A Holiday Season Awash in Competence

Last year it was 2s. This year it’s 3s.

Battlefield 3, Gears of War 3, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, Saints Row: The Third, Uncharted 3 . . . And then, of course, there’s just a lot of other franchise entries, like Batman: Arkham City or, say, Need for Speed: The Run.

Now, this isn’t Hollywood. While it is traditional to think that cinematic sequels are always weak imitators of original material, I don’t think that sequels are necessarily a bad thing for a video game. This is a very different medium, and certainly, what you often get in a video game sequel is more polished play or better world building and character development after the ground work of an original IP is laid and it has been tested on a larger (and rather vocal) audience.

Assassin’s Creed II is a far better game than Assassin’s Creed, and Brotherhood is better still. Give me Vice City or San Andreas over Grand Theft Auto III. I love the original Metroid, but Super Metroid is polished 2-D perfection. Hell, Ms. Pac-Man is a far superior experience to playing the too-slow Pac-Man.

However, what this holiday season in gaming seems to lack is not polish — in fact, some of these titles might be too polished. Batman: Arkham City is awfully good, but it just doesn’t blow me away like Arkham Asylum did. The world is bigger and there is more to do but at the expense of the tightness of the first game’s shorter plot and slower paced combat. Saints Row has refined so many of its features into nice, neat, efficient, and user friendly menus that the open world game seems to require very little input from a player. There’s a GPS dotted line leading to every single goal and sub-goal in the game. It is the model of competent efficiency, without giving much of a nod to ideas like exploration or discovery, something that I associate open world play with.

Some of the other titles mentioned above are ones that I haven’t yet gotten around to, but I have heard a disturbing amount of a sort of humdrum buzz around. There’s an awful lot of “Uncharted 3, yeah, I mean it’s good but . . .” or “well, it’s a Call of Duty game.” Most reviews aren’t saying that these are bad games (and indeed I don’t think either Arkham City or the new Saints Row are lousy), but there seems to be a lot of “good, not great” this year. In fact, most of these games are receiving good reviews, and I almost wish there was something a little more raw to sink my teeth into, rather than so many games, so very well cooked.

I guess that I kind of got spoiled by some of the games from earlier this summer or the ones that came out just at the edge of the holiday hubbub. The most interesting and more innovative titles came at less financially lucrative times of the year. Shadows of the Damned, L.A. Noire, Dead Island and Catherine may have been a little clunky here or there, but there were fresh ideas in those titles. Shadows of the Damned is loud, brash, and offensive and awfully engaging for those reasons. L.A. Noire is fascinating to look at, and its trial-and-error gameplay makes me less afraid to err for some reason and more interested in pressing on. Catherine‘s puzzles are a weird focus for a whole title but surprisingly fun once you get their rhythm down. Honestly, I find myself looking forward more to finally getting my hands on El Shaddai in the coming weeks, than in getting any of the titles that I am supposed to want to see under my Christmas tree. I know that not everyone loves it, but I just want a fresher (and, again, maybe even less competent) experience.

Sure, sure, this makes no sense during the holidays because companies need to make money, not take risks, but one of the problems (I think) with the underwhelming sales of games like Shadows of the Damned or Catherine may be that they were released at a time when gamers’ wallets aren’t usually out. There’s got to be something to be said for taking a least a few holiday risks that might get gamers interested in a new IP (or even better, more aware of a studio or development team) when they are primed to spend. I was out there on Black Friday, so I know that holiday shoppers are impulsive.

All I want for Christmas is just one title that surprises me. Oh, and Assassin’s Creed: Revelations.


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