26 December 2015

That was the year that was 2015

Welcome to the only the best games of 2015 list where Bloodborne, Witcher III, Batman: Arkham Knight or Fallout 4 won't get a single award. Why? Because quite frankly neither of them deserves it. It's straight to business then:

Life is Strange
Game of the Year
Best story
Best narrative
Best art direction
Best production design
Best voice actress (Hannah Telle as Max Caulfield)
Best audio/soundtrack

Hand-drawn textures and life-like production design give Life is Strange a dreamy but realistic look.

Ever since Life is Strange was announced there was this tingling feel it could be something different than other games of the same ilk. And indeed it was.

The first episode was more tentative, you couldn't really tell what direction the game would take. Initially we thought the game could perhaps have worked as a teenage drama without the sci-fi element of time-rewind powers our protagonist Max gains. The following episodes showed we were wrong. The drama couldn't exist without powers and vice versa. They were supplementary to each other in the relevancy of the story developer Dontnod wanted to tell.

It's all about friendship, not about the looming end of Arcadia Bay. Clever dramaturgy gives room for those silent moments when seemingly nothing happens but it's those lingering moments you hold most dear as do Max and Chloe.

Best friends forever, Chloe and Max in the trail of the mystery.

Digitally hand-painted textures and life-like production design have an exceptionally uncanny eye for everyday reality more than any photorealism could ever achieve. These people and their surroundings are alive. Licensed indie songs play on cue in just the right moments to further enhance the mood.

Fan favorite Chloe and her voice actress Ashly Burch has gained much fan attention and accolades but this is Max Caulfield's story and Hannah Telle delivers it with all the delicacy of a young and insecure girl.

Dontnod's first interactive story does so many things right the already announced second season with a new cast and story has an impossible task ahead if it tries to surpass the sublime first season.

Rise of the Tomb Raider
Best graphics/visuals
Best sequel
Best action/adventure
Best Xbox One game

This time Lara Croft chooses her adventure instead of getting thrown into it.

Rise of the Tomb Raider doesn't reach the frenzy and intensity of Tomb Raider reboot and it doesn't even try to. Instead the game delivers a slick and grand adventure with great production and entertainment values. The game is so polished Lara could mirror herself from its surface if her always perfect hair ever needs adjustment. Rise of the Tomb Raider is the best looking game this year in the traditional sense while Life is Strange takes the trophy for artistry.

Siberia is cold but beautiful.

To call Rise of the Tomb Raider a weekend long thrill ride akin to Uncharted series is the same if you called Apocalypse: Now a heartfelt family comedy. The game is more about exploring than running through the story. If you do only the latter though you miss more than half of the fun. While planeteer J did a 100% run of Rise of the Tomb Raider on his first playthrough it doesn't mean it's the end of the game. Watching Twitch streams and players who bypass most of the collectibles and challenges either on purpose or by accident makes him itch and urges for another 100% of it.

Best sports game
Best multiplayer versus

Mathildas celebrate an equalizer.

Sports game are at their best when played against another player, even better when played locally so. FIFA 16 takes a step towards more realistic approach to the beautiful game instead of just passing through and scoring spectacular goals. There's FUT for those hungry for online fame and glory but we are happy just to play against each other. FIFA 16 also scores highly for adding women's international teams to the roster and more often than not we find ourselves competing with them. Female players are also rendered better than males and you can only admire especially realistic hairlines and ears. Yeah, ears...!

Destiny The Taken King
Best MMO
Best FPS

Shadow shot is sexy!

The Taken King expansion gave Destiny a new lease of life and did many things the way they should have been in the year one of the game. Undeniably the new content doesn't last that long and the game becomes a grind fest again. It doesn't matter though. It's MMO after all where grinding always starts anew by every expansion and Destiny is a joy to play even only for its perfect playability. This is no PC port FPS where you jerk a crosshair in the hunt for pixels (cough, Star Wars: Battlefront, cough). Gameplay was tailormade for consoles and it shows. You all can debate whether Destiny is a dire cashcow, it's still the best FPS on consoles at the moment.

