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2011: A Year in Gaming

2011 was a very eventful year for gaming; first of all there was a bevy of sequels released on all platforms, well established franchises returning for another outing; some with significant changes, be it mechanical or graphical, some, working off the back of a well established formula. Various major gaming websites have already posted their winners for game of the year, and the numerous categories that precede them, and I’m sure very soon we’ll be seeing the accolades in renewed marketing campaigns and on the front of their respective game cases, and such awards can lead to a huge spike in sales. However, none of these awards can compare to what I have to say on the matter, so if you’re willing to indulge my delusions of grandeur, here are my awards for this year in gaming.

(Note: with the increasing amount of titles being released multi-platform, I’m keeping platform awards specific to exclusives.)

Best PC game: The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

The Witcher 2 is a game that dared to be different. Developed and published by CD Projekt Red – the largest game publisher in Poland – the follow-up to the critically acclaimed, but little played first game from the developer, gave gamers the world over a damn good reason to start playing PC games again, and gave PC gamers something they could be proud of.

The Witcher 2 is an action RPG that adopted the sensibilities of old school RPGs by creating a vast lore for its world and inhabitants, along with a fantasy setting that would make even the biggest Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings fan salivate, but it mixed this with a wide variety of modern innovations; from its beautiful graphics engine, insane attention to detail, and a morality system that developers such as BioWare would do well to take note of. The Witcher 2 is set in a world of moral ambiguity, where choices aren’t simply black or white/good or bad, but are rife with shades of grey, and these decisions can impact the later stages of the game greatly, even so much as affecting the outcome of the game’s third act entirely. The game was an astonishing feat, CD Projekt Red created a triple ‘A’ title on a non-triple ‘A’ budget, and continue to support the title with free updates. Luckily, Xbox 360 owners will get to experience the game next year, and it’s a title no gamer should miss out on.

Best PS3 game: Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception

The PS3 had the good fortune to be graced with a wide variety of console exclusive titles, all of which were great in their own right, and worthy of the time of anyone who owns the system. However, none could equate to the scope or scale Uncharted 3 had to offer. In a way, Uncharted 3 could’ve been developer Naughty Dog’s “difficult third album”; after 2009’s Uncharted 2‘s critical success and numerous ‘game of the year’ awards, the accomplished developers practically set the bar on for action games, and how developers as a whole shouldn’t limit themselves on ambition. Naughty Dog proved with Uncharted 3, that their ambitions reached even higher than their player’s expectations.

To start with, the game was absolutely stunning, it’s hard to believe that this was a game made for hardware that’s nearly six years old; it had a polish and sheen to it that’s usually reserved for technologically accomplished PC titles, with amazingly well modelled and fully realized characters, and beautiful and ever dynamic vistas, it’s a game that’s virtually impossible not to be impressed by. There are moments within that’ll leave you truly on the edge of your seat, coupled with a compelling and satisfying campaign, it also came packaged with an immensely fun multiplayer mode which in no way felt like excess fat, Uncharted 3 set a new standard again for the genre.

Best Xbox 360 game: Forza Motorsport 4

Note: Okay, confession time; whilst I have played various games on my Xbox 360 this year – both physical and XBLA releases – I haven’t played any exclusive titles. So rather than taking a cue from the selections of other sites, I’m going to allow my good friend, Charles Brown to offer his choice for his favourite Xbox 360 exclusive this year.

When it comes to racing games, Forza 4 set a new standard. The game features visuals that are honestly too good to be true, every time I play the game I find myself using auto-vista (a mode that allows you to walk around a car and get into it, a new feature Turn10 put into the game) than actually in races! Okay, so that’s not entirely true but Autovista is definitely a fun mode.
The actual racing is fun and engaging at all levels, if you prefer racing in “affordable” cars, you can… but if you want to try your hand at a car that only the super rich can afford, then you can do that too… Turn10 have taken the time to accurately map out the intricate details of 600+ cars (and more to come via DLC) and their very unique personalities. Not every car is the same, nor its sound. where else can you discover that a 2011 Ford Fiesta is better at cornering at top speed than the worlds fastest production car, the Bugatti Veyron?
It’s a game shouldn’t be confined to just “racing-sim-lovers”, this is a game every Xbox 360 owner should buy, rent or borrow, and one of Microsoft’s benchmark titles. A game that deserves to sit on the same shelf as other classic titles. It’s a console-defining racing simulator and honestly, it’s a shame it’s a console-exclusive as everyone should play this shining example of a racing game.

