Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Best of 2012 - Gameplay.

Pretty graphics and art direction (and hype level) draw us to games, but it's how they feel in the hand that keeps us around.  Many titles of 2012 play beautifully, but here I've narrowed it down to ten that allow the gamer to lose themselves in the action.  Some offer original or creative mechanics, some offer classic play that's been polished to a reflective sheen, but all are joyous exercises you won't soon want to walk away from.


Dishonored's gameplay whispers to us in a strange tongue which hasn't been spoken aloud in over a decade.   Its structure - a linear collection of very-open levels which encourage and reward exploration - and dual-wielding first-person play recalls BioShock, but even greater are the similarities (particularly in the exploration and locomotion) to 1998's Thief: The Dark Project and its sequels.

A game of patient observation and quiet exploration though its liquid-smooth first-person platforming, Dishonored's lightning-fast, ultra-comfortable locomotion reminds us that Assassin's Creed III really had no excuse to get it so wrong.  With maintained stealth, Dishonored is a series of quiet interludes punctuated by glorious, bloody blink-and-you'll-miss-it violence.  When it descends into a down-and-out brawl, Dishonored's combat systems and mechanics interlock with each other and the game's artificial intelligence in ways only experience will reveal.

It's both comfortable, simple play and a zany orchestral mix of ultraviolence and padded footsteps.

Lollipop Chainsaw's gameplay - when compared to nearly any other game on this list - is like comparing checkers to chess, but it throws a curve ball at the classic brawling formula to delightful effect.

Unlike every modern brawler this side of Devil May Cry - where the objective is simply to kill enemies as quickly and stylishly as possible - Lollipop Chainsaw's system of risk and reward is based on how many zombies asskicking cheerleader Juliet can decapitate with a single slash of her chainsaw.  This forces the player to entirely re-think how they deal with individuals, groups and crowd control.

Unlike so many brawlers, Lollipop guides us not to merely kick the crap out of our enemies, but to soften them up and keep them alive until the perfect moment when that heart-encrusted 'saw roars to life, a half-dozen zeds' heads pop like champagne corks and a supernova of fireworks erupts over the playing field as Juliet flashes a beaming grin and hoots "coooool!"

Lollipop Chainsaw - straightforward as it may be - does for brawlers what Dead Space did for third-person shooters.

Imagine The Legend of Zelda in HD where you scramble around the overworld and dungeons through an easy-peasy riff on the platforming system Ubisoft used in Prince of Persia '08, battling demons via a combat system that takes Devil May Cry, simplifies it and expands it into something that's easy to pick up and play but still rewarding to master.

That's Darksiders II.  Also, loot!

Imagine The Legend of Zelda in HD, and now forget everything I just said about Darksiders II.  Okami has simpler (but no less beautiful) platforming and locomotion, and a combat system that makes Lollipop Chainsaw look like Ninja Gaiden.  It's comfortable and enjoyable and satisfying, but generally lacks the depth of any other title here.

Where Okami makes its mark, and moves its entire genre forward, is in how it deals with your ever-expanding repertoire of puzzle-solving/combat abilities.  Unlike Zelda or Darksiders or - heck - Dishonored, Okami doesn't have you digging around in your backpack or a menu to select the bomb when you come to a crack in the wall, or for a torch when fire is required.

Your magic powers in Okami are based around freezing time to view the world as if it were an old wood-block print, and then drawing your will into the world via a calligraphy brush.  What this means is that every ability, every attack, every puzzle solution is only ever a few simple brushstrokes away.

On top of its easy-going, comfortable and stylish platforming and easy-going, comfortable and stylish combat, Okami gently, elegantly solves a problem with ninety per cent of games that none of us realized was a problem.  Oh, Hideki Kamiya.  You rock so many socks.

honorable mentions

"A truly successful open-world platformer is the rarest of pleasures - not seen since last year's inFamous 2 and its prequel in 2009.  If, like me, you can find no greater joy in gaming than making your way around a fantastical world, snatching up collectibles, Gravity Rush would like a word. 
It's not merely a successful open-world platformer, but one with mechanics so far removed from the standard it borders on lunacy.  Gravity Rush's concept and mechanics would have been the toast of the town if they'd been leveraged in a charming 2D indie game - but here, we are blessed with a full-scale release..."
-from the review-
With Gravity Rush, we have a title that is, in spirit and function, a pure platformer - but one that doesn't use mechanics similar to any other platformer.

