I know, I know: a lot has happened since last we spoke. There has been a slew of triple-A games released, including the pair reviewed below, Battlefield 3, Modern Warfare 3, Uncharted 3 (wow, it’s all about the threequels) Sonic Generations and several more. At a time when many are feeling the pinch financially, games developers are hitting pockets hard with a succession of ‘must-play’ titles. Still, that’s what Christmas is there for – and the two covered below are certainly worth popping on your list to Santa.
But before we get into those: drum roll, please. The Savage Pixels Best Games of 2011 will take over next month’s column, and I’m after input from you. With many of today’s chart-topping releases best enjoyed with others – be that locally with friends, or with complete strangers thousands of miles away via the ‘net – it makes sense to open the floor to you lovely readers. And I know you’re out there – I’ve seen the stats. So, to have your say (and these says will be printed): e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with your favourites, and a few words on them if you like; comment below; or tweet me… the ‘real’ me… via @MikeDiver. Personally I’m torn between a few winners. Perhaps you’re a little clearer as to what’s been 2011’s very best video game (be that on console, PC, handheld or mobile).
Batman: Arkham City
Rocksteady; Metacritic score 94/100 (Xbox 360)
Batman, let’s face it, isn’t a very super superhero. The very best stories following the crime-busting escapades of the Caped Crusader have always had, as their fulcrum, a really brilliant villain. Sure, the alter ego of loaded Gotham playboy Bruce Wayne has his share of tricks and gadgets, and is handy enough with his fists. But as players of all levels will discover not so far into Arkham City, he takes a bullet like the rest of us: badly.
So improve your armour! Just a tip, there. You’ll need it, more urgently than you will a sonic Batarang, or a fancy move that stuns enemies when you drop down on them (although, combined with a later upgrade, which knocks these bullies out for good when they’re dizzied, it’s quite the handy move). Those familiar with this game’s predecessor, Arkham Asylum, will be up to speed plot-wise, but for newcomers: the Joker – the best Batman baddie ever, obviously – went a bit silly on Titan come the end of the last game, but Batman sorted him out and now he’s feeling the after-effects. You might say he’s not feeling himself at all – but to say any more would be a MASSIVE SPOILER. So I’ll shut up right there. Anyway, the guy who was the warden last time is now the mayor of Gotham and has decided to close off a section of the city to serve as a mega-jail for all of its colourful criminal sorts. So! In no particular order we have Two-Face; we have Catwoman (who you can play as, but only if you download the relevant package – which, given this was sold as a massive part of this title’s appeal, will leave some feeling ripped-off); we have a very nasty Penguin who, for reasons never explained, has a pet shark; we have Killer Croc, if you can find him; we have Bane, who wants to work side-by-side with Batman to collect the leftover Titan from the previous game (hint: he might just be having our hero on); and we have Mr Freeze, whose presentation here just about erases memories of Arnie in the awful Batman & Robin. And there are more out there, some more significant than others to the plot. Which, it must be said, is pretty flimsy. But who cares when you’re Batman, right?
Because playing as Batman is cool – it was cool last time, and it’s cooler this time. Sure, he starts off as a wimp, even though you begin with all the gadgets you collected in Arkham Asylum (okay, not at the very beginning… then, my unmasked friend, you’re gonna have to make do without those smoke pellets), but levelling-up opportunities come quickly, especially if you aim to complete the side missions before focussing on stopping the Joker doing… whatever it is he’s doing. It’s not good, basically. Oh, and that Hugo Strange, he’s tied up in this too. But don’t worry, he’ll be de… I mean, SPOILER. Once suitably hard-as-nails, gliding through the tower blocks of Arkham, scurrying through the sewers and creeping up behind sniper rifle-toting guards becomes a real thrill. Before long, you’ll actively want to ‘waste time’ completing Riddler challenges, just so you can swoop and dive, jump and roll and beat the crap out of a set of identikit thugs for a few hours longer. And you should, because without the additional content – sock Deadshot in the balls before he completes a list of to-be-killed inmates; find Victor Zsasz and bop him on the back of the head; ruin the Mad Hatter’s tea party – this is one short game. Ten hours, maybe? Probably less if you just focus on the main plot, I wasn’t counting. It felt short even with the ticking-off-the-extras approach.
