2008: The Year in Review

Another year older, another year wiser, right? If I look back to the 2007 Year in Review, this little snippet catches my eye:

There’s far more games than time, and my records show that I’ve still got 63 games incomplete. Maybe I should consider making a New Year’s Resolution regarding the “incomplete” list? Something along the lines of reducing it to around 50? Hah – I’m nowhere near that naïve… a more realistic resolution would be to not let it blow out much further.

I think I used up all my wisdom right where I said “a more realistic resolution would be to not let it blow out much further” – because, at the time of writing, The List only shows 65 games incomplete – hardly a blowout at all! (Of course, this is largely due to a ridiculously productive December, which saw no less than five games get knocked off).

But let’s not focus on the numbers too much (however much they rule my life); let’s have a look at a number of pithy categories in which I can toss the names of the games that have touched me (oo-er) this year. Forgive me for recycling several topics from earlier compilations…

Disappointment of the Year: That Wii Fit hasn’t magically halved my weight. Bastard!

Proudest Achievement of the Year: Easy – Mutant Storm Empire‘s Black Belt Grandmaster. There’s a little bit of ninja in all of us, and World 4 Level 2 made me dig deep and harness that little bugger up good. An honourable mention should be made of No More Heroes and its deliciously difficult Bitter Mode.

Under-Appreciated Game of the Year: Everyone slated Microsoft’s choice of Undertow as compensation for a spotty Xbox LIVE service last Christmas, which is a shame – it was a thoroughly enjoyable shooter that really came into its own when played with online co-op on the hardest difficulty level. But, hands down, No More Heroes takes this award for being the game that everyone seems to be sneakily sliding into their Top Ten lists to appear edgy and cool, but which no-one bought. You bastards.

I’m-Still-Waiting Award: The PS3. Come on, tempt me with a game that I actually want to play! The closest it’s come so far is with PomPom’s Astro Tripper (which, given I’ve played Space Tripper to death, isn’t even that compelling).

Pulling Teeth Award: Bullet Witch‘s Hell Mode. All that effort for One. Fucking. Point? I guess that’s why I call myself O/C. Or maybe I’m just a beggar for punishment.

2008 Blast From The Past Award: Let’s give an award a game prior to this generation, purely because I have been – and will always be – catching up on my gaming history. Psychonauts? Killer7? Let’s go with the former; barely a single criticism can be levelled at Tim Schafer’s previous game, and my appetite is well-and-truly whetted for Brütal Legend.

Where Have You Been All My Life Award: Killer7. Because I can’t bear to let it go unrewarded (see above), and because it’s absolutely, completely, stonkingly brilliant.

Funnest Gaming Moment of the Year: Seven cars sitting at the bottom of the quarry in Burnout Paradise, side by side as at a drive-in movie, waiting for our online compadre to finally nail his barrel-rolls. A cheer goes up – he’s done it! – followed by a yell of “Car Cuddles!” as everyone proceeds to smash into each other, laughs and merriment a-plenty. Ten minutes later, the next Challenge starts :)

Multiplayer of the Year Award: Burnout Paradise – see above. Challenges, or simply smashing the shit out of each other, there was nothing that came close to the online experience of cruising Paradise with seven friends.

Bringing Indy To The Party Award: Braid, or World of Goo? Both displayed impossibly impeccable production values; tiny teams easily upstaged the bigger names. Goo gets this award, since it’s a shining example of what two people can do with a gorgeous demo; having said that, Jonathon Blow‘s contribution to the indy gaming community is far from overlooked.

Gaming Payback of the Year: No More Heroes, Bitter skill level, the third boss encountered – Shinobu. I’ve written about this previously, but this fight turned my gaming world on its head – previously, boss battles had been automatically deemed abhorrent in my little mind. Shinobu changed all that.

Earnest Navel-Gazing Award: Braid, for slipping a story of weight and depth into a brilliant game… even if most of it is hidden from those who brand Braid a “Mario rip-off”.

Best Game Writing of the Year: No More Heroes, hands down. It’s got no plot, and yet the paper-thin characters still manage to feel convincing, and the fast-forward exposition prior to the final boss fight is deliriously good. Proof that a good page trumps bad volumes.

