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2010 in Video Games [GO]
Jan 5th, 2011 by Dan

The Super Potato Exterior in Akihabara

Super Potato in Akihabara

As is typical of me, I played a ton of video games this year. Here’s a listing of what I played along with a few short (or long) words on each game. For the most part, this list is restricted to games released in 2010 unless I did not play them until this year. It’s also mostly in chronological order, with some skips here and there.

Mother 3: Definitely did not come out in 2010. I reviewed it already, but let me say that there is significant beauty to this game. Affecting and heartwrenching, this is easily among the best games I played this year. Do not play this on an emulator because the music-timing of the battles is deliciously fun and the time lag of emulation makes that impossible to experience.

Mass Effect 2: The first AAA game of the year. My review trended toward disappointing, mostly due to the way that story was handled in this iteration compared to part 1. Still, an undeniably great game whose heist-story mechanics and plot are unique and interesting in the gaming landscape. I can’t wait for part three in November.

Heavy Rain: Almost as exciting as actually doing the chores your imaginary wife forces you to do in real life. The execution just missed with this one and its plot twist was asinine and felt cheap. If you’re allowed to hear the thoughts of the protagonists, but you fail to provide a logical reason as to why that person is lying to us (himself?), you’ve lost me.

Pro Yakyu Spirits 2010 (Professional Baseball Spirits 2010): My baseball game of the year. I love taking the Carp to the Japan Series each year. I spent countless hours developing my franchise. This game was worth every dollar I spent importing it.

Final Fantasy XIII: Thoroughly disappointing. Expect more from me on this (edits from the future!), but SqueEnix really dropped the ball something fierce here. A game that suffered from complete lack of creative direction. Final Fantasy XIII is the head of the snake eating its own tail that has become SqueEnix.

Yakuza (1, 2, )3: Did not put that much time into this one, but I did play its prequels to completion. Fiercely Japanese in design, I just haven’t found the time to get deep into this gem. I’m sure it’s actually pretty great.

Mega Man 10: It lacked some of MM9’s magic (partially by being easier), but still a razor sharp example of why the Blue Bomber captured our hearts in the first place. Pump Man’s power, while heavily reminiscent of Leaf Man, is deliciously fun to play with. Using it again Solar Man was also tons of fun for me.

Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilve: It was fun to go back to the best two games in the series. The Pokewalker was stupid, but I have high hopes for Black & White. These games are easily dismissed as rehashes, but they’re still white-hot proof that JRPG design doesn’t have to be needlessly complex to be addictive and elegant.

Alien Swarm: Valve gave me this game for free. I played it maybe twice. Decent fun, but I’d rather play Left 4 Dead 2.

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey: Never beat this game. SMT continues to be ridiculously tough and legitimately mature in their presentation of mankind’s eternal struggles against its darker tendencies. Maybe it’s the first-person dungeon crawling, but something about this game prevents me from ever picking it up most days.

Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse: I’m lumping all five episodes into one entity. I find TellTale adventure games to be workmanlike in quality. With the exception of the last two or three episodes of Tales of Monkey Island, they lack the extra oomph that could make them truly great. That said, The Devil’s Playhouse was the most hilarious Sam & Max iteration yet. From Sam & Max’s insistence on pronouncing General Skun’kape as skunk-ape to their episode-wide fight over what to call the menacing Sam clones (Samulacra or Doggleganger?), these games were absolute riots. Now if only TellTale could figure out how to make them great games as well…

Monster Hunter Tri: One gaming session. The sword swipes pack so much friction it’s beautiful. Despite this, never picked it up again. Got a sick black classic controller out of it. Now if only I played Wii more often…

Super Street Fighter IV: Played the hell out of last year’s iteration. Opted to play other games since it was structurally similar to vanilla Street Fighter IV. Kind of wish I’d played it a lot more this year.

Green Day: Rock Band: Played it once, exported the tracks to Rock Band 2/3, never felt the need to boot it up again. Despite only 1 hour of playtime, unlocked an achievement. Fixing the ‘D’ rank that came as a result on Giant Bomb is the only reason I will ever boot this up again.

Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies: Practically perfect in almost every way that a JRPG should be. I understand why the story was left more generic than years past, but the lack of an interesting narrative is what kept me from finishing.

DeathSpank: Played the demo once. Bought it on PC to support Ron Gilbert. Might actually play it one day. It seemed funny.

