Jumping the Soapbox: Games of 2018 (Part 1)

Now that we’ve got the movies of 2018 out of the way, it’s time to tackle a subject I very much enjoy but have much less experience in.  Very rarely will I talk about video games on this site as my focus is almost exclusively on movies and television, but I do play a lot of games throughout the year and as a critic I can’t help but have opinions on them, so what I do is I save up ALL those thoughts and put them right here for you to enjoy!  Well, either enjoy or utterly detest me for.  I’ll take either one!  Let’s get started!!

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Call of Juarez: Gunslinger (PC)

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Developed by Techland

Man, was THIS a fun little surprise!  The only thing I know about the Call of Juarez series is that it was as series of ho-hum cowboy shooters that eventually jumped the shark when they went to modern day and made it SUPER racist.  This game on the other hand, while admitting that there is a level where you track down a Native American, seems to have been a total course correction or at least something of a soft reboot; a la when they did that 2D Blood Rayne Side Scroller or when Sonic the Hedgehog took a brief respite from being awful in Sonic Mania.  From what I saw of the other Juarez games, they were mostly drag and went for an authentic aesthetic where this game is all about charm, wit, and stylistic excess.  The character designs are bright and colorful which is not only more appealing but a practical improve since it makes them stand out more prominently against the landscapes, and the overall feel is that of an over the top spaghetti western; encouraging you to make the big moves and go in guns-a-blazing just to see if it’ll work.  That’s actually something I think game developers should explore a bit more; how aesthetics and style can change the way that players make decisions in the game which may be a more powerful incentive than more straightforward gameplay design incentives.  In something less fantastical and more serious I probably wouldn’t have even bothered dual wielding pistols and unloading them into a group of enemies when my trusty rifle can do the job with fewer bullets and at a safer distance.  With the visual design, the UI interface, and ESPECIALLY the story which is a series of flashbacks conveying a story that your player character is narrating as you play through it made me feel more inclined to try and be the BIG HEROTM than play practically.  It can be a bit buggy at times as I’m pretty sure I ran into one enemy who was shooting me through a wall, but despite its modest scale it’s still one of the most enjoyable First Person shooters I’ve played in a while!

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Destiny 2 (PS4)

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Developed by Bungie, Vicarious Visions, and High Moon Studios

Thank goodness for Playstation Plus’s free game program because otherwise I would have missed out on quite a few games this year including this one.  Now I’ve ALWAYS had a soft spot for the Halo franchise with Halo 3 having what is probably my favorite campaign out of any first person shooter (despite the story not making ANY sense which granted is nothing new for Halo) so it REALLY shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me that this game feels EXACTLY like Halo.  Oh sure there are some new bells and whistles, but the movement speed, the jump arcs, the weight and impact of the guns, heck even some of the animations were exactly as I had remembered them back in Halo 3 which is GREAT considering how much I love that style of first person combat.  However, gameplay is just one aspect of the overall package, and while that is top notch and still as fun as ever, I just couldn’t understand what the heck I was doing in the game.  Okay, so you have The Farm which is a hub world that could have EASILY been a menu, then you have the EARTH hub world which is like the first one only you shoot stuff, and then you have to find missions which I always had trouble doing, there were public events that were just utter chaos, and I was collecting things for reasons I couldn’t understand.  Is there a crafting system somewhere?  The HAS to be, right?  I mean why else would I be able to dismantle my weapons and switch out gear so frequently?  I don’t know, it was just kind of a big mess for me and a bit of a chore just to get to the REALLY good shooting parts (instead of just the inconsequential low level enemies roaming the open world) so I ended up spending most of my time in the PvP mode which made SO much more sense to me.  I liked the maps and the game modes were really great (I particularly liked Countdown) but then the REST of the game kind of got in the way of it again.  Maybe I’m just a HUGE egotist but it was really hard for me to accept that any of my loses were my own fault when the players I was up against apparently had one shot kill weapons and so anytime I was losing it felt even more bitter than in games where everyone had the same weapons and armor.  When I win though it’s ENTIRELY due to my SUPREME skills, bro!  Anyway, all this taught me is that I STILL like this kind of first person shooter gameplay but being rung through LIVE SERVICE continuous stat building minutia sours the experience.

