Thursday, 23 December 2010

A Gamer's Year Part 1: January to March

This won't be a run-down of everything that happened this year in the gaming world. There are plenty of sites bursting with lists, re-caps and analysis of the year, so if you want something all-encompassing, I'd suggest starting with Gamespot, which has compiled lists of the years' "Best Boss Fights", "Least Improved Sequel" and "Best Ending". It makes for very interesting reading, so set aside a few hours.

Gamespot Dubious Honours Awards

Instead of trying to write something even half as informative, I'm going to go through the year, month by month, and remember the highs, lows and in-betweens of 2010. Only about half the games mentioned were released in 2010...

January

January got off to a flying start as Well-Rendered Towers hosted a former Codeglue developer for the obligatory New Years' day fry-up. This resulted in the discovery and purchase of Rocket Riot, Codeglue's 2009 XBOX Live Arcade opus. Rocket Riot feels like a cross between Geometary Wars (it's a dual-stick shooter on a two-dimensional plane) and Worms (it features destructable scenery and chaotic challenges). Despite featuring graphics that make reference to the 8-bit era and only taking place in two dimensions, it's rendered in three, and the rocket physics behave exactly as you would expect them to.


Rocket Riot was a great way to begin the year because it left me in an optimistic frame of mind. The XBOX Live Arcade is a fantastic platform which allows developers to play with ideas without the pressure of the huge budgets required by mainstream releases. With the future of PC gaming uncertain, it 's at least encouraging that developers (both large studios and independent "bedroom" programmers) have a channel through which to release more experimental games.

Unfortunately for me however, I'd all but finished Rocket Riot by January 4th, and Bayonetta wasn't out until January 8th. What to do, what to do.

I decided to head down to GAME with a £5 and see what I could get. I came back ten minutes later with a copy of Enchanted Arms, a Japanese Role-Playing Game (JRPG) and one of the XBOX 360's launch titles. Although initially enchanted (ho ho ho) by the silly dialogue and the fact that you could train golems to fight in your party, I became less engaged when I discovered that there was very little development to the fight system after the first couple of hours.

Enchanted Arms Grid

Still, it kept me entertained until Bayonetta came out, and I'm grateful that I stumbled across Makoto, one of gaming's very few openly gay characters. I later wrote about him here and here.

There's only a week left of this year, so I am fairly confident that nothing it can offer me will top Bayonetta in terms of sheer gaming joy. January 8th (I remember the date as I would a loved one's birthday) saw the start of a new relationship between myself and a character who looks pretty much how I do in my mind's eye. With her glasses (check), British accent (check), and her catsuit fashioned from the demon souls contained within her own hair (erm), Bayonetta reminded me that sillyness can be classy and that if a game is both fun and well-executed it can do whatever it likes.

Bayonetta glasses

On a rather more mercenary note, Bayonetta is great value for money. With (I think) five difficulty settings, hidden levels, collectibles and a brutal rating system, Bayonetta demands to be played again and again. If you are a fan of hyperbole and brown-nosing, check out my gushing review of Bayonetta here.

February

The main event in February was Bioshock 2, the sequel to 2007's underwater Ayn Rand-bothering horror shooter Bioshock. It's not quite as earth-shattering as its forebear, but that's only because it can't replicate Bioshock's money shot, the first view of submarine city Rapture. The initial mix of awe and horror felt by the player tramping around Rapture's corridors for the first time isn't really present in Bioshock 2, but it's replaced by something nearly as good.

Bioshock 2 is set several decades after the original game at a time where Rapture's already terrifying society has disintegrated beyond all hope of repair. Because this state of affairs has come as a direct consequence of Rapture's inital reliance upon Randian Objectivist Individualism (nice), it makes sense that Bioshock 2's antagonist hails from the other side of the political fence. Sofia Lamb is a softly-spoken Marxist whose interest in the common good nevertheless relies upon the same amoral scientific freedom that brought about genetically modified hell in the original Bioshock.

Sofia Lamb and Eleanor Lamb
Sofia Lamb and her daughter Eleanor

What Bioshock 2 lacked in freshness, it made up for in philosophical probing and the inclusion of at least three really interesting female characters. It also touches upon a theme beloved by horror writers everywhere, that of female puberty. Stephen King's Carrie and Firestarter both feature girls with supernatural abilities whose transition to adulthood and burgeoning sexual power fills those around them with terror.

This terror is the fear of the unknown, the fear of an abstract potency that not even the subject themselves can possibly understand. Bioshock 2 shows gamers what will happen when the Little Sisters of the previous game reach this critical age, and does so with all the flair of King at his finest.

Eleanor Lamb at the end of Bioshock 2

More on this topic at a later date, methinks.

March

One of the great selling points of a Western-style role-playing game is the fact that once it has been "finished" (a term I use in the loosest possible sense), it can be played again with a different character.

And so it was that I decided to replay The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Bethesda's pompous entry into the Elder Scrolls' canon. When I originally played this game I created a charismatic Imperial woman called "Mary" (I know, I know) who smarmed her way into people's personal lives before conning them out of all their hard-earned gold. This time I decided to play as a theiving Kajiit called "Isis" (which is almost worse than "Mary") who didn't have to con anyone because she could just steal their stuff whilst they were sleeping.

A Kajiit thief in Oblivion.

I really enjoyed my second playthrough of Oblivion. I know a lot of people aren't too keen on single-player RPGs because they feel lonely. I do understand this (the inclusion of characters controlled by human beings undoubtedly makes games more dynamic and potentially immersive), but I just don't have the time to devote to an alternative reality.

When I am well into my nineties, free from all responsibilities except those to myself, I plan to crack open a copy of whatever version of World of Warcraft is doing the rounds at the time. Should I make it to my tenth decade, I will also be taking up a variety of reckless hobbies and getting a selection of comical tattoos, so if you're wandering around the Cornish coast in the latter portion of the 21st century (providing it isn't underwater by then) and you see an illustrated old lady riding around on a quad bike listening to Dio and steering one-handed because she's throwing devil-horns with the other, do say hello.

But that's a while away and for the moment I am still beset with boring corporeal concerns like going to work and eating, so I just don't have the time. I love RPGs, but the delicate work-life-videogame balance which I struggle with at the best of times would be completely destroyed were I to start playing them online. So for the moment, I'll have to make do with my fertile imagination and open-world playgrounds like Oblivion. It's not too bad a life really.

Oblivion horse riding in the mountains

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