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User Journal

Journal Journal: Games of the Year 2016

So, another year gone, and another opportunity to talk to myself about my favorite (and otherwise) games of the year. It's not been a particularly bad year, all told, with plenty of perfectly solid games and just enough surprises (pleasant and otherwise) to keep things interesting. I've missed a few of the year's big releases: Civilization VI (I've learned not to touch this series until the first few expansions are out) and Dishonoured 2 (the original is still on my backlog-of-shame) in particular. But I think I've still seen the bulk of the games worth talking about this year. So with no further ado, on with the top-10 list.

Top 10

10: Fire Emblem Fates: Awakening (3DS) - I'll get out of the way upfront that I don't much care for how this game was sold. The fact that all three campaigns are on a single cartridge but expensive further purchases are required to unlock two of them does not please me. However, despite that, there is still a very solid game here, with some fun character work, a decent enough storyline (Conquest in particular) and some strong strategy mechanics at the core of the gameplay.

9: Battlefleet Gothic: Armada (PC) - This one's a bit obscure, having been somewhat lost among the slew of Warhammer 40K games released this year. It is, however, definitely the best of the bunch. An adaptation of an old space-combat wargame, it's a smart, well presented tactics game, which reminded me more than anything of the old Starfleet Command games. That's probably no coincidence, as those were also based on a boardgame.

8: Overwatch (PC, also PS4 and XB1) - The shooter that got me to play online shooters again (for a while at least). Fast, fun and, for a while at least, refreshingly free of the usual angst and drama of online shooters. Sadly, the community soured from around October onwards, with even Quick Play becoming toxic, so I dropped out of playing. However, Blizzard deserve real credit for managing to blend so many gameplay innovations with such good gunplay.

7: Dark Souls 3 (PC, also PS4 and XB1) - To my mind, the weakest game in the Dark Souls series, leaning too heavily on past glories and requiring too rigid a conformity to a particular dodge-roll-based playstyle. That said, even Dark Souls at its worst is better than most other franchises at their best, so this is still a very good game. Except for the first DLC, which was just plain rubbish.

6: Tokyo Mirage Sessions: FE (Wii-U) - I'd probably rank this as the best game on the Wii-U and it makes a fairly good swan-song for the system as it vanishes into (mostly deserved) obscurity. This isn't quite a full-fledged new Persona game, but it is a pretty good way of tiding things over until next year's Persona 5. As with Atlus's best games, it holds to a very distinctive tone and style. The battle system gets a bit repetitive towards the end, but the aesthetic keeps things from getting too tired.

5: Total War: Warhammer (PC) - I've always found the Total War system strangely inconsistent, capable of swinging from greatness (Shogun 2) to mediocrity (Rome 2) remarkably quickly. Warhammer is a pretty big departure for the series, but it works out very well indeed, with a pleasing blend of familiar elements and novel innovations. Now if only we could have a Horus Heresy-themed 40K version...

4: Final Fantasy XV (PS4, also XB1) - Despite being much-delayed, this came out remarkably well in the end (despite some technical issues - give us a PC version already!). It doesn't feel like Final Fantasy, but then, that's something that was said about all of the best Final Fantasy games when they first released. A couple of the sidequests could do with being a little bit less fetch-questy, but other than that, this is good fun, with a battle system that has a lot more depth than is initially apparent. The Americana-infused aesthetic is also glorious.

3: XCom 2 (PC, also PS4 and XB1) - A really strong sequel to the modern reboot of the classic series. The strategic-game is slightly terrifying for the first few hours, with a bewildering array of options and very little guidance, but push past that point and this opens out into a really satisfying game. The best bit, of course, is what's teased after the final credits...

2: Forza Horizon 3 (PC, also XB1) - A glorious evolution of the open-world arcade-infused spin-off to the Forza series (a spin-off which has now arguably surpassed its progenitor). The availability of PC version is a welcome addition to the series. I was slightly annoyed by the over-focus on off-road racing (and particularly those bloody buggies), but this is still fantastic.

1: Doom (PC, also PS4 and XB1) - By far the best first person shooter I've played for years. It takes every hateful convention that Halo and Call of Duty slammed into the genre (2-weapon limits, regenerating health, linear levels) and throws them in the bin. Fast, gory, frequently ludicrous and insane amounts of fun. Somehow it manages to take the look and, more importantly, feel of the old Doom games and translate them successfully onto cutting-edge 2016 technology. I'm told it has a multiplayer mode, but I haven't bothered to check.

Good but not top-10 material - alphabetical order

Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare (PC, also PS4 and XB1) - I seem to be in a small minority for having quite liked this year's installment of Activision-flavoured spunkgargleweewee. The series seems to continue its "shite game, ok game" annual alternation. Don't get me wrong, it's not great (and the space combat bits are awful), but there is still some fun to be had in this ludicrously overblown sci-fi adventure. I also find something curiously endearing in the way it aims for Battlestar Galactica reboot-style gritty sci-fi but misses the mark and ends up as Space: Above & Beyond high camp.

Darkest Dungeon (PC) - I really enjoyed the opening few hours of this strange semi-roguelike RPG. It does get quite tired quite quickly, particularly due to the degree of randomness involved, but those opening hours basically justify the purchase price.

Far Cry Primal (PC, also PS4 and XB1) - A fun attempt to do something different with the Far Cry formula. The generic Ubisoft underpinnings still shine through a little too strongly, but full marks for effort certainly due here.

Gears of War 4 (PC, also XB1) - I enjoyed the campaign gameplay quite a lot here, as well as those bits of the plot that cast of the old games is present for. The new cast is a hateful bunch of millennial tosspots in need of a damned good lancer-chainsawing, but they don't quite manage to ruin the game.

Homefront: The Revolution (PC, also PS4 and XB1) - Yes, you found the only person in the world who will admit to having quite enjoyed this. Admittedly, I picked it up dirt cheap in a Steam sale, after the worst of the technical issues had been patched. It wasn't great (and the setting, which felt just-about-plausible for the original game, has become ludicrous now), but it offered up a reasonable amount of entertainment.

Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak (PC) - It's been a good year for strategy games, hasn't it? This only just missed out on my top 10. A well designed and well-presented spin-off from the Homeworld series, which manages to look and feel like a Homeworld game despite the shift to land-based combat. The aesthetic is fantastic.

I am Setsuna (PC, also PS4) - Interesting twist on the classic JRPG formula. Quite short and very story-focussed. Could have done with a bit more visual variety, but still an engaging little game.

Megadimension Neptunia V-II (PC, also PS4) - It's not fantastic, of course, but it is much better than Omega Quintet (Compile Heart's first attempt at leaving the PS3 behind). A perfectly good way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Mirror's Edge: Catalyst (PC, also PS4 and XB1) - I agree entirely with those who complain this lost a lot of what was distinctive about the original. But the moment-to-moment gameplay is still generally solid.

Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir (PS4, also Vita) - The best remake of the year and another game which only just missed my top 10. Very much a remake, rather than a remaster, this substantially improves on the original, by reducing the level grind and improving the flow of combat. The story and visuals remain as amazing as ever, many years after this game was first released.

Pokemon Sun and Moon (3DS) - The first Pokemon game I've stuck with for more than a couple of hours since Silver/Gold. Shakes up a rather stale formula just enough to keep things interesting without compromising the core (and iconic) gameplay. Now if only Nintendo could bring the series to a proper console, rather than handhelds.

Ratchet & Clank (PS4) - A fun remake of the very first Ratchet & Clank game. The weapons and gunplay are as fun as ever, although the decision to drop to 30fps was clearly the wrong one.

Senran Kagura: Estival Versus (PS4, also Vita) - A guilty pleasure. Despite the rather dubious trappings, this is actually a really good game. Tightly tuned, well paced brawler gameplay, with surprising depth and an impressive roster of characters with different playstyles. A story mode which wisely lowers the stakes from previous installments, focussing more on comedic escapades with less potential for mood-whiplash. And exploding clothes.

Thumper (PC, also PS4) - Strange, unsettling rhythm game. I've not got a VR headset yet, so I've been playing it on a regular monitor for now. It's a freaky enough experience that way - god only knows what it must be like on VR.

Titanfall 2 (PC, also PS4 and XB1) - Yet another that was a near-miss top 10 contender. The campaign is a lot of fun. Unfortunately, it happened to release in the same year as Doom, which just did a lot of the same things better. Hope this gets a sequel, though. If it can ditch the 2-weapon limits and other Halo conventions and embrace the over-the-top lunacy that it often seems tempted by, it could be truly great.

Tyranny (PC) - The most uncomfortable game of the year - an RPG with no way to be "good", only different shades of evil. A decent game, which builds on the gameplay foundations laid by Pillars of Eternity with better writing and world-building. Still a bit heavy on the big-text-loredumps and maybe a bit short, but still very good.

World of Final Fantasy (PS4, also Vita) - AKA "Final Fantasy does Pokemon". A fun, albeit grindy, lightweight Final Fantasy game, which is a real nostalgia trip for series veterans.

Yomawari: Night Alone (PC, also PS4, Vita) - Incredibly creepy top-down survival horror game. Gets the prize for "best tutorial of the year" by a country mile. Seriously.


Battlefield 1 (PC, also PS4 and XB1) - Yes, I thought this was worse (significantly worse) than CoD: Infinite Warfare. The worst campaign I've played in a long time (oh my god that armoured train level) combined with a terrible attempt at WW1 storytelling, which combines Spielberg-saccharine aesthetics with ahistorical attempts to make WW1 look and feel like WW2. This could have been so much more.

Bravely Second: End Layer (3DS) - The original Bravely Default got a lot of goodwill for being "just like the old Final Fantasy games". That schtick has worn thin now and the sequel just comes over as dull and grindy (like like the old Final Fantasy games). The fact that half the sidequests were butchered to incomprehensibility for the Western release via the worst localisation effort in recent history did not help at all.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (PC, also PS4 and XB1) - A by-the-numbers follow-up to Mankind Divided. The main plot's a mess, the clunking, heavy-handed morality is a million miles from the subtlety of the very first game and the stealth mechanics are often dubious at best. Some well-written sidequests save it from outright disappointment, but it's still not what it should have been.

Mighty No. 9 (PC, also loads of other platforms) - Much hyped advert for the whole Kickstarter thing turns out to be a bit crap. Lifeless visuals, poor level design, cringe-worthy plot and bizarre technical issues. Not fantastic.

Nights of Azure (PS4) - This JRPG looked quite promising pre-release, with an interesting "dark" storyline. Sadly, very poor graphics and dull gameplay frustrate the game's ambitions. The occasional ray of potential shines through, but nothing like enough.

No Man's SKy (PC, also PS4) - One of the most hyped titles of the year, turned into a big pile of "meh". It's not awful and had it been a Steam early-access title for half the price, it would probably have been very well received. As it is, it ended up embarrassing for everybody.

Space Hulk: Deathwing (PC) - This one hurts a bit, because it has so much potential. However, when it slipped out the door just before Christmas, it was in an almost unplayably broken state. Singleplayer functions, but is dull. Multiplayer is effectively unworkable for the moment. Fingers crossed this gets fixed by patches, because the idea of Space Hulk meets Left 4 Dead is an appealing one.

The Division (PC, also PS4 and XB1) - Concentrated mediocrity.

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End (PS4) - So yeah, I'm out of line with the consensus on this one (though that's nothing to what's coming below). Uncharted 4 a boring, over-wrought story, told in a po-faced "look how grown up we are" style, with plodding narrative beats, and a few on-rails sequences of gameplay grundgingly hammered in between them. Also, Nathan Drake and his shite, unfunny "quips" need to be fired into the sun.

The Outright Bad

The Last Guardian (PS4) - If only it had never come out. Like Duke Nukem Forever, this was a game that was great to have hovering as a cloud of "might be great" unreleased vapourware. Once released, it quickly coalesced into an absolute turd, with poor controls, bland visuals, terrible performance, near non-existent gameplay, endless frustrations and a storyline whose "emotional" impact is cheap sentimentality based on children and animals. Kill it with fire.
User Journal

Journal Journal: Games of the Year 2015

Another year, another journal post listing the best, the worst and the indifferent of the games I've played this year. I haven't actually done a count, but my sense is that I've not quite played so many games this year as I have in years past (despite my disposable income levels having rallied substantially from the low-point they hit in 2013). That's partly down to long hours at work and some home-life pressures leaving less time for gaming. It's also down to the fact that games seem to have grown a lot this year; gone are the days when you could blast through a campaign in 6-8 hours. Just as the corridor-shooter came to be the staple of games during the last console generation, this generation's flavour seems to be the 40+ hour open world game.

What this means is that there are a few big releases this year, such as Star Wars Battlefront, Until Dawn and Mad Max, which I just haven't gotten around to playing. I've also probably sampled a smaller portion of the minor releases than I would in the past and have largely skipped the indie-scene entirely (though I don't seem to have missed much). I didn't buy a single Wii-U game over the course of 2015; neither Splatoon nor Mario Maker appealed to me and while the new Fatal Frame looked interesting, poor reviews and the hoops Nintendo make you jump through to purchase it (a tiny, over-priced physical release and a download release which almost entirely fills the Wii-U's storage drive, plus the fact most external passport drives don't work on the Wii-U without supplementary power) meant that I skipped it.

As in previous years, my main gaming platform has been the PC. The consoles are very much only used for exclusives this time around; my sense is that the PS4 had better releases in the first half of the year, while the XB1 had a better Christmas line-up. I've also played a few Vita games; that platform never really came to life, but nor does it show any signs of actually dying any time soon.

On the whole, I think this has been a fairly good year for games. That's not to say there haven't been disappointments, but we are clearly now at the point in a console cycle where the market matures and games get more polished and better developed, as the "shiny new hardware" thrill of the first year wears off. On which note, I both think and hope that this is the last year in which we see continued development for the last-gen consoles. Declining sales numbers for them would suggest that they are dying as serious commercial propositions for most developers and it would be good if games no longer had to be shackled to their obsolete technology. Of particular note this year has been an uptick in high quality Japanese games; Bloodborne and Metal Gear Solid 5 would appear to imply at least some level of recovery for a regional industry that has been some fairly ugly places in recent years.

And so, with no further ado, on with the top-10 countdown:

10) Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance - (PS4) - A return to form for the series after the disappointing Disgaea D2. The essence of the series isn't much changed, but this is slicker, better executed and simply more interesting than the last couple of installments in the series. A lot of previous niggles and frustration around the game's balance and interface have been worked out.

9) Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin - (PC, also PS4, Xbox One, PS3 and 360) - I was skeptical of this, expecting a quick and dirty cash grab. In reality, it is a significantly improved version of Dark Souls 2, which remedies many of the pacing and difficulty curve levels assosicated with the issue, as well as bundling in the well-crafted DLC areas. Definitely the best way to play the game, even before you consider the graphical facelift.

8) Starcraft 2: Legacy of the Void - (PC) - A fitting conclusion to the Starcraft saga. The Protoss campaign delivers some very solid RTS action, even if the Protoss themselves are slightly too close to the "wise old space elves" stereotype to make for really engaging protagonists. Fortunately, Blizzard clearly understood the need to deliver a proper conclusion, shifting away from the Protoss for the final few missions. The difficulty curve can be a bit erratic, but this is still excellent.

7) Forza Motorsport 6 - (Xbox One) - A big improvement on its predecessor, which remains one of the biggest let-downs of the last few years. This is almost, but not quite, a true successor to the magnificent Forza Motorsport 4. My main gripe is the horribly broken Drivatar system, which remains markedly inferior to the old fashioned AI used until Forza 5. That said, this is still an extremely good game, with the inclusion of Formula 1 and Indycar adding a more distinctive end-game.

6) Rise of the Tomb Raider - (Xbox One) - A pretty darned good sequel to the recent franchise reboot, albeit one slightly hindered by awkward input lag (which hopefully will be fixed for next year's PC release). It doesn't quite have the gut-punch impact of the last game's opening sections but is, on average, better paced and balanced, with the focus shifting back towards problem-solving rather than shooting.

5) Pillars of Eternity - (PC) - A deliberate throwback to the days of the early Bioware/Black Isle RPGs, this is an attempt to provide a spiritual successor to the Baldur's Gate games that almost succeeds. It doesn't quite manage to replicate the atmosphere of the classic series, striking a slightly too "grimdark" tone and missing Baldurs Gate's sense of humour which humanised its cast. But it works on every other level, with an excellent combat system, a decent class/skills system and a pleasant, clean interface and art style. A sequel with some slightly better writing talent on board could be something very special.

4) Tales from the Borderlands - (PC, also most other platforms) - Telltale's foray into the Borderlands universe does a substantially better job of capturing the mix of manic energy, madcap humour and sudden pathos that defined Borderlands 2 than last year's rather halting Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. Pacey and well written, this is a really enjoyable little game (even if it does cling very close to the usual Telltale formula in gameplay terms).

3) Bloodborne - (PS4) - It took me a long time to decide whether I loved or hated this game. In fact, I'm still not sure. Compared to the Dark Souls games, it feels narrow and restrictive, with an intolerance of different playstyles. It also suffers from some horrible technical issues, including jarring framerate drops at the worst possible moments. That said, it also has many magnificent features, including world-design that is fantastic in both aesthetic and gameplay senses and a combat system which, while narrow, is also fantastically tightly tuned. The Old Hunters expansion is spectacularly difficult (possibly excessively so even by From Software standards), but adds some fascinating lore and some good environment design.

2) Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain - (PC, also PS4 and XBox One) - There are two ways for a game to achieve greatness. The first way is to hurtle along perpetually on the edge of disaster, but somehow strike a balance and never quite fall off. Metal Gear Solid 5 exemplifies this path. In most respects it is a sublimely good game. Possibly the best stealth mechanics I've ever seen in a game, combined with well-implemented upgrade and base-building mechanics. The plot contains plenty of trademark Kojima lunacy, but wisely keeps it more tightly under control than other games in the series, never allowing it to overtake the gameplay. There are so many times the game could have gone badly wrong; it could have descended into heavy-handed moralising over its setting. It could have failed to subvert the sickly sentimentalism with which it introduces the child soldiers plotline. It could have allowed itself to be buried in the series backstory. But it doesn't and what emerges is magnificent. My only gripe - and it is a serious one - concerns the miserly checkpoint system.

1) The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt - (PC, also PS4 and Xbox One) - The second means for a game to achieve greatness is via icily-constructed perfection. That's the route The Witcher 3 takes. The game is flawless in almost every respect; gameplay, storytelling and technology. It took me almost 80 hours to finish the story (with a handful of sidequests still unresolved) and I didn't regret a moment of it. This is the first time we've really seen the "intimate" storytelling of classic RPGs transposed into an open-world context and it works amazingly well. It will be very hard to go back to clunky morality systems and good/evil mechanics after The Witcher 3's nuanced approach. Plus it actually manages to be both genuinely funny and genuinely scary at times along the way. The best game of the last several years.

And now for the games which were good, but not quite good enough to crack into my top 10, listed in alphabetical order rather than any kind of quality ranking.

Assassin's Creed: Syndicate - (PC, also PS4 and XB1) - Not a fantastic game, but a solid installment in the series after the train-wreck that was Unity. Besides, I think I have a soft-spot for games with a London setting.

Cities: Skylines - (PC) - After Simcity fumbled badly with an underwhelming reboot, Cities: Skylines steps into the breach with a game that feels like a true spiritual successor to the classic series.

Cross Ange: Rondo of Dragon and Angel tr~ - (Vita) - One of the most divisive anime shows of the last few years, but my personal favorite since Madoka Magica. Fortunately, the spin-off game is much less than a rip-off than is usually the case, with some decent 3d shooting action (even if I could only understand maybe a third of the dialogue on this untranslated import). Those crappy Attack on Titan games could learn a lot from this. A Western release would be much appreciated.

Dirt Rally - (PC) - A proper, hardcore rally sim, the likes of which we haven't seen for many years. In some respects, a bit too hardcore for me (I would quite like a rewind button and some easier AI difficulty settings). But it's a game that both demands and earns your respect. The Dark Souls of driving games.

Dying Light - (PC, also PS4 and Xbox One) - Open world zombie games have been rather done to death (pun intended) of late, but this is one of the better examples. Solid visuals and world design make up for an occasionally cumbersome combat system.

Deception 4: The Nightmare Princess - (PS4) - A decent remaster/expansion of the PS3/Vita game, which not only adds new content but also fixes some of the technical issues that plagued the original release.

