Well, it’s the end of the year. And rather than kick off with my favourite games of the year… let’s get the disappointments out of the way first.
In comparison to the previous couple of years, 2015 was a pretty darn good year for videogames. As we moved away from the media sheizberg of 2014 and focused on actual games, it seemed that we are finally starting to see some promise and potential being squeezed from our gaming devices.
But the highs have been marred by plenty of disappointments; and not merely the lack of technical polish which has become pervasive in our market and industry. The following five games aren’t necessarily bad – they may be quite good, even – but compared to what we could and perhaps should have seen, or what has been done before, they just don’t quite add up. No particular order, no “this is the most disappointing” or anything like that – just five depressing disappointments.
So, let’s get this train wreck a-rollin’!
BLOODBORNE (PlayStation 4)
Bloodborne is a technically unpolished title that has received way more critical adulation than most of us FROM Fanatics believe was necessary. With a difficulty curve that looks like a four-year-old got a box of felt-tip pens and just scribbled aimlessly over their parents nice white wallpaper, and an inconsistent combat system that only really began to shine with the addition of DLC Weapons (the DLC ‘Content’ is wildly overrated), Bloodborne’s main claim to fame is that it’s FROM’s best game this generation.
Except, it isn’t. Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin, also on PS4 and on XBox One and PC, is easily the far more superior title. With a smooth 60fps gameplay, the remastered Dark Souls 2 proves that you don’t need to forcibly create a more combative combat system; the mere act of more frames and sharper, responsive controls will naturally encourage more aggressive play – and also, unsurprisingly, make both bosses and PvP content more dynamic and challenging to boot without any of the superficial fluff that Bloodborne saw fit to cram into each encounter. Dark Souls 2 is, for my money, also a more pleasant game to look at – Bloodborne’s graphics are special, but they are gloomy and dreary and sometimes a little overwrought and over-designed.
This is why Bloodborne earns a spot in my five disappointments; it absolutely should be a step forward for FROM Software, a company who wants to move beyond the Souls franchise and do new things and try new takes on the formula. But that their first entry this generation is overshadowed by a last-gen remaster is hardly the stuff of legend, and in time I am sure we will look back and see Bloodborne for what it is – a nice game, a decent game even, but one that never quite lives up to the lofty promise and potential at its core, and one whose DLC offering was the textbook definition of “safe”. In a market taking some serious risks, that’s just rather sad…
Wait for Dark Souls 3. Personally, I’m still holding out for the Zelda/Souls cross-over that still seems like an absolute no-brainer.
PROJECT ZERO: MAIDEN OF BLACK WATER (Wii U)
To include a Project Zero game on this list is physically painful for me. And part of this has a lot to do with the legacy of Project Zero; namely, that Project Zero 2: Crimson Butterfly is still for me the finest survival horror experience ever created in video game history. So much so that the series has struggled to so much as equal it, consistently living in its shadow and constantly being judged to its far, far more superior bretheren from more than a decade ago.
Unlike most of the media, I don’t think Maiden of Black Water is bad; it’s old-fashioned, sure. But considering that most of us are puckering up for Capcom’s re-release of Resident Evil Remake and Resident Evil Zero, there’s clearly an appetite for the classic, slower-paced scaremongering. What ultimately hurts the game is that it’s narratively and technically inconsistent; it’s a pleasant, interesting experience but it’s never solid enough in style, story or presence to be anything approaching scary – it’s a good series of ghost stories and little more than that. The protagonist isn’t all that interesting, and they’re now shoehorning in paranormal powers rather than just letting the tale progress naturally.
When compared to Crimson Butterfly, the differences are striking enough to be immediately noticeable; the former games characters are sympathetic and interesting, each ghost encounter has a wonderfully-crafted tale behind it, the overall story is compelling, the locations are decrepit but interestingly so and the first ending is heartbreaking; few games understand that true horror is confronting the player with the harsh and unrelenting reality of inevitability, and fewer games go a step beyond that with an optional secondary ending that if done right allows them to break from that inevitability, offering a compelling reason to replay the whole game in a whole new light.
These are what make Crimson Butterfly the masterpiece it is – Maiden of Black Water doesn’t approach the relative air-space of Crimson Butterfly. That said, few games do…
BATMAN: ARKHAM KNIGHT (PC, PS4 and XBox One)
I am going to do something unusual here – I am going to take the technical and commercial cock-up that was the PC version of this game and for one moment, I am going to just set it aside. Because judging the whole game on just that version would be unjustifiable; there are plenty of better reasons deep in the heart of this trilogy-concluding mess that suggest that even on its own merits, the game was a depressing and painful let-down for long-term fans of the franchise.
Arkham Knight just wasn’t good enough – the story was predictable, there was WAY too much Batmobile – and being in a position to say there was too much Batmobile is damning in and of itself – and far too often, the game sacrifices quality and performance just to get things moving along. Not to mention the constant tripping over gaping plot-holes and inconsistencies within the games story-universe. Try saying “Non-Lethal Missiles” without laughing, pretty sure those explosions are at the very least causing some third-degree burns. And that said, the combat isn’t all that interesting any more either.
