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Some Favorite, Disappointing, and Interesting Games from 2012-2016

At least 9 games came out in the dozen years videolamer went on sabbatical to backpack around Europe and really find itself. We did not have the opportunity to talk about any of these games in a timely fashion because the site was focused on getting its groove back, but that will not stop us from discussing these games absurdly late. Here are some of our favorites, disappointments, or just generally interesting games from the years after 2011 but before 2017.

Matt

Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes

It’s a weird argument to make, but the paid demo for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a more satisfying version than the full release. While The Phantom Pain is undoubtedly a phenomenal game that should be considered one of the generation’s very best (despite its unfinished state), Ground Zeroes is more in line with what I consider to be a Metal Gear Solid game, and one that has a more satisfying sense of progression. For one, in GZ, you actually play as Big Boss, which sadly cannot be said for TPP. Kojima once again pulled a Raiden on us, despite the backlash that ensued following the release of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, and, instead of playing as the co-titular hero of the franchise once more, you play as a non-descript character that acts in Big Boss’s stead. It was a weak and cliché solution to justify the fact that Big Boss shows up in Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake despite having seemingly been killed by Solid Snake in the original Metal Gear. The idea barely makes sense (Plastic surgery? Really? *rolls eyes*), and when the twist is finally revealed, the weight of what you accomplished by that point feels like a joke: you were not the legendary hero you thought you were. Fans of the franchise have been walking in Big Boss’s shoes since Metal Gear Solid 3, and to see it end like that feels like a betrayal, one that’s only slightly tempered by the fact that this is just a repeat. That makes Ground Zeroes, unceremoniously, Big Boss’s final outing, so that’s something to cherish. 

The other aspect worth mentioning is the game’s level design. GZ, set on a small island in the Caribbean that houses an American military black site, combined what we’ve come to expect from the series with a vertical slice of TPP’s open-world design structure. When you initially reach the island, you survey the area, discovering a large military installation situated on the north edge of the island awash in flood lights. While it’s a subtle note to harp on, for me this setup felt true to the Metal Gear Solid ethos. My mind wondered at what duplicitous political machinations took place behind the building’s facade. For the most part in TPP, there are no large buildings to explore in that sense, which feels like another (albeit nitpicky) betrayal to fans, who have cherished memories of places like Shadow Moses, the Tanker, the Big Shell, and Grazny Grad. (Helping to prove my point is the fact that you even revisit Shadow Moses in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, as a tool to help the legacy players reflect on Snake’s history and accomplishments.) TPP contains mostly smaller buildings and installations that simply feel like extensions of the outdoor areas, so forget about the hallways and office spaces that have been staples of the series. While I’m never against a series evolving, I was nevertheless disappointed that TPP didn’t stay true to the series. For a brief, shining moment, however, we had Ground Zeroes.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution – Director’s Cut (WiiU)

Yes, the WiiU version, but hear me out. I had played the original PS3 version when it first released in 2011, and I enjoyed it for the most part. But the game reached its apex, in my opinion, with the Director’s Cut on the WiiU, released in 2013. To be honest, I bought this game on a whim to help justify the purchase of my WiiU after it was clear the system was a failure, a task destined to fail no matter which games I bought. What helped to differentiate the WiiU version was the use of the tablet, which let you read the game’s various emails and bits of lore on the smaller screen. Presented this way, it helped me to absorb the information on a much deeper level, and to appreciate the world building aspects that the writers created. Think of it as a AAA Game that included an in-game book to read. Some will absolutely hate that idea, while others will see the value. Plus, it helped to create a sense of make believe and role-playing. The pocket secretary that I found in the game was actually the WiiU tablet in my very hands! Believe it or not, that was the tech showcase for the WiiU tablet, though I’m probably part of a very select few who would ever argue that.

This game is not recommended for people with standard human hands.

Chris

Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines

This is one of the weirdest games I’ve played, and it’s the kind of game that is more fun to discuss than it is to play. The actual gameplay loop is frequently frustrating or boring, but the idea of it held my interest for a while. The premise of the game is that your family has been cursed to have an extremely short lifespan, but various gods and goddesses are willing to help you out by making kids with you so your bloodline continues. Magically, of course (it involves lots of rainbows). It’s about as creepy as it sounds, but no creepier – which puts this at the weird crossroads where it feels and sounds sketchy, but isn’t that bad and I’m actually a little surprised it’s not worse, given the Vita landscape.

