Saturday, December 29, 2012

Lord Bling's Top Games of 2012

2012 was a great year to be a gamer!  So many big releases lived up to (or exceeded) expectations, and many smaller titles surprised me too.  Ranking this year's list was tough, especially picking a #1.  Too much goodness!  So let's get to it.  Links will go to random retail sites, and the listed format is where I played each game.

(Disclaimer: While I work in the video game industry, I'm not a professional critic. There are plenty of games I didn't get to play, so this list isn't meant to be all-inclusive.  Also, these are just my personal opinions, and are not representative of my employer.)

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):

Binary Domain (X360) -- Cover-based shooters are a dime a dozen these days, but this one was better than most. Very good story, well-written characters, and the squad 'trust' system was a nice addition.

Black Mesa (PC) -- This free mod was over seven years in the making, but worth the wait.  No matter how many times you may have played through the original Half-Life, they tweaked just enough to make it feel fresh.  Mod DB even named it 'Mod of the Year', topping the mighty Day Z. 

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (PC) -- If it ain't broke, don't fix it!  A respectable update to a classic.  Gun games never get old.

Diablo 3 (PC) -- Series veterans had a lot of complaints, but as a noob, I found a lot to like. Now if they'd only add PvP...

Hotline Miami (PC) -- Super Meat Boy combined with an 80's serial killer movie. Original and disturbing.  With tighter controls, it could've ended up in my top 15.

Plague Inc. (iOS) -- I don't usually get into simulation games, but this one grabbed me.  Infect the world!

Spec Ops: The Line (PC) -- The story dares to ask questions about the nature of war and how it affects the human psyche.  A war-torn Dubai makes for an unforgettable setting, and the squad mechanic works surprisingly well.

Treasures of Montezuma Blitz (PS Vita) -- Addictive free-to-play puzzle game has caught a lot of my free time this year. It launched slowly, but patches improved it immensely. If you have a Vita, you should be playing this.

Top 15 List

15.  The Darkness II (X360) --  I was a big fan of the original. It had one of the better stories you'll find in this generation.  I didn't know what to think when they announced a sequel, from a different developer, and in a cel-shaded graphic style, but they did a commendable job.  It looks and plays great, and the story is solid (if not quite as strong as the first game).

14.  Sonic & All-Star Racing Transformed (X360) -- Even better than the past few Mario Karts.  Nice variety in the gameplay for the driving, boating, and flying sections.  A good amount of depth in the campaign, and full online support on all platforms. You don't have to be a Sega fan to enjoy it either!

13.  Trials: Evolution (X360) -- 'More Trials' is really all they had to deliver, and that's what we got.  It kept me up well past bedtime for weeks.  The controls are still satisfying, and the challenge of the later levels is still heart-explodingly difficult.  

12.  Ghost Recon: Future Soldier (X360) -- I liked this more than the previous two Advanced Warfighters.  While it doesn't have much in common with the original Ghost Recon games, the pacing is better and it's much more polished.  The multiplayer doesn't reinvent the wheel, but the three squad classes have a nice variety and balance.

11.  Dishonored (X360) -- An exceptional blend of Thief and Bioshock.  The story was good up until the final act.  One of the better debuts this year, and I'm very interested to see what they'll do in the inevitable follow-up.

10.  Halo 4 (X360) -- Halo Reach was a respectable swan song for Bungie, but I think this debut from 343 Industries is the better game.  The story was the best since the original, and the graphics prove that the Xbox 360 still has some tricks up its sleeve.  

9.  XCOM: Enemy Unknown (PC) -- I have never liked turn-based strategy games.  And yet, I really like this turn-based strategy game a lot.  It helps that it's squad-based, and that they don't have you micromanaging every little detail.  I haven't put nearly as much time into this as I'd like, but that won't last long.

8.  Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 (X360) -- The best game Treyarch has ever made, and definitely the craziest.  Futuristic weapons (wrist-fired grenades, weapon sights that see through walls), a 'play-as-the-bad-guy' cut scene that turns into a machete massacre, a floating ocean city, 80's flashbacks of firing RPGs from horseback, Michael Rooker with spikey hair .... it's unapologetically insane, and the most fun I've had with a CoD game in five years.

7.  Forza Horizon (X360) -- I haven't been drawn into a racing game since Test Drive Unlimited and Burnout Paradise.  Both of those were huge open-world games that were more arcade than simulation.  This game is more sim than either of those, but is forgiving enough.  It's relaxing to just drive around and see the sights, and when you want to actually race, it's a challenge but not punishing.  (*FYI:  I didn't get to play Need for Speed: Most Wanted, but reviews say it's a lot like Burnout Paradise (same devs) so that one may have ended up near this slot too).

