Video Game Awards 2015: Best Content

These days, video games seem to try to cram in as much content as possible to ensure gamers keep coming back for more. Sometimes it all ends up being little more than filler, with some games feeling bloated with additional content. But every now and again, a game seems to throw everything it can at you, and it succeeds in giving players reason to keep coming back again and again.

 

Winner: Super Smash Bros. for Wii U

Super Smash Bros. Wii U

If there is another game that better represents an “Everything and the kitchen sink” mentality than Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, I have yet to play it. Ever since Melee, the Super Smash Bros. games have been filled with bonus content, but none of its predecessors even comes close to Super Smash Bros. for Wii U.

There are more modes than ever before, with each mode being made more dynamic than ever. There are enough collectibles to make Donkey Kong 64 blush, and a seemingly never ending list of things to do. Play a few rounds of online matches – either For Fun or For Glory – or replay Classic and All-Star Modes a few extra times. Or how about taking on the game’s many Challenges? Or the Stage Builder? Heck, you can even just goof off and take a few screenshots, and then scribble all over them and post them to Miiverse.

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is the most fully realized Smash Bros. yet (sorry Super Smash Bros. for 3DS), as it represents the series’ love of all things fun better than any of its predecessors. I’m still frequently revisiting it months later!

 Runner-up: Mario Kart 8

Video Game Awards 2015: Best Gameplay Innovation

Not every game dares to do something different. But sometimes, a game comes along that changes things up. Sometimes these are radical, game-changing innovations. Other times they may be smaller, but no less influential, with imitators soon to come by the dozens. Either way, games that dare stretch their imaginations deserve a bit of credit.

 

Winner: Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (Nemesis System)

Shaow of Mordor

While Shadow of Mordor may not exactly be the most original game in many respect (it’s basically Assasin’s Creed meets Arkham Asylum with a Tolkien makeover), it does have one key attribute that it can boast as its own: The Nemesis System.

The Nemesis System has your enemies – those filthy, filthy Mordor Orcs – gaining in experience and prestige as you play through the game. Should you fall to them in battle, the Orc who felled you will get a promotion. Even the player’s actions have a part to play in how intimidating these Orcs become. Naturally, the more these foes grow in legend, the greater the reward for defeating them.

It’s a simple but deep mechanic that gives Shadow of Mordor a lot more life and replayability than it would otherwise have. And it’s a mechanic that I can see other developers emulating for plenty of other games down the road.

Runner-up: Dark Souls 2 (finite enemy respawns)

Video Game Awards 2015: Best Online Multiplayer

Today, it seems most games give players from all over the world the opportunity to face one another. Online gaming has become a huge part of the gaming community, and it’s hard to argue the addictive nature of battling faceless opponents from around the globe. It was tough deciding which game was the most addictive online experience of the year, but in the end…

 

Winner: Mario Kart 8

Luigi Death Stare

It was a bit of a coin toss which game would get Best Online Multiplayer between Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, as both have taken countless hours of my free time. In the end it boiled down to smoothness. Smash Bros., while mostly a solid online experience, can get really laggy when it wants to. So while they may be equals in terms of their addictive nature, I have never encountered a slow race in Mario Kart 8, so it gets the edge.

But why not one of the more hyped FPSs of 2014? Simple, because Mario Kart 8 represents Mario Kart at its very best, and its online functionality is at the height of the series. There’s no game-breaking mechanics like Mario Kart DS, the items feel less chaotic than Mario Kart Wii, and it allows more players (and better level design) than Mario Kart 7.

In a nutshell, it’s the very best Mario Kart has to offer, for up to twelve players in matches that are as smooth as silk. You can even record your races and upload them directly to YouTube, a feature I hope Nintendo revisits down the road.

The items will fly, the racers will drift, and Luigi will death stare. Be weary though, a ‘few quick rounds might just turn into hours of cursing at your television screen as you get knocked off course repeatedly and lose first place.