In practice, this shortened lifespan means you have around 2 “years” of game time before a given character kicks the bucket, and in that time you can spend each day exploring dungeons, training, making new family members, etc. At one level, this is a mechanically simple dungeon-exploring RPG with an ever-changing party, but at another level it’s a long-term time management simulation where you have to keep several factors in mind – are there enough children to take the reins in the future? If I push further in that dungeon, is my veteran going to be over-stressed and die early? Some features of the game require long-term investment (e.g. heirloom equipment) to be most effective, so when you can put all of it together, it can be satisfying to see your family prosper (of course such prosperity is, like your family, short-lived).

The world map is randomly generated, and you have to look for specific things in dungeons to progress. At the outset of the game, you can configure how long you want the game to last – which is a feature I’d love to see more often in games – but even with the fastest/easiest settings, you’re likely to need to explore thoroughly to progress and waste precious months (or Oreshika-decades) on false starts, exploring areas you’re not ready for yet or discovering dead-ends with nothing worthwhile. Mechanically, fights are pretty simple, but the varied weapons you have access to – and the short lifespan of any given character – will freshen battles occasionally as you learn to deal with new mechanics or abilities.

While it’s not the greatest game, Oreshika is a game that is worth mentioning – it’s one of those niche games that will really appeal to some audiences, even if it’s not likely to reach mass appeal.

Oreshika is by the lead designer of the world renowned Linda³.

Stellaris

I still play 4X games every once in a while, and typically have to resort to classics like Master of Orion 2 because I haven’t found a modern game that scratches the same itch. I’ve tried several, though, and when Paradox announced Stellaris I was very excited. I’ve spent entirely too much time playing Europa Universalis IV and Crusader Kings II, so it’s pretty hard to ignore a 4X-ish game from the same creators.

Stellaris is engaging enough, I suppose, and I’ve put around 40 hours into it over several years, but its slow pace combined with fairly repetitive early-game means that I tend to play it for a few days, realize I made very little progress over a few play sessions, and then drop it. In other 4X games, I feel like either the pace is a little better (games finish in 2-4 hours) or randomization makes the early-game more interesting.

I’ve been excited by some of the recent updates, but at this point the buy-in for the DLCs I missed seems a little too high given the risk of getting burned (or bored) again.

Watch out!

Christian

Spec Ops: The Line

This was once a critical darling, then the subject of intense backlash. A lot of folks now think this game is unduly critical of its playerbase, scolding them for literally playing the experience that is on offer.

But I think that’s a cop out. The game doesn’t deny that there is something viscerally enjoyable about shooting at targets. It just tries to point out that maybe it’s at least a little messed up that so many highly successful action games are based on real world conflicts in which people still living today might have lost loved ones. And how easily any one of us can casually and unquestionably carry out horrific actions under the excuse of “just obeying orders”.

Spec Ops: The Line is a game that’s stuck with me for years. But it’s also one of several games that made me realize just how fragile, insecure, and lacking in self awareness many gamers are. We, as a hobby, don’t want games that make us question ourselves, or our worldviews. We aren’t interested in juggling two separate but related ideas or themes in our head. We can’t help but see things in black or white. We don’t just want to be entertained, but also validated.

That might be fun some of the time. But there are other times when you just need a game to grab you by the shoulders and shake you.

The camera man really needs to clean that blood off the lens.

Metal Gear Solid 5: Phantom Pain

Unlike Matt, I (respectfully) don’t think you have to hand it to this game. Phantom Pain is a lot of things, but “good” isn’t one of them.

Yes, the tech is impressive. But the story is an unfinished mess that doesn’t feel like an MGS game. The open world is pretty, but largely useless. What you have is two large maps with a handful of bases, and absolutely nothing else in between them. You can run around in them as you see fit, but there’s almost never a reason to do so in any given mission.

And once you’re in a base/camp/outpost/whatever, the game falls for the same trap as other MGS games, only worse. You have all these ways in which to interact with the world – and with enemies – by shooting things, throwing things, etc. In other words, this is a stealth game in which you’re encouraged to do things that cause a commotion. Experimentation almost always leads to getting caught, and once you do, you can sit back and enjoy waiting for minutes on end for alerts to die. This is a game that wants you to toy around with its systems, only to punish you for doing so the “wrong” way.

The cherry on top of this shit sundae is the fact that, by and large, it’s basically an upgraded, “next gen” version of MGS: Peace Walker. I already played that game, and loved it to death. But I was hoping for something more in this big sequel.

One thing I 100% agree with Matt on is that Ground Zeroes was the better game. It’s the perfect example of how some of the best game experiences come from working within a set of limitations. Which I guess means that Phantom Pain is an example of how having no limitations can bite you.

