It’s that time of the year again, when celebrities embarrass themselves and others by hosting various award shows. I always thought it might be fun to have an award show where we hand out awards for the best award shows. The Meta Awards – Best Male Award Show Host goes to …
Regardless, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Awards are now also awarding what they regard as artistic excellence in games, and here are the nominees for 2011. If it’s not made abundantly clear simply by looking at the list, I’ll spell it out: While British critics tend to be a lot more sensible than their overseas counterparts, this particular award ceremony seems to gravitate towards heavily-marketed triple-A titles (and that one compulsory indie game), with little or no regard for actual artistic excellence. It’s uncertain whether they’re pandering to the IGN/Gamespot brand of pay-per-grade game journalism, or simply happen to be blissfully clueless – but the list makes for an entertaining read nonetheless.
Rather than doing a category-by-category analysis, let’s look at how many times various titles were nominated for something across all categories (barring the prestigious GAME Award). Excluding Family, Handheld, Social Network Games and Ones to Watch, there are 11 categories.
From the top:
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood – 7 nominations
Call of Duty – Black Ops – 6
Heavy Rain – 6
Mass Effect 2 – 5
LIMBO – 4 nominations
Super Mario Galaxy 2 – 4
Alan Wake – 3
Battlefield: Bad Company 2 – 3
God of War 3 – 3
Halo: Reach – 3
Bioshock 2 – 2
Fallout: New Vegas – 2
Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty – 2
(If you count Family games, Kinectimals also got 2)
Every other nominee received only one mention. The first thing you’ll notice is that someone really likes Assassin’s Creed. And that’s okay. Brotherhood is a great game.
Maybe not “nominated in 50% of all relevant categories”-great, but still great. The second place, amazingly, is a tie between the two most humongous turkeys to stumble onto the scene in 2010. Black Ops is mediocre at best and unplayable at worst. David Cage’s latest outing is essentially an unremarkable crime story in the format of a long-winded, QTE-fuelled cutscene priced at $60. The remainder of the list is disappointingly predictable, but not too upsetting. If not for the fact that a lot of the games are nominated in the wrong categories, it’d be fine.
Black Ops, an astounding achievement in riding technical coat-tails
Black Ops is nominated for Best Multiplayer (which is ok when it works), Best Story (which is surprisingly decent, but not actually good), best Action Game, and the super mega GAME Award. While these server as hallmarks of a blatantly biased and/or clueless jury, those nominations are at the very least not completely out of touch with reality. These, on the other hand, are: Best use of audio (guns make shooting noises, and people talk!), Artistic Achievement (what?) and, astoundingly, Technical innovation. That last one is utterly mind-boggling. Here’s why.
In 2007, Infinity Ward and Activision released Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. It was good. It was also technically impressive at the time, because it managed to look surprisingly good despite the PC version being very scalable – in short, its engine was solid and immensely flexible. This solid, flexible engine has since been rehashed and reused with slight alterations in Call of Duty: World at War (Treyarch, 2008), Modern Warfare 2 (Infinity Ward, 2009) and finally, Call of Duty: Black Ops (Treyarch, 2010).
Treyarch have essentially made a living riding Infinity Ward’s Coat-tails ever since 2005, when the IW-developed CoD2 went on to become a hit, boosted by its status as one of the few games worth playing on the Xbox 360 way back in 2005. Activision picked up on the potential of the series, and promptly gave Infinity Ward and Call of Duty their trademark “annual franchise release” treatment. You know, the one that made the Tony Hawk games terrible, and recently, also killed the Instrument Hero series.
So in order to squeeze out a CoD game in 2006, Treyarch was brought in to work their reverse-Midas magic, which resulted in the abomination known as Call of Duty 3. Ever since, Treyarch decided it might be for the better if they just let Infinity Ward do all the serious work with making engines and stuff, and instead just use those engines to make something reminiscent of a total conversion mod and market it as a full game.
Activision was totally on board with this. I’m guessing that Infinity Ward wasn’t really, but had little choice in the matter. Such is life under the Activision umbrella.
Which brings us back to the point: How does the fourth rehash of a half-decade old engine, which you did not even make yourself, qualify as TECHNICAL INNOVATION? If anything, this ought to net Treyarch an award for championing the polar opposite of technical innovation.
