The wealth of AAA releases this year has been extraordinary, and most have been for franchises that I’m already invested in. A new Elder Scrolls, Portal, Battlefield, F1, Batman, Saints Row, Deus Ex, Dragon Age, Total War, Red Orchestra – blimey. Not all have hit the mark though, and I can’t name a single game in that list that hasn’t had significant problems at launch which is a shame to say the least.
Problems aside, I don’t think there has been a single year in games as good as this one – especially in the last two months. My “to play” list is huge – problematically huge – and I don’t see me ticking any games off it for a while, especially when I haven’t even started Batman and barely touched Saints Row, and just getting into Orcs Must Die, and oh yeah I got Driver a while back, and I really need to play Limbo and I can’t forget to revist Red Orchestra. Basically, if there were to be no games released in 2012, I think it would be ok.
Anyway, here is my pick of the bunch. Most people won’t be surprised by the top slot, and some might criticize my fan-boy mentality towards it, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing to just let yourself be completely in love with something from time to time – as long as can justify it.
I haven’t reviewed Skyrim because – honestly – I don’t know how to. I spoke about it with Craig Lam at length in our Skyrim Special podcast, and if you listened to that then you’ll remember that I closed with a sentiment of “I think this is the best game ever made, but I’m prone to getting over excited so I need time to settle”. The fact is that now, a full month later, I’m 80 hours in and pretty damn sure that this is the best game ever made, but with the disclaimer that I could still be wrong.
The thing is that 80 hours seems like nothing. My quest list is bigger now than it was 40 hours ago, I haven’t got very far into the main quest, I haven’t joined a side in the war, I haven’t done the Companions or the Mages guild or the Bards Guild or solved the murders at Windhelm or figured out what happened to drinking buddy Sam or bought a house in all the cities or done anything about the slave problem in Markarth or the Forsworn or or or. There is so much I have to do, and see, and this is why it’s so incredibly good: I want to do all of it.
It’s a game that has me, completely. I don’t even have to be doing anything in particular for it to have me – even just getting somewhere that I’ve been before, Skyrim grabs me by the balls and makes me pay attention. For example:
I was making my way to Azuras shrine for a quest. It’s on top of a mountain so, for ease, I left my horse at the bottom and made my way up on foot. Nearing the top a bear started to charge straight at me from out of nowhere but quickly stopped dead in its tracks when I threw a calm spell at it. Newish to illusion magic I had to smile at being able to stand next to a bear like it was a pet, but then, suddenly, a noise in the distance forced me to execute the now placid bear to make sure it wasn’t going to be a problem in a few moments. A dragon, close. Sprinting up the mountain I could see it circling, searching, and as I reached the summit, boom, it landed straight in front of me and roared. The next five minutes was a mountain top clash between rogue and dragon as I emptied my inventory of arrows, poisons, health and resistance potions before finally standing in front of a fallen corpse, watching it disintegrate as I consumed its soul.
I was making my way to Whiterun when I passed by a small copse when 3 floating balls started flying out of the trees, leaving white trails in the air. Initially thinking they were Ice Wraiths I ran over to claim their teeth for making potions, but then soon realised they were something entirely different.They start flying towards me and I can see now they’re just balls of ice and behind them something new – a demon of some sort – heading my way. I drop the balls with a couple of arrows and loose one into the demon. It’s a Wisp Mother, and it barely took any damage. I start to run to try and get a plan together and run straight into an Ogre, lured out of it’s layer by the noise. Panicking, I drink the biggest invisibility potion I have and run into the hills. Turning around, I see the Ogre and Wisp Mother clawing at each other before the Ogre drops dead so, taking the opportunity of distance and her being weakened from battle, I loose some more arrows. Then she multiplies. 5 Wisp Mothers. 10 Wisp Mothers. I have no idea. I panic and start firing. They’re only spectres so go down in one hit, but so many heading straight to me at once was terrifying. After a while, close to death, I manage to kill everything and a few seconds later after taking in the scene, carry on my way.
