Well, here we are Games Industry. I’m about to smack-talk “Triple-A” with five games which, on the whole, people seem to agree have killed “Triple-A” as a concept.
Now, disclaimer time; I didn’t actually buy any of these games. Partly because… well… you could see this stuff coming. I know that I’ve got a better grasp of pattern recognition but you didn’t need to be a Precog to see that these games were going to be a complete disaster. And partly because there were things that just sort of put me off in places – past experience, or PR fallout. The bubble of hype and hope had been popped long before my wallet even considered these games worth a purchase.
That said, they are the “other” worst games of the year and I don’t think many will outright disagree with this list so with that, let’s talk about those games.
WWE 2K18 (On the Nintendo Switch)
In a year which saw the little hybrid console that took the world by storm get games like Doom, Skyrim, Breath of the Wild and L.A. Noire, you’d think that a wrestling game wouldn’t be nearly the same kind of technically demanding thing that could go completely wrong. But 2K Games absolutely got this one wrong; not just because the game is a technical pig, nor that it is riddled with some of the dumbest microtransactions known to mankind, but because they clearly knew that scrutiny was going to rob them of sales.
So they waited to drop its release as a “surprise”, in the same way being stabbed in the back fifteen times by a mugger is a “surprise”.
For all the hype and promise this would be a “proper wrestling game on a Nintendo platform”, the reality is this game is dogged by terrible framerates, dodgy controls, regular crashes and freezing of the console in question and the worst audio problems I’ve seen in a game for years, that makes the audio lag from PS Now! look tolerable. This was the developer and publisher withholding information because they clearly had an idea that this was -not- ready to be released, and in a year where the quality on the Switch has been astronomically high from most courts, WWE 2K18 looked and felt like a game churned out quickly and cheaply to take advantage of a market that had sprung into life a few months beforehand.
I think this is where it becomes clear that Nintendo should have taken a tougher stance on this mess; WWE 2K18 was barely functional and should never have been allowed to go on sale as it was at launch. And 2K Games/Take Two Interactive should never have thought it was acceptable to drop a game of this poor quality on a console it was trying to (1) impress and cultivate an audience on and (2) sell actual microtransactions to.
I understand that the success of the Nintendo Switch took everyone by surprise and I also understand that many have been scrambling around trying to get stuff out there whilst it is riding high on the sales charts – strike whilst the iron is hot, as it were. But it’s obvious that this game (and FIFA 18 to a lesser degree) did not have nearly the kind of time that these games required. Yes, WWE 2K18 is getting patches and yes, it might become playable.
But as we’ve seen before, the damage is very much done and it’ll be a far greater battle for 2K Games and Take Two Interactive to get back into the good graces of Switch owners in the future.
SHADOW OF WAR: MIDDLE EARTH (WB Interactive)
The Forthog Orc-Slayer thing put me off long before anything else transpired for this game. I actually believe deeply that Monolith absolutely intended Forthog to be a tribute to their departed friend and colleague Michael Forgey, who passed after a year-long battle with one of the cruellest and most aggressive forms of brain cancer. I genuinely believe Monolith intended to provide something for his family and of course, his children, in selling Forthog Orc-Slayer as an option. I also believe it could have worked – and with that, Forthog Orc-Slayer could have become part of the “movie canon” as it were, giving Monolith and indeed WB Interactive even more options for content with commercial value – spin-off games, comics, figurines, backstory and what-have-you. All WB Interactive needed to do was be patient and play the longer game.
Rather than do that, WB Interactive decided to put their own little disclaimer – only sales in select US States would go towards a care package for Forgey’s family. The rest of the states and indeed, the rest of the world? Well… that would go into WB Interactive’s bank balance. That’s right, WB Interactive tried to screw over an act of charity. And they got mercilessly mocked, ridiculed and verbally taken down on forums, social media and in the press. To the point that they ended up giving Forthog Orc-Slayer away and just making a “contribution” to Forgey’s family which may or may not have been similar to what the character in question might have made had WB Interactive actually had executives who had a single clue of business to ram up their backsides.
Of course, that’s nothing compared to everything else wrong with the game – the loot crates, the grinding, ramming all of the good through paywall systems. I’m not sure when this whole thing began to creep in but from people who have played it extensively, it seems that such tampering came late in development because it’s supposedly not that bad for the first half of the game, only getting more prominent and aggressive the deeper you plough into it. And I’m not sure Monolith intended that or liked it because even the Orc Merchant rubbing his hands together greedily seems to underlie a deep-seated resentment on the development side to this whole debacle.
But that this was a mess isn’t a shock. WB Interactive took weeks to deal even badly with the whole Forthog Orc-Slayer thing. And no, I don’t believe that this is a game that wouldn’t have made its money back otherwise (a running theme this year, to be sure). This is one of those times you really wish things had turned out better, because the people behind it clearly wanted better… but for whatever reason, we get this. And it’s really depressing.