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Detroit: Become Human (PS4)

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Developed by Quantic Dream

I’ve never been a big fan of David Cage games even before the news came out about Quantic Dreams’s terrible work environment.  I actually did play through all of Indigo Prophecy, but the ending underwhelming me so much that it’s one of the few games I’ve actually traded into a game store which might be the best way to wrap my head around his work.  The stories are engaging enough to keep my interests, but once it’s all said and done they’re rather hollow experiences.  That was ALMOST the case with this game where the Kara and Markus stories were fine and all and certainly had their intense moments, but where things ended up and some of the ridiculous story decisions, I didn’t really feel much for them at the end.  When we got to Connor’s story however, THAT’S when this thing started firing on all cylinders and I couldn’t get enough of it!  Seriously, I get to play as Clancy Brown’s robo-buddy solving mysteries together!?  That’s an oddly specific dream I never knew I had!  All this crap about android sentience and rights for artificial lifeforms?  PFFTT!  Who cares!?  I just want a buddy cop game with Clancy Brown and Bryan Dechart who does a surprisingly good job at conveying humor just through the way he awkwardly interacts with everyone.  Honestly, the issue really comes down to Markus’s story which ends up overtaking everything and I don’t know why they felt the need to go revolutionary with this story when the smaller character moments are what really sell this; even in Kara’s story which may have been overwrought but kept things to a relatable scale.  Not every story needs to change the world to be impactful.  Sometimes all you need is Clancy Brown calling you an asshole.

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Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy (PC)

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Developed by Bennett Foddy

I’m quite torn on this game for a number of reasons.  Maybe I’m grabbing it from the wrong end of the stick, but I was genuinely engaged by the gameplay itself as well as the level design; more so than its gimmicky sense of challenge and the prodding narration.  It’s got a neat pop-art aesthetic (no I don’t know what that ACTUALLY means but it still sounds right) and the way that the level opens up to different styles as you progress is kind of fascinating.  It reminds me a bit of indie games like Braid where you’re seeing something that looks cobbled together from different assets (in that game it was a riff on the aesthetics of other platformers) in a way that is oddly compelling and makes you question if there’s any meaning to all of it.  There was a similar discussion last year around the difficulty of Cuphead which many argued was necessary for the game to be as good as it is, but what I said then applies to this now.  Difficulty is a sliding scale for everyone.  What’s difficult for one person is easy for another and outright impossible for someone else, so the developer arbitrarily deciding where to draw the line (and not give reasonable alternatives) is something that is worthy of criticizing.  It’s less black and white here though because everything ABOUT the game is so utterly built around the idea of its difficulty (from the awkward controls, to the level design having easy to hit traps that send you back to the beginning and ESPECIALLY with Bennett Foddy’s narration), but ultimately a decision was made as to how difficult this game should be and therefore I’m going to have an opinion on that.  I wanted to get to the end of the game just to see what it was like, but I never got to because I spent way too much time on it in the first place and couldn’t afford to sink anymore time into it.  That’s a mark against it as far as I’m concerned, but I still think that it’s a fun idea and that it’s worth playing as long as you’re careful enough to not get too sucked into it.  You REALLY don’t need to spend much time with the game to see what it has to offer and it’s simply not worth investing that much time to make so little progress.