But, again: who cares. I don’t mind that I parted with 45 of my hard-earned pounds to play this, because it plays like a dream. Combat has been improved from the last game – it’s still super smooth, but now you have further combo options; the world is so very much bigger, and most of it is open to you immediately; everything looks incredible, the level of detail in these decaying structures really something; and while the story ends on a bit of a downer, you come away from the end credits feeling like a proper superhero. Which immediately makes the player a rather better crime-fighter than Batman himself. Who, let’s be fair, would be nothing without the masterminds who continue to surround him.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Bethesda; Metacritic score 96/100 (Xbox 360)
You seen that Harry Partridge animation, with that guy who gets a boner just thinking about Skyrim? Yeah? That guy: so not me. Yes, I played Oblivion, the fourth game in the Elder Scrolls series. No, I didn’t finish it. Yes, I got bored of closing those they’re-all-the-fucking-same Oblivion Gates. No, I didn’t really try hard enough and I’m sure it is a classic and that I’m a dick. Yes, I did play Fallout 3. No, I didn’t finish that either.
So RPGs and me have a rocky relationship. In the 16-bit era I spent days perched in front of a 14” telly, guiding my adventuring trio in search of the Secret of Mana. I thought Chrono Trigger was a life-changing experience. I even finished The Story of Thor, and let’s be honest: the Mega Drive was no SNES when it came to RPGs (albeit mainly because of two things: Zelda and Squaresoft). But in the seventh-generation of home consoles, nah (with the exception of the Mass Effect games – I can only assume that’s got something to do with being able to bonk alien crewmates). So Skyrim… why do I love you so? Could it be because you’re super-fucking-amazing and, basically, even someone who’d never played an RPG in their life – or someone who has, but then played Final Fantasy VIII and never wanted to touch one again with someone else’s remote controller – would fall head over heels in a matter of minutes? Well, change that figure to a couple of hours and the nail’s been struck on its head with a bloody great big iron mace – exactly the kind a Skyrim player might use to cave a troll’s face in with.
Skyrim is epic. This game is huge. I have spent hours, days on this so far, and still I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of its potential depth. I admit, the next hour of play could ruin everything. I could get turned into a vampire or something (can that happen here? It did in Oblivion, which sucked… oh, ha ha), or one of those mammoth-friendly giants might take a shine to me, drag me by my mage’s hood up to some shrine on the side of that almighty great mountain at the centre of the game map, and forcibly make me his bride (yeah, I’m playing as an awesome magic-chucking lady). But right now, every second spent in Skyrim is beautiful, from the vistas that spread out before the player as they climb the landscape, to the snarl of the hundredth wolf in the past half-hour to try to make you its lunch (fuck you, wolf, burn), right down to the detail on a hunk of bread being chewed on by a tramp I’m about to murder for no reason. Okay, I’ll let this one live. Not that you need do that same. Point being: this is proper go-anywhere, do-anything stuff. Sure, there’s a plot. The ‘not actual gameplay footage’ advert made that pretty clear: dragons are back, you’ve got to sort them out before they, I guess, incinerate everyone. Thing is, I sort of side with the dragons, because a host of NPCs are dicks. Some are trying to double-cross me, others toy with my affections; and then the lazy ones just stand there, blankly, before sending me off to find some lost books, or to retrieve a stolen ornament… I really should stop saying yes to helping these chumps out. If I can walk there, they bloody well can, too.
Oh, there’s also a civil war going on. Someone killed someone else. Someone important. The king. People weren’t that happy about it. Turns out you have to find a way to bring peace to the land, on top of the fucking dragon problem. I mean, really. Way to offload responsibility here, high-ranking folk of Skyrim.