Apparently Obsidian makes strategy games
Observant readers may have noticed the following oddity: Fallout: New Vegas is nominated as Best Strategy game. Either the British definition of strategy game is very different from the conventional one – yet the other nominees fail to support that thesis – or it’s a symptom of the following: They forgot to include a Best RPG category. The way potential Best RPG contenders are spread at random across the other categories suggest they realized this a little too late. Fortunately for them, they didn’t nominate a lot of RPGs. I’m inclined to agree with them lobbing Mass Effect 2 in the action game category – it’s a cinematic shooter featuring dialogue more than an RPG.
That left New Vegas, which, unlike Fallout 3, has a lot of those annoying RPG hallmarks like a forked narrative and choices expanding beyond the “be saintly/unremarkable/a complete dick while still following set-in-stone objectives” model pioneered by pseudo-RPGs like, you know, Mass Effect.
So they threw it in with the strategy games. Which makes no sense, and there’s no way it’s going to come out on top against all those actual strategy games in there.
Fortunately it’s also nominated for Best story, which I can wholeheartedly get behind. The New Vegas storyline is atypical in today’s game climate: Not conceitedly “epic”, high-strung, or full of glaring plotholes. You get shot in the face, and you want to track down the guy who did it to return the favour. The exposition is so simple I’ve met people who were put off by it – because if there’s no overwhelming demonic invasion or whatever that demands your immediate attention and promises many pompous orchestral overtures or explosions, the game must be terrible. If they’d played for a bit longer, they might have gotten to the part where you accidentally find yourself possessing the Mcguffin that will, one way or another, settle the vicious territorial struggle forming the political backdrop of the game. But alas.
Returning to the awards – I don’t expect New Vegas to win this one either. Inexplicable BAFTA fetish CoD: Black Ops and the ever-prevalent Mass Effect 2 are also nominees in the same category, hence my reluctance to put any money on Obsidian receiving some much-deserved recognition.
Never mind the only game so far to do something sensible with motion technology – Kinectimals has tiger kittens!
While dancing is in no way my cup of tea, because I’m far too caucasian, it’s pretty obvious that it’s the only game yet to do anything sensible with this astoundingly gimmick-filled new technology supplied by Kinect. We’ve had laughably terrible fighting games, a gazillion work-out games, and a few games that serve essentially as Kinect tech demos – Kinect Adventures, Kinect Joy Ride, and so on. I imagine Kinectimals falls somewhere in the middle, being great fun if you like Nintendogs-like pet management, yet feeling incredibly weird if you’re not really into petting invisible Siberian tiger kitties who bonk cutely against the inside of your screen every now and then.
But Dance Central is an actual game more than a weak interface constructed around a minigame collection. The dance routines look like actual dancing, and movement registration is sometimes eerily accurate, illustrating that if the sensor is inaccurate it’s most likely a software issue. The tutorial sessions available for each difficulty level of individual songs means it’s suitable for everyone, from the terminally inept (like me) to those people who are – unfairly – born with a natural sense of rythm (like my fiancée). The menus blessedly do away with the variety of terrible “keep your hand RIGHT HERE, and COMPLETELY STILL for AS LONG AS I DAMN WELL PLEASE” navigation systems, instead opting for a sleek and comfortable Minority Report-like flick of your hand to select menu items. Watch and learn, every developer who is not Harmonix. It even lets you count how many calories you’ve burned, if you’re inclined towards that. Did I mention it has multiplayer? And DLC that, while still expensive, isn’t a complete steal.
Because I figure you’ll want to watch Jessica Chobot dance rather than me, here’s Jessica Chobot playing Dance Central:
In other words, Dance Central successfully combines new and potentially exciting technology with a genuinely good game. To me, that spells out what should be the very definition of technological innovation in games. However, BAFTA goes ahead to nominate both Dance Central and Kinectimals for the Best Family Game award, yet picks Kinectimals to be the sole herald of Kinect in the Technological Innovation category. While not as bad as the Black Ops and RPG muck-ups, this is still pretty weird.
