keskiviikko 19. maaliskuuta 2014

Ode to the 7th

He's swooping on the screen one more time courtesy of the
Arkham series. I wasn't that excited before, but the trailer
convinced me otherwise. Enough for me to buy a new console.
Yesterday, on March 19th, 2014, I pre-ordered Batman: Arkham Knight. This marks the first pre-order I've placed for a PlayStation 4 game (for the record, I don't even have a PS4 yet). Tomorrow, two highly anticipated games are released in this part of the world and yours truly is out to get 'em both fresh out of the oven. The first is Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, and the other is Final Fantasy X | X-2 HD Remaster. If you count out the rest of Metal Gear Solid V released at a later date, subtitled The Phantom Pain, due to the fact that it's part of the same game as Ground Zeroes, you could say that getting these games marks my very last, _new_ video game purchases of the seventh generation. While I'm sure that the development of games for the PS3 and Xbox 360 - digital releases in particular - will continue for a long time, we've reached the end of an era. Lucky for us gamers, it's been a glorious, nearly decade-long ride.

In their constant, steadily streaming development, the PS3 and Xbox 360 have outlived all consoles ever made to date, even their direct competition - ever since the late 90's and the rise of the PlayStation, Nintendo's been just way too stubborn to make it in the modern world of gaming. While it's highly respectable to go your own path, it's a solid fact that you need way more than respect to keep your product afloat; I think no developer particularly wants to make adult-oriented action games for a console that's known for family-friendly adventures. No one into those adult-oriented action games wants to buy a Wii for just a couple of random afterthoughts released on the Wii for the heck of it. And finally, I think a whole bunch of Grade-A games available on other platforms outweigh one Zelda or Mario game, be they as good as they may. The Wii had its moments, and I never claimed I wouldn't accept a Wii into my collection if offered. For a while, I even seriously thought about getting a Wii U instead of a PS4 or an Xbox One, partly to mindfuck my friends and partly to take a brief break from the cursing, killing and other forms of graphic violence with much lighter entertainment than I was accustomed to. And, ever since my hard decision of not to buyback the SNES - which is kinda absurd knowing my feelings towards the SNES, I know, it's kinda hard to explain - I thought that it would be great to have a next-generation console with the possibility of downloading and playing my whole SNES library from days of old. I ultimately digressed.

Just look at all of the potentially great things to come to the PS4 and One. Wii U doesn't stand a chance - its greatest third-party draw at the moment is an exclusive sequel to Bayonetta. Woo-hoo. Sure, Bayonetta was a good game, but not nearly good enough to spin my head around. Besides, what made Bayonetta such a standout game? SEX. While I do believe Nintendo - who are publishing this game themselves - understood that, I doubt they'll let Platinum Games make the exact type of game they want to make. Finally, whether it was published by Nintendo or not, I highly doubt the game will remain a Wii U exclusive for very long. Assuming it even succeeds, of course.

We have the aforementioned Batman: Arkham Knight coming up. When asked when I was going to buy a PS4 - I was always on PS4's side against One, at least by terms of prioritization - I simply answered "when there's a good game coming up". Well, there have been good PS4 releases already, but nothing I wouldn't be able to enjoy to the fullest on the PS3 or the Xbox 360. Now we've got a raging climax for one of the best game franchises of the last decade coming up strictly for the PS4, One and very likely one powerhouse of a PC. Sure, the last game wasn't quite as awesome as its couple of predecessors, but it was made by completely different people. Here we have Kevin Conroy back as Batman, and a Rocksteady team back at the helm with Sefton Hill as lead designer. Hush and Scarecrow, both of whom have been on the run for quite some time in the Arkham universe, will probably finally refill the main villain slot vacated by the Joker thus far - although I'm sure the Clown Prince of Crime will make a notable appearance, just positive - and what we've seen thus far, this game is going to be both gigantic in size and phenomenal in look. And, it's said that it's going to be the absolute conclusion to the Arkham series. Can we afford to expect something relatively as grand as Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises? I think we can!

She's coming back.
It seems that BioWare is going for a complete facelift and a search for their roots with Dragon Age: Inquisition, after a long string of insults relating to the latest installments in two of their biggest franchises, and for being EA's bitches. The little you might or might not have seen of Dragon Age: Inquisition looks amazing, a perfect mix of the whole package that was Dragon Age: Origins and the few things that were truly great about Dragon Age II, complete with a huge technical overhaul; what the last two games lacked in the audiovisual department, Dragon Age: Inquisition seems to pay back in full, and then some.