Comic Jumper: Hilarious in a juvenile way, I slogged through the repetitive, mediocre gameplay just to see more of this game. I think Min “played” this the right way. He watched me beat it and got to enjoy the presentation without having to touch a controller.

StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty: Am I the only person who hates what they did at the end of this story? Sure, it has legitimately far-reaching consequences for the sequel, but I think they’re also legitimately less interesting. Still, as perfectly constructed a game as they come. I fell out of playing it, but it definitely feels like I could pick it up at any time and have fun with it.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game: A loving tribute to River City Ransom wrapped up in a franchise that I really enjoy. Sounds like a recipe for success to me. Loads of fun, but, like most middling brawlers, starts to wear on you toward the end as there’s not enough variety introduced in later levels.

Worms: Reloaded: Love Worms. Loaded this up once and never did it again. I’ve hated all Worms interfaces since Worms 2, mostly because they obfuscate and hide customization options more and more as they transition toward console friendliness. I wish they’d put more effort into their PC version.

Dead Rising 2: Case Zero, Dead Rising 2, and Dead Rising 2: Case West: I’ll lump these all together since they are mostly the same game spread out into chunks. The prologue and epilogue (Zero and West, respectively) are just small and feature-gimped enough that they lack the oomph of the full retail release. Dead Rising 2 itself was everything I wanted it to be. A more robust co-op system would be all it needed to be top tier, but I still had loads of fun with it. As a bonus, Min and Dead Rising 2 taught me how to play Texas Hold ‘Em this year.

Civilization V: You probably saw my review where I hated on the terrible AI. I haven’t played since they patched/fixed it, but if they did it right, this game could totally fall back within my good graces. I do sincerely love this game, it’s just not what I hoped it would be and, in its present form, not as good as IV.

Rock Band 3: Harmonix went and made a perfect Rock Band game. Now all I’ve got to do is get my hands on a pro-guitar and I might actually learn something practical from a game that lets me indulge in all my favorite music.

Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale: Ever wanted to run a JRPG item shop? This indie game translated from Japan is charming and fun, but I haven’t had the time to devote myself to it yet in 2010.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West: So good until the end. Can a stupid ending mar an otherwise good game? Yeah, kinda. I still loved it for the great acting (weird to say, right?), but stupid ending + sub-Uncharted 2 traversal-style gameplay mires this one in the mediocre bin. The fighting system could also have used a little less frame-lock in its animations (is that what this is called?). Can’t count how many times I died because I was stuck in a seconds-long super attack aimed at the air.

Kirby’s Epic Yarn: Unparalleled artistic vision ties this game together. I haven’t put too much time in, but it seems super easy. I want to play with a friend to get the most out of this. What do you say, Min?

Super Meat Boy: Juxtaposing Kirby and Super Meat Boy is wrong on so many levels. One is like chamber music. Beautiful, complex, but not so complex it’s tough to listen to. The other is kick-you-in-the-teeth, bite off a squirrel head, make you a man heavy metal. Super Meat Boy is so deliciously crunchy in every way that it might be the best game game on this list. Where Starcraft II is perfect with a Beatles-type polish, Super Meat Boy is The Clash; unabashedly punk rock. I love this game. It’s so addictive and fun.

Pac-Man Championship Edition DX: Did I say Super Meat Boy was perfect? Pac-Man CE DX (PMCEDX) is video gaming distilled to its primal essence. Eat a whole train of 30 ghosts and I dare you not to feel primitive fun stir deep within you. Words cannot express how great this game is in bite-sized chunks.

Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge: Is it cheating to count a re-release? This is probably the greatest adventure game ever now with a commentary track recorded by the big three: Ron Gilbert, Dave Grossman, and Tim Schafer.

Poker Night at the Inventory: Strong Bad is unbelievably annoying, but banter between Max, Heavy Weapons Guy, and Tycho are always a joy. The second half of this year’s poker lessons were learned here. Now if only I could get straight flush and four-of-a-kind hands so that I can 100% the achievements in this game!

Back to the Future: The Game: The voice acting and atmosphere in this game are both spot on. Unfortunately I hit a game breaking bug and had to start over. That sucked.

Limbo: First played this on 31 December, so it still counts. Deeply atmospheric, but darkly disturbing and difficult for me to stomach more than once a day. I want to go more into that in another post. Unfortunately for the game, I think the controls are a touch floaty, which I mostly find frustrating because I need to beat it dying fewer than 5 times for an achievement.

