Friday, December 28, 2012

2012, Gaming's Best and Worst


In case you haven't noticed 2012 is fast coming to a close and it's been a rollicking year even with a weak economy.  THQ and OnLive went belly up due to financial troubles and many developers either consolidated their studios or closed altogether. 

Even long popular gaming franchises found themselves forced to compete on more than just name recognition with some more capable than others.

Still there were bright spots this year as well as those not so luminous.  So let's get on with my own top (and bottom) 5 gaming related picks.

First, the good stuff.

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THE BEST

1. Torchlight 2 - While somewhat obscure this RPG is everything Diablo 3 should have been.  Good looking, engrossing gameplay, easy UI navigation and with no more profit motive beyond the initial purchase price.  The addition of cooperative play brought back fond memories of playing hours of Dungeon Siege 2.  Runic has achieved on a much smaller scale what larger developers with more resources still can't seem to, namely, making a game you actually want to keep playing.

2. Borderlands 2 - Looking back over my old blog posts you'd be excused if you thought I hated this game.  Nothing is further from the truth.  While the game is afflicted with "DLC Disease" and was overpriced at launch at $60 (as is the case with most other triple-A titles these days) the core game stands on its own and leaves you wanting for nothing.  You need buy no more than the base game to enjoy hours of single player and co-op fun.  The game is better looking than its predecessor and takes advantage of enthusiast hardware but is no less entertaining on less capable hardware like my 3 year old gaming laptop.  If an FPS shooter set in a comic book Mad Max world appeals to you then take advantage of a Steam Sale and pick up a copy for yourself.

3. Orcs Must Die 2 - I can't help but be reminded of the classic 80's arcade game Dragon's Lair.  Easy controls and infinitely re-playable  the addition of cooperative play mode only made this game better.   If this game's addictive it's due to beautifully rendered maps, humorous storyline and a constant variety of adversaries.  Let's face it, it's the 21st century version of Space Invaders meaning you have limited resources to battle waves of ever more difficult adversaries.  It's the strict adherence to that simple formula that keeps this game in my personal library.  The only reason it's so far down the list is that it's easily hacked with a memory editor that pretty much  invalidates the global scoreboard.  Kind of hard to brag about 30000 points when someone had 1 billion showing on launch day.

4. The Geforce GTX 680 Video Card - PCPerspective may like the AMD 7970 better but you can't beat the price for performance of the latest Nvidia Enthusiast card.  Using less power with equal if not better performance than AMD's offering I'm convinced my next gaming rig's going to run Nvidia.  Then there's the whole "PhysX" capability if you care about such things, which I don't.  Not to mention the still somewhat awkward AMD driver model.  AMD driver packages are still too big, take too long to install and are far more prone to corruption than NVIDIA's offering.  I'm also someone who has two game rigs running AMD 69xx graphics by the way so I know from whence I speak.

But seriously, Nvidia's learned some lessons from its mobile division and brought the best ideas to its enthusiast graphics family.  Sorry AMD guys but you're about a generation back and at this point it's not reasonable for a an idling enthusiast video card to be pulling down more than 250 watts.  Game bundles are nice but they're not a good metric to compare hardware.  A friend of mine replaced a pair of juiced 6950's in crossfire with a pair of 680's to run his 30" monitor that runs 2K resolutions.  A single 680 allowed full resolution with medium settings, two in SLI is even better but bordering on the pornographic..

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5. PC hardware in general -  While I'm still somewhat dismayed that there really isn't an enthusiast platform for CPU and chipsets anymore the mainstream is impressive.  Even with a good enthusiast graphics card in the mix you can still build a stout gaming rig for around $1000 that will pummel any previous Intel generation.  The emphasis is on lower power consumption without giving up any of the performance and that's a good thing.  The only downside is that AMD isn't really any competition to Intel in the PC gaming space which keeps prices higher and slows innovation. 

Honorable Mention
Killing Floor - This game is going on 4 years old but is still actively supported with regular updates and entertaining new DLC all the time.  If you've never seen a zombie in a Santa Cap you're missing out.

Big Picture - Finally a way to easily navigate Steam on a big screen TV!