These two games are almost within our grasp, and that is why I'll leave other upcoming, merely announced releases out of the discussion for now. As to why I decided to promote these games in the first place, and what they've got to do with the subject at hand... they're both installments in huge franchises that kicked off during the seventh generation. I think the time is quite ripe to go over my personal history with the PS3 and Xbox 360, and how this generation of video gaming affected my interest in video games, promoting me from a relatively casual player to a collector and critic.

To be frank, my sudden infatuation with writing video game reviews had nothing to do with modern gaming. As a matter of fact, when I first started writing reviews, way before I decided to establish this blog, I thought of only writing reviews of games from the third to the fourth generations. I felt that games had gotten way too big to be reviewed thoroughly, and games in particular genres way too alike, both gameplay- and quality-wise, to be interesting to write about for too long. It all changed when I started to look at modern games differently through the eye of a critic, and as I broadened my horizons to riskier purchases, games I didn't really know all that much about. As I said, I wasn't really a collector back then - my financial situation and relationship back then didn't allow such a "childish" hobby - and actually all of the PS2 and PS3 games I had back then were purchases that were carefully thought out, or budget games. Which I buy VERY rarely nowadays, by the way. I looked at these games differently, but I still didn't want to write about 'em. But, when the time came for a Batman marathon, I couldn't pass on the opportunity to write down what I thought about Batman: Arkham Asylum. "It'll only be this one game" was never an option, never a slight thought. If I'm going to review this game, I might as well take a shot at any modern game. I thought I'd fail miserably, but on the contrary, many reviews of last generation's games are some of the best I've written. Probably always will be.

I have a feeling we'll shoot that shit up a few times more
in the future.
Two of my personal favourites out of all I've done for the blog thus far are the Star Wars and Resident Evil marathons. Star Wars, because as a video game franchise, it's so damn big and dates back as far as 1982 or 1983. There's still a lot to do, one gigantic heap of shit to scour through, if I want to succeed in my mission to play and review every Star Wars game ever made, but if I never get the chance to play and review another Star Wars game again, I consider the finished part of my mission a very successful one. It started on the NES and ended on the Xbox 360, visiting almost every major platform made in the between; it was great. Resident Evil, because it used to be one of my favourite franchises (I suppose it still is, despite its slumps); despite changing so much through the years, I always know exactly what to say about it. I always know exactly what I like about any Resident Evil game, and what I don't, being a faithful follower of the plague since the first game's European release on the PlayStation. And once again, we have a trip that started from a crummy old (terms used loosely) PlayStation game to a cinematically adept, but less playable PlayStation 3 game. ...More's to follow, in case you're wondering... see you at the next Monster Mash...

So, from here we get to the truth: the seventh generation hasn't been all song and dance, especially not when it comes to my all-time favourite brands such as Resident Evil. The best and most obvious example is the total decline of the once great Final Fantasy. Square Enix is still rich. Why? Because they have eyes everywhere and their paws on everything. They have meddled with re-releases of successful games, such as the already often mentioned Batman: Arkham Asylum, and they've also offered to publish a couple of major reboots in the last three years alone, namely Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Tomb Raider, which were both very successful (although the sales of the latter did not seem to please 'em). Also, high-definition re-releases of their most successful games made in the last 13 years help 'em thrive - but they still won't remake that one game everyone's asking them to, and which they damn well know to sell like bread. They're telling people that they will consider remaking Final Fantasy VII after they've come up with a completely new Final Fantasy game that surpasses Final Fantasy VII in every way. Looking at what they've done to Final Fantasy in the last five years tells us that if this is the case, we can kiss our dreams of a Final Fantasy VII remake goodbye. Final Fantasy XIII was a bad game to begin with. Final Fantasy XIII-2 was slightly better, I guess, but still a direct sequel to a bad game - how's that for "interesting"? Then came A Realm Reborn, both a remake of and a sequel to the abysmal MMO, Final Fantasy XIV Online. Now this was a good game - but an MMO in a series known for immersive single player experiences driven by great stories didn't quite cut it for all fans. Then, came Lightning Returns - perhaps a decent game, but a SECOND sequel to a bad game, and yet another action game in an RPG franchise. I don't know, being 100% more excited about Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy X (as well as X-2) getting the HD treatment than a brand new Final Fantasy game seems kinda wrong. Especially since they're remaking everything but the one game people are asking 'em for - it's like Square Enix WANTS to piss people off.

