Year of the Rabbit: Games of 2011 that have us hot & bothered (pt.2)

Ah 2011, it is going to be a good year for gaming. Maybe too good for my poor wallet which is already weeping at the thought of how much money I plan to spend. Shaun and the gang put some thoughts together on games they were interested in and we also invited some contributors to write about their picks. It ended up being beefier than we had originally imagined, and the content so varied and interesting that we couldn’t stand trying to shorten it down to one article. Instead we created a second post to accompany yesterday’s. Below are the rest of the Arcadian Rhythms’ picks for this year. AJ

Woolie

Outland

Outland screenshot

Outland "may prove to be greater than the sum of its already beloved parts."

Word on the street is this: One late night some time ago, Out Of This World held a massive house party. There, the usually rather shy and self-conscious Ikaruga found itself beckoned over by N+, and at some blurry point, ended up getting totally trashed on tequila shots. Ikaruga groggily awoke the next morning to discover itself in bed with Prince of Persia… and Rez. They vowed never to speak of the incident again. Nine months later, a basket ended up on Ubisoft’s doorstep. In this basket was Housemarque’s Outland. True story.

In recent generations, genre amalgamation games have been veritably polar, hit or miss titles (not necessarily in terms of sales figures, but in quality according to your author’s subjective bias). Not unlike sampling in music, at best it comes across as a fresh take that reminds you of what you loved elsewhere, and at worst, a derivative, uncreative reintroduction to the wheel. From every genre of videogame evolves a highly refined title that represents the most sophisticated design possible for the genre, or a genre king if you will. With the praise for these genre kings as staples of the gaming industry comes a slow learned tweaking process that usually costs a few failed titles to achieve. If one were to then take the core of what makes numerous genre kings successful, and look to collage them all into something that remains pure and fun, they will find themselves attempting an immensely challenging balancing act that few developers have accomplished. Something I’ve noticed: the most memorable examples of these genre amalgamations tend to come in the form of indie-esque concept games, while the larger AAA attempts have a tendency to fall flat. Cosmic Smash and Sacrifice are remembered fondly for blending the best elements of multiple great games together. Brutal Legend and Starfox Command, not so much. Perhaps it’s because the more complex the source genres are, the harder it becomes to keep gameplay feeling concise and to-the-point . Perhaps it isn’t. One way or another, if the ingredients on the chopping board are any indication to go on, when Outland is done cooking this year, it’s going to be a dish fit for Chairman Kaga.

The videos previews tease a crisp, dark aesthetic, with elements of swordplay, oversized enemies, polarity switching, platforming and bullet pattern dodging, all at the same time. When a new player sits down with Ikaruga, the first gripping experience they have is the unique feeling of the brain being forced to completely invert information mid-process, and suddenly identify areas of refuge as threats. This is a feeling I have yet to experience in another title, so I’m looking forward to encountering it again in a completely new context. I look forward even more to replaying it afterwards, attempting the perfect run, switching polarity efficiently with perfect timing and style. That is when games like this truly shine. If my suspicions are correct, Outland may prove to be greater than the sum of its already beloved parts.

Marvel vs Capcom 3

“...there may be brilliance to be found amidst the seemingly random unbalance of it all.”

The weaning years of my gaming career are synonymous with memories of brothers and cousins competing endlessly for our respective turns on the controller. When we took a Sunday trip to the local rental store, if a box on the shelf didn’t display a little icon with multiple overlapping controllers it simply wasn’t an option. As such, time and time again, we found ourselves reaching for that little plastic Velcro button, tearing it off and racing to hand it over to the cashier in exchange for yet another week of elbowing for glory in Street Fighter 2: Championship Edition. Competitive play is at the backbone of my love of games, and to this day I remain involved to the point that I organize our city’s local fighting game community. So basically, in full disclosure: I’m biased toward the decade-late Capcom sequel, Marvel vs. Capcom 3.

