Monday, January 30, 2012

The Most Anticipated Games of 2012.

Along with the typical year-end "Best Of" lists that pepper the internet, the new year brings about a sense of anticipation in all gamers as to what goodies are in store for the year ahead. At the risk of sounding cliched, I will say that 2012 is shaping up to be every bit the banner year that 2011 was, with a plethora of new games to complement some returning favorites. Note: As my focus these days is mainly on console games, this list does not cover any release for the Playstation Vita or the Nintendo 3DS. I don't currently own either system and I have no immediate plans to purchase them.

Without further ado, here is the list of the games I am most looking forward to in 2012. As time passes and other games get announced, this list could grow substantially.

Bioshock: Infinite

The original Bioshock is one of the benchmark games of this console generation and the 2010 sequel definitely did it justice, however it's time for a change and the newest installment in the Bioshock series takes us somewhere completely different - a city in the clouds. The core gameplay elements from the first two games are intact, however the new setting opens up a world of possibilities. 

Released: 2012 (Exact date TBD)
Platform(s): Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC

Xenoblade Chronicles

Gamers in Europe and Japan received Xenoblade Chronicles in mid-2011 and North American RPG fans have been chomping at the bit for it ever since. Well, we are finally getting a release of what is considered to one of the best action RPGs to come about in the last few years, and certainly the best that the Wii has to offer. With the impending release of the Wii U, this may very well be the last game that Wii owners deem worthy of a purchase and I am stoked to finally have a chance to play it.

Released: April 2, 2012 (North America)
Platform(s): Nintendo Wii

Borderlands 2

Like many gamers, I have poured an obscene amount of hours in the the original Borderlands, and I personally consider it one of the best games of this console generation. The follow-up promises all-new characters, new abilities and new weapons, however the RPG elements, insane amount of guns to loot and strong emphasis on co-op will still be intact. Anyone who has played the first game will know why this is one of the absolute "must have" releases of 2012.
Released: September 1, 2012 (Tentative)
Platform(s): Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC
Mass Effect 3

With the sequel Mass Effect 2 pushing the series to the top tier of the RPG genre, expectations for Mass Effect 3 are suitably high. The next installment promises that your decisions and actions will have a greater impact on how the story plays out than they did in the previous games, thus making your decisions even harder. The core gameplay will also be more combat-intensive and further refinements have been made to the combat system. Overall, this is shaping up to be an intense and emotional ride and I am excited to see how it all plays out.

Released: March 6, 2012 (North America); March 9, 2012 (Europe)
Platforms: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC.

Assassin's Creed III

Outside of the game being confirmed by Ubisoft, nothing is known about which direction the third "proper" sequel will take. The plot lines introduced in Assassin's Creed II and further explored in Brotherhood and Revelations had gamers enraptured, so the prospect of a new assassin, new setting and new time period has drawn a mixture of excitement and unease among fans. More will be known as we get further into the year, but it goes without saying that this will be one of the games I will be keeping a keen eye on.

Released: November 2012 (Speculated)
Platform(s): Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Wii U, PC (Speculated)

Tomb Raider

If you've ever played a video game in your life, the chances are good that a Tomb Raider game has crossed your path once or twice. Once the benchmark of platform action gaming, the series has stagnated in recent years and the 2012 reboot aims to bring Laura Croft back into the limelight. Presenting us with a more raw, more visceral Croft and a gorgeously developed world, Tomb Raider is sure to be one of the benchmark releases of 2012.

Released: Mid-2012
Platform(s): Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC, Mac

Silent Hill: Downpour

Making it's return to the consoles, the Silent Hill series is reported to be the creepiest and most intense game in the series thus far. While the seven previous installments have progressively diluted the impact somewhat, it's hard to deny that Downpour looks like a fantastic game with plenty of tense and bone-chilling moments. WIll it live up to this hype? Time will tell, but in a year with another Resident Evil game also seeing the light of day, it's a good time to be a survival horror fan.

Released: March 13, 2012 (North America)
Platform(s): Xbox 360, Playstation 3

The Last Guardian

When it comes to testing the patience of their fans, Team Ico has it down to a science. With an
absurdly long development period, constant delays in the release date and information coming out at a trickel, fans of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus have been itching to get their hands on this game for some time. The third-person action and puzzle solving makes the game stand out as a successor to Ico, so the fanfare is definitely understandable. Whether or not it delivers on what fans expect is another matter entirely. In the meantime, the recently-released Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection will have to tide us over.

