Looking back on the year, I pay homage to some of my cherished moments in games and film while tearing down in equal part the most standout disappointments I endured with the eloquence and tastefulness of a chainsaw.
Borderlands 2 (Gearbox)
It’s not often a developer sets out to make a game with the intention to deliver pure, unfiltered fun factor and discarding the superfluous story byproduct, it’s even less often that they succeed in such spectacular fashion. Borderlands 2 straps on the nitrous oxide mask, (that’s laughing gas for you layman) puts a machine gun in your hand that fires flaming grenades instead of bullets and lets you go to town while the arrogant antagonist Handsome Jack goads you on with witty, mentally unstable dialogue.
Gearbox has certainly doubled down with this installment, improving on the best parts of its predecessor while buttoning up any problems that held it back. They’ve made good on their original claim of thousands of weapon variations too. Now every gun you pick up feels like its own unique experience; reload animations, fire rate, clip size and a mind boggling list of special attributes that range from the hilarious to brutally effective are just some of the differences you’ll find while cycling through your arsenal. There is brilliantly written dialogue and Easter Eggs a-plenty and the aesthetic of environments are more varied as well making the world feel far more alive this time around.
The villain Handsome Jack (and his faithful mount, Butt Stallion) helps to tie it all together, driving the storyline with bombastic absurdity and ingeniously comical bravado. The same great blend of loot-seeking, role playing advancement and phenomenal gun play still works like a charm, returning with more polish and better than ever.
Cabin in the Woods
Joss Whedon is a personal hero of mine, from his work on Firefly to salvaging the spectacular crap sandwich buildup of ever-worsening superhero movies into the awesomeness that was the Avengers, the man knows his way around a script. Cabin in the Woods is nothing short of brilliant, working the wonderful tongue-in-cheek trinity to its advantage with a savvy blend of horror, comedy and genre-deconstruction genius.
The baseline setup is a simple one; group of college students head for a secluded weekend at a cabin in the woods, drugs and alcohol are consumed and homicidal violence in one form or another ensues. However it’s what transpires beyond these initial plot points that make the movie something uniquely special, twisting and turning with a ‘gotcha’ surprise and laughs around every corner. The movie strikes a smart balance that harkens back to the days of Scream, chuckling one second and jumping out of my seat the next. Thanks to some great talents at the forefront the always dry, witty dialogue is well executed and in good hands. Easily my favorite moments are found in the back and forth between Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins deceptively administrative characters’ as they seamlessly transition between no-nonsense professionalism and laid back jokesters at the drop of a hat.
If you deem yourself a horror buff and enjoy your comedy with a healthy dose of gratuitous violence and the occasional jump-scare you owe it to yourself to check out Cabin in the Woods.
The Walking Dead (Telltale Games)
Telltale knocked it out of the park with their episodic series based in the universe of the Walking Dead comics. Proving that I can still feel something emotionally tangible for characters in a game was a profound moment for me as both a gamer and developer.
Your ward and adorable sidekick throughout the adventure is a little girl named Clementine, and she is the real gem and emotional catalyst of this title. More and more I found myself grappling with what kind of relationship I was forming with Clem. An internal struggle took place as I chose between shielding her from the human tragedies that occurred around us or letting her face them. I hoped to preserve what little innocence she had left while but ultimately I was hit with the sobering reality that sooner or later she would need to face these horrible truths if she was to have any chance at survival in this bleak world.
Giving players the power to shape how fellow survivors and their stories advance is only half of its genius, the real trick is how there is never a clear path to doing the ‘right thing’ and more often than not the choice is between two evils, neither one lesser than the other. The decisions you make seem real and their repercussions are all the more meaningful because they affect characters you have significant attachments to; people you rely on, trust and genuinely care for.
Halo 4 (343 Industries)
When Bungie wrapped things up with Halo: Reach and departed the franchise, I resolved to do the same. Having been there from the beginning with Master Chief and knowing full well that Microsoft would continue to harvest their cash cow for years to come I decided to hang up my Spartan helmet, bid that universe I loved so well adieu and eagerly await the next big project from Bungie.
It was to my great surprise when not one, but two separate friends of mine who held similar inclinations about the franchise came raving about Halo 4, “Might be the best Halo yet!” one exclaimed, “Everything is so well done, even the story is top notch!” cried the other. Suffice to say I became cautiously optimistic, did some research and reluctantly picked it up for myself.
What I found was an impressively well-paced, understated and refreshing prologue entry into what will be 343’s next chapter in the Halo story. Game play was tighter than previous entries while remaining familiar and innovative in subtle ways. The relationship between Chief and Cortana is turned on its head, new insight into the Spartan program is revealed and we are treated to a glance at the existential and political intrigue to come with the new direction the studio is taking for future projects. While it didn’t carry the same weight as Combat Evolved did way back when it first released Halo 4 has got me looking forward to what’s coming next for the series, and that’s a good thing.
Diablo 3 (Blizzard)
Proving that they are in fact not the infallible demigods of game development we all thought they were, I have to say it tickles me a bit that Blizzard finally fucked something up with one of their babies; I just wish it wasn’t Diablo. The game isn’t bad, in fact quite the opposite. As usual they brought us a product with more form and polish than the statue of David. My issue isn’t with the troubles that followed in the days and weeks following launch or their decision to remove character statistic-tweaking in favor of a more streamlined and what some might call simplistic approach. I’m talking about the classic Diablo experience that was notably missing from a game with the word ‘Diablo’ printed on the cover.
My assumption is that during development someone in the bowels of the Blizzard offices must have picked up the ‘grind/loot to the freakishly impossible depths of hell’ magic bullet and threw it in the nearest trash receptacle, shook his fist in the air and proclaimed “compelling, structured storytelling!” First off, just give me what I want: endless depths of demon-infested dungeons, crypts, etc. to plunder through without trying to force the story down my gullet like a duck destined to become foie gras. Instead, I’d prefer a drip feed of optional bits and pieces delivered in a subtle way through little scrolls and tomes that can be read at my discretion.
Finally, being forced to play through the entire campaign on an obscenely easy difficulty just to replay it at a tepidly more challenging difficulty is a travesty, especially in a game as vaunted for its hardcore nature as Diablo. Let me crank that sucker up to nightmare or inferno from the get go, if I want to pay 60 dollars to immediately have my sphincter rearranged by demon spawn as they merrily dance about my corpse who are you to say ‘no‘ Blizzard?
Game of Thrones (Season 2)
The first season was in my estimation, one of the most faithful and accurate adaptations of a book I can think of to date. An artisan masterpiece that beautifully brought to life George Martins world with all its grace and grit. It was disheartening to then witness all the creative liberties being taken in season two with its myriad departures from the text for reasons I can only surmise to be an attempt at pandering to the meteoric rise of the series’ now vast audience.
I understand the deeper into Martins’ source material you go, the more cumbersome it gets with an ever growing list of character threads to keep track of and more plot twists than you can shake a stick at. For a while I remained a staunch defender of the series creators, reassuring others along with myself that a certain amount of compression had to be made for continuity while cutting back or eliminating secondary and tertiary characters was meant to keep it concise. Then they started to change scenes so drastically and for no plausible reason I could think of (believe me I tried) to justify the rewrites. My main grievance came at the end of the season, when Jon Snow and Qhorin Halfhand throw down. This was a moment in the books that to me was an extremely important turning point for Jon Snow as a character; a powerful piece of storytelling for the tension it builds and ultimately its resolution. It was the reason behind the action that gave this moment the weight it held, not the action itself.
Yes, there were still many fantastic moments to be had (battle of the Black Water, most notably) and yes, I am still eagerly awaiting the premier of season three in March. My hope is that this was just the producers stumbling as they seek to find their stride for the overall course of the show. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that there were some very fundamental moments either obscured by bizarre substitutions of circumstance or entirely lost in translation.
Ridley Scott is my homeboy; Blade Runner and Alien are the seeds of my penchant for all things sci-fi and video games. In Prometheus, we were promised a look at the origins of not only the space jockey from the original film and the iconic Xenomorphs, but the cosmic beginnings of the human race itself. But despite all its wonderfully grandiose philosophical tendencies and exhibition of eye-popping visuals the movie still rang hollow, leaving me feeling distinctly unfulfilled as I walked out of the theater.
Aside from a transcendent performance by Michael Fassbender as the android David along with the under-utilized talents of Charlize Theron and Idris Elba, the entire cast is a blatant hodgepodge of disposable character tropes ripe for the kill-off. This supposed ‘science team’ proceeds to bumble their way through alien ruins in the most haphazard and comical ways imaginable. Adding to my already staggering disbelief in the entire space-fiasco. From walking around alien structures without a helmet to performing inexplicable reanimation experiments on severed alien heads and lets not forget one particularly smart crew member sticking his face right up to a clearly hostile indigenous life form and basically administering pillow talk to it (cause he’s into biology), these guys do supremely stupid stuff at regular intervals throughout the film.
Probably the worst part is the farce of this movie setting out to tackle the riddle of humanities’ purpose for existence, or at least their take on it. A subject that is nonchalantly toyed with throughout the film then ultimately abandoned by the end to be left flopping around on the cutting room floor.