Worst Game Writing of the Year: Mercenaries 2. Because, playing as the hot chick merc, you can pimp yourself as follows:

Chinese Contact: “Ah, welcome back mercenary. I have need of you.”
HCM: “Well you can afford me, let’s not waste time.”

And, as cool as that may seem on paper, it actually leaves you feeling a little icky. So you dress up in a chicken suit, drop a MOAB on a building, then sky-dive out a helicopter. It’s all good, right?

The Gasping Grin Award: World of Goo, end of World 3. I’ve no idea why, but the laughter and evolution of that level left me wrung out, in much the same way that Braid conjured emotion.

The Gasping Gasp Award: Braid, the final level. I’ve never felt a greater cognitive click.

Still Kickin’ Award: Rez HD. Into its eighth year and Rez is still as glorious as ever.

AAA-Title I Missed Award: Ummm, that goes to pretty much all the triple-A and mega-hyped titles released in 2008; pretty much the closest game I got to AAA was Burnout Paradise.

So there you have it, kids. My 2008 in a nutshell. Big props to Braid, Burnout Paradise, No More Heroes, Rez HD, and World of Goo, with belated kisses and cuddles to last-gen’s Killer7 and Psychonauts. These are the games that made the biggest mark on me this year, though honourable mentions should go to a couple of older current-gen games, Excite Truck and Mutant Storm Empire, for continuing to bring the fun.

“That’s a nice capsule summary up there, Pete,” I hear you say. “But I need something more concise. Come on then, you crapulent wordsmith: what was your Game Of The Year?”

I think you know ;)

Bullet Witch

Back in May 2006, there was a little event called E3. It was a different gaming world back then: the Xbox 360 had been released, but the RRoD complaints hadn’t started flooding in; Sony’s diabolical press conference was brushed aside by the joyous Nintendo press gig. But Microsoft were the only company there that had next-gen hardware in consumer hands, and they were bigging it up.

To press home the advantage – preaching to the converted, sure – they released all the promo movies they’d collated and curated over Xbox Live Marketplace. For me, this was brilliant; I’d get up every morning, sometimes two or three hours earlier than normal, just to see what had been released overnight. Publisher movies, Microsoft compendiums, I downloaded it all, devoured it. For someone on the opposite side of the world to the action, it was a genuinely exciting time.

One of the movies that, for some bizarre reason, caught my eye was this one. Although I’d heard of Cavia, it seemed that the company was not seen in the most positive of lights; the buzz around Bullet Witch was also muted, but there was something about that trailer that had me convinced that the risk was worth taking. A middling GameTrailers review only further piqued my interest and, after a long and protracted online order / sorry-it’s-unavailable / but-you’ve-already-taken-my-money-and-it’s-available-across-the-road process, I was ready to dive headlong into the world of Alicia, the Bullet Witch.

The game starts with a ridiculous mess of a FMV – it’s all very pretty, but any sense of immersion is immediately arrested by the near-future timeline – the demon hordes are on their way next year, folks! And in just another three years, “2012 – Nations Dead” forecasts the poorly written, half-translated on-screen exposition. And yet, none of that matters the first time you take control of Alicia; in third-person mode, you can move slowly with weapon at the ready, run a little quicker at the expense of a re-arming period, and – using your broomstick-esque gun – mow down hordes of Geist.

You leap through the air with reckless abandon – and, since you’re unable to be shot whilst you’re leaping, you’ll be watching Alicia perform her acrobatic split-leg flips a fair bit. And – let’s be honest here – she looks pretty nice onscreen; yes, her voice acting is pretty average, but nowhere near as bad as that of the leader of the resistance. The AI of all characters would be generously defined as “dumber than dogshit” – your pals do a splendid job of getting in your line-of-fire, and the enemy is easy to manipulate.