These scenes weren’t quests, or marked by waypoints or anything like that. They just happened, and they happened in a world flexible enough for me to handle that situation however I saw fit, and it’s this that gets me. Skyrim has so much freedom in how you approach the world and so little regard for whether it’s fair or not that every situation that happens is a drama. I play a rogue, so if I get ambushed by so much as a few enemies – or even one strong one – I’m in trouble, serious trouble. I die a lot. But if I’m playing smart – like a rogue should – and I’m weaving between shadows and doing the silent assassin thing, then I’m unstoppable. It’s a freedom to make my own mistakes and not have my hand held when I screw up that makes the reward of things-going-well so much sweeter.
Obviously, it’s not perfect. It’s far from perfect, actually. There is some wonky dialogue and story, some quests that are a bit rubbish, some very questionable voice acting, the menus are awful – every connotation “Bethesda Game” has is true – but to start nitpicking on these is to ignore the achievement that Skyrim is, and also to ignore that all these things have been improved over Oblivion. And if you put everything I’ve said together you should see why this isn’t a game I can review in the traditional sense. This is a game I could talk about at length but not all in one go. It would be like reviewing a country – you can talk about bits of the country and what happens in the country, the good areas, the bad areas, the events that are on, how hospitable it is, how the seasons are, the politics, but you can’t do it all at once without writing a book because that would be ridiculous, and you know you need to spend more than 80 hours there to get it all right.
So, Game of The Year is an understatement. The Elder Scrolls have always been special to me, but here I think Morrowind has been replaced as the best in the series. I’ll always – always – have a special place for Morrowind, but if you were to ask me which I’d rather play now I think the answer will always be Skyrim, and for that reason this isn’t just Game of The Year, but Game of So Far in Games.
What impresses me the most about the F1 offerings from Codemasters is how little fuss they make. If you look at F1 2011′s contempories of this year – DIRT 3 and Shift 2, mainly – they’re so noisy and overly concerned about making an impression. I think it could be a cultural thing, with DIRT and Shift looking at the more American dick waving side of motor sport – of Ken Block telling you to do rad powerslides and catch some sweet air while he wheelspins upside down over a fireworks display.
This, though, is not the F1 culture. F1 culture is of science and discipline, of aerodynamics measured in centimeters, of tyre and engine temperatures, of rubber compounds and KERS and DRS and technicalities. And it’s this more serious type of experience that I find myself wanting to partake in.
I’ve never had a podium finish. Hell, I’ve not even had a top 12 finish. I race as Team Lotus in their back of the pack car and I race for 17th position because I want to earn the right to drive for a faster team. As I’ve progressed with the game, I’ve tweaked the difficulty and sim settings, with it culminating to me loading up to do 3 hours of practice laps then a full qualifying session then a full, 90ish minute race – only leaving my wheel between sessions.
I couldn’t argue for this to be objectively one of the best games this year – it’s still buggy and not all that different from 2010, really – but it’s improved and this is the first year I’ve indulged in a good steering wheel (Logitech g27), so while not-perfect, I will argue that it’s provided one of the best experiences this year.
The new Battlefield is in the strange position of being both the best and the worst in the series, and to an extent I think (or at least want to think) it’s down to whether a decision has been made by EA or Dice.
The game side of things is all excellent. There are a couple of less good maps, sure, but if I were to choose any multiplayer environment in which I could shoot men, it would be Battlefield 3 easily and happily. The guns feel right and – crucially – two never feel the same (hell, even modified versions of the same gun can feel wildly different), the maps are frequently great and well balanced, flying jets is awesome, etc etc etc. It does a lot of things very, very right.
However. There’s Origin, and Battlelog, and EA support, and a £12 map pack if you didn’t get the Limited Edition, and these things are shit. At best, they’re inconvenient, at worst they’re an unbreakable brick wall which stop you playing the game (Craig Lam, for example, has only been able to play in 30 minute bursts since launch with EA support suggesting he clear his cookies to fix it).
Fortunately, I’ve been blessed with a mostly problem free experience and Battlefield 3 has constantly shined (often as brightly as its Tactical Lights). I know I’ll be playing this for a long time, and with a huge unlock tree to work through it’s something I very much look forward to doing.