Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Disappointments of 2019

While there were many excellent games that game out over the past year, not every one of them lives up. We've got through my list of Highlights for the year, and just as always we too must go through the disappointments of the year in kind.

Every year, I usually find at least one or two games that end up on both lists for different reasons. In compiling this year's collection, I noticed that this happened with far, far more games than usual, for a variety of different reasons.

As usual, just because a game appears on this list doesn't necessarily mean it's bad. All it means is that there are significant aspects of it that I feel detract from the overall whole. Further, this list is presented in a completely random order.

Without further ado, the disappointments of 2019 are:

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order
While I can certainly heap praise on this game after playing it with my buddy, Acharky, there's no way I couldn't just let it go without addressing the elephant in the room.

It was certainly surreal to see the Guardians of the Galaxy as the first set of playable characters, but that is where my appreciation of the MCU's influence comes to an abrupt and sudden end. To be blunt, I am tired of every single Marvel crossover product being some variant of the quest to obtain the Infinity Stones, culminating in some final confrontation against Thanos, Ultron or whatever big bad happens to be the primary villain of the MCU. I understand that it has to be this way, because that's just what in the popular zeitgeist, but the sheer homogeneity and over-saturation is starting to get to me.

But more than that, Ultimate Alliance 3 felt... way too familiar. The last UA game came out way back in September of 2009, nearly a full decade prior to The Black Order's release in June. We've learned much about how to design video games in the years since, even if the specific niche of 4-player online co-op games. I find it hard to believe that we can't do more than just a series of linear corridors filled with enemies and rudimentary puzzles.

There's also a sheer lack of quality of life features like how heroes outside the chosen party of four just don't gain experience in a game with a 36 playable character cast just isn't acceptable anymore. I shouldn't have to grind up another character just because I want to try something new.

In terms of online play, Acharky had an issue where because I was the host player, and 3 of our 4 party members were on my profile, he wasn't able to dynamically swap characters. If his was knocked out, he might as well go grab a sandwich while I use the other 3 to either clean up or die. This is actually a regression from Ultimate Alliance 1 and 2, where we never had this problem.

Ultimate Alliance 3 isn't a bad game, but I just expect so much more at this point.

Far Cry: New Dawn
After the god awful Far Cry 5, this sequel's mere existence disappoints me.

Crash Team Racing: Nitro Fueled
If you weren't following what was going on with Crash Team Racing post-release, you'll probably be surprised that this is on the list after I gave it so much praise in my highlights post.

I stand behind those words, but I can't abide by how Activision has treated it. At first, I was excited about the various Grand Prix events, which allowed players to grind challenges throughout the month in order to unlock cosmetic items. Seeing Spyro join the ranks of playable characters through one of these Grands Prix was like a dream come true for me.

As more of them were announced, I began to shift my opinion. Specifically, I was getting tired and worn down trying to keep up with them while also getting enough free time available to play other games and deal with the issues that crop up in daily life. Weak as I am, I even caved and bought a few packs of “Wumpa Coins” to pay for some of the cosmetics I wanted, which became available for purchase after the game came out, reviewers had already submitted their opinions of the game, and the ESRB had already green-lit the box-art.

A veteran of the Overwatch special event economy, I had begun to comprehend what was going on: That this economy was being created to milk the current user base, exhaust them to the point where they feel compelled to purchase enough Wumpa Coins to keep up with the items being released during the Grands Prix.

It's hard to state how difficult it is to swallow that one's own nostalgia is being weaponized against them, but thanks the exact state I found myself in, and so I cut myself off from it all and just gave up on all future Grand Prix events.

I'll likely play Crash Team Racing again, but given how far this version has fallen it's hard to recommend it to people the way I want to.

Wolfenstein: Youngblood
As a shooter, I had fun playing Wolfenstein: Youngblood. While there isn't much besides the wide-open Arkane Studios-designed levels and RPG systems separating it from another cooperative first-person shooter, this was a competently designed one of those.

The problem comes from several crucial design decisions. One of them being that even when playing single-player (Note: I still needed to be connected to their servers), with an AI controlled partner, I wasn't able to pause the game. If I ever wanted to take a break, I had to hope I was in an area where no enemies could get to me, or just quit the game otherwise. Yet, because the game doesn't have checkpoints, every time the other Blazkowicz sister (read: The idiot AI) used up all of our shared lives, or quit the game, I was sent back to the beginning of whatever section was the most recent one to load. Losing thirty minutes worth of progress to a game over was not uncommon.

On top of that, being an always online game, with daily quests and a progression system, it obviously included cosmetic items and one-time use boosts that can be purchased with a premium currency paid for with real-world money. That currency: Nazi Gold.... because of course it is.

At least they didn't have the gall to charge full price for this game.

Kingdom Hearts 3
This is going to be hard to write about without getting heavy into spoilers, but I'll do my best.