Of course, after the delicious titular character, the first thing you notice is her gun… her Very Big Gun. A quick prod of the B button lets you flip between any of four different weapons, once you’ve acquired them via a simplistic RPG-lite levelling system. The initial machine gun is almost pea-shooter-esque, but the gattling gun – by far the most viciously effective weapon – is totally worth the upgrade effort, and almost necessary on later levels. Ammo’s not a problem – you simply reload when the clip is empty, depleting your magic meter temporarily. This – in theory – should encourage you to not waste your shots, since killing your enemy is the only way to replenish your magic meter; in practise, however, you have to be pretty bloody shit to be in a situation where you can’t reload, leading to a practically limitless flow of bullets.

The spells – responsible for the “Witch” part of Alicia’s moniker – are pretty hit-and-miss. These, too, deplete your magic-meter, and there’s only one really useful low-level spell – the ability to push objects around with a blast of telekinesis. Some of the spells are downright impractical – the Rose Spear, which launches a cluster of spears from the ground to perforate & trap enemies, would be useful if it covered an area bigger than a twenty-cent piece. But couple it with a flame-throwing powerup and you’ve got a time-wasting, inefficient and very pretty way to kill demons.

The Big Spells are awarded at fixed points in the linear progression of the game; and they, too, tend to be more trouble than they’re worth. In fact, I reckon casting the Meteor spell has actually killed me more often than it’s helped me, and the Tornado spell is impossible to direct, resulting in a massive chunk of magic being used up with a spluttering tornado scooting off into the distance, cannily dodging your foes. In fact, the only thing the Tornado murders is your framerate. Lightning is the big winner, and it had better be, too – it’s the only way to dispose of a number of the bosses you encounter in the game.

And, speaking of bosses, I just have to mention the (inexplicable) fish creature that you have to battle whilst standing on the wings of an airplane traveling at 30,000 feet. Go on, read that sentence again – it just doesn’t make sense, yet is spot-on-the-money in the context of the game. This boss battle was an utter shitpig – more luck than skill was required – and the few opportunities for skill were subject to the distraction of the sheer ludicrous nature of the scenario.

The final boss, too, was a bastard… sometimes seeing you invest a good 45 minutes of cautious shooting before being killed by a single errant stomp. Which is demoralising enough in itself – but when you’re trying to complete the game for the fifth time, on the highest skill level, for the reward of a single solitary GamerScore point, that instakill death is doubly galling. The post-game FMV, another piece of poorly-written exposition, just reminds you how crapulent the writing for Bullet Witch was: “Demon numbers diminishing. No sign of increase” proclaims the front-page headline of The National Times – “the world’s daily newspaper.” Then again, Nations did die off in 2012, so maybe that’s fair enough. “Tower of Pisa struck by lightning. Italy loses national treasure” screams another headline, supposed to inspire questions in my mind of what becomes of Alicia in the post-game; but by that time I’m just waiting for the credits to finish rolling.

Still, it’s not all bad; with the exception of the Big Spells, any spells or power-ups accrued throughout your game (points are gained on the basis of kills, elapsed time, and damage taken) carry over to subsequent games… Hell Mode isn’t so daunting with a Level 3 Gattling Gun. Achievements are reasonable – apart from that 1-point insult – and the game itself is pretty short: maybe only a dozen hours for your first play-through, and there’s plenty of shortcuts (and the benefit of the accruing power-ups) to ease you through the harder skill levels. And then there’s the DLC – each level has an alternate task for a mere 20 Microsoft Points apiece (ummm… no), and then there’s the downloadable costumes for sweet Alicia.

…well, given that they’re free, it’d be rude not to check them all out, wouldn’t it? Nothing pervy in that at all.

Let’s cut to the chase: the schoolgirl and secretary costumes are both worth the cost of the game. Delicious. In fact, they provided the visual highlights of my runs through the harder skill levels – with the somewhat dubious nature of the character physics prone to send limbs akimbo, it wasn’t too annoying to die.

No, wait. It was still annoying to die, despite any potential panty-peeking opportunities, because Bullet Witch suffers many of the worst traits of gaming: it’s unbalanced, unfair, unforgiving, and – worst of all – unfun.

And that’s the big shame of a game like Bullet Witch; it had so much potential, but pissed it all away with lousy writing and shallow gameplay. It just goes to show that two key ingredients – hot female protagonist, and massive guns – do not, by themselves, a tasty cake make.