Now for the bad stuff and while it was tough to come up with the bright spots this year the bad stuff was easy.

THE WORST

1. Subscriptions and DLC creep - This one isn't that new but really started taking off in 2012.  It started awhile back with Call of Duty Elite and now every triple-A title with a multiplayer option has a "premium" subscription offering.  Battlefield 3, Call of Duty and Borderlands all offer it with other popular franchises looking at the option.   If it was just restricted to DLC that'd be fine but in the case of Battlefield 3 it's become downright discriminatory.  Restricted access to servers, special "Premium only XP" events and unlocks that give an unfair advantage to "premium" players are all hallmarks.
 
It seems these days publishers want you to pay twice for a game or suffer a diminished experience.  Game DLC isn't much better with prices usually around $15 which might give your character a change of clothes and a few new maps which you may or may not have access to if you're not a "premium" subscriber.  Beware overhyped DLC as well.  One of the worst DLC packs I ever bought was for Call of Duty: Black Ops.  For my $15 I got rehashed zombie maps from COD: World at War and a moon map, yippee...

Of course if you "subscribe" that DLC is "Free" but in the end you're paying twice for content that really should have already been there for the inflated price.  Worse, with EA's model you get all the DLC pain whether you want it or not.  You can count on waiting for at least a 4 GB download on the week preceding any new DLC release and a host of global game tweaks to support it.  All the suffering, none of the benefits which  leads to my next pick.

2. The $60 game - I don't know when this happened exactly but it seems 2012 was the year for any game with a major publisher behind it to squeeze you for $60 or more.  Why? There is no inflation in fact we're in a recession, development staffs have been slashed and development hardware is cheaper than ever so where's the rationale?  Considering you'll probably have to buy additional DLC packs or "Subscribe" the cost of entry is awfully steep.  Worse not every game is worthy of its price.  Remember "Rage?"  I have a few theories about why but they all lead back to one thing, greed.

3. Diablo 3 - Probably the most anticipated sequel in recent gaming history Diablo 3 has become the poster child for all that is wrong with gaming in 2012.  First, launch day found millions of rabid players looking at an error screen because of Blizzard's poor capacity planning.  Next up, the "new" in-game marketplace that was supposed to allow players to trade and purchase game items found itself hacked almost from day one.  Linux players using Wine to play D3 found themselves banned and labeled as cheaters without recourse with Blizzard refusing to refund the purchase price for their legitimate copies.  Finally the constant Internet connection even when playing the Single player D3 is nothing short of draconian.  Runic's Torchlight 2 may not be as pretty as D3 but it's a far better experience.  Not everyone wants WoW in their D3 Blizzard!

4. Medal of Honor: Warfighter - What can I say, another example of pimping out EA's Frostbite 2 engine on a half-baked overpriced "triple-A" title.  Stupid AI, bad storylines and in general an overall bad experience forced even EA to admit that the game was a flop.  That doesn't stop them from asking full price for it on its EA's Origin service, however.   It's also heavily promoted within Battlefield 3's "Battlelog" web interface, forever reminding you of its existence like a glowing "service engine"  light on your car's dash . EA even promised early Beta access to Battlefield 4 for Warfighter pre-orders!  Now that's desperation. 

5. The WiiU - Arguably, this thing was DOA.  A pathetic gaming library, underwhelming hardware and gimmicky features make this console too little too late.  Slow load times, bad Wii game compatibility not to mention that whole "adult" content restriction makes this device a perfect example of where consoles "don't" need to go.

Dishonorable mention

Slow Steam Servers and never ending updates - Valve's been working on improving its regional Steam download servers and they can't do it fast enough as far as I'm concerned.  I still routinely have to switch servers when I'm getting rates under 128K on an otherwise good connection.  EA is even worse, especially if you own Battlefield 3.  Up to one hour of my weekly game night is routinely taken up by updates, luckily there's usually beer handy. Worse, with Origin (unlike Steam) you can't choose servers like you can with Steam.  If it's slow you're stuck.

So that's it, my picks for the best and worst of gaming for 2012.  Whether you agree or disagree with my picks I encourage you to check them out for yourself.  I've included a few links to other popular year-end lists below.  

Happy New Year!


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