Kingdom Hearts 3 has a problem where despite the seeming urgency of the plot at hand, not much of note actually happens until the very end of the game, once all of the Disney worlds have been completed. As a result, there's a massive pacing issue where once the plot actually gets underway, it goes by so quickly that events that have been building up for years don't have the breathing room for players to feel their weight.

Beyond that, the Disney worlds are exceptionally hit-or-miss this time around. Some of them, like the Toy Story, Monsters Inc., and Big Hero 6 worlds, do an amazing job at remixing and working within the original source material to create a great story that brings the best out of the Kingdom Hearts original characters and the Disney characters.

Other worlds, like Frozen, Tangled, and Pirates of the Caribbean 3 just blatantly rehash the story of the original movie while shoehorning some tasks involving Sora, Donald, and Goofy that neatly section them off from the actual story going around them. It gives off the impression that Disney is being too precious with its IP and deciding that it doesn't want to play ball despite being one of the companies most eager to resell and re-brand classic fairy tales while pretending they own the rights to them. I felt embarrassed for Nomura's sake when I saw that there was a literal shot-for-shot remake of “Let It Go”, with Sora interjecting with the occasional “Is that Elsa's voice!?” and “Wow! Look at that!” in the brief pauses between stanzas where the performer took a breath.

I'd say I expect better, but this is Disney we're talking about. They're one of the worst things to ever happen to IP law and this is completely normal for them. Disappointing, but not surprising.

And if you'll indulge me in minor spoilers: They did Kairi dirty.

Sea of Solitude
I feel bad about putting this here. A co-worker recommended it to me because they said it personally affected them, but I didn't get anywhere near as much out of it as they did. Like Unraveled, this was published by EA as part of their EA Originals initiative to fund smaller, more expressive projects.

And while Sea of Solitude does tell a story of a family going through a messy situation through strong visual metaphors and motifs, I can't help but feel that I've seen it all before. At the risk of sounding callous, it felt like playing the “Sad, Artistic Indie Platformer, Version 206”.

Having already played the likes of Papa Y Yo, which this game strongly reminded me of, it takes more than to impress me these days. There's nothing the game does wrong, but nor is there anything that made it stand out.

Tom Clancy's The Division 2
To be honest, I forgot that The Division 2 came out this year. I even had a group that I was playing it with shortly after it came out.

I could say I put it on this year's list for Ubisoft's pathetic stance on politics in games: That a game whose opening implies only gun-owners stood a chance in the post-apocalypse, and makes the player's base of operations the White House has no political leanings whatsoever. However, while these facts are true, it would be disingenuous of me to say that I had any significant emotions whatsoever on that topic beyond finding the whole debacle hilarious.

I have no memory of consciously dropping The Division 2. It was more that whenever I even remotely felt the urge to launch it, I felt like there was always another game that deserved my attention more or that I would have more fun playing. And eventually, months later, I uninstalled it to make space for something else in my hard drive... probably Hitman 2 after a content update.

I wish I had more to say, but it's The Division 2. It's an Ubisoft shooter. You already knew how you felt about that before you saw it on this list.

Magic the Gathering: Arena
Since Arena is intrinsically, inherently linked to the goings on in physical, paper Magic: The Gathering, their quality will largely ebb and flow together.

And while the Standard play environment has been rock solid for the better part of the year, the recent release of Throne of Eldraine, combined with the rotation, has resulted in one deck archetype dominating all the others, and then another different doing the same after that first one got it's key card banned. As of the time of writing, enough cards have been banned that the meta is starting to fall back into a healthy place, but I cannot deny that, were it not for my Commander format playgroup, my desire to keep playing might have been thoroughly sapped.

With regards to Arena specifically, it's also had its share of problems over the past year. The first was the way it handled rotation, with the advent of the new Historic format to allow users to play with cards that had rotated out of Standard. The controversy game from the fact that the Arena team decided to make Historic-only cards cost twice as many resources to craft as regular cards. While they eventually backed down from this change, the fact that they thought it was a good idea at all left a sour taste in my mouth.

On top of that, we've seen them double down some of the worst monetization trends of the year. When the option to sell card packs already exists and is fully implemented in the game, it feels like double-dipping to do the same for cosmetics like player icon, card sleeves, and alternate art for the cards I already own. Then I was floored when I logged in to find an additional Fortnite-style Battle Pass system implemented on top of all that. This has become more-or-less the only long-tail service game I play, and even then I can't help but feel nickel-and-dimed at every opportunity.

It's the kind of thing that makes me want to quit, to be honest, despite how much I actually love the act of playing Arena.

Telling Lies
For those of you familiar Sam Barlow's previous game, Her Story, may or may not even be aware that his latest game in that “genre” came out this year. I was looking out for this game, and I didn't know it was coming out until the day of.

And despite how much obvious care and attention went into it, I don't think it's quite as good as its predecessor, for two key reasons. First being that, without spoilers, the “central mystery” was a lot easier to solve this time around. Whether it was by design or by luck, I had already figured out most of the major plot point conclusively before I had even seen half of the available videos. There were obviously small details I was missing, but nothing that changed the context of the story.