CALL OF DUTY: WORLD WAR II (Activision)
“Loot Crates”. This seems to be the running theme of the worst games of 2017 – greedy, insidious and manipulative mechanisms designed to exploit players into parting with more money. Of course, I’m no actual fan of Loot Crates – I’ve said before I despise them not because of what they are, because of course Loot Crates are a viable business model for cheaper or even free games to extrapolate cash from their playerbase. Loot Crates are not, by themselves, inherently evil (though they are gambling – at least, they are gambling by the ESRB’s own rules dictated by the ESA). But the games industry, and particularly the big games publishing units, are not averse to the wholesale corruption of a decent idea if it means they make some additional cash.
By all accounts, Call of Duty: World War II is a decent game. It’s decently put together, decently paced and would otherwise… be wholly unremarkable, being another annual instalment of a series that has long been in desperate need of a break. I think that’s been the core issue for Call of Duty for a good three years or so – it’s a series that is crying out for some time off, to disappear and work on itself a bit before coming back and trying to wow people again. ‘COD’ has become part of the gaming scenes furniture – it’s always there, so we barely take any notice of it.
Except this year, with the Loot Crates. Again, not an evil thing on its own, but Activision’s implementation of it was frankly both a brilliant bit of psychological manipulation as well as a terrible and damning indictment on how far a publisher will go to make the extra pennies. For the purposes of this game, Activision tied an actual achievement to Loot Crates – or, more precisely, to watch people open three Loot Crates in-game. As I understand it, this does not apply to the people who bought the crates themselves (since they’re actually opening, not “watching” someone open), and so what you create is a system of peer pressure where players expect and demand others help them get “their achievement” in return, meaning more people ending up buying loot crates as a result.
Now, don’t misunderstand me when I say this – I sort of admire how inspired this bit of social and psychological pressure was conceived. You have to take your hat off because it was a really smart bit of business… but yeah, it’s also a really mean-spirited and generally disgusting bit of design in and of itself. It’s not often one thing can really put me off a game in its entirety but in this case, I really couldn’t be bothered being pestered by other people to spend money I really didn’t want to spend in order for them to get something they want like an achievement.
If anything, this utterly ruined the whole idea of “achievements” – the amount of good ideas this whole debacle corrupted is something to be amazed by, if only because it was so brazen. And it showed that publishers will go to quite extraordinary lengths to get people to spend the extra money – the “whales” are no longer enough, it seems, now they need to railroad everyone into it. That’s Call of Duty: World War II. An exposé of just what these big companies will do to get you to part with your cash. But of course, it wasn’t Activision’s only example this year…
DESTINY 2 (Activision, Bungie)
What to say about Destiny 2? Well… I never got on board with the original Destiny – not that it was a terrible game, even I’ll admit that much, but the reality for me was that they didn’t do nearly enough to justify the additional playtime. So, how do you absolutely ruin both a game that a lot of people liked, a lot of sites heralded and a developer who had at least to this point a decent reputation? One word: Eververse.
The Loot Crate economy in Destiny 2 is particularly egregious and at every turn, Bungie has gone to great lengths to make it very, very difficult to get things done unless you’re throwing money into their bank balance at an alarming rate. First of all – they nerfed experience gains, meaning the one-crate-per-level thing took much longer. They did this without telling anyone, leading to a massive backlash when it was uncovered. Bungie’s response; we’re sorry, we tried to fix something, it made things worse, we’ll do better next time.
Then there was the expansion, Curse of Osiris. The end-game content from the base Destiny 2 was… ahem… “modified”, meaning that you could no longer do it unless you bought the expansion, which also meant if you hadn’t at that point earned all of the achievements – you had to buy the expansion to get to do those achievements as well. Players found this particularly egregious because it meant that the base games end-game was no longer even playable; you HAD to buy the expansion in order to continue playing modes and features that players had otherwise been enjoying. Bungie’s response; we’re sorry, we tried to fix things, things got worse, we’ll do better next time.
Seeing a theme happening here?
So too did the same thing happen for the “Dawning” Christmas/Holiday event; rather than do what it promised, and turn the earned crates in-game into a stream of actual holiday crates, they made it near-impossible to earn these themed crates in-game; which meant if you wanted all the cosmetic stuff, then you had to buy the loot crates. The same excuses. Then there were the Shaders; with crates awarding three one-use shaders (when players needed four for all their gear). Same excuse. And then there was the other currency in the game getting an unfair time-gated cap. Same routine.