EA managers are more strategic than sporty
The Best Sports Game is, as per usual, littered with annual EA sports releases. In addition to the sports games that deal with playing sports, Football Manager 2011 is also a nominee. That’s fine. But why is FIFA Manager 2011, which ostensibly deals with exactly the same – managing football teams – nominated for a Best Strategy award? There’s undeniably a lot of strategy involved in the management of a football team. But it’s ALSO about a sport. This was apparently too much to fathom for the jury, who decided to put one game in each category just to be fair.
This further compounds my impression that the entire Best strategy category is kind of confused: Plants versus Zombies is a great game with surprising longevity and depth, but is it really a strategy game? Is it not a family game or a handheld game? There is some basic strategy involved (put sunflowers in the back), but really – it’s a 2,5d, slow-paced tower defense game where you incidentally have plants instead of actual towers. It’s like they ran out of games to nominate once they’d pinned down Civilization V, the latest Total War iteration (Napoleon) and Starcraft 2. Hence the PvZ, F:NV, and FIFA Manager nominations. I can think of a couple they might have included instead:
Victoria 2 lets you control just about any nation featured on a mid-1800s world map, from industrialized empires to fledgling semi-feudal socities, guiding them from the advent of the Victorian age until the brink of the Second World War.
There’s less emphasis on warfare here than in its Paradox-made siblings Europa Universalis and Hearts of Iron, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do what you have to in order to keep the British Empire intact or conquer all of Asia as Japan. It’s fairly complex, and being able to perform 250 actions per minute won’t really save you if you mess things up.
Dawn of War 2 was expanded with Chaos Rising in 2010, returning it to prominence. One might argue that expansions to already released games shouldn’t count, but in the cases where games grow more relevant with age (as the original DoW did) because of content being added cumulatively, it might be appropriate to include them anyway. Relic seems every bit as interested in supporting and expanding DoW 2 for as long a time as they did the original DoW.
You might have been thinking I would mention Supreme Commander 2, which was slated to be a return to form for Chris Taylor and Gas Powered Games after releasing three consecutive, mildly-interactive screensavers called Dungeon Siege, Dungeon Siege 2 and Space Siege.
But it wasn’t, so I won’t. SupCom2 plays, looks and feels like GPG collectively forgot what made SupCom good in the first place, and so instead made a generic RTS with the SupCom name attached to it.
Unworthy Company 2
You probably noticed CoD: Black Ops being all over the BAFTAs You may also have noticed the name of EA’s premiere modern shooty type game series, Battlefield, albeit with fewer nominations – which is ironic. Because ever since World at War, CoD games have been a joke, and Bad Company 2 now forms the the punchline. No one buys Battlefield games for the singleplayer (or so I hope), but even the singleplayer campaign of BC2 is superior to the latest CoD campaigns for a couple of reasons. For one, it doesn’t take itself very seriously. Secondly, it openly makes fun of CoD on a few occasions. Furthermore, it looks better, plays better, and remains fairly low-key and warfare-like, without degenerating into CIA and James Bond in Vietnam craziness.
The multiplayer is every bit as satisfying as Battlefield multiplayer always was. Admittedly, the player count is dropped to a maximum of 16v16, and there’s no prone position, but the rest of the package make up for those details in abundance. The emphasis on teamwork and supporting roles, the higher durability of players, gadgets with a purpose, presence of hardware (er, vehicles), and – by comparison with CoD – huge maps make it a vastly superior package.
It also happens to not retail at an artificially inflated $60 price point, and instead of wanting you to pay $10 for four new maps, you pay $10 for a full-on multiplayer expansion that takes you to Vietnam – without weird anachronisms like the red dot sights of Black Ops. I simply cannot accurately express how much more worthy Bad Company 2 is of the Best Multiplayer, Best Action, Best use of Audio (with a proper sound setup and the War Tapes sound setting, the soundscape is unlike anything you’ve ever heard in a game) and Technological Innovation (fully destructible environments!) awards than any other nominee. Black Ops? Halo: Reach? Jokes. This is the punchline.
Games and awards they forgot – Action
STALKER: Call of Pripyat. While never eclipsing the sheer brilliance of the original, CoP is the most polished and accessible STALKER game yet. It’s also a PC exclusive, which seems to be considered a birth defect for games these days. What makes these games so strange and wonderful all at ones? I’d say it’s the fact that they don’t adhere strictly to western design tropes. Which can be something of a blessing.
