Backlog: The Runaway Five edition

After what feels like an eternity, we're finally putting the band back together for a full-blown Backlog extravaganza. A lot's happened since the five of us all pitched in on the same article, so there's bound to be a pretty diverse set of games in this edition of our "what'cha been playing?" series.

Aaron's got an absurd amount of stuff on his plate (including a Wii U!), Doug discusses some of his picks for the best games of the year, Nick (oh hi, that's me) tries to justify his handheld gaming obsession, Spencer is living a false reality of the 1990s with Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition and SimCity 2000, and Tyler's the proud father of a brand-new red PlayStation Vita.

You're looking at 2,500 words describing how we've each been squandering our downtime lately – yeah, we missed you too. It's good to be back.

Aaron

A year ago I wrote a lot yet played few games. Now all I do is game and neglect the written word. I have a lot of guilt about it.

Moving along: This past month I’ve finished Halo 4, Borderlands 2 (plus DLC), The Walking Dead (up to episode four), and Dishonored. There’s also my still-in-progress games like XCOM, Assassin’s Creed III, Deadlight, Pokémon Black 2 (not since I was 12 have I so badly wanted to raise my team up to level 100), Hotline Miami and Knights of Pen & Paper, which is the only iPhone game worth mentioning. And just last month I made the acquaintance of the Wii U thanks to my girlfriend Megan’s compulsive shopping. Nintendo Land is perfect for what it is, a game that demonstrates its hardware and makes everyone laugh.

Look at the bolded names above, folks. Many are contenders for Game of the Year. Looking back we’re also reminded of other hit titles like Mass Effect 3, Max Payne 3, Dragon’s Dogma (stop laughing, I’m serious), Journey, Diablo III and Torchlight II -- among many others I neglected. That’s a lot of great software.

Except here’s some truth: mankind’s last year on Earth (before our world collapses as the Mayan calendar foretold) began with me in complete doubt that the industry could pull much quality out of its collective ass. I wasn’t enthused, and I feared I’d find myself pulled under a year-long wave of mediocrity. However, inspite of my negativity I’m ending the year astonished by what I experienced on several platforms. Both “AAA” and independent titles surprised all of our staff, and as of this writing Far Cry 3 hasn’t even hit the street (my expectations are, like, über high).

So while you’ll probably see many games suffixed with a 2, 3 or 4 winning our GOTY awards, believe in us. And if nothing else, the Wii U wins for making my friends and I laugh, scream and connive against one another like we were children. We’ve loved every minute of Nintendo’s latest gamble, and I can’t help admit falling in love with the idea. Sure, it treads the same ground as its predecessor, but it does everything so much better without feeling stale. Let’s call it a highly successful do-over.

Here are some of my rambling thoughts to close out this backlog: A 27-inch monitor might be too much but I don’t care; I’m too lazy to install my new SSD; It’s amusing that I only use my 3DS for DS games; Windows 8 isn’t so bad; Should I really get a Surface

Doug

Is it that time of the year again? No, not the time when we come out of hibernation and make a post or two on our site (that time of year is not specific to December). No, it’s the time of the year when we gather together and bicker for hours about the best games of the year. It’s our little Silicon Sasquatch family bonding time. Appropriate for the holidays.

In order to prepare for this, I’ve been trying to get my hands on as many of the contenders that interest me as possible. Here’s a brief rundown of what I’ve been playing over the last few months…

Journey was the best experience I had all year. Until The Walking Dead Season 1 reached its finale and took that throne. Spoiler alert: I will push hard for both of these games come GOTY time. If I can recommend just one game from this year to people…well, I’ll probably bend that rule and suggest these two. Fantastic games from start to finish, with each telling a story in a different but fulfilling way. Go buy them and play them.

Two other fantastic games: FTL: Faster Than Light and Tokyo Jungle. But I’ll talk more about them in an article soon. You should go buy and play them, too.

One of the best things to happen to Tyler and me this year has been the proliferation of day-one downloadable AAA titles. For both Dishonored and Assassin’s Creed III, we jumped in with both feet day one. Do I regret that at all? Not really. Dishonored has fantastic atmosphere and is an heir of sorts to both BioShock and Thief. Sadly it’s quite easy to look past and leave on the shelf for a bit.