Secondly, there's a crucial UI change that drove me mad after about an hour after I discovered it, and my playthrough was eight whole hours. In Her Story, the base premise is that players are navigating a database of video clips. By searching for a term or phrase, they get back the five clips where that term is used most often. From there, then clue onto new terms that can search up new videos and repeat until satisfied.

The problem arises once a video is selected for playback. Instead of logically starting a clip from the very beginning, they start from the first mention of the term searched. When that first use happens six minutes into and eight minute clip, and the player needs to spend several minutes rewinding it just to make sure they don't miss key terms or information, that can be exceptionally painful. Doubly so when said player is me and I didn't realize that was the case until I had already seen an hour's worth of partial clips.

Since the clips are from webcam conversations this time around, I would have also liked the option to view them side by side to get the full context in one viewing, as opposed to having to search for the other clip in the conversation to get the full picture, but that's nowhere near as problematic as the other UI issue.

It's a game I'm glad I played, but a couple of serious UI issues make it more of a chore than I would want it to be.

Death Stranding
“A 'strand' is a word that describes a connection between people, but the act of being 'stranded' is the lack of said connection. I am a deep and meaningful thinker. Please respect me.” - Hideo Kojima, probably.

It would be beyond simple to just leave it there, or even worse, just spout meme after pointless meme that has become the norm with Death Stranding discourse in my particular friend group. But not only does that do a disservice to the game, it does a disservice to my utter contempt for the worst aspects of it.

The core gameplay is surprisingly fun, and I grew to think fondly of the delivery mechanics, yet I got the impression that Death Stranding was almost afraid that they wouldn't be enough to pull their metaphorical weight. Any time I found myself in one of the third-person shooter sections, or in a boss battle against a giant tar monster, I found the exercise exceedingly tedious. At no point would I ever call it challenging, nor was I having an even remotely stimulating experience. The same was true for the times I needed to sneak past “Beached Things” to avoid risking my haul.

And if the “quote” prefacing this section was any indication, I was never able to take any part of seriously. When my friends and I all started, I had heard its quality referred to as both “first-year film student” and “stoned at Denny's” respectively, and by the time I finished that feeling had only grown stronger.

Even if there was more meat to the kind of message the team was trying to convey, it's often undercut by various layers within the games own presentation. It's downright distracting to have Sam Porter Bridges, played by critically acclaimed Norman Reedus, to say a bike is so cool that itshould be on Ride with Norman Reedus, or drinking out of a canteen and seeing the phrase “Monster Energy drink consumed” plastered on my screen. Being simultaneously asked to take this third-grader's view of how “disconnected we all are, maaaaaaaaaaaaaan-ah” seriously while being subject to what certainly feels like crass corporate sponsorship began to wear on my nerves in a way that genuinely surprised me.

I wasn't one of the people expecting this game to be the next godsend, but nor was I expecting the writing to get this bad. I'm glad I played Death Stranding, but now that it's done I never want to do so again.

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
This wouldn't even have made the list if it weren't for the fact that I played on the Switch. Even discounting the well-known technical issues that plagued that version, I remember having an extremely visceral reaction at the texture work on the character models, especially since it didn't seem like the game was technically demanding enough to warrant such a downgrade.

Normally, even this should be unremarkable, but the downgrade was serious enough that it caused me some eye strain until I managed to adjust: Actual, genuine ocular discomfort. That's a sensation that I've been lucky enough to never encounter before or since.

Metro Exodus
It makes me sad that I'm so lukewarm on this game after having a blast with Last Light.

The biggest change to the Metro formula are the semi-open levels, since the story has protagonist Artyom and the group he works with escaping the subway tunnels and exploring the world outside of their little hovel.

Sadly, the openness of these specific levels never adds anything to the experience. It felt much like the open-worlds in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, where there were discrete areas of interest and a vast ocean of nothingness between them. I couldn't help but think that I would be having a better time if that walk was skipped and I just had a loading screen separating me from my destination.

And unlike previous Metro games, I didn't find myself interested in the story. By the time I grew invested in whatever group of strangers my ragtag bunch of Russian misfits had allied with for a particular section, we were already set to move on and leave them to their fate.

Even when it came to the moment-to-moment gameplay, there were numerous times where I experienced a technical issue that caused me to keep to reload a checkpoint, or the linear section I was in was so poorly presented that I still somehow got lost. While the shooting is competent, it's not interesting enough to soothe the pain I kept experiencing from all of the little problems I had during my time with Exodus.

It's such a bummer that the Metro trilogy ends on a sour note.


And there we go. This was mostly a solid year, but there's no denying the modern monetization methods detracted from more than a few games I would otherwise have no problems with. Other games just had issues on their own, but by and large, despite this list, 2019 was marked by games that catered to exactly my interests.

Hope to see the same in 2020.

No comments: