2012: A Retrospective

It’s been a while. I’m not really bothered by the changing of the year. January 1st felt much the same as December 31st to me, but everyone else is doing one of these, so why shouldn’t I?

Games

The Good

The Walking Dead

#forclementine

As anyone who follows me on Twitter will know, I wanted to do a whole blog post dedicated to this game, but I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to say. To a certain extent, this is still true. Really though, all I can say is that if you have any interest in the Walking Dead, you owe it to yourself to play this game.

Simply put, it’s the best written anything with the Walking Dead name on it. The story it tells and the characters that inhabit it resonated with me more than the comics have in quite some time, and it’s leagues ahead of the television show. I can safely say that Clementine will be my measuring stick for child characters going forward, and this is a real, bold step in storytelling in the video games medium. I hope the industry learns something.

Dishonored

Corvo

Sometimes, the best step forward is a step back. The first person shooter genre used to be characterised by games with wide open levels, multiple paths and secrets to find. For better or worse, games like Call of Duty have replaced this model with linear games full of scripted moments, where the player is more a spectator than a participant.

Dishonored isn’t the first game to bring back the style of the original Deus Ex and Thief games (last year’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution did a good job of that), but it proved that gamers are hungry for more of this, and perhaps more importantly, for new IP. In a year of sequels and adaptations, Dishonored stood out as a bold new universe, and contributed to improving a stagnant genre.

Silent Hill Downpour

Murphy Pendleton (unf, that name)

I very nearly put this in middling. There are some technical issues that render the game hard to play at times, like the framerate dropping to single figures. And it’s built with Unreal engine. Come on guys, it’s practically industry standard at this point, how is this a thing?

But, despite my reservations, I’m just so fucking happy to have a good Silent Hill game! Origins was crap, Homecoming was mediocre, Shattered Memories was a weird pseudo remake, but this, this is a good Silent Hill sequel. The first one since The Room. The story is classic Silent Hill, the combat system is slightly less bad than what we’ve seen from the series before, and the characters are well voice acted.

But, the thing that makes me happiest of all is that in Murphy Pendleton (unf, that name) we finally have a hero who reacts to the things around him. He’ll jump and scream and swear when monsters attack him. It’s such a small thing, but adds so much. Survival horror developers, do this more.

Skyrim

Dragonborn!

Yes, a 2011 game. In fact, one I mentioned in my breakdown of 2011. I actually don’t have much more to add to what I said before, but I’d feel wrong not mentioning it. I played 80 hours in 2011, and I’ve played nearly that much in 2012. Bethesda have done right by their post game support and DLC, and I anticipate playing even more going into 2013. This game is massive, and I find myself wanting even more.

The Middling

Mass Effect 3

Y U SO SAD LIARA?

BioWare have never been very good at plot. What they are good at is characters and worlds. The plot of the first Mass Effect was fairly generic stuff, but we forgave it, because we finally had a new universe on the scale of something like Star Wars. The plot of Mass Effect 2 was an okay Dirty Dozen affair, but we forgave it because the new characters and locales were so good.

But now we’re familiar with the universe. And all the characters have been introduced. So, can BioWare pull through when plot is all they have to rely on? Not really, no. That’s why this game is middling.

We all know by now what I’m talking about. It’s that ending. They’ve improved it with a free add on, and their supplementary DLC supposedly adds more context, but the franchise is tainted forever. It’s a shame, because the moments along the way are all great individual character pieces. But that was to be expected. It just doesn’t come together when it counts.

Assassin’s Creed 3

WTF?

Let’s get this out of the way. The Desmond apocalypse plot in the Assassin’s Creed series is garbage. It’s shit I put up with because they needed some sci-fi justification to set games in time periods and locations they otherwise couldn’t touch. In the first game, it was a mild annoyance. In subsequent games, it’s only gotten worse, to the point where I’d stop playing whenever the game dragged me out of revolutionary America.