Final Fantasy Type-0 HD - (PC, also PS4 and Xbox One) - An eccentric but solid entry in the Final Fantasy series, with a storyline that goes some interesting places and a neat combat system. Unfortunately, the game's roots on the PSP do occasionally show through. Note that the console versions have serious problems with motion blur levels and control sensitivity that are fixable in the PC version.

Halo 5: Guardians - (XB1) - I don't like Halo. I don't like the combat, the pacing, the floaty movement, the stupid ammo system or the writing. People who like Halo seem fairly united in disliking Halo 5, because it messes around with all of the aforementioned factors. Surprise surprise, while I wouldn't say I'm in love with it, I do quite like Halo 5.

Higurashi: When they Cry (episodes 1 and 2) - (PC) - The classic visual novel, remastered with new artwork that doesn't make me want to gouge my eyes out. The pace of releases is slower than I would like, but this is worth sticking with.

HyperdimensioN Neptunia U: Action Unleashed - (Vita) - It's basically Senran Kagura with the cast of Hyperdimension Neptunia. And there's nothing at all wrong with that.

Idol Magical Girl Chiru Chiru Michiru - (PC) - Don't ask. In fairness, even though I've never seen the Grisaia anime/visual novel series this is a spin-off from, it made me laugh quite a lot. Bought it on Steam entirely on the basis of its name, but was pleasantly surprised by how entertaining it is.

Just Cause 3 - (PC, also PS4 and XB1) - I've heard a lot of complaints about bugs in this game and one part of me feels I should be marking it down as a result. However, my own experiences with it have been pretty much bug-free, so I won't. It's a fun, but ultimately shallow fast-paced shooter which feels like a blast from the past in many ways. Grows boring if played in long sessions, but excellent as a "quick blast" action game.

Life is Strange - (PC, also PS4 and XB1) - I was wary about this to begin with, because of the comparisons people were making to Gone Home (to my mind, one of the worst "games" ever released). Fortunately, those comparisons are unfair. This is a decent and innovative title, which might have made the top 10 if it hadn't flubbed its ending a bit in the final episode.

Onechanbara Z2 Chaos - (PS4) - Another entry in the burgeoning "two strawberries and a banana gymnastics" genre. While not in the same tier as the likes of Devil May Cry or God of War, the brawler mechanics are pretty well developed and the controls are pleasantly responsive. Combined with a pacey and endearingly nonsensical plot that knows not to outstay its welcome, this gives a surprisingly good little game.

Persona 4: Dancing All Night - (Vita) - A fun little rhythm game that will raise smiles if you've played Persona 4. That said, this particular cast is feeling that they've worn a bit thin now. We desperately need Persona 5.

Prison Architect - (PC) - Spikey, uncomfortable, but fascinating. Not much more I can say about it.

Project Cars - (PC, also PS4 and XB1) - Mixed feelings on this one. The driving physics are fantastic and the weather effects are among the best I've ever seen in a game. Unfortunately, they're coupled to a joyless career mode that gets very dull very fast.

Valkyria Chronicles - (PC) - Part of me would like to put this in the top-10, but given it is just a director's-cut rerelease of an old PS3 game, that doesn't feel quite right. At any rate, this is an excellent port of what was arguably the best game of the last console generation and certainly one of the best games ever made. I was shocked at how well the graphics scaled up from the console original; seen in 4K, this game really is something to behold, despite its age.

And now the disappointments. The games which, while perhaps not outright bad, nevertheless fell badly short of expectations. A slightly shorter list than in previous years; time constraints have meant I have been more active in avoiding games I think I won't like, on the basis of their predecessors or word-of-mouth.

Ar Nosurge: Ode to an Unborn Star - (Vita, also PS3) - Ok, slightly cheaty here; the PS3 release was in 2014 and I missed it. But the Vita release was in 2015 and that's the version I played. I was pretty excited to find out that there was a new game in the Ar Tonelico universe, but they've not made it easy for Westerners to get into. For starters, it is a continuation of a visual novel for mobile phones and the Vita that was only ever released in Japanese. There's a web translation that requires hours to read and is more or less a pre-requisite for this game. But even after getting over that hurdle, this falls slightly flat compared to the Ar Tonelico games. It spends too much time on techno-babble and too little on plot and characters. Plus the combat system is fairly awful. It's not an outright bad game, but it isn't what it should have been.

Batman: Arkham Knight - (PC, also PS4 and XB1) - Even leaving aside the mess of the PC version's launch, I didn't like this much. It's distressing to chart the decline of this series since the phenomenally good Arkham Asylum, as its core strengths get diluted in favour of a generic open-world checklist of features. An over-emphasis on boring vehicle combat and fiddly item-hunt challenges are particular flaws with this game. I remain of the view that the series should have remained true to its Metroidvania roots.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 - (PC, also PS3, PS4, 360 and XB1) - The world's premier spunkgargleweewee series has settled into a pattern over the last few years, with installments alternating between "competent" and "crap". Last year's Advanced Warfare was reasonably competent, so this year's Black Ops 3 is in the "a bit crap" camp. It's not as bad as Ghosts, which will likely set the benchmark for particularly vile spunkgargleweewee for years to come, but it still feels like a step back from Advanced Warfare, in terms of both gameplay and visuals.

Fallout 4 - (PC, also PS4 and Xbox One) - I agonised over this one. It has a few startlingly effective moments. Unfortunately, it's also badly dated, borderline broken and usually not very much fun to play. Floaty combat, trash-mob enemies with immersion-breaking bullet sponge tendancies, dull NPCs, boring party members and a general lack of any kind of human interest all hold this game down. This would have been the best game of the year... in 2010 or so. Standards for open world games have moved on a lot since then and Bethesda don't seem to have kept up with the pack.

Hyperdevotion Noire: Goddess Black Heart - (Vita) - If Neptunia U was the decent spin-off from the series in 2015, this was the disappointing one. It tries to be a Disgaea-style tactics RPG, but its systems just aren't deep enough or sufficiently well-thought-out to sustain the game. As such, it becomes shallow and repetitive very quickly.

Omega Quintet - (PS4) - Compile Heart's first venture onto the PS4 is a let-down, given that they had becoming slowly more proficient with their releases for the PS3, Vita and PC. The cast and plot are entertaining enough, but the gameplay and technology feel like a step back. It's not as bad as the original Hyperdimension Neptunia, but it is nevertheless poor compared to the Vita/PC remakes.

Tales of Zestiria - (PC, also PS3 and PS4) - 2007 called; it wants its JRPG back.

The Order 1886 - (PS4) - A very curious game to see released in early-2015. With its 6-hour campaign, tightly linear levels, sloppy controls, poor checkpointing and halting storyline, it feels like a throwback to the poor quality Gears of War clones that defined the early sections of the 360/PS3 generation. Only a decent visual aesthetic saves it from the "outright bad" camp.

And finally the outright bad games. Or game. I only actually played one of these this year!

Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax - (PS3, also Vita) - A shockingly bad fighting game. The only reason to buy this is because of the cast of well-known anime/light novel characters. Unfortunately, the game isn't even proficient in using its cast properly; they do no more than repeat a handful of catchphrases. As for the game itself; this is an astoundingly lazy arcade port, which can't even be made to fit the screen properly on a normal TV. The controls are stiff and unresponsive, the movesets and characters are unbalanced and the less said about the production values the better. This would have been fairly embarrassing in the late 1990s. In 2015, it looks shocking.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Games of the Year 2014 (and some general musings/rants)

So that's 2014 nearly over - and I found it a pretty interesting year in gaming terms. The first half of the year was pretty slow for games, with the only titles of real note until the early summer being last-generation holdouts which had missed the boat on the PS4 and Xbox One. But things picked up once the summer arrived, with some extremely good titles in the second half of the year. For me, there were three big points of interest about gaming in 2014.

First, this was the year that AAA gaming got smart and indie gaming got dumb. Yeah, that's a pretty sweeping pair of statements (and I'm sure you can find plenty of exceptions), but I think the story more or less holds up. For quite a few years now, the complaint has been that AAA games were stale, formulaic and dumbed-down to appeal to the lowest common denominator. I've never quite bought that story (not every AAA game is Call of Duty), but even if there was a touch of truth to it, 2014 is the year that it went away. We've seen a lot of innovative and risky AAA titles this year; games which seek to challenge as much as they do to please. At the same time, indie gaming really does seem to have fallen into a rut. The number of "retro style pseudo-8-bit roguelikes" on the Steam store is really starting to take the piss now; so many of these games are cut from the same template and trying to prove themselves different - in exactly the same way. There have also been some outright howlers, such as Gone Home and Depression Quest, which sought to "redefine our understanding of games" or whatever, but which those of us who aren't intellectually insecure hipsters can admit weren't actually very good. Oh, and then there was Gamergate. If there's one aspect of that whole sorry saga (from which nobody emerged well) that didn't get reported widely, it was that the whole shitstorm- in-a-teacup originated in the indie gaming scene and largely stayed there. Most AAA developers quite sensibly either said nothing or put out carefully worded statements distancing themselves from the whole thing (the only sensible thing to do).

Second, the next-gen consoles have yet to prove what they are actually for. I own a PS4, an Xbox One and a Wii-U but, to be quite honest, I'm still not 100% sure why. Don't get me wrong, the PS4 and Xb-One are nice enough machines and, as games consoles (but definitely not yet as media players) they are a big step up on their predecessors. But with almost all multi-platform games coming out on PC these days (and PC versions almost inevitably being technically superior), it's hard to justify buying an (often much more expensive) console version. Single-platform exclusives have become few and far between and some of those have underwhelmed. And then there's the Wii-U, which must now surely be dead in every meaningful sense of the word. Never a great console to begin with, its releases have slowed to a crawl of almost entirely single-style platform-exclusives (fine if you like said style, not so fine if you don't - and I don't). Bayonetta 2 is fun, sure, but one game cannot justify a platform's existence. I think I've done a much larger proportion of my gaming on PC in 2014 than in any year since 2001 (the year I first got a console and became a multi-platform gamer).

And third, the industry really needs to get serious about quality assurance for big releases. It's not unusual to have one or two big releases in any given year which are horribly buggy at launch - but in 2014 it has been far more than one or two major titles which have ranged from the "unpleasant to play" to the "downright unplayable" at launch. Some of the games in question have been patched and have gone on to be very good - but that doesn't justify unfinished products being pushed out the door. It can't be coincidence that many of these games came out in the pre-Christmas rush. Yet another sign that the annual death march to get games released in that holiday window does nobody (developers, publishers or customers) any favours at all.

Anyway, with that out of the way, on to my top 10 games of 2014 (excluding remakes, ports, expansions and DLCs), in descending order:

10) Bayonetta 2 - (Wii-U) - The only game on the Wii-U that I've actually liked this year. It's basically more of the same from the first game, but that's no bad thing at all. Stylish, fast-paced precision brawling, with a decent upgrade system and lots of optional stuff to do along the way. Could do without the irritating kid, though. Would be interesting to see what this would have looked like on more capable hardware, though as the game wouldn't have happened without Nintendo's cash, I guess we can't complain.

9) South Park - The Stick of Truth - - (PC, also 360 and PS3) I confess I hadn't realised that South Park was still airing. I used to love the show - about a decade ago - but fell out of the habit of watching it. So this was a pleasant surprise. A remarkably well-done semi-open-world RPG, whose humour is far more "hit" than "miss". Gave me possibly the only boss battle ever which I've had to pause because I was laughing too hard to play. It's short for an RPG, probably because the developers knew that their gameplay mechanics weren't deep enough to support a longer game, but nevertheless provides good value for money.

8) Danganronpa - Trigger Happy Havoc - - (Vita) I'm not normally the biggest fan of visual novels, but this strange game nevertheless kept me glued to the Vita's screen for longer than anything else bar Persona 4 has managed. It's not even quite a proper visual novel. You spend a lot of time walking around in 3d-exploration mode and some of the key conversations depend as much on rhythm game mechanics as on dialogue choices. There's nothing else really like it (other than its sequel, I guess, which I own but haven't played yet).

7) Far Cry 4 - (PC, also PS4, Xb-One, PS3 and 360) - Basically Far Cry 3 done a bit better in every respect. Intelligent open-world shooter which looks and feels right in so many respects. The over-the-top animal life makes for much hilarity. Plot strikes an interesting balance between "thoughtful", "uncomfortable" and "YAY EXPLOSIONS". Some have reported stuttering issues with the PC version, but I seem to have dodged them.

6) Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor - - (PC, also PS4 and Xb-One, with greatly diminished versions on PS3 and 360) - One of those risky, intelligent AAA games I was talking about above. A smart, well executed open-world game that takes on Assassin's Creed on its own turf and kicks its arse (having combat that isn't a painful chore helps immensely). Widely dismissed as a gimmick when first announced, the Nemesis System really is a game-changer, which does a fantastic job of putting a human (well, orcish) face onto procedural content. Also the game that convinced me to upgrade my graphics card - the visuals are seriously impressive if you have the hardware to do it justice.

5) Forza Horizon 2 - (Xb-One) - Goes a long way to restore the reputation of the Forza brand after the disappointing (though eventually patched to the point of bearability) Forza 5. Beautifully put together open-world driving game, which wisely pares back the dudebro trimmings of its predecessor in favour of a purer driving experience. I've slightly mixed feelings about the off-road races (which feel less polished than the on-road equivalents), but overall, this is pretty awesome.

4) Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns - (PS3, also 360 and PC soon) - Ok, this one is going to need a bit of explanation. See, Final Fantasy XIII was a pretty bad game. The gameplay was shallow and repetitive, the characters were thin and, after a promising start, the story wrote itself into a corner and ended up being resolved with a cheap and cheaty deus ex machina. Final Fantasy XIII-2 was somewhat better. The plot was still mostly incomprehensible and the characters were still shallow (though at least a bit more upbeat), but there was some semblance of gameplay this time. And then Lightning Returns comes along.

Lightning Returns is a very different beast to its predecessors; as much action/adventure game as RPG (Dark Souls features heavily in its inspirations), and with the entire game subject to a constantly-ticking countdown clock to the end of the world (and the game). If there's one big problem with Lightning Returns, it is that you really do need to have played both of its predecessors (the first of which is a chore). Other than that, I found this a really powerful game that left a strong impression on me. The characters suffer slightly from being imported from those predecessors, but they're only really there as foils for the plot and themes anyway.

Because what Lightning Returns really wants to do is provide an outside perspective and commentary on fundamentalist Christian salvation theology. This is the Book of Revelations with chocobos (or the Left Behind series for non-Christians), where Lightning (as a thinly-veiled Christ-figure, very much bringing not peace but the sword) returns to a dying world in its final days to lead souls to salvation, acting ostensibly in accordance with the will of an Abrahamic god who combines all the harshest elements of the Old and New Testament versions. It's very much the outside view and has some wild tonal inconsistencies - you can dress your Jesus-substitute up as a bikini-clad catgirl if you want - but it is smart and does work in a curiously powerful way. Not necessarily and easy or fun game to play (the ticking clock makes it intensely stressful), but definitely one of the most striking of the year.

3) Dragon Age: Inquisition - (PC, also PS4, PS3, Xb-One and 360) - Feels a bit risky putting a Bioware game that I haven't actually finished yet at number 3, after the clusterfuck that was the Mass Effect 3 ending, but I'm at around the 20 hour point and the game has already done enough to earn its spot. Effectively a grand apology for Dragon Age 2, this is a vast, deep and sprawling game. With its large wilderness areas and well-hidden sidequests, it feels somewhat like a hybrid of World of Warcraft with the original Baldur's Gate. Bioware definitely seem to be back on form.

2) Wolfenstein: The New Order - (PC, also PS4, PS3, Xb-One and 360) - After the really disappointing reboot a few years ago, I had low expectations for this. Fortunately, it defied them and is one of my favorite games of the year. Very much a traditional (and intelligent) shooter, with non-linear maps, no regenerating health or two-weapon limits and actual tactical decisions to make, this is a fantastic antidote to years of bland, generic spunkgargleweewee. The plot is also much better than I'd expected - don't expect Schindler's List so much as Inglorious Bastards - and manages to go some uncomfortable places without ever feeling either po-faced or crass.

1) Alien: Isolation - (PC, also PS4, PS3, XB-One and 360) - Despite many other very good games this year, this was the only real candidate for my top pick. For many years, mainstream survival horror games have become more and more action focussed; Resident Evil became a shooter series, Dead Space was always a shooter series to begin with and only the low-budget indie sector was producing actually scary games (and having to do so on a shoestring). Isolation takes smart survival horror, in which the player is a perpetually frightened and disempowered entity, and throws a huge budget at it, with spectacular results. This isn't a game that's been designed to go down the easy route to audience-pleasing; it's brutally difficult, requires constant thought and planning ahead and viciously punishes almost every "normal" fps behaviour. It's also, largely thanks to the amazing AI powering the alien (as well as the visual designs which emphasise the alien's sheer physical power and horror) an intensely scary game. Just as South Park was the first game I've ever had to pause because I was laughing too hard to play, so Alien: Isolation is the first game I've ever had to take a 30 minute break from because I was too scared to press on. And to top it all off, rather than putting together a simple 6 hour campaign and being content to run quickly through a bag of tricks without outstaying its welcome, the game actually includes a massive and well-plotted 15-ish hour campaign, which can be extended further through Metroidvania-style exploration. Astounding stuff.

And now, in alphabetical order, the games I liked this year but which, for one reason or another, don't make the cut for the top 10:

Akiba's Trip - Undead and Undressed - (PS4, also PS3 and Vita) - Oh dear, the game that puts the "guilty" in "guilty pleasure". Technically, it's a complete mess; areas can be run across in just a few seconds, with interminable loading screens between them, the graphics would just about have passed muster in a PS2 launch title and the less said about the animation the better. I did triy the PS3 version, but it's unplayable due to NPC pop-in issues that make fighting quest NPCs a nightmare and framerates that drop to low single figures during combat. The PS4 version remedies these issues, though not some of the lesser ones (and is still butt-ugly). Get past those, however - and past the fact that this is a game about pulling peoples' clothes off in public and the game becomes curiously likeable. Its rendition of Tokyo's Akiba district is painstakingly detailed and feels like a real labour of love, the dialogue can be hilarious in places (thanks in part to a fantastic English translation) and even the combat system is deeper than it first appears.

Among the Sleep - (PC) In a generally poor year for indie gaming, this stood out as one of the few bright spots for me. Short but well-put together psychological horror game, with a unique perspective-character. Charming and scary in equal measures.

Atelier Escha and Logy - (PS3) - This series is basically a big JRPG comfort blanket; cute, upbeat, slightly grindy, never too taxing. The latest installment neither disappoints nor pushes the envelope particularly. Its anime adaptation was better than expected to boot.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare - (PC, also PS4, PS3, XB-One and 360) - This year's crop of spunkgargleweewee is one of the better vintages. That said, after Ghosts, even a blank screen would have been an improvement. Still, Advanced Warfare benefits from having some fairly snazzy technology under the hood, as well as a focus on faster-paced free-flowing gunplay, at the expense of the cover-based mechanics that usually dominate the series. The story is a pile of arse on a stick as usual, but is at least less offensive than some other installments in the series.

Civilisation: Beyond Earth - (PC) Atmospheric (though ultimately perhaps slightly short-lived) "sequel" to Civilisation V. Makes an enjoyable change of pace from its predecessor, though the mechanics start to get a bit thin rather faster than I would have liked.

Dark Souls 2 - (PC, also 360 and PS3, PS4 and XB-One coming next year) - Ooooh, so conflicted. Almost put this in the "disappointing category". It's not a patch on the first Dark Souls. For the most part, it is content to be a simple (and slightly flat) retread of its predecessor. Where it does depart from the older formula, for example through its health penatly on death, all of its changes are for the worst. In addition, the best content is locked away in paid DLCs, which is a pretty shitty practice. On the other hand, it is still miles better than most other games.

Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls - (PC, also PS4, PS3, XB-One and 360) - I played Diablo 3 at launch (in the rare intervals where I could connect to battle.net) and really didn't like it. I did a playthrough of the campaign and then stopped. Coming back to the game for its expansion, I was gobsmacked by just how much it has been improved since then. The loot system works now. There is an actual end-game now. A totally different, and much better experience. Plus the expansion content is good as well.

Divinity: Original Sin - (PC) - I'm still not all that far into this, because to be honest, I find it a bit intimidating. Still, it's an amazingly well put together traditional RPG, in the mould of Ultima VII and the original Baldur's Gate. More games like this would be no bad thing.

Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD - (PS3 and Vita, PS4 coming next year) - Remastered version of one of my favorite installments in the Final Fantasy series, plus the generally- underrated Final Fantasy X-2. Not much more to say about it, really.