Improvements, there are loads. Compared to Oblivion everything looks a million times better. I exaggerate, but Bethesda went so far as to create a whole new game engine (the Creation Engine) to run this masterpiece on, which is getting the very most out of my whirring 360. Battle feels better, too – if you’re all about swords and shields you’ll still struggle to get much satisfaction as everything feels a little floaty, but pack some fireballs up your sleeves and you’ve got yourself a fantasy middle-ages FPS. That archer, all the way over there, facing the other way? POW! Up he goes in flames. That mammoth, the one you need to steal a tusk from (why does it need to be a live one? There are skulls, tusks intact, everywhere) – watch it freeze as you blast it with your awesome ice magic. Oh, it seems to be pretty resistant to the cold, what with it being a mammoth. Fuck, shit, dead. Play recklessly and this will happen a lot: death, that is. But load times are short and you can save anywhere, anytime, so you’re unlikely to need to navigate 18 square miles of dungeon to get back to the point where some nasty beast made a meal of you. And even when you do die it’s funny, your limp body smashed from here into next week like some sort of fleshy Nerf Ball smashed out of the park by one of those Titan terrors from Arkham City. Ha! Look at me, bones broken, blood gushing. I totally deserved that.
If you loved Oblivion, then Skyrim needs to be in your console, with you attached to it, this minute. Leave work. Go, home, now. It’s that good: this will, once you’ve settled into it (created your character and developed a rough sense of how you want to play the game; killed your first dragon; run about the foot of a mountain in your undercrackers, waiting for a giant to notice), infect your every living minute. Even as I type this, my fingers are tightening as if atop left and right triggers… Hahahaha, take that you bandit, you, I’mma steal all of your swag. And if you didn’t love Oblivion, well… I think my enthusiasm here speaks for itself without any clever sign-off.
A FANTASTIC FIVE – POLINSKI
Some of you may well be aware of the rather fine Sheffield four-piece 65daysofstatic. Some of you might even know that one-quarter of said band, Paul Wolinski, recently released his debut solo album under the name Polinski. Said set, Labyrinths (Monotreme), is pretty dang awesome if I may be so bold. Think Daft Punk soundtracking your favourite Spectrum games; or, the next Rez/Child of Eden without the visual stimulation (just close your eyes – works just as well). I’ve been playing it on the regular for months now. And, knowing that Wolinski has enjoyed his share of games over the years – look no further than the great video to his track ‘Stitches’ for evidence – it’s to him I turned for the first Fantastic Five feature: five great games from any era, on any machine, that mean the world to the person choosing them. So, over to him for the following words, after the video for ‘Stitches’…
Ant Attack (ZX Spectrum; Wikipedia)
“Black and white end-of-the-world 8-bit bleakness. The landscape is nothing but vast expanses of white, weird and walled isometric block castles. Somewhere inside the castle is your girlfriend (or boyfriend). You have to go in and rescue them. As soon as you do, loads of giant ants appear. They chase you, wear you down, eat your girl (or boy), whilst you watch on, helpless (usually paralysed by an ant bite), and then in the end they eat you too. It's a pretty great metaphor for the modern world.”
Another World (Amiga; Wikipedia)
“The intro to this game blew my tiny, 11-year-old mind when it came out. The graphics were incredible. I must have watched it a million times. And it's music like this that's got me into the mess I'm in today. All tiny synths, military snares and epic minor chords... It's just so seductive! The game itself was beautiful, confusing, and really, really hard. Something about making friends with an alien and then starting a revolution against his race, maybe? Also, there were these tiny black worms with huge teeth that would prick you, and seconds later you'd drop dead. Harsh. I don't think I ever completed this game.”
Another World Intro
Turbo Esprit (ZX Spectrum; Wikipedia)
“You had to use your imagination with this one. On the face of it, it's basically just some black and white squares and you move a little pixellated car amongst them. BUT. If you just sort of go with it, it's the coolest game that ever existed. You're an undercover cop, cruising featureless 8-bit streets in a vast 3D city, looking for drug runners. At the same time, somewhere out there, hitmen in bright pink cars are looking to run you off the road. And that's it. You can't go home. You can't stop. You can't win. You just have to keep patrolling until you get shot or crash. There are no happy endings here.”