But not as much as one might think. Truthfully, when it comes to the details of it, I’ve always had trouble wrapping my head around the workings of the ‘hyper’ versus series, as for me the most excitement comes from the slower, chess-like fighting games of tactical skill. My vision of the perfect fighter aligns somewhere closer to Bushido Blade 2, rather than with this sort of frantic play. I was overjoyed to see the eccentric, unexpected cast choices this time around – from Deadpool to Nathan Spencer – but beyond showing support for the genre out of solidarity, I wasn’t quite feeling the hype for this as much as say, Street Fighter IV. That was, until I had a breakthrough moment of understanding. Following a major fighting tournament recently, I had the chance to sit down with some of the guys that have been playing Marvel vs. Capcom 2 for the last ten years and watch one of the most exciting sets of that game that has ever been played. However, instead of eliciting my usual confused shrug and turn, this time I had the scene right next to me: explaining exactly what was happening, and why what was happening was so intense. Did I mention the match was being played for a total of $42,000 USD?

Let’s get into it a little bit. Of the two players competing in that match, one, Neo, represented the peak of reverse engineering the game to find the most advantageous parts and then assembling an offense of immense skill with what are referred to as God-tier characters. Under normal circumstances, unbeatable. However the second player, Clockw0rk, represents something completely different and outside the box. Over the years that this game has been in the trenches he’s discovered a pair of otherwise weak and useless characters who become immensely powerful only when used together correctly. One of his characters, Strider Hiryu, has a super ability that can force the opponent to block for 7-8 seconds, an eternity by MvC2 standards. The other, Dr. Doom, has a particular assist type that summons a barrage of floating rocks which, when blocked at point blank range, cause an unusually large amount of block-damage (or ‘chip’). With this combined pair, his method for slaying the God-tier pantheon of the game centred around teleporting around them with his main character, forcing them to block for as long as possible while using his assist to hurt you with block damage. His goal was to let you be as defensive as possible, to the point that sometimes the game’s combo mechanics would end up doing less damage if you stopped blocking than if you continued. It was backwards, it was an all-or-nothing gamble, and it was incredibly fascinating. Clockw0rk had developed a legitimate battle strategy in the game that was entirely designed around not hitting the opponent, which goes against the core concept of what fighting games are. And beyond that, he had mastered this technique, to the point where he is unquestionably one of the best players out there and this particular strategy is unique to him.

And that was when I understood. Marvel vs. Capcom has an entirely different kind of depth to it, so different from traditional combative play that there may be brilliance to be found amidst the seemingly random unbalance of it all. There is order within the chaos and to those who come across it, even if it’s for just for one match during one night drinking and beating on friends, when something just clicks with you, it’s a fascinating thing to behold. Now, we have a new opportunity to get in on the arms race. The third game in the series promises to bring all of the old intensity onto a new canvas to explore. Consider the math of it: finding a configuration of 3 out of 38 characters, each character with 3 selectable assist-types, when the stakes of just one player and assist pair can be so critical. All of this is to say nothing of the DLC fighters that will be increasing the roster over time.

As we get closer and closer to the release date we’re seeing that both companies have really shown this one lots of love – even the alternate colour costumes pay homage to various fun obscurities in both universes (Beta-Ray Bill anyone? Seriously?). Come February 15th I’ll be in the labs with this game, trying to discover the secrets of the unknown and, if I’m lucky, invent fire. I hope you’ll be doing the same, so that we can meet up sometime and test our hypothesis. Godspeed.

Journey

Journey

Journey is “about wandering and wondering.”

thatgamecompany, the philosophers behind 2006’s flOw and 2009’s Flower, are finally ready to present the next piece in their vernissage of unconventional game design. Journey looks like a promising evolution of the organic explorative qualities of flOw and the world-shaping elements of Flower, driven by a silent, visual narrative. From the glimpses we’ve seen so far it looks like Journey is taking a hands-off approach away from prodding the player in any particular manner, instead focusing on building an experience of solitude in a wasteland setting that can change depending on whom you encounter in the online world and what decisions you make together. Everyone experiences a different path. They’ve been vague about what exactly these changes entail, but vagueness is thatgamecompany’s signature style.