Also, while on the subject of not adhering to western design tropes … Metro 2033. It’s based on a book, if only nominally. I actually read the book, and while the basis is kind of the same, the game is mercifully free of Russian-style “detailing the universe through thick sections of pure dialogue” writing…
So don’t say they don’t cater to western audiences! The game also expands on the action-filled parts of the book, vastly condenses the rest, changes a lot of characters and events, and flat out ignores a lot of stuff to make the story a little more … I’d say retard-friendly, but I think the appropriate buzzword these days is “accessible”.
That said, it’s an incredibly atmospheric shooter. It’s worth playing even if you don’t like shooters, purely for the expertly crafted atmosphere of claustrophobia and jesus christ what is that thing. Some like to harp on about the shooting mechanics and how they’re the clearest indication of the low production values behind the game. Make no mistake, this got a 360 release as well, so it’s obviously far more polished than, say, STALKER, but it’s still Ukrainian-made, and yes, the production values reflect that. But while the shooting initially feels wonky and impact-less, it’s not because of flawed design, it’s because of very conscious design. The armory guy even tells you that “this gun is terrible, but it’s all we have for you”, because you live in the fucking metro tunnels under Moscow and have been doing so for the past 20 years, and as such a lot of the guns are essentially homemade, slightly-better-than-a-peashooter type armaments. You will be frustrated by your useless weapons, resorting to your trench knife far more often than you’d like. Then you get the pump-action shotgun with a huge, barrel-mounted bayonet, and all is forgiven.
Games and Awards they forgot – Hard-to-categorize (I guess that would make them “Strategy” to the guys at Bafta)
There were good console games in 2010 as well. Enslaved: Oddysey to the West is – despite being cursed with a very long title alluding only to its obscure, Chinese folk-story origins – a solid singleplayer experience. You play as Monkey, an appropriately muscly guy who climbs, fights and looks menacing and ruggedly handsome all at once. The meat of the game isn’t the climbing or the fighting, however, it’s the very believable, organically evolving relationship between Monkey and Trip, convincingly acted out in great voice-acting and animation.
Trip is an opportunistic, redheaded dame to kill for, who smacks a slave collar – a device that makes you unable to harm her, and forces you to take her orders – on an unconscious Monkey early in the game, setting the stage for everything from there on out. Why? Well, she needs an escort home, obviously.
Another contender would be Castlevania – Lords of Shadow. I had zero expectations for this game, but it turned out surprisingly good. The whole “Franchise reboot with a more mature approach” is getting a little tired, but it worked out surprisingly well here. LoS is a fluid mix of God of War-like action against staple horror story monsters, exploring, light platforming, and stone-faced dialogue.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent deserves some manner of recognition for daring to be a game focused purely on horror, rather than lacing horror on top of another genre, and pulling it off flawlessly. It’s short, but intense, and you’re going to remember it very well.
Games and Awards they forgot – Greatest Blunders Award
Gran Turismo 5: Let’s get this out there at once, I’m not a driving game aficionado. I can do circuits in GT or Forza and have fun for a while, but overall I kinda prefer driving in places where the cars have weapons. That doesn’t stop GT5 from being a very, very slow blunder. It’s exceedingly late to its own party, half the advertised cars look like they were stripped from an early PS2 game, and the gradual unlocking of features is infuriating. The damage model is also kind of lame, despite screams of “but you don’t play GT5 to crash cars!”, and while that is true, it effectively dispels any sense immersion when your car barely gets dented from ramming into a cliff face at upwards of 250 km/h.
Metroid: Other M: I was very excited for this. Team Ninja making a Metroid Game? In theory it should be awesome, in practice it was kinda awful. Not that the game itself played very badly, but they turned Samus into an approval-seeking cheerleader, effectively tearing down everything about the character established so far, making it plain that Japanese game design is long overdue for its own burial (for more evidence to support this, see Quantum Theory).
The Force Unleashed 2: An important lesson for anyone looking to make a sequel to a game that was essentially a great idea backed by great technology, reduced to mediocrity by lazy and/or bad design – this is how not to do it. TFU2 took the good from TFU and downplayed it, while greatly emphasizing its weaknesses.