Best Handheld Title: Super Mario 3D Land

When the Nintendo 3DS was launched back in March, I, like many others decided to take the plunge and become an early adopter of the system, enthralled by the prospect of witnessing fully fledged 3D technology without the burden of those stupid stereoscopic glasses. As someone who considers himself a cinephile, I admittedly hated the trend of more and more films becoming available in 3D, and currently rejoicing in its downfall. “Why?”, because like many before me have said, 3D is a gimmick, it’s an excuse to bump up ticket prices and scupper piracy that worked for a brief moment, but with consumption habits changing, the film industry is slowly becoming irrelevant, and it only has itself to blame.

I do however believe, that 3D technology has potential when applied to gaming, it just depends on how it’s used, and how relevant it is. It has to make the player ask themself “Would this be better in 3D?” And in comes Nintendo. It’s no secret by now that Nintendo are masters of innovation; they’ve pioneered ideas in gaming that some of us can’t even dream of. When the 3DS was first release, for all its flare and features, and for every time I showed someone the 3D in action and they gave that same dumbfounded reaction mixed with an ear to ear smile, in my head I was always thinking “It’s great, but it’s a shame there are no great games for it”.

Later in the year, all that changed with the release of Super Mario 3D Land. It was the first fully fledged Mario title for a handheld in a long time, and when it was first announced, legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto claimed that it would change 3D from a gimmick to a necessity, and when Shigeru Miyamoto makes a claim like that, you better believe he’s a man of his word.

Super Mario 3D Land made owning a Nintendo 3DS worth it, whether you were an early adopter like me, or someone who bought it after the price drop. It’s a Mario game, through and through; it’s loaded with content, has beautiful, vibrant worlds, it brought back the long absent tanooki suit, there’s a challenge for players of all ages, and most importantly, it’s pure, unadulterated joy. Say what you will about Nintendo recycling their franchises, but there’s good reason for this; they can take something old and make it fresh, and in some cases, ahead of anything else at the time.

Best Downloadable Title/Indie game: Trine 2

There was a time when people heard the term ‘indie game’, they thought of titles that were graphical throwbacks of the 8 and 16-bit era, and as a gamer who’s a product of that time, it offers a sense of nostalgia that the aesthetic of big titles can’t offer. However, we’ve come a long way in the past couple of years, Trine 2 showed gamers that it’s quite possible to combine the innovations of modern graphical prowess along with classic gameplay stylings. Trine 2 is reminiscent of Blizzard’s The Lost Vikings, swapping between three characters on the fly, and making use of their abilities in order to overcome obstacles, enemies and puzzles, all whilst navigating the gorgeous 2.5D landscapes. Players also had to make use of the world’s realistic physics in order to progress; water flows realistically, and objects and debris can fall with the heft and momentum as their real-life counterparts.

Indie titles are growing ever more popular and ambitious by the year, and 2011 was no exception. Indie developers are becoming a force to be reckoned with, by even the biggest developers, and if games like Trine 2 are anything to go by, the future of indie developers like Frozenbyte are very bright indeed.

Most Improved Sequel: Portal 2

When Portal came along in 2007 as a title included in Valve’s ‘The Orange Box’ compilation, it became an unexpected hit of leviathan proportions, its simple yet brilliant concept astounded players the world over, by offering puzzles that at a cursory glance seemed next to impossible, yet when looked at by “thinking with portals” and manipulating space and time, the solution became elegant, yet simple, but also made you feel like a genius for solving them.

Creating a sequel to one of the most original and critically acclaimed games of all time looked to be a harder task than any puzzle Portal have to offer, but this is Valve we’re talking about here, and Valve make really, really, really good games, they’re the Pixar of the games industry, so pretty much everyone who’s ever played a Valve game had every bit of confidence that they could pull it off. And holy Hell, did they pull it off.

Despite being a sequel, Portal 2 felt every bit as fresh and unique as its predecessor. To say that it was “more of the same” would be an injustice to the title; we learned more of the enigmatic world the game was based in, the origin of the misanthropic matriarch, and antagonist, GLaDOS, the rise and fall of Aperture Science (all told posthumously through pre-recorded messages from its CEO, Cave Johnson, voiced by the fantastic J.K. Simmons) and it introduced us the best game character of 2011, Wheatley, brought to life by the insecure ramblings of Stephen Merchant.

But what did Portal 2 do, apart from expand on story? Well, it took the somewhat simple mechanic of placing portals to solve puzzles above and beyond our imagination, and this was largely due to the game’s co-op play. I think many who’ve played Portal 2 will agree that its co-op play was nothing short of a revolution; it required two minds to work in near-perfect harmony in order to reach a solution, and showed that even though you may have more portals to work with, it doesn’t make things any easier. Cooperation was an absolute must, and when the interplay of two minds came together in order to succeed, it offered a sense of gratification I’ve rarely felt with other games. Not only that, but it made gamers realize that to create these puzzles, Valve must have some truly magnificent minds working for them, and we’re all the better for it.

Literally everyone should play a Portal game at some point in their life, they’re a work of art and a great example to those uninitiated to gaming what the medium is capable of.

Best Multiplayer: Battlefield 3

Battlefield 3 was announced back in February 2011, and from then on, more and more was revealed about the game via a series of teaser trailers from the campaign level ‘Fault Line’. Whilst the modern gamer is no stranger to the military shooter, thanks to franchises like Call of Duty, there was something special about Battlefield 3 that grew apparent with every reveal; even though the game was a technical and visual tour de force, it had a sense of substance and reality that had been lost in the shooter genre over the past few years.

Anyone who’s ever played a Battlefield game will tell you that developers DiCE are masters when it comes to creating a multiplayer experience, and Battlefield 3 was no exception. In the run up to the release of the game, DiCE made sure to tout the Frostbite 2 engine that was used to make the game. What made this engine so unique, apart from its ability to create models and environments uncannily realistic and render gorgeous dynamic lighting effects, is that it allowed for realistic destruction, and this wasn’t a simple gimmick. Should you be in a situation where a squad of enemies are holed up in a building, an RPG can decimate their once safe haven, and leave them at the mercy of your team. This was one of the many elements that made Battlefield 3 one of the most intense and unique multiplayer experiences of the year.

DiCE made the now uncommon decision of making PC their lead platform for the game, utilizing the best of today’s modern hardware, and gave those who invested in a decent gaming rig a visual and technical treat, boasting maps that allowed up to 64 players to fight it out. Battlefield 3 set itself apart from other contenders in the genre by including vehicle warfare, where players can take command of anything from Jeeps, tanks, helicopters, fighter jets and everything in between, making it a diverse experience every time you played; this coupled with the game’s balanced and intuitive class system made for an experience few others could match. The game isn’t easy though, by any stretch of the imagination. You need to play to win the objective, whether it’s gaining territory in Conquest mode, or arming an MCOM station with C4 in Rush mode, it all requires team work, and those who go it alone are more often than not doomed to failure. Playing with a team that works together will always lead to sweet victory, in a game that perfectly illustrates that there truly is no ‘I’ in ‘team’.

Most Underappreciated Game: Rayman Origins

After a long hiatus from his 2D platforming roots, Rayman finally returned to us this year with the aptly titled Rayman Origins. Released as a physical title for Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii (not as some would expect as a downloadable title), it was released in November, during the notoriously hectic Autumn release calendar, so it’s easy to understand why this game fell under the radar. The fact that this game was ignored was quite frankly, criminal; anyone who’s ever picked up a wired controller with no analog sticks owes it to themselves to play this game.

Built on UbiSoft‘s new UbiArt engine, this entirely 2D world is like a cartoon come to life; characters jump, run and punch their way through levels, all gloriously animated and characterized at a glorious 60 frames per second. Every environment, object and character has been lovingly hand-drawn, all breathing life into a franchise, which up until now had been relegated to being represented by raving Rabbids, which would’ve been a shame, as in the tradition of games of the 8 and 16-bit era, Rayman has turned out to be a character that doesn’t need to be voiced in order to be appealing.