Ninety per cent of the screenshots you'll see for the game feature player-character Kat flying through the enchanting city of Hekseville - and critics told us it was a fun game for just tooting around the city and collecting power gems - but I wasn't able to put two and two together until I actually laid hands on the title.

Consider any game you've ever played in three-dimensional space that featured a character who flies.  I'm not talking about TIE Fighter or Afterburner, here - I'm talking about Superman or heck, the flying mounts in World of Warcraft.  I'm talking about the fact that, if you can fly in a video game, flying is probably the most boring part of said game.

Gravity Rush is The Game That Has Fun Flight.  And not just fun flight, but glorious, zooming, swooping, suicidal-dive-bombing flight and an effervescent, sparkling sense of freedom that somehow ends up feeling like the funnest 3D platformer this side of inFamous.

'Expressive' is a word I keep falling back on when I attempt to describe Max Payne 3.  Games that attempt to successfully render shooting action through the lens of Hollywood and Hong Kong cinema are hardly a rarity - but Max Payne 3 puts all pretenders in their place.

When it comes to stylish shooting action, there's nothing else that compares to it - it's utterly glorious to simply watch, and a constant pleasure to play.  It stands comfortably along side Dead Space and Uncharted in a kickass triforce of third-person shooting awesome on the current gen, and exceeds both with a spectacular level of hardcore challenge and a sharp sense of cinematic ultrastyle.

Sure, it doesn't feel quite that red-hot when you first get your mitts on it.  Gathering yourself into cover feels awkward.  Weapon-switching feels awkward, and when you first click L3 to duck, it feels so... awkward to use in action.  But ducking - who cares?  Don't often duck in Max Payne anyway...

And then, hours of experience later, you're standing in a hallway with a man aiming a shotgun at you, and not enough rounds in a shitty revolver.  Time is slowed, and it's too late.  The shotgun has already gone off.

And you click L3. And Max kneels, and aims, and pulls the trigger as a silver rosebud of shotgun pellets blooms overhead.

The man's head kicks back, and he drops the shotgun.

And Max picks up the shotgun.

And it's perfect.  Expressive.  A wonderful example of a title that beautifully translates player intention to onscreen action.

very honorable mentions

XCOM is the closest thing 2012 has to a title on par with 2011's Dark Souls, for exemplary design and a seriously satisfying challenge, but a better way to put it may be 'gritty'.

Games like Max Payne 3, Sleeping Dogs and Far Cry 3 do their damndest to convince the player that they are gritty games taking place in a gritty world, but XCOM - in how it plays, in the experience it provides the gamer - is gritty as fuck.

It uses a quietly expanding repertoire of skills, abilities and player-driven tweaks that interact with each other and your enemies in hugely rewarding ways, offering mile-deep strategy and hard-core challenge in a slick cartoon package, where every decision is a big decision with potentially catastrophic results.

We all hoped that Firaxis games - seemingly providing their own answer to the enthusiast community's backlash to 2K's announcement that XCOM would return as a 50s-themed first-person shooter - would bring their mighty strategy pedigree to bear on the storied franchise, but I don't think any of us dared to hope it would turn out so well.

A game where nearly all of the hype was directly tied to our expectations of how it would play, XCOM is glorious simply because it actually is as good as we'd hoped, in a way no other game this year can boast.

I've found no better way to put it than this : Rayman Origins is the most purely pleasurable experience I've had with a 2D platformer in over twenty years.  

The fact that it looks unbelievably gorgeous on the Vita is just icing on the cake.  

