Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
New England Gamer
December 2011

The Best Games I Played in 2011

Writer's block. Foe of wordsmiths everywhere, it is a constant bane to me. There are times when I can't think of anything to write, and often, it happens at the worst possible time. Luckily, this month is not one of those times. Because as blank as the innards of my oversized Canadian head might be at the moment, it is mercifully the end of the year. Why is this a good thing? Because instead of trying to come up with another clever insight into the inner workings of my soul (and connect it to video games), I can simply write an end of the year roundup list and call it a day. Ah, the joys of convenient laziness.

I will offer a small twist. Rather than just discussing games that came out this year, why don't we discuss the games I played in 2011 regardless of their date of release. The following are my Top Games (That I Played) in 2011.

Tactics Ogre: Let us Cling Together (PSP)

I am a casual lover of the strategy RPG subgenre. I love playing games that allow me to don my armchair general cap; and when you couple the joy of commanding perfectly obedient virtual soldiers with the depth and character building of an RPG, then generally speaking you will have a game that I'll happily devote hours of my life to. The original Tactics Ogre, released on the Super Nintendo and PlayStation, is by and large considered to be the original SRPG. While games like Fire Emblem have been around longer, Tactics Ogre had a much wider influence on the genre. Its influence can be seen in almost every SRPG to come after. It was also a mess of a game; an experience defined as much by its unfair difficulty and technical problems as it was by its revolutionary mechanics.

Tactics Ogre: Let us Cling Together, the 2011 remake of the original title, took every issue that was wrong with the original and fixed it. It is probably one of the most thorough and extensive revamps of a game in recent history and the results are fantastic. There were a lot of RPGs released in 2011 and I would be lying if I were to say that a single one of them were a match for the sheer depth and complexity of Let us Cling Together. I put eighty hours into my first playthrough of the game and I can safely say that I just barely gleaned the surface of what it has to offer. Its class, crafting and combat systems are massive, and complimenting these is a twisting story of Machiavellian politics that's shaped by your actions over the course of the experience. For most games, this means you have the occasional moment where you need to pick between different moral choices. Let Us Cling Together takes things one step further, determining your character's fate based not just on your actions in the story but also your actions in combat.

For instance, I was fairly bloodthirsty in battle. I made a point of killing everything and everyone in my path . . . which eventually led to my character being assassinated because who wants a merciless monster as king. Eighty hours of work (EIGHTY HOURS!) just to get the game's bad ending.

I probably should have read about how the morality system worked before playing the game.

Dragon Age II

I wrote about Dragon Age II earlier this year, praising the game for the chances it took as a game but also lamenting it for the ways that it failed to realize its potential. In the intervening months my opinion hasn't changed too much. I enjoyed Dragon Age II, I really did. But it was also one of the most disappointing games of the year, especially in light of how excellent its predecessor was. In fact, my opinion of the game has actually worsened a bit, in large part because time has given me a chance to reflect not just on the big flaws but also on the smaller, more nagging ones that permeate the experience. Things like the inability to customize the equipment of your party members and the redundant waves of enemies that spawn for the sake of padding out battles. Or most egregious, the fact that despite the many moral choices you get to make during the game, it always has the same ending. These are real problems that could actually sink the entire franchise if the already-in-development Dragon Age III fails to fix them.

So with all these problems I've listed off, why do I include it on a list of my favorite games I played this year? Despite its flaws, I still had a lot of fun playing it. For all that can be criticized, I still can't call it a bad game. It's a disappointment yes, but it's entertaining and possesses some of the best character writing of any game to come out this year. It's the sort of game that, when it gets things right, hits it out of the park. It just would have been nice if the home runs had been spaced a little more evenly between all of the strikes.

Mount and Blade

Mount and Blade is the most addicting game I have ever played. In the first month after I bought it, my wife would consistently wake up at three in the morning (when I had to be up at 5 a.m.) and find me still hunched over my laptop, eyes rimmed red with denied exhaustion.

An action RPG, Mount and Blade is at its core a medieval warfare simulator. You play an adventurer who must work their way up from nothing, build an army, gather allies and carve a kingdom out of the world. The breadth of options the game provides for this are plentiful. You can run missions for the local lords, eventually working your way into the good graces of the king. Conversely, you can play a bandit (my personal favorite), pillaging the countryside as you amass the wealth and power you need to take over castles and become a king yourself.