Released: 2012 (TBD)
Platform(s): Playstation 3

Darksiders II

Little is known about the sequel to 2010's Darksiders, a game that I still maintain is highly underrated and criminally overlooked. Combining the hack-n-slash combat elements of games like God of War and Devil May Cry with the dungeon exploration of the Zelda games, the original game gave us the best of both genres without seeming like a tired retread. Hopefully the sequel embodies these same qualities and kicks it up a notch.

Released: June 2012 (projected)
Platform(s): Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Wii U, PC

Max Payne 3

The original two Max Payne games are still among my favorite games from the Playstation 2 era and the sequel on a current generation console is long overdue. With the weight that Rockstar Games carries, it's assured that the production value will be high and everything will be cranked up to 11. A game long in gestation tends to breed unrealistic expectations, but I feel safe in assuming that I'll enjoy this game immensely.

Released: May 15, 2012 (North America); May 18 (Everywhere Else)
Platform(s): Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Wii U

Twisted Metal

I have never been a die-hard fan of vehicular combat games, but I have very fond memories playing the Twisted Metal games on the Playstation and Playstation 2 back in the day. The 2012 release, simple titled Twisted Metal, boasts gorgeous graphics, an impressive roster of vehicles and a strong multiplayer focus, this is going to be one of the games that will give Playstation 3 owners bragging rights. Like Tomb Raider, it's good to see an old classic come back with a new coat of paint.

Released: February 14, 2012 (North America), February 17, 2012 (Europe)
Platform(s): Playstation 3

Sly Cooper: Thieves In Time

The Sly Cooper series was left dormant after it's heyday on the Playstation 2, but the 2010 release of The Sly Collection, a compilation of all three games in the series, reignited interest and reminded gamers of how good this series was. Included in the collection was a teaser for Sly 4 and we will finally see it released in 2012. As the title suggests, the element of time travel will be included and the old favorites from the original series will return as well. For fans such as myself, this is going to be a must-buy, and it's going to be another quality exclusive in the Playstation 3's cannon.

Released: 2012 (TBD)
Platform(s): Playstation 3

Resident Evil 6

The release of the trailer for Resident Evil 6 was big news, even for those who, like myself, have lost interest in the series and moved on. My chief complaint was the combat controls, however it has come to light that Capcom has listened to fans and revamped the controls to minimize frustrations. This includes actually being able to move and shoot at the same time. The game carries on the tradition of creepiness that fans have come to love, and with the controls being less of a headache, I am definitely willing to give the series another chance.

Released: November 20, 2012
Platform(s): Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC

The Witcher II: Assassins of Kings

Up until this point, the excellent story-driven action game The Witcher (and the sequel respectively) was only playable by those with a PC powerful enough to handle it, but now the sequel is seeing a console release. Fans of the PC game will likely scoff at this and list the ways that the port is inferior to the PC version, and they'll probably be right, but I don't really care. I've wanted to play this game since it was released in May 2011 and I'm glad to finally have a chance to do so.

Released: April 17, 2012 (Xbox 360 version - PC version already out)
Platform(s): Xbox 360

Prototype 2

The original Prototype was hardly a favorite game of mine, but I certainly enjoyed it despite it's shortcomings. The ability to free-roam New York City and cause damage was fun for a while, but the story is what ultimately held my interest. The sequel looks to address many of the design quirks that people disliked in the first game and, from what I have seen, this game looks downright epic. Three years is a good amount of time to hone and refine a sequel, so hopefully part 2 lives up to these expectations.

Released: April 24, 2012 (North America), April 27, 2012 (Europe)
Platform(s): Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC

                                The Darkness II

The original "Darkness" is a brilliantly intense, story-driven shooter that has some of the most unique elements and plot twists ever seen in the genre. After nearly five years, we finally get a sequel which, if the gameplay videos are anything to go by, will bring the series in line with the best of it's class. This is an early 2012 release that is not to be missed by any shooter fan.

Released: February 7, 2012 (North America); February 10, 2012 (Europe)
Platform(s): Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC

The Last Of Us

I fell in love with this game from the moment I read about it. Naughty Dog has made a big name for itself in recent years with the Uncharted series, and they are giving us a unique take on survival horror. The game seems as enigmatic as the plot and I can't wait to see what this game delivers. I haven't heard many people talking about this game, but I am anticipating that it will be one of the sleeper hits of the year.

