Woods’ Weflexicon: 2012 in Gaming

… has been a bit shit, really. Like the non-prophesy that engulfed the minds of idiots everywhere for all of yesterday (and the many years leading up to it), 2012 in gaming has been, like the 21st December specifically, a matter of relentless promise left to fizzle out in blisteringly quick succession. It’s not as if there’s been nothing I’ve enjoyed from this year, but for one so seemingly packed-full of awaited-sequels and praised new entries it’s all been a bit underwhelming.

If I were to be fair – which I categorically refuse to be – then I’d admit that 2011 had Portal 2The Witcher 2Deus Ex: Human RevolutionSkyrim and Batman: Arkham City, three of which have easily become some of my favourite games of all the years, and so it was perhaps inevitable that 2012 would falter in my eyes. But even so, I can’t remember the last time I felt quite so neutral towards such a supposedly ‘good’ year.

Still, there remained beacons of impressiveness, so here’s a few begrudging thoughts on some of the year’s supposed highlights (also known as “the games I can remember off the top of my head”), for your own miserable consideration.

Journey

You’d think that Journey, going by the voices of internet commenters and critics alike, was the equivalent of peering into the abyss and being confronted by a 20-foot tall Kate Upton, all blonde and curvy and ruddy-well perfect. Moved to tears they all were; “this is proof of gaming as art!” they cried in chorus. Bad art, maybe. Boring art, bloody certainly.

A barely interactive, unambitious slice of generic pie, Journey has, I fear, claimed such accolades by looking pretty and acting a bit ethereal and not really saying anything whatsoever. Like the players it sets you next to, it is at its core an indistinct and unmemorable experience. Had it not received, and continued to receive, the reception it did, I’d have probably have forgotten all about it by now. Ineffectual and impotent.

Mass Effect 3

One of the biggies. A really quite wonderful creation offset by a disproportionately large furor over the fact that it had, quite shockingly for a video game, a pretty shit ending. Claims are sent this way and that about false advertising and how choices didn’t matter and blah blah blah. What I know is this: Mass Effect 3 is an ending. Every damn minute of it. And as a whole, it’s then divided into lots of little endings. True, the last miniature ending was probably the worst. But I’ve seen worse and I’ve no doubt I’ll see worse again.

What that last ending didn’t do was make me angry. It made me feel sick, genuinely anxious about facing that final firefight in the rubble of London, and possessively nostalgic for the characters and events of the series’ past. Few films I’ve seen  (although The Lord of the Rings comes to mind) have quite so gut-wrenchingly emulated the feeling of being marched towards your own doom, nor so devastatingly beaten characters into a ditch and forced them to push just that little bit further. And for that, I’m quite sure that I loved it.

Max Payne 3

I’ve reviewed a few games now (none on this site so far, bar Hitman: Absolution) and none have later left me so split on the praise I’d given them. Max Payne 3 is the single-best, straight-up third-person shooter I’ve ever played – when you actually get to play it. The rest of the time it’s a bombardment of overly-long, irritatingly frequent cutscenes too in love with its own, admittedly and annoyingly decent, writing.

DishonoUred

DishonoUred was to be my darling baby, but in the end it’s left me cold: mechanically exquisite it may be (and it is, for the most part), but its narrative ultimately proves so uninteresting, its characters so dull, that in the end I find myself difficult to be enthused by it post-play.

But then I remember all the hijinks I got up to freezing time; all the “WTF?!”‘s of the guards I possessed; the ridiculous, engineered suicides of my attackers; the time a patrolman caught me sneaking away with a body slung over my shoulder and blew himself up after throwing a whale oil tank to the ground to pull his sword on me. And then I chuckle, and chuckle more as I read about other people’s vignettes of silliness and imagination.

It may not have robbed my attention like it should have, nor created a world or narrative that drew me in as its forebears managed, but DishonoUred was an important game, and its success may, alongside that of Human Revolution’s, help resuscitate a genre that’s slowly looking to breathe regularly again.