Runner-up: Super Smash Bros. for Wii U

Video Game Awards 2015: Best Local Multiplayer

Although local multiplayer has been fading away for years now, there are still a few games out there that proudly display the fun of playing games with your friends all being in the same place. There is something to be said about the fun to be had when your opponents are sitting right next to you, and seeing their frustration from their losses first hand.

 

Winner: Super Smash Bros. for Wii U

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U

Super Smash Bros. has always been among the best party games out there, and the Wii U edition is the best in the series. It does an insurmountably better job at balancing its roster than any previous entry. Better still, it caters to both of Super Smash Bros’ diehard fanbases.

For those who want to experience the party game madness of Super Smash Bros. in all its glory, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U has you covered with the best stages yet in the series, a crazy arsenal of items, Pokemon and Assist Trophies, and even some boss monsters thrown in for good measure. And this time, you can have up to eight players join the fray, which represents Smash Bros. at its most insane.

For those seeking a more competitive fighter, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U has you covered with ‘Omega stages,’ which strip the game of its more chaotic elements, and a varied and balanced roster that’s more fleshed-out than any Smash Bros. before.

Whether its two-on-two competitive matches or eight-player free-for-all chaos, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U covers all the bases and guarantees a fun time, every time.

Runner-up: Mario Kart 8

Video Game Awards 2015: Best Music

Kicking off my video game awards for 2015 (celebrating 2014 video games) is the “Best Music” category. Music has been an integral part of gaming since the beginning, and with all the advancements games have made over the years, music may just be more important to the medium than ever. Let’s face it, if you don’t have a game’s tunes buzzing through your head after playing them, something is definitely wrong.

Winner: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

Tropical Freeze

The Donkey Kong Country series has long been lauded for its music, which has created some of the most atmospheric and personality-filled soundtracks in gaming’s history. Tropical Freeze does not disappoint.

While Donkey Kong Country Returns was no slouch in the musical department, it relied too heavily on remixed tracks from the original DKC. But for Tropical Freeze, Retro Studios brought back original series composer David Wise to create the game’s soundtrack. The end result sits proudly alongside the series’ first two entries as one of the best gaming soundtracks.

From the chilling menace of the invading Snowmads in Homecoming Hijinx to the free-spirited fun of Windmill Hills to the anguish and intensity of Scorch ‘N’ Torch, each of Tropical Freeze’s stages are as mesmerizing for their music as they are for their gameplay.

Remixes once again return, but they are given new twists – and are used more strategically – giving us a new appreciation for them as they greatly blend with the original tracks, instead of simply relying on the nostalgia. We even get some remixes from the glorious soundtrack of DKC2 this time!

Whether it’s the lovely, ethereal remix of In a Snow-Bound Land or the heavy metal smackdown against the polar bear boss, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze’s soundtrack boasts a variety and evokes a sense of place that very few video games can match.

Runner-up: Super Smash Bros. for Wii U

The Last of Us Review

The Last of Us

While video games and zombie apocalypses are certainly no strangers to each other, The Last of Us attempts to rise above the oversaturated genre by telling a more compelling, mature story and a deep gameplay experience. And though it doesn’t always hit the mark in gameplay, and its story may fall short of its ambitions, The Last of Us nonetheless provides another solid entry in Naughty Dog’s catalogue.

The story of The Last of Us sees the world overrun by an incurable outbreak that turns people into zombie-like creatures, sending the world into chaos. In the early years of the outbreak, a man named Joel lost his daughter – not to the infected, but to a soldier – as they tried to find safety. As the years pass, the loss of his daughter has turned Joel into a bitter and hopeless man. Eventually, Joel finds himself in the company of a girl named Ellie. Ellie could be humanity’s salvation, as she is immune to the deadly infection. It becomes Joel’s mission to escort Ellie to a research facility, so that she might be studied and a cure can be found.