I’m reminded of the land in Shadow of the Colossus: vast, expansive and ready to be traversed – yet the only reward for exploring is the exploration itself. For those who can emotionally immerse themselves into a place that tells nothing of itself, just to see where it takes you, Journey sounds like a fantastic way to adventure while sharing the experience with another nameless traveller in a massive online landscape. According to thatgamecompany encounters with others won’t be frequent – just an occasional crossing of paths. And even then, interactions are limited – the game only uses 2 buttons.

It’s being said that Journey is “about wandering and wondering”, and is “part game, part social experiment.” Whatever you want to call it, it looks powerful. I’m not sure whether I’d say this is something I can’t wait to play – perhaps I should instead say that I can’t wait to participate.


Guillaume

Alice: Madness Returns

Alice: Madness Returns screenshot

Look at the skulls, the lovely skulls... why am I not there yet?

Back in the day I tried to play Alice: Madness Returns‘ predecessor, American McGee’s Alice, but alas my computer was less than capable of handling the twisted and demented complexity of its alienating depiction of Wonderland. Thankfully, I can rest easy today – a luxury I didn’t have back then.

Earth Defence Force: Insect Armageddon

Words cannot describe how vivid my anticipation is for this title. I feel it inside my SOUL. Take a look at the bad-ass screenshot below. Honestly, how could you not want to be this guy? I cannot wait.

EDF Insect Armageddon screenshot

I want to be this guy. I wanna be him right now.

I’ve not even mentioned the jet-pack dudes, the Lost Planet-esque’ mechs, the humanoid aliens/insects… I’m so pumped about this one!

Battlefield 3

The first game that came to mind, the last one on this list.

It’s nice to see something close to what would appear to be a ‘true’ Battlefield game. I’m particularly curious about this one as I wonder whether DICE/EA will have gotten it into their heads that a Battlefield without bots is like a Call of Duty without multiplayer.

A bot.

I was looking for screenshots of BF3, but got distracted by 'bots'...

I’m eager to rant about how stupidly the online will be handled, but mostly because I want to be wrong about it and discover… that I don’t have to buy a dedicated server! Oh, hey – am I seeing a LAN-party option right here?! Sweet, I don’t need to create some redundant EA account to play this game outside of story mode! I hope these lines will be battlecries once I get my hands on Battlefield 3, rather than ghosts that come back to haunt me. One thing is for certain: it’ll look damn good running off that Frostbite 2 engine…


The Medieval Nerd

Lords and Ladies,

The MN awaits many wonderous things in the not so distant future. I can’t wait to unite Ireland, assassinate my dimwitted first-born son, or make a murderous and mad member of court disappear. Obviously, you don’t need to report me to the authorities as this will be taking place in the exciting universe of Crusader Kings!

Crusader Kings 2 screenshot

Paradox is promising to deliver an even greater experience than before with the long-awaited sequel to Crusader KingsCrusader Kings II. Yes, an original title I know.

Crusader Kings was a hybrid between Real-Time Strategy and Turn-Based Strategy. The player controlled the speed at which time passed. Speed up in times of peace and empire construction, and slow down in times of war. At any point you can pause the game to give more detailed orders, review kingdom statistics or plan an attack. An essential tool given the wide array of possibilities…

One of the new features to look forward to in Crusader Kings II is that each character in the game – there are literally thousands – will have personal goals and agendas. This is a significant departure from the first Crusader Kings. Although your court members could be subjected to a plethora of moods, accidents and illnesses (both mental and physical), they had no real ambitions apart from sending you constant reminders that they would be better suited as the Marshall. The sequel’s new human depth will surely keep players on our toes, wondering if our Queen just slipped something in our drink whilst our brother waits in the wings! I’m sure that existing fans of the game will rejoice at the new life that this feature will breathe into the game’s characters.

There are articles available detailing the reduction of micromanagement, yet Paradox have also introduced the option to start the game as lowly Barons. I am still trying to wrap my mind how adding more layers is going to reduce complexity but still make it interesting in small, developing kingdoms. But that’s Paradox’s job to deliver – and ours to enjoy.