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TrueTallus
TrueTallus
5 months ago

Metal Gear Solid has always felt like a series where each individual game is really meant to be experienced a certain way, even while it allows you to play it in any number of ways (this may actually be all Kojima games, I’m not sure). When you are in the sweet spot of ‘getting’ the game, it really is a wonderful experience, but if you start wandering from what the experience was designed to be, it can drag and frustrate. I loved MGS as a cinematic spectacle and and was utterly charmed and blown away by MGS2 after it, but MGS3 left me in the cold and I felt like I was missing something when it came to MGS4. I feel like a big part of enjoying each game was somehow being united in purpose with the distinct flavor of it’s gameplay-to-narrative connections, the process of naturally ‘choosing’, discovering and delighting in the way in which you were ideally supposed to interact with the game, it’s world and characters.

I naturally took to the ‘kill almost nobody’ part of MGS2, so that underlying theme and the connected gameplay loop resonated strongly. But trying to do the same thing in MGS3 was frustrating – you WERE supposed to kill people so that the encounter with The Sorrow could have weight and to support the underlying idea of the effects of sacrifice. But the game still kept the option of non-lethal encounters, even though there were subtle forced frustrations with trying to play it that way. That’s just one example, but I can think of several others off the top of my head where the ‘point’ and intended style of play in a given MGS will make some part of the game frustrating or uninteresting if you don’t play by it’s intended rules BUT you can still limp (or yawn) your way through via some other means.

I want to recommend the idea of including some sort of PRIMER on the way the devs intended the game to be played. I’d argue most games would benefit from that, really. In MGS’s case, though, since so much of the wonder that CAN happen comes from misdirecting the players expectations, it’d be hard to trust that a recommended style of play wasn’t just another red herring :)

Last edited 5 months ago by TrueTallus
Christian
Christian
5 months ago

That’s an interesting idea TrueTallus, though I suppose that depends on how everyone feels about the concept of “Death of the author”.

TrueTallus
TrueTallus
5 months ago

I wonder how much that idea applies to an experience like a game (vs literature). I’ll try to avoid hurling us into the ‘are games art’ talk, though for the record I’d guess they can be, but I’m not as interested anymore in proving the point one way or another:) Gamers seem to want to know how to play a game mechanically at least, to understand via some kind of tutorial or less direct means of communication how it works and what they are expected to do. Praise is heaped on a game when its world is engaging (i.e. interesting AND cohesively communicated), and I’d argue that is something that we assume we are discovering, not creating ourselves. Discovery usually hints at the idea that we are finding something that’s been created, and getting to understand something built on purpose and defined by the builder.

I can see some merit in defining what a game should be as the player, of course. From purposeful breaking or bending of the game that takes place in speed or difficulty runs, to games BUILT to be player influenced (Minecraft), or more organic player takes and interpretations on otherwise straight forward games (Toby Gard laughingly recalled that nobody remembers a lost village level because nobody thought it was a village when they first played it) there’s room for the idea that players can sometimes define the experience.

Still, if a game dev has a specific way they meant for the game to be played, both from a gameplay point of view, and a perspective FEEL of the world and the characters, I’d love to know what that is supposed to be so I can really tune into it. I guess that’s why I love a GOOD game manual, since it can give you an authoritative impression of how the game was intended to be approached, not just the mechanics involved. Something big and weird like Steambot Chronicles was actually way more approachable once I took the time to read the many places in the manual where the designers were trying to tell me that it was built to be relaxing and sincere and fun, a world where I really could take my time and do whatever I wanted. And if Bungie had told me to stop trying to explore in Halo, not think it was going to turn into Marathon any second now, and not care about weapons for more than five seconds, I would have enjoyed it way more:) Even game designers at their most stary-eyed and pompous talking about their vision for the game your about to play (David Cage) can help set the mood and incline you towards giving the game the benefit of the doubt (or keep you from waisting your time).

I freely admit I had to look up exactly what ‘Death of the Author’ entailed, so give me leniency if I’m not quite on point:)

Last edited 5 months ago by TrueTallus
TrueTallus
TrueTallus
5 months ago

A brief addendum I just thought of: I do still treasure the parts of games we intuitively come up with on our own, our sense of individual playstyle, our own impressions of the world, motivations and characters. If EVERYTHING is spelled out and writ in iron, that can be disappointing and limiting. MINOR SPOILER: I remember being kinda bummed to talk to the AI from the expansion in Horizon Zero Dawn and having it matter-of-factly solidify the historical record of the backstory, leaving no room for my occasional treasured misunderstandings. I’m guessing I wouldn’t enjoy Silent Hill 2 as much if I knew FOR SURE what the creators had decided the point was of everything.