The other problem this time around is that the protagonist in the past, Connor, is the least interesting part of that world. In fact, the first two hours of the game are spent playing as Connor’s father, Haytham Kenway (unf, that name too), and he’s a far more interesting, nuanced character than Connor ever is.

UbiSoft, on the offchance you’re listening, ditch the present day stuff, and make your next game solely about Haytham in 1800s London or something. I’ll be there day one for that.

Spec Ops: The Line

Get it? There's sand. And a line.

Spec Ops: The Line was a wonderful game that was poorly promoted. From the outside, it’s easy to look at it and dismiss it as just another jingoistic ‘dudebro’ shooter, but the reality is, it’s so much more. It’s a game that tries to do more with its plot than perhaps any other game this year. Honestly, I don’t want to talk about it too much, because if it had been spoiled for me, most of the impact would have been lost.

I put this game under middling because the gameplay is generic, and the fights are very frustrating at the end of the campaign. But if you’re after a war game that has something to say on the nature of war, this is it.

The Bad

Call of Duty: Black Ops 2

The blackest ops

I honestly feel a bit strange putting this on here at all, since I only played the first two levels or so. Here was my experience. I started the game in the 80s as a suspiciously Australian sounding American soldier in a place where I proceeded to shoot hundreds of men. I had no idea who they were, only that the man who was my ally was very happy to see them dead.

Over the course of the level, as well as fighting men on the ground, I got to kill them en masse by controlling a mounted gun on a helicopter. Only at the end of the level was I told that the men had just butchered belong to the MPLA. No other context. By the second level, I had stopped paying attention. I’m sure Black Ops 2 is just as solid as previous Call of Duty games, but I’m done. I just don’t want to play this jingoistic, overly patriotic rubbish any more, and I’m certainly done supporting a franchise responsible for homogenising what was once my favourite genre.

The Phantom Pain

Kept you waiting, huh?

As previously mentioned, the games industry is suffering a shortage of new IP lately. Maybe it’s a result of inflated budgets leading to less risk taking, maybe it’s something as simple as the current console generation lasting too long. Either way, we are wall to wall in sequels, adaptations and franchise reboots, with only a small trickle of anything really new.

When the VGAs rolled around, we got trailers for various sequels, but one stood out because it was for a new game called The Phantom Pain. It wasn’t the best trailer there, but it was something, right? Wrong. It was actually a viral advert for yet another Metal Gear Solid game. The rest of the internet seems more excited by this prospect than by a new game, but I’m pretty pissed off about it. Selling a sequel to a market of people starved of new ideas just seems like a cynical tactic, and it’s soured me on Metal Gear Solid V before any details have even been released.

Films

I love films. And it goes without saying I loved things like The Avengers and Dark Knight Rises, but I don’t feel I have enough to say on those that hasn’t already been said elsewhere. So, I’d like to use this to talk about films that had a slightly smaller profile.

The Good

The Grey

Grey

There are apparently three different kinds of story. Man vs Man, Man vs Nature, Man vs Himself. The Grey manages to be all three, and manages to be damn good at them too. I was already a Joe Carnahan fan going into this, having enthusiastically described him to my friends as a thinking man’s Michael Bay.

Hands down, The Grey is the best thing he’s put to film. It’s a real homage to those survivalism films, and is brutal and tense in all the right ways. Liam Neeson has done some rubbish of late (Battleship, anyone?) but he throws himself at this role with gusto, proving himself to be a modern day Richard Burton. Now let’s find a modern Clint Eastwood, so they can go knock over a Nazi doom fortress together.

Chronicle

TETSUOOOOO!

In a year of several tentpole superhero releases, Chronicle came out of nowhere, and I’m very tempted to say it’s the best one. The Avengers was a wonderful spectacle, Dark Knight Rises was a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy (albeit inferior to the first two instalments) and Amazing Spider-Man had Emma Stone in it. But for my money, nothing comes close to matching the intensity and emotion of the final battle in Chronicle. It takes just enough inspiration from Akira to be noticeable, but not a complete rip off, and backs it all up with excellent character work.