6.  Mark of the Ninja (X360) -- The best pure stealth game I've played in years.  Playing it felt like the developers spoke to me beforehand, because they somehow knew what I've always wanted in a game like this.  The Tenchu games came close, but this is true Ninja Heaven.

5.  Journey (PS3) -- Probably the best $15 you can spend this year.  It contains not a single word of dialog, and yet inspires more emotion than almost every other game I've ever played. Until Fumito Ueda can finally deliver The Last Guardian, I'll be playing through this again.

4.  Mass Effect 3 (X360) -- Even though the story juggled the ball a bit near the goal line, the sheer level of scope and imagination on display is undeniable.  In these three games, Bioware accomplished something that we may never see again in this industry.  They even added a PvE multiplayer mode, and it was a lot more fun than anyone expected.  

3.  The Walking Dead (PC) -- If video games ever expand into a larger art form, we may look back on this as one of the turning points.  Even though it's more of an interactive novel than a traditional game, Lee and Clementine are the most 'real' characters in any game I've ever played.  Struggling for their survival will have you making moral choices that you'll think twice about, and then you'll second-guess those choices after the fact.  By the end of the final episode, I was an emotional wreck.  This game had me excited for what this medium can eventually become.

2.  Borderlands 2 (X360) -- The first Borderlands was a revelation, and scratched an FPS/RPG hybrid itch most didn't know they had.  While the sequel doesn't take many risks, it delivered an even better experience than the first.  The minor tweaks made to the user interface, the quest delivery, the skill trees, the NPC dialog, the hub world -- all were improvements.  The levels feel bigger, and the score from the always-amazing Jesper Kyd was great too.  The 'True Vault Hunter' mode and the upcoming DLC guarantee I'll be playing this well into the next year.

DRUM ROLL.........

1.  Far Cry 3 (X360) -- I punched a shark in the face.

Just when I thought I was burned out on open-world games, this one delivered more 'holy crap' moments and genuine laughs than anything else I played this year.  It made me feel like the star of an action movie.  The first two Far Cry games were ambitious but uneven.  This one corrects all the wrongs, and has a blast doing it.

The tagline of 'Skyrim with guns' isn't too far off.  While there are many ways to get around the massive island (cars, jeeps, jet skis, patrol boats, ziplines, hang gliders, wingsuits), exploring on foot while hunting was just as much fun.  The "L.A. trust-funder turns into jungle mercenary" story is enjoyable (especially by normal shooter standards, even if it starts to tail off near the end), and the voice acting is stellar.  The side missions are varied too, and are short enough to not overstay their welcome.  

The AI is fairly random, which leads to some memorable moments. Sometimes while trying to capture a base, I spotted a caged animal inside.  You can shoot the cage door lock and let the animal out, and it will distract the bad guys.  At one point, I was observing a base through my camera when a black bear came out of the jungle and started attacking everyone.  Instead of firing at them, I just watched as they screamed in horror and tried to kill it, and failed.  The bear ripped every one of them apart, and then I got credit for capturing the base.  I was in the right place at the right time.  And I couldn't stop laughing.

Besides a lengthy campaign, and tons of post-game exploration and side missions, there is also a decent co-op campaign, a full competitive multiplayer, and a map editor.  It's not all perfect though.  The graphics on Xbox aren't as sharp as I'd like, but I suppose it's a fair trade for drawing such a huge open map.  The multiplayer feels a little floaty when compared to other AAA shooters.  However, I think the biggest omission is not being able to start a "New Game Plus" and carry your unlocked perks and weapons over into a new game.  But, these are all minor complaints in my book.  It's the most fun I had with a game this year.

Also, did I mention that I punched a shark in the face?  Top that, 2013.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Lord Bling's Top 15 Albums of 2012

I usually do a Top Ten album list, but it's been a really good year for the music I listen to, so I figured I'd expand it to 15.  Like usual, if you're not into metal, a good part of this list won't pertain to you, but stick around and you might find a few surprises.

(Band names link to Wikipedia.  Album names link to Amazon.)