Goat Simulator - (PC) - Because who doesn't want to be a goat and run around messing shit up?

Halo - The Master Chief Collection - (XB-One) - Another one I'm conflicted on. Historically, I don't much like the Halo series. In fact, I hold it directly responsible for some appalling tropes that ruined fpses for the better part of a decade (2 weapon limits, regenerating health, checkpoint-only saves). However, there's no denying that this is an interesting package and a well presented slice of gaming history. I gather it has some issues with its online modes, but the chances of me playing a Halo game online are only slightly higher than those of me playing a Call of Duty online (ie. practically non-existant).

Hatsune Miku: Project Diva F Second - (PS3, also Vita) - Highly polished, immensely difficult but surprisingly deep rhythm game. Probably represents the state of the art within its genre outside of the arcades at the moment. To be honest, it's kinda worth playing just for the fact they use Ievan Polkka for the tutorial song.

Hyperdimension Neptunia: Rebirth - (Vita) Possibly the worst game released for the PS3 gets totally remade into a... fairly good Vita RPG. Seriously, the improvement is shocking. It does help that the TV series actually got me to like the characters.

Infamous: Second Son - (PS4) - I might be going a bit soft on this - there's no denying it had some serious flaws. It was also, however, something passable to play on the PS4 during what has, frankly, been a slow year for the console as far as I'm concerned (most of its best games also being on PC).

Lords of the Fallen - (PC, also PS4 and XB-One) - A fairly mechanical attempt at making a Dark Souls contender, which slightly misses the whole point in a number of ways and falls short of both Dark Souls and its (inferior) sequel. It is still, however, a decent and generously-sized game, which goes some interesting places with its visuals. Wins a secondary award for "most irritating use of AlienFX lighting" this year, after making my study look briefly like an 80s themed discotheque.

Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare - (XB-One, also PC and PS4) - I don't often play online shooters these days, but this one is curiously relaxing to play. Cute, cheerful and charming, with some surprisingly robust mechanics underpinning it.

Senran Kagura: Bon Appetit - (Vita) - The best Strip Cooking-Battle Rhythm Game I've played this year.

Sunset Overdrive - (PS4) - Self-consciously silly open-world action game. In some ways, quite run of the mill, but with Insomniac at the helm, it was always going to contain some ludicrous weapons to make the gunplay stupidly enjoyable. Delivers on that front and made me chuckle once or twice as well.

Tales from the Borderlands - (PC) - A cautious recommendation, as only the first episode is available so far. However, said episode appears to nail the tone and feel of the Borderlands universe pretty much perfectly - better, in fact, than 2k Australia's "Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel" (see below).

Theatrhythm: Curtain Call - (3DS) - Definitive version of the rather-spiffy Final Fantasy music game. It's like the previous version but better. Not much else to say, really. Amusingly, when I bought this in Game (the UK's largest specialist games-retailer), a staff member called security on me and accused me of sticking a false discount sticker on the box. Happily, security had the sense to check some of the other boxes. But... Customer Service Ho!

The Banner Saga - (PC) - The other indie bright-spot of the year. Wonderfully atmospheric (and occasionally punishingly hard) norse themed game. Gets a bit grindy in the later stages and I must object to the name. Everybody knows that "saga" refers to candy-matching games, not to vikings and giants and shit.

The Last of Us (Remastered) - (PS4) - I didn't like the PS3 version. In fact, I found it nigh on unplayable, due to its catastrophic levels of input lag. The PS4 version almost entirely fixes that and maintains the framerate at a silky 60fps, meaning that I could finally enjoy the game as it was intended. And yes, it's very good. I still don't quite find it the masterpiece that some people seemed to, but I did really enjoy this version.

Valkyria Chronicles - (PC) - Thank GOD this got a PC release. Of all the games of the PS3 generation that need to be preserved for posterity, this ranks top of the list. It's probably the best game ever released on the PS3 and now it's available on PC. And the port is actually pretty decent as well!

Xenonauts - (PC) - I played this through early access, but it had its 1.0 release this year. It's basically a rebuild of the original X-Com on modern technology. It improves the UI and adds higher resolution graphics and a few small pieces of streamlining, but at heart, it is the old X-Com, warts and all. Interesting counterpoint to the (excellent) Firaxis re-imagining.

And now the disappointments; the games which were either poor, or which might have been quite good but nevertheless fell far short of expectations:

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel - (PC, also PS3 and 360) - Sits alongside Dark Souls 2 in the camp of "disappointing follow-ups to my previous games of the year", eccept this one is worse.. Basically feels like an expansion pack for Borderlands 2. Except it's full price. And some of the level design is really, really bad. And the new NPCs don't particularly shine. And none of the new playable characters seem to be adding all that much. And it's buggy as hell.

Destiny - (PS4, also XB-One, PS3 and 360) - The supposed saviour of console gaming turns out to be... a flat, dull and soulless fps/rpg hybrid, which does a really bad job of incorporating basic MMO mechanics. At heart, the game is basically an always-online version of Borderlands 2 - only with less humour, worse area and mission design and weaker gunplay.

Hyperdimension Neptunia: Producing Perfection - (Vita) - We finally get an idol game in the West, but it turns out that its game mechanics are so pared back that it's basically little more than a visual novel. Disappointing - I had curiously high hopes for this one. Can we have a Western release for IM@S2 now please?

Mario Kart 8 - (Wii-U) - Slightly better than Mario Kart Wii, which I hated, but doesn't solve the problem of having just too many racers and too many weapons on the track at the same time. Driving and skill once again take a back-seat to the slot-machine rolls on weapons.

Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment - (Vita) - The immensely popular and sometimes-entertaining anime series gets turned into a fairly sloppy by-the-numbers action RPG. Could have been so much better, but crippled by a lack of ambition around its gameplay and plot.

Super Smash Brothers - (Wii-U, also 3DS) - Takes away the story mode (by far my favorite part of Brawl) and crams too many characters onto the screen at a single time. Brawl was my favorite first-party game on the Wii. This, on the other hand, is just disappointing.

The Evil Within - (PC, also PS4 and XB-One) - Given its pedigree, this should have been much better. The opening level is promising, but the game quickly becomes "just another slightly dark action game". Had the horrible misfortune to launch almost simultaneous with Alien: Isolation.

And now for the obligatory bad games. Just two this year, thankfully - from very different ends of the commercial spectrum:

Gone Home - (PC) - I'm not going to try and argue it isn't a game. Rather, I'm just going to state that it's a very, very bad game. Walk around an empty house uncovering tedious domestic drama. Get undergraduate-level identity politics rammed down your throat. The entirely irrelevant and unnecessary survival horror trappings kept me hoping that maybe Pyramid Head was about to jump out and start cutting shit up, or that maybe the alien would drop down from the ceiling and do the whole face bitey thing. Even that zombie shark from the first Resident Evil would have done nicely. But no, it's just a very, very dull walking simulator. It's not big, it's not clever, it's just annoying. Please go away.

Watch;Dogs - (PC, also PS4, PS3, XB-One and 360) - A total mess of a game. Barely playable through the thick layer of technical glitches and bugs (I gather Assassin's Creed Unity was the same, but I'm not spending money on that). Even when it does work, it hardly seems worth it. The plot is nonsensical and it has the least interesting open world ever created. The sad thing is, there are one or two moments during the actual story missions when you can see glimpses of a better game, buried deep and struggling to get out. A smaller, more linear mission based game, with development resources diverted onto resolving technical issues and getting the whole thing to actually make sense, might have been pretty good. As it is, this is just a catastrophe.
User Journal

Journal Journal: Reflections on the last generation's console games

We're now at the point, I think, where the Playstation 4 and Xbox One have ceased to be "next generation" consoles and become "current generation". Their predecessors aren't quite ready for retirement yet; the PS3, in particular, has a fairly impressive line-up of releases over the next few months, running all the way to Persona 5 early next year. But those late releases (and we did see a similar long-tail for the PS2 last time around) are outliers now; a by-product of the risk aversion which, following the terrible launches of the PS Vita and Wii-U, saw much of the industry assume that the PS4 and XB1 would fail even before their launches. With both consoles selling at an unprecedented rate, the focus of the industry will inevitably switch towards them.

And about time too. The previous console generation was the longest on record. If you take the longest possible metric - the launch of the Xbox 360 (Nov 2005) to the launch of the PS4 and XB1 (Nov 2013) - it was 8 years. Even if you say that the previous generation only really began properly with the launch of the PS3 (Nov 2006) it was 7 years.

But this isn't a post about the state of the console business. Rather, it's a reflection on some of the more curious aspects of the games lineup of the last-gen consoles. More specifically, it's a reflection on two particular aspects of those games; the newcomers that came out of nowhere and the no-shows.

Some of the major console gaming franchises behaved more or less as you would expect them to during the last generation. Stalwart series such as Final Fantasy, Gran Turismo, Mario, Zelda, Halo, Grand Theft Auto, Resident Evil and God of War all put out major new installments in accordance with their developers' normal timescales (perhaps ever so slightly slower, reflecting the increasing development times needed for games). But a curiously large proportion of the biggest franchises in console gaming right now hadn't even been heard of (outside, perhaps, of the odd preview event) when the Xbox 360 first launched. The other curious category are those franchises which felt like major fixtures of the industry during the previous generation, which inexplicably failed to show up at all for the PS3, 360 or Wii.

The new entrants

Assassin's Creed - There have, to date, been six major installments in the Assassin's Creed series, plus a couple of handheld spin-offs and home-console ports of those console spin-offs. The sixth installment, as well as being released for the last-gen consoles (and PC, of course) was also a launch-window title for the PS4 and XB1. There is probably no franchise that has been milked more relentlessly over the course of the last console generation than this one. But it's easy to forget that this was a franchise that was born on that generation and which had a difficult genesis. An early-cycle game for the PS3 (Nov 2007), the original Assassin's Creed was an odd, awkward stealth game, noted at the time chiefly for its repetitive side-missions and finger-sprainingly awkward controls. It was only with the second game (November 2009), marketed more heavily and with the emphasis shifted towards open-world exploration, that the series gained a genuinely mainstream profile. Since then, the games have come at a rate of around one per year.

Dead Rising - Less prolific than Assassin's Creed in terms of main games, but nevertheless a franchise which, counting spin-offs and major DLC packs, has seen a large number of installments. The series has a curious on-off flirtation with Microsoft exclusivity. The first game, launching mid-2006, was a very early-cycle 360 exclusive. Its vast hordes of zombies served as a useful technological showcase for the new console's capabilities. The second game shed its exclusivity, releasing for PC, PS3 and 360. The third main installment in the series is an XB1 launch exclusive where - quel surprise - its vast hordes of zombies serve as a useful technological showcase for the new console's capabilities. Most people I know who've played this series have a love/hate relationship with it. They love the concept and the slightly surreal sense of humour, but hate many of the gameplay conventions (particularly the save-restrictions and the brutally unforgiving difficulty curve and time-limits).

Dead Space - Now here's a series that tends to divide opinion. It has seen three main installments over the last console generation (each releasing on PC, PS3 and 360), a lightgun rail-shooter for the Wii-U and PS3 (where it remains one of the few things worth buying a PS Move for) and a couple of dreadful downloadable puzzle games. The first game was criticised for being less horror-oriented than advertised and being at heart an action game. The second game was criticised for being less horror-oriented than advertised and being at heart an action game. The third game was criticised for being less horror-oriented than the first two installments and being at heart an action game. If you sense a pattern there, it's because the series has never really been what a lot of people wanted it to be, but memories of the older installments tend to mellow over time. The third game was also hamstrung by a pointless pay-to-win controversy (the microtransactions weren't even vaguely necessary to play the game, but put a lot of people off regardless) and allegedly suffered disappointing sales. The future of the series is uncertain at present (unlike most of the others I'm listing under this category).

Gears of War - An iconic Microsoft exclusive, every bit as linked to their platforms as Halo. This went through four major installments over the course of the last generation (though many people, self included, apparently skipped the final one - a prequel generally felt to be unnecessary). The original game, launched in November 2007, around a year after the launch of the 360, was graphically jaw-dropping compared to other console games available at the time. It's also easy to forget now just how many gameplay conventions that dominate modern shooters were pioneered by Gears of War. The cover mechanic - far more sophisciated than anything that has come before it - and the use of a single generic "action" button for many commands - have both inspired a generation of rip-offs (some of which, in fairness, have been quite good - such as Binary Domain). Some people object to the series's hypermasculine aesthetic, but I've always suspected a strong touch of parody to it.

Hyperdimension Neptunia - Oh I have such a love/hate relationship with this series. The first game, a mid-cycle PS3 exclusive launching in 2010, deserves to be counted as among the worst games of its generation. Pushing graphics that would have disgraced a PS1 game on at framerates that were generally in the single-figures and possessed of a fundamentally broken battle system, a non-existent plot and humour that failed to work on every level, it was utterly terrible. Inexplicably, it got a sequel. And the sequel was a bit better. And then it got another sequel, which was significantly better. And then it got an anime-spinoff, which was genuinely amusing and actually pretty good in a braindead sort of way. And then it started getting hand-held spinoffs and remakes. And, for some reason, I keep buying them. And horribly, with the exception of the first game, I actually quite enjoy them. Yeah...

Mass Effect - Originally a 360 exclusive, this was one of the most exciting early-cycle titles. A swashbuckling sci-fi adventure from Bioware, based on their own IP, it was always inevitable that sequels would follow. A confident, ethically nuanced second game boded well. But then the third game happened. With its combination of clunky exposition, magical deus ex machinas and probably the worst ending ever written, it did a lot of harm to the franchise's reputation. A fourth game is apparently in development, but details are sparse.

Modern Warfare - Ok, ok, Call of Duty as a franchise predates this console generation. The inexplicably popular PC original (a dumbed down version of Medal of Honour) dates from 2003 and the second game in the series was a 360 launch-title in 2005. However, the Call of Duty we are burdened with today, which has had more installments than should exist in a sane world essentially traces its origins to 2007's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Now Call of Duty 4 was an excellent game. Early modern-era-setting shooters had either been ludicrous cartoony affairs (Soldier of Fortune) or dry, dusty technical jobs (SWAT, anything Tom Clancy branded). Call of Duty 4, by contrast, was slickly produced, fast paced and had a plot which managed to walk a careful line between the requirements of taste and excitement. That it had some of the cleanest, sharpest shooter mechanics around also didn't hurt. Almost immediately, the series began to descent into accidental self-parody with its sequels and inspired a staggering number of hateful spunkgargleweewee rip-offs (the rebooted Medal of Honour series possibly the worst offenders). I had hoped that Spec Ops: The Line, an excellent and thoughtful deconstruction of the genre might kill it off, but sadly that hasn't happened. There are some signs that the cow might have been over-milked - last year's Call of Duty: Ghosts - had generally poor reviews and managed only staggering - rather than stupendous - sales. But this is one series that's not going anywhere soon. As much as we might like it to.

Resistance - The original Resistance: Fall of Man was a PS3 launch title and was, for a long time, the only thing worth playing on the system. A strange but wonderful game, combining a somber tone and setting with some of the most inventive weapon and enemy designs ever seen in a shooter. Its sequel took a more cautious approach, borrowing hateful 2-weapon limits and regeneration health from Halo. The third installment, however, went back to its roots and remains, to my mind, the best console shooter of the last generation. After a poorly-received Vita port, the future of the series is unclear. Sadly, it never seems to have had the same kind of traction as the Killzone series, despite Killzone being far duller to play and having a loathesome setting and chatacters.

Souls - By which I mean Demon's Souls, Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2. When Demon's Souls launched in 2009, it attracted very little notice (a belated US release and a very belated European release didn't help). An odd - and extremely difficult - dark third person action RPG, it was well outside the spectrum of what people expected to see coming out of Japan. However, it got a cult following and managed to get a sequel. And somehow that sequel managed to get some proper marketing behind it - and went on to become one of the best games - and most unexpected successes - of its generation, inspiring another sequel in the process.

Uncharted - Launching in late 2007, the first Uncharted game was an early-cycle PS3 exclusive, arriving at a time when the platform was desperately starved for games. Inspired by Tomb Raider, it combined combat with environmental puzzles and exploration. While the original game was a fairly low-key release, the marketing machine swung into overdrive for its sequels. These abandoned much of the exploration and problem-solving gameplay of the original, becoming pretty-but-shallow corridor-shooters. A spinoff for the Vita Launch brought the series back in a more thoughtful direction. The jury is still out on which direction future installments might take.

The Nearly But Not Quites - For all the successful new mega-franchises that came out of the last generation, there were also a few clear attempts to launch new brands that never quite worked out. In some cases, this was due to insufficient quality (such as The Force Unleashed, which crashed and burned after its second game, taking quality Star Wars game development with it). In other cases, however, genuinely exciting games never managed the sales they deserved and promising franchises died stillborn. Bulletstorm and Vanquish both deserved sequels they never got. Perhaps the biggest crime was Sega's treatment of Valkyria Chronicles. The original - a mid-cycle PS3 exclusive, remains, for my money, the best game of its console generation. However, it had no marketing push and when it managed only "ok" sales, Sega shunted its sequels onto the PSP - a platform which was, by that time, dead outside of Japan. Indeed, "death by handheld" has been a consistent feature of Japanese gaming over the course of the last generation, which brings me neatly onto...

The No-Shows

Kingdom Hearts - Kingdom Hearts 2 was one of the last really big releases for the PS2. Launching in the window when the PS3 hype-machine was already activated, it nevertheless managed strong sales. Putting out what were probably the finest graphics ever seen on the PS2 and with finely honed action-RPG gameplay (no Zelda game has ever held a candle to Kingdom Hearts 2) it felt like a confident installment in a strong and growing franchise. A franchise which has - since then - been entirely unrepresented on the home consoles until a couple of HD-remakes came out last year. There have been handheld games. Oh, there have been so many handheld games. But they've not moved the series's main plot forward at all (instead, they've just further complicated its already ludicrous backstory) and none of them have been a patch on the ambition or quality of Kingdom Hearts 2. There is talk, now, of Kingdom Hearts 3 being in the early stages of development - but our only clue as to a release date is "2016 at the earliest, probably later.

Shin Megami Tensei - This is a series which is, in effect, an umbrella under which a number of other series sit. In the PS2 days, those all co-existed on the same platform. For the most part, they were niche-titles, but then Persona 3, a late-cycle PS2 game, found genuine mainstream success with its blend of dungeon crawling and relationship building. Persona 4, an ultra-late-cycle game that was arguably the last release for the PS2 actually worth playing, managed to better its predecessor. The future for the series looked bright on the home consoles. But since then, nothing but handheld titles - mostly for the DS, indeed - as Atlus took fright at PS3 development costs and ran screaming to a handheld comfort zone. A very solid remake of Persona 4 remains arguably the best reason to own a Vita (a much under-appreciated platform), but it's still just a remake. Persona 5 is, of course, now announced and will be coming out next year - for the PS3. Atlus therefore look set to avoid a complete no-show on that generation - but only by arriving after everybody else had already moved on.

Starfox - You'd have thought that the Wiimote's IR-pointer and motion sensing would have made it a good fit for Starfox's rail-shooting action. Nintendo, for whatever reason, seems to disagree. In fairness, they also abused this franchise horribly on the Gamecube, where of its two installments, one was a shitty third-person platformer and the other was a shitty third-person platformer with a couple of great but blink-and-you-miss-them rail-shooter levels.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic - The original game, during its window as an Xbox exclusive (a PC release eventually followed) was instrumental in building the Xbox's credibility and Microsoft's marketshare. This is the game I bought my Xbox to play - and I wasn't alone. A reasonably good (if buggy) sequel followed and further installments felt, at the start of the generation, almost inevitable. Since then, of course, Bioware moved on to work on its own IP (Mass Effect and Dragon Age) and then went down a disastrous Rabbit Hole with Star Wars: The Old Republic. Now, you could argue that The Old Republic is, despite being a MMORPG, KOTOR3. However, it's a PC exclusive and hence doesn't count for these purposes. With Star Wars game development now in the hands of EA, a high quality new KOTOR now feels a remote prospect; expect more microtransaction laden mobile games instead.
User Journal

Journal Journal: Games of the year 2013 1

And it's that time of year again...

I haven't actually played quite as many games this year; busy time at work and the financial constraints imposed by a brand new mortgage. I also don't yet own an XBOne (may pick one up in the new year) and while I do own a PS4, I haven't had it for long enough to do much with it, thanks to delivery delays. So my listings this year may be a little less comprehensive than they have been in the past.

The big trend this year has been an almost total cessation of use of my 360. While, for most of the cycle, this has been my main gaming platform, it has felt pretty much dead this year. I've spent almost all of my time on the PC, with a few detours over to the PS3 for some late exclusives that landed there. The Vita has also had substantially more use this year than last. Anyway, let's start with the top 10.

10) Killzone: Mercenary (Vita) - I've never liked the Killzone series much, so this was a bit of a shock. Not only is it a genuinely good Vita fps, it's also a genuinely good fps, with a well put together campaign and decent, flowing shooter mechanics. Hopefully we'll see more Vita games of this callibre in 2014.

9) Crysis 3 (PC, also 360 and PS3) - Still not a patch on the original Crysis in gameplay terms, but much better than the second game (and one hell of a tech demo on the PC). A few more open sections near the end of the game hint at the more ambitious game that could have been.

8) Metro: Last Light (PC, also 360 and PS3) - Tense and atmospheric first person shooter with some role playing games. Has a notably low-key approach to storytelling that makes a pleasant contrast with the usual more bombastic offerings in the genre.

7) Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm (PC) - Apparently some people play this for the multiplayer. I don't - but it doesn't matter for me as the main campaign was excellent, with plenty of replay value and lots of nice new additions over Wings of Liberty.

6) Bioshock Infinite (PC, also 360 and PS3) - Solid and thought provoking shooter, albeit one that isn't quite as clever as it thinks it is. Has perhaps the most striking visual aesthetic of any game this year. Might have done better if it didn't try to cram in quite so many different themes within a single game.

5) Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (PS3) - One of those late exclusives that kept the PS3 alive this year. Wonderfully put together (and very traditional JRPG), showing that there's life still left in the genre on the home consoles. Would have placed higher on the list if it wasn't quite so grindy.

4) Tomb Raider (PC, also 360 and PS3) - A startlingly good reboot of a franchise that many (including me!) had given up on years ago. I'm happy for them to give the franchise another milking, provided they can maintain this quality.

3) XCom: Enemy Within (PC, also 360 and PS3) - Ridiculously comprehensive expansion for last year's successful XCom reboot. Even after several playthroughs, I'm still finding new bits and pieces that were added.

2) Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (PC, also PS3) - I can't believe they actually did this. FF14 was, when it first launched, so utterly and horribly broken that I thought it was beyond redemption. However, I guess the prospect of a "failed" main-series Final Fantasy game was more than Square-Enix could stomach, because they've invested a vast amount into rebuilding it from the ground up. The result is the most exciting MMO launch since World of Warcraft.

1) Rayman Legends (PC, also 360, PS3, Wii-U and Vita) - Wonderfully imaginative and inventive platform game. Rayman seems to have gone from one of those unloved also-ran corporate mascots to being the most exciting franchise around. There's a degree of fun in Rayman Legends that puts anything we've ever seen from a Mario or Sonic game to shame. The musical levels have to be seen to be believed. Absolutely stunning stuff.

And now the also-pretty-good-but-not-quite-top-10-material games, in alphabetical order:

Bad Piggies (iPad) - I know that admitting to liking a Rovio game is hardly fashionable, but I really enjoyed this invention/puzzler. It's also refreshing to see that it sticks to the traditional buy-to-own mechanic, which is becoming increasingly rare on iOS.

Battlefield 4 (PC, also 360, PS3, XBOne and PS4) - As a game, it's entirely forgettable, but as a next-gen tech demo and PC-benchmark, it's very impressive.

Borderlands 2: Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep (PC, also 360 and PS3) - I couldn't quite justify putting a DLC pack (as opposed to a full expansion) in the top 10, but on every other metric this would deserve a slot there. Simply put, the best piece of DLC I've ever seen for a game. Startlingly good writing and some novel twists to the core Borderlands 2 gameplay.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (PC, also 360 and PS3) - Coming back to Counter-Strike after many years away was a bit of a shock to the system, but I actually quite enjoyed messing around with this very well-executed technological uplift.

Dead Space 3 (PC, also 360 and PS3) - Probably the winner of the award for "game most crippled by pointless pre-launch controversies". The microtransactions are unnecessary (I beat the game on normal without them and never broke a sweat) and the pace and atmopshere are very similar to the second game. It did feel a bit of a rehash this time around, but the core of the game is still fun.

Disgaea D2: A Brighter Darkness (PS3) - The core Disgaea gameplay is seriously in need of a revamp these days. However, the joy of going back to the original (and best) cast for a new Disgaea game is enough to compensate on this occasion.

DMC: Devil May Cry (PC, also 360 and PS3) - Leaving aside the obnoxious naming conventions, I found this third person brawler a lot of fun. Slightly surprised at the levels of community-hatred it seems to have generated.

Dragon's Crown (Vita) - It was quite fashionable to criticise this over its art style. But I didn't mind the art style at all and, once I was past the slightly dull introductory levels, really enjoyed the gameplay. Only just sits outside my top 10.

Fire Emblem Awakening (3DS) - Nothing particularly new or innovative, but still a superbly well executed handheld JRPG. Gran Turismo 6 (PS3) - A finely honed game in many respects, but some curiously obsolete elements (sound, AI and the lack of a rewind button) continue to hold the series back from greatness.

Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory (PS3) - I know, I've always hated this series. However, an anime adaptation which managed - against all the odds - to be genuinely amusing tipped me over into playing the third game in the series. And... while not great, it is certainly a lot more polished and playable than the earlier installments.

Killzone: Shadow Fall (PS4) - I actually thought this was slightly less good than Mercenary on the Vita. However, it's still far better than Killzones 1-3 and a very good demonstration of the PS4's capabilities.

Kingdom Hearts 1.5 (PS3) - A very well-done remake of Kingdom Hearts and Chain of Memories. Unfortunately, the quality of the face-lift can't disguise the fact that the first Kingdom Hearts is a rather rough game compared to its sequel and that Chain of Memories is, to be frank, a slightly boring grind-fest. Still decent, though.

Outlast (PC) - In many ways a very flawed game. But also one of the scariest games I've ever played.

Papers Please (PC) - Absolutely, definitely no fun at all. But a perfect demonstration of the fact that a game doesn't have to be fun to be really good.

Pikmin 3 (Wii-U) - Fun, if somewhat short lived, console RTS/action game. As with other Nintendo first-party titles, the production values feel a bit thin (PLEASE stop with the silly twerblenerping pseudo-speech), but there are enough inventive flourishes to make the game worthwhile.

Resogun (PS4) - The Geomety Wars of the new console generation. A lot of fun, but once again, it feels slightly odd to be using brand new console hardware to play a 2d twin-stick shooter.

Saint's Row 4 (PC, also 360 and PS3) - Completely nuts and extremely funny. Occasionally, you get the sense that the humour is covering up a few rather untidy game mechanics, but I can live with that. Soul Sacrifice (Vita) - Decent Monster Hunter and Dark Souls inspired action title, slightly let down by an overly-obscure mission structure.

Xenonauts (PC) - Perhaps slightly unfair to include this as it's still in beta, but I've been playing via Steam early-access and have been impressed by what I've seen. It's a very, very traditional technical-remaster of the "old" X-Com (not a reimagining like the Firaxis version). The core gameplay is as compelling as ever. In the most recent version I played, a couple of months ago, the tactical side of the game felt close to launch-ready, while the Geoscape clearly still needed a lot of tuning. However, things look good for a decent launch in early 2014.

Next up, the games which, while not actively bad, were nevertheless not as good as I was expecting:

Aliens: Colonial Marines (PC, also PS3 and 360) - I didn't hate this as much as most people seemed to. The day 2 patch fixed a lot of the technical issues and decent multiplayer saved it from being a total waste of money. Still far less than what it should have been, however.

Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs (PC) - Don't get me wrong, it's actually a good game. It's just that every substantial change from the original feels like it's actually made things worse rather than better. Baldur's Gate Enhnaced Edition (iPad) - The PC version of this remaster is reasonably good (if slightly unnecessary given the existing third-party facelift suites for the game). Unfortunately, the iPad version remains a mess, with barely function controls and interface.

Final Fantasy VII/VIII remasters (PC) - The games are great. Unfortunately, the PC remasters released earlier this year are pretty dreadful, being quick and dirty ports of the old (inferior) PC versions. The best way to play these games remains either the PSN versions (available on PSP, PS3 and Vita with a single purchase covering all 3 platforms) or the PS1 version emulated on PC.

Grand Theft Auto 5 (PS3, also 360) - Ok, ok, I know. It's a brilliant technical achievement. Unfortunately, as with every previous GTA game, I find it easier to admire than to like. I loathe the characters and the setting and a lot of the humour fell flat for me. Plus the world has that curiously sterile feel that goes with every open-world Rockstar game (except Bully).

Killer is Dead (PS3, also 360) - I liked Suda 51's previous game - Lolipop Chainsaw - quite a lot, which apparently put me in a pretty small minority. For Killer is Dead, however, I struggled to find much in the way of redeeming featues. I'm not upset about the lack of political correctness (see above remarks on Dragon's Crown), but the boring gameplay is not worth tolerating.

Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD (Wii-U) - I got quite excited about having something decent to play on the Wii-U. Unfortunately, I'd forgotten that Wind Waker bored me to tears the first time around. It's no better this time (and the ludicrous price for an HD remake just added insult to injury).

Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate (Wii-U) - I almost demoted this to the ranks of the "outright bad", but will acknowledge that it does seem to (eventually) reward perseverence. Unfortunately, poor graphics, poor controls, terrible UI, dull combat and an utterly unintuitive introduction all serve to make this game into an absolute chore.

Spelunky (PC, also pretty much every other platform) - Everybody else seems to love it and I'm sure this is just a sign that there must be something wrong with me, but I couldn't see the attraction in this platforming Roguelike.

Time and Eternity (PS3) - This one makes me a bit sad. The idea and some of the early art for this game looked really good. Unfortunately, the execution of this anime-RPG falls on its face and, despite some occasional amusing moments, the game fails to take off.

The Last of Us (PS3) - Yes, I must be dead inside. Seriously, this seems to be the year when I found myself seriously out of whack with critical consensus. However, I found the story and characters in this to be fair to middling and the gameplay to be actively painful. Both combat and stealth felt utterly broken and particularly unsuited to controller play. It might have been a substantially better game with mouse and keyboard, but sadly, we shall never know for sure.

Total War: Rome 2 (PC) - There's the core of an excellent game here, but unfortunately a huge mass of bugs means that drilling down to it is almost impossible. I'll come back to this in six months to see if they ever fix it.

And now - the genuinely bad. The rare games which lack any redeeming features and make you wonder how on earth they ever passed certification:

Rise of the Triad (PC) - A spectacularly bad remake of an old shooter which, to be frank, wasn't all that great to begin with. Even if you can overlook the crap graphics and gunplay, the autosave system is a crime against humanity.

All that Free-To-Play-Pay-To-Win Garbage (most platforms, but especially the mobile ones) - This needs to die. Now. There's only one thing worse:

All that Not-Even-Free-To-Play-But-You-Still-Have-To-Pay-To-Win Garbage - You know which titles I mean here.
PlayStation (Games)

Journal Journal: Games of the year 2012 4

This year's list is perhaps a bit more limited than some of the ones I've put up in the past. There are two real reasons for this; first of all, I moved home in April, buying a place for the first time and getting on the property ladder - complete with the inevitable mortgage. This has curtailed my disposable income a bit, so I've had to be slightly more selective in my purchases (though this hasn't stopped me from accidentally picking up a couple of absolute stinkers).

Second, there's a console out there that I don't have access to. I own it, but I haven't yet been able to lay my hands on the thing. See, Nintendo released the Wii-U in the UK on the exact day that I was due to fly out to the USA for a fortnight. I went through all manner of possible options for getting my hands on one, but couldn't find one that actually worked. Nervous (wrongly) at the prospect of stock-shortages, I ordered from Amazon and got it delivered to the parents, who live 200 miles away. I won't be able to pick it up until I visit them at New Year, so no Wii-U games got a chance at inclusion on my list.

Anyway, with no further ado... let's start with the top 10:

10) Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy (3DS) - The first really compelling 3DS game I've found. It's hard to escape a slight sense of missed opportunity at some of the lightweight RPG mechanics, but this is a lot of fun and an absolute nostalgia trip. It's been many years since I last played Final Fantasy XI, but I was shocked at just how vividly the Ronfaure theme stirred up memories.

9) Final Fantasy XIII-2 (PS3, also 360) - Square-Enix have clearly addressed the key problem that undermined its predecessor; the lack of decent game mechanics. This is a quirky, well designed game with some clever stuff going on beneath the surface. Now if only they could find some people who could actually write plots and dialogue...

8) Uncharted: Golden Abyss (Vita) - A Vita launch title and, slightly irritatingly, there's yet to be another game which makes such good use of the Vita's features as Uncharted. The Vita's hardware limitations compared to the PS3 actually work in the game's benefit to an extent, forcing the focus away from cinematics and back onto the gameplay, giving the most "fun" Uncharted game since the original. Oh, and the campaign is a pretty generous length to boot.

7) Binary Domain (360, also PC) - This console generation has seen some truly awful attempts by Japanese developers at aping Western gameplay styles. Binary Domain, however, doesn't suck. More than that, it's actually bloody good, with tightly tuned shooting mechanics, a clever squad system and some neat plot and character development.>

6) Forza Horizon (360) - I was worried this game would be awful - but it isn't! The first hour or so has some cringe-inducing dudebro moments, but there's a solid, hardcore racing engine at work under the arcade trappings. If, as rumoured, Forza 5 is a next-gen project, then Horizon is a damned good way to pass the time until it appears.

5) FarCry 3 (PC, also 360 and PS3) - Pretty and fun open-world shooter with more brains than most entries in the fps genre. The storyline loses focus a bit, but there's plenty here to keep you interested. Might have ranked higher if the PC version didn't force me through that uPlay shitpipe.

4) Spec Ops: The Line (PC, also 360 and PS3) - Mediocre shooting mechanics don't really matter much in the face of a plot as good and as intelligently written as this one. I kind of hoped that this would make it more difficult to churn out endless, hateful "play it straight" modern warfare games. Sadly, I was wrong. Be warned that the PC version is a really, really crap port.

3) Lolipop Chainsaw (360, also PS3) - Ok, ok, it's a guilty pleasure. But it's also a hilariously written and surprisingly deep game. About a cheerleader killing zombies with a chainsaw. I mean, what's not to like?

2) XCom: Enemy Unknown (PC, also 360) - Fantastic updating of a classic franchise, which streamlines where it makes sense to do so, but isn't afraid to be seriously cruel to the player when the situation demands. My only complaint is that (whisper it softly) the campaign is over just a bit too soon.

1) Borderlands 2 (PC, also 360 and PS3) - Well tuned gunplay, an interesting loot system and dialogue so funny that at times *cough* Tiny Tina *cough* it had me laughing so hard I couldn't even aim properly. Add into the mix a campaign so long that you could fit a dozen Call of Duties inside it (not that you'd want to) and you've got my pick for the bext game of the year.

And now, in alphabetical order, the "also pretty good" games, which didn't quite make the top-10 list:

Angry Birds Space (iPad, probably also on every other platform under the sun) - And there goes my credibility... actually, no, this is a clever and fun update on the Angry Birds franchise, with some interesting gravity mechanics thrown into the mix.

Atelier Meruru: The Adventurer of Arland (PS3) - Cute and sometimes-amusing conclusion to this particular 3-game arc of the Atelier series. A bit on the grindy side, but then, it's a JRPG so what do you expect?

Bad Piggies (iPad) Less random than angry birds. Endure the first few stages and it opens out into a clever and fun mad-inventor game. Plus the theme music is awesome.

Corpse Party (PSP) - Fantastic, scary-as-hell adventure game/visual novel hybrid. Also noteworthy for having a Japanese voice cast which is pretty much a who's-who of the anime voice acting scene.

Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition (PC) - I kept this out of the top 10, as it's essentially a rerelease. However, this is the definitive version of one of the best games around, particularly with the 3rd-party resolution patch.

Darksiders 2 (PC, also 360 and PS3) - Basically a retread of the original, but that's by no means a bad thing in this case.

Dragon's Dogma (360, also PS3) - It's nice to see a Japanese developer trying something different, ambitious and outside of its comfort zone. Sadly, it doesn't entirely work and the game never entirely gelled with me. Still, a promising effort.

Guild Wars 2 (PC, also Mac) - I haven't really had the time to do it justice, but this is a clever game which takes risks by unpicking some well-established MMO tropes. Not everything about it works, but it's a good sign that the industry is finally starting to move away from its obsession with cloning World of Warcraft.

Halo 4 (360) - I've never really liked the Halo series, but I can admit that this is definitely one of the better entries in it. The new developers seem to be rather better than Bungie at actually telling a story.

Kingdom Hearts 3d (3ds) - Yes, it's pretty fun. But can we PLEASE have Kingdom Hearts 3 now? On a proper console? Pretty please?

Persona 4: Golden (Vita) - Top-notch remake of one of the best JRPGs of the last generation. Fantastic game, but it does make me wish they'd get on with Persona 5 already.

Littlebigplanet Vita (Vita) - Sony's platforming series finally finds its natural home. The game's a damned good fit for the Vita, even if some of the mechanics are starting to feel a little stale.

Rayman Origins (Vita, also on pretty much everything else under the sun) - Beautifully drawn and animated platformer. Takes a while to get going properly, but a lot of fun once it does.

Resistance: Burning Skies (Vita) - And here I go massively against the consensus. Most people seem to have hated this game. Personally, I quite enjoyed it. Then again, I'm a sucker for fpses which don't observe stupid 2 weapon limits. They Bleed Pixels (PC) - Clever, somewhat disturbing Lovecraftian indie platformer. Not everybody's cup of tea, but I liked it. Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Future Soldier - Probably the best "straightforward" modern military shooter of the year. Definitely less hateful than its competition.

Transformers: Fall of Cybertron (360, also PS3 and PC) - Lacks a bit of the wow-factor of its predecessor (and the early chapters drag a bit), but still a solid, enjoyable third person shooter.

And now the disappointments. The games which might not have been outright bad, but which either didn't live up to expectations, or else could only just about scale the dizzy heights of mediocrity:

Assassin's Creed 3 (360, also PC and PS3) - The ingredients for a really good game are all present and correct. Unfortunately, the game desperately needed a few more months in development to add some polish and kill some of its many, many bugs. Annualisation works for some franchises, but is killing this one.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 (PC, also 360, PS3 and Wii-U) - Actually slightly less hateful than the last couple of installments in the series, with the odd neat idea floating around. If it had focussed more on the RTS-lite style side-missions I might have quite liked this. As it is, it still drowns under the weight of a pompous, badly written campaign.

Mass Effect 3 (PC, also 360, PS3 and Wii-U) - Despite some good scenes here and there, poor quality writing trips this game up. Incredibly disappointing given the strength of its predecessors. It also lacks the robust shooter mechanics needed to support the gameplay, now that it's essentially become a shooter with dialogue. Look at Binary Domain to see how it can be done better.

Max Payne 3 (360, also PC and PS3) - Not a bad game, but consistently fails to shine. Neither its gameplay nor its storyline are quite as good as it thinks they are.

Resident Evil 6 (360, also PS3) - In most respects a truly dreadful game, with an incomprehensible plot, dull combat and atrocious hit detection. Just about saved from the "awful" list by two factors; the generous length of the campaign and those occasional moments where it slows down a bit and tries its hand at suspense. The first 30 minutes of Leon's campaign are some of the best Resident Evil we've seen in years. It's just a pity it degenerates so fast.

SSX (360, also PS3) - I wanted to like this, I really did. Unfortunately, there's only a certain level of dudebro I can bring myself to tolerate, even if it is covering a solid game. SSX goes way, way beyond that level.

Star Wars: The Old Republic (PC) - Technically released last year, but hey, MMOs are a bit funny. There were some good ideas here, but buried under outdated ideas and a lack of confidence in taking its own direction. I did sort-of like this for a while, so it was heartbreaking to see the painful death of its community over the first few months of the year.

Tales of Graces F (PS3) - An utterly by-the-numbers uninspired JRPG, several years after the point where this sort of thing ceased to be acceptable.

Touch my Katamari (Vita) - Oh, it's not bad as such, but seriously, the whole Katamari thing is beyond stale now.Assassin's Creed 3 (360, also PC and PS3) - Could have done with another few months of development time to give it a bit more polish (and kill some of those damned bugs), but there's a highly impressive game here.

World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria (PC) - Mists of Dailyquestia. Actually, there's some neat content in this expansion. Too bad the daily quest grind kills it.

And finally, the awful games. The catastrophes. The absolute bottom of the barrel:

Carrier Command: Gaea Mission (PC, also 360) - I wanted to like this game. It could have been great - just look at the XCom remake. Sadly, it was released in a condition which barely counts as playable, and the game itself lacks a coherent structure. Also, worst fps sequences EVER.

Diablo 3 (PC, also Mac) - There are the bones of a decent game buried in here somewhere. Sadly, they are ground into dust by Blizzard's blatant attempts to drive players onto the real-money auction house, regardless of the impacts on the quality of the game.

Mugen Souls (PS3) - Hideous aborted mutant JRPG that manages to bring the PS3 chugging to a sub-10 framerate despite moving PS1-era graphics. Incomprehensible game mechanics and hateful characters. Seriously, who buys this shit? Oh, wait, I did.

Persona 4 Arena (PS3, also 360) - I've not played it! But when you introduce region locking to a previously region-free console, you go on my shitlist. End of story.
PC Games (Games)

Journal Journal: Early thoughts on Diablo 3

Diablo 3 is now released and TEH INTERWEBS DRAMA is in full flow. I posted some early thoughts specifically on the controversial "always on" feature in a discission thread here and here. From what I've seen, connection and login issues are continuing to occur, though compared to Asia and the US, those of in Europe appear to be getting a fairly mild dose of them.

However, I don't want to dwell too long on the DRM/always-on issues here. Objectionable though they may be, the lesson of WoW shows that login issues will diminish over time. Ever since the launch of Wrath of the Lich King (the second WoW expansion), I've believed that Blizzard deliberately provides less capacity than it knows is needed for new game and expansion releases. After all, its choices are:

1) Buy expensive server capacity that won't be needed once the game has been out a fortnight.

2) Lease short-term capacity and worry about leaving valuable server-side intellectual property on somebody else's machines.

3) Accept that launch is going to get a bit FUBAR but that it will settle down quickly enough and mostly be forgotten within a week or two.

From a business point of view, 3) makes a lot of sense. In all likelihood, most of those complaining loudest about the login issues at the moment will have forgotten them in a week or two. I thought, therefore, that I'd actually talk about some early thoughts on the game itself.

I'm not actually what you'd call a hardcore Diablo fan. I didn't like the first game in the series. It came out at a time when Bioware and Squaresoft were starting to do really interesting things with the RPG genre and, to be honest, I couldn't get all that excited about what was, by comparison, a shallow click-fest. I got into Diablo 2 a bit more; I preferred its more open world design and played a bit of co-op with friends. But it didn't hold my interest for all that long. Baldur's Gate 2 came out a few months later and, when it did, I largely forgot about Diablo 2.

Since then, the action-RPG genre that Diablo pioneered has evolved apace, with various companies offering different takes on it. The Dungeon Siege series spent its first two installments pitching itself as the "thinking man's Diablo", with full party control and a semblance of tactics (though this was abandoned for a badly dumbed down third installment). The PS2 got some highly-polished Diablo-inspired games, such as the Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance titles and Champions of Norrath. And the genre continued to be developed in its spiritual home on the PC, perhaps most notably through the highly-polished Torchlight. Against this backdrop, I had to wonder whether, barring its huge brand-recognition, Diablo 3 would manage to remain at the cutting edge, or even remain relevant.

After a few hours of gameplay, I'm still undecided. Being firmly outside of the series's hardcore fanbase, I was able to shrug off many of the changes to tradition that caused such shrill outcry. I was never wedded to Diablo 2's talent system or class balance. I regard having visible outlines around enemies and gold that gets automatically picked up as welcome developments, rather than betrayals of trust. And I don't much care about whether the game looks sufficiently dark and gritty. My impression is that Blizzard have, over recent years, developed a cartoony style for their in-game graphics, as evidenced by World of Warcraft and Starcraft 3. It's a distinctive style, I associate it with Blizzard and if they want to carry it over into the Diablo series (which it seems they have) then that's fine with me. This particular stylistic choice has two direct consequences - a relative lack of detail and relatively high performance.

I'll start with the second of those. I have what is, by any standards, a high end gaming PC; a water-cooled i7 3.4ghz, with 24 gigs of RAM and an Nvidia 590. It runs anything I've thrown at it in 1080p full detail quite happily, but the margin by which it does so varies. In Diablo 3, I was able to lock the framerate at 140fps without it even flickering in big fights with lots of spell effects flying around. Testing it on a much lower end laptop (a 2ghz Core 2 Duo with 3 gigs of RAM and a fairly basic graphics card) still yielded highly acceptable performance. Both machines managed substantially higher and (perhaps critically) more stable framerates than they do running version 4.3 of World of Warcraft, despite the fact that the venerable MMO is running on what is, at heart, an old engine. It's clear that Diablo 3 has been optimised to provide as smooth and (in framerate terms) stable an experience as possible. It's the same philosophy that has seen the Call of Duty series, with its locked 60fps norm, become the preferred fps platform on the consoles.

But there's inevitably a price to be paid in terms of detail. And there's no denying that Diablo 3 makes sacrifices in terms of visual impact. While the cutscenes are every bit as pretty as we've come to expect from Blizzard, in game graphics tend more towards the "smooth and functional" than the "impressive and atmospheric". Enemies are well designed, but environments tend towards the spartan. Spell effects tend to underwhelm and to be over very quickly. There are undoubtedly some benefits to this in terms of accessibility, but at times, even Torchlight has more visual impact. What's particularly noticable is that the slight vagueness that added to the sense of dread in Diablo 2 is absent now. The game looks a little bit too clinical.

In gameplay terms, the basic Diablo formula hasn't changed much. Areas perhaps seem to channel the player more directly towards his goal than those in earlier installments. There's been a welcome retilting of the balance between randomly generated areas and pre-designed ones, with the latter getting more prominence, allowing for some occasionally clever level design. In terms of character building, things are clearly highly simplified - perhaps too much so. Despite being around 4 hours in, I don't feel like I've yet had to make an actual choice about how to develop my character. Beyond that, this is a game that is altering its basic formula very little.

And therein, for me, lies the biggest problem. It feels like Blizzard have ignored much of what's happened in this busy genre since Diablo 2 was released. Most of the new features are imported from WoW, such as the auction house (the real money version of which just feels exploitative). Other than that, this lacks the tactical depth of the first two Dungeon Siege games, the visual flights of fancy of the Dark Alliance series and the slightly crazy sense of fun of Torchlight, with its myriad side-quests and optional dungeons.

Starcraft 2 still felt relevant when its first installment, Wings of Liberty, was released in 2010. The RTS genre was by no means dead, but it was a genre which had largely fragmented to the extremes, with Dawn of War 2 and its ilk focussing on small-scale squad tactics while Supreme Commander pursued a more macro-strategic game. Starcraft 2 managed to advance the genre by returning defiantly to a middle ground and driving it forward with an extra degree of polish and small-scale innovation around mission design and storytelling (as well as through its highly polished multiplayer and skirmish modes). Starcraft 2's only real direct competitors were the Command & Conquer games, which it was able to defeat on a straight up fight on quality.

By contrast, while I'm still relatively early in Diablo 3, I can't help but feel that it's failed to establish itself decisively within its own genre against fresher, hungrier (and often cheaper) competitors.

Journal Journal: GAME in administration - thoughts on consumer issues

I made a journal post a few weeks ago on the woes of Game Group, the UK's largest specialist high street games retailer. Yesterday, what looked like a strong possibility when I made that earlier entry became reality; Game Group went into administration. The administrators moved quickly to close about 40% of stores (sensibly focussing on stores which were located close to other branches) and several thousand people lost their jobs. Other stores remain open, but with very limited stock. Vouchers, loyalty cards and trade-in credit have all been suspended.

There's been a lot of online reaction, particularly focussed on Eurogamer and MCV-UK. However, I wanted to take a little space to set down some more detailed thoughts. I'll leave aside the reasons for the entry into administration for the moment; I don't have much to add to my earlier post. Eurogamer does have an interesting piece which quotes extensively from the administrators. There's some good analysis in that, though I think it is too narrow in its focus. Anyway, leaving aside the causes of the entry into administration, some wider thoughts on what this all means...

First of all, the staff deserve sympathy

A large portion of the company's workforce was made redundant yesterday. It appears that they will receive their wages for March, but may need to rely on statutory Government schemes for redundancy payments - the payouts from which will be low. The situation on this isn't entirely clear yet, though.

This is an awful time to find yourself thrown back into the job-market, particularly if, like many GAME staff, you don't have many qualifications and most or all of your work experience is in retail. As a sector, retail is not in the business of doing much hiring at the moment (other major UK retail chains have gone under in recent months/years and still more are at risk).

It's a common piety to absolve front line staff of all blame when a company goes under. I don't subscribe to that and there were undoubtedly some staff who were awful. There's certainly one particular branch of GAME that I avoid due to the staff - though I note with some dismay that it survived yesterday while others, with decent staff, didn't. However, aside from a minority of poor branches, most of the GAME staff I dealt with over the years were helpful, friendly and well-informed. I was particularly sad to note that the small branch in London's Victoria Station closed yesterday; its staff were consistently excellent (and perhaps somewhat wasted in such a small branch) and I hope that they are able to find new jobs swiftly.

Meanwhile, the staff in the branches that remain open are going to be dealing with a lot of unhappy customers over the next few days. The suspension of vouchers, loyalty cards and trade in credit will not go down well. Nor will the inability to refund pre-order deposits. Already, there are anecdotal but highly credible reports of angry scenes in some branches.

This all throws an interesting light on our relationship with major retailers

I was entertained (in a slightly bleak way) by the reaction on various sites (particularly Eurogamer) to the news about loyalty/trade-in/deposit credit yesterday. There were lots of complaints along the lines of "but they owe me money, surely this can't be legal?".

The reality of course is that not only is it entirely legal for GAME to refuse to honour credit to its customers while it's in administration, it is a legal requirement. A company in administration is required to deal with its creditors in a certain order. Secured creditors come first - essentially the banks who loaned the company money. After this come preferential creditors - basically staff with unpaid wages or other contractual requirements. Only after these have been paid off can the company make good on its obligations to unsecured creditors. Now, unsecured creditors is a large pool that includes the company's trade partners (such as suppliers), as well as customers who hold store-credit or who have loaned the company money in the form of a pre-order deposit.

As consumers, we are generally inclined to believe that the regulatory regime around retail exists to protect our interests. However, when it comes to a company in administration "our" interests are not at the top of the list. This isn't actually a bad thing - if secured creditors didn't get preferential treatment, then banks would be much more averse to providing businesses with credit and starting up a new business would be even harder than it is at the moment. But it clearly came as a bit of a shock to people yesterday to find that the consumer protections they are used to do not apply in cases of administration.

Smart consumers worry about credit as well as debt

We all know that getting into debt can be risky. This doesn't mean you should never do it - very few people would ever own a home if they didn't take out a mortgage. But most of us will think carefully before taking on debt (and those who don't usually get exactly what they deserve).

We're much less inclined to consider the risks associated with credit - at least when we're engaging in a proper commercial transaction. If a friend asks to borrow £20 from you, you might pause to consider whether you're likely to get the money back (what happened last time he did this?). But when it comes to going into credit with a large commercial organisation, we don't often even think of it in those terms. A lot of people seem to think that when they deposit money in their bank account, the bank goes and puts it in a box somewhere. In reality, the bank takes the money and invests it elsewhere - just giving you a promise to pay the money back when you require it. When a bank goes bust, it is no longer able to honour this promise - which is why banking collapses tend to be preceded by a "run" on the bank in question, as creditors belatedly realise this. The consequences of a bank collapsing are such that many Governments opted to bail them out in recent years, rather than allowing the market to run its course.

Now, in GAME's case, the credit owed to members of the public is much smaller - even in the largest cases, we will be talking about a few hundred pounds. If I were to guess, I would say that most people held less than £20 in credit with GAME at any one time. That said, it's quite plausible that there are still people out there sitting on a pile of vouchers they got for Christmas - after all, GAME hasn't been able to put out many of the big releases since then.

A common conversation on forums over the last few days has gone (random obscenities deleted):

Person A - I'm sure glad I saw this coming and used up all of my loyalty/trade in points. I don't see how anybody could have failed to do the same after all the news we've seen since the start of February.

Person B - That's great for you, but a lot of people don't follow the news, or would have assumed that they'd get compensated for their credit if the company went bust. In fact, staff in stores were telling people that there was no hurry to spend their points.

The thing with that discussion is - both participants are correct. The writing has been on the wall for GAME for at least 2 months now. First its insurance was withdrawn, then suppliers stopped dealing with it, then its share price fell to junk levels. Put yourself in the shoes of a credit rating agency and ask yourself how you'd rate the company. Would you advise people to lend it money? Of course not.

If you held credit with GAME, then the course of action to take was clear - claim it while you can. Convert it into a tangible asset by buying a game. Or if there's nothing you want, trade it for credit with another, more secure company, by buying an XBL/PSN/Nintendo Network points card. Neither MS, Sony nor Nintendo is in imminent danger of going bust (though it never hurts to keep an eye on them if they owe you money).

But at the same time, it's true that an awful lot of people don't seem to think like this. They should - but the gap between "should" and "do" remains huge. As mentioned before, they assume that the "little guy" will be looked after, and don't understand that when a company has no money left, it really does have no money left. It's also true that staff have, in some cases, given misleading advice on this issue (I overheard it myself in that particular branch of Game that I mentioned before as NOT having good staff). Frontline staff are not experts on corporate insolvency. They shouldn't be giving advice on this issue (unless they have been issued with a factually correct line), but even if they are, people should understand not to take it as gospel.

Of course, cashing in your credit is only going to make the collapse of the company more likely - but once the writing is on the wall, I think it's fair that people act to protect their own interests.

So what might this mean for store credit going forwards?

First of all, I would hope - though probably in vain - that this might help to spell the end for store vouchers. I have never understood the point of these. You take a £20 note, backed by the Bank of England and exchange it for a piece of paper or plastic backed to the value of £20 by a single company. And yet people continue to buy them - GAME vouchers, in particular, tend to be big business around Christmas. I would hope that this might be a very public signal that vouchers are not only pointless, they are also risky.

For trade-in credit, I think the implications are more complicated. I have long maintained that GAME offered horrible value for both buyers and sellers on used games - and that a savvy consumer would use eBay instead. This is true - but I was also missing part of the wider picture.

What I hadn't appreciated was the extent to which GAME was committed to paying for pretty much any stock for current-gen consoles people threw at them, regardless of whether they're ever likely to sell it. See, if GAME can pay some kid £5 for a nearly-new copy of FIFA and then sell it on for £30 a few days later, they're laughing all the way to the bank. That kid could probably have sold his game for £15 on eBay - he'd have got more money for the game and somebody else would have got it cheaper. Instead, he gave GAME a huge cut on it.

On the other hand, when I took my old UMD PSP games in a few days before the release of the Vita, I got, on average, £2 of store credit each for them. Most of these games were many years old and the PSP had been, to all intents and purposes, a dead platform in the UK for more than a year (probably closer to two). If I'd stuck those games on eBay - they wouldn't have sold. I got credit (and consequently a very cheap Vita) and GAME got a stack of games that ultimately, they'd have to send to landfill.

If GAME comes out of administration as a going concern, then I think the new owners need to implement a much smarter pre-owned policy. Ideally, I think they'd maintain an "approved list" of games that they accept - and turn away all others. This would require a bit of head office time and resource (or could alternatively be delegated to individual stores), but I think it would be a huge cost saving in the longer term.

From the customer's point of view, I think that people may be less likely to "sit on" trade-in credit for a substantial time. That's a bad thing for retailers - it hurts their cash-flow and interest.

I nearly got stung on this myself (well, maybe not "nearly", but still closer than I would have liked). The Vita launched on a Wednesday, if I remember. On the Sunday before its launch, I took my old PSP, a stack of UMD games and a few obsolete 360 games (such as Forza 2 and 3, which were rendered obsolete by Forza 4) into the store and traded them in. I thought it would be better to do it then, rather than in a busy store on launch day. From the Sunday to the Wednesday, I had £180 of credit on my trade-in card. During that period, the news broke that GAME wouldn't be able to carry all of the Vita launch titles. It was clear that the company's end was not far off. As it happens, it was still some way from administration at that point in time, but I still got to sweat for a few days. I won't be doing that again.

Pre-orders might also be affected. GAME doesn't require a deposit for a pre-order on every title, but for hardware and collectors' editions of games, it would require deposits anywhere from £5 through to £20. GAME had already cancelled a lot of its pre-orders and refunded deposits before it went into administration, but there will still be lots outstanding. This one is really going to rankle. In all honesty, if customers end up out of pocket over this one, then I suspect this means the end of deposit-backed pre-orders for games in the UK (not that many other retailers insist on deposits anyway).

Pre-orders are extremely useful for a high-street specialist retailer. They make ordering and managing stock much easier and help avoid expensive overstock and understock incidents. This is why the staff are instructed to give a push on them - and why GAME used to reward them with extra loyalty card points. I've generally been happy to pre-order, particularly around collectors' editions or obscure niche titles which may be in short supply. That GAME shifted to requiring deposits for many pre-orders probably indicates that they were suffering from a poor pick-up rate on at least some portion of their pre-orders. Losing the ability to firm this up via deposits would be painful.

Finally, there are loyalty cards. I don't see these being affected much. There is an element of "money for nothing" attached to these. You are, in essence, being rewarded for paying GAME's slightly higher prices - but there are other benefits to shopping at GAME (at least in theory), such as a better range of stock than the supermarkets and the lack of a delay while you wait for your postal delivery. I don't honestly think people could feel too aggrieved about the loss of this - though GAME may choose to be less generous with points in future if it comes out of administration.

And finally - a more optimistic note

A lot of the above - and a lot of the discussion on forums - is predicated on a total collapse of GAME. That isn't the current situation; a lot of stores have closed, but others remain open for business. The administrators seem to be confident of finding a buyer. Indeed, while there are challenges, there's no reason to believe that, without some of GAME's more obvious lunacy, there can't be a future for specialist high street games retail in the UK.

If a buyer does move in and take over the company, it will be in the buyer's interests to get the company performing well as quickly as possible. The administrators have already shed many of the uncommercial stores, which is perhaps the biggest single issue resolved. Pre-owned policies can be changed. Prices can be tweaked. Marketing and branding can all be changed. A lot that was wrong about the pre-administration company can be fixed.

The new owners will also need to ensure that they have the support of customers. While they might not be obliged to (IANAL), one of the biggest ways they could do this would be by choosing to honour all previous committments around vouchers, loyalty cards, trade-in cards and pre-order deposits. If they didn't do this, they'd lose a lot of customer credibility and make recovering the company all the more difficult.

It's quite possible, therefore, that customers who are currently owed credit by GAME will end up getting away with only the mild inconvenience of being locked out of their balance for a couple of weeks. For the moment, therefore, the key words might be "DON'T PANIC".
Role Playing (Games)

Journal Journal: Mass Effect 3 is badly written (with as few spoilers as possible) 2

As indicated in the title of this post, I will try to keep spoilers to a minimum. That said, avoiding spoilers completely is not going to be possible, particularly for events in the game's first 60-90 minutes - so if you are intending to start playing it soon, you may wish to stop reading in a little while. Don't worry, I'll warn you when you get to the point where spoilers become inevitable.

Before I go any further, a few broader reflections on the game. As a game, ME3 is mostly competent. Its mix of exploration, combat and conversation remains as compelling as ever. The streamlining of planet scanning (which was tedious beyond belief in ME2) is welcome. The return to a greater degree of complexity around weapon upgrades is a step in the right direction. The multiplayer is fun, although the lack of variety in maps and game modes ultimately limits how long its appeal will last.

Combat is more of a mixed bag; it's nicely paced, but it lacks the polish of more dedicated 3rd person shooters; you can tell that Bioware lack experience in action games. Before starting ME3, I'd played through Sega's excellent Binary Domain. ME3's combat is highly reminiscent of Binary Domain's - there are even similar robotic enemies. But at every level, Binary Domain feels slicker; the cover system works better, controls are more intuitive and locational damage is massively more sophisticated.

But anyway - the writing. As stated in the title, having played through ME3, I cannot avoid the conclusion that ME3's writing is poor. But that's a statement that needs a lot more context. There are lots of instances of good writing in ME3 and a few instances of excellent writing. Bioware can "do" dialogue like nobody else in the industry. Bethesda can build beautiful looking worlds, but the moment characters open their mouths, the illusion falls apart. Some Japanese RPGs, particularly the Persona series, manage to have brilliantly constructed storylines, but stilted dialogue remains a constant problem (probably not helped by the fact it all has to be run through translation for the West). Bioware, on the other hand, can write conversations that don't just convince, but positively sparkle.

There are individual scenes in ME3 that make the player feel genuine anger, grief or shock - or make him laugh out loud. There are set-piece scenes - particularly some of the battle scenes around the game's mid-point - that are masterfully executed. There are incidental background conversations that contain more emotional depth than some entire games manage (the old woman at the counter in the Citadel embassies being perhaps the best example). And yet... I still maintain this is a badly written game.

Why? Because the plot does not hang together, does not fit with the rest of the series and comes to perhaps the most underwhelming ending I've seen from any major game. There are plenty of people out there dissecting the many plot-holes in ME3. Rather than doing that, I'm going to focus on three big flaws in the plot that really stood out to me and dissect them.

Stop reading now if you object to spoilers (though I'll keep them to a minimum).

1) We need to reconfigure the sensor dish

The Reapers were introduced properly as the original Mass Effect game moved towards its final arc. The first game's finale established the extent of the threat they posed, as a single Reaper inflicted massive damage on the Citadel fleets (and, if the player chose the Paragon ending, on humanity's fleets).

The question of how the Reapers could be defeated has hung over the series ever since their introduction. Tantalising hints have been dangled. Could fragments of Reaper technology be incorporated into human, Turian, Asari and Salarian weapons, putting the galaxy's civilised races onto an even footing with the Reapers? Were there secrets locked away in the Collector base from ME2 that would provide the tools needed? Did the secret to defeating them lie with the dangerous "fringe" species that Shepard had dealt with - the Geth, the Krogan or the Rachni?

As it happens... no. Instead, within its first hour, ME3 reveals that the secret is - a giant Prothean weapon that hasn't had the slightest mention in either of the first two games. All the player needs to do is find the resources needed to build it and the fleets to protect it - which is the focus of the rest of the game.

Well that's just great.

Remember Star Trek? I'm thinking here particularly of The Next Generation. Some weeks, there would be a clever resolution to the plots. Other weeks, you could tell the writers were just dialing it in, because after whatever perfunctory character scenes were required, they'd just spout some techno-babble and reconfigure the Enterprise's sensor dish to do something that would magically make whatever the problem-of-the-week was go away.

ME3 is one of those sensor dish episodes.

2) Did we go a bit too far with the whole moral ambiguity thing?

ME2 does moral ambiguity in spades, whether the player likes it or not. There's no option to be squeaky clean in ME2. You're working for Cerberus - an extremist right-wing organisation which preaches human-supremacy and is happy to engage in all kinds of dodgy activities around eugenics and slavery. In ME1, Cerberus had been outright bad guys (albeit ones who didn't get much development).

In ME2, the player has some scope to determine his relationship to Cerberus. He can choose whether to keep his distance so far as possible, or to be a more active participant in their agenda. At the end of the game, he makes a decision which has potentially massively ramifications, in which the most relevant factor is "do you trust Cerberus?"

In fairness, the organisation gets a lot of development along the way. Some of the more unpleasant actions seen in ME1 are ascribed to rogue factions (which the player comes into conflict with in the course of ME2). Broadly speaking, the impression the player takes of Cerberus in ME2 is that it holds some extremist views and believes that the end justifies the means - but also that it is passionate about ensuring the survival of humanity and that it is the only credible force in the galaxy willing to prepare for the arrival of the Reapers. On this basis, at the end of ME2, I decided that I did indeed trust Cerberus enough to hand over the Collector base to them.

And then, within the first hour of ME3, all of the development that was done in ME2 is thrown away. Cerberus are pure evil again and whatever decisions the player made in ME2, he is in conflict with them again. Flipping Cerberus from "pure evil" to "grey area" between ME1 and ME2 was a bold move. I was initially unconvinced. But by the time I was a third of the way through ME2, Bioware had me on side. But then flipping back to "pure evil"? With no credible explanation along the way? No option to side with Cerberus anyway? My suspension of disbelief was shattered.

Why did this happen? If I were to hazard a guess, it would be that Bioware lost their nerve. Plenty of games allow the player to join morally ambiguous - or even outright evil - factions. Command & Conquer was a potent early example, with its Brotherhood of Nod - part religious cult, part terrorist network. Deus Ex offered the player a choice of factional alliances which all included some dubious ethical choices. Syndicate put the player in the role of a ruthless corporate killing machine. Grand Theft Auto's protagonists may (on occasion) have their heart in the right place, but they have an odd way of expressing it. And the Manhunt games? The less said the better.

However, with the exception of a few dry historical sims, the far-right has remained a taboo. And there's little doubt that Cerberus was modelled on modern far-right nationalist movements - albeit a far better resourced, equipped and educated version of them (there are precious few shaved heads and tattoos on show in Cerberus). ME2 dabbled in the area - but I think Bioware just didn't quite have the courage to go through with leaving Cerberus-alignment open as an option in ME3, as the series moved to its conclusion.

It's partly understandable. We know how the media like to whip up a frenzy whenever video games try something even vaguely daring. Remember the furore over the (extremely tame) same-sex romance scenes in ME1? I felt at the time that Bioware were lucky to get away without wider attention for the semi-sympathetic portrayal of a a far-right group in ME2.

But that just poses the question - if Bioware didn't dare to see this plot strand through to its conclusion, why did they even go there? Why open that door in the earlier games, only to slam it shut in ME3? There were plenty of other ways that Cerberus could have been portrayed. They could have been an anarchist group rebelling against the "authoritarian" Citadel government. They could have been a religious movement. They could have been a network promoting shadowy corporate interests. None of those would have had the same potential for controversy. They might have given ME2 slightly less of a frisson of genuinely uncomfortable moral uncertainty, but they wouldn't have necessitated the horrible damage to suspension of disbelief that results from the plot-whiplash at the start of ME3.

3) Worst. Ending. Ever.

Bioware have taken, over the last few days, to describing ME3's ending as "controversial". A more appropriate word would be "crap". A more detailed explanation would be "really, really crap".

I won't go into detail about what the ending is. I will just say that despite the potential for some minor varation (and a "bad end"), there is, in essence, just one ending. Singular. If you are expecting said ending to grant even the slightest degree of closure, then you will be disappointed.

The ending is very "undergraduate". It's something you'd expect to see in an essay in a freshman creative writing class at a middle-of-the-road university. In those circumstances, it would get a C plus - maybe a B minus. It thinks it is a lot cleverer than it is; like the writer has just discovered Clarke and Asimov and is convinced that he can lift a few of their ideas with nobody noticing, oblivious to the fact that god knows how many others have already done this over the years. Gabe at Penny Arcade has posted a spirited defence of it. I like Penny Arcade a lot - but I note that Gabe is the guy who doesn't do the writing and whose posts occasionally tend (and god, I'm being so harsh here that it is almost painful to write this - I really am a big Penny Arcade fan) to reveal a fairly deep rooted sense of intellectual inferiority.

Let me put it this way - if you are the kind of person who reads or watches something you don't really like, but spend a lot of time worrying that you're missing something and everybody is about to start laughing at you - then you will probably feel compelled to defend the ME3 ending. Just so that you can make it clear that you didn't miss the point - that you got it. That you're smart.

The rest of us recognise crap writing and a cop-out ending when we see one. This isn't intellectual - it's fake, faux, phoney (pick your preferred term).

The problem is that one of the biggest assets of the earlier ME games was the sense of potential they carried. They gave the impression of telling part of a story which was hurtling towards some colossal, epic climax. But it's not. We know now that it ends in a huge great tide of bathos. When ME3 was about to be released, my plan was to play it through, using a Shepard I'd imported from my ME1 and ME2 playthroughs from some time ago - then go back to the start and begin again with an entirely fresh character, running through all three games back-to-back. I won't be doing that now. The earlier games are tainted by the failures of ME3's ending. I know that whatever choices my character might make along the way, we'll still end up with a near-identical ending.

It's not as if Bioware don't know how to end games. ME1 and ME2 took a slightly different approach to ending choices, but both of them were perfectly respectable. All ME3 needed to do was give a few (3 or so) diverging endings and then show some of the consequences of them. Bioware couldn't even deliver that.

In conclusion

Mass Effect 3 is not an outright bad game. If I were to sit down and review it, I'd probably come out with a score of 6 or 7 out of 10. There are a few moments of genuine brilliance in there. But as a conclusion to what had been an epic space opera, it is a failure.

There's a campaign to get Bioware to change the ending. I don't see the point. I've finished Mass Effect 3. It has the ending that Bioware chose to gave it. That's the ending now, for better or worse. At some point in the development process, some person or people at Bioware looked at the options for endings, pointed at the one they went with and said "we want that one". I see no reason to believe why forcing them to revisit that decision would make things any better.

When Neon Genesis Evangelion went out with its infamous episodes 25 and 26, there was a huge campaign for a "proper ending". In the case of NGE, the TV series's ending was driven by budgetary concerns (they'd run out of money) and mental health issues on the part of the director - neither of which considerations applied to Bioware. Regardless, Hideaki Anno's response to this campaign was End of Evangelion - perhaps the most epic example of fanbase-trolling in the history of fiction. While sumptuously animated, it presented an ending which was even more confusing and contradictory than the original. I've no idea how the currently running movie series will end - but if I were a betting man, I would lay money Hideaki Anno spending a lot of time thinking how he can come up with an even more nonsensical ending for the fourth and final movie.

So let's accept that ME3 has the ending it does. We don't have the right to demand that the artist changes his work. But we do have the right to consider how we spend our money in the future.

Bioware games have always been guaranteed day-one purchases for me - ever since Baldur's Gate 2. When Jade Empire was released, I had just moved to London, just started a new job and was living on a shoestring budget. In the two weeks before Jade Empire hit the shelves, I lived on supermarket discount-brand pot noodle clones. I got stomach cramps and strange blotches on my skin - but by launch day, I'd put aside the money I needed to buy it and I loved the game. Bioware never disappointed.

That changed last year, with Dragon Age 2; the first turkey to have come out of the company. But every company stumbles from time to time and one underwhelming game does not make a pattern. Unfortunately, following ME3, my trust in Bioware is more seriously dented. Moreover, the ecstatic critical reception the game has receiced (which is far out of alignment with the fan reception) has made me even more cynical about "proper" reviews. For Bioware's next title, I'll be waiting for both reviews and community reaction before I make a purchase - even though I'm pretty much rolling in disposable income these days.

Journal Journal: On the woes of UK games retail 3

Slashdot is, of course, a site with an international - but heavily US-slanted - readership. Chances are, then, that most slashdot readers haven't picked up that the UK's biggest high street video games retailer - the Game group (which owns the Game and Gamestation) brands - is in dire financial straits.

There have been reports for more than 6 months that the company was in trouble, but things really started to crystalise in January. The company had its stock-insurance withdrawn, meaning that it had to either buy stock on a cash-up-front basis, or reach credit agreements with publishers on a bespoke basis. Within a few weeks of this happening, Game (which I will use from here on as a shorthand for the entire group) began to announce that it wouldn't be able to announce certain new releases.

The first couple were relatively minor; Tekken 3DS was probably the most high profile victim. However, as we moved further into February, higher profile titles started to vanish from the line-up, such as the long-awaited European release of Mistwalker's Wii RPG The Last Story. When the Vita launched in late February, Game wasn't able to stock any of the Ubisoft launch-titles (though it has since reached a deal with Ubisoft that allows it to do so). Of the five Ubisoft launch titles, three were basically shovelware junk, but the other two, Lumines and Rayman Origins, were widely considered to sit alongside Uncharted and Wipeout as the best full-priced games in the launch lineup.

Things got much worse at the very end of February. Over the course of a fairly apocalyptic few hours, Game was forced to announce that it wouldn't be stocking Mass Effect 3, any EA March releases other than SSX, and Mario Party 9. The company was working to reach agreements with EA and Nintendo for future games, but couldn't convincingly promise that it would be able to carry them.

This had the air of catastrophe; Mass Effect 3 is probably the biggest game-launch of the first quarter of 2012. Mario Party 9 was another release that could have been expected to shift huge numbers. Although less remarked on by the gaming press (particularly Eurogamer, who have followed the situation closely), the other EA titles Game wouldn't be carrying included a number of big-franchise casual series, such as FIFA and the Sims, which normally turn massive profits without actually making waves in the more hardcore gaming community.

Some have speculated that this represents publishers "punishing" Game for its pre-owned policies. I disagree; publishers know that not having their titles carried by the UK's biggest specialist high street retailer will hurt. Tekken 3DS managed absolutely miserable sales figures after Game were forced to drop it (it wasn't a "big" enough release for the supermarkets to really push it). Rather, I suspect that publishers have been advised by their beancounters that the certain losses that will accrue from not having their titles carried by Game are outweighed by the probability/impact balance of the risk of loss from extending credit to Game. And that, as hardly needs to be said, is a very scary thought.

Now, this isn't to say that Game is doomed. It might still manage to avoid going into administration. Or it might go into administration, but emerge after a relatively short period as a going concern in a recognisable form, perhaps with fewer branches and a greater focus on online-sales, but still more or less the same company. Other recognised UK high street chains (such as Whittards, the tea/coffee specialist retailer) have done just that. However, my instinct is that the company is now locked into a death spiral. This is partly due to the vicious circle created by the events of the last 6 weeks or so; their failure to stock many key titles will have sent customers elsewhere and even if stock flows can be resumed, some of those customers are likely lost for good. But it's also due to a variety of broader factors which have, I suspect, sounded the death-knell for specialist high street games retail in the UK.

I thought I'd set down some of my thoughts on how this has happened. This has already been a fairly lengthy post and it's going to get a lot lengthier before it's done - not least because I'm going to move next onto some ancient history.

Why Game was a good thing

Prior to around 1993 or so, games retail in the UK was a pretty hit-and-miss business. Most games shops were small, independent busineses. Now, while people tend to regard that as "a good thing" on an emotional level, in reality, it wasn't always great. I remember all too well just how grim many of these stores were. Dingy, badly lit, often badly stocked and usually full of malodorous men in grim anoraks, they were usually tucked away in forgotten corners of shopping centres, or in unlovely reaches of industrial estates. You'd find the odd one that was better than the rest - but the stores in general always tended to have mayfly-like lifespans, so once you'd found a hidden gem, it would normally close down within a few weeks anyway. These were stores for an industry which still considered itself as not quite fit for discussion in polite society.

You'd get some games stocked in the supermarkets - but it would again be erratic. As most of them didn't understand the industry at all, pricing policies would range from the ludicrous to the non-existant. I remember finding some real bargains, such as new "full priced" releases selling for ten pounds. But I also remember seeing budget games with an RRP of fifteen pounds on the shelves for three times that.

Finally, a large portion of games sales were still handled via mail-order stores. These weren't like the modern, efficient service provided by Amazon. Rather, you'd skim the pages of a gaming magazine; Zzzap 64 or PC Format or whatnot and you'd find a number of mail order businesses setting out their catalogues in whole-page adverts. You'd cut out the attached order form and post it, along with a cheque, to some mysterious PO Box, hoping that DaveZ GameZ Barn or whatever it was called was actually a legitimate business and that if it was, it wouldn't go bust before shipping your game. If everything went to plan, it'd take a couple of days for your form to reach them, a couple of days for the cheque to clear, and then you'd have to allow the inevitable "28 days for delivery".

And then, around 1993 or so, the direct predecessors to Game started to show up. Suddenly, there were these clean, brightly lit and well-stocked shops, offering a good range of titles across all platforms. And they weren't hidden out of sight; they were right on the high street, or right in the middle of the shopping centre. Their prices were perhaps towards the higher end of the scale - or at least, the fact that they actually knew the industry meant that you didn't get accidentally-underpriced bargains - but if you wanted a game released within the last 2 years, then you'd be able to walk in and be pretty confident you'd be able to pick it up. It was a revolution - and for many years it worked very well.

However, the model which revolutionised the industry in the early/mid 90s hasn't been static since then and it's undeniable that it's in trouble now. Game is probably facing insolvency within the next few weeks. Most of its old competitors have been bought out by Game itself at some point. And HMV, which is the closest approximation to a direct competitor (being a music/movies/games retailer) is also in poor financial health.

So what's gone wrong?

The pricing model for games is wrong

Here's my most controversial theory; many games, particularly major releases, are being sold too cheap. Back in the early, mid 90s, I would expect to spend between 40 and 50 pounds on a new PC game. Console games could be even more expensive (though as I didn't have a console at the time, that was firmly Somebody Else's Problem). We've had a lot of inflation since then. We've also seen the cost of developing games shoot through the roof. X-Wing, Gunship 2000 and Wing Commander were fantastic games, but even though at the time they represented the cutting edge of technology, the number of assets involved in their creation was tiny compared to even relatively minor modern game releases.

Now, it's a bigger market these days and there are more copies being sold, which means that prices can be stretched a bit tighter. However, I still suspect that there is just not enough money coming into the industry on the back of each "full sized" game sold. Wherever I look in the industry, there doesn't actually seem to be all that much profit going around; at least not consistently. Nintendo and Sony are losing money at a terrifying rate. Even publishing behemoths like EA, with mega-franchises at their fingertips, seem to be putting out losses for as many years as they do profits. In this environment, there's very little margin at all available to the front-line retailer. It's easy to blame high-street stores for their emphasis on pre-owned (and in a minute, I'm going to do just that), but margins on new-game sales are so think that it's difficult to see how they meet rent and staff costs on the basis of them.

I believe that when the next console generation hits, it will be time for publishers to have a quiet but firm word with customers and say "The price-point for a new full-sized game will now be between 50 and 60 pounds."

This has to come with a trade-off, of course. First, the industry needs to realise that it needs to be a lot more honest in recognising what does and doesn't count as a "full sized" game. If you think that you'll struggle to sell your four-hour campaign and a handful of multiplayer maps for fifty pounds or more, then perhaps that tells you that you don't actually deserve the cash with the game you have. So you can either put more effort in, or accept a lower price-point. I've got two real targets in particular here; the lazy "spectacle fpses" and Nintendo first party games - both of which tend to represent spectacularly bad value for money in a price-per-hour sense (Nintendo handheld titles in particular - yes Starfox 3d, I so very much mean you).

Sony have taken some steps towards addressing this issue with the pricing of Vita games, where we have a good range of prices between five and forty pounds for the launch titles. I'm not convinced that they've got all of their individual decisions right (Lumines feels over-priced, in particular), but the overall range they've settled on feels appropriate for the quality on offer. The games at the top end of the spectrum - let's take Uncharted - are almost-but-not-quite PS3 quality. On the basis of setting a precedent for future home-console prices in the 50 to 60 pound range, the range feels more or less right for a handheld platform. The question, however, is whether there is enough margin allowed within the pricing structure for new games sales to actually be worth a damn for the high street retailer. Sony's plan B is clear - all Vita games can be purchased - from the day they are released onwards - from the PSN for download.

Pre-owned games are a self-defeating business

I said above that high street retailers like Game can't be blamed for pursuing pre-owned sales. However, what they can be blamed for is how they did it - and the sheer degree of emphasis they put on it. The norm in Game branches these days is for around 2/3rds of the floor/shelf space to be given over to pre-owned. Gamestation stores are even worse. This has two problems; first, it annoys "premium" customers (on which more later) and second, it's based on an overly optimistic assessment of how the used games trade works.

Thing is, in theory, pre-owned game sales are an absolute gold-mine for these stores. They pay little Johnny Teenager 10 quid (in store credit) for his copy of FIFA and sell it on for 30. Cue massive profit on each unit sold - far more than for a "new" copy of FIFA selling for 35 pounds. When the system works like this, then the store is laughing all the way to the bank.

But consoles come in cycles. And these stores' trade in policies require them to accept any game for current generation hardware; they may give a pittance for it, but they have to take it. There games for current generation console hardware that are more than five years old. People are going to be trading these games in; but given the way the game industry works, it's very unlikely they'll ever be bought by another customer.

Let's take the alternative case study here. Little Johnny Teenager comes in with his old copy of Forza Motorsport 2 - from the early days of the Xbox 360. He gets... let's say... 4 pounds of store-credit for it on trade-in. He immediately uses this to off-set his purchase of a new copy of Forza Motorsport 4, which sells for 40 pounds.

What's happened here? From Johnny's point of view, he's got rid of a game he was never going to play again - because the game he's just bought is a direct replacement for it. Game now have a copy of an obsolete title, which they'll struggle to sell given it has not one but two direct successors on current generation hardware (as is the case for many franchises now). So Game have lost the profit on the transaction overall - in fact, they may even have made a loss on it.

The used game business gets brutal late in the console cycle. And this time around, the late-cycle is likely to last a long, long time. Worse, people are more likely to trade in games they don't have a strong affection for. This means that having a big rack of used-games is unlikely to act as a substitute for having a wide and interesting back catalogue. You just end up with an awfully large number of copies of the same few sports and casual shooter titles (which is what you will currently see in every Game store in the UK).

It didn't help that this time around, you had publishers actively attacking the used-games market, via online passes and the like. This is ultimately a destructive set of behaviours that will harm the entire industry; but it will kill high street retailers before it kills the publishers.

Wrong store layout, wrong titles

Now this one can be chalked up squarely as Game's own fault. They are losing market share to two major sources, in general; Amazon and the other delivery-firms on the one hand, and supermarkets on the other. Each of those rivals has a big advantage over a high street specialist retailer, though the advantage is different in each case.

The delivery-firms do not have the same worries around shelf-space that Game has. They're warehouse-based companies who can store a lot of product very efficiently. And if they don't have a title in stock, they have a network of affiliated suppliers who can pick up the slack. They're also not paying rent on stores, or costs for front-line staff, so they can be very competitive on price. I'd include direct download sales in this category, but it's only really on PC that these are significant. So far (the Vita may start to change this).

The supermarkets have very severe shelf-space concerns - gaming is, after all, a tiny part of their business. Smaller stores, if they sell games at all, may have a single rack. What they do, however, have is the power that comes with being massive businesses with incredibly deep pockets. They can buy stock in huge quantities and sell it very cheap. They can and do run major titles as loss-leaders to get people in the stores. They're only going to focus on a few major titles, but on those titles, they will out-compete any other bricks and mortar business on price.

So where does that leave the specialist high street retailer? They're always going to be a bit more expensive, but in theory, their advantage is that they can offer a wide range of titles, available to buy there and then, with no wait for delivery. But Game have done everything in their power not to exploit this advantage.

Finding a game more than 6 months old that isn't a pre-owned FIFA or Call of Duty in a branch of Game is a rare event. Shelf-space is used so as to maximise the visual prominence of a small number of titles; the exact same titles that the supermarkets are carrying at vastly lower prices. Indeed, the range of games carried is barely wider than that of the supermarkets; if indeed it's wider at all. A few years ago, Game shifted from a spine-out shelving model for most of their games to a face-out model. They also abandoned the A-Z section for a "Top 20 and a few hangers on" model. This is a vastly inefficient use of space. It maximises Game's weaknesses vs the other retail models and minimises their advantages. Most of the bookseller chains in the UK did the same thing; and most of them have now gone bust. Waterstones, the sole specialist survivor, have begun to shift back towards a spine-out display model with a wider range of stock - I'm guessing this is a survival strategy.

On balance, Game was never going to be able to get out of giving a degree of emphasis to the latest big-name AAA title - nor would it want to. But it needed to keep these mega-games confined to a smaller section of the store, accepting that they were always going to play second fiddle to Amazon and the supermarkets in this area. They needed to do more to emphasise their ability to supply smaller, niche titles and to grow public interest in games outside of the well-known AAA bracket.

If you walked into a specialist music store and found nothing but Westlife and N-Dubz CDs, you'd walk right out again. But that's basically what Game did within their sector.

Going for the wrong customers

When you're deciding which customers you want to attrack, it kind of helps to make sure that they do actually have money to spend. Survey data consistently shows that most games today are purchased by relatively affluent adults in the 25-40 age. You'd have thought that Game would go all-out to target this market. Instead, the emphasis remained firmly upon teenagers and adults at the "lowest common denominator" end of the spectrum.

As recently as five years ago, most branches of Game had at least one member of staff who actually knew games, knew the industry and knew what customers were likely to want. They'd be able to offer customers intelligent advice - whether they were a parent buying a game for a child, or an enthusiast looking for something new in a particular genre. These days, all you get from the staff is a memorised pitch for why you should buy the latest FIFA. I am not a football (soccer) fan. I don't look like one. In fact, I have a burning hatred for the stupid game that threatens to consume me with an all-devouring flame every time it is so much as mentioned. But every time I go into Game, one of the staff tries to sell me FIFA.

I'm not necessarily blaming the staff for this. It might be that Game is recruiting from lower down the food chain than it used to. But it might not. If I had to guess, I would say that their policy these days is to deprive staff of any degree of discretion in how they deal with customers, instead insisting that they all follow the latest marketing-department mandated script. For anybody who knows games, or who wants something that isn't the latest AAA release, it can make shopping in Game extremely frustrating.

Combined with the emphasis on pre-owned and a general decline in the physical quality (cleanliness, spacing, in a few unfortunate cases, smell) of many of their stores, this has certainly been a tipping point for me a couple of times in deciding that I can wait a few days for an Amazon delivery, rather than going into a store.

I've got money to spend. If you've ready any of my previous journal entries, you'll know I buy a lot of games - I have a well paid job and can afford to. I'll even jump through some of Game's hoops. I don't mind pre-ordering too much (and will generally do it if there's a nice bonus). I may not do the pre-owned thing often, but I've done it on occasion. I can be tempted into impulse purchases. And yet Game seem to want to keep me out of their stores, in favour of kids with the odd bit of pocket money.

Too many stores

Now this one is just stupid. Game spent the early part of the last decade buying up all of the competition. That's not necessarily a bad way of doing business (though it tends not to be good for customers). What is stupid, however, is keeping open each and every one of the stores you buy. The centres of most reasonably sized towns these days have two or three branches of Game/Gamestation, where a single (possibly slightly larger) store would suffice. Manchester's Trafford Centre has two branches so close that you can actually peer out the door of one into the other.

Just... why?

And in conclusion

As I said at the start, Game may survive in more or less its current form. It's looking unlikely, but not impossible. Furthermore, not all of its problems are of its own making; there are some fundamental problems in the industry that would be making for tough times however well the company had been managed. But oh my word it has made some absolute howlers over the last few years.
PlayStation (Games)

Journal Journal: Thoughts ahead of the UK Vita launch

The Sony Vita is out next week, replacing the aging PSP. Regular readers of my slashdot posts or this journal will not be surprised to learn that I have a pre-order.

Before going any further, let me set out my stall and make two things clear:

1) I think that the Vita looks like a fantastic little machine and I cannot wait to own one.

2) I strongly expect the Vita to be a commercial failure.

To explain the latter point; I think that Apple and others have gone too far in defining people's price expectations for mobile gaming - and the functionality of mobile devices- for another "full priced games" dedicated gaming handheld to succeed. The 3DS is managing reasonable sales figures in Japan (still poor in the rest of the world) on the basis of the sort of massive, swinging price-cut that Nintendo has never had to make before. Its software sales, in global terms, remain pathetic. Indications from Japan are that the Vita is doing even worse. I would suspect that, for reasons of gaming tastes, the Vita will do slightly better internationally than in Japan, but I don't expect it to succeed.

I look at my 3DS games (Pilotwings, Ridge Racer, Dead or Alive, Zelda and Starfox) and consider their price; not one of those games cost me less than £35 and several of them cost me £40. How many of them were, on reflection, worth that? None of them. How many of them were worth half that? Maybe Dead or Alive and Zelda. At a push.

Now, ok, Nintendo don't have the best of records of offering value for money on games (they're often a bit content-light on first-party titles given the price tags), but still... when I can pick up relatively full-featured RPGs, platform games and shooters on my iPad for a couple of pounds, the 3DS price-points seem ludicrous.

Sony have been putting a lot of time and effort - quite understandably - into telling people that it's different with the Vita. That those titles which go out with a £40 price-tag will be direct equivalents to PS3 games with the same price-tag. Maybe they're right. But looking at the prices of their launch titles, I do wonder...

Uncharted is £40. Now that's a title which clearly falls into the bracket of "games supposed to be as good as they would be on the PS3". It's a big budget third person shooter - a genre which will benefit massively from twin analogue sticks and which, despite some hesitent attempts, nobody has managed to make work on a touch-screen device. Maybe they can make a case for that one.

But then Lumines is £35. Really? Because while Lumines on the PSP was great, we're a lot of years on from that now. Moreover, it's a genre where I could find any number of equivalents for just a couple of pounds each on my iPad.

Wipeout is £30. That's a lower price point, yes. But it's still higher than the price that Sony has been charging for downloadble Wipeout games on the PS3. That's always going to feel like gouging.

If I were in Sony's shoes, I might want to be defending the position that full-featured games on a par with their PS3 equivalents could sell at the same price point - that could be useful in encouraging third party developers to put the time and resource they need into making technically accomplished games. But below that top tier, I'd be getting much more aggressive. My view: Wipeout should be selling for £20 and Lumines for £10 or less. At those price points, they'd be starting to get competitive with the competition over in the App Store.

Anyway, enough about why I think the Vita (and 3DS) will ultimately fail. Time for a few thoughts on the machine itself; and why I'm looking forward to getting mine so much.

Dual analogue sticks - at last. This is a really, really major thing. It throws wide open the range of genres that the Vita can now comfortably accommodate. As with the full-sized home consoles, it should be able to provide a perfectly competent platform for pretty much any genre bar the RTS. Actually, no, scratch that qualification. It's by no means impossible that the rear touch-screen could be made into a servicable RTS controller. People have tried first and third person shooters on the PSP - they're awful. They've tried to imitate twin-stick shoot-em-ups. Those are even worse. I know that Nintendo have released an addon for the 3DS that adds a second analogue stick - but frankly, the success record of addons for consoles - let alone handhelds - is pitiful, so I don't expect that to ever be even vaguely relevant.

And those graphics and that screen - the PSP's screen was impressive when it launched. The Vita's is undeniably better. And it's big. The 3DS's screens are an improvement on the nasty ones in the original DS, but they're still far too small, relative to the size of the unit itself. I've had the chance - briefly - to see the Vita's screen in action and oh my word it is nice. The lack of headache-inducing 3D is... so far as I'm concerned, a major bonus.The Sony Vita is out next week, replacing the aging PSP. Regular readers of my slashdot posts or this journal will not be surprised to learn that I have a pre-order.

Anyway, I'll post some thoughts after picking the machine up next week.
PlayStation (Games)

Journal Journal: As Final Fantasy 13-2 approaches... reflections on FF13

Final Fantasy 13 Part 2 gets its UK release on Friday. As it happens (for largely coincidental reasons related to my attempts to navigate the labyrinthine process of actually buying a house) I have the day off work, as well as the subsequent Monday. These aren't "days off" in the "sit around playing video games all day" sense, but I should get the chance to put in more hours to the game than I would with normal working days. Old Republic permitting, of course.

Direct sequels to main-series Final Fantasy games are not as unthinkable as they used to be. FF10 got a direct sequel, which I actually liked a lot. It had a very different tone to FF10, but it also had a level of old-school hard-core challenge that was missing from many Japanese RPGs of its era. FF12 got a sort-of continuation in the form of Revenant Wings on the DS. I quite liked that one, but I think it struggled to establish its storyline. And, while a prequel rather than a sequel, there was FF7: Crisis Core. That one I did like - a lot. It fleshed out a lot of detail around the plot of FF7, while also providing a damned good story in its own right. I guess there was FF7: Dirge of Cereberus as well - but that one was so utterly awful that I'm going to pretend it never existed.

Anyway, for a series which, despite the escalating numbers-in-titles, was known for a long time for "not doing sequels", Final Fantasy has shifted a lot in recent years. So in one sense, FF13-2 shouldn't come as a shock. And yet...

Let's be honest here. FF13 was not a good game. Not even remotely. While I wouldn't, perhaps, go as far as Destructoid's wonderfully-written 4/10 demolition of it, there's no denying that it was a huge let-down. Combined with the truly dismal outsourced FF14 MMO (which I would struggle to justify rating even as high as 1/10), it played a big part in the trashing that the reputations of both Final Fantasy and Square-Enix have been through recently.

As a recap for those who missed FF13 or have blotted it from their memories - the game was linear. But aren't all Final Fantasy games (aside from the MMOs) linear? Kind of. But not like this. Every previous installment has included options for exploration, side-quests and treasure hunting. Yes, you're locked into a plot that is fundamentally on-rails (which is fine - if a game has a story it should tell it how it thinks best), but there's always the opportunity to look around a bit and have fun along the way. The extent to which this was possible has varied a lot over the years. FF6 had extensive optional sidequests once the player reached the World of Ruin. FF7 had its huge materia quests, its chocobo racing, battle areas and any number of other little distractions. FF10 was perhaps the most linear of the earlier games, reserving most of its sidequesting for relatively late in the game, but once you got there, there was a lot to do, some of it quite varied (such as Blitzball). Then there was FF12, which went so far in the direction of open-world gameplay that it started to feel almost like a singleplayer MMO - which I found really interesting and - once I got into the flow of it - fun to play.

By contrast, the experience of playing FF13 can be summed up thus: run down a corridor for 25 hours, break out into a small room for the next 5 hours, then go back into a final 5 hour corridor. That small room had a small amount of optional exploration, but within very, very tightly confined parameters. Combined with a combat system that was pretty much on rails outside of a couple of boss fights, it made the game feel like an experience that only tolerated the player at best, keeping him at arm's length from any actual involvement.

This was - as was hinted at strongly in several post-release interviews with FF13's development team - a game that was developed by artists. It was a game which, by Square-Enix's own admission, had twice the number of art assets created that were actually needed for the game before anybody even started to think about game mechanics, level design and storyline. Curiously, for a game that had a colossal budget, FF13 was starved of resource. It was starved of good project managers, game designers and testers - most of whom were presumably working on Square's never-ending succession of middling handheld titles. It was a jaw-droppingly beautiful game in places, but there was barely a single iota of fun in the entire package.

Don't get me wrong; there were some things I liked about it. Despite the bright, colourful visuals, it had probably the darkest plot of any Final Fantasy game (surpassing even FF10 which was, by its own admission, all about death). Some of its characters were surprisingly well written, despite initially seeming shallow. Sasz is probably the best example; despite starting the game looking like a crude racial stereotype (much like FF7's Barrett), he goes on to have one of the most complex and best-written character arcs I've seen in any game. Lightning was also significantly more complicated than her original "powerhouse" persona lets on - and after the indecisive protagonists the series is known for, it was nice to have a main character with such clear goals.

That said, the plot in general failed to hold together. The narrative was fractured and disjointed. I appreciate the intention to avoid large info-dumps on the player straight away, but the game took far too long to reveal information about the world and back-story which were known to the entire cast. Moreover, having established a world constrained by some strict rules, the writers then boxed themselves into a corner, to the point that the only way they could find to end the game was a fairly ludicrous Deus Ex Machina.

I'm therefore ambivalent about FF13-2. On the one hand, nothing that Square-Enix have developed (as opposed to published) recently has given me much confidence in the company. On the other hand, there was just enough that I liked in FF13 to make me curious as to what could be done via a properly managed sequel. It used to be that new Final Fantasy games were an automatic purchase for me. FF13 and FF14, combined with a succession of mediocre handheld spinoffs, has put an end to that. Future purchases are - as with most other games - now dependant upon reviews and word of mouth (only Bioware and Turn 10 are in my "free pass" category these days, and Bioware are on thin ice after Dragon Age 2). That said, the early reviews of FF13 have been just about interesting enough to justify a pre-order.

I'll post some more thoughts after I've played it.
PC Games (Games)

Journal Journal: Star Wars: The Old Republic - an attempt at balance

I posted a "first thoughts" piece on Star Wars: The Old Republic not that long ago. Since then, there seems to have been a bit of an escalating war of words around the game. Now, admittedly, as with all cases "oh noes, an argument on teh intarwebs", there is a slight air of a storm in a teacup around this. However, if you play the game or if you follow the usual gaming news sites, you'll almost certainly have picked up on it, so I thought I'd set my own views out.

Basically, a couple of gaming news sites - particularly Eurogamer, whose coverage I normally have a lot of time for - have been giving TOR a very hard time, with a string of highly critical articles. At the same time, as is ever the case in flamewars, a large number of fans of the game (and Bioware) have been flooding forums with rabidly worded defences. It's all been brought to a bit of a head by the game's 1.1 patch. In theory, this patch should have been a good thing; it added the some chunky new end-game content and picked up a bunch of bugs.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with MMO patches (and Skyrim patches), it added a bunch of bugs of its own. The most serious of these related to changes to the graphics engine, which caused a series of performance, visual quality and stability issues for quite a number of users. Indeed, I was affected here; the newly added anti-aliasing, when enabled, resulted in the game inflicting a couple of hard-locks (requiring a hard reboot) on my normally extremely stable (liquid cooled but not overclocked) gaming PC. Disabling the anti-aliasing fixed this for me, but other users are still reporting problems with screen-flicker, crashes and much reduced framerates. That said, I do believe Bioware when they say that only a of minority users with specific hardware configurations were affected. A straw poll of 20 or so people online in my guild last night revealed only 3 (including myself) who were reporting anything more than minor framerate issues (though those were more widespread). Bioware do need to get these issues sorted.

The other bugs introduced basically related to PvP - having not gone heavily into this side of the game, I'm not 100% familiar with how they work. It seems that changes that were made to some of the games out-door PvP further exacerbated an existing bias in favour of the Empire faction and introduced some exploits that allowed for the very rapid accumulation of PvP currency. This was actually fixed within about 48 hours, but the response it generated seems to have defied belief. Egged on by OTT coverage on sites such as Eurogamer, there's been some real hysteria about this, with threats to cancel subscriptions and demands for resignations at Bioware.

For god's sake, get some perspective here. This was a bug - fixed within 48 hours - in a newly launched MMO which is in most other respects working very well. In fact, aside from the US launch of Final Fantasy XI (which had already been running for a year in Japan at the time), I have never known a smoother MMO launch. Lord of the Rings Online launched reasonably well, but even that had some significant server issues for the first few months. Aside from scheduled maintenance, I haven't hit a single server problem with TOR in almost a month of regular play. World of Warcraft was, by all accounts, pretty much non-functional for its first couple of months, and even when I quit in April 2010, Blizzard's response to major bugs was slower than that which Bioware have (so far, on the basis of limited evidence) seemed to demonstrate.

Anyway, moving on from bugs and patches, I'm now significantly further into the game than I was last time I posted. I "dinged" level 49 last night and at some point this weekend, I will reach level 50 - the highest level currently possible in the game. This is probably a good time to take stock and - amid all the hysteria being thrown around about the game from both sides - post some honest thoughts on how I've found things. I'll take this in three chunks: "the good", which sets out the stuff I've really liked, "the bad", which sets out the more serious problems I've encountered and "the ugly" - the small and potentially easily resolved frustrations which nevertheless feel a bit odd and undermine the experience a bit.

The Good

The storyline stuff has continued to be really effective. I understand that once you get past chapter 1 (which will happen at around level 25 or so for most players), the class-based storylines start to deviate from each other rather less than they did during the prologue and chapter 1. However, the plot is still effective and rattles along at a good pace. The main plot stands up well as an addition to the KOTOR canon and it's fun to note the little references in there to the wider expanded universe (such as the Thrawn Trilogy, the New Jedi Order series, and even older games such as X-Wing and TIE Fighter). The expanded universe obviously varies wildly in quality (Kevin J. Anderson is a kind of literary fecal Midas - everything he writes turns into crap), but I'd rather that a Star Wars game draw on that than on the prequel movies and the other dross that Lucas had a more direct hand in.

Space missions - a lot of people were disappointed that, for the time being at least, the only space combat in the game comes in the form of single-player rail-shooter missions. I agree that I'd like to see more freedom in space combat in the longer term (and particularly some PvP space combat). However - I love rail shooters! (Yes, I know this puts me in a minority). I find the game's current space missions a really fun break from the more routine questing and just wish that there were more of them.

Flashpoints - for the most part, these are great. They're well plotted (the designers have really thought hard about how to make story sequences work well in a multiplayer setting) and have some great fight design. There's one battle in particular, in the middle of the "Mandalorian Raiders" flashpoint, against a party of 4 enemies. The design of this fight is clever by the standards of WoW's end-game bosses, let alone the tank-and-spank stuff from WoW's levelling instances.

