My Xbox 360(s) are where I spent a large portion of my gaming time this year, and the platform continues to provide me with a lot of entertainment for the money I invest in it. According to my count I played 57 different games on the Xbox this year. Granted, I didn’t spent a lot of time on all of them but I do remember the experience with most of them distinctly and fondly. LEGO Indiana Jones 2 and LEGO Harry Potter were the usual kind of fun. Lazy Raiders and Lara Croft had a couple surprising points of similarity while being utterly different and very entertaining. Spending time supervising the kids while they messed around in Tower Blocks Deluxe, Kung Fu Panda, LEGO Indy 2, LEGO Rock Band, and We’re In The Movies was almost always a good time as long as we didn’t get too competitive. There are a few though that really stood out more then the others.
Being a long time racing game fan I had been looking forward to both Blur and Split/Second. So, along with the rest of the racing fans, was both thrilled and disappointed that they would be released right on top of each other. The good part was that there were going to be some obviously excellent racing games available for us this year, but the down side was that the social component of both of them was going to suffer since they appealed to essentially the same audience. Not everyone was going to be able to afford to buy both and then we certainly couldn’t play them at the same time. At first Blur was my favorite. The multi-player demo offered early in the year played smoothly and provided a great introduction to the game that really whet my appetite for more. However when the game did arrive the only good part was everything that was present in that demo and the single-player parts of the game were simply awful. Split/Second also had a demo before release and it certainly had some spectacular visuals but the gameplay felt somewhat slow and unresponsive which is exactly what you do NOT want in a racing game like this. It should be wall-to-wall adrenaline. When the full game for arrived though it was obvious that the demo had been only the very tip of the iceberg. With lots of game modes (many of which are actually fun to play), plenty of very entertaining tracks, a really good single player progression, and adequate but fun online play it was worth much more of my time. I still haven’t quite gotten gold in every single event, and I don’t have the chance to play online as much as I would like to, but if you have to decide between the two it should be a pretty easy choice. To be clear, I would not call Blur a bad game but if you don’t play online it’s a complete waste of time and money.
The most enjoyable amount of social time I spent playing a game this year was with the critical darling Limbo. The social aspect was a bit unexpected given that Limbo is a decidedly single-player game. There are no online options, other then a fairly half-assed leaderboard, but what it did provide was some hours to spend time with my partner J while we worked through the puzzles together. Heck, she even took the gamepad a few times and on one particular section was the only one who could get us through it. This isn’t surprising in the “A girl was playing Xbox!” sense, so much as it was surprising in the “J managed to get over her distaste for the complexity of the Xbox gamepad!” sense and along with the shared experience of watching that little boy die over, and over, and over, and over while we did the best we could to move him to the end punctuated with those ecstatic moments of success while solving a particular section it was some of the best time I spent with her this year. Even if the game wasn’t one of the best games I have ever played, and it is, and if the visual style just by itself wasn’t worth giving it a try, which it also is, and if the genuine moments of terror, fear, and despair engendered by the game were possibly the best emotional moments I’ve ever seen in a game, and again they were, the experience was worth it to be on the couch next to her and doing it all together.
The video game that I played with other people the most however was somewhat expectedly Rock Band 2 and 3. I have a preference for the Rock Band series of games over the Guitar Hero games that I have never quite bothered to figure out and so this year’s release of Rock Band 3 was something that I had budgeted for, especially with the addition of the new keyboard parts and associated peripherals. After a friend who played with us regularly had tried the keyboard she decided she wanted to be able to play at home and so it was nice to be able to sell off one of my old Xbox 360’s to her and replace it with one of the new 360 S consoles in the living room. We haven’t been able to play online together as much as I would like but it is a lot of fun hearing about her regular improvement in the world leaderboards on the Pro Keyboard song parts. I do have some mixed feelings about Rock Band 3. I think that the new deconstructed interface is almost ideal. I can work on challenges or sets or pretty much whatever and it’s really easy to do so with whoever I want to play with. Additionally making it really easy to find the music that I want to play out of four years of track packs and DLC is somewhat of a miracle. However I don’t find that I want to play Rock Band 3 by myself the way that I did with LEGO Rock Band or even some of the earlier titles. At the same time that they have made the game pretty much the ideal version of what it needs to be I just don’t find that I’m interested in it as a single player game anymore, and that’s too bad. Additionally I find it disappointing that there does not appear to be a way to use a MIDI bass guitar for the Pro Bass parts and playing them on the upcoming Pro Guitar peripheral just doesn’t sound as interesting. It is still a great game and will likely provide plenty of fun for me and my friends of the next couple of years and that’s something I have found hard to get in videogames.