The game oozes with charm, and no two levels feel alike, further adopting the tradition of classic platforming, the game allows local co-op for up to four players. Whether excluding online play was a nod to its lineage or not is another question, but playing with a friend does elicit that sense of joy and camaraderie that came from playing a video game with a school friend or some kid from your neighbourhood.  As was the standard with games back then, Rayman Origins has little in the way of story yet doesn’t suffer because of it, and has one of the best music scores this year (no, seriously). More people need to play this game, so UbiSoft can continue making games like it, rather than milking a certain assassin based franchises dry. If you see it on sale this January, pick it up, you will not regret it.

Overall Game of the Year: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Yeah, I know, shocking, right? Well, there’s a good reason why Skyrim is picking up ‘Game of the Year’ awards left right and centre, and there’s a good reason why I’m no exception to this: Skyrim is a masterpiece.

The follow up to Bethesda’s critical and commercial hit The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, you play the role of the dragonborn (or ‘dovahkiin’ as they’re known in the language of dragons), one of whom is born every few centuries. You assume this role as your chosen race, gender or even species, and upon learning your origin, you learn your purpose in the world of Skyrim, to defeat the long dormant dragons. What happens next, is up to you.

To call Skyrim ‘vast’ would be an understatement; its world spans as far as the eye can see, and every square-foot is drenched in beauty and attention to detail. But what is beauty without substance? Bethesda have proven time and time again that they can create a world that players can invest in, and Skyrim is testament to this, in fact, it’s set a new standard for open world exploration. A couple of hours into Skyrim and players can find themselves with a severe case of wanderlust, scouring the lands for new locations, new enemies, items, weapons, friends and so much more. It’s the seemingly random nature of the world which makes it ever more believable and engrossing, you never know when you’ll stumble upon some random NPC in the middle of nowhere who can trigger off a chain of events that lead you ever deeper down the rabbit hole.

The more time you spend in Skyrim, the more you feel your character truly has a place in the world, gaining notoriety for being benevolent or even wicked, changing the lives indefinitely for its inhabitants, and even becoming a major catalyst for a land wrought in conflict. As you grow, so does the world. Even when you’re not doing anything in particular, you can simply be in awe of everything the world has to offer, whether this is exploring ancient dwarven constructs, being caught up in a snowstorm as a dragon circles above you, simply acknowledging your existence in these lands, or even witnessing the beauty of aurora borealis in the night sky.

You can sink literally hundreds of hours into Skyrim, be in the middle of nowhere, yet never feel lost. Even though the game isn’t immune to some of Bethesda’s notorious bugs, and it may have spawned one of the more annoying internet memes this year, Skyrim’s impact on 2011’s gaming landscape is undeniable. It also made publishers and developers realize that including a multiplayer mode in a game isn’t always a necessity to increase longevity, that rich singleplayer campaigns can offer up so much more than the often repetitive endeavours of an online game, and that given time, attention and love, you can create an experience that will be forever cemented in the player’s mind.

This year, Skyrim won the hearts of millions of gamers, it was a tremendous and well deserved success, and a game that lead designer, Todd Howard and all at Bethesda should be incredibly proud of. If you still haven’t played Skyrim, believe all the hype; it embodies the unique and wonderful experiences only we, as gamers get to enjoy, and little else comes close.

Back in October, Demon’s Souls had a relatively quiet release in the US; it didn’t come with the hysteria usually reserved for big game releases like your Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto games, it was simply… well, released. Shortly thereafter, reviews started appearing on gaming websites, and the results were that Demon’s Souls is good. Very good. So good in fact that it won numerous awards, including IGN’s, GameSpot and GameTrailers’ ‘RPG of the Year’ award, and not only did it win that award with GameSpot, but they also gave it the most illustrious award of ‘Game of the Year’. Needless to say, I was very intrigued. Bearing in mind this game had beaten off competition like the mighty BioWare’s Dragon Age: Origins. Developers FromSoftware had made something special, something people said was cripplingly hard, but still incredibly good and addictive. I write this review at 6:30pm GMT, I started playing today’s session of Demon’s Souls at 1:15pm, and I didn’t realize where the time had gone until my stomach started to groan. It goes without saying, Demon’s Souls is good; very, very good.

Now despite the fact we here in the UK usually share close windows of releases with games, this is one of those occasions in which if you wanted to play Demon’s Souls you’d have to either import it or wait for a release date (which at first many thought wouldn’t actually come). I chose to wait, not out of choice though; when the game came out I was relatively broke and unemployed, so I had to be somewhat frugal, especially when it comes to the at times pricey matter of import games, and honestly I wish I made the investment as it would’ve helped me wittle away those hours (but at the same time it would’ve probably prevented me from actually searching for employment). The game was released here at the end of June, so this is a somewhat belated review due to both release and of course the time which I’ve sunk into playing it. I’ve completed the game once and I’m still not done.