Assassin’s Creed III, though, I’m of two minds on. On the one hand it is an incredibly feature-rich and beautiful game — I showed it off to some friends over the weekend and they were stunned by how good the PS3 version looked. All of the different features and side-missions from the AC2 era return, which is a bit of a downer in my eyes. Instead of making the game feel active and full of opportunity, it instead makes the game feel bloated. There’s just too much to do in AC3 and it drags down the main storyline. It doesn’t help that protagonist Connor isn’t even the most interesting main character you control in the game; he’s a bit naïve and brattish. It’s a letdown after Ezio and the brilliance of AC2 and Brotherhood.

I also went briefly to dip my toes back into Mass Effect 3 to try and gauge that properly. Let’s not forget I played the first half while feverish and sick with the flu. Doesn’t explain the ending away, though, unfortunately.

Of course, my life wouldn’t be complete without some sports games. Recently I’ve jumped back into Madden NFL 13, which is still a fantastic game marred by really dumb user interface and meta-game flow issues. What do I mean? The single-player career mode menus are not laid out well, especially compared with other contemporary sports games. It’s amazing how important that can be when trying to manage a team. But if I ever feel sad, at least I have Pro Evo Soccer to fall back on. It’ll always love me.

Nick

So I'm not sure how it happened, exactly, but I'm now almost exclusively a handheld gamer at this point. It's all right; these things happen.

I could probably pin some of the blame on the underwhelming console exclusives this fall and the amount of traveling I've been doing over the past few months, but there's a better explanation: There's just a lot of awesome stuff to be playing on my 3DS and Vita these days.

I think it started around the time I went to PAX Prime in Seattle earlier this year. I brought my 3DS with me, which is almost a requirement for entry at this point, and after picking up a few hundred Street Passes from the other attendees that showcased the things they were playing I realized just how many great games I'd overlooked for one reason or another. Once I got back to Austin, I fixed the situation right away the best way I knew how: with a bulk order on Amazon. As it turns out, DS games are dirt-cheap these days, so I made out with a pretty great haul:

  • All four of the Professor Layton games for Nintendo DS: I played the original Professor Layton and the Curious Village in college on a friend's copy, but it was great to come back five years later (good lord, time flies) and recall how much I loved the game's combination of a charming, pastoral setting with a broad range of clever puzzles. I've played through the first two games so far and am charging head-first into the third by the time this article's been posted.
  • Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: I'm a sucker for nostalgia, and few things churn up such potent memories as the music of Final Fantasy. A game built entirely around series composer Nobuo Uematsu's oeuvre could be total garbage and I'd probably still fall for it, but Theatrhythm brings a pretty compelling metagame into the mix that keeps things feeling fresh even after I've played the same song more than a handful of times. Fortunately, the old Final Fantasy scores were written to be infinitely listenable given the limitations of old game cartridges and the (sometimes interminable) length of the games' various dungeons and storytelling sequences. If you've got any affection for the Final Fantasy series and the music that defined those experiences, Theatrhythm is essential.
  • Rhythm Heaven: I missed this one when it came out. I'm glad I didn't forget about it. Nintendo delivers a weird, wonderful and creative design where rhythm is the basis for its inspiration.

There's one other game I picked up that I wanted to mention. I hadn't heard much about 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, but a friend told me I needed to play it. That's not something I hear often, so I took the plunge – and I was instantly hooked. 25 hours and six endings later, I finally put it down. My brain was addled and my pulse was racing. Whatever had just happened, it was an entirely new experience for me – something I'd never seen in a game.

Now that I've had a week for everything to sink in, I feel confident in saying that 999 is one of the most fascinating games I've ever played. I never thought I'd be singing the praises of an interactive novel, but with an impeccable localization courtesy of Aksys that brings the characters and scenario to life, it makes for a gripping and thought-provoking experience. It'd be a shame to talk about any of the plot points or even the structure of the game – I'd love to tell you why I played through it six times, but that'd spoil one of the core components of the game's design.

In short, 999 will keep you guessing and challenge you to connect the dots in a way few games dare to. If that sounds compelling to you, Aksys just issued a reprint of the game - you can pick up a copy on Amazon for $20.

