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… 😉
As I’ve said previously sequels are always a tricky thing to get right. They will inevitably be compared to their predecessors and should they not be a wholesale improvement on the experience that came before them then you’re guaranteed to cop some serious flak. Still due to their almost guaranteed market potential any original game that enjoys a modicum of success is pretty much guaranteed to have a sequel, or at least a spiritual successor. Dragon Age 2 is one of these such games and since I thoroughly enjoyed Dragon Age: Origins, despite its flaws, it didn’t take much for me to open my wallet yet again for a Bioware RPG. Over 2 weeks and 30+ hours of playtime I managed to conclude the story of Dragon Age 2 and I’m still trying to figure out where I stand with this game, as are many who’ve done the same.
Dragon Age 2 differs quite significantly from its predecessor. Whilst Origins was your typical pick your own adventure style RPG Dragon Age 2 instead takes the Mass Effect style of game play, giving you the choice of a few character classes which you will play through the game with. This drew the ire of many RPG fans as the depth of character development you could undertake in Origins was quite significant and the switch to a Mass Effect style of game play was seen as a dumbing down of Bioware’s standards. Since I’m not usually one to replay a game (unless it’s really, really good) I didn’t take that much issue with it, but I can understand where the complaints are coming from.
You play this game as Hawke, a man/woman who fled the land of Ferelden during the blight that took place during Origins to seek safety in the land of Kirkwall a once slave nation. The game follows the trials and tribulations of Hawke attempting to regain the notoriety that his family once had and his rise to the position of “Champion of Kirkwall”, told in retrospect by one of his companions Varric. There’s a constant sense of foreboding in how the story is recounted so you always have the sense that something big is going to happen. However unlike its predecessor which had a large, overarching plot that drove you from one quest to the next Dragon Age 2 instead sort of drifts between plot points with each chapter having a different (and completely unrelated) goal. This is where Origins shone as the entire game was leading up to that one point at the end, whereas Dragon Age 2 instead switches between no less than 3 different goals, none of which build towards the final conclusion.
Satisfyingly though combat in Dragon Age 2 is really quite enjoyable. I lamented back in my Origins review that the combat, whilst feeling decidedly epic at many points in the game, was quite a bug ridden affair with my warrior constantly getting stuck on hit boxes and abilities that failed to work as advertised. Dragon Age 2 still has many of the trademark skills that its predecessor had however they all work as expected and the attributes and talents system has been completely revamped. The end result was that my warrior in Dragon Age 2 became a wrecking ball of devastation that was on par with the blood mages in Origins. He could decimate entire swaths of enemies with 2 abilities and towards the end he had practically unlimited stamina allowing all his abilities to be used to their fullest potential. This was probably the best part of Dragon Age 2 for a Mass Effect fan like myself and whilst I wasn’t able to play it like Mass Effect (I.E. without pausing the game to micro my team mates) it was still thoroughly satisfying.
Thankfully the default behavior of your team mates has also been vastly improved. In Origins should you neglect to look at the tactics screen you’d be running with a party that had almost no idea what to do apart from auto-attack everything that you attacked. Whilst I had to make a few minor adjustments to the default settings I don’t think I spent anymore than 15 minutes configuring my party’s behavior before they were adequately fulfilling the roles I had chosen for them. Sure they’re still not able to position themselves automatically but apart from that they were far more capable then their counter-parts in Origins, something which I was very thankful for.
Many other parts of Dragon Age 2 have also been streamlined or revamped to take some of the grind out of the game. Crafting has been redone so that instead of having to level through it in order to get better potions/runes/posions you simply find the recipes around the world. In order to make them however you have to find resources which aren’t depleted when you use them. For someone like me who really doesn’t have an interest in leveling tradeskills in a single player game this was a welcome change and something that made me far more interested in hunting down ingredients and recipes. Old school RPGers will probably say that this takes away from the value of crafted items since you don’t have to really do a lot for them but in the end I’d rather not waste another 10 hours in the game just so I could upgrade my armor or weapon a little more.