* * *

Finally, these last two deserve to be tied with each other.  Every game on this list is a way-fun experience, but these titles really transcend excellence and achieve a level of gamer pleasure that borders on the supernatural - and they each achieve it in totally different ways.  

The runner-up, I decided, is the runner-up because sometimes weapon switching can get fumbly.


"Far too regularly, open-world games force the player into regular and repeated gameplay bottlenecks that force one to engage in activities they would sooner ignore.  Gameplay - little tidbits - added on top of a title's core mechanics which don't do the game that surrounds them justice, bores or frustrates the player, and leads to us walking away from a console in search of something fun to do.  
Like inFamous, Far Cry 3 does not suffer this.  Upon booting the game and opening your map, the player is greeted with an overflowing cornucopia of possible activities - races and shooting contests to win, enemy bases to attack, assassination contracts to carry out, wild beasts to hunt or just simple exploration - and not once in my thirty-plus hours with the title did I ever consider an objective only to decide against it.  
No matter what activity you would select - take a globe and spin it - wherever your finger lands, it will be fun.  It will be an activity you look forward to.  And, staggeringly, it maintains this quality for your entire time with the title.   
Which is around thirty hours, for the single player campaign. 
This is one of those games you sit down with and poof the hours disappear.  This is a game that one can - and will - just play and play and play and play, because it never stops being fun."
-from the review-

That is a major accomplishment for any game in any genre, but Far Cry 3 eclipses nearly every other game of 2012 by virtue of just how broad its mastery proves to be.  Rayman Origins is an absolutely impeccable platformer and XCOM's strategy is mile-deep, but Far Cry 3 is not satisfied with doing one thing perfectly.

As a general rule - at best - that's a recipe for mild disappointment, but Far Cry 3 rather smacks one's gob with how beautifully every aspect of it plays.  Perhaps 'comfortable' is a better word.

How a title feels to play is dictated by the capability and comfort of its controls as much as it is game design - it's the reason a word like expressive works so well when attempting to describe a title like Max Payne 3 - where the important thing is the ability to effortlessly translate your intentions as the player into immediate, responsive onscreen action.  It needs to be comfortable.  The controller needs to disappear.

Far Cry 3, a game which does so much - hang gliding, jet skiing, parachuting, first-person platforming, hunting, stealth, exploration, driving, off-roading and first-person shooting - does everything beautifully.

It's like picking up the latest FPS from your favorite developer - ahhh, that's how first-person shooting should feel! - and then going on to enjoy that welcoming sensation with every other aspect of a huge, sprawling, thirty-hour open world adventure.

And it transitions beautifully from one mechanic to the next.  Take base assaults, for example.

They're designed to be liquid - to reflect your play style, and adapt to crystallize into an awesome scenario no matter how they're approached.

So you're barreling down a dirt road in an open-top Jeep.  You jam the wheel to the right and tap the E-break, skidding to a stop as you bail from the car and slip in to the jungle overlooking the base.

You pull out your digital camera and survey the scene - four, five, six, seven armed thugs - and move in to throw a monkey in their wrench.  Gliding from the shadows and around corners, you stalk your prey.  Patient.  Exacting.  Silent.  Perfect - until it all goes wrong, and the alarm blares to life and you're no longer a stealth assassin - now you're fucking Rambo.

You switch out your trusty recurve bow for a huge LMG that screams bullets like a choir sings, chopping down the remains of the base's guard - but the alarm has already done its work.  Armored transports with mounted .50 cal machineguns tear into the base, and a detonator appears in your hand.

The C4 you placed at the entrance to the base erupts in a wave of heat and shrapnel that takes out the trucks, along with the pirates still scrambling for cover.

One remains, dashing spastically through the brush, trying to find you...

...until a pack of wild dogs find him.  The base is yours, but you run up the nearby mountain.  You dash past feral pigs and choice flora, running through waist-high grass until you reach the tippy-top - a sharp craig overlooking the valley below and the ocean beyond - and you take a flying leap into space.