Demon’s Souls is a jRPG by name, but its grounding seems almost western in nature, what with the medieval architecture and olde english dialect. The story itself is relatively light, you are a warrior who has decided to enter the troubled kingdom of Boletaria, a fictional European locale steeped in a rich history but torn asunder by an ancient power known simply as ‘The Old One’, in a desperate search for power, King Allant, the ex-ruler of Boletaria brought a fog which engulfed the lands after his attempts at channelling souls caught the attention of The Old One, and in turn Allant was consumed, and demons were unleashed, who feasted upon the souls of mankind, and those left soulless were doomed to insanity.

This charming fellow is a God, and you have to defeat him...

Though the story is light, and most of the dialogue takes place within the Nexus (a hub in which demon slayers may rest and develop their skills), it honestly doesn’t matter. The world is so incredibly engrossing, beautifully dark in its design, and constructed in such a way that will keep you on your toes with each and every turn, never knowing what may lay in wait.

Now if you’ve read any reviews or even descriptions of Demon’s Souls, you’re pretty much going to hear the same thing from every person, and this review is no exception; Demon’s Souls is indeed an extremely hard game, brutal even, not for such a long have I played a game which is so crushing in its difficulty. One may question though “how can something so difficult to play be so good at the same time?”. The answer to this is simple, because even though Demon’s Souls seems almost leviathan in the task expected of you, and the world so punishing, the game is never unfair. It’s expertly crafted so that every aspect of the combat and the build of your character determine your success. When you die in Demon’s Souls (and you will die often), you’ll get frustrated, but at the same time you’ll have learned what you did wrong, and know what to do when you get to the same point again. And although dying is part of the natural order, you quickly realize that you need to be careful, and every action whether it be stepping off a ridge or the swing of a sword must be taken into hefty consideration. Combat isn’t about who can swing their weapon the hardest; it’s about timing and execution, every action is beautifully animated, and enemies can be both unpredictable and deadly in their riposte. And no, you can’t simply sit behind your shield and wait for the right time; your equipment wears and needs to be repaired, and there are some attacks you simply won’t be able to block. You can dodge some attacks, but time it wrong and you’re going to take the full brunt, and that can be the difference between life and death.

So you might think that dying in Demon’s Souls is no big deal; just respawn and try again, right? Sure, you can respawn, but the consumables you’ve used won’t return, and most importantly you’ll have lost the world’s greatest commodity – souls. Souls are the biggest commodity in the game, you can buy new weapons, ammo, spells and pay for item repairs with them, but most importantly you use them to develop your character; as you carry on through the game you’ll need more and more souls with each additional level. At the start of the game, you start at a Soul Level which is dependent on which class you chose, and it generally only costs you a few hundred souls to upgrade, but as I stand now at a soul level of 104, I need around 64,000 souls to upgrade by only one level. I get more souls from each enemy, now that I’m in my New Game+ state, but they’re now harder, and with greater gain comes greater risk of you losing everything you worked hard, and possibly in one fell swoop.

I wonder what their honey tastes like.

I could go on about how incredibly testing Demon’s Souls can be on a player, and I know that there are some out there who will simply give up on the game, unwilling to tolerate its unrelenting nature. I know how they feel, I know because I was there too; by the time I reached the second boss who swiftly killed me in two hits, I put the game aside and thought “how the hell am I supposed to beat that?”, but after searching around on the wonderfully comprehensive Demon’s Souls Wiki (which I can’t recommend enough to anyone out there who wishes to master this game), I found some advice, and next time I made my way to the Tower Knight I was optimistic yet ever cautious about the approaching battle, and I took him down and claimed his soul. I can say with all honesty, it’s been a long time since I’ve felt such a sense of accomplishment from doing something in a game.