I guess I want to be SETUP to experience the game the way it was built, to get started on a trajectory of informed experience where I won’t miss out because I was aiming the wrong way. It’s probably best, then, to START a game with this kind of insight (another plug for great manuals) rather than have continual direct guidance from the designer on what they intend for you to do.

Christian
Christian
5 months ago

This whole discussion has me thinking about one of my pet peeves. In fact, I might consider doing a whole piece about it.

Anyway, here it is – I’m playing a game using all the tools available to me, in the ways the game tells me, and I’m not having fun (usually because it is too easy, though sometimes because it is too hard).

I go online to look for advice in all the usual places (reddit, comments sections, and occasionally Twitter if someone links to it). I find other people who agree with me, but even more people who all say the same thing –

You need to stop using that weapon. Then it gets much harder

In other words, these are games in which numerous people believe that it is best played by placing artificial limitations on yourself – and then they have the audacity to lavish praise on it.

Personally, I think this is nuts. If the game doesn’t work until you actively avoid the systems the designers put in place, then something is wrong with it. Props to you if you find a way to get some fun out of it, but no one should have to do such a thing.

It’s a reminder of how modern fandom doesn’t really react to the entertainment they consume, but rather the version of it that they build up in their heads.

PS – I have another personal rule that’s sort of the opposite of “no one should have to impose artificial limitations to play a game”. It’s

If you beat a game, and then find that imposing artificial limitations (or doing some other kind of experimentation) makes it feel fresh and different upon replay, then that’s probably a sign of a well made game.



pat
pat
5 months ago

i checked back at my list of games i completed through this period and it turns out i was playing a lot of older games at this time, so the only one on this list i played was deus ex. and i played it on PC, so i didn’t even see what matt enjoyed so much about having the tablet. i liked the game, but i admit i didnt spend much time reading the lore. maybe i would have had i had a tablet for that purpose.

the discussion between christian and truetallus reminds me of something that comes up a lot in the souls games. the games allow the player to choose a variety of builds and playstyles. at the same time, a lot of people are attracted to the games but find them too difficult, and would prefer to have an easy mode. one way of thinking about the games is that they have their own easy modes within them because some builds or weapons make the game significantly easier. in demon’s souls, choosing the royal as your starting class gave you a spell and an item that automatically replenished your MP, making the game much easier, especially in its early stages. in dark souls you can obtain the drake sword early on, which is an incredibly powerful weapon for the point at which you can start using it. a mechanic in all the games is the ability to summon help from other players at basically any time, which obviously makes the games much easier.

this variety definitely leads some people to think they games should be played a certain way. for myself, i prefer to play with purely melee characters and without summoning (though i very much enjoy helping other people). but i wouldn’t impose that on anyone else, since i think people play games for different reasons: i enjoy the challenge, others might just want to make it through the world. i guess my point is that good design can allow players to tailor their experience a bit to what they want without imposing a single right way on them. secondary point would be to ignore people who insist there is a right way, especially when the game is designed to offer choices.

Christian
Christian
5 months ago

Pat – Part of the problem, as I see it, is that it may take a while to find the class that works for you in a Souls game. If you find that a class isn’t right for you, you have to restart, go through the intro stuff (which usually isn’t complicated enough to give you a feel for your new class), and then play through maybe up to the first boss to figure out if it’s clicking. I think that’s a rather large time investment.

There’s also what I see as a people problem – regardless of what you can or should do, there are going to be people online who are going to tell you to do something differently. For example, Demon’s Souls (the only Souls game I’ve played to completion, and the only one I care to play) is a game that is very easy to “cheese” – and I remember a lot of people online who belittled anyone who opted to use these tactics.

If you’re the kind of person who is easily swayed and/or is insecure about themselves, then you will almost certainly avoid “cheesing” as a result, and instead take a path that’s much too difficult for you, as part of some twisted sense of pride (and yes, I do think that such people exist, and no, I don’t think the answer is as simple as telling them not to listen to jerks or whatever).

I think there is a difference between simply “having options” for different players, and having options that are intuitive, discoverable, and provide sufficient feedback. One of my big pet peeves with the Souls games is that (in my opinion) they fall short at all three of these goals. I imagine we would see fewer complaints about difficulty modes if people felt like they were able to more quickly engage with the games with a toolset that they were comfortable with.

It isn’t that I disagree with your assessment, but I do believe that some games ask for much too great of a time investment to figure out your own personal play style.

(as a similar example, one of the reasons I can’t get through PS2-era Shin Megami Tensei games is that you can’t really experiment with their Fusion systems unless you’re willing to reset the game and reload your save if a fusion goes wrong. That’s way too much time waiting around).

Last edited 5 months ago by Christian
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