Challenge - I said in my previous post that what I'd seen in TOR is harder than the equivalent WoW content. I still stand by this assessment. Flashpoints can be seriously challenging and even solo plot quests can require a lot of focus. I know that this might put off a few players, but I think that it will prove healthy in terms of player retention as more people start reaching the level cap. In WoW, you could reach the level cap without having a clue how to play your class, resulting in you being locked out of doing any real end-game content for a long time. In Old Republic, most people approaching level 50 will have had to learn at least some of the theorycraft behind their class - even if they haven't actively thought about it in those terms.

Companions - these are great. Not just for the dialogue, though that is often amusing. What these really do is allow you to construct a balanced party for questing - when you're playing solo. This is immensely important. Not only does it relieve some pressure on Bioware to keep tweaking balance at lower levels, it also means that, unlike in WoW, it is entirely plausible to level up as a tank or healer, using your companion to provide the dps. This is going to be massively helpful for the early days of end-game play, as players aiming to play as tanks or healers will already know how those specs work, rather than having to start learning afresh at level 50.

The upgrade schedule - Bioware have set themselves a really ambitious content-addition schedule. If they can stick to it - and the evidence so far suggests they will - then I'm very impressed indeed.

The Bad

While the storyline is good, the quests themselves can suffer from a serious lack of variety. This is amplified by the fact that enemy design and placement is so utterly consistent. You will, whichever planet you are on, find that enemies tend to stand around in clusters of 4-5 normal enemies, or a "silver" enemy and a normal enemy, or a "gold" enemy on his own. With very rare exceptions, once you have learned your optimal cycle of cooldowns and abilities, you will use that for every single fight. I'm not saying that Bioware need to throw in some weird Plants vs Zombies quest-chains like Blizzard did, but a bit more imagination about the actual activities that players do while questing would have been very welcome.

PvP balancing - no, not the actual PvP play itself. I don't play MMOs for PvP and I don't care about it. What I do care about, however, is having my character's stats and abilities constantly changed by the developer because of the need to maintain PvP balance. This was one of the factors that drove me out of WoW and it's disappointing to see that Bioware look like following suit.

The UI - it's not a disaster. In some way's, it's better than the default WoW UI. But until 3rd party modding arrives (and it hasn't yet), you're stuck with this UI. And it's missing a lot. Explaining the concept of "threat" to new players when there's no threat-meter is not easy. The Auction House UI is particularly bad and needs an immediate overhaul to allow for free searches. There's also a desperate need for a matchmaking tool to help players find groups for flashpoints.

The Ugly

Patching and stability - I touched upon this above and was pleading for people to take a more restrained view. However, this game did manage to *hard lock* my system twice, within 24 hours of the 1.1 patch going live. This is a system that does not otherwise hard-lock. Skyrim has had a few crashes to desktop, but then, I gather that's par for the course with Skyrim. Whatever they did to the graphics engine in the 1.1 patch (and I've solved my problem by disabling the anti-aliasing) needs a rapid revisiting.

The crafting system needs a bit of work. The actual end-point crafting stuff is fine, and has some clever ideas (like the recipie discovery stuff), but the crew missions system is slow and pointless.

Spaceports. Ugh. Seriously, they all look the same, they take forever to run through and they're just a colossal pain in the backside. If a guild-mate asks for help with a quest on another planet then, all things being equal, I'd like to help out. But the thought of having to do a spaceport run at both ends is actually a pretty big incentive for me to just sit on my hands. Part of WoW's success was down to its ruthlessness in getting rid of mini-timesinks like that, allowing players to focus on the fun stuff. Bioware need to learn that lesson.

And to sum up...

This is a very solid MMO launch - better than I had expected. Hysterical criticisms and predictions of imminent doom are completely misplaced. At the same time, this is not a perfect product. There are problems in there. Some of these will be easily resolved, others seem to relate to more fundamental design decisions. My inclination right now is to stick with the game and see where it ends up in 6 months or so.
User Journal

Journal Journal: Reflections on looking at some (very) old posts.

In the process of drafting this comment I had to do a quick dive into my post history, to remind myself of just when I'd started posting from this account. When I did so, I got caught up in reading a few of my posts from my early days as a slashdot participant. It's often slightly uncomfortable to read something you wrote many years ago - and this is no exception. Ok, ok, this isn't quite up there with cringe-worthy high school essays, but still, there are times I wince at just how young I sound in some of those posts (I was early 20s and relatively new to the "real world" of work when I started reading slashdot).

There's a real sense of self-certainty to some of those old posts that I don't think is still around. My early-20s self was clearly very fond of big, bold sweeping statements, backed up by little or no evidence. It's no wonder I felt like I fit right in around here.

Anyway, having read through a few of those olders posts, I thought I'd submit myself to some further humiliation by checking up on some of those bold statements and confident predictions I made back then and seeing how they stacked up in the face of reality, several years along.

Let's start with a few of the things I got wrong:

World of Warcraft is all hype and will die off quickly after an initial spurt of interest - Yeah, whoops. Here we are at the start of 2012 and it's only really over the last 6 months that WoW's subscriber numbers have started to decline. Bearing in mind that the historic trend for MMOs seems to be for them to spend two thirds of their active life with a gradually declining user-base, it's hard to see how I could possibly have been wider than the mark than I was on this one. Reading my other posts at the time, I was a huge fan of Final Fantasy XI and I suspect that there were some partisan... verging on fanboyish... motives driving my posts there.

That's not to say that my position was completely unreasonable or that I was the only one to take it. WoW had a pretty rocky launch; server performance was famously dismal for the first 6 months or so and end-game content was extremely slow to emerge. However, the swell of public enthusiasm for the game was so great that it was clearly wrong to doubt that it would succeed eventually.

Steam is rubbish and doomed - Now admittedly, I did change my tune on this one after a relatively short time. And it wasn't as if I didn't have any evidence - Half Life 2's launch on Steam was indeed extremely rocky. Indeed, it would be several years before the Steam client became robust enough, and the range of games available wide enough, to make Steam an essential for a PC gamer. However, I did badly underestimate Valve's drive to make it work.

PC gaming is doomed/about to become dominant - Slightly oddly, I seem to have predicted both of these in close succession on a number of occasions. I suspect I was generally being contrarian and going against a parent poster who had irritated me. I think over time, I've come to see PC gaming as cyclical; it becomes more prominent late in the console cycle, when developers are board of the aging console hardware, then fades into the background again when the console cycle resets itself.

Nintendo is doomed (said during the Gamecube era) - Kind of. I admit I did not see the incredible sales that the Wii chalked up in its first 2-3 years coming. However - I think I may have been wrong in terms of timing rather than end-point here. More on this later.

Square-Enix know what they are doing - Oh how I wish I'd been right. But I wasn't. It's not just Final Fantasy 13 and 14 that soured me. It's the company's utter failure to come to grips with the current console generation and its pathetic retreat into a low-budget handheld comfort zone for some of its strongest franchises (particularly the Kingdom Hearts series).

The PSP will be the dominant handheld - I was only partly wrong on this one. The PSP was actually a huge success for Sony. It chalked up the kind of unit sales that only Nintendo handhelds had previously managed - even if it did lose to the DS (which broke all previous records). However, outside of Japan, it failed to make a really lasting impact on the gaming scene. I blame this heavily on the "second line" of the game releases. The system had a good launch line-up and got a lot of interesting titles over time. But for about 12 months after its launch, there were only a few releases and most of them were racing games. The system lost momentum and - in the West at least - never really recovered. My view now is that both the 3DS and the Vita probably need to be considered failures. The iPad and iPhone are the dominant handheld gaming consoles (though not without their own set of issues and frustrations).

Now, having subjected myself to all of that, I suppose I should recognise that there were also a few things I called right.

The Wii will lose momentum and leave Nintendo in a difficult situation - Has now happened, as demonstrated through Nintendo's annual results. Nintendo opted to take the fast cash in this console generation, putting out a machine which was cheap and interesting early on and racking up incredible early sales. Then people got bored of the control gimmick and the technology fell so far behind the curve that developers stopped bothering. If Nintendo had a successor ready to go somewhere towards the end of 2009 (or even early 2010) they would have made an absolute killing. But they didn't. Now they've had to gamble their company's future participation in the home console market on the Wii-U - a device without much public interest, based around an unclear concept, scheduled to launch at the worst possible time.

The 360 and PS3 will more or less stalemate - Which is more or less what's happened. I don't think I've ever known two competitors in the console wars that had less to set them apart. While the hardware under the hood is massively different, both systems are neck and neck in terms of performance, games library and global sales.

For a Star Wars MMO to really work, it needs an Old Republic setting (and Bioware should make it) - My word, I called most of that early (admittedly, I only got to Bioware later, but still long before the announcement of The Old Republic). But even when Galaxies was still relatively fresh and new, I pointed out that lore reasons would always make a movie-era MMO an uncomfortable fit. Bioware's Old Republic setting, which felt palpably "Star Wars", but without being tied to a particular set of characters and events, was always going to be a better option. The Old Republic's initial sales figures would appear to validate the view that the buying public is happy to accept this. I have once ventured that a New Jedi Order setting could also be made to work. I think that's probably right, but it was always going to be the trickier proposition.

High street games retailers will commit a slow form of suicide - Ok, we're not quite there yet, but financial results appear to show it's happening. Since I first started predicting this 4-5 years ago, the experience of using high-street shops has gotten steadily worse. Grubby stores (particularly in the US, more than the UK), generally useless staff (with the odd honourable exception), a huge focus on pre-orders and pre-owned - all of these are driving older (and more affluent/bigger spending) shoppers away from Gamestop and Game and towards Amazon and the download outlets.
PC Games (Games)

Journal Journal: Retrospective: Battle Isle series

I'm not much of a retro-gamer, really. By and large, I'm happy to have the latest shiny, commercially developed game to distract me. However, I do get the occasional urge to play an old game from my youth; urges which GoG.com tends to make it remarkably easy to satisfy.

I got one of these urges towards the back end of last year, as a result of which I found myself replaying some of the games in Blue Byte's Battle Isle series. Actually, I should qualify the word "replaying" - while I put a lot of hours into these games in my teens, I was never able to complete even one of them. Just about getting to the half-way point of their campaigns was as much as I could manage.

These are fairly obscure games, so I guess that I'd better stop at this point and give a bit of history. The Battle Isle games started out as hex-based turn-based strategy games. If you've ever played Nintendo's Advance Wars series, then you will have a very basic idea of what the game-structure was like, though Battle Isle was substantially more sophisticated than the later, portable offering.

At any rate, the first three games in the series all fit into this mould quite neatly - though not without some variations. The original Battle Isle, as well as its spin-off Battle Isle 93 (whose name serves to date the series quite handily) focussed on 2-side battles, either between a player and the AI, or between two players. Aside from a bit of background exposition in the manual setting out a war between the Drullian people and the rogue AI Titan Net (basically Skynet), the games were basically plot-less. In this first installment, both players would be acting simultaneously; one player in a "movement turn" in which he would move his units around the map, the other in an "action turn", in which he would order his units to attack, repair each other and so on. When the turn ended, any battles that had been queued up by the "action turn" player would play out on-screen and the roles would then reverse for the next turn.

While the split-turn system is interesting (and a lot of fun with two players huddled around a single PC), the original Battle Isle is of relatively little interest today. The maps are small, the range of units is quite limited and there's no narrative to the campaign, which is just a series of disjointed missions pitting the human player against ever greater numerical odds. Where the series was got really fun - and where I started in earnest with my replay, after a cursory scan of BI1, was with the sequel.

Battle Isle 2 was in some senses a more traditional turn based strategy than its predecessor. The split-turn system was gone, in favour of a round-robin system for turns, with both movement and action taking place in the same turn (for those units which could both move and fight on the same turn). This did render the game a little less distinctive, but it also allowed for more complicated 3+ faction battles.

Which is a good link into the next big twist that BI2 brought to the table - proper storytelling. The campaign was now held together by a proper story. Cutscenes, with a mixture of CG and hand-drawn animation (which was impressive for the mid-90s) were interspersed between the missions, while "talking heads" would pop up during the missions themselves to encourage, threaten or inform the player. Mission objectives became more flexible, with the traditional conquest missions being supplemented by missions centred on evading or escaping from an overwhelming enemy force, or slipping through enemy lines to capture an objective. The story was nothing spectacular, but it was effective enough, particularly in the expansion pack, which focussed more on character development.

The battles themselves feel a little bit odd to the modern gamer. The hex-based, turn-based system is clearly a long way removed from today's fast paced RTSes. However, in some respects, the flow of battle feels more realistic than many modern strategy games. There's no base building - and only rudimentary resource collection. On many missions, the player's resources will be provided at a fixed rate throughout the mission and the player will need to make his starting forces (which are far more substantial than those typically seen in a modern RTS) make a lot of the running. Units gain experience as they survive battles (provided they inflict damage on the enemy in doing so) and experience has an overwhelmingly huge impact on their effectiveness; meaning that keeping veteran units alive is hugely significant. Experience can be carried between missions and used to provide free training for selected units in future missions. Units need to be kept supplied with fuel and ammunition and the player may need to use support units to build roads and rails to allow some units to advance, and use transporters to carry particularly slow units into battle.

BI2 greatly expanded the range of units available; air and naval combat (including submarines) were both included. Later missions would require the player to make complicated landing operations against well fortified enemy positions, using air support appropriately. Radar and jamming vehicles could help dispel (or draw in) the fog of war.

The AI was rather rudimentary in places. While it tended not to do anything obviously stupid, it suffered from over-aggression. It could generally be tricked into giving up strong defensive positions in favour of unwise attacks against the player early in each mission. Replaying the game as an adult, rather than a teenager, I quickly noticed that I could win many missions by creating a kill-zone composed of tanks supported by artillery, letting the enemy sacrifice its advantage by moving to me first (artillery and many other heavy units cannot move and attack on the same turn), then launching a counter-offensive once the initial storm had passed. A couple of the later missions have tight turn limits that force more aggressive action, but those do tend to present less overwhelming enemy numbers than the early missions.

BI2 has, in many ways, stood up pretty well to the test of time. The graphics remains clear and functional - though the (optional) 3d battle sequences haven't aged so well. The UI is very much a product of the DOS gaming era, but is among the better examples of its type. Keyboard control generally felt better to me than mouse input, but I could get by with either. The expansion pack adds more units and a bit more variety in terms of mission objectives. Having played through both of them (and certainly found the later missions of both the base game and the expansion to be challenging but not infuriating), I actually enjoyed them hugely. This isn't a game you can play in short bursts - later missions may last 6 hours or more and need substantial concentration - but it's challenging and rewarding.

Battle Isle 3, however, is an odd beast. The basic game formula has changed remarkably little since BI2, but this is a game that feels very much a product of its time. It suffered from two big problems with its timing; one affecting its interface, the other its reception. The latter (and - for the retro-gamer - less serious issue) related to Command & Conquer, which released almost simultaneously with BI3 and turned PC strategy gaming on its head. Nobody was much interested in hex-based gaming at a time when C&C had shown what could be done in a more free-flowing, dynamic system with a decent drag-click interface and multiplayer (things which Dune 2, while also revolutionary, had lacked).

The interface issue was serious at the time and feels even more serious in hindsight. BI3 launched just at the time when PC gaming was starting the transition from being primarily DOS based to being primarily Win3.11/Win95 based. It was a Windows game, which recommended Win95 (but would run at a pinch under 3.11). It had an interface that probably felt, at the time, like the future. Rather than a single game-screen with pop up menus available when required, everything moved into lots of little windows - none of which could be maximised (and which it was very difficult to get comfortably positioned). You had the map in one window, the minimap in another, unit info in a further window and further windows for looking inside buildings and transports. Control was now mouse-only and involved a hell of a lot of clicking. In short, despite some enhancements to the 3d battle sequences and the option of using higher resolutions, the whole thing was a mess.

This was exacerbated by the decision to use FMV cutscenes, which were very much the rage at the time (think Command & Conquer, Wing Commander 3, Rebel Assault and so on). Unfortunately, Blue Byte never had the budget to do these well, so they settled for doing them badly. Dreadful acting, tinfoil costumes and cardboard sets dominate. To make matters worse, the cutscenes were clearly recorded in another language and then dubbed - badly - into English. The horribly accented English dialogue doesn't even vaguely synch to the characters' lip movements. The story being told is actually quite good - more complicated than BI2's, with shifting factional and individual loyalties that put me somewhat in mind of something like Gundam Wing - but the execution is so horrible that it can be hard to focus on it.

All of this is a bit of a pity, because the game at the heart of BI3 is actually pretty good. It doesn't overhaul the BI2 formula, but it does evolve it nearly in several places. The player now carries individual units (which can be named) between missions, with their experience intact - an even better incentive to keep key units alive. The AI was only tweaked rather than fundamentally rewritten, but the design of the missions made it much harder to exploit the known flaws in the AI's play. New units were interesting; many of the new units were unique to the player's army (ancient superweapons) and extremely powerful; but slow moving and impossible to replace mid-mission.

BI3 is a much harder game than its prequel - while the first few missions are fairly gentle, from about mission 5 or so (out of 20), the game throws very rapidly escalating odds at the player. If you can get past the UI and presentation issues and focus on the gameplay, this is an extremely enjoyable game. However, those are some pretty high hurdles to jump.

With its fourth installment, the series went for a radical departure. Battle Isle 4 - also known as Incubation - completely abandoned many of the concepts of its predecessors. While still a turn-based game, it was focussed on small squad tactics rather than strategic battles. Think Laser Squad - or the tactical sections from the X-Com games. At the time, a lot of fans of the series were horrified; with the growing dominance of the RTS genre, Incubation sent a strong signal that the days of the hex based strategy game were over.

Except that if you take it at face value, Incubation is an extremely good game. Its plot links to earlier installments in the series are thin (though they do exist), but it delivers a very different type of experience and does so very well. This is a game that has Aliens very much in its DNA - the player is controlling a small number of marines as they fight through an alien-infested colony, seeking first to investigate, then to attack and finally just to escape.

The FMV cutscenes are gone, replaced by game-engine scenes which, while dated technologically, are at least passable. The voice acting is much improved. While the game lacks the strategic planning side of the X-Com games, its tactical game benefits from being entirely designed, rather than randomly generated, allowing for some very clever mission design (and some intelligent puzzles). It's a tricky, unforgiving game with a steep learning curve, that requires the player to work out which weapons to use in particular situations quite quickly. Enemies are fast, relentless and, on many missions, will spawn indefinitely until and unless their spawn points are destroyed. The expansion pack goes a bit too far, being difficult to the point of near impossibility. But this is also a rewarding game. It throws a lot of variety at the player. There are some impressive bosses in the final missions, and interesting new weapons come available right the way through the campaign.

So while the game was received with horror by many series fans at the time of its release, it's probably more accessible than any of the other titles in the series to a modern gamer willing to look past its graphical deficiencies.

The final game in the series stepped back to its macro-strategic routes. Battle Isle 5: The Andosia War was a strange beast. It was a turn based strategy game, albeit one which abandoned the hex-based grids of the first three games in the series. It also incorporated a few real-time elements. In theory, it could have been great.

Unfortunately, it released in 2000, at a time when the strategy genre was going through something of a difficult transition, as it worked out how to adapt to the trend for 3d graphics. A lot of strategy games of this particular vintage hadn't yet worked out that in most cases (with honourable exceptions such as Homeworld, which I may post some thoughts on another day) the best way to treat 3d was as a purely graphical enhancement. Total Annihilation (to my mind, one of the best games ever made) worked this out. Later titles such as Warcraft 3 also worked it out. But a lot of strategy games at the time thought that they needed to give the player full - and horribly convoluted - camera control. BI5 is no exception. As such, controls and UI are a bit of a nightmare. Worse, it often feels like the core gameplay had been compromised in favour of technology. Despite being turn-based, this feels much more like the standard "build base, build army, steamroller enemy" flow of many RTSes. To my mind, it's a weak post-script to the series (despite some neat touches, such as the comic book-style cutscenes).

The Battle Isle games are available for a few dollars via GoG.com - the first four installments (and all of their expansions) are available in one package. Andosia War is sold separately. These games aren't going to be for everybody; they have a steep learning curve and don't provide even the slightest measure of instant gratification. However, if you're interested in checking out an obscure and still highly playable slice of gaming history, then the 1-4 package is very much worth a look, particularly given GoG's prices and admirable DRM-free ethos. Andosia War is perhaps harder to recommend as a stand-alone purchase - I'd suggest checking out the earlier installments in the series (particularly 2 and 4, which are excellent) first.

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The absence of labels [in ECL] is probably a good thing. -- T. Cheatham