And that was 2010 in video games (for me). I missed some huge ones (Super Mario Galaxy 2, Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, Call of Duty: Black Ops), but I think I got a good spread in there. Here’s to another great year in gaming for 2011.

Civilization V Review [Game Overview]
Oct 29th, 2010 by Dan

This piece was conceived of as yet another Mesa Brothers Experiment (TM) through which we might examine the differing views and approaches we have/take on the same subject. See his take here.

Is it just me getting old and grumpy or does everything seem to be getting dumbed down lately? Apple is trying to tell the world they can’t handle the software on their own devices, subtlety is all but gone in television and movies, and the most popular books in America are coming out of the Young Adult genre. There’s a whole political movement proudly proclaiming anti-intellectualism and pro-ignorance while the other side does its best to maintain power by stooping to the same lows because all of a sudden smart became the new evil in this country.

The most common target audience for a video game sequels nowadays seems to be people who don’t already play your video games because they find them to be too complicated. Wii, Kinect, and Move are all initiatives launched to dumb down video games and capture audiences not within core demographics. PC gaming is “dying” in the face of the simplified console market.

So, too, has Firaxis done its best to appeal to the non-PC, mainstream audience. Before there was a Civ V there was Civilization Revolutions, a highly simplified, quasi-arcade Civilization game. Before the announcement of Civ V there was the Facebook game Civilization Network, the as-of-this-writing unreleased game intended to tap into the obscenely large casual/social network games market. With Civ V they hoped to appease those who are already enslaved to the brand while simultaneously revamping its mechanics to lure in new consumers. What we’re left with is this feeling of innovation for the sake of market share, but not any real progress.

Take the grid system. Every previous Civilization game has taken place on a square grid. Each of these tiles has eight entry points. One for each side and one for each point. Now we have hexes, which allow only six entry points to a tile, a clear attempt to lure Settlers of Catan (and other board game) players into the series. Why? Simple: the hexes discretely remove complexity while appearing to increase it and simultaneously attract more customers. You see, a six-sided object is noticeably more complex than a four-sided object. It’s got two more sides, for Christ’s sake! That’s 150% more sides!

Worse still are the fates of the victory conditions. Some streamlining actually improves the game. Mopping up every teeny city that Gandhi has managed to hide throughout the planet was a pain in the ass before, so requiring players to only capture Delhi for a Domination victory is an admirable change, but to go ahead and completely neuter the Diplomatic victory condition makes me wonder why they even left it in the game. To summarize, in the past the United Nations was a multi-faceted wonder. When constructed it allowed the player and world AIs to make decisions that shaped the world rules. These decisions ranged from rendering slavery illegal to banning the production of nuclear weapons, both huge decisions and policies that can shape global politics and play styles. Additionally, each Civilization has representation proportional to the world population under his/her control.

Civilization V oversimplifies this system. All Civilizations and city-states (another new feature that miraculously feels both oversimplified and interesting (perhaps because it’s a missed opportunity?)) have precisely one vote for the UN Secretary General. Every surviving civilization will naturally vote for his or herself with this one vote, because not doing so is tantamount to forfeiting. The only way to win the diplomatic victory is to liberate a conquered civilization or city-state from another player (thus rendering them REQUIRED to vote for you) or to become allied with surviving city-states, hoping that there are enough surviving states to vote you in as leader.

Worse still, the AI is a jumbled mess. I find myself either frustrated with how stupid it is on the difficulty level that confers an even playing field to both player and AI (not to mention how stupid it is when I’m buffed and the AI is handicapped ) or frustrated with how ineptly played AI civilizations are when difficulty is turned up. You see, AI doesn’t really ramp up in difficulty, it just gets more bonuses. This is par for the course for Civilization, but I feel like the team at Firaxis has been deeply damaged by the departure of famed AI-programmer Soren Johnson. I lost many games of Civ IV on an even playing field with the AI. It’s inconceivable for me to lose to the same level in V.

It doesn’t seem that bad, in principle, but when playing it I can’t help but feel like I’m moving backwards in terms of interesting game mechanics. I find myself torn between the fact that I truly love the game and can’t stop playing once I start and that niggling feeling in the back of my head that this could have been so much more.