Hitman: Absolution

A perfect contrast to DishonoUred, Shitman: Absolutely is what happens when a genuinely unique series is left in the hands of people who only half understand, or indeed care about, it. Not only is Absolution a terrible Hitman game but a legitimate fuck up in its own right, muddled with systems that are completely broken, right down to the bloody save system. Throw in a laughably fucking awful plot and watch as one of gaming’s greatest crumbles under a steaming pile of utter shit.

Spec Ops: The Line

Much like JourneySpec Ops managed to encourage of chorus of “Oh, look how fucking arty gaming is!”. Unlike Journey, it wasn’t shit. Whether it’s quite worth the PDF book someone’s apparently written analysing it or not (I fall firmly in the “Hellz Nuh” category), it was most certainly a pleasant surprise and a subversive little fucker, packed full of cues and subtleties hinting towards its big reveal.

Is it better than its similarly themed and similarly inspired counterpart, Far Cry 2? I’m not sure. Far Cry 2 certainly has the upper-hand in that it relentlessly adheres to making you live its every waking moment as your character must – to put it crudely, it’s more of a game – but then I suppose Spec Ops had something of Bioshock in its message/theme/idea as well, and its initial appearance as generic third-person shooter is key to its subversion.

In truth, I suspect the volume of its reception has been somewhat overblown, but not the nature of the reception itself.

Sleeping Dogs

A painfully unimaginative and average addition to its genre, Sleeping Dogs seems to have gotten praise simply because it all works better than GTA IV – not exactly a difficult task, considering GTA IV was 4 years ago and virtually none of it actually fucking worked. But instead of actually forging a crime epic that takes note from the double agent aspects of Splinter Cell: Double AgentSleeping Dogs establishes your character as an inside-man without making you actually play one.

An interesting concept wasted on safe-bets and a lack of aspiration, given free passage by a baying crowd of Yes-Men.

The Darkness II

A terribly short and engaging little number, The Darkness II was a bite-sized slice of self-contained cleverness and good writing. Whilst it wasn’t a blockbuster title, it did manage to evoke the balancing act of thoughtfulness and action that Christopher Nolan’s encouraged in that particular corner of the film industry. Touching and brutal in appropriate measure.

So there we are. I’ve left one particular game off for a Game of the Year post: maybe you know what it is, maybe you don’t. In any case, nobody actually cares what you think you know, Steve.

Merry fucking Christmas.

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Hitman: Absolution

Hitman: Absolution

Standing 5 feet and 11 generously-measured inches tall, weighing in at 160 lbs., and having lived on the mean streets of South East London for 2 whole months, I’d like to think that I’m not the most easily frightened person in the world. Of course, I’m not without concerns: spiders, human beings’ natural predators, give me the absolute willies, whilst  the threat of brain aneurisms is a constant concern. But all-in-all, I think I’m pretty well-rounded in the phobia arena. Still, I’m not immune to the fears of lesser men – usually a mild feeling of vertigo. But most recently? Claustrophobia. Only instead of fear, it’s inspired unparalleled levels of irritation inspired, a result of the “efforts” of the latest Hitman outing.

Where previous entries provided maps and disguises to allow inconspicuous and considerable planning, Absolution turns a series of patience and puzzling into a clumsily built stealth-shooter that incessantly tugs 47 along by the nuts. Gone are the satellite maps and effective disguises in the names of narrative and “realism”, butchered is the art of subtlety and freedom at the behest of set-pieces and spectacle. Hits – assuming you’re even give one, and then assuming you’re actually allowed to attempt it yourself instead of watching a cutscene – are no longer planned, but stumbled through blindly. Whilst Absolution may pretend that disguises are still relevant, guards can now almost-immediately see through them if they’re wearing the same thing: as most levels are occupied by only one NPC type, they become absolutely useless. When coupled with an annoyingly tight camera, levels which are mere corridor runs and the omniscient, forever scrutinising AI, the result is an infuriatingly constricting experience punctuated by my own sobs of what could – and ruddy well should – have been.

