January 28, 2014

A Link Between Worlds is the Best Game EVER

Whoops, don't know why this one came to mind.
Note: I've been getting quite a few angry responses to my Most Overrated Games of 2013 article. People have been making very good points, like: how can you claim that a game is overrated if critics say that it's a great game? Or, how can you claim to be a gamer when you don't like the same games as everyone else? Well, I am nothing if not open to criticism, so I have decided to give a totally honest positive review of a 2013 game that everyone else liked. Because after all, no one reads these articles to get a different opinion, right?
As a longtime Zelda fan and a self-admitted Nintendo fanboy, there was never any question of me not getting the newest game in the franchise, Super Paper Link to the Past. No wait, sorry, the title is Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. I have no idea why I got confused like that.
A Link Between Worlds puts you once again in the role of Link, who once again has to save Hyrule from evil. You once again fight enemies from a top-down perspective, instead of an overly complicated 3D perspective, once again using bombs to open up cave entrances, once again using the hookshot to cross gaps, and once again collecting three pendants, getting the Master Sword, and freeing seven sages. If I repeat the phrase "once again" a lot, it is only to signal my satisfaction with Zelda developers ditching their nasty habit of bringing in new elements into their games and finally just giving us a visual update of one of the oldest games in the series.
The first thing any Zelda fan will notice almost immediately in this game is the tense, fast-paced combat. When you start a fight, you never know if you'll have to mash the B button 3 times or 10 times in order to defeat all of your opponents. Occasionally, you may even need to raise your shield to stop an incoming projectile. This is in stark contrast to the god-awful Skyward Sword, which, with its fluid motion controls, forced you to stop and think about how and when to strike your enemies. Dammit Nintendo, this is a game! We don't want to think about things here!
Where combat really shines is in the boss fights. Other games in the series may have forced you to use strategies and time your attacks in order to defeat bosses, especially in the final boss fights. This meant that there was difficulty to those fights, and that you even had to die occasionally, taking up precious play time. Well, no more. In this game, boss strategies are simple and heavily telegraphed, meaning you can power through all dungeons in the space of a few hours. The one exception is the Gauntlet boss, who requires you to time your attacks well and think about how to dodge incoming attacks. This is an unfortunate deviation from the game's dirt-simple, superb combat systems, but luckily, is a one-time mistake.
Boo, challenging boss! You're getting in the way of me reviewing this game!
Boo, challenging boss! You're getting in the way of me reviewing this game!
Another welcome change from Skyward Sword is the way Link navigates the game-world. Skyward allowed you to explore a vast world full of secrets, using motion controls to rule a flying bird, something which somehow even made exploration enjoyable. However, being confronted with so many options is confusing and hurts my head. Luckily, A Link Between Worlds artificially limits exploration in the beginning of the game by using a strict fast-travel system, with objects like large boulders that you can only move later in the game making sure that you can only reach certain areas exactly when the developers want you to. Another wonderful aspect of this system is Irene, the witch who transports you around the world using her magic broom. She is but one of the many characters you will meet in this world who repeats the same awkward humor in every interaction, making sure the game is at least as full of laughs as a Smurfs movie.
Could these characters bee more funny?
Could these characters bee more funny?
The travel restrictions are somewhat lifted in the second part of the game, as you are given seven dungeons to explore in pretty much any order you want, and the fact that items are rented from a store managed by another HI-LARIOUS character instead of found in dungeons gives a certain sense of freedom. You may even ask yourself: does beating the dungeons in a different order change the ending in some way? Are there a lot of side quests to take up? Do the choices I make affect the game in any meaningful way? Fortuantely, the answer is a resounding no.
As a game critic, one of the things I fear most in games is innovation. After all, adding new elements to a game means that I can't play it in exactly the same way I have been playing other games over the last year. Fortunately, Nintendo listened to the wishes made by people like me and threw innovation completely out the window. Not only is the world map basically the same as in the original game, but also the music, the enemies, and even some bosses are slightly-updated versions of the ones from the original Link to the Past. With this setup, I can happily put as little effort as the developers into this game, thus freeing me up to engage in other activities like watching cartoons or tweeting about how great Dark Souls is.
The opposite of innovation is gimmickry. A gimmick seems to add new depth to the game, while not forcing you or your audience to think too hard about how to use it for exploration or combat. Link's new ability to merge into walls might seem to open a world of possibilities, but luckily for those of us who fear challenge, it opens more of a one-horse town of possibilities, occasionally used to cross gaps (which are only there to force you to use the merge ability) but never much more than that. It is not before the very end of the game that it is used in combat, but don't worry – the game tells you exactly how to use it, so as not to cause a sudden, unfair difficulty spike.
Given the simplicity of the game, you might think that it is too short to be worth your money. Luckily, the developers had the same thought, and added a sidequest to the game in which you help the oh-so-cute giant octopus Mother Maiamai retrieve her 100 children. This may seem like a lot of work, but  while it adds a few hours to the game, it adds nothing in terms of difficulty or substance, as rescuing Maiamai consists of about 5 strategies that are repeated in all instances, with very few exceptions. Chances are, you will find most of them without even trying. You say easy; I say "intuitive". And when a game is this intuitive, how could you argue that it is not the best game of the year 2013?
The dialogue with Mother Miamai is but one example of Link Between Worlds' "intuitive" writing.
The dialogue with Mother Miamai is but one example of A Link Between Worlds' masterful writing.
  • Simplistic, easy-to-get-through combat
  • "Nonlinear" structure
  • Dialogue does not confront the player with unfamiliar jokes or ideas
  • One boss fight may require more than 30 seconds to beat
FINAL SCORE: 100 (out of 10, not an average)