Which brings me back to my original point. I don’t think I’m the player that Firaxis is designing for. They know they’ve got me, so why bother doing what I think is best for the series? If they can impress me by throwing me a bone here and there with tiny flourishes like the fact that each civilization speaks in their native language when contacted, why bother trying to actually improve upon systems that seem complicated to the outside player?

I still love this game. It is addictive in ways that I don’t quite understand, considering how frustrated with it I get sometimes. The conceit of the series has been, is, and always will be both irresistible and addictive to me, regardless of how it continues to morph to entice and entertain the many people who are not me.

Civil Service: The Road to Civ V [Embedded Reporter/GO]
Aug 9th, 2010 by Dan

Ryan and Vinny take a look at the recent history of the Civilization series and show a little bit of Civ V as well.

Civ Updates [Game Overview]
Mar 19th, 2010 by Dan

There haven’t been too many turns played recently thanks to Eric moving to a new office, so I don’t have all that much to say.

Ethiopia

Those Phrygians won't even know what hit them!

France continues to survive while I finish researching Construction and gathering my forces. His research has been slow and I’ve been trying to monitor his forces to ensure that they don’t stray too far or found too many new cities, but I know at least one has been founded outside of Paris.

In the meanwhile, my forces are about to work off some aggression by destroying a barbarian city and maybe capturing it.

Khmer Empire

Remember that epic war that I fought to destroy the Holy Roman Empire? Perhaps I shouldn’t have taken so many cities in that conflict. I’ve all but collapsed by economy and I’ve got no one to blame but myself.

We just have to get by with less!

As my civilization slowly dies from lack of funds, I start to think about ways to re-invigorate my economy via things like warfare…I really should just go and raze some cities.

Portugal

Not much to say here except that I’ve started a march on Karokorum. Eric’s troops massed on the border worry me, but I’m confident that I can respond in time to his threats.

I sure hope this is enough... It's a recon mission, at the very least.

The Holy Roman Empire is NO MORE [Game Overview]
Mar 5th, 2010 by Dan

Ethiopia

My war against France has not been going well. Rather than continue the pointless war of attrition thanks to my absurdly long supply lines, I’m working on discovering Mathematics, building catapults, and then capturing France.

You escape this time, Paris.

I'll get you yet, my pretties.

Khmer Empire

With the sacking of Thessalonica, the Holy Roman Empire is no more. I learned from Eric that Justinian even made an impassioned plea to him to try and save his empire by going to war against me. He wisely wanted nothing to do with my army of horse archers and chariots and Justinian met his end. It wasn’t fair, but life isn’t fair.

Justinian is dead

The HRE is no more. Justinian has been removed from the game.

Another lovely side effect of the destruction of the HRE was that I gained the Great Wall wonder. You can see the breadth of my empire in the screen below. Note my mighty barbarian-repelling wall. Marvel at how useless it is since it lies mostly in the interior of my empire. Also note that the Mongolians are settling above me. Whether or not I should kill them is still a question in my mind.

Visible from space

Yep, the Great Wall is totally visible from space.

I also became Buddhist in this game since I captured the Buddhist Holy City of Constantinople (I know, haha). My work will be to spread its influence as soon as I can.

Portugal

The most pressing problems in Portugal are the oncoming barbarian swarms.

Stupid barbs

Weak barbarian hordes, but hordes nonetheless...

Other than that, Kublai Khan refuses to make peace, so my struggle continues. He attacked a swordsman and an axeman outside of his city with maybe six attackers and I miraculously fended them off. Thanks to that, the city will be mine next turn. Bwahahahahaha. Wish you made peace now, huh?

Heavy Rain Impressions and Civ IV Update [Game Overview]
Feb 26th, 2010 by Dan

Heavy Rain

Despite relatively good reviews from most outlets, Heavy Rain is something of a negative topic among bloggers. I’ve seen most come down on it’s mechanics being anti-immersive and some just outright hate the game and the way it is played. I haven’t finished the thing myself yet, but I’m not quite in the hate camp yet. I played Quantic Dream’s last offering, Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophesy in the States), so I knew precisely what I was getting and I’m enjoying that so far. It’s not perfect, but what game is?

The thing that I find most interesting is that there are almost no fail states in the game. Characters can die, lose challenges, get arrested, but nothing causes a game over. Game over comes when the game narrative is over, which is a great idea for what amounts to an interactive movie. I’ve strongly resisted the urge to restart chapters where I failed to do what was required of me two or three times now and only restarted once because a path that seemed like it was viable was invisible walled, causing me to fail. I thought that was unfair.