Loot in the game is almost too plentiful with my character often having multiple sets of armor after a single dungeon run. Initially it all seems kind of pointless since there’s little to spend gold on and you’ll end up having well over 100 gold after the first chapter ends. However the final few chapters took their toll on my gold reserves thanks to many difficult encounters and full sets of armor that were just begging for rune upgrades. This also extends to your companions who, unlike Origins where you could dress them as you felt, will also require upgrades which can be found at vendors all over Kirkwall and its surrounding regions. Some fights these small additional upgrades can be the difference between winning and losing, as I painfully found out several times over.
The relationship Hawke develops with his companions is one of the better aspects of Dragon Age 2. Unlike Origins where romancing someone was a game of playing their friendship right with gifts and certain dialog options Dragon Age 2 simplifies the idea considerably since the conversation wheel alerts you to the romantic option. Gifts are still around (and form part of the romance should you pursue it) but there’s no longer a myriad of things you can lavish on your potential lover. As the above screenshot shows I had a real soft spot for Merrill and thankfully the relationship didn’t end after a single session of bonking (unlike with Isabella). Whilst I didn’t feel as emotionally involved with the characters as I did with say Heavy Rain I still genuinely cared for them, especially Merrill. It seemed some of them also cared for me as well, with Isabella leaving me and then returning later on in the game.
There are however some extremely visible issues with Dragon Age 2 that need to be pointed out. Not least of which is the repeating environments and asset reuse that is seen throughout the entirety of the game. All caves are the same cave save for doors being open/closed or done backwards and all slaver hideouts, mansions and underground passageways are completely identical. Additionally many in game items are direct copies from Origins which would be fine if they referenced some lore about it but many are just straight up ported from the game’s predecessor. This made the game somewhat predictable in parts since all the encounters happened at the same place, diminishing the replay value significantly.
There’s also a couple issues with difficulty pacing within the game. Whilst there were many times I’d make it through by the skin of my teeth the fights were always controllable and I never felt like I was fighting against a brick wall. The end of Act 2 however brought one fight (I’ll avoid the spoilers for now) that was in essence, impossible. Now I’d usually chalk this up to me going through the game too quickly and not taking the time to level. However all the other fights felt more like ones with mechanics that punished you for getting things wrong. The fight in question however punished you regardless, stretching out the encounter to abysmally long lengths. Talking with my friends reveals that a critical dialog option wasn’t available to me, putting me in the rather unenviable position of having to use the dev console to get past this roadblock. Thankfully this only happened once (the other time was due to me attempting a fight before I was capable of completing it) but it still felt highly out of place when I wasn’t struggling with the game up to this point.
The lack of an over-arching plot was something that Origins did magnificently which Dragon Age 2 simply fails to accomplish. Whilst I can understand the reasoning behind it (Origins took place over 2 years, Dragon Age 2 took 10) the fact that there’s really no goal for Hawke in Kirkwall means that during the various side quests you get a feeling you’re just doing them for the sake of it, rather than building towards the ultimate end. Plus amidst the cacophony of other things you’re doing in the game the main plot line can seem to be nothing more than a footnote until one character tells you “Hey, this could take a while are you sure you’ve done everything?”. With some parts of Dragon Age 2’s story being really satisfying this lack of direction really detracted from the experience.
Despite these faults however I really did enjoy my time with Dragon Age 2. Whilst I would sigh at the repetitive dungeons and lament the fact I had little direction apart from the issue du jour the engrossing combat and reduction of miscellaneous crap made me forget all my troubles almost instantly. I found the conversations a lot more interesting now that my character actually had a voice, even if the choice options didn’t always align with what I thought they were. Initially I was going to say this game didn’t stand up to its predecessor due to the problems that came from the rushed development cycle but in all honesty Dragon Age 2 is a much better game overall. Given the same amount of time to develop Dragon Age 2 as they did Origins I’m sure it would have come out as a game that both delighted fans of the IP and newcomers alike. It’s good enough that I’m considering a second playthrough and possibly ponying up for the DLC, something which I rarely do even for my most cherished of games.
Dragon Age 2 is available right now on PC, XBox 360 and Playstation 3 for $69, $108 and $108 respectively. Game was played entirely on Hard difficulty with approximately 31 hours of play time and my character reaching level 21 by the end.
Review scandal: http://www.kotaku.com.au/2011/03/dragon-age-ii-dev-rates-his-own-game-on-metacritic/