When these HD collections and remakes of sixth-generation games first started pouring in, I thought that it was a sign of developers lacking imagination. Then, when I borrowed the first God of War Collection from a friend, I figured out a whole lot of things that were definitely right about these releases. First of all, if you have a high-definition console, you probably have a high-definition TV - and PS2 and Xbox games look like shit on those TV's. It isn't fatal, but it does a number on your interest to play the game, there's no escaping that fact. Secondly, in most cases, you get several great games from yesteryear for less than the price of one new game that might not have that much to offer to you as just one of the games in the collection. The God of War collections and the Metal Gear collection are perhaps the best examples here - though I'm still pissed of never getting that port of The Twin Snakes. Aaaaand, here's the best part of these HD collections, which has commonly been a subject of debate ever since it was first introduced on the Xbox 360 upon launch in 2005; an achievement-tracking system. "I can get Trophies from Metal Gear Solid 2 now? FFFFFFFF...!!!"

Trophies and Achievements are both the spice and scourge of modern gaming. When I bought the PS3, neither me or my neighbour and friend who also had a PS3, had any idea what Trophies were. We knew that Xbox 360 had this great system in all of its games - you accomplished something within the game, it could be anything, and you got an Achievement for it, which translated to a certain amount of points, and added up to your "Gamerscore", which you could then show off on the network. We both had the exact same pair of games on the PS3, namely Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots and Grand Theft Auto IV. The Trophy tracking system was launched on the PlayStation Network some time in the summer of 2008, and neither one of these games made the launch. Then my sister bought me Buzz! Quiz TV for my birthday; I was playing the game with my girl and suddenly, there was this icon that lit up in the right corner of the screen, and told me I had "earned a Trophy". I didn't really know what it was, but never mind that, I wanted more of those! It just gave me some odd feeling of victory and accomplishment. I started to get Trophies from a few games and it was then I finally figured out that they're the exact same thing as the Achievements on the 360 - the thing was that not nearly all games supported Trophies before they came a requirement for all new games. Some choice hits, such as Metal Gear Solid 4 and Grand Theft Auto IV got Trophies through software patches later (MGS4 got 'em extremely late on, though), but many PS3 games, both exclusive and multi-platform titles were ignored for one reason or another. The potential result? No one buys those games, at least not for the PS3. Trophies have become such an essential part of a modern video game experience. In turn, games that make Trophy and Achievement hunting too easy, lack replay value. You know: if you have all the Trophies, why waste your time on a single game? Go buy another one, go for another Trophy hunt. It's sad and awesome at the same time.

PlayStation 3; launched in Europe in March 2007, bought
it in August 2008. Favourite exclusive: The Last of Us.
Finally, after all this random ranting about this and that, let's go over statistics. I bought the PS3 in early 2008, with the price at an approximate 500 €. However, since the PS3's sales simply skyrocketed due to its first true exclusive megahit Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, it was sold out everywhere. My neighbour got the last one in the whole city, and online shops were out of stock as well. I placed a pre-order in one of 'em and finally got my PS3 about three or four months later. (It's the exact same thing with the PS4 at the moment, but I'm in no rush 'til October.) By the same time next year, I had eight games in addition to those two games I got bundled with the PS3. Actually, I remember them all by name: Buzz! Quiz TV, Guitar Hero: World Tour, Guitar Hero: Metallica, Guitar Hero 5, LittleBigPlanet, Resident Evil 5, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune and WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2009. Not a collector's list, not by quality OR quantity, I know. I have even traded out two of these games, marking the last games I'll ever sell, for one brand new game in October 2009. Legend something. It had Jack Black. And Lemmy. And Ozzy. ...And it wasn't quite as good as I expected. Now, I have a total of 60 PlayStation 3 retails, 62 by the weekend. 15 of these games are currently on the GameRankings Top 50 for the PS3.