Released: Late 2012
Platform(s): Playstation 3

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The New Xbox To Restrict Used Games? It Could Happen

An interesting article on the Wired magazine website came to my attention today, and it presents an interesting topic of discussion among gamers. For a while now, it's been known that the gaming industry, namely the developers and the publishers, absolutely despises the used game market. The hate it with a passion and have taken steps to limit content to first-time buyers or people willing to pay extra for a DLC code if they purchase the game second-hand. Opinion is divided  on whether or not this is a good move, however there is speculation now that the next generation of the Xbox console will restrict, if not totally lock-out, used games from the console. Rather than discuss the article in detail (you can read it here), I will simply weight in with my thoughts on the matter.

If the rumors turn out to be true, the new Xbox (or "Xbox 720" as some are calling it) will either require games to have one-time use DLC codes to access the full game, or they may circumvent the physical media by releasing full games as digital downloads that are only usable on one console. The Wired article points out that the new Playstation Vita has already adopted this practice and is offering all games in both physical cards and lower-priced digital downloads. The Xbox Live service currently offers a selection of games exclusively online though the Xbox Live Arcade, with full retail games coming up later on it's "Games On Demand" service. Given the prevailing desire on the part of consumers to go all digital, as they have with music and movies, it is not a far leap of the imagination that the same will apply to video games. While it is unlikely that physical game media will die out altogether, the shift of focus to downloading may prove to be a win-win for the game developers and Microsoft. Lower overhead, faster access for gamers and money that would have otherwise gone to used game retailers lining their coffers. For gamers, this is a dubious proposition.

As a gamer myself, the ability to purchase video games used means that I can purchase more games and save some money. Like many people, spending $60 on every new release is not something that I can afford to do, so the used game retailers fill this void nicely. There are also games that go out of print or become rare, so buying them used is often the only option available. By having the games move to digital format, we would be limited to what is available online and shopping around would not be an option. We have had no choice but to accept that content will be held back via online passes and DLC codes, however restricting an entire game pretty much puts us at the mercy of Microsoft and the game publishers.

Once I read the article, I did an informal survey of my Twitter followers (follow me here) and found opinions to be mixed. One one hand, some people are adamantly against it and view it as Microsoft "shooting themselves in the foot" and "screwing over gamers". Others concede that the used game market brings in millions and developers should be entitled to some of it, and some are indifferent because they don't purchase used games. From my perspective, I get it as a capitalist, but I bemoan it as a gamer. Every used game was purchased at full retail at some point, therefore the publisher and developer received the money they are entitled to for the sale of that game, as well as any subsequent DLC that is purchased. The used game market represents potential income that they are only just starting to tap into. Musicians don't get royalties from used music, authors don't get royalties from used books, and car companies don't get royalties from used car sales. You could argue that used game sales are a different matter because of the money they bring it, but I think the same principles still apply. 

On the side of being a capitalist, I understand why they are doing it. This is a case where the game developers found a way to hold back content for those who either buy new or are willing to pay extra. If Stephen King held back the last few chapters of his new book and limited it to only those who purchased it from the Kindle shop, I imagine people would be far less tolerant. The game companies will have you believe that used game sales "cheat" their bottom line and they are suffering big losses, however the losses come from money they could be making instead of projected revenue they have lost. As the Wired article also pointed out, used games are often sold or traded-in to fund the purchase of new games, so the used game market does have an oblique benefit in the grand scheme of things. Having said all that, game companies exist to make money and this is their way of making more. As a business model, this is hardly unique and I can't completely fault them for it.

So the big question is whether or not these rumors about the next Xbox console are true. It's way too early to tell and Microsoft has a policy against commenting on rumors and speculation. Based on the steps already taken by the gaming industry to curb used game sales, it is definitely possible, however the risk of jilting gamers in the process is strong. Adding to the potential risk of such a movie is whether or not the competition follows suit. If Microsoft adopts this policy on the new Xbox but Sony does not with the next Playstation, the scales of consumer confidence can radically tip in one direction. Also of interest will be the response from retailers like Gamestop who will no doubt be affected. Love them or hate them, Gamestop is a main distribution stream for both used and new video games, so drawing their ire is a risky proposition. Either way, these are all "what if" scenarios at this point. More information that confirms or denies this news will only come with time.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Review: Rayman Origins (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Wii, Nintendo 3DS, Playstation Vita)

When I was writing out my Top Games of 2011 entry, it occurred to me that I had missed out on many of the fan favorite games that were released over the past year. Given the shockingly high number of "must have" releases and my own financial limitations, some games had to slip through the cracks and Rayman Origins was one of them. Having never played a Rayman game in the past, I didn't feel any urgency in picking this up and I started to regret this after many gaming friends started raving about it. Having taken the plunge in making this my first game purchase of the new year, I can easily say that my hesitation in getting it was ill-advised. Had I played Rayman Origins at launch, it would have easily been near the top of my list for the best games of 2011.