Demon’s Souls success doesn’t lie solely on the gameplay and accomplishments, it also has one of the most innovative and original online components I’ve seen in a RPG. You can play the game offline, but in doing so you miss out; when you’re online you can see the ghosts of other warriors passing through in real time, and everyone can leave messages on the floor from a prescribed list (which is actually a great way to avoid players trolling). These messages can warn people of upcoming obstacles, falls or even strategies on how to approach certain enemies. You can even mislead others into a false sense of security by leaving fake messages, but this doesn’t mean the world is littered everywhere you step with them; people can rate messages, and low rated messages will disappear. Not only that, but people within your range of Soul Level can assist you in your quest, they can leave blue signs on the ground and you can summon them to lend a hand, doing so gets them souls, and of course lessens the load of an otherwise overbearing boss. Not all is camaraderie in the world of Demon’s Souls though; just as you can summon others to help, people can invade your world as a Black Phantom, and attempt to kill you and take all your souls, when this happens a message will flash on your screen and they will hunt you down in your own world, from this point on you’re left to defend yourself, it’s exhilarating and unique, and adds to the feeling of ever looming threat and the prospect that while the world you inhabit is your own, there are others there to both help and hinder you.

The red guy's a Black Phantom, or as they're more commonly known as in Demon's Souls; 'Oh shit'.

I could honestly go on about Demon’s Souls, it’s truly a magnificent game and one that no PS3 owner should go without; more to the point, Demon’s Souls is important not only as an RPG with its incredibly innovative online features, but for games as a whole. I remember a couple of days after playing it, I was speaking to someone about and said “I’ve not played a game so hard since the original MegaMan games” and it dawned on me that I wasn’t just being facetious, I genuinely hadn’t. I’ve been playng video games for nearly 20 years, and I can say with all confidence (and this is where I start to sound old) that games simply aren’t as hard as they used to be, and this isn’t a good thing. What’s a game without a challenge? It’s a moving picture which you can make little characters move around with no consideration of actions or consequence within the world (hence why we get so many people  exploiting certain game mechanics, in order to achieve something few others have). A lot of people mistake difficulty for how long you have to grind to build your character’s level up, or even by the achievements or trophies included with the game. Demon’s Souls does have its trophies, but compared to the colossal sense of achievement that comes with slaying that mighty foe that once eluded you, they are nothing. Demon’s Souls is a hard game, but it’s all the richer for it. Why? Because you have to work hard in Demon’s Souls if you want something out of it; people afraid of a challenge need not apply, but those looking for a game that will test their mettle, and their aptitude as a gamer cannot go without playing this. When you see those credits roll at the end, you’ll feel both relieved and satisfied that you’re now one of us few who can proudly proclaim “I have beaten Demon’s Souls“, and when they’ve finished you find yourself back in the Nexus with all your stats and equipment, and the world’s that bit harsher with stronger enemies and higher stakes, and you can’t wait to do it all again.

My only complaint; every other game’s going to feel like a walk in the park after this…

Rating: 96/100

When I was thirteen years old, I fell ill with a bad case of tonsilitis; my family has a history with the illness and I was no exception to the rule (my sister got the short end of the stick though, usually getting it once a month until she had them removed). I was bed-ridden for six weeks, with nothing but a television and a PlayStation for company, with the occasional visit from my mother, and I had run out of games to play; I didn’t have many games at the time, because I’d only recently got the system.

I remember game magazines everywhere singing the praises of one game, Final Fantasy VII. It was being touted as the ‘must have’ game of PlayStation, an adventure that spanned over three discs with a compelling storyline and over 100 hours of engrossing gameplay; I had to have it. I spoke to my mum about it, and the next day to my surprise, she bought me a copy of it from Tesco, and after that six-hour first session, my gaming life had changed forever. It was the first RPG I had played, and whilst I found the turn based battles unusual at first, I took to it like a fish to water. After scores of hours playing the game, I got better and my tonsilitis had gone, and kept on playing. I eventually got the strategy guide and it opened up a world of opportunities to me (I didn’t have the internet at the time), I felt like this was the ultimate experience in gaming; I experimented with hundreds of Materia combinations, I bred the Gold Chocobo, I defeated both Ruby and Emerald Weapon, and was blown away the first time I witnessed ‘Knights of the Round’.

Everything I knew about gaming changed here, for the better.

After I had done all that was to be done (and this brought the play time to a little under 200 hours), I thought to myself ‘this is the seventh game in the series’, and that there were six more Final Fantay games I hadn’t played. I took it upon myself to find them and play them, and now at the age of 24, even though I haven’t played the first Final Fantasy game in its entirity, my mission to unearth this wonderful series was not a waste.

