There’s a constant argument in my household. My wife and I tend to mislabel one another’s taste in games. Because she’s a recovering hardcore nerd who used to play pen and paper RPGs before she moved in with me, I often overgeneralize her taste. Truth is, she quit Fable II about eight months ago and hasn’t looked back, she hates Fallout 3, and she lost interest in Mass Effect faster than me, a self-proclaimed RPG hater. On the same token, she says that all I play are shooters. So far, I haven’t beaten Modern Warfare 2 single-player yet, I’m ambling along leisurely at racking up Left 4 Dead 2 Achievements, and Killzone 2 is the only FPS campaign I’ve cleared all year. Why do I say all of this? Because open-world games have dominated my play time in 2009.
Everything hit me a few weeks ago when The Saboteur’s lead designer Tom French brought the game in to show off for one last time (awkwardness about the studio closing the following week aside). As I watched him rifle through Sean Devlin’s tools of destruction and blow up a Nazi watchtower, I was stricken with an odd sense of guilt. I want to play The Saboteur, despite Rob Manuel’s sound and reasonable complaints in his review. But I know that there are so many other virtual worlds I want to clear first.
There’s part of me that gets a perverse glee when it comes to open-world missions. See, I’ve never been the critic to gripe about linearity in games. I like the idea of going against the tide and following a plan to execution, even with everything buzzing around me. More often than not, I’ll attack the main plot of an open-world game, unless there’s huge incentive to bulk up my character through side missions. I like to think of it as forcing linearity against the grain. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
It All Started With a Car Ride...
I wish I could say that this year’s dalliances started with Grand Theft Auto: The Lost & Damned, but Street Fighter IV single-handedly removed every game from my consoles for at least a month. No, the real renaissance came with the GTA that didn’t get as much love as I expected from gamers. There hasn’t been another handheld game I’ve sunk as much time into this year as Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars. Partly because my former co-worker wiped my first game save off the office copy, so I had to restart it again. I’m currently replaying it on PSP right now as well.
I believe the key to Chinatown Wars’ success (as a game, mind you; the sales figures have been shameful) lies in how Rockstar Leeds approached this installment. I enjoyed Liberty City Stories when it launched on PSP, but it eventually became a bit of a slog to play. Ten minute missions work when I’m on the couch, but not on the road (and I seldom play my PSP on the couch). I wrote off Vice City Stories after a short time for similar reasons. Both games translated the GTA experience to handheld, but unfortunately, both games failed to capture the essence of why handheld gaming works. Chinatown Wars gives you bite-sized missions that you can pull off during a morning commute. Not only that, but it takes the advancements of GTA4 -- fast travel, GPS navigation -- and helps speed you along the way to completion. It’s how a sandbox game on the go should play.
A Game That Will Live in inFamy
After sinking plenty of time into the cel-shaded version of a familiar virtual world, I was ready to seek out a new one. Enter inFamous. For two weeks, I came into work red-eyed and exhausted from running around Empire City each night. inFamous has drawn comparisons to Crackdown (console-exclusive designed around open-world platforming action) and Prototype (release timing), but the influence of the Sly Cooper games comes to mind first. inFamous has that same sense of wonder that I got from Sly’s acrobatic climbing and leaping antics. Cole has as much agility as the raccoon hero from Sucker Punch’s prior series. Zeke’s not quite as amusing as The Murray, but he’s an affable sidekick. If there’s one game I’m feeling most antsy about revisiting during the holiday season, it’s this one. I still haven’t finished it, because I got sidetracked by the adjustments to this job at G4 (I showed up three weeks before E3), and also by the obligation to play Red Faction Guerilla for work.
Paint the Red Planet...Red
I was always turned off by Saints Row’s tacky-ass approach to, well, everything, yet Volition’s take on a fully-destructible Mars was appealing in ways that the team’s malt liquor-sipping cousin wasn’t. Red Faction Guerilla presented me with a genuine playground of destruction, and I found it so much more likeable than the Mercenaries series. Both games allowed you to destroy buildings at their core, but I believe that the key with Guerilla was charm. There’s real satisfaction in reducing a structure to rubble with merely a sledgehammer and some patience. What Guerilla lacks in plot, it makes up in fun (as long as you play it on casual). There was something so appealing about setting sticky satchels on everything, then running off and detonating them. Little did I know how much that addiction would be fed later in the year...
Before GTA: The Ballad of Gay Tony dropped, I’d never reviewed a major Grand Theft Auto title. I normally don’t like reviewing them, since it’s a game that I’d rather enjoy at my own leisurely pace than a game that I prefer to power through. But I took on the review, and in hindsight, I’m glad I did. GTA4 was the first GTA game I sank the dozens of hours into finishing. I loved it for what it offered, yet I was acutely aware that it was a bit more serious and somber than past games. I understand why that -- coupled with an unrestrained friends system that demanded a lot from the player -- turned many people off. Yet, Gay Tony feels like an experience from a Rockstar North team that understood the gripes, listened to feedback, and honed the experience to hit all of the buttons.
The best depiction of clubbing in a game (about the only redeemable feature of Kane & Lynch), the revival of one of the best extracurricular activities in San Andreas (who didn’t love base-jumping off Mt. Chiliad?), and the liberal use of sticky bombs all went a long way with me. Tell me the Bus Stop Achievement doesn’t put a goofy grin on your face and I’ll check you for a pulse. Plus, the banter between Luis and characters like Mori and Yusuf was among some of the best in this story arc. It was good enough to make me go back and sink a few more hours into The Lost & Damned after turning in my review.I also think that the credit sequence does a great job wrapping up the Liberty City tales in a way that leaves you smiling as a jet takes off into the horizon. It’s like a thank you note for the dozens of hours sunk into this terrain.
Gay Tony offered me a completely different lens to view Grand Theft Auto IV, and I’m solidly convinced that Rockstar’s next game in the series should apply the ideas behind the episodic content to the next city. Wanna know how the next GTA could hook story junkies? Give them a 30+ hour main story told from the viewpoints of three characters in ten-hour chunks. I found the contrasting stories of Johnny Klebitz’s broken brotherhood and Luis Lopez’s friendship with Tony to work well with Niko’s fractured fairytale of the American Dream.
Rockstar North, give us several pairs of shoes to walk in for the next GTA, please.
Voglio Giocare Subito!
My sandboxing addiction has been well-satisfied over the last six weeks. I’m glad there was only a short gap between Gay Tony and Assassin’s Creed II. I spent that time going back and wrapping up the last quarter of Assassin’s Creed that I’d twiddled thumbs over for over a year. In retrospect, if I beat AC without the knowledge that I’d have the sequel in hand a few days later, I would’ve been pissed. Thankfully, AC II scratches so many gamer itches for me. It’s visually arresting. It’s teeming with things to do and opportunities. And most importantly, it masks the nature of your missions so much better than the first game could.
I’ve repeated it ad nauseum at work, but I like to compare Ubisoft Montreal’s approach with AC II to Dug, the talking dog in Up. As I moved Ezio across Florentine and Venetian rooftops in search of his next assignment, I’d encounter Borgia couriers loaded with fat sacks of Florins. I like to refer to those segments as “Squirrel Moments.” If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll immediately understand the reference. It’s a fantastic example of how developers could find ways to manipulate gamer psychology. Rather than setting up severe punishment for entering an off-limit zone, why not draw the player away with the promise of immediate rewards?
Besides a reward system that seems to apologize for the shenanigans that AC pulled, AC II simply offers a richer world -- better combat, fast travel, a finer camouflage for fetch quests -- and it doesn’t hurt that it takes place in one of the most beautiful countries in the world, even if Ezio doesn’t always grab the right ledge. When I think back on a year spent exploring wide-open virtual spaces, I’ll probably look back most fondly on my adventures in the Animus. AC II redeems Ubisoft Montreal’s efforts, which says a lot about both how shoddy I find the first game to ultimately be, and about how a game doesn’t have to be perfect to hit all of your gamer buttons.
And there are still games left to be explored, and undoubtedly, games that people will feel I overlooked. I considered Batman: Arkham Asylum among those games for a brief moment before thinking about that game less as sandbox and more as exercise in Metroid-style exploration. I don’t think it’s quite the same thing as the other games, although it’s a fantastic pastiche of proven gaming formulas, and certainly among the year's best games. Also, I didn’t play Prototype. By the time it finally arrived, my interest had cooled and the sledgehammers of Red Faction Guerilla called to me. Was I wrong to overlook it? Time will tell.
Ultimately, both the media and gamers tend to harp on the advancement of multiplayer shooters, but I strongly feel that 2009 has been an exceptional year for those who’d rather explore wide-open spaces in solitude. I’d wager that I’ve spent less time getting online this year than any other year in recent memory. But I’m sure I’m not the only one.