Absolution’s killing blow is its focus on plot. Fudging mechanics almost perfected by its predecessor over 6 years ago quite so spectacularly as it manages to do is one thing; doing so to give way for one of the single-most turgid, achingly stupid pieces of writing I’ve ever had to sit through and endure is another. Whilst the series has always held a peculiar fascination for its ridiculous clone mythology that’s not entirely dissimilar to that of a young boy’s for his dick, it’s never presented it in such an obnoxious, overbearing and flat-out laughable way. Likewise, where previous entries, Blood Money in particular, have used the hyper-sexualisation of incredibly obnoxious background characters to filter the world through the eyes of a near-enough asexual clone assassin, Absolution has you sit and watch as such pricks are endlessly rammed down your throat. It is suffocating.

Despite being a relentlessly irritating masterclass in laziness and misplaced priorities however, the accompanying, nausea-induced claustrophobia caused by Absolution’s design and narrative ultimately prove themselves to be entirely appropriate. Because if nothing else, playing Absolution is like watching the series choke and ‘bate itself to death in front of your very eyes. An insufferably self-indulgent piece of wank, from beginning to end.

Change for Change’s Sake

The internet is full of idiots. Websites to do with gaming, doubly so. Normally I find myself ignoring the majority of commenters for their sheer stupidity, and even the topics which truly tend to rile me up have, in recent months, trended towards being less successful in doing so. (Evidently, being a member of the first generation to grow up with the internet has led to my growing weary of certain topics far sooner than ever thought possible.) But with the recent release of the (utterly shit) Hitman: Absolution, I find myself challenged by an old nemesis.

Trawling the internet for reviews of 47’s latest adventure to laugh at (if positive) or bathe in a puddle of mournfulness with (if negative), I came across Polygon’s review. The review itself was, of course, wrong but, as I’ve said, such a positive response to such a rubbish game didn’t quite enrage me in the way it used to. Instead, my irritation arose with this comment:

The suggestion seems to be that asking for an adherence to a series’ actual set-up and gameplay is counter to asking for innovation and evolution. The suggestion is also horse shit, because these are not two ideas that counter one another in the slightest, nor do they make the person asking for them a hypocrite.

Hitman: Blood Money is widely regarded as the best game of the series, and yet it was in many ways very different to its predecessors. Almost all of the game’s effort was now spent on imagining mini-sandboxes in which to experiment, whilst any sense of linearity had been almost entirely vanquished. No more trekking through blizzards in Japan, no more instant-insertions into dangerous territories. Mission areas became mostly inhabited by civilians, and players were, more than ever, encouraged to poke about their environment, to think and plan before striking. Blood Money was at once relaxed and yet puzzling. It was, fundamentally, the same as its forebears: introducing change in order to fully realise the concept that the series had begun with, yet evolved away from the crap that had kept it down.

Hitman: Absolution, however, is a game that does not do that. It is linear, heavily story-driven (don’t worry, the story’s also shit), and very rarely even features a target that you have to kill; let alone a fully-realised, open area in which to do so methodically. In fact, there’s only one mission in the whole game that anywhere near approaches what the four previous games have done their best to achieve. Sure, it’s changed, but only in that it has regressed: and change for the hell of changing is not worthy of automatic praise or an XX% score boost; but then neither would a carbon copy of the previous entry be particularly laudable either.

The fact of the matter is that we should always encourage evolution as much as we should encourage a sense of pride in a series’ uniqueness, mission-statement (a fairly horrible phrase for a creative effort, but the best I can think of right now), and spirit. Neither is a contradiction of the other, but what progress is built on: it’s what gave us Blood Money, and it’s what was ignored to make Absolution such a crushing disappointment.