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God of War (PS4)

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Developed by SIE Santa Monica Studio

God of War was one of those franchises that I feel I grew out of.  I played the first three games all the way through but by the time I was done bashing Zeus’s head in and got that lousy ending, I felt like I had my fill of the series.  I never bothered with the PSP games or that prequel on the PS3 that no one remembers, and frankly I didn’t really have any intentions of playing this one either.  I ended up burning through the campaign in a three day weekend (thanks, Redbox!) and while I guess it’s an interesting direction to take the franchise (showing genuine evolution instead of repeating the gameplay, structure, and tone), I feel like a lot of it is lateral moves.  It’s a game that’s certainly toned down and methodical compared to the hyperbolic excess of the other games which also mirrors Kratos’s own growth as a character, but I don’t really get the sense that this is an IMPROVEMENT on what came before; or I guess more accurately, this is not a better game in its own genre than the other games were in their respective genre.  The original God of War was truly a revelation for action games of the era and even if the series stagnated after the PS2 games it was a high bar that many tried and no one ever really managed to reach.  This game, while thankfully something NEW for the franchise (and looks phenomenal to boot) doesn’t really feel all that groundbreaking and seems to have taken cues from other games of this generation.  Not to say that it’s BAD or anything, but its gameplay and design didn’t really grab me enough to fall in love with it even if they were mechanically sound enough to get me through to the end.  Oh, but wait I hear some people say!  It’s not about the gameplay as much as it is about the story!  Taking a character as one dimensionally indicative of over the top power fantasies and turning him into a broken man who has to take care of a child is the perfect evolution of not just this character, but its audience as well as the attitudes and priorities of the medium, right!?  I mean… that’s all kind of true but I just didn’t invested in it as much as the developers CLEARLY wanted me to.  It still feels like we’re giving a soft pass to Kratos for all that he did, and we never see how he went from the guy who destroyed the world (or at least his part of it) to get his revenge to this angry and bitter father figure who apparently found a woman he was willing to settle down with and accepted his whole “genocide” streak long enough to have a tragic death.  Despite him still being a mean jerk (especially to his kid), this doesn’t really feel like the guy who would murder innocent people just to hold a door open or would take people’s stuff and leave them to die just so he’s slightly less inconvenienced later.  Maybe I’m holding the old games against this new one too much, but even ignoring that context I feel like the developers don’t want to truly confront THIS Kratos’s attitude in a meaningful way and avoids topics that would push him into unlikable territory despite showing all signs of being THAT bad of a person.  I guess the relationship between him and Atreus does work in the broad strokes and their arc is a strongly developed one; not to mention that the ending both having some interesting revelations as well as being a rather quiet conclusion shows some genuine heart to the material even if I don’t feel it earns all the emotional resonance it’s clearly striving for.

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High Hell (PC)

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Developed by Terri Vellmann and Doseone

Oh hey!  Another heavily stylized First Person Shooter!  It seems like I might have a running theme here, though if Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is modest in its ambitions than this is practically microscopic.  It’s a game with a single weapon that you don’t even have to reload and it’s about shooting as fast and accurate as possible than of any real strategy or depth, but in that context it is actually quite an engaging experience.  Its graphics are simple and blocky, but they use it to convey a very unique style that falls SOMEWHERE close to a Blendo Games production albeit with a lot more straightforward designs and concepts.  While not quite a UNIQUE SELLING POINT, it fills its environments with dozens upon dozens of physics objects that get knocked over and fly around the room during the intense bouts of gunplay which is actually kind of a brilliant way to make the outdated graphics work to their benefit.  Sure, a big studio can make millions of high quality objects bounce around the place, but for an indie title it makes it look a lot more compelling than what its budget would typically allow if used less creatively.  Narrative wise there’s not much here (I haven’t gotten to the end so I don’t know if they dumped it all there), but the levels are short enough that you can finish them in quick five minute bursts which makes it very good if you’re looking for a brief distraction and don’t just want to watch the same YouTube videos again.  Oh who am I kidding?  I do that anyway while I’m playing this game!

