Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Seventh Annual Helltown Beer Game of the Year, This War of Mine

2014 marked a different kind of year for console focused game players as we saw all three of the major players - Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony - release new consoles to as little fanfare in the history of video gaming.

That's not to say it's a bad thing. It's actually good. Have we finally reached a day that gaming progress isn't marked by better graphics on bigger and badder TVs? The macro market says "no, we have not." But, while it might not show at the executive summary level, there has been a shift away from that to something more simple.

[I see PC folks nodding their head].

I've been through enough new console events to know that the first year is basically a dud. All the new hardware requires studios that have the money time, and more time, to adjust, learn and expand upon. One of the best things about the last generation was that it lasted so long. Longest in the relatively short history of gaming, actually. So what ended up happening is that developers had the tools and comfort level with the hardware. With that, we got some of the best games in a generation. It's something that this new generation had to teach me, I guess.

With that, my Game of the Year is This War of Mine. A comparatively simple game with a deeply moving and intense narrative. By intense - I mean downbeat. Solemn. Thoughtful. Terrible. Depressing.

Those words remind me of a story I once heard about an art exhibit. It was in a hallway and focused on typography. On one side was words like FAST, RUN, INTENSE, and the like. Active words. On the other side was the opposite. SLOW, WALK, and so on. What the exhibitors were looking for was if the words had any impact on the visitors. Indeed they did. People that were reading one side moved through faster than the other. The impact of simple language at work in a simple setting.

This War of Mine takes a look at war from a civilians perspective. Not a in the hero or godlike warrior form we normally see these days. Just in the for of normal people figuring out how to survive in a war torn city. The gameplay is resource driven. Go out and scavenge for supplies and risk healthy character to help sick ones? Or leave him home to stand guard through the night. This game tells you that there is no correct answer.

This game impacted me in another way, in that I had a employee on my one of my teams from an area, let's say, close to Bosnia. He didn't talk much about the war, nor what it was like. But I do know that he had to leave the US to go back to try and prove that, in fact, he did exist. Reason being, generations of records had been destroyed by a recent war in the region. There was nothing. He felt he was nothing and had to go back to prove he was a person that existed. The day he left I told him I should come out and visit... "visit what," he replied.

This War of Mine is unrelenting and. for anyone that tries it, has you questioning what exactly makes a game. To me, it taps into the incredible storytelling power of games that can hit you like a load of bricks. Not the made of foam type that movies have. The real kind. And each minute of this game has to working that out.

The game is about decisions and not skill / reaction time or big cut screens. This past year has seen games, game writers, artists and developers realizing that you don't need those things.


First up is one I'm still enjoying. It's NBA 2K15. Visual Concepts, Take 2 and 2K have outdone themselves with this series. EA's FIFA might be the glamour title in the world of sports right now but this game... this game. I don't know how many hundreds of hours I have on FIFA over the years but nothing is as jaw dropping as 2K15. It's an amazing technical achievement. I've put a good bit in to the "My Player" function of the game recently and while the story drifts after a bit the gameplay picks it up. It's the summit of sports role playing. And it's beautiful. The vine you see here is of my first NBA start. It took me a couple 10 day deals to make it work but I made it happen. Well worth pulling out the phone to record the vine.

Something else worth mentioning is The Wolf Among Us. It's an episodic game, storytelling based with quicktime elements. Technically, it started back in 2013 but most of the episodes showed up in 2014.Telltale games is the publisher and with "Wolf" has become the sort of go to place for episodic games (currently working with the Game of Thrones property, which is about the top of the top). I picked up "Wolf" because the time (1980s) period and the familiar stories (fairy tales). Expanding upon stories is nothing new (Into the Woods type stuff, the 80s Broadway type) but it's a game with choose your own adventure type elements. It works. Really well. A downbeat game that captures a 200 Cigarettes New York about as good as any piece of modern entertainment has. I'm back and forth on the art/animation but an early scene with a chain smoking member of the three little pigs in a shitty apartment will have you hooked.


Assassin's Creed is a series that I like and had irrational high hopes for with Unity. It is a labored mess but I won't let it tarnish a series that consider to be entertaining (on the major platforms). Unity is the quintessential year one release on a new console. A beautiful mess. I found myself taking loads of screenshots and videos but as you progresses through the game it became a godawful mess. So much pretty and so little meaningfulness.

Right behind that I have Far Cry 4. A game coming on the heels of a game I fell in love with in 3. This year's version fine tuned the story while trying to meet the demands of a media that dumped on the "mighty whitey" narrative of the third game.

Four has it's moments. Well, moment. I guess. The famous Rochan "Advanced Chemistry" brick factory comes to mind. Far Cry has a special place with me but it's one that I keep at arms length. So much filler (that I enjoy immensely) with little else as far as story. As I was playing it, I was constantly thinking of what to write about it. Ubisoft fine tuned the story and offered up a playgound of fun. Maybe that should be a testament to the game. Part of me believes that. But the other part of me thinks that the story was just an expansion upon what was just a bit part in the Uncharted series (albeit a beautiful part).

Far Cry 4, for me, is the game that bridges a lot of gaming gaps in a new console year. It's pretty. Stable. And fun as hell. Just not a lot to sink my teeth into on the story side. The idea and foundation is there, just not the execution. Difficult to explain after spending most of my holiday with this game. It's great, but more needed (?).

Did I mention pretty? Also, it's Far Cry. Ultimately, the previous two editions of this game are superior in many regards but Four has enough to satisfy the old school adventure gamer in all of us.

With that, a good place to stop. Lots of good games out there these days and I play them all year only to dump it all here in a game of the year post. It's unfair really.

Anywho. So much to cover, but I'll leave it. I found a great list over at Kill Screen that I like for year end things. Happy gaming.

Previous Helltown Game of the Year Winners:

2014: This War of Mine
2013: Last of Us
2012: Sleeping Dogs
2011: Skyrim
2010: Red Dead Redemption / Heavy Rain
2009: Uncharted 2
2008: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare

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