The focal point of the experience of course is the combat and the way you choose to fight. Will you command an army of cavalry and trample your foes underfoot or is infantry more your style? Those shield walls are rather nifty, after all! Or perhaps you favor archers. There are good reasons why the longbow was at one point the most feared weapon in the world. Or you can mix it up, bringing a bit of everything into the fray. Of course, none of this matters when you're assaulting a castle. You can have the swiftest cavalry, the most stalwart infantry and the best archers in the land and you'll still be doomed the second you charge a castle's walls. Unless, of course, you decide to cheat and put the game on "easy" for those battles. Not that I do that . . .

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II

A sequel to probably the best Star Wars game ever made, Knights of the Old Republic II is best remembered for being horribly rushed and unfinished. The story goes that Obsidian, who was developing the game, was pushed by franchise owners Lucasarts to have the game finished for the holiday season. The problem with this was that the game was nowhere near finished. With a contract to fill and little in the way of choice, Obsidian did the best they could and wound up putting out a game that for the most part is better than its predecessor. Then you reach the last few hours of the game and everything just falls apart. I can almost pinpoint the moment where my unbridled geek glee shifted to abject horror. Suffice it to say it wasn't pretty and I never finished the game.

Why does it make the list then? After the game's release, some enterprising gamers felt that a game with so much promise shouldn't go to waste. Rather than letting it languish in bad sequel infamy, they took a gander at the game's files and discovered a cache of content that had been left out so the game could be finished more quickly. They started working to reassemble this into a mod that would fundamentally expand on the game, closing plot holes, tying up lose ends and otherwise restoring the game into the masterpiece it should have been. Despite my disgust with my first playthrough I tried to play it again with the Restored Content mod. It was a joy! I was enraptured again. Then I encountered a bug in the mod that screwed up the game to the point that I couldn't advance any further. I loved the time I spent with Knights of the Old Republic II, hence why it makes this list. That said, it broke my heart one too many times for me to finish it. There's always 2012.

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune was one of the few PlayStation 3 games that was worth buying back when the console was young. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves was similarly excellent, expanding on the bombastic first game and providing gamers with the chance to play through one of the greatest action sequences of the generation. Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception could have easily been a simple rehash of the first two titles and still come out as an excellent title. To the credit of developers Naughty Dog, they instead showed some guts and tried to do something new.

Uncharted 3 isn't a perfect game by any stretch. There are plot holes and questions in the game that are never resolved in a satisfactory manner and the risks that it takes never go far enough to pay off in a truly substantial way. By the game's end, the status quo is pretty much unfettered. Even so, Uncharted 3 still took risks, and I am always going to applaud that whether it works or not. We see and learn more about the returning cast in Uncharted 3 than in both the prior games put together. Couple this with a bevy of wonderful refinements and cinematic experimentation and you have a game that I bought, popped into my PS3 and couldn't put down. It's not what I would call the best game of the year, but it sure is close.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Vikings are kind of like zombies. They have an inherent coolness to them that makes me think you could put them in just about anything and make it immediately better. Case in point, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion wasn't a bad game but its world was very standard fantasy. If you were to take a screenshot from Oblivion and stick it next to any of the countless other games that have aped The Lord of the Rings over the years, you'd be hard pressed to find much that is unique. Skyrim, on the other hand, transplants much of the same experience -- an open world fantasy action RPG -- in a setting heavily influenced by Viking visuals and iconography and suddenly you have one of the most enthralling games of the year.

There have been moments, when playing Skyrim, where I've been awed by what the developer's at Bethesda have managed to create. I've climbed a snow covered mountain with the northern lights glowing overhead. I've stood in a Viking longhall surrounded by warriors and gone toe-to-toe with a woolly Mammoth (he won). I've been wandering the countryside and gotten into a fight with a giant only to have a dragon swoop down and join the fray. Skyrim has its problems, the least of which not being a lag issue that has literally crippled the game for many PS3 players, but the experience as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Its world and atmosphere are unmatched amongst its peers, and in turn it has embedded itself as one of my favorite games of the year.

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