Speedball 2 (Amiga; Wikipedia)
“I've been out of touch with computer games for a long time now, but surely this has to remain one of the finest games ever written, no? Two teams dressed in metal, on a metal field, have to throw a metal ball into each others goals. No other rules. The most brutal teams wins. Bonus points for killing each other. But really, I think the reason it's so good is something to do with the game mechanics. Everything is so perfectly balanced, so finely tuned. If someone sat me down in front of this game with a Zip Stick joystick I reckon my muscle memory could fairly effortlessly allow me to win the league. If only I'd put as much effort into talking to girls...”
Full Throttle (Mac; Wikipedia)
“Perhaps not quite as close to perfection as the first two Monkey Island games, but Full Throttle has got that whole kind-of-steam-punk-future thing going on that gets me every time. It's sort of like Tom Waits The Game, if Tom Waits was called Ben and was the grizzly leader of a biker gang called the Polecats. 65daysofstatic sampled this for a b-side once. ‘Whenever I think of Maureen, I think of two things. Asphalt… and trouble.’”
Full Throttle Intro
BEST. GAME. EVER.
Right, I’m not messing about with this one. It’s brawlers, scrolling beat-em-ups… You know the sort: bash heads, an arrow blinks requesting that you progress. Repeat until the boss at the end of the stage. Duff him / her / it up. Continue to jungle / beach / spaceship / rollercoaster level.
It’s obvious, isn’t it…?
Streets of Rage 2 (Mega Drive, Master System, Game Gear; Sega, 1992)
Could’ve gone for Final Fight here. Or Turtles in Time. But the best of the best has to be Sega’s evergreen Streets of Rage 2 (Bare Knuckle 2 in its home country of Japan), a game so perfect that playing today is a thrill comparable with any HD warfare simulation.
The reason: simplicity, really. Streets of Rage 2 refined everything that was brilliant about 1991’s original, incorporating Street Fighter-style special moves alongside your regular array of punches and kicks. Weapons can be acquired too, including a sword. Because those things are always lying around in the street, waiting for some vigilante to come pick ‘em up and lop off a gang-banger’s head.
Although all of the thugs before the player – and you could pick one of four – are fairly interchangeable within their ‘types’, they’ve all got names, and each has a life bar: in the previous game, this was only the case with bosses. So, as you trudge through wave after wave of identical-looking enemies, at least you (might) think: hell, perhaps Y. Signal has a wife and kids at home, so who am I to knock his teeth out so that he vanishes from the screen? “Ooh-aarrgh”, indeed. The bosses here can be rock hard, too. At the very top of a pile that features a Blanka look-alike who fights you on the set of Aliens, an Ultimate Warrior-styled wrestler who lives underneath a baseball pitch, and a chap called Barbon who can’t wait to tear his shirt off in the rain, is the enigmatically named Mr X. Who cheats, because he’s got a machine gun and you haven’t. Hope you’ve stocked up on lives.
Streets of Rage 2 is 16-bit perfection: big, bright sprites; an awesome soundtrack courtesy of Yuzo Korisho (“the greatest game music composer of the 16-bit age,” said Nintendo Power – he’s gone on to influence the likes of Ikonika and Martyn); and balanced gameplay that presents a steady difficulty curve, so that when shit’s getting really hectic, you know the end is in sight. It’s now available on iOS, as well as all three major home consoles’ download services. So there’s no excuse: if you never played this in the 90s, do so today.
Streets of Rage 2 – first stage
AWESOME GAME ENDING OF THE MONTH
Awesome? I’m not sure. But since Paul up there said he’d never finished Another World, here’s its ending. Contains Spoilers Obviously (which is worth mentioning since it’s just been ported to iOS). I always preferred Flashback…
Find the previous Savage Pixels columns about games and that, here.