The new year is upon us and its a good a time as any to take stock of the year that just past. 2011 was quite a year for gaming with several hotly anticipated block buster releases hitting the shelves, some mere weeks after each other. It was also something of a coming of age for this blog in terms of game reviews, seeing myself being flown up to Sydney to preview Modern Warfare 3 and getting my very first ever review copy of a game. Now with the year over it’s time for me to put my vote in for game of the year and whilst I’d love to say it was a close competition it really was anything but.
All in all 2011 saw me complete 22 games total (there were far more played, see here for an explanation as to why they didn’t get reviewed) and here’s an exhaustive list of the reviews in chronological order:
As I was creating this list it struck me just how mixed this list of games is. Whilst the dominant platform is still PC for me there’s 2 other platforms in there and their respective releases both felt right at home on their platform of choice. The dominant genre here would appear to be FPS although just going off the usual 8~10 hour playtime rule for said genre I dare say that the vast majority of my gaming time in 2011 was spent on RPGs or games with a RPG element to them. Although if I’m honest I have blown quite a lot of my time recently in Modern Warfare 3′s multiplayer and a heck of a lot more in Star Wars: The Old Republic (review coming soon!).
Before I dive into the game of the year however there’s a few games that deserve recognition either for their accomplishments or outright failures.
Gemini Rue is by far the most underrated game of the bunch. It’s been well received critically both here and elsewhere but it’s still a title most people would not know if they heard it. I’d say this was because of its lack of a release on Steam when it first came out (which has since changed) even though it had a digital distribution channel. Still the game is expertly crafted, bringing up all kinds of nostalgia whilst delivering a story that I really cared about, thoroughly exploiting all aspects of its chosen pixel art medium. Whilst it might not make the cut for my game of the year it would definitely get my vote for independent game of the year, hands down.
For most over-hyped/biggest let down of the year the title can go to none other than Duke Nukem Forever. I was thinking about making it a tie between said title and Rage but in defense of id’s latest release it at least had some redeeming features in the engine and game play. Duke Nukem Forever is unfortunately nothing like that being little more than a generic shooter that rode the Duke brand as hard as it could. Indeed it’s the definition of a critic proof release as for Gearbox it was a commercial success despite it’s woeful critical reception. I’ll be honest this is the only game that I played through to the end just so I could review it as for any other title I would’ve just stopped playing and not bothered to review it.
So what then is my game of the year for 2011? The answer is Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
As a game Human Revolution really is something amazing. The graphics are simply superb with it rightly taking the title away from Crysis as being the game to stress test your new rig with. That’d all be for naught if the game wasn’t good but suffice to say it’s brilliant. The plot and characters are engrossing, there are wide and varied game mechanics ensuring that no 2 playthroughs are the same and it has rekindled that feeling that everyone had when they first played the original Deus Ex. Put simply Deus Ex: Human Revolution sets the bar for the FPS/RPG hybrid genre and does it with an almost effortless elegance. It’s fitting then that it received my highest score review score of the year, putting it second only to StarCraft 2.
With 2011 now done and dusted its time to look forward into 2012 and the games it holds for us. It’s already shaping up to be a fantastic year for gaming with games like Diablo 3 and Mass Effect 3 due out early in the year. It will also be the year when I ramp up my game review efforts significantly on here as I’ve got plans to make my console reviews better (and do more of them), dabbling with the idea of producing video reviews and overall playing more games so that I can do more reviews. In the end that’s what its all about, well that and my not-so-secret desire to be a games journalist…
It’s really no secret that the earlier that a game review gets out the more likely it is that more people will read it. For the most part it’s held true for the reviews I’ve done as people tend to look for info about the game mostly before or just after its release, usually to scope out whether they should buy it or not. Being one of the unwashed masses I’m not privy to early releases of games (except for one solitary exception with Modern Warfare 3) so all my game reviews usually come out weeks after the major sites have already posted theirs, usually with 1 or 2 follow ups afterwards. Still I continue to write them because they’re the easiest writing I’ve ever done and I have an incredibly fun time doing so. Some of my reviews have also been decently popular so I know there’s some value in them for my readers out there.