My biggest disappointment of the year was playing Midnight Club: Los Angeles. I had an interval in the spring where I really wanted to play a new racing game. I had gotten pretty much everything I wanted out Burnout Paradise and Need For Speed: Shift just hadn’t kept my attention so it was time to look around for what else was out there. Looking around MC:LA seemed like a fairly good bet given the reviews I had found so I decided to give it a try. The first 80 hours I put into the game were fantastic. The open world environment was well put together with enough shortcuts and not too much traffic. The density of police was a bit higher then I would like, but it just made it a reasonable challenge instead of being too easy. The cars had enough differences to be noticeable and their variety was pretty good. The ability to really customize the vehicles visually fairly easily was a nice bonus and I found myself taking a surprising amount of time getting the look exactly the way I wanted it. The career progression was very well done with enough challenge to require some work but not enough to discourage me from trying the same race sometimes ten times before I was finally able to win them along with easy ways to go find an easy race I could just blow through when the urge struck me. So if the game was this good why did I stop playing suddenly on April 11th and never put the disc back in? One word: Bigotry. While you are participating in single player races the computer opponents will trash talk. The implementation is really pretty impressive with distinct personalities and well recorded voice-overs for all of it and just enough variety that it only gets mildly repetitive. However I was getting to the end of the single-player career and I ran into a particular opponent who’s entire set of trash talk consisted of homosexual and gender slurs. The first time through that race it was irritating, but I figured it was somewhat of a fluke or that I had misheard some of it. The second time I quit the race and moved on to some other events while I thought about it. The third time, I turned off the console. It’s unfortunate but when I’m playing online and run into idiots that use the word “faggot” like punctuation or think they’re funny for thinking it’s demeaning that a female might be a better player then others (even when there are other females playing and beating them while they are saying it) at least in that case I have tools at hand to do something about it. I can say something, I can mute them, I can even report them to the enforcement team but with a game I don’t have any of those options. I have already given the company that produced the game my money and there is no reasonable return policy on software (slightly understandably) so there is effectively nothing I can do about it. Heck, it’s even taken me eight months to be able to explain adequately exactly what the problem is in this kind of detail. The weird thing? I couldn’t find anyone online even mentioning it. I had expected that at least some of the gay gamer folks would have mentioned it somewhere, but there has apparently been complete silence about it and in some ways that was the most disappointing part. I still wonder about my decision to stop playing: It’s a great game and I would really like to finish it up, but I have to wonder what else is in there that I haven’t heard yet that just shouldn’t exist in a game at this point in time.
The big surprise for me though was a game called Just Cause 2. I had not initially been very interested in the game when it was released since I don’t really like Grand Theft Auto very much and this game was very much in that same mold. However the more I read about it the more it sounded like it might be fun, and so when Best Buy sent me a coupon for $20 off and when combined with some Reward certificates the price came down to $10 I figured I’d give it a try. The in game clock tells me that I’ve spent 111 hours running around the fictional third world country known as Panau and I think I’ve enjoyed almost all of it. The story is silly but fun. The voice acting is well done. The visuals are jaw dropping. But it is the game play that keeps me coming back over and over. I completed the storyline back in October and since then I have progressed past 75% completion for the entire game and it is still possible that I might try for 100% of the thousands and thousands of collectibles and liberating the hundreds of communities by blowing things up. My only problem is that I just can’t seem to get the hang of flying planes in the game. I don’t know if it’s me or the controls but I just can’t seem to keep them flying level enough or turn quickly enough to complete most of the races that require them and so that is probably where I’ll have to call it quits. Until then I’m sure I’ll spend a few more frigid winter days under the tropical sun.
The last of the Xbox games worth mentioning is Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. Made by the same group that created one of my other favorite racing games, Burnout Paradise, it has just about everything required for a great racing game. While it has something like power-ups, they don’t feel nearly as gimmicky or unbalancing as the ones in Blur, and the primary Police vs Racers theme makes for a constantly changing and constantly challenging game that is just as fun to play single player as it is online. If you can find some other people to put on your friends list, the integration with their progress in the game makes for a constant stream of new things to do. All told, it’s a very good game. Unfortunately it doesn’t feel like it has quite the soul that their previous games had. It’s all really well executed and you can tell that they put a lot of work and polish into the game, but for all of that it still feels kind of hollow. I’m not sure why that is and it’s obvious enough to be slightly disappointing. Still, definitely worth playing.