It’s also worth noting that this is one of the only action films shot in a found footage style that makes the gimmick really work. Having the Andrew character control the camera through telekinesis is an inspired choice, because as well as being our Point Of View character, he’s the stand out actor in the film, and it would have been a shame if they’d relegated him to being behind the camera for the whole thing.

The Middling

The Hunger Games

And may the odds be with you...

I don’t have a lot to say about The Hunger Games. It was alright I suppose. Really, I just want to let people who haven’t seen Battle Royale know they should watch that instead. It takes out the hour or so of preamble, and gets to the shit we all want to see. Unruly teenagers murdering fuck out of each other on an island.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Y U SO SAD GHOST RIDER!

Sigh. Not even the Crank directors could make it work, could they? Ghost Rider is one of my favourite comic book characters, but the best Ghost Rider film is Drive Angry. There’s a grindhouse style adaptation begging to be made, but they’ve managed to fuck it up so badly twice now, I doubt anyone would give a shit. Managed to avoid bad by virtue of Nic Cage’s freakout the first time he transforms and Idris Elba being awesome, no matter what he’s in.

The Bad

Prometheus

Y U SO SAD ALIEN!

Prometheus was promising. It asked many interesting questions, then failed to follow up on any of them. I never really cared about what the Space Jockey in Alien was, but I sure as hell wanted something a little more interesting than alien Jesus. After Robin Hood, if we needed more proof that Ridley Scott has lost it, we have it here. A very pretty mess, not even Idris Elba could save this one.

Also, when they found the first ever alien body, why did the only biologist on the team leave? How come the guy with the maps got lost? Why did they run away from possible danger, but reach out to pet a threatening alien snake? None of the characters in this film were consistent, even within the same scenes. It’s very basic plot construction, and it’s missing from this film. Was this shot off a first draft? Because it sure as hell feels like it.

Status of Blade Runner sequel: Nervous.

The Expendables 2

Y U SO... Oh

Why is it they have made two of these things, starring a line up of actors from some of my favourite films growing up, and both have bored me to death? I guess I wanted more from these films than aging actors coming out and recycling catchphrases and action scenes from better films. Turns out, when I’m watching a bad film and Bruce Willis says “yippie ki-yay” it just reminds me that I could be watching Die Hard.

These guys have clout in Hollywood. They could have made a much better film than this. As it is, it looks like they decided to not even try, and just rake in money from nostalgic fans. I’ll not be bothering with Expendables 3.

Music

I’m not really a big music person. I like it, but I don’t listen to a whole lot of it. My habit is to pick one or two albums by artists I like and play them repeatedly, or put my iPod on shuffle. With that in mind, here are the two albums I have a real opinion of this year.

The Good

Gallows – Gallows

This has been my writing soundtrack for the latter part of the year. It’s been played so many times, I’m amazed I’m not sick of it yet. Even more amazing is that I was predisposed to hate it. Gallows are one of my favourite modern bands, and previous frontman was such a huge part of that, I didn’t see how he could be replaced without sacrificing their sound.

I’m beyond pleased to admit I was wrong. Wade has a more controlled vocal style, which complements the now familiar snarling guitars and sick bass. The lyrics tackle a wider array of issues, focusing on the whole world, as opposed to the somewhat constrained Grey Britain. With Gallows, the band sounds hungrier than ever, and it’s easily their best album yet.

Songs like Odessa, Cross of Lorraine, Outsider Art and Depravers might be more melodic than they’ve been in the past, but they haven’t lost any of their intensity. If anything, by taking inspiration from American hardcore, mixed with their British punk roots, this is the first album to match up to their insane live shows. And that’s where these songs will truly come alive. I can’t wait.