As to what value people were actually getting from my late in the piece reviews though wasn’t all that clear to me. Of course there are some who use them to inform their purchasing decisions (although no one’s told me of that) and a few will just be my regular readers catching up on my latest ramblings. I knew quite a few people stumbled onto my site when they were looking for wallpapers for particular games or screenshots of certain characters which might not be available anywhere else. However after reading a couple early reviews of certain games I started to realize why reviews like mine are important.
They give the companies a chance to fix broken things.
Take for instance this weeks review of Dead Island. I didn’t get the game on launch day because of the price but I happily snapped it up about a week after it was released. Had I got it on launch day and attempted to play it I would’ve been greeted with the developer build which was buggy, filled with odd shortcuts like turning on no-clip and overall a relatively unpleasant experience. Since I tend to avoid game reviews for games I myself intend to review I wouldn’t have known about these issues and would’ve panned the game for releasing such a half assed game. Coming into it later than the usual flood of reviews meant I got to experience the game as intended and I believe my review reflects a more accurate picture of what the game developers hoped to release.
Another game I was hoping to review in the future was Rage and of course my platform of choice will be the PC. However according to initial reports its sounding an awful lot like the Dead Island release, with the game being horribly buggy and glitchy. Since I’m still waiting on my pre-order keys to arrive (and the fact that I have probably 3 other games I could be playing at the moment) I haven’t been able to give Rage a go yet, but it seems like giving the game a miss for a week or so might be the best option, just so that I’m not reviewing the current mess that everyone is complaining about.
Delayed reviews then, whilst probably not garnering the same amount of press as their day 1 counterparts, serve to showcase what the game is capable of once you get past the initial bumps. It’s a good thing for small timers like myself who don’t have the privilege of getting early access too, as we have the luxury of taking our time with the games and making sure the experience we’re getting is the best the developers could deliver. If the game is still a smoking wreck at that point then it deserves what’s coming to it, but realistically if it’s an honest mistake (like Dead Island was) then it should be easy to fix it.
Of course I wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to review a game before it was released if I was given the opportunity, hint hint
Co-op games run a fine line of balancing the game between the single and multi-player experience. You see whilst it’s great to be able to bash out a game with mates (as I often do) I can’t rely on all my friends being available when I want to play. Borderlands suffered somewhat because of this as their support for drop in/drop out co-op left a lot to be desired, leaving many to simply not play the game at all if they couldn’t get their original crew together. Dead Island, a game I picked up on G2Play to play with mates at a recent LAN, is a cross between borderlands style RPG play but in a setting much more like Left 4 Dead and it seems to have gotten this balance between play modes figured out.
You get a choice of 4 different heros: Xian Mei, Sam B, Logan Carter and Purna. The game starts out with you waking up to find the resort you’re staying in being overrun by zombies (from an unknown source) leaving you to fend for yourself. The game then centres around finding pockets of survivors on the island and helping them out, travelling between different locations on the island. Part way through a mysterious voice appears over the radio who starts helping you out in the hopes that you’ll be able to help him save his wife who’s become one of the infected.
Each of the 4 main characters represent a different character class, each with their own distinct set of advantages. I choose Purna, mostly to round out the team of 4 I initially played with, who’s a firearms expert. The character classes all have 3 talent trees that unlock new skills and perks as you level up and they’re each unique to the character in question. Depending on which skills you go for the way in which you play Dead Island can be wildly different to others, which gives the game quite a bit of replayability. I for instance didn’t put any skill points in the “Fury” tree but as a result I was devastating with melee weapons and I buffed my entire party with an aura, making some situations quite a lot easier.
The single/multiplayer balance in Dead Island is done absolutely brilliantly. I joined the game about 30 mins after my mates had started (since I was bashing out a couple StarCraft 2 games with another friend) and I was placed nearby so they could find me. I was worried about many quests showing up saying “This will not be recorded in your profile” but as it turns out side quests aren’t saved during co-op sessions, but main quest progress is. So upon jumping into single player I was greeted with a bevy of side quests to complete should I feel the need. Jumping back into multiplayer synced you up with the person who was the least progressed with the main plot, a godsend compared to Borderlands. Dead Island also takes out some of the more laborious aspects of questing, planting the objectives on the minimap so you don’t spend hours looking for that one last thing to complete that quest.