Resident Evil: Revelations 2
Best co-op multiplayer
Best new characters in an established franchise: Moira Burton & Natalia Korda

"I may have a foul mouth but perfect teeth!"

While Capcom doesn't seem to know what do with Resident Evil main series they churn out spin-offs and HD remasters. And why not? The older games are still great to play and small-budget Resident Evil: Revelations 2 by Capcom B-team is an enjoyable action horror romp. It resembles more survival horror than any other RE game since Resident Evil 0 (also getting a HD treatment soon), albeit more action-orientated.

Game's original publishing format of four episodes released in consecutive weeks was like following an exciting TV miniseries. One thing's sure. RE: Revelations 2 is a co-op game in spirit and blood. We don't even know how some parts of the game, especially in Barry's and Natalia's levels, can be navigated without help of another human player. You can opt for AI partner but really, if you don't have a friend to play either online or locally, don't bother with the game.

"A girl and a man", ca. early 19th century, artist unknown.

The cast is excellent and rare fan-service from Capcom. Claire Redfield is playable for the first time since Resident Evil: Code Veronica (not counting those light gun games) and fan-favorite Barry Burton finally gets a male lead. They are accompanied by new characters to the franchise. Barry's foul-mouthed daughter Moira is paired with Claire while Barry finds company from a little girl Natalia Korda. Both are great supporting characters and can take care of themselves too. Planeteer P liked to play Moira aggressively and smashed zombies with her crowbar more than Claire shot them. Also Barry would be completely blind in certain situations without the help of mysterious Natalia.

Rare Replay
Product of the Year
Best value for money

Don't just stand there! Save the poor girl!

Not just a nostalgic trip down the memory lane, Rare Replay collects games from 30 years history of British developers Rare Limited and shows that even some of the oldest games in the package are more playable than just curiosities. Rare Replay is a great product which is put together with tender, love and care. Pre-N64 games have all rewind and save state features so you can finally finish those devious games.

Most of N64 games are Xbox 360 ports of them, excluding hilarious Conker's Bad Fur Day which is seen in its original glory so few has actually seen, Jet Force Gemini which sadly is less playable due to its unnecessary complicated controls and ever-so frantic Blast Corps. Grabbed by Ghoulies, an original Xbox game mauled by the critics and ignored by the players, has got a full HD treatment and is surprise of the lot; the game is great fun!

Kameo's evil sister is quite foxy!

Of course some Nintendo-owned classics, like Donkey Kong games and GoldenEye aren't included due to licensing reasons but even without them Rare Replay has something to offer for everyone. It wasn't a full-priced to begin with and by now the cost has lowered further still in many stores so Xbox One owners will run out of excuses not to collect it.

30 November 2015

You raise me up

I would be making an understatement if I said Tomb Raider (2013) is one of my favorite games. I have played it through seven times over three different platforms. No other modern age game has got same attention from me. So of course I was waiting for Rise of the Tomb Raider like no other game.

With each trade fair appearance and released video my expectations got either higher ("looks so good, whoa, this time Lara even resembles her performer Camilla Ludddington") or went down ("so many ways to kill people... Lara isn't supposed to be that kind of violent maniac"). It was this kind of roller coaster of emotions right up to the release date. Even Twitch streams I had been following didn't convince me. I saw the game as almost an off-putting mix of mindless killing and lukewarm adventuring.

When all the excitement started; this scene was shown in E3 debut gameplay footage. Oh boy!

But when the game eventually saw the daylight, I had no other options than to get it. Heck, I even chose Xbox One as my new generation console because of Rise of the Tomb Raider! So after all this, was I disappointed? Is it better than Tomb Raider I love so much? There's no way I can even try to pretend how Rise of the Tomb Raider would feel like if one hasn't played the previous game so I must make comparisons.