January 6, 2014

Most Overrated Games of 2013

2013 may very well go down in history as the year of the overrated game. I haven't seen so much pretentious mediocrity being passed off as a masterpiece since the days of grunge. Don't get me wrong: this year was pretty bad all around in terms of not only video games, but also TV and movies. Still, critical overhype this year seems to have gotten worse than ever before.

And so, a week too late, without anyone asking and in no particular order, here are my five most overrated games of the year.

Gone Home

To paraphrase one Noah Antwiler, there's innovation and then there's putting bacon in milkshake. You will find few better illustrations of this distinction than this game. Gone Home developers, the Fullbright Company, take pride in their game having no combat or puzzles, but forget that it's not enough for a game not to have things; it should also have other things for you to do in their place. Instead, Gone Home has you trudge around a house, listening to bad 90s music and reading journal entries detailing a story with all the literary merit of an episode of Dawson's Creek (see, I can make 90s references too).

I already wrote a whole article about why Fullbright should be ashamed to take 20$ for this worthless piece of junk, but really, why do I even have to convince you? No one looking for a game would ever think this demo version of an early 90s point and click is a worthwhile investment in terms of time and money. The only reason you might think so is the overwhelmingly positive response the game got from mainstream critics, so next time GameSpot tries to pretend to be more professional and serious than other gaming websites, remind them that they gave this game a 9.5/10. So you know, better than Mass Effect (and the same price on steam, too!).

Speaking of which…

Mass Effect 3: Citadel

Mass Effect 3 is one of my favorite games of all time, second only to Arkham City. It also has an incredibly idiotic ending that made me want to never touch it again when I first beat it. By the time I got over that, my love of the franchise was attacked once more in 2012 by the Leviathan DLC. I'm not going to spoil it for you, but suffice to say, it contains some of the most stupid backstory in any of the games.

Skip to 2013, when BioWare made a third attempt on the life of its most celebrated franchise with the Citadel DLC. What is this thing supposed to be? How high were the writers when they were working on it? Here we have a series famous for its fantastic plot and dialogue, yet BioWare decided to release DLC for it filled with the most awkward banter and lame jokes ever heard, turning our beloved characters into macho douchebags at best and gaffawing jackasses at worst. Usually when I play ME3, I walk around and talk to everyone at every possible opportunity so as not to miss a single line of dialogue; I would pay good money to expunge every piece of dialogue spoken in Citadel from history.

Probably the worst thing about Citadel is what it does to Wrex as a character. When you first meet Wrex, he comes off as just another insufferable meathead (you know, like most ME2 characters were for the entire duration of that game), but the more you talk to him, you realize there's a lot more to this guy. By the end of the game, he becomes one of the most important leaders in the galaxy, uniting most Krogan under the banner of peaceful coexistence with other races. But you can throw all that complexity out the window now, because in this one, Wrex is just the guy who calls enemy soldiers "princess". The one line that almost made me ragequit Citadel is "that's why I love hanging out with you guys: why shoot something once when you can shoot it 46 more times?"

Yeah writers, that's exactly what Mass Effect is like. Bravo.

I could go on for hours about all the things that are terrible about Citadel, and yet, I can't really get mad about it. The ending and Leviathan made me mad because as badly written as they were, they still felt like they were part of this game. They got to me because they tainted the story and universe I grew to love so much. But Citadel? Pfft. Citadel feels so alien, so not Mass Effect, that I really can't say it arouses any emotion in me at all. It's crap, unworthy of your time or money, but after you play it and shake your head at all of its stupidities, you'll probably just forget about it. The idea of Shepard and co. having a party in a fancy apartment and screwing around the Citadel while the Reapers are tearing the galaxy apart is so utterly ridiculous that by the time you get back to the Normandy, it seems like it was all just a very poorly conceived dream.