The Last of UsOf course, the plot unravels into something a bit more complex – both narratively and emotionally – and includes twists and turns, deranged villains, and the experience of one loss after another. But what makes the story of The Last of Us escalate into something more is the core relationship between Joel and Ellie. Ellie becomes something of a surrogate daughter to Joel, and their interactions and banters can come off as something smart and heartfelt. The game is wise enough to provide some quieter moments of character development between the two of them, and not just focus on the dread of the apocalypse.

On the downside of things, when the apocalypse is brought into the picture, The Last of Us falls into incredibly cliched territory. It becomes yet another showcase of “the zombies aren’t the real threat, the survivors are!” which has to rank among the most tired of genre tropes. Wouldn’t it be neat if, for once, the zombies were the ultimate evil in a zombie story, thus leaving the narrative free to explore new themes and not simply tread the same road of nihilism and pessimism that’s been treaded a thousand times before? Even the death of Joel’s daughter is used more as a means to justify Joel’s violence towards the bad guys than it is contemplative on the actual nature of loss. For a game that presents itself (and has been acclaimed as) a forward-thinking , giant leap in the medium’s narrative abilities, The Last of Us frequently stumbles when it comes to expressing any themes and all too often falls prey to the genre’s most familiar territory.

The Last of UsThankfully, the gameplay fairs a bit better. The Last of Us is a third-person action shooter, like so many games of today. But it sets itself apart from the crowd for rewarding patience and strategic pacing over simply shooting everything in sight. Some of Naughty Dog’s quirky controls are still present, with Joel seemingly magnetizing to any object in which he can take cover, but at least it’s not simply a case of just shooting everything.

Ellie, as well as a few other occasional allies, aid Joel with items and backup support in combat. Ellie’s presence ensures that the story is weaved into the game at all times, but she and the other friendlies also give the game more urgency, as their safety is as important as Joel’s. Joel’s allies help him out, and players must make sure he in turn helps them.

Unfortunately, with these allies comes one of The Last of Us’ big drawbacks: The friendly AI isn’t always reliable, and you’ll often find that you’re walking a mile ahead of your partners, as they’ve wandered behind or got stuck after a hectic encounter. The friendly AI never feels broken, but it can get distracting when you’re trying to hear one of Joel and Ellie’s conversations, only to resort to reading Ellie’s subtitles, as she’s so far away her voice is only audible in a distant mumble.

The Last of UsThe single player campaign is a lengthy affair, with solid stage design and a few good moments of character growth from Ellie. But Naughty Dog saw fit to add multiplayer into the equation. Although these multiplayer additions were (strangely) given little fanfare before the game’s release, they rival, and in many ways surpass, the single player campaign.

Multiplayer comes in three varieties: ‘Supply Raid’ and ‘Survivors’ both serve as team death matches, and see two factions of players facing off against each other, using the same guns, melee weapons and makeshift explosives found in the story mode to try to outwit and terminate the opposing team, with Survivors being notable for its lack of respawning. The third mode is ‘Interrogation’ in which players “interrogate” their rivals after their defeat to learn the location of the opposing team’s lockbox. The team that captures their opponent’s lockbox wins. All three multiplayer modes are engaging, and give the game even more longevity and depth than it would already have.The Last of Us

The Last of Us is a hefty gaming experience, complimented by a memorable musical score and detailed visuals. There are more than a few downsides however: The inconsistent AI of ally characters, the story falls prey to the same old tired themes of zombie stories, with the introduction of a primary antagonist late into the game feeling downright excessive. A number of instances where Joel is required to push Ellie on a makeshift raft are fun at first, but as they increase in frequency they begin to affect the pace of the game.

There’s a lot holding The Last of Us back from being among the ‘greatest games of all time’ like it has often been touted (and how it often seems to tout itself). But there’s enough quality in the gameplay and multiplayer to justify Naughty Dog’s efforts.

