and zero thought in first-person-shooters means that military shooters has a monopoly on the entire genre. Twitch shooters and Halo style shooters such as Nexuiz and Section 8 have all tried and failed, but none have managed to deter attention away from those promotions and XP rewards that keep us coming back. We live in a world where an FPS is an investment like an MMO, and progression aims to pin down players and keep them buying DLC. It’s like the genre is a mere vessel for the sale of DLC now, and the problem is that everyone is totally okay with that.
Then there are games like Red Orchestra 2, Counterstrike: GO, and Natural Selection 2. Un-apologetically old-school in nature, entirely bad-ass in practice.
Natural Selection 2 isn’t just a balanced first-person-shooter gun-to-gun, it’s balanced gun-to-massive-over-sized-alien-teeth. That’s right, NS2 is marine vs alien, and each teams efforts are conducted by one commander, who issues orders to the entire team over the in-game comms system. It’s RTS meets Alien, at least for one very responsible guy. Natural Selection 2 is a game with a learning curve, and because of that it is enormously rewarding. When do I use the Gorge? When shall I use the Fade? How do I maximize use of a Skulk? What’s the quickest path to this location? Where are the entrances to the vents? When shall I use a shotgun over an assault rifle? Can I ask for ammo from the commander, or shall I head back to a munitions hub? You learn, you cooperate, you win.
Natural Selection 2 isn’t high on my list as a direct rebuttal of the success of Call of Duty, it is simply, in my opinion, the better game. It’s thoughtful, rewarding, enormously fun and incredibly social. When was the last time you heard someone directly refer to you by name, ask you to do something, then congratulate you on a job well done? Natural Selection 2 feels a bit like a VIP gentleman’s club where everyone has something in common: a hatred for brainless shooters. Not to mention the fact that the game features a tailor made engine built for the title from the ground up, and about 10 years development time since the original mod for Half Life. It’s a beautiful indie development that pushes the limits of the budget, and retailing at £18.99 stands as proof that high quality gaming with substance doesn’t come in a £55.99 box. Hopefully, many developers will follow suit.
#1 GOTY: SLEEPING DOGS – Developed by United Front Games and Square Enix London, August 14
As console ports go, Sleeping Dogs is the best. Ever. Okay, it might not technically be the best ever since it required download of a high resolution texture pack, but once you grabbed that, you were rewarded with a lush and vibrant Hong Kong city-scape to enjoy. Actually… come to think of it… the controls on PC too before being patched didn’t work too great, either. I suppose Sleeping Dogs isn’t the best PC port ever, but it still looks better than, and performs better than, any other port to PC this year. As someone who’s happy to use a game-pad if the mouse and keyboard isn’t working out, I leaped into this title with fairly low expectations, but I wholly admit that I was wrong on too many levels to think that this title would be anything but brilliant.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t my game of the year merely because it looks pretty; Sleeping Dogs crams more game mechanics into any one game that I’ve ever seen before. Lock-picking, car hopping, a full, Arkham City style combat system, mini-games, racing, executions on various environmental assets, weapons, guns, the ability to steak out drug busts, cons, tricks, side-quests, main quests, and all other manner of ways to entertain yourself in Hong Kong. Whilst I jested at the fact that Sleeping Dogs didn’t work great with a mouse and keyboard, it’s important to note that it never will. Neither does Assassins Creed III. It’s just not that style of game. Sleeping Dogs is largely a brawler, and a driving game, and a fantastic one at that. The voice acting, characters and story were all sublime – and it was totally up to you whether your heart was in the Triad, or the Hong Kong police force. Sleeping Dogs had you betraying friends, befriending enemies, and fighting for causes based on false pretenses whilst the lines between fiction and reality grew increasingly blurred.
I got lost for weeks in Hong Kong and whilst the main story was fairly short-lived, there always seemed to be something to do. The most important thing about Sleeping Dogs compared to other “GTA clones” (what a horrible term), though, is your hands-on approach to everything. Literally. In Hong Kong, as they point out in the game, ostensible as a reference to GTA, “isn’t America, there aren’t guns everywhere” and because of that, you felt somewhat more innocent than in other games of the type. You couldn’t just get out of you car and start shooting everyone up automatically, because you rarely even had a gun. Police, thus, became a real controlling power, and more than a mere annoyance. Spotted breaking the law? The police would tackle you and try to arrest you, as you could flip them round and hand-cuff them, running off. You aren’t an indestructible killing machine in Sleeping Dogs, you’re just a sentimental guy, lost in a world of lies and espionage. It was a human story that re-defined the genre for me, and as far as I’m concerned, Grand Theft Auto has a lot to learn about re-balancing the protagonist in the environment.
Sleeping Dogs offered, to me, the same level of immersion as any decent RPG – and although I couldn’t relate to Wei Shen in any meaningful way, he somehow felt close to me, and I learned to empathize with him. A very strange, visceral experience, but one that I immensely enjoyed, and a fantastic game.
Thus concludes the PCGMedia Top 10 PC games of 2012. Whilst you will inevitably question some of my personal choices, I’ve tried to pick games as objectively as possible – although clearly I immensely enjoyed some. I have chosen 10 games that excel at substantial, genre-redefining game-play, with decent mechanics and an art-style that supplements the game-play, rather than merely makes up for it. You might ask me why games like Far Cry 3, or Call of Duty Black Ops II aren’t in the list, and my reason is simple: $60 games designed for everyone often lose substance. With the exception of Assassins Creed and Sleeping Dogs, two games that appeal to everyone, we’re often offered watered down experiences that take four steps mechanically backwards, and show the age of the current console generation cycle. Gaming is about game-play, and if you’ve got an over-bearing HUD, or linear and basic mechanics to lessen the chance of failure, then your game might be fun, but it isn’t as substantial as I’d like. How does Assassins Creed III qualify, then? The combat in Assassins Creed III is mechanically substantial, and the game is designed to tell a story. Some have considered it an “interactive movie” instead of a game, but I don’t really adhere to that philosophy.
I’m confident that my Top 10 list for this year will be agreeable to those who enjoy the games respective genre. Natural Selection 2 was unarguably one of the best team-based FPS of the year, and Sleeping Dogs the best “GTA clone” or sandbox title, for PC. Of course, every list is deeply personal, and there are lashings of subjectivity here and there – the key thing to note is that “level of fun” is not the single most important criteria of this list. Not everyone will enjoy these games, but I know that those who do, do so immensely – and for me, that’s what counts.
Gaming Gambit is a new series where I have a very long, very English rant at aspects of video-game culture and the industry. This week, I take a look at the culture of promotional materials in video-game marketing. What do fluffed up and edited screenshots actually represent? And why do we so often see this imagery in reviews of the product? Surely a review is supposed to critique the product, rather than hide its imperfections?
This week, Michael, Miguel and Dean discuss EA’s views on new IP’s this late into the generation cycle, whether or not MMS (modern military shooters) are tired and terrible, and how the survival horror genre has transformed itself from horror to action, and whether or not that’s still scary.