Rise of the Tomb Raider plays almost exactly like its predecessor. Gameplay is mostly identical and you collect all the different stuff in a similar way, even though this time Lara has a few more tricks up her sleeve, more stuff and resources to gather and hunt down and the tombs are way bigger with very clever environmental puzzles. But the overall nature of the games are completely different.

Two years ago we met Lara Croft who wasn't that arrogant, self-assertive superwoman we had grown familiar with ever since her seminal 1996 debut. In her place was a young, insecure woman who is literally thrown into a hell in a desperate journey to save her friends and herself. Lara was thrown around, drowned, punched, drenched in blood, shit, pus and whatnot. Cutscenes were "filmed" with shaky handheld camera, up close and personal. The game was frenzy and energetic and after a grueling run the gauntlet a survivor was born.

Yea yea, you have dirt on your face but lighting makes it look perfect anyway.

Two years later we meet an adventurer. She chooses her journey in order to prove her late father wasn't barmy and heads to Siberia with Jonah. As a tomb raider is about to rise, a new enemy also rises its proverbially ugly head. Trinity (Templars all but in the name) are after the same Divine Source Lara is desperately looking for.

Everything in the game is more sleek and grand in the scale than previously. Rise of the Tomb Raider is technically absolutely brilliant and perfect in every imaginable way. After this game all those developers who make Xbox One versions of their games worse than their PS4 counterparts are either lazy or incompetent, or more likely both. There's no excuses anymore. There has been few, if none, as polished games in the last years. In fact it's polished almost up to the point of losing any edge and rough characteristics.

Even lynxes are bigger and more menacing in Siberia than in Finland (where I live).

This time Lara is treated like a film star. She's shown in cutscenes always in a favorable light and her Tress FX -powered hair shines in any situation like in hair care commercials. And if Lara happens to have some dirt or blood on her almost Luddingtonesque features, it's washed away during camp stints. It's as if a modestly budgeted action movie surprise hit gets a big-budget, huge crowd-pleasing sequel.

So here we are again at the same question. Was I disappointed? Is Rise of the Tomb Raider better than Tomb Raider? Well, in all honesty I can't answer that but I tell you what. I bothered to get 100% completion on my 1st playthrough of it. That must tell something.

//Planeteer J

P.S. Oh, what about that infamous input lag? What input lag? Stop telling lies and get your facts right, Digital Foundry! In fact, aiming is even steadier this time so it's easier to pop headshots. Yes, Lara's movement has inertia but that's because of a sense of weight to her to better simulate movement on different surfaces.

14 November 2015

Keep the Faith

Xbox 360 backwards compatibility finally arrived to Xbox One and I was happy to see Mirror's Edge among the first batch of supported games. Having played it now extensively on Xbox One I can say two things: the compatibility works like a charm, absolutely no frame rate drops or other hiccups, and Mirror's Edge hasn't aged a bit. It's still the same stylish and smooth skill-based game. If you fumble, it's always your fault - even though you swear a lot and blame the controller for mishaps.

Mirror's Edge dates back to 2008. When the anticipated sequel (or the prequel as they call it) arrives the next May it's been almost an eight years a gap between the games. A lot has changed since in the gaming, too much to mention in fact but the one thing I'm after now is that the games have become more easy and accessible. The game companies might tell you it's because "the players demand more nowadays" or some other crap like that but in reality easy games equal more profits. No one buys a game with a reputation of being frustrating.

That's why I fear Mirror's Edge: Catalyst will also fall into an "easy and more accessible" category. My other concern is it might try too much, both in terms of visuals and game mechanics. The original succeeds because it's pretty much bare-bones. It does what it does and does it well. It doesn't reach for the skies nor it needs to. We have already seen flashy cut scenes and dazzling visuals of the prequel, with glaring lens flares and whatnot, but very little of the actual gameplay. And DICE pretty much hates Xbox One. Or is completely incompetent with it. And I have absolutely no desire to get PS4, like, ever.