My biggest complaint has to do with the uncanny valley. So many of the models and shots in this game are perfect or near photo-realistic that the things that aren’t (mouths during dialogue, certain textures, cloth) just pull me waaaaay far out. The voice acting is also obviously European in places where it doesn’t make sense and they also make some strange errors about the way US cities work based on how European cities work.

I’m also not a fan of the tank-style control scheme, but what are you gonna do there? It is what it is.

Ethiopia

France is going down!

They really know how to put up an effective resistance.

My campaign against de Gaulle has hit a bit of an impasse as his city has too many defenders (four archers) while my supply lines are way too far to resupply my front. A war of attrition has broken out instead and I’ve started pillaging French resources (Iron was the first to go) to ensure that an effective offense could not be mounted against me while I await reinforcements. I’ve also got workers building roads toward the heart of my territory in an effort to speed along the troops. This bloody encounter won’t end for quite some time, I’m sure.

Khmer Empire

This game is definitely going in my favor.

Why does Constantinople got the works?

I seriously considered renaming it to Istanbul.

Justinian’s lackadaisical military attitude toward his neighbors to the south has turned into his undoing. Once My force of chariots was completed, we marched upon Constantinople, which was hilariously defended by a sole archer. The city fell easily to our assault and we moved onward to Thessalonica, but found our forces inadequate to take on the next city. We’ve also discovered a new city to the NE of Angkor Thom. They will follow Thessalonica once we’re able to reinforce our troops with horse archers.

Between a rock and a Holy place

Enemies to the West and NE will fall to our chariots and horse archers.

Another great development was the discovery of copper in Angkor Thom’s borders. We will have that mined soon and be ready to take on the world next.

Portugal

My most troublesome game has started to produce some fruits. The discovery of Masonry allowed me to quarry the stone resources nearby, which buoyed me to the completion of the Pyramids before my rivals, allowing me to adopt Hereditary Rule and grow my cities past size 4 or 5. I also discovered Iron Working, leading to a rather fortuitous event.

BWAHAHAHAHA!

Kublai Khan won't even know what hit him.

That’s right, I’ve now entered a metal age in Portugal and I will be using that to my advantage in my campaign against Kublai Khan. It will be some time before I’m ready for the next part of my offensive, but his foolish soldiers refuse to end the conflict, so he must die.

I also discovered sailing, which might seem strange, except that it allows commerce across rivers and oceans, opening up trade routes to both China and Persia.

The state of Portugal

It's not much of an emipre...yet.

Normally I would be loathe to such things as cultural crossover in Portuguese lands, but a direct link to Shanghai, which seems to have both the Hindu and Jewish religions swimming around there, might actually help out with culture spread in my cities. I’ve got to start building up my armies now if I want to stand a chance against Kublai Khan.

Civ IV Update [Game Overview]
Feb 12th, 2010 by Dan

Contrary to what might be expected, I actually don’t pay much attention to news when I’m stuck in the house all week thanks to a snowstorm so this week’s update will just be about my Civ games.

Ethiopia

Perhaps my strongest civilization position comes with my first game as the Ethiopians. Thanks to lucky placement of resources, I’ve got access to copper in this civ, so I spent the last week producing Axemen to try and conquer Charles De Gaulle’s France to the Southwest of Ethiopia. After pumping out and moving four Axemen into French territory, it was finally time to attack Orleans.

I just noticed I'm gonna get myself some gems if I can make this conquest happen!

The long struggle cost me most of my forces, but I was ultimately able to conquer Orleans. I probably should have razed it since it will have resource conflicts with Paris, but I’ll just have to make do with what I’ve got.

De Gaulle is probably shaking in his boots.

I'm coming for you next Paris.

I plan to continue my conquest of France in this game and then focus on building up and expanding a bit. I’m falling behind on cultural technologies and I need to start building up my empire for real conquests down the road.

Khmer

Unfortunately for the Khmer empire, there seems to be a distinct lack of either copper or iron within my borders. Since that’s no way to wage a war, I instead decided to try and expand into some copper with some settlers and live peacefully until then. That was the plan until I noticed that Justinian moved some workers right on to my border. I couldn’t resist such a gamble, so I jumped into his borders and nabbed two free workers. I guess Justinian’s kind of a peace-monger, because he allowed me to sue for peace a few turns later.