This isn’t to say there wasn’t some catharsis within Arkham Knight; it’s a perfectly serviceable ending to a commercially successful series. But after a previous two titles which did much to change the landscape of video game design, not least by finally proving you could actually do a truly top-tier, “triple-A” comic-book video game (We’re still waiting on you, Spiderman), to end with something that’s “alright” is for me beyond damning with faint praise – I couldn’t live with that. And now let’s slide the PC Version back into play – seriously WB Interactive, how exactly do you screw this up this much? YOU MADE THE GAME ON PC’S FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! This should have been the -easiest- thing in the history of ever and you messed it up! Farming it out on the cheap, and not keeping tabs on the progress being made – yeah, we’re getting shades of Colonial Marines from your business ethic, and that has to bloody stop!
And the season pass – well, congratulations are in order for making us all hate season passes more than we already do!
FALLOUT 4 (PC, PS4 and XBox One)
And time for that controversial inclusion! Ooh, scandalous! Okay, stop. Breathe. I’m not saying Fallout 4 is a bad game – quite the opposite, it’s a pretty good game. But tell me honestly and truthfully – has this series moved beyond Fallout 3? Because for me, I just felt like it was Fallout 3.5, a sort of half-way house between the old and possibly something new a year or two down the line. This isn’t helped by it’s in-game engine, The Creation Engine, which in an era where even Nintendo can create convincing human features and models feels woefully inadequate and considerably outdated.
Then there’s the VATS System; look, I get having the game paused mid-combat to pick a limb to aim for wasn’t great design, but it was design borne of necessity. In Fallout 4, the slow-down bullet-time coupled with the twitchy and inconsistent target selection only shows why the mid-game pause was there in the first place. And then there are too many inconsequential skills – and not really enough skill points to build anything like Fallout 3. Yeah, in this regard, I’d even say Fallout 4 is worse than Fallout 3, and that’s not something you say lightly!
There are lots of other reasons too – worst voice acting of the year, glitchy textures, technically incompetent release, restrictive building – the one thing the game was right to include and it STILL found a way to screw it up. Progress is built upon incremental improvements to the original formula – that’s how progress works, and Fallout is in danger of becoming the new Sonic if it doesn’t stand still and think about what it is doing. Take what works – and make it work better. Take what doesn’t work – and see if it can be improved, and if it can’t be improved, flush it down the toilet. This scattershot approach to sequel-building isn’t the model for a sustainable future.
Oh, and Bethesda? Time for a new game engine.
DIVINITY: ORIGINAL SIN – ENHANCED EDITION (PC, PS4 and XBox One)
And to wrap this up; Divinity: Original Sin – Enhanced Edition. Although to call this laborious re-build in a new engine “enhanced” does it a service that frankly it doesn’t even deserve. Original Sin was one of my top games of 2014; sure, it was rough around the edges, and I personally found the two-player gameplay a little convoluted. But the moment you got to putting in the Lone Wolf one-character mod was the moment the game felt like it was something special; with a free reign to do whatever you wanted, however you wanted to do it, and not be tethered to the original strictures that the game intended.
Rather than learn from that successful mod – they threw the mod scene out of the window, restricted the free character building mechanics and changed much of the humour and voice-acting that was perfectly serviceable and enjoyable first time around. Yup, “Enhanced Edition” in this instance is code for, “We made the game worse for some reason, but hey, enjoy it! Narf!” Sure, the mod scene did… well, it did undress the female models primarily, but this is the modern PC modding scene and yeah, some (readas: lots of) people like tits. Why do you think The Witcher series does so well? Removing it just because you’re worried people might cheat your upcoming Original Sin 2 game? That’s cutting off your nose to spite your face!
In removing the single-player mod, and doubling down on the worst parts of the games design, I found myself all the more acutely aware of the games failings. I don’t like the “dialogue” between the two controllable characters – never have. The dialogue was never stellar, sure, but the original voice acting had a knowing level of cheese to it. The newer voice acting stumbles between overly-camp and self-aware to unknowingly corny and laboured. And to make the combat worse is an unforgivable slight on a game which absolutely got it right first-time around.
Of course, I can still play the original Original Sin in my steam library – and, sadly for Larian Studios, I still do. And would recommend it over this over-wrought attempt to have some parity between the original title and the new game coming some time in 2016. It was deeply unnecessary to do this, and I feel bad for them saying this, but I’d have spent that time and money on Original Sin 2. People liked the first game; you tinker with fan favourites at your peril. Do I need to point to the recent Final Fantasy 7 Remake news to point out the dangers of tampering with an ideal playing field?
I’m still looking forward to Original Sin 2, but you guys better have mod tools. And seriously… just let people have a single-player character already. Let’s just forget this Enhanced rubbish never happened, eh?