For the uniitiated, Rayman Origins is a 2D platform action game that harkens back to the glory days of the 8-bit and 16-bit era, with the focus being less on fully-rendered 3D environments and more on challenging side-scrolling action that becomes increasingly more difficult as you progress through the levels. As is the custom for games like this, the story is cutesy, cartoonish and about as dense as helium, but the characters and overly stylized settings will have you smiling all the way. In a nutshell, the story involves the efforts of Rayman and his colorful friends to rid the Glad of Dreams from an evil army of nasties unleashed by an evil Magician and the nightmares of the Bubble Dreamer. These said nasties are called the Darktoons and they have captured the Electoons, and you are tasked with freeing traversing the dangerous levels in order to free them. Play through the levels, kill enemies, free captured friendlies and repeat. That's Rayman Origins in a nutshell. Other nuances exist in the story to keep the player engaged, however the platforming action is clearly the star of the show. You won't feel bogged down with lengthy cinematics or overly complex storylines woven throughout the game, and it's all the better for it.

Each level is divided into separate stages, each one offering a mix of environments and level designs to offset the tedium that some gamers might find with the "point A to point B" objective. The standard level-based platforming stages are complemented by areas where you must swim underwater, or take control of a giant mosquito that can both fire projectiles and suck up enemies like a vacuum. Similar to other platformers like Super Mario Brothers and Donkey Kong Country, the locales are also nicely varied, with lush jungles, levels in the clouds, wintry stages covered in ice and scorching deserts, just to name a few. Each level is beautifully hand-drawn and rendered, and Rayman Origins stands s a testament to how effective and striking a 2D platformer can be. The animation of the characters, the enemies and the backgrounds in the environments is also top notch, as is the wonderfully cartoony sountrack. Simply put, Rayman Origins is a colorful and beautiful feast for the senses, and proof that a game that pays homage to an older gaming style can still dazzle a new audience.

The gameplay in Rayman Origins emphasizes a mix of precise platforming and fast forward momentum. Some levels allow you to take your time and source out ever single collectible, while others feature dynamic environments that require you to keep moving without stopping. This is not to say that you are ill-equipped for the challenges you face. Rayman and his friends have a variety of melee attacks such as sucker punches and body slams, while releasing captured electoons affords you special abilities such as swimming, running up walls and hovering, all of which have must be used to get through certain stages. The object of each level, outside of simply passing it, is to collect colorful "Lums", which function as the games currency of sorts. You need to collect Lums to earn medals at the end of each level, and a certain number are required to unlock new areas. This leads to one of the games few weaknesses; the need to backtrack. Players who take the fast track through earlier levels will find themselves at a shortage of needed Lums, which will require you to replay levels that have already been completed. The upside to this is that each level is packed with secret areas, hidden skull coins, and hidden cages where pink Lums (more valuable) are held in large numbers. Replaying areas can seem like a chore, but there are enough rewards for repeatedly playing a level to make it worthwhile and feel like less of a grind.

While Rayman Origins looks approachable and simple in concept, it must be said that it can get very challenging at times. Many of the levels have dynamic environments that crumble around you, and some that continuously move forward, requiring you to think and use your abilities quickly. You also don't have a lot of health, so running into enemies or attacking certain ones head-on can lead to numerous deaths, as can misjudging a jump or moving too slow as you level makes a beeline for the right. As challenging as it can be, the frequent checkpoints and unlimited lives ensure that there is no harsh penalty for dying, however certain achievements and level bonuses do require you to make it through without dying or taking damage. To get the most out of your experience with Rayman Origins, replaying multiple levels is required as many secrets and rewards are easily missed on your first run-through. With the sheer volume of things to discover, there is plenty here to satisfy the completionist within. Rayman Origins also supports up to 4 player local co-op which, similar to New Super Mario Brothers Wii, can get incredibly chaotic and ridiculously fun or frustrating depending on how everyone plays. 

For those who remember playing 2D platformers on older consoles, as well as those new to the experience, Rayman Origins is a game you need to have on your radar. The strikingly beautiful graphics, the intuitive and occasionally punishing level design and an incredible sense of reward and discovery all combine to make this one of the most satisfying and addictive games in recent memory. If you overlooked this game when it was first released or have been on the fence about getting it, believe me when I say that you owe it to yourself to pick it up. Rayman Origins combines some of the best elements that we love in video games and gives it you in an experience that is not to be missed.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Note: The Playstation Vita and Nintendo 3DS versions are both scheduled for release in March 2012. No PC version has been confirmed.