The backlash on the Destiny 2 Reddit has been extraordinary, with the “Remove Eververse” topic taking up page after page after page. And in the middle of this fiasco, when gamers are laughing at this and genuinely saying “thank goodness we’re not being made to see this crap” – Sony forced a Destiny 2 “ad” onto PS4 homepages, in the prominent first-place position, hoping someone would click on it to buy the game. Because at a time when the community is fighting back and gamers are taking a wide berth, of course trying to push it onto people would be the best business decision imaginable oh wait sorry the opposite of that.
Again, by most accounts – the actual core gameplay of Destiny 2 isn’t the worst. But Bungie (and by token, Activision) have simply made this an abhorrently supported game at every available opportunity. This is how you destroy your credibility, your business and your franchises – at this point, it’s a toss-up to whether this is insidious business practices that are just being found at every turn by a far more “woke” gaming populous or just outright incompetence that suggests that Bungie is in way over their heads right now.
But it’s still an absolute disaster that should never have gotten near this level of terrible.
STAR WARS: BATTLEFRONT II (EA, DICE)
But of course, even Destiny 2 didn’t quite accomplish the level of complete disaster that was Star Wars: Battlefront II.
Every so often, there comes a game which attracts all the wrong attention. Indeed, as I mentioned in a previous post, the whole reason for the ESA (Entertainment Software Association) and the resultant ESRB Rating system was because of political pressure in the 90’s, after years of quite ‘extreme’ video games culminating in, of all things, Mortal Kombat – I know – the video game space, particularly in America, was pushed into a corner; either learn to regulate itself properly, age rating and restricting games accordingly by itself, or sit back and watch themselves be regulated into oblivion by the State. Wisely, the ESA was formed to do the former to avoid the latter.
So when a game comes along that outright goes AGAINST the ESA’s own ratings system… yeah. Let’s look at that again, shall we?
Star Wars: Battlefront II is, like Destiny 2, riddled with loot crates. The problem was… this is in a Star Wars game. You know, a big family-aimed franchise that Disney bought at great expense mind you to make extra movies and spin-offs to. So the ESRB did -not- rate Star Wars: Battlefront II as “Adults Only”, in clear contradiction to its own set guidelines, because EA is a net contributor to the ESA and has people on its board, and to do so would frankly ruin the brand; how could Disney tolerate a Star Wars game ever being rated “Adults Only”? So they didn’t. And that was then governments and regulators across the world – who had for years been keeping a close eye on the ESA – finally realised they had their chance of more regulatory oversight of the video game market. EA, desperate it seems to push this to as many people as possible, got the rating they wanted – T for Teen. And in doing so, opened up the whole games industry to a brand new world of political intrusion and interference that hadn’t been seen since… well… Mortal Kombat.
That’s the real reason why for most, Star Wars: Battlefront II is the absolute literal worst game of the year – not just from gamers who hate the idea that now they see actual political interference happening after repelling the sociopolitical push by both Jack Thompson and Anita Sarkeesian, but the wider industry who now quite rightly fear that having gone this far, by pushing such practices in a branded game which despite its rating was probably going to be played by younger kids too, that there will be more wide-reaching implications and regulations that could impact actual future games development and business models present and future.
For all the terrible games this year – all the big “Triple-A” disasters – none screwed up quite like EA. It seems so simple, so benign, so stupid – loot crate economics in a Star Wars game – but the realities are so wide-reaching that it may take years to process just what kind of impact this ultimately has on the industry – and politics, as well, since it will take time before new regulatory measures are introduced. And in many cases, they will be – meaning that the universal launch of games may become costly, or impossible, as countries formulate their own response to “Loot Crates” as defined by the ESRB.
As I’ve said before – this means the ESRB system is likely to end up entirely defunct as well. It had a good run but I suppose this level of corruption – and let’s not mince words, in any legal capacity exerting influence and money over an organisation to bend or break their rules for you is ‘corruption’ – was just too much for it to handle. It did a decent enough job for the last twenty-odd years but it just couldn’t survive one licensed game by EA bending the rules to the point of snapping its own back.
I can’t think of a single game which in essence ruined the industry for everyone else. There are truly awful games out there, but they’re incidental usually – they have no lasting or lingering impact on the market or industry as a whole. Star Wars: Battlefront II is, by all accounts, the “worst game ever made” by that metric – it has real, horrible implications going forward and the future of “Triple-A” gaming as it stands may continue, but it also may never truly recover.
As a result, I would not want to be EA right now. If EA shows its face at E3 in 2018, it is going to be a spectacularly uncomfortable viewing experience. And whilst EA shouldn’t be alone in taking the blame – as we’ve seen in this list – it should be rightly pilloried as the face of a company that, rather than shoehorn this into one of its own brands, instead pushed it in a franchise as big and universally appealing as Star Wars. And in doing so, brought decades worth of pent-up political and regulatory wrath down on us all.
Where Jack Thompson failed, EA succeeded.
… and I doubt that is something that is likely to ever be forgiven in a hurry…