I became a Final Fantasy fanboy.

As time passed by, new Final Fantasy games came out, and of course I was excited by the prospect of playing one of my favourite series, and more excited at the thought of the series only becoming better. Final Fantasy VIII was good, but just a little below par with Final Fantasy VII. There was just something missing with it, whether it was the characters or the new magic system, I don’t know, but whilst I did love it, it didn’t meet the unfeasible high standard of VII.

In May 2006 at E3 in Los Angeles, Square Enix announced Final Fantasy XIII for the PlayStation 3 and showed the first trailer. I was in awe, and I had a reason to blow over £400 on a PS3. For the next few years my eyes were fixed on FFXIII’s development. I saw the game grow and with every mouth-watering new screenshot and trailer I grew more and more excited.

FFXIII in its early stages of development, or "what could've been".

Time passed, and I held my excitement at bay until March 9th 2010 finally arrived, and Final Fantasy XIII was delivered to my door. I had the entire day free, and I intended to dedicate it to Final Fantasy XIII, the game I waited four years for.

By 11pm that evening when I finally decided to turn off my system, I came to a realization; for the past four years, I had been excited for no good reason whatsoever. Final Fantasy XIII was the biggest disappointment in my entire life as a gamer.

The question is; where to begin? In my opinion, this game fails everywhere in being a Final Fantasy game, and came across as nothing more than being an underwhelming JRPG, and here’s why;

The Characters

In all honesty, I have never disliked a main character in a Final Fantasy game as much as Lightning. Even when in games like Final Fantasy VIII where Squall’s brooding nature could bring you to the point of switching off, the supporting cast could offer some redemption in their differing personalities. VII had Barret, Aerith (for a while at least), Tifa and others, IX’s cast was predominantly likeable, X had Wakka and Auron, and so forth. Final Fantasy XIII had five annoying bastards, and one slightly redeemable character in Fang, who out of all the cast was clearly the most fleshed out, and it’s a shame she wasn’t the lead and had to be accompanied by such one-dimensional personalities. The rest of the cast fell into the remit of stereotypical anime characters; Lightning – the conflicted warrior bound by duty, Snow – the self-proclaimed hero who rallys the troops at their most dire of moments all the while trying to rescue his lost love, Hope – the confused, angsty teen searching for purpose, Sazh – the elder of the bunch looking out for his son, and Vanille… do not get me started on Vanille… the perpetually cheerful, endlessly optimistic cute one of the bunch who never fails to irritate.

It’s not enough that these characters are annoying beyond belief, but their voice actors are equally so (apart from Fang, but Vanille especially). You can’t get through one of the many cutscenes without them bellowing out some annoying gasp, grunt or scream that stands out like a fart in church, but worst of all is that they’re so laughably predictable in their actions; Lightning will be stern as ever, Sazh will make some unfunny sarcastic remark, Vanille will be cheerful, and Snow will build their hopes up again; repeat ad nauseum. Despite Fang being so likeable, it’s hard to look past the presence of these characters. Imagine if on The Office, Steve Carrell was surrounded with the douchebags from The Hills; you’d be waiting around for him to get some screentime, whilst these boring, unlikable stereotypes had their say. It would be intolerable.

Never have so few, pissed me off so much, so quickly.

The Story

Let me be blunt here; the storyline in Final Fantasy XIII is so unbelievably boring. It’s a clichéd tale of the “Chosen few” selected to determine the fate of the world, which has been told a hundred times before in a hundred more interesting ways.

The antagonists have been seen a hundred times before in uninspired games and Hollywood blockbusters. Of all the Final Fantasy games I’ve played, this had the worst ending, and I couldn’t care less what was to become of the characters or the world around them. What’s worse is that they had a staff of writers working four years on this story, and if this is the best they could come up with, they should not be working in the creative industry. I wrote a book in one year and I can say without any ego that there’s more depth in it than Final Fantasy XIII. Yes, it’s a different medium, but that was my first attempt, whereas these people have been doing this for years and get paid for it.

The gameplay

By far, the most important factor and unfortunately, a huge let down. Gone are the scrawling landscapes of past FF games, gone are the dozens of mini-games that you can whittle away time with and earn rewards at the same time, gone is the malleable character development, gone are the wonderfully varied towns and gone are the plentiful weapons and armour. Overall; gone, is everything that made Final Fantasy a great series to begin with.