Listen to: Odessa, Cross of Lorraine

The Middling

Coheed & Cambria – The Afterman: Ascension

Claudio

Coheed have been one of my favourite modern bands since I first discovered them nearly a decade ago, so it sucks to have to describe their new album as middling. The thing is, it’s full of all the stuff that makes Coheed such a good band. It’s prog, but accessible. It still tells a crazy sci-fi story, but all the songs have meanings outside of it making the lyrics easily relatable. The songs are all catchy and good for a singalong.

So, why middling? Honestly, it’s a quantity thing. This album is technically longer than the Gallows album I gave a good to, but despite Gallows’s brevity, it feels complete. The Afterman doesn’t. Granted, it’s part one of a two part album, and I imagine that together, they will be great, but it just feels odd to have paid full price for a CD and constantly feel like there are a few tracks missing from the end. It doesn’t end so much as stop mid-sentence, and that’s

Listen to: Domino the Destitute, Vic the Butcher

Books

The Good

Railsea – China Mieville

Railsea cover

It feels strange to me that such a good story can come out of what’s essentially a joke. The concept of “Moby Dick, but with trains and moles” sounds silly in passing, but in execution it’s a lot of fun. Anyone who knows me should know that Mieville is up there with Stephen King in terms of my favourite authors, and Railsea was a nice reminder as to why.

In spite of his recent efforts still being excellent, nothing has come close to matching Perdido Street Station and The Scar for me. While Railsea doesn’t reach those heights, the world building within it reminded me a lot of those first two Bas Lag novels.

On top of that, perhaps my favourite part of the book is that by using & instead of ‘and’, it reads like a real maritime journal that just happens to be set on a train. My favourite book of 2012 by quite a long way.

Empire State – Adam Christopher

Empire State reads like a love letter to silver age superhero comics and detective stories, all wrapped in a sci-fi parallel universe. If that hasn’t convinced you this book is worth reading, I’m not sure what will. It’s chock full of fun characters from the detective Rad Bradley, to the aging Captain Carson and his mysterious robot butler.

What really gets me is the setting though. The Empire State is a parallel New York, trapped in a permanent prohibition, and held in a permanent war with a shadowy enemy. The shades of Orwell mesh neatly with silver age Batman and Boardwalk Empire. I love this book, and can hardly wait for the sequel to come in a few months.

The Middling

Supergods – Grant Morrison

Supergods was a strange, difficult read for me. Infuriating in many ways. Grant Morrison is one of my favourite comic writers, so the thought of a history of comics from his unique perspective was tantalising. I sort of got that, but in two pieces.

The first half of the book is a general history of early comics. It’s fascinating in its own way, but nothing I didn’t already know. The second half seems to mostly leave the history aspect behind, focusing more on being an autobiography of Morrison himself, covering his work in comics and his various interactions with fifth dimensional beings that keep our universe in an incubator. Again, fascinating but maddeningly inconsistent with the first half.

It’s a solid read, especially for anyone interested in comics or Morrison’s career. It just doesn’t come together in the way I would have liked.

Wayne of Gotham – Tracy Hickman

This book was a strange one. I was very interested in reading a prose novel about not only Bruce Wayne, but also Thomas. What I got was a prose novel with some Bruce, some Thomas, and some Batman. The central mystery is engaging enough, and there are some fun cameos by villains like the Joker that are really the highlights of the book.

Where it all really falls apart is the relationship between Bruce and Alfred. People who thought Alfred was out of character in the Dark Knight Rises should really see what goes on in this book. Alfred and Bruce have no trust in each other, keep secrets from each other, and at times genuinely seem to dislike each other. Nothing I’m saying here really does justice to how bad it gets, so here’s a legitimate quote from the book: “No, Alfred! Master Bruce does not want his cookies or his milk! Master Bruce does not want to be coddled or put to bed!” It just doesn’t sit right with me at all, and soured me on the whole thing. Sad really, a Batman prose novel could have been fun, but this wasn’t it.

———————————————

And that’s it. I’ll have another update soon about some changes I’ll be making this year in terms of my writing, reading and possibly gaming habits. Until then, thanks for reading, and happy 2013.

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