I just started playing the sequel, Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward. So far it looks like an excellent follow-up to the original, but I'd strongly suggest playing 999 before digging into the sequel.

Spencer

First, time to pontificate: Most of my time lately has been going to Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition, and with good reason. If you played it in the past, grab it now - it’s pure nostalgia, without the rough edges and headaches of vintage gaming (trust me, I’m one to know). If you’re new to Western RPGs (Elder Scrolls fans, I’m looking at you), then grab it to know what proper WRPGs were like back before third-person cameras. While there are a few niggles and bugs yet to be ironed out of BG:EE, Overhaul Games did a great job on the revamp and deserve to be successful for their efforts - especially so we can see the sequel brought up to par. $20 on PC right now (via Beamdog - it needs a Steam release, but it's functional for now), $20 on OSX, and $10 each on Android and iOS tablets once each of the above passes certification. Did I mention cross-platform multiplayer between all of the above?

As mentioned in my article earlier today, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the shadowy world of Ingress, watching the overview map and feeding intel and targets to friendly players on the ground. I need to commit time to actually playing the game the next time I have days off - for all the help I’m offering, none of it is worth experience points, so I’m still pretty low level.

I played through Mr. Torgue's Campaign of Carnage, the latest DLC for Borderlands 2, in a couple days, despite having not yet finished the previous DLC. The gameplay is repetitive and grindy, and it contains one of the most frustrating bosses in recent memory. I’d have given it an easy pass if it weren’t for the titular character. Mr. Torgue himself comes off as the illegitimate love child of Team Fortress 2’s Saxton Hale, and pro wrestling’s late Macho Man Randy Savage. To keep it concise, it's really, ridiculously, laugh-out-loud fucking funny. I might not have the energy for a second playthrough, but I'm glad I gave it the effort.

Because of my inability to focus on less than two screens at a time, I've been punctuating my television time with rounds of Extreme Road Trip 2. It's an ideal mobile game - fast, fun, with short rounds, and it plays great on my Nexus 7. My housemate does the same thing, suggesting it runs just as well on his iPhone 4S.

I keep meaning to sit down to play Halo 4, for rounds of multiplayer and Spartan Ops (more on Halo later in the week). The thought exhausts me, though, and I end up firing up SimCity 2000 or Cities in Motion, demonstrating an Asperger's-like fondness for urban planning and mass transit. The resemblance ends there, though; for all my fascination, I'm invariably awful at both titles.

Tyler

In late November I did a (fiscally) dumb thing and I bought a PlayStation Vita. I didn’t get it on deep discount like many Americans did over Black Friday but it was the combination of new colors (I loves me a red piece of hardware) and PlayStation’s premium subscription service, PlayStation Plus, finally arriving on the platform and the imminent release of an improved version of one of the greatest (localized) Japanese role-playing games of all-time, Persona 4 Golden, that convinced me.

I’ll be frank: the health of the system is no doubt in question. Sales are nowhere near what Sony optimistically projected, publisher & developer support is sketchy and what solid titles do exist, even first party, are hardly lighting the charts on fire. However, I’ve been a longtime supporter of handheld gaming devices. I never became too attached to the PSP over my DS. UMDs were an obnoxious media, the battery life was unfortunate and the controls ill-suited the type of games the platform was receiving; meanwhile, the DS had a strong library, battery life and price point.

The 3DS changed the game for me. I owned every iteration of the DS but didn't want a piece of region-locked hardware at a premium price point with atrocious battery life (not to mention the 3D gimmick). The price drop and XL changed that mindset somewhat and the 3DS has a handful of titles I’d like to play, but it’s still not enough to sway me. In my mind the Vita is a more consumer-friendly device.

I bought a Japanese console, switched the language to English and tied it to my U.S. account, none of which is possible on a Nintendo platform. Could the price be lower? Yes, it should be, but the battery life is solid from my experience so far and with PS1 titles now supported and PS+’s Instant Game Collection loaded up, I have a good assortment of games that look gorgeous on the OLED screen.

I hope the device succeeds – it’s an impressive piece of tech and Sony made up for a lot of the wrongs with the PSP. I already have no doubt that I’ll be getting my money’s worth out of it.