Of course I hope I'm wrong and Mirror's Edge: Catalyst turns out to be the best game since, well, Mirror's Edge. It's a long wait until May. In the meantime we can always go back to Faith's original shoes and have a blast!

//Planeteer P

10 November 2015

November rain

Whoa! Gasp! OMG! The best November in gaming. like, ever! Just look at it, so many AAA-games released already, with hundreds of millions worth of marketing backing them up so even if you live in a barrel with a lid nailed shut, you'd still know which games are out there.

What to choose? Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, the best FPS ever! Fallout 4, perhaps the most anticipated game of all time! Rise of the Tomb Raider, making the predecessor to look like a nap hour in kindergarten. And there's still Star Wars: Battlefront to come! It's Star Wars! As multiplayer FPS (or 3rd person, if you prefer)! Need to even say more?

The Lost Planeteers had to make their hard choice:

Never Alone: Arctic collection from Xbox One Gold membership discount. A charming little platformer with a very important message, along its recently released DLC. It was familiar to us from Steam already but now we can enjoy it as a proper co-op, as it was meant to be.

So, there really was no choice at all.

28 October 2015

"It's just rain, I smile, brushing my tears away"

In this day and age when most of the games are just odorless, flavorless, mass-marketed AAA-drivel shoveled one after another from the conveyor belt, players like us who have been playing video games over 30 years are starting to lose their faith in gaming. Along comes Dontnod Entertainment with Life is Strange, an episodic, narrative-driven, choice and consequence adventure.

Most of the time we take games as they are, just games, like we take most of the movies, books, comics or music. They are what they are. But once in a while there comes an exceptionally good game, movie, book, comic or music which breaks boundaries of its media. Life is Strange is such a case. It goes under your skin and touches something deep inside of you, and leaves a lasting impression. The last two games to achieve the same were ICO and Journey. Both touched with their sparse, wordless story-telling but Life is Strange is the first game to achieve it with a rich, multi-layered narrative.

Thank you Dontnod for showing us there's still hope, for making something very special. Life is Strange is a game with a true soul and a heart. You have dared to touch serious real-life issues, most of which are familiar to each and everyone of us. You have told us the value of friendship. You have shown us that sometimes you just have to let go of something which is dear to us. Or go the distance and sacrifice everything for it.

At the same time you haven't forgotten put a game in there too, with adventure game -like gameplay mechanics, whereas much applauded Telltale's games are in comparison even more shallow, emotionally distant, quasi-interactive picture books than they were before.

We feel privileged to have been able to spend 10 months with Max and co. in a quaint town of Arcadia Bay, a bitter autumn breeze blowing over glowing picturesque scenes, like sweet and fleeting childhood memories.

Thank you Dontnod for making us believe again.

20 October 2015

The beautiful game

It's strange how this year the gaming media favors Pro Evolution Soccer 2016 over FIFA 16. They claim PES is the most realistic soccer game ever while FIFA is just yet another FIFA. Sorry but we beg to differ. In fact it's the other way around. In PES 16 all you need to do is through pass, sprint to the box and score. Simple as that. In this year's FIFA you have to grind for goals. It's a whole different ball game than previous incarnations. It's way more satisfactory when you need to work for your success. Of course the media favors spectacular goal fest while they more or less cunningly cover it with empty claims of realism.

FIFA 16 wins over PES also by including women's international teams. Female players aren't just re-skinned males either. They look, feel and play differently, thanks to unique mo-cap and realistic gameplay. Games with women teams are not as physical or fast-paced as men's but they are more tactical. And that's how we like our soccer.

19 October 2015

Next generation Inky

The first game we bought for Xbox One was Dragon Age: Inquisition. Having just recently completed the PS3 version (clocking over 117 hours in game time) we were a bit suspicious if we had the stamina for another run through Thedas so soon. We were wrong. The game sucked us in right from the start. As has been the custom with Bioware's games in this blog, we will post images of the epic journey in several updates. Let's start from the beginning: