Dec 31, 2012
I think the reason that Mass Effect 3 remained my favourite game of the year is also the reason it caught some flak: it was the end of a huge story that we were all seriously invested in. For me, that gave the whole 20-hour adventure an almost electric energy, the tingly feeling that everything had been leading up to this. For some, that meant the not entirely satisfying ending felt like a slap in the face.
I didn’t feel that way. I didn’t like the actual end scene much, but it was a few minutes of nonsense among twenty hours of the best Mass Effect has ever been. That was my ending: the full scale invasion of the Reapers, the desperate street battles, the tragic deaths of old friends, the final moments of camaraderie with the ones left alive. I’d already had most of the closure I needed before the... weird bit.
The history we all have with these characters, and the attachments we’ve formed with them, gave Mass Effect 3 an unfair advantage over everything else that came out this year. But it didn’t take that for granted. Despite the praise we’d all heaped on the previous two games, BioWare worked hard to do better.
For me, the most important part of that was the story. It’s BioWare’s strength, of course, but after Mass Effect 2’s unconvincing Cerberus angle I wasn’t sure they’d close it out decisively. I needn’t have worried. The climactic nature of the Reaper invasion gives Mass Effect 3’s story drive and urgency, and the premise of racing around the galaxy to drum up allies gave you a string of critical decisions to make. It felt like being in charge again.
The RPG elements finally clicked, too: it’s the first Mass Effect game where I wanted to continue with each class I tried. As well as being powerful and distinct, they were customisable in a much more significant way: it was up to you how heavily armed your class should be, and how rapidly their powers would recharge. Heavier weapons meant slower powers, and finding your preferred balance was the first time in the series that I got really excited about character builds.
Mass Effect 2 made combat satisfying, but it still dragged after the umpteenth arena scuffle with the same enemy classes and the same low walls. Mass Effect 3’s contribution was a massive overhaul in enemy design. Every faction is completely different to fight against, and you’re fighting a lot of them. Within each army, there are intricate relationships between the enemy types that you need to disrupt before they buff, heal, or armour-plate each other. Figuring out how to combine your squad’s powers to deal with that was a shifting challenge.
But maybe the most remarkable thing about Mass Effect 3 was that we were able to have any personal investment in it at all. This is a series that had been giving us hugely consequential decisions for 40 hours already: the state of the universe and most of its key players were radically different for each of us. From its first scenes to its massive conclusion, Mass Effect 3 could make no assumptions about which of your 13 companions might be alive or dead. Under the hood, it’s a nightmarishly complex web of dependencies and replacement story branches. And yet to us, the whole thing was seamlessly consistent. Everything I’d done was reflected in the ongoing situation, everyone I’d lost was gone – and the story adapted. It’s the most impressive trick I’ve ever seen a sequel pull, and it’s a big part of what made Mass Effect 3 so special.
Read More: Mass Effect 3 review.
Runners Up: XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Dishonored.
Dec 26, 2012
Sadly, it's not available to buy—it's a one-off made for a competition—but that only makes it that much more of alluring.
The accuracy is a result of the source material: developers Arkane shared the actual 3D models used for the mask in the game, meaning that, technically, this is no different to Corvo's actual mask.
Except you can actually touch this one.
Dec 26, 2012
One question above all others has dominated PC gaming this year. What in the name of smooth Jazz happened in Dunwall last night? It must have been astonishing, because every single guard in Dunwall is probably getting his own squad.
Did the entire guard populate undergo a singular, simultaneous act of cellular mitosis, splitting like dapper single cell organisms into identical duplicates in need of sudden leadership? Did the rat king emerge into the moonlight to be slain by the collective heroics of the entire city watch - an act of bravery so impressive that none of those involved could fail to be promoted? Or did Arkane, when setting the frequency of each bark, accidentally switch this one from "occasional" to "all the damn time forever."
Dishonored certainly isn't the only contender in this category. Over the course of 2012 soundbites have lodged themselves in the folds of our brains like audio shrapnel, playing on a loop and disrupting everyday conversation. Here's a conversation made up of a few of those quotes. if two NPCs from 2012 were to have a witter, it might go something like this. Can you guess the game each phrase came from?
NPC 1: Think you'll get your own squad after what happened last night?
NPC 2: Should've used a rubber.
NPC 1: Indeed, I believe so. Should we gather for whiskey and cigars tonight?
NPC 2: Oh fuck, a leopard!
NPC 1: Probably just rats.
NPC 2: AAAAOOOAAAOOOUUUUAAARRRGH!!
NPC 1: Shake it off!
NPC 2: We're all gonna die! We're all gonna die!XX
Answers here, highlight to reveal: Dishonored, Far Cry 3, Dishonored, Far Cry 3, Dishonored, Chivalry, Guild Wars 2, XCOM
I became lost in the sprawling city of Dunwall a total of 14 times after receiving the teleporting Blink ability. The culprit wasn’t entangling level design or oblique objectives. It was curiosity – a hunger for the unknown rivalling Corvo Attano’s desire for revenge in its intensity.
From the moment salty ferryman Samuel Beechworth deposited me on the silty, moonlit shoreline of Dunwall’s outskirts, I sensed it: the compelling need to uncover the beating pulse of this once-mighty industrial city.
The best thing about Dishonored isn’t its kinetically scrumptious combat, which has certainly reaped its fair share of praise. It’s the simple existence of an immersive story churning independently from Corvo’s own narrative. Abandoned apartments, garish brothels, rusted whaling factories – each locale offers another slice of Dunwall’s identity for ravenous absorption. The ubiquity of snippets of lore captured in tattered books and note scraps peppered along Corvo’s path only fuels my hunger for more.
Corvo’s accomplices and detractors leave equally unforgettable marks exacerbated by the cryptic whispers of the cogwork Heart. It’s like a remote control of truth and gossip. It lays bare the innermost secrets of the pallid, downcast faces encountered in slum and suburb alike. Samuel’s life at sea, for example, was a response to the numbing loss of a hopeless love. He also can’t sleep in a normal bed. (Presumably due to their very non-wavy construction.)
Dunwall is a grim and grisly place filled with horror and despair, but Arkane’s creation also brims with possibility. Sure, Corvo seeks closure, but I relished the opportunities to tell my own brand of story at every turn. Dunwall’s presence made me feel the density of my rain-slick pea coat as I perched on high. It underscored the angular juxtaposition of technology with old-world architecture. Brushed tableaus of history leapt forth from Sergey Kolesov’s fantastically detailed paintings. An impromptu eavesdrop revealed an aristocratic couple reduced to squabbling amid the ruins of their lives in a plague-infested district.
Dishonored doesn’t force your nose up against everything it offers, but its revelatory depiction of a believable world tearing itself apart springboards the need to explore and travel beyond Dunwall’s cobblestone streets. Such a distinction exists in but a few predecessor titles considered staples of PC gaming, and Dishonored wholeheartedly deserves its seat beside such exploratory games as Deus Ex, Thief and Unreal.
I could go on. In a genre that defines variety mostly by the amount of ammo left in a gun, Dishonored’s richness both solidifies its legacy as a keystone stealth game and etches memories that linger far beyond the last credit line.
Read More: Our Dishonored review and Dishonored video diary.
Runners Up: Spec Ops: The Line and Hotline Miami.
Dec 24, 2012
It’s a busy and varied field this year: exquisitely picked soundtracks tussle for our affection with gorgeous bespoke scores, covering every genre from bustling chiptune beats to orchestral epics. Dishonored's sparse but potent use of the sea-shanty was fittingly iconic, while Jesper Kyd’s Darksiders 2 score swept from Celtic pipes to Mongolian throat singing, and Spec Ops: The Line’s astutely selected records patched both Deep Purple and Verdi into its eclectic, psychedelic ambience.
A hat tip is certainly due to Jessica Curry for her intensely unsettling Dear Esther score, managing to create a bleak, lonesome space for your neuroses to fill, without ever overtly forcing emotion upon the player. At the other end of the scale, Far Cry 3’s weapons-grade dubstep was hardly subtle, but a delirious, irresistible indulgence nonetheless.
However, the final battle here is to be fought by just two contenders - Hotline Miami and Super Hexagon, both offering a line in pounding electronica. Super Hexagon’s is chirpy, hypnotic and deployed with the level of craft witnessed in every area of the game: the way failure skips the track to another section avoids grating repetition without ever shattering the game’s sense of pace. But it’s Hotline Miami that triumphs, if not for the skill with which the tracks are woven into the game, then for the air of illness, caustic unease and pitiless violence that they collectively conjure. I can think of few games, or few anything, which have been able to sonically construct such a powerful sense of psychosis. An achievement, albeit a dark one.
Dec 24, 2012
Ever wonder what the PC games of 2012 would be like if they were text adventures? Of course not, no one in their right mind would ever wonder that. In related news: I wondered that! So, rip out your GeForce GTX 680, plug in your dusty 10" CRT monitor, and stuff your programmable eight-button mouse in a stocking, because this week we're going to imagine five of this year's games the way all PC games used to be: as text adventures.
This year, Dishonored invited us to sneak, stab, and slide-kick our way through the grimy, rat-infested Victorian-punk streets of Dunwall. The architecture and atmosphere were unforgettable, so let's forget about them while we take a look at Dishonored: The Text Adventure!
I've been having a lot of fun with Dunwall City Trials, the first downloadable add-on to October's fantastic stealth game Dishonored. I've beaten the core game almost two times now, and while it's such a brilliant bit of design, I'd found myself hungry for new, different challenges.
It's always felt like the game would benefit from an extra mode in addition to the single-player story, one that let us really put the game's many enjoyable systems to the test. Dunwall City Trials, which costs $5 to download, adds just that.
It's a collection of 10 challenge maps that put players through a gauntlet of stealth, combat, and puzzle challenges, each one designed to stand on its own as a leaderboard-focused trial. Master those, and you'll unlock five more 'expert' maps that make the existing challenges even harder.
The DLC, while perhaps a bit slight, feels like just what Dishonored needed. While the ten challenges are great, I can already tell that I'm going to want more of them.
The stealth challenge "Mystery Foe" puts you into a "Lady Boyle's Last Party"-type scenario, where you'll have to sneak about a party undetected and gather clues about who your target is before taking him or her out. The fewer clues you need to take down your target, the higher you score. The best bit is that the target is randomly selected each time, making the level feel a bit like something out of Hitman: Absolution's smart Contracts Mode.
"Burglar" has you robbing a house (that floats, awesomely, in the same dream-zone in which you meet The Stranger), and remaining undetected. There are wave-based attack challenges, too, as well as one of my favorites, "Kill Cascade," which has you chaining those oh-so-satisfying aerial kills together as quickly as possible.
I've only played an hour or so of Dunwall City Trials, but it already feels like a solid add-on for anyone who liked the core game. It's hard not to wish for a couple more stealth challenges, as those are the best of the bunch, but each challenge offers a welcomely stiff challenge and some good optional objectives, and certainly feels worth five bucks. As with the challenge rooms in Batman: Arkham City, the trials are a fun way to stress-test Dishonored's systems without worrying about your chaos level or which powers you've chosen.
I hope that, as Bethesda releases more DLC for the game, we get to see another slew of challenge rooms in addition to whatever else they may be planning. Dishonored deserves even more of this kind of thing.
Dec 19, 2012
2012 was a banner year for stealth games. From January up through December, we got to play a healthy variety of games involving dozens of different types of sneaking, skulking, lurking, and sklurking. (It's a thing.)
You could say that these games… crept up on us.
We really… didn't see them coming.
Jason and I have already talked at length about why we love stealth games. While many video games set a series of systems in motion and toss you into the middle, stealth games operate a bit differently. They're about staying outside of those systems, creeping about the periphery while poking here, prodding there, and deciding how to engage. You really play with stealth games, and that's what lends them their unique rhythm and makes them so satisfying.
It's also why we come away from stealth games with such great stories. Every stealth game I played this year, I came away with a handful of stories, moments that captured the best (and sometimes, worst) sorts of stealth-game unpredictability.
Rather than just run down all the stealth games that came out this year, I thought it might be fun to share some stories, then open the floor for y'all to share your own tales. Here goes:
Mark of the Ninja
Klei Entertainment's Mark of the Ninja was interesting because it was both a tight, polished stealth game, and something of a treatise on stealth games themselves. Helped along by its two-dimensional design, the game gave clear visual feedback for every aspect of sneaking—footstep audio burst visually outward from the protagonist, while lights illuminated exactly where they were pointing. There was never a question whether you were hidden or visible, and the enemy artificial intelligence clearly signaled its status and intent. My moment from MotN comes from early in the game, when I was tasked with sneaking through a building and freeing several of my captured compatriots. I decided I was going to do the entire bit nonlethal, and that was where I discovered the most rewarding way to play Mark of the Ninja: Without killing anyone at all. As I freed the final captive without being spotted, I felt the kind of satisfaction I rarely feel by playing nonviolent in sneaking games.
No, seriously: There were so many stealth games in 2012 that even Journey had a stealth segment. This marks what I think of as the "low point" of the protagonist, the darkest, tensest hour. As the robed wanderer fights its way across a snowy field, it is hunted by those terrifying flying fish-golem monsters. I've rarely felt such unexpected dread, and even replaying the game, I fear this section.
Ghost Recon: Future Soldier
I don't think I felt more uneasy about stealth than I did in Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. As I mentioned in my review, the game is at its best when you're pulling off carefully orchestrated stealth-kills with your entire team, slipping through an area undetected. But no game has made me feel as uncomfortable. Particularly during the early Africa levels, as my stealth-cloak enabled cybersoldier squad wiped out wave after wave of ill-equipped third-world junta soldiers, it became clearer and clearer that this battle was horribly uneven. So, it's not so much an emergent stealth moment that I remember, more a feeling of how totally overpowered my team and I were.
It is very difficult to pick a single stealth moment from Dishonored, a game in which I've forgotten more classic moments than I experience in most games. But one comes to mind: In the mission in the Golden Cat brothel, you're tasked with taking down a couple of n'er do-wells located at various points throughout the building. One of them is holed up behind closed doors near to a body of water, and there are a number of ways I could sneak in to get him. But the way I chose was a doozy: I possessed a fish, swam through a small passage and into the room, then slowed down time and burst from the water in slow-mo before stabbing the dude in the neck. It was one of those moments that you see in movies, and yet I got to do it myself. In real time. Pretty much my Ultimate Dishonored Moment.
Here's a game I liked more than some, but I'm still playing it to this day, and still enjoying it quite a bit. If there's one thing I retrospectively could have talked about more in my review, it's how Absolution does feel different from Blood Money in many of its levels—it's much more of a traditional stealth game than its most recent predecessor. That said, there were still so many times when I felt that old Hitman groove—particularly during the mission "Shaving Lenny." Outside of Lenny's BBQ, I snuck over to a storage shed and took out the guard inside, before slowly but surely taking down guard after guard, and returning to the shed to stash them all. Over the course of the next twenty or so minutes, that shed became my macabre base of operations, the place NPCs went to decompose.
Assassin's Creed III
This game is the one to get a mention due to bad stealth. Perhaps chief among the many ways Assassin's Creed III disappointed me was the fact that the game's stealth was, for lack of a better word, busted. Two memories stick with me, and both involve bushes. The first involved failing the George Washington eavesdropping mission for the umpteenth time, entirely because for some unknown reason, Connor stood up for a moment while prowling in the bushes. The second involved taking out Pitcairn during the Battle of Bunker Hill. The infuriating thing about bushes in the game is that the moment you've been spotted, you simply can't crouch down again. The game ejects you from cover, and you have to find another way. This works okay in some sequences, but is a disaster in others, particularly if detection means failing the mission. The sneaking bits were tense, but for the wrong reasons. I wasn't worried I'd get spotted, I was worried Connor would do something dumb of his own accord and fail the mission for me.
Far Cry 3
More than perhaps every other game on this list, Far Cry 3 is a game that inspires stealth stories. I have a bunch: The time I lurked outside an outpost, luring dudes away one by one using pebbles, in an attempt to get my second no-alert outpost clearing, only to fuck it up at the last minute and get spotted by a roving patrol, have them trigger the alarm, and get killed. Or another time, when I shot the lock off of a tiger cage and had it immediately charge straight for me (and shortly afterward, managed to get a bear to clear out an entire outpost for me). Or the time, as I shared at the start of my review, when I hang-glided in behind enemies and snuck in to take them down, only to have everything go wonderfully wrong. Far Cry 3 was, as much if not more than Dishonored, a stealth game that was at its best when things went awry.
Those were my most memorable moments of sneaking in 2012. What were yours?
Dec 19, 2012
Rock, Paper, Shotgun - firstname.lastname@example.org (Paul Walker)
There’s no question that Dishonored’s Heart deserves celebration. Fortunately RPS contributor Paul Walker has done that in fine style, digging in to what makes the object so significant to the game, and speaking to co-creative directors Harvey Smith and Raphael Colantonio about how it came to exist, and their feelings about its part in the game.>
Dishonored’s Heart is an object which lives up to its name in many ways. It breathes life into the game’s characters, imbues the city of Dunwall with soul, and helps the player to feel the melancholy tone which permeates all facets of its world. Characterised by the intersection of the mystical and the technological, it distills the very essence of the pseudo-Victorian steampunk landscape in which Dishonored’s tale unfolds. It is presented to the player as a navigation tool — a guide to lead players to the occult items littered throughout the fictional city of Dunwall. But, as co-creative directors Harvey Smith and Raphael Colantonio told me, “It also plays a part related to informing their decisions about when to apply violence or not, making it a really interesting, more subtle part of the power fantasy.” Here we start to get to grips with what it is the makes the Heart so compelling.
That impeccable taste is on full display in this guest essay he wrote for Penny Arcade Report about why he thinks Far Cry 2 is brilliant.
Smith shares some smart musings on the nature of embedded ("We have written this story for you") and emergent ("Woah, this story randomly happened to me!") narrative in video games, and how Dishonored was his and his co-creative director Raphael Colantonio's attempt at blending the two playstyles. (I'd say they did a pretty good job.)
Smith wraps it up thusly:
If games focused on embedded narrative are more polished, why do many of us prefer games that focus on the dynamics of emergent narrative? Is it some intuitive sense that ferrets out what is most meaningful in games? Is this a situation akin to independent film, where an audience steeped in the critical aspects of the medium wants a bare experience, uncluttered by bombast, filler or special effects, delivered in an understated or experimental way? On initial contact, Far Cry 2 was somewhat unwelcoming in that it did not invite players in; the subject matter was brutal and the game's advancement curve and difficulty tuning required patience.
The reward for those who stayed with the game was potent. Some of the most interesting game design commentary of the year orbited the game, including the Permadeath experiments conducted by Ben Abraham and others, which I take as an indication of how thought-provoking and challenging (to video game conventions) Far Cry 2 was. The game stands as the shooter title that has given me the most compelling, player-driven moments to date.
See? It's not just me and everyone else with good taste in video games who thinks Far Cry 2 is great. HARVEY SMITH AGREES, YOU GUYS. I think we can finally close the book on this once and for all.
In all seriousness, give the whole article a read, it's good.
Dishonored's Harvey Smith explains the genius of Far Cry 2 [Penny Arcade Report]