 

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Bioshock Infinite Review

Bioshock Infinite

It seems as the idea of video games as an art form continues to grow in prominence, many developers are determined to prove the legitimacy of the claim. Oftentimes they are successful in showing the artistic capabilities of the medium. In other instances, developers seem like they’re trying too hard to prove the maturity of game designs, to the point that the end results simultaneously feel both desperate to prove themselves and overly confident in their own abilities. Bioshock Infinite falls into the latter category.

Bioshock Infinite abandons the undersea world of Rapture from the previous installments in favor of a city in the clouds called Columbia. The hero is Booker, a man sent to Columbia to rescue a woman named Elizabeth to ‘repay a debt.’ But rescuing Elizabeth won’t be so easy, as she’s being held captive by one Zachary Hale Comstock – a religious zealot who serves as Columbia’s ‘Founding Father’ – and Comstock’s mechanical pet Songbird, who keeps personal watch over Elizabeth.

What starts as a simple rescue mission quickly unfolds into something bigger. There are twists and turns aplenty, and social commentaries that are so overt and insistent that they diminish whatever intrigue they might otherwise have had.

Bioshock InfiniteColumbia serves as a commentary to some of the shadier aspects of American history. Set in an alternate 1912, Columbia’s fancy carnivals and idealistic nature serve as a thin guise for a haven of prejudice and racism. The people of Columbia demonize Abraham Lincoln for ‘leading America astray,’ while Comstock uses religion as a means to keep his people under his thumb.

It’s all a great deal ham-fisted. Never once does Bioshock Infinite attempt subtlety, its commentaries come off more like cartoonish vilifications than contemplative observations. In a more satirical game this sheer overtness might work, but for a game that takes itself so seriously it all comes off as overly simplistic and conveniently one-dimensional (and in some instances, hypocritical). Bioshock Infinite thinks itself artistically rich, but the narrative feels more like a loud agenda than something truly thought-provoking.

The gameplay is similarly uninspired, following in its predecessors’ footsteps without feeling the need to better them. When it boils down to it, Bioshock Infinite is an incredibly straightforward first-person shooter. You still get your run-of-the-mill weaponry, which are thankfully complimented by some magic spells (referred to as ‘Vigors.’ Though they don’t exactly reinvent what the original Bioshock crafted either). Booker’s movements and sense of control work just fine, but considering this same setup has been done by countless other games, why wouldn’t they?

The problem isn’t that Bioshock Infinite’s gameplay is broken by any means. It’s just that, for a game that exudes such monumental pride for itself, its gameplay has very little creativity that it can boast as its own.

Elizabeth’s inclusion has been lauded for her contribution to gameplay as well as story. But Elizabeth’s actions are as redundant as Booker’s. She carries objects, picks locks, and performs other such standard actions that the player character can normally do themselves in other titles of the genre. Her AI is at least reliable most of the time, but she’s hardly a game-changer.

Bioshock InfiniteCredit must be given where it’s due, however, and if Bioshock Infinite can rightfully be proud of any of its attributes, it’s in its world design. Columbia is a striking place, not for the preachy thematics, but for its structure and atmosphere. Columbia is a world of strewn about islands in the sky, yet it feels like a complete place. It’s sinister and terrifying, with mechanical monstrosities that evoke some genuine dread. Columbia effectively recreates a time period while simultaneously creating a time.

It’s all the more disappointing then, that the game and the story involved in Bioshock Infinite don’t share in the genius of Columbia’s design. The world can create moods, but the plot feels the need to scream its intentions at the player, and the gameplay merely settles for the status quo.

The attempted artistry of Bioshock Infinite comes off as forced. It’s as though Bioshock Infinite is constantly telling the players that every next moment will be the new greatest moment they’ve seen in a video game. It’s so sure of itself and yet so bland in execution that the entire experience ends up an overall forgettable affair. There isn’t a moment that doesn’t insist on itself, yet there’s rarely a moment that feels truly inspired, whether as a video game or as a narrative.

There are certainly worse games than Bioshock Infinite out there. There are a great deal of better ones as well. But you’d be hard pressed to find any game in any genre that loved itself even half as much as this.

 

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