There's yet another worker sitting along my borders, but I don't think I'm going to nab him until I'm ready to wage full on war.

Then he moved two more workers on to the border. You can guess what I did then. Again, we sued for peace a few turns later. Now he’s got an archer wandering around my borders and I’m wondering if an attack is imminent, but in the meanwhile, development of my empire is proceeding along rather quickly thanks to the four free workers.

In this game I’ve got some Chariots about to be produced to try and take over Justinian’s forces. Since chariots get a boost against Axemen, I might be able to get a tactical advantage against his technologically superior forces and have a relatively easy conquest.

Portugal

The problem game hasn’t gotten much better. I foolishly struck out against Kublai Khan in a gamble to try and catch him before he had copper-based units (since I certainly don’t have any). All I did was anger the Axemen who brutally murdered my Warriors. With no horses, copper, but maybe iron, this could get ugly since I have no way of really fighting back. Add to that Eric on the other side of my borders and things could get ugly.

The Great Wall is in place to keep the Mongolians out of China just like history intended...but what's Portugal doing there?

I also couldn’t resist stealing a worker from Eric, which he didn’t notice for about five turns. We’ve made peace again since then.

This may be my only successful conquest in this game...

I may be screwed in this game. I’m not quite sure how to proceed now since I haven’t got any real military tech to back me up. I’ve just got to pray that discovering Iron Working will reveal an iron cache somewhere nearby.

Civ IV PBEM [Game Overview]
Jan 29th, 2010 by Dan

civilization_iv_7

It should be no surprise to devoted readers of IBNttT that I love Civ IV. Over my gaming lifespan, I’d wager a guess that (WoW aside), I’ve probably sunk more hours into the Civ franchise than any other. The series is that good.

I can’t quite remember what sparked the most recent return by my brother to the game, but he started playing it again, sparking my interest yet again. If I didn’t already have Mass Effect 2 to sink time into, I’d be playing Civ IV like mad right now, I’ll tell you that. As a compromise I decided to start some Play By E-Mail (PBEM) games with him instead. Three games, to be exact. I plan to make weekly reports on these games and our status, hopefully without giving too much away to my enemies (I’m looking at you Eric). This can either be a terrible idea or a great one, depending on how well I do, so I’m pretty excited about it. Since we’re still at the once city stage with all three games, I won’t go into any detail today, but I might take some screenshots for tomorrow or next week and put some up.

Game Overview: Pre-Current Gen PC All-Stars
Jun 20th, 2008 by Dan

Insert another credit, because it’s time for your weekly video game news and you’ve just hit the Game Overview screen.

Due to some poor life decisions, I find myself stranded for five weeks without any video games. What’s a guy to do, right? Well, rather than just giving you some of the headlines from the week’s video game news in lieu of what I was planning to be gameplay impressions, reviews, and the like, I’ve instead started a five week “All-Stars” feature. Each week we’re going to look at a video game era and spotlight my top three games from that era. Each of these games will also receive a place setting at the prestigious “Table of Honor” feature that I’m working on. Here’s the weekly plan:

Week 1: 8-bit Console Era
Week 2: 16-bit Console Era
Week 3: Post-16-bit Console Era, Pre-Current Generation
Week 4: Pre-Current Generation PC Games
Week 5: Current Generation

Yeah, the categories are broad, particularly weeks three and four, but it’s how I want to do them, so get off my back!

Constant through all these years of transitioning video game consoles has been and always will be the PC games market. Despite all those cries of “The PC market is dead!” I’ll tell you one golden rule about the PC market: It will always exist for as long as people use PCs, which seems like it would be indefinitely, the way that technology is going. I will concede that the PC gaming market is not in its golden years like it once was. The reasons for this are many, including more powerful home consoles whose games look comparable to PC games, the advent of the laptop, and the general weakness of any non-gaming rig due to lame motherboard graphics processing power.

However, despite these issues, the PC has always managed to produce great games and it will always continue to do so for the foreseeable future, simply because the markets have not converged enough yet. In fact, the four PC games that I will be talking about in this generation are all mostly games that either just plain don’t work well on consoles or just plain control better on the PC.

One final note before we begin, X-COM: UFO Defense will not be appearing on my list, even though it’s a staple of top PC lists everywhere. The simple reason: I’ve never played it. Maybe one of these days it’ll be on Steam or something and I’ll get a chance, but for now I have no idea how it plays. Also on the never played list: Fallout and Baldur’s Gate. These games might be so awesome they replace what’s on my list, but I don’t know any better at this point.

The first game we’ll be looking at today is one of the most popular games in the entire world. This game is so popular that an entire country more or less enjoys it as a national past time, complete with comedy routines that revolve completely around mimicking in-game sounds. It’s the game that’s sweeping Seoul and supposedly getting a sequel this year, StarCraft.

#3 StarCraft

I still remember the first time I tried to play StarCraft. Note that I said tried…

We ran a pretty pathetic rig back in those days. I’m sure it was decent at some point, but our 90 MHz (seriously!) junker couldn’t quite run anything! StarCraft installed and I even managed to get it to boot, but playing it…well it ran at a snail’s pace. I even remember trying to play it with my friend Tony over the Internet on our 14.4 modem (I know…). Needless to say, I never quite got around to beating StarCraft back then, but once we updated to a 1 GHz computer (holy cow! an order of magnitude better than our “100 MHz” machine!) I was finally able to experience Blizzard’s masterpiece.

Blizzard may have started their RTS days making Warcraft games, refining mechanics and storytelling ability with their Tolkien rip-off world, but they really came into their element once they took it into outer space. The single-player campaign tells the brilliant story of the Protoss, Terran, and Zerg as they all jockeyed for control of the known galaxy. Whether you were controlling Jim Raynor for the Terrans, working with the heretic Zeratul of the Protoss, or the converted Queen of Blades, Sarah Kerrigan, for the Zerg, you always felt like things were plenty cinematic (even though briefings were just talking heads) as the plot twisted and turned. As far as I’m concerned, StarCraft was really the only real original story that Blizzard was able to tell. Warcraft III borrows heavily from SC (come on…Arthas becoming Undead totally mirrors Kerrigan! Don’t even get me started on how the Protoss and Night Elves are nearly identical…), as it well should, since the betrayals and battles make for a very compelling storyline. Trust me when I say that the game that launched ten years ago was a masterpiece whose continuation I cannot wait to see later this year (hopefully!).

As far as gameplay goes, SC goes far beyond what most other RTS designers were doing at the time. Sure, most RTS games, Warcraft included, had multiple factions that the player could control, but rarely did these factions vary in essential gameplay concepts. They all had comparable infantry units or heavy units that had more or less identical firepower to each other. In fact, a lot of the time, the faction choices basically just represented which art style you preferred most and had little to no impact on gameplay. The three races in StarCraft absolutely bucked this trend. If you played as the Terrans you were required to play a fundamentally different game than the Protoss or Zerg were playing. The magic that made SC so special was that you basically had three games packed into one neat little package.

Even with these great innovations, everyone knows that SC has survived this long for one reason alone: competitive online play. Blizzard was wising up to Internet gaming not too long before SC’s launch, so it was no surprise that StarCraft launched fully capable of online competition via the awesomely free Battle.net matchmaking service. Sure, people had direct connected through phone lines to play RTS games before, but this was unprecedented. Now you could just log on and see who else in the country was on and just go up against their army. It took great study and care to actually be competitive in the online SC community, but B.net was a great idea by a company devoted to high quality releases.

I think the only thing I have to say to really make this sink in is that you can make a living in S. Korea just by being a professional StarCraft player. I rest my case.

Blizzard was also really great with cinematics, even way back in the day. Check out the opening to SC: Brood War:

The next game on the list has been a favorite of mine since I was in grade school. Granted, the version I will be featuring today is the latest iteration (beat the release of the current generation by about a month), but that’s only because the latest version has come back and shown us how truly amazing the series is. There’s nothing like a game that will have you awake at 0500 with the sun streaming through your windows as you tell yourself, “Damn, I gotta go to sleep…I’ll get on that after this next turn…” That’s right, I’m talking about Civilization IV.

#2 Sid Meier’s Civilization IV

If you’ve never played a game in the Civilization series, then you don’t know the meaning of gameplay addiction. I’ve played many games until ungodly hours of the morning, but the game series that has made for the most red-eyed, bleary mornings has got to be Civ. If it weren’t for Civilization IV, the best of the series would have been the sophomore outing, Civilization II. Not that III was no good, but it just kept too much the same while not making enough different and new, which is, I believe, why IV succeeded so well in the series. It took everything that was bogging down the Civilization series, gave it a quick boot to the head, and came at it from a new, amazing angle.