Dead Island also implements a system whereby you can join up with other people who are in a similar place in the game as you are. This will appear as a message on the right hand side of the monitor and after one key press you’ll be joined up with them. Whilst my experience with this was mixed (quite a few people simply left the game after I tried to join with them) it’s a really nice touch and can make some of the more challenging areas far more easy and enjoyable.
Not all of the quests are that well done however. The escort quests, of which one is pictured above, are extremely tedious as the NPCs don’t follow you. Instead they follow their own path (completely unknown to you) and will often throw themselves right into the middle of a horde of zombies, requiring you to fish them out. They also feel needlessly long at points, trapping you for a good 15 minutes or more in a game of follow the leader. Why this kind of quest was put in Dead Island escapes me as they feel quite out of place compared to the rest of the quests in the game.
Dead Island’s loot and inventory system is a mixed affair of getting some aspects completely right whilst others just utterly wrong. You have limited inventory slots (which can be upgraded, typical RPG affair) but crafting materials don’t take up any space in it. This is fantastic because there’s just so much crafting crap around the world that balancing an inventory around it would be nigh on impossible and ensures that when you find a vendor with that key ingredient you never find you can stock up on it for future use. Crafted items and upgrades are also very useful and, in the case of weapon mods, visibly change the weapon that they’re applied to.
Finding good items however is somewhat of a crap shoot. Early on in the game I read a tip that said “the best items are always in chests” or something to that effect. With that in mind I upgraded my lock picking still to the max so I could open up all those chests. Throughout my entire play through I found only 1 solitary non-white item (an orange level sickle) in the chests. All my other good weapons were either rewards from quests or bought from the vendors and there were maybe 5 or so blue level items that dropped from zombies. I guess what I’m trying to say is that you’re better off not bothering hunting for loot and instead just using quest rewards or vendor items.
Combat in Dead Island is visceral, over the top and thoroughly enjoyable, once you get past the initial hump that is. You see that blue bar in the screenshot above? That’s the stamina bar and it limits how much you can run, jump and attack (except for guns, which have ammo). When that runs out you can’t do anything except for one thing: kick. The kick attack, which every character has, is an unlimited attack that interrupts all attacks and can’t be interrupted itself. For the first 40% of the game or so there’s really no reason not to use this attack and this attack only as you can knock down every zombie and then proceed to pummel them to death on the ground. Playing this at a LAN with all my mates in ear shot made this a rather fun experience, naming our band of heroes the Kick Squad. It was quite hilarious to see one zombie go down and then be repeatedly kicked to death by 4 people, but it made weapons in the game rather redundant for a while.
One thing that Dead Island doesn’t deliver in is the plot. Now the trailer for Dead Island was actually quite well done as it depicted a game that had both thrilling action and also a deep and meaningful plot. Honestly I was sold on buying the game after seeing that trailer, being able to play it with mates at a LAN was just the icing on the cake. However all the characters are completely unrelatable, either through being complete dicks or being horribly voice acted (my wife referred to Purna’s voice as sounding like it was done by someone in Play School). There’s also a few attempts to pull on the heart strings at various points through the use of cut scenes but honestly they don’t fit in with the environment at all. It’s made even worse by the ending, which taken into context makes little sense and is cheapened by a last ditch effort to make the ending feel bitter sweet.
Overall though Dead Island is a solid game that’s enjoyable both as co-op and as a single player experience. It’s not without it’s flaws however and whilst none of them are entirely game breaking they can be enough to make some of the time you spend in Dead Island rather tedious. Still the game looks like it could be a LAN favourite for a while to come as the 4 character classes and 3 skill trees per character gives enough variety to make sure that each play through is unique and enjoyable. If you liked Borderlands and need another fix of zombies in your life then Dead Island won’t disappoint you.
Dead Island is available on PC, Xbox360 and PlayStation 3 right now for $49.99, $89 and $89 respectively. Game was played on the PC with around 15 hours of total play time (8 of those being co-op) and reaching level 38.