You click the analog stick.  Your wingsuit deploys and you soar out over the island.

Your island.

best gameplay
of 2012

2012 has seen a renaissance in stealth games, first with Mark of the Ninja, then with Dishonored and Hitman: Absolution - but where those triple-A titles go for scale and (in fairness) execute their vision beautifully, MotN's moment-to-moment gameplay, controls and design represent a boiled-down, ultra-refined product whose sharpness could cut the face of God.
"By the end of the game, you are dashing straight towards an enemy, timing a leap at that perfect moment when you're far away enough that he can't hear your footsteps, but close enough that you can soar overhead and slip through a grate, undetected. You're zipping through air ducts like a flowing scrap of lightning-fast, liquid shadow. You're springing from trapdoors, leaping into the air to freeze time, aiming a dart into a light, a trap onto the ground and your grapnel into a perch point. A light shatters, a guard impales himself on your trap, and his friend staggers backwards, flailing his arms and blind-firing in terror as you lower yourself on a chain towards him... 
The first time you combine the game's arsenal into such a sequence, it seems almost unbelievable that you did it - no other stealth game I've ever played has allowed for such speed - such clear, crisp control on the part of the player. Such slick translation of a player's intention to onscreen action - but here we are.  
You begin testing the game's limits - seeing just how firm its bedrock is, just how sharp its controls really are - and it never disappoints. You can pull off ridiculously cool stuff, and it's all in strict keeping with the title's very reasonable rules of your tool set and your enemies' abilities."
-from the review-

It plays like the sexy love child of Sonic the Hedgehog and Tenchu.  You fly through the game's (gorgeous) environments, bouncing off perch points and dashing up walls, lashing out with lethal tools and skills, manipulating the world and your enemies in perfectly-choreographed flashes of cartoony ultraviolence - all in the blink of an eye.  

If you push dedicated fighting games out of the equation, it might be the single fastest-playing game of 2012 - which is unheard of, for a stealth title.  So how on earth did Klei pull that off?

Quite simply, they thought very deeply on the subject of two-dimensional stealth play - and came to the correct conclusions.
"...stealth games tend to involve playing far more intentionally than other character-based games. Thinking through several steps of cause and effect before doing anything becomes an important skill. There’s an unfortunate dynamic that can emerge out of this, however. Because stealth games rely on intentionality, players must understand the game’s systems quite clearly (e.g. one must understand how guards react to noise before those reactions can be exploited). Often these systems are quite opaque and understanding something like an AI’s sensory perception model is not easy. It can end up being a black box you understand by groping at it blindly until you can start to make out its shape."
-Nels Anderson, lead designer-

Mark of the Ninja solves this through clever exploitation of its two-dimensional world and comfy graphical touches that allow the player - without the use of a hard-to-read UI with a visibility gem or sound indicator - to be constantly, instantly aware of their situation and all the potentially dynamic possibilities onscreen at any given time.

Effortlessly, subconsciously armed with this knowledge, the player is then able to put Ninja's controls through their paces, and tear through its world like a scalpel strapped to the tail of a monkey - and that's merely one aspect of a game which has had similarly piercing attention paid to all its facets.

Like Far Cry 3, Mark of the Ninja is a gem - a beautiful, near-perfect gem that can be held aloft and turned in the light.  It's like...

It's one thing to do one thing wonderfully (Max Payne 3, Rayman: Origins.)  It's one thing to do something cool and new (Lollipop Chainsaw, Gravity Rush).  It's one thing to do a lot of things very, very well (Far Cry 3)...

It's something totally different to do one thing perfectly, in a way that no one else has ever done it before.

That's like inventing a new color that everyone agrees is a phenomenal, wonderful color - up there with blue and red, but unlike any color that's ever been.

That's something that just doesn't happen.   A lightning-fast, perfectly-playing, expressive, dynamic 2D stealth game.

That just doesn't happen.  Save for one beautiful, precious experience. The highest accomplishment in thoughtful, considered game design in 2012.

Mark of the Ninja.

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