Xbox 360; launched in Europe in December 2005, bought it
six years later (to the exact day). Deciding on a favourite
exclusive is ultra-hard, 'cause it has so few. Seems I must
go with Gears of War 2 for now.
I kinda bought the Xbox 360 by complete accident in December 2011. I was getting real frustrated with my old computer that was a handover to begin with (due to its hardware problems, go figure), so I just decided to buy a new one, right then and there, and there just happened to be a limited offer in my favourite online store for a bundle of a good PC and the Xbox 360. Thinking about how nice it would be to have the Mass Effect trilogy (with Mass Effect 3's release a couple of months away) and Alan Wake on my shelf, I bought the damn thing without further thought. It turned out that the reason the console was a freebie was that it had no hard drive, just the 4 Gb memory unit that outright prevents you from playing certain games, and especially from downloading extra content. Well, I went out and bought a hard drive, even got a pre-installed game for my troubles (Lego Star Wars III, yay). Various problems emerged later, such as not being able to continue my old game of Mass Effect (which turned out a good thing, though), and the Xbox 360 didn't quite suit all my needs or meet my expectations, but I ended up buying lots of games for it (including my friend's whole 360 library for the price of eggs) and I quickly grew very fond of it. For example, newer multi-platform games are way easier to find for the Xbox 360 than the PS3, probably due to all those hi-fi freaks out there who prefer the better technical capabilities and properties of the PS3. Plus, it really doesn't matter if I had to buy a hard drive for the 360 - I've had to buy TWO for the PS3, due to the mandatory installation of gigantic games. I have 57 retail games on the Xbox 360, I've only installed a few of them by my own choice (to make 'em run smoother), and I still have well over a half of the hard drive's capacity at my disposal. 11 of these games are currently on the GameRankings Top 50 for the Xbox 360, goes to show that I've become less and less careful about what I buy nowadays. I've grown to like taking risks, and it's very often been worth it.

To wrap this up, this is how the seventh generation changed me. As a younger man, ready to get married and have children and all that, I started to think of video gaming as a time-killing tool and not much more or else. Perhaps that's why I was so easy to lure into selling games - way too easy at my worst. I watched a lot of movies, and a lot of TV as well, especially after meeting my ex-fiancee for the first time - as you've probably noticed whenever I review licensed games, I tend to talk a lot about the source, sometimes more than the game itself. There used to be a few certain franchises and types of games I would've never let go by my own will, such as RPG's. Especially any game in the Final Fantasy series, and from outside those boundaries, any Metal Gear game. You know why, above all else? The stories. Storytelling is one of the most important things in modern gaming. Retro games, they're a whole different deal. If you're honestly making an action or adventure game of any type by modern standards, you'd better have a great story - that's always a good start, whether your game will turn out shit or not. I can play a substandard game and leave it with a smile on my face if it has a good story. I might not give it a good review, and I probably will never play it again, but I'll remember it. I've no longer the interest I once had in movies. I don't watch the idiot box at all really, due to all the crap on it and due to the fact that the good stuff always pops up somewhere else for easy access sooner or later, and what I've noticed just recently is that I don't read books anymore. I just haven't been able to concentrate on 'em. No worries, 'cause I have a whole "bookshelf" full of great stories I can actually PLAY. It's become just that important - Assassin's Creed, Mass Effect, Red Dead Redemption, L.A. Noire, The Last of Us, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, Uncharted... these are all games and brands from this generation, and these are all some of the greatest stories ever told. Anywhere.

In the last decade, video games might not have become my life, but I'm proud to say they've become a huge part of it. Thanks to this fine era, it will always remain one.

My Top 20 Games of the 7th Generation (does not reflect on the original rankings, or the official Top 60)

1. Grand Theft Auto V (2013)
2. Mass Effect 2 (2010)
3. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)
4. Red Dead Redemption (2010)
5. The Last of Us (2013)
6. LittleBigPlanet 2 (2011)
7. Fallout 3 (2008)
8. God of War III (2010)
9. Assassin's Creed II (2009)
10. Batman: Arkham City (2011)
11. Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)
12. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009)
13. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (2008)
14. Heavy Rain (2010)
15. Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (2011)
16. Mass Effect (2007)
17. Rock Band 2 (2008)
18. Dead Space (2008)
19. Tomb Raider (2013)
20. Mortal Kombat (2011)

Without a shadow of a doubt,
Grand Theft Auto V was this generation's
killer app.

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