I have to give great credit to Soren Johnson for reinvigorating what some may have felt to be a stagnant series. Civilization IV benefits from the direction he took it, making multiplayer a focus, getting rid of corruption and civil disobedience, adding great people, removing infinite city sprawl (ICS!), and attempting to diversify combat. Sure, sometimes the game is still slow, you still see unit stacks of doom, despite siege weapon deterrence, and the occasional phalanx might do serious damage to a battleship, but once you start going in and messing around with your own custom governments, you’ll see what an improvement Civ IV is to its predecessors.

A relative rarity for these lists, Civ lacks any story whatsoever other than whatever narrative you happen to create as you play. At the end of the day, you’re fully in control of your empire and more or less in control of how the AI treats you. For example, I know for a fact that Gandhi is secretly a war-mongering bastard. I have experienced his nuclear fury (granted…it was in retaliation for nuking him first, but still…). I’ve also seen the great Julius Caesar reduced to groveling at my feet as my armies marched into Rome (always satisfying) and I cannot emphasize how much of an aggressive, back-stabbing asshole Montezuma is, but these things do not make a game story. Plenty of the games don’t even feature any of these leaders, if you choose them not to. It’s a testament to this game’s character that I am able to have such fond memories of battling AI for world dominance without anyone but my own computer controlling them.

I would tell you to go out right now and buy Civilization IV to experience utterly refined game design and fun, but I don’t want to be held liable for the drastic decline of the rest of your life as you sink countless hours into building up the mighty Persian empire. Just remember that I warned you about this when it’s now 0723 and you’re still saying “Once construction on this wonder completes I’ll save and go to bed.”

Here’s some video of diplomacy gone bad:

A GREAT trailer compilation:

My absolute favorite PC game in pre-current gen era is actually a bit of a surprise to me. If you would have told me before I ever booted up that wonderful piece of software that I would love a first-person shooter. It’s like someone opened the faucet of creativity and poured it on this wonderful game. If this game is still as awesome when it’s 50% depleted, it will still kick more ass than most games on the market today. My favorite PC game (really up to the current gen) of the generations preceding this one is Half-Life 2.

#1 Half-Life 2

Valve is used to revolutionizing the medium. Gordon Freeman’s first quest was game of the year when it launched and Half-Life 2 received similar acclaim. There’s just so much about the game that it just exudes perfection. From the moment the game opens and the G-Man deposits you on the train into City 17, Half-Life 2 just never stops. Every character has inherent life and realism in their actions, the voice acting is superb, and the story just flows so well.

I could ramble on and on about how awesome HL2 is, but instead I’m gonna focus on something that only a few other games in the ENTIRE history of gaming have ever done (Ico’s the only one I can think of, but be sure to add more if I forgot some), add a sidekick that you not only genuinely care about, but is also totally useful, lifelike, and, most importantly, not annoying.

Alyx Vance is, bar none, the greatest character ever created for a video game. Game designers create tons of NPCs, especially female ones. It is so easy to go the cheap route: plenty of T, plenty of A, but, from the get-go, Valve knew they were gonna do something else. Alyx is a pretty girl, mind you, but in a much more restrained, realistic way. She wears normal jeans and has no cleavage, which is, quite frankly, pretty rare in this business (see Naomi Hunter in MGS4 for a blatant example of the opposite). Even so, if you were to go to a Valve message board, you’d most definitely find tons of posters stating how much they love Alyx. How did Valve do that? Quite simply by paying attention to real human emotion and interaction and by hiring amazing voice talent.

Voiced by Merle Dandridge, Alyx is given more than enough life by her voice acting, the way she reacts to situations, the way she urges you forward, and the way she interacts with the other expertly characterized NPCs. When Alyx is scared, you can not only see it in her amazingly animated face, you hear it in her voice. It’s present in abundance, yet it’s also understated. It’s perfect, really. She truly is your companion on your journey (even more so in Episode One).

Half-Life 2 brought life back to PC gaming and the FPS genre for me in such a big way. Never in my wildest dreams as an RPG player would I have imagined that an epic, fun, and good story could be told in that context. It just goes to show you that a masterful game can exist in just about any genre, it just takes talent and like ten years of time and devotion.

Enjoy the haunting opening to HL2 that drew me in right from the get-go:

And that, my devoted readers, is that. Be sure to tune in later this weekend (it may be Sunday instead of Saturday) to see the runner-up for the PC category!

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