Bioshock Infinite

Overrated as it is, I really like this game. Bioshock Infinite is great as a mindless shooter, featuring more large-scale, fast-paced combat than any other shooter I can think of. It even has some tactical depth in terms of using special powers (tears and vigors), and it has some great weapons and enemies, even if it is lacking in terms of variation.

That's the thing, though: Infinite is a great mindless shooter, and nothing more. It's an 80s Schwarzenegger flick, and people are talking about it as if it's The Godfather. Hell, Predator had more solid science than this game. I won't spoil the ending for you, but suffice to say, killing a version of a person in one dimension will do exactly nothing to kill the other versions of him in other dimensions. It won't, end of story, no matter how much you'll throw the word "paradox" around.

Most inexplicable is people taking this game as some sophisticated political commentary on racism, but even in terms of racial sensitivity, it loses to Predator – that movie at least had a positive black character. The only thing you can conclude from this game's plot is that racially oppressed people will become a mob of child-murdering, anti-Semitic scum given half a chance. I don't necessarily think that's the point the developers wanted to make: I think that just like with the pseudo-science at the heart of the plot, they didn't care enough to think about their story's implications. And if they didn't bother to think too hard about it, why the hell should we?

The Last of Us

This is another game that I reviewed in the past, and at the time I really liked it, even though I thought it was incredibly overrated. Looking back, my opinion of it today is even lower. Its combat, while still fun, is incredibly simplistic, and to call it a stealth game in a world where Metal Gear Solid exists is a joke.

But forget about all of that. Here's a more important question: do you remember this game? I mean, of course you remember it exists – the single-player DLC rumors are keeping its hype machine alive – but do you remember anything about it? I played it all the way through several times, but I struggle to remember anything noteworthy about it. Ultimately, this game's most grave sin is that it is so goddamn forgettable.

There has to be a variant of the "do not make monuments to the living" rule for works of art. If M. Night Shyamalan were a video game, mainstream critics would give him the Best Director Ever award right before Signs came out. You can't give a game a title like "Best PS3 Game Ever" without putting it to the test of time. My bet is that by the time we reminisce about the good old days of the PS3, The Last of Us will be largely forgotten.

Also, enough with the zombies already. Zombies were played out five years ago. We get it: walking corpses are creepy. Let's move on.

The PS4 and Xbox One

These are technically not games, but no recap of overrated things released in 2013 would be complete without mentioning the currently most overhyped things in gaming - Sony and Microsoft's next-gen consoles. Not because they're bad consoles – apparently they're hilariously buggy at the moment, but that's probably temporary – but because of the comically disproportionate reaction they got from critics and gamers.

Now, I'll be the first to admit to being something of a Nintendo fanboy, but I have nothing against the PS4. I own both a PS1 and PS3, and some of my favorite games of all times are for these platforms (Final Fantasy VII, the Metal Gear Solid Series, Symphony of the Night, etc.). As for Microsoft, well… I do use Windows. But can anyone give me a reason why it's a good idea to buy either one of these new consoles now rather than a Wii U?

Don't get me wrong – there's plenty of reasons to be mad at Nintendo for the Wii U. They made some truly inexplicable design choices, released the console with serious software issues (which have thankfully been fixed by patches since), and still have practically nothing to show for in terms of exclusives. Nintendo seems to have been so concerned with releasing their new console a year before Sony and MS that they just rushed the Wii U out the door, when it should have been released around the same time, if not much later, than the other consoles.

However, when you get down to it, the Wii U has some excellent ports of games like Arkham City, Mass Effect 3 and Ninja Gaiden 3, as well as exclusives like ZombiU and New Super Mario Bros. Not very exciting exclusives, I know, but then, what do the other consoles have to offer? Battlefield 4. Oh, and I hear there's a new Killer Instinct for the Xbone, so you know, yay for that.

I already know I'll get a PS4 the moment Ground Zeroes is released, but spending so much money on the new consoles makes no sense given the nothing that they have going for them at the moment. So have fun playing Knack – I'll stick with Human Revolution Wii U for now.

Honorable Mention: Grand Theft Auto V

Why just an honorable mention? Because I never played GTAV. So why is it here? Because I'm sick of all this adulation for GTA. Even I like the original, but the series has grown to represent everything wrong with gaming: misogyny, escapism, and general pandering to the broskies. GTA is a game for teenage boys to feel like big strong men, and the way so many people take it seriously is nothing short of hilarious. Then again, it's a AAA game by a US developer, so what are you gonna do – not give it a 10? Just ask Carolyn Petit what that'll get you.

That's it for this year. Here's hoping I won't have enough material for a Most Overrated Games of 2014 article.