In the game your battles are a predictable series of actions, as arbitrary as the buttons you have to press in a rhythm game like Guitar Hero. The Paradigm system relegates your party members to one specific function; you can vary these classes to create the right combination for the right time, but a lot of the battles can be won in a simple ‘rinse and repeat’ formula. You get presented with some more interesting scenarios later in the game, but compared to how the game used to allow you to hone your characters as you see fit, it feels more like a fighting game where you’ll never develop beyond your pre-determined skill set.

Even if you do want to ‘personalize’ the battle in some way, it’s not the best option; the creators felt it best to sacrifice control in place of style. Even though you can dictate the actions of the party through the Paradigm system, the only way you can feasibly keep up with the pace of the battle is by using the ‘Auto-Battle’ function, which picks the best course of action for your party member, and it’s not always the best choice. You have to rely on this system if you want to survive; if they toned down the pace of battle even a little bit, you could’ve withstood the action whilst plotting the course of battle, but with all that flair comes sacrifice, and in this case it was ‘choice’.

One of my biggest peeves with the game is its structure; whilst the majority of the game follows a linear course, and it holds your hand through what has to be the longest ever video game tutorial (over 30 hours, which could’ve easily been compressed into two or three hours), when it comes to the point you’re allowed some form of free rein it has so many curveballs. When you’re released control of your party and allowed to explored the world of Gran Pulse, a land littered with numerous monsters and tasks, even if you’ve developed your characters to the furthest point possible (oh yes, your development is capped at certain points, so even if you want to level grind you’re left waiting for the cap to be removed), you’ll find the vast majority of the creatures roaming the land can simply not be defeated, and there’s no indication that they may be too tough for you.

It’s disheartening to lose so much when you’ve gotten so far, and makes you feel like you might have done something wrong along the way. In games like Shadow of the Colossus where all the odds seem stacked against you, you know there’s a way you can get around this and triumph adversity; that’s what makes a great challenge. Encountering a foe that you simply cannot defeat no matter how strong you are is just a kick to the balls. Not only that, but you get these undefeatable enemies peppered throughout the main course of the game; but why even put these there when the levels have been capped? It’s bad design, and even after buying the strategy guide I thought there may be a way to defeat them, but no, all I got was ‘You may want to avoid this enemy, because you won’t be able to defeat him yet’. What a load of crap.

Gran Pulse; the first chance you get to explore the world around you... but everything there can kill you.

I could honestly go on, at this point I’m already at nearly 2,000 words and I’m sure I could write 4,000 more about how inept this game is, but what I have to say is this; Square Enix, you have broken my heart, and turned a brilliant franchise into an underwhelming and stereotypical JRPG, and in my opinion it serves as a prime example of the ailing Japanese gaming industry. It’s a game that had to dumb itself down so it became accessible to the uninitiated, and for a culture so intent on offering fan-service, it offers little to none, and that fan-service was something that made the series so great to begin with. Final Fantasy XIII has sold millions, and regardless of whether it was going to be bad or good, it was going to succeed, because fanboys like me love the series. I feel that instead, Square Enix grew paranoid along the way that it would fail, and that to succeed it needed to be accepted by the masses, so everything that made the experience of a great Final Fantasy game like the character experimentation, and exploration and the mini-games had to go, but that’s what made Final Fantasy great.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say Final Fantasy XIII’s a bad game, but after years of playing the series and experiencing several incarnations which all have that same feel and charm but at the same time are so different to each other, I expected more. Maybe I’m to blame though; maybe my expectations were just far too high. I can admit I’ll probably never feel that same affinity with a Final Fantasy game that I had in those long but wonderful six weeks I spent bed-ridden, alone with Final Fantasy VII, but I have evolved as a gamer, as has the industry, and Square Enix have done the series and its fans a huge disservice with Final Fantasy XIII. I know I’ll be back for more when the next singleplayer Final Fantasy is released (XIV will be an MMORPG), and I hope for their own good, Square Enix will have listened to their fans, because I know I’m not the only one who was disappointed this time, and if other Final Fantasy fans don’t want to be ‘once bitten, twice a shy’ I hope they won’t stand for this too.