Friday, December 21, 2007

2007: The Rise of Video Games

With EDGE, AP et. al. publishing their games award, this tiny blogger reminisce on his personal experience with video games in the year 2007, starting with what he thinks should be game of the year. Minimal next-gen games here as he doesn't own a PS3 because it is too expensive and 360 because he fears 3ROD (and the box is ugly). PC games are rare too as the gaming desktop is now badly ageing (single core FTL) barely capable of running many new games - at all. Also because he resides in a PAL region he gets to play 2006 titles can rate them as 2007 titles. A list resides here if you are keen to skip ahead of this sorry excuse of an essay, whose mindless rambling might numb you.

The first couple of 2007 has been what I termed the 'Final Fantasy' months as I slaved through replays of Final Fantasy IV, V and VI in their Gameboy Advance iterations. Then came the time when Square-Enix unleashed the PAL version of Final Fantasy XII on us, which after a second play through I can honestly say without a doubt that this is my favourite Final Fantasy game of all time. It had everything that the six feet under (?) Matsuna could have given us - a sense of grand scale plot, freedom and no teeny whiny melodramatic characters. After this going back to playing Final Fantasy X made it look archaic and highlights the obvious problems with the game for what it was - on-rails RPG, forgettable characters, horrible voice acting, and a cheesy storyline.

After completing Final Fantasy XII I immediately thought that as far as PAL regions are concern, XII has technically sealed my book as game of the year. But then Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria dropped into my lap. I am a huge fan of the first Valkyrie Profile game (which I had the chance to replay on the PSP), but this tri-Ace sequel simply outdoes it. Like Final Fantasy XII, Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria eschews old school gameplay mechanics for a real time battle system. However unlike XII, it isn't revolutionary as these things has been done before in the PS1 title. But rather than reinventing the wheel, tri-Ace simply polish the gameplay to perfection. Silmeria is like Lenneth but in shiny new clothes, new storyline and a much more polished battle system.

On other fronts, The Console That Just Refuses To Die continues to impress throughout the year. We had God of War II, the excellent follow up to one of the most finest action games of all time. Euro gamers were lucky to receive two Shin Megami Tensei games, the closure to the Digital Devil Saga series and action RPG Devil Summoner. Rogue Galaxy, Level-5's spiritual successor to Dark Cloud 2 was pretty good despite the mediocre storyline and generic dungeon designs. And we had two games by the studio that crafted Viewtiful Joe and the producer who created Resident Evil - Okami and God Hand, both of which sold terribly but received wide critical praise.

In a year where hype meant more than anything and games like Halo 3 courting mainstream press attention that they do not deserve; Okami despite the numerous awards and positive buzz by the gaming press, was simply ignored by the mass majority of gamers. It is the sort of game that does not deserved to be ported to the Wii to succeed. Capcom eventually drop the axe on the studio (Clover) behind these classics, diverting their development cash to such mediocre titles like Lost Planet and cancelling projects.

On the portable side I only played one PSP game which was the previously mentioned Valkyrie Profile port. Sadly the port was just as awesome that the PSP Slim & Lite is now on my list of to get console. The DS on the other hand remained my second most played console after the PlayStation 2. Unfortunately it has been an average year for the DS compared to 2006. Hotel Dusk is currently receiving a huge push on UK telly by Fern and Philip, but back in January the arrogant protagonist and linear gameplay proved annoying enough that despite finishing the game the story was so forgettable I swore I was reading one of Dan Brown's book. I even blame it for destroying my import Enamel Navy DS Lite. The situation did not improve as Rare's port of a N64 game Diddy Kong Racing arrived in its DS form. It was pure and utter shit and easily the worst investment a gamer can ever invest in.

The quality of DS games eventually improved. The new Pokemon arrived and succeeds, proving that you do not need to shoehorn 'features' into a game to sell it well. Even a port of a GBA game Gyakuten Saiban 3 arrives intact with no crazy departures from the core gameplay. Coupled with an amazing storyline and a cast of likeable characters, Phoenix Wright's last outing was the best in the trilogy and a prove that if anything the point and touch genre didn't die with when Guybrush Threepwood went AWOL.

That was unlike the new Zelda game that despite being developed by an internal Nintendo EAD studio, disappoints greatly with its lack of puzzles, forced functions and repetitive gameplay, stamped with a huge 'Made for Touch Generations' on Link's forehead. December was a great month for DS games as Final Fantasy XII's sequel Revenant Wings impress with its unique RPG take on the RTS genre. Meanwhile Kuju's Geometry Wars: Galaxies became my second most addictive game on the platform just after Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime (which is criminally still missing from PAL regions).

It would not be a video game year without some controversial shit storm. First was anti gaming rag The Daily Mail (the very same paper that described the Ipswich murder victims as "disgusting, drug-addled street whores" and their deaths as "no great loss") whose sister publication the Mail on Sunday printed a picture of a God of War II launch party where a decapitated goat was on hands to entertain the gaming press. The uproar caused Future Press to recall OPM where the uncensored picture was originally printed. Not all book stores heeded the request as a visit to Borders a week later made me a proud owner of what could eventually be a collector's item - as well as a 'This is Living' t-shirt which immediately found usefulness as a bathroom rag.

But this was nothing compared to the BBC's handling into the Manchester Cathedral versus Sony case in regards to Insomniac's Resistance: Fall of Man PS3 title. I still remember the day the 'news' broke out as it was the leading news on BBC News website for much of the day. To this day the many factually incorrect details regarding the game remains, a disappointment to the credibility of the BBC who are usually well known to be pretty thorough when it comes to accuracy. For example the fact that the architecture design belongs to the public domain was not reported. Then we have the banning of Manhunt 2. Readers will know that I came out against the ban but a part of me right now believes that it was right decision for the BBFC to ban it. You see while I am still against censorship, I find Rockstar's lack of talent in producing good games mind boggling. Instead it courts controversial by making abysmal games that revolves around violence just for the sake of it, and hopes it sells to minors who masturbates to blood. Not cool.

Recently a very minor uproar hit the gaming community when a Gamespot editor was allegedly fired because his review of Kane and Lynch: Dead Men did not conform with a publisher's wishes. The editor in question is Jeff Gerstmann, most famously flogged by Nintendo fanboys for giving The Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess a positive review! The fact that the same video game fans are now supporting him is not without irony. Fact is nothing has been proven that links his 'firing' with Eidos, just dubious claims by various hypocritical gaming blogs, whose lack of editorial transparency and journalistic ethics are probably not that much better than CNet's. Even if such allegations are true there is no doubt that such a practice would continue. There is nothing a duffel bag with goodies worth $800 can't do to sway opinion.

But the year 2007 should be remembered as the acceptance of our beloved hobby by the mainstream, no thanks to Nintendo's Wii and the strong sales of the DS as well as Sony and Microsoft's effort to market their consoles as living room entertainment hubs. The Wii has been a hot commodity this year with everyone from kiddie gamers to OAPs clamouring for one at GAME. Lapsed gamers and people with no previous gaming background are finally buying a gaming console. The bad news here is that success tends to attract the unattractive and it isn't any different to the Wii with plenty of games released on it being *shit*.

The Wii has attracted shovelware like never before with PS2/PSP ports and games with graphics worse than its predecessors the GameCube and sometimes the ten year old N64. There are occasional gems like Super Mario Galaxy, who returns the king of platforming title to Kyoto's most famous plumber; as well as the brilliant but short on-rails shooter Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles. What pisses me off is instead of buying these, these supposed new gamers are instead investing in mediocre titles like Sega's Sonic and Mario at the Olympics, Boogie or High School Musical.

So what will 2008 bring us? Honestly, plenty. On The Console That Just Refuses To Die, KOEI/Atlus will be bringing us dating simulator/RPG Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, which if the die hards on GAF and Associated Press (!!) is to be believed - is a rock solid RPG. Then Square-Enix will be publishing Vanillaware's Odin Sphere, whose excellent RTS Grim Grimoire PS2 title was a gem find. On the DS we will have such titles as Final Fantasy Tactics A2, Final Fantasy IV, Gyakuten Saiban 4 and hopefully Dragon Quest IV. Not a solid line-up unless Level-5 gets Dragon Quest IX out, in which case it would be the end of the world.

There is only one title on the Wii that so far interest me and that is Suda 51's No More Heroes while the deluge of quick development titles like Wii Fit and Wii Chess (!) should keep the none-gamers happy with their toy. The PS3 seems to be the console that has the most titles that currently ticks my skin but the price is still a barrier of entry into this fine dining club where such fine games like Disgaea 3, Knight White Story, Little Big Planet, Echochrome and Final Fantasy XIII would be served next year. If Sony would just cut the price to below £250 then 2008 may be the year I will be playing Metal Gear Solid 4.

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