So, fellow armchair monarchs, sharpen those blades (for murdering your partners) and practice those matchmaking skills (you’ll need to find brides for your sons) in anticipation of holding the fates of fictional medieval kingdoms in your stalwart hands!


AJ

Like Shaun I have some straightforward and obvious selections: Bulletstorm is going to be ace (I loved Painkiller) and Brink is shaping up nicely and looks to do some interesting things with the idea of multiplayer. On the download front Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet appears visually arresting, Torchlight is also winging its way to Xbox LIVE Arcade, and I’m keen on Spelunky‘s forthcoming appearance on Xbox 360. Really, though, there are just five games that I know I will be marching (or signing) into a video game store on day one to purchase.

Dark Souls

Dark Souls screenshot

The setting: medieval meets supernatural.

Demon’s Souls came out of nowhere. With Sony Computer Entertainment choosing to not publish this game outside of Japan it was left to stalwart indie weirdoes Atlus to release it in the West. I don’t think anyone had any idea how successful it would be – then went on to be described as Atlus’ major source of profit. It was definitely a surprise given how unrepentantly hard the game was. With its learning curve often described as a barbed, brick wall, it was still lapped up by the niche market to the point that Atlus had to issue a second print and the game even made it to an official European release.

From Software, one of my favourite development teams ever (the Armoured Core series, Otogi, Metal Wolf Chaos, Ninja Blade) has now taken it upon themselves to go multiplatform for the sequel, Dark Souls. Being a fan of 3D actioners, and also being fond of brutalising uphill struggles in the name of digital entertainment, I shall be there, waiting, monies in hand.

Earth Defence Force: Insect Armageddon

EDF 2017 is about the best game I’ve played this decade. A third-person shooter with old-school sensibilities, married with a 50s sci-fi b-movie feel, was a breath of fresh air in contrast to stiff, po-faced titles released around the same time (with the exception of Viva Pinata – the only colourful game for miles). It was with some trepidation that I approached this sequel, unable to enrapture myself in the same manner as my colleague Guillaume. The developers have changed, as have the publishers. However, if their recently released videos are to be believed, Vicious Cycle Software seem to understand that unique EDF appeal. I was always going to buy this in support of the series, but now I have genuine hope that it will prove to be a distillation of pure fun like its predecessors. I can definitely muster a boisterous “EDF, EDF!”

Child of Eden

The spiritual successor to REZ, Child of Eden is a rail shooter with a strong visual aesthetic and pedigree. I was a little worried that this was going to be a Kinect Required title but they have had the foresight to also include standard controls. I am not really sure how to articulate what I liked about REZ, which in turn fuels my interest in Child of Eden, but it really should be a delight to play something heavily geared towards sensory overload. A video would probably be enough, right?

Max Anarchy/Anarchy Reigns

Anarchy Reigns screenshot

If this plays like Spikeout: Battlestreet then there will be at least one happy purchaser.

I don’t know much about this game and I don’t really need to in order to be excited. Even if I don’t see eye-to-eye with all of Platinum Games’ design decisions, they have never failed to do something interesting with each game they release. They also used the key conjunction of words “Spikeout: Battlestreet” – one of my favourite Xbox original games. This one has been dubbed an “MMO brawler” and despite having played Iron Phoenix I am psyched.

It is also ridiculous how Platinum seems to be bringing more SEGA attitude to their games than SEGA themselves.

Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale

Atari are bringing back Dungeons & Dragons (again). Now, I know I am sounding nerdy for enthusing about this [ed: on a videogames blog? Heaven forfend!!!] but if you have played D&D: Heroes then you have to know that Gauntlet + levelling system + 4-player Co-Op = Joy. Eurogamer have recently posted a smattering of new info as well as a trailer of Daggerdale - including the chaste information that it will support two-player offline co-Op as well as four players on PSN/Xbox LIVE.

Already the comments section is out in force, bemoaning the inevitable demise and dumbing down of the genre, but I don’t care. Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes on the original Xbox (fully backwards compatible with 360) was a four player blast. With all the sombre dungeon running available elsewhere D&D: Daggerdale should prove to provide the perfect lazy Sunday afternoon with friends.