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Mad Max (PS4)

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Developed by Avalanche Studios

Mad Max isn’t THE BEST open world game out there, but it is an intriguing one to be sure.  There’s something thematically appropriate about a game like this being kind of tedious and only intermittently satisfying because… well that’s the world these characters live in.  Sure, I had more FUN with Avalanche’s Just Cause series than I ever did playing this game, but I got sucked into the world rather quickly and found myself enjoying the low key nature of the experience.  I wasn’t jumping off of cliffs, firing machine guns, or even causing THAT much mayhem; I was just a dude in the crappiest place on Earth (not even a particularly EXCITING form of crappy as it’s just full of sand and jerk-wads) scavenging what I can and mindlessly busting heads as I needed to.  Everything feels meaningless as no matter what I do I’m not actually gonna be fixing anything and the best I can hope for is an awesome car to drive away from this small collection of jerks at the end of the story.  A few critics out there who actually enjoyed No Man’s Sky when it first came out (a game I have yet to play) expressed a similar idea of enjoying the banality and the emptiness of the experience which in and of itself creates a sort of meaning you rarely get in video games.  You’re journey isn’t extraordinary, you’re tasks aren’t monumental, and surviving is about the best reward you can hope for after a long day’s work.  It’s similar in this game albeit this one has a lot more bombast to the experience which dulls the tedious edges somewhat.  I don’t know if I’ll actually FINISH this game or if I want Avalanche to do a sequel, but as a singular experience it at least managed to be a memorable one.

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Mutiny!! / Tropical Liquor / Deep Space Waifu (PC)

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Mutiny!! developed by Lupiesoft
Tropical Liquor developed by Tentacle Games
Deep Space Waifu developed by Neko Climax Studios

I’ll admit that I kind of lost the plot with this story.  Earlier this year there was a big story about adult themed games being removed from Steam, but… did that actually happen?  I mean I go on there now and not only are all the games (including these three) that I recall being on the chopping block still there, Steam has since allowed even MORE sexually explicit titles on their service; some of which are absolutely wretched pieces of garbage that I would actually be in agreement with removing.  That’s kind of what I wanted to look into when I bought these games back when they were expected to be removed.  I wanted to get a decent cross section of the content on there to see if, whether or not they LEGALLY or MORALLY deserve to be on the service (protection of free speech, not silencing queer voices which are often automatically tagged as sexual by society, etc), if they were any good in the first place.  I think for the most part this is a pretty good range here with Mutiny being a genuinely good (if occasionally problematic) story about pirates, Tropical Liquor being the kind of crap I was expecting these kind of games to be, and Deep Space Waifu occupying an interesting middle ground; still problematic to an extent but the premise is abstract enough that it’s hard to feel all that negatively towards it.  I mean sure there are games like the aforementioned Mutiny and Ladykiller in a Bind that elevate the medium and are great examples of love, relationships, and intimacy being portrayed in games even if they DO have a few stumbles here and there, but I just can’t bring myself to care if stuff like Tropical Liquor is removed from Steam’s service.  It’s a puzzle game where the objective is framed as getting the girl more and more drunk which is gross and unconscionable; especially on a service that does a TERRIBLE job of filtering content to keep minors from finding it.  Yes, games like Seed of the Dead, Melty’s Quest, and Snow Daze should have NEVER been brought onto Steam in the first place, but honestly what ticks me off more is just how badly Steam handles its storefront which is absurdly lazy for the biggest platform for PC gaming.  It would also help if the genre itself of sexually explicit games held itself to higher standards instead of just making rape fantasy games, but apparently that would be asking too much and frankly I wouldn’t even know where to stop.  At least appealing to Steam is making an appeal to ONE entity, and they really do have the power to stamp out some of this crap if they cared to, but we know that Steam stopped caring a long time ago and so we’re stuck in this awkward spot where the majority of games out there are utter trash but any attempt at fixing the problem gets the few good and meaningful ones caught in the crossfire.  Jim Sterling had it right when he started wading through the muck of Steam’s marketplace and maybe we need to elevate some voices that are willing to do the same thing for the sexually explicit games on their platform.  Let me know if there’s someone already doing that!

