Fall is a magical time to be a will-deficient, easily distracted, marketing-affected gamer. For those of us easily beguiled by the new and the shiny, it’s as though we are being showered in bright, shimmering pennies, each of which presents its own special if brief fascination for us.
This season does not bring with it much time for a person like me to entrench into a single game and suck deep its briny marrow, but what I sacrifice in depth I gain in variety. Between September and December, there is simply too much to take in, and by the end of the year I know I will feel like it’s all so much noise. So I prize this moment right now, when I am still invigorated, to play the endless cascade of new while I’m not yet quite overwhelmed and exhausted by it.
I figured now might be as good a time as any to share a few thoughts I have about the games of Fall 2012. Any of these I might have written an entire article about, but like my predilections when it comes to game playing, so too I find I have very little capacity for hunkering down and talking about just one game at a time.
First of all, I have to talk about what I think are the two standout games of the season and potentially the year so far, and those are XCOM and Borderlands 2. I know that second one was supposed to be Dishonored — and don’t get me wrong that’s a damn fine game as well — but the more I think about it, the more I realize when it comes down to the most important thing, I just flat-out had more fun playing Borderlands 2 and XCOM than almost any other games this year. These are both brilliantly crafted titles that deliver on a lofty promise with exceptional grace and style.
XCOM in particular managed to navigate the minefield of nostalgia without sacrificing either accessibility in the modern age or the spirit of the original game. It distilled the original XCOM formula to its most relevant components and kept that distillation within the re-engineered framework of an accessible strategy game that is just as effective with a controller in hand as a mouse and keyboard. Frankly, even after having seen Firaxis accomplish this incredible feat, I’m still fairly certain that it was technically impossible to do what they have done, and they must just somehow be fooling us into thinking they actually did it.
Borderlands 2 wasn’t quite so tricky a beast, but still Gearbox took a great idea with a decent execution that was the original Borderlands and doubled down on the stuff that was great while pulling out some of the more tedious components. In a nutshell, that’s what any good sequel does, particularly for a newer franchise that is on the cusp of either greatness or being forgotten. The sophomore effort is far from easy, and it’s not uncommon to watch developers, publishers or both crash and burn.
After the original Borderlands, I was thinking to myself that I had played a pretty cool game and it’d be great if they ever got to make a follow up. After playing Borderlands 2, I think to myself that we are seeing a major franchise coming to life, and that we should definitely expect to see the world of Pandora stick around for quite some time.
Speaking of new franchises: Dishonored, if nothing else, is likely to go down as my favorite new IP of the year. Admittedly, this was really only a one-horse race to begin with. New IPs in a game, particularly a game invested with so much love and, more importantly, dollars, are exceedingly and unfortunately rare. Still, Dishonored would have held its own any year, and although I still haven’t been completely captured by the game, it’s hard to argue that it’s not an amazing piece of work.
What’s interesting to me is how you can look at Borderlands 2, XCOM and Dishonored and see, resuscitated within, very detailed reflections of games that we would consider classics. There are echoes of the late nineties and early aughts littered liberally in these games, and in XCOM’s case it’s openly explicit. But even playing Borderlands 2 and Dishonored, it’s easy, and I think intentional, for the player to get a Thief or Diablo kind of vibe.
Speaking of a Diablo kind of vibe, a game I thought would eat my brain and my life was Torchlight 2, which notably did not. T2 is far from a bad game, or even a mediocre game. In fact, it’s quite good from the perspective of taking Torchlight and expanding on what works. But I fear that the game missed its window of opportunity. Torchlight 2 was a game I would have played for weeks or even months had it been released in a February or June. As it is, it’s just not something that has done a great job of competing for my attention this time of year.
Interestingly (to me at least) as I think back, I now believe that had Torchlight 2 been released on a few weeks after Diablo 3, it would have done gangbusters. Of course, that would have been a huge risk to take, but I’m not sure any less a risk than heading into the world amid the full force of the autumn season. Of course, reality doesn’t always match up with the ideal, and I genuinely hope that Torchlight 2 did well, or at least well enough, for Runic.
However, for the past few months there have really been two games that have dominated far more of my hours than any other game. The first is Orcs Must Die 2, which I’ve already talked about a number of time in a number of places, but I must point out yet again how much fun I had leading orcs into deadly traps for hours at a time. I’ve been eagerly drinking up the add-on content as it’s been made available, and occasionally checking my standings against friends to ward off those would-be Orc killers with aspirations to match my prowess. And, yes, the new DLC releasing this week, “Are We There Yeti,” will probably add another 8-10 hours onto my already offensive count of time played.
The other game owning my days is the latest expansion to World of WarCraft, Mists of Pandaria. It took time, but the charm of this expansion finally did take hold for me, and I’ve already leveled an entirely new character, a member of the new monk class, up into the realm of the mid-80s. Let’s not get into the specifics around how long that kind of effort can take.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: This is an expansion built for the millions of people who have stuck with WoW for the however-many years it’s been around. I can’t really imagine having stepped away from the game for a significant length of time and then wanting to come back to embrace this very nuts-and-bolts kind of expansion. That said, at this point I actually think it’s a better expansion than “Cataclysm” was, in several respects.
Finally, my most recent purchase has been Forza: Horizon, which is a game like Mists, in that I was not immediately engaged, but have become more charmed the longer I’ve played. I love Forza games — don’t misunderstand me — and I consistently rate them among the best games available for the platform, but Horizon is a departure in almost all respects. It comes to the party with elements pulled from games like Need For Speed, Project Gotham Racing and Burnout: Paradise. It is an action-arcade racer with a simulation pedigree: two great tastes that don’t automatically taste great together.
Previous Forza games are phenomenal, and in part that may be because they have an appropriate rigidity to them. Your area of experience is constrained to specific, highly detailed, easily predictable environments, namely the stable of race tracks available, and all the attention is on the modeling of the simulation engine that makes you feel like you are driving a Bugatti, Ferarri, Mini Cooper or Citroen.
Horizon still has that engine layered in there, but there is a lot of the fine detail, rigidity and, occasionally, complexity that has been toned back. Reckless driving is rewarded rather than discouraged. Car collisions are trivial rather than potentially race ending, and running off the road into the dirt or headlong into a fence doesn’t mean agonizing seconds lost in the race as you struggle back onto blacktop. It means, “Here’s a cool opportunity to drift and then fishtail heroically back into the heart of the race.” Which, admittedly, makes sense in a Burnout or Need For Speed game, but at first feels tone-deaf for Forza.
That said, the game is growing on me, and there is no shortage of things to do. There is also an undeniable charm to taking these precious cars out of the racetrack and tearing through curving canyon roads and busy town intersections with a hapless disregard for … well, everything. And at its best you really can still feel that brilliant simulation modeling down in the deep.
There are other games, too. Games like Madden 13, Guild Wars 2, Transformers: Fall Of Cybertron, Rocksmith PC and others that have gathered my attention. And still more to come, like Halo 4, Rift: Storm Legion, Planetside 2 and FarCry 3, that I at least have an eye on, to say nothing of the early 2013 titles like Dead Space 3, Sim City and, of course, BioShock Infinite, that will provide me no winter’s respite.
To be fair, though, having too many games to talk about is a pretty good problem to have.