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Pokémon Trading Card Game Online (PC)

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Developed by Dire Wolf Digital

Can someone tell me if electronic versions of card games get a bad rap from the CCG community?  It feels like something that MUST be true, but honestly I am very thankful for these because they make playing the game so much easy for us mere mortals who don’t want to spend ludicrous amounts of cash on boosters and also those of us who don’t ACTUALLY know how to play the game.  I’ve spent my whole life just accepting that the Pokémon card game was something I would never really understand, but within an hour of playing this I had pretty much all the rules more or less down pat.  Okay, it took me a while to understand the whole GX system and that you win TWO cards for taking down one of them, but for the most part I find this kind of tightly structured environment much more suited for getting through the early rough patches of understanding the game than playing with someone else who knows it by heart and will more than likely forget to tell you about the more specific nuances of the game until they start using them against you.  As a game, it does its job well enough of replicating the card game and giving it fancy animations, but the big issue I found with it is that matchmaking was pretty awful.  Nothing will discourage me from playing a game more than a string of unmitigated losses, and that almost happened here as I would often get utterly destroyed within five minutes of starting the match.  EVENTUALLY I managed to start to hold my own against the other players, but either I was so bad that there was no one in the world at my lowly skill level or the balancing needs some tweaking.  I guess it works just fine as a vehicle by which to play an already existing game and it’s a GREAT tool for teaching you how to play it, but it feels like they didn’t have much ambition beyond just making a delivery system for that content.  Not a bad thing I guess, but I remember when electronic versions of card games came with full story modes!  Remember Yu-Gi-Oh! Forbidden Memories on the PS1?  Sure the game was RIDICULOUSLY difficult and I’m pretty sure it didn’t follow the actual rules of the game, but it had characters from the show you could play against!  When will I get to kick Jesse and James’s butts at a children’s card game!?

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Resident Evil 5 (Xbox 360)

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Developed by Capcom

I am coming to the party SO late on this one, but was Capcom for real when they made this freaking thing!?  Like ninety percent of dudes who grew up in the PS2/Gamecube/Xbox era, I LOVE Resident Evil 4, and I’ve had Resident Evil 5 just sitting around here for like five years now and never got around to playing!  Well that all changed earlier this year as I was bored one day and figured I SHOULD get to it if I ever wanted to play Resident Evil 6!  After about two hours of playing this it was like being one of those Nazi dudes who looked into the Ark of the Covenant.  How did Capcom go from the tight, structured, and seamless world of Resident Evil 4 into this segmented, arcadey, and straight up RACIST cartoon of a game!?  It’s hard to put my finger on why the gameplay feels to have gotten so much worse this time around because a lot of it is the same mechanically to Resident Evil 4, but it comes off a lot more streamlined then necessary with levels feeling more so like long corridors than they ever did in the last game.  There’s no real sense of buildup to everything as we’re constantly jetting from one place to another to face some ridiculous bull crap or never-ending hoard of enemies before moving the heck on to whatever racist caricature of Africa these developers could think of.  Seriously, the ONE open-ish section of the game I got to was a series of African villages that looked like they came right out of imperialist propaganda about TAMING THE DARK CONTINENT or some such garbage and I’m pretty sure that’s where I ended it.  Now sure Resident Evil 4 was about an American going into a Spanish town to discover a horrifying cult that wants to take over America (not to mention Luis’s over the top accent), but whatever problematic aspects there were to the framing of that story, they seemingly couldn’t help themselves from turning it up to eleven here, and frankly that’s true about all aspects of the game.  More action, more characters, more shooting, more racism, all in the service of holding the player’s attention but ends up stripping out everything that made Resident Evil 4 such a memorable and groundbreaking experience.

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And that’ll do it for Part 1!  Stay tuned for Part 2 which should be up very soon!

Agree with my opinions on any of these games?  Probably not, but let me know in the comments below!!

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