15.  Storm Corrosion -- self-titled.  The prog-rock super group brought it mellow and dark.  Nothing like Opeth or Porcupine Tree, but fans of both will appreciate it.  Great for overcast weather.  Favorite Song (and possibly best video of the year?): Drag Ropes

14.  Converge -- All We Love We Leave Behind. How does these guys still do it?  Over 20 years of consistently great (and more importantly, relevant) hardcore?  They continue to amaze me.  Favorite Song:  Sadness Comes Home

13.  Toadies -- Play.Rock.Music.  Gritty southern rock is a consistent listen throughout.  Their strongest overall album since Hell Below Stars Above.  Favorite Song: We Burned the City Down

12.  Testament -- Dark Roots of Earth.  A band that deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as the Big Four.  They're still writing music that's better than anything those four bands have released in years.  Favorite Song: Native Blood

11.  Napalm Death -- Utilitarian.  Having grown up with this band, I'd kind of grown out of them in the past decade. Then I saw the album was on sale for $5 on Amazon and I bought it, and I'm really glad I did.  In fact, it has me wondering what I've missed over the past decade.  Favorite Song: Errors in the Signals

10.  Deftones -- Koi No Yokan. This one didn't grab me as instantly as their last two, but it's still a strong record.  I'm glad they're still plugging away, and hopefully Chi can make it back to them someday.  Favorite Song: Entombed

9.  Sylosis -- Monolith.  Probably their best overall album, even if it lacks a true 'home run' song like Empyreal.  If you're a fan of Lamb of God, this will be your new favorite band.  Favorite Song: What Dwells Within

8.  Periphery -- II: This Time It's Personal.  Not as strong as their debut, but that one came from out of nowhere so expectations were higher here. The technical prowess is there (of course), but the biggest gain has to be Spencer's vocals.  He really upped his game, and pulls it all off live too.  Favorite Song: Scarlet

7.  Car Bomb -- w^w^^w^w.  Left for dead years ago, these math metal survivors returned with an album so important, it could not be ignored.  This is the kind of music Dillinger Escape Plan used to make, before they started listening to the hype about themselves.  Favorite Songs: Finish It / Lower the Blade

6.  7 Horns 7 Eyes -- Throes of Absolution.  The only debut album on my list comes from a Christian prog/tech/death band.  Wholly deserving of all the praise it received in the metal underground in the months leading up to its release.  I can't wait to see what they do for an encore.  Favorite Song: Cycle of Self

5.  Pig Destroyer -- Book Burner.  Their best album since Prowler in the Yard.  Don't listen to this band while you're driving, or you'll end up with a few speeding tickets.  Favorite Song (and a close second for best video of the year): The Diplomat

4.  The Faceless -- Autotheism.  This one took a long time to grow on me.  While the tech-death parts still exist, they injected a lot of Between the Buried and Me / Devin Townsend-like progressive rock into the songwriting.  This may have upset some of their long-time fans, but I actually think it works better than anything else they've ever written.  Favorite Song: Emancipate

3.  The Devin Townsend Project -- Epicloud.  While not as poppy as his 'Dev Leppard' comments hinted, it still brings enough 'catchy' to warrant the tag.  His lyrics have become more hopeful over the years, but without being too 'soft'.  This is his finest solo album since Infinity.  Favorite Songs: Liberation / Grace

2.  Cattle Decapitation -- Monolith of Inhumanity.  A concept album about how humanity is slowly killing itself, set to music that sounds like the end of the world.  Travis Ryan has proven himself to be the best vocalist in extreme music today, by combining guttural and melodic in a way that only Mike Patton could have dreamed of.  Metal album of the year.  Favorite Song: Your Disposal

1.  Anathema -- Weather Systems.  They've done it again.  Last year, they released "We're Here Because We're Here" in the US, and I named the 'Pink Floyd-on-downers' prog-rock record my top pick of 2011.  Now we get this, which is more subtle, but reveals itself to be the better record with repeated listens.  Their lyrics continue to revolve around dealing with the loss of loved ones, and the last thoughts people have before passing on.  It has moments of darkness, but still manages to feel hopeful, and extracts emotions out of me unlike any other band I've ever heard.  Favorite Songs: Untouchable Pts 1 & 2 / Lightning Song / The Lost Child

"I've never seen a light that's so bright
The light that shines behind your eyes
I had to let you go
To the setting sun
I had to let you go
To find your way back home"

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Lord Bling's favorite movies of 2012

This year's top movie list will be less valuable than ever, for two reasons:  1) I only saw 36 films.  Considering I used to see well over 100 (as part of my job), I can't really be considered anything of an expert anymore.  2) There wasn't anything I saw that screamed out 'classic', or even what I would deem to be a 'four-star' film.  The best film I saw in 2012 was made 50 years ago, but that doesn't exactly qualify for this list.

Like last year, I won't rank what I saw, but will list them in alphabetical order instead:

Act of Valor -- The acting is pretty bad, and you can see the ending coming a mile away. However, the acting is bad because the performers are actual Navy SEALs.  The attention to detail was better than any military film I've seen since Black Hawk Down, and the action is edited very well.  Plus (SPOILER ALERT!), with both of my grandparents having been given military funerals, I'm a sucker for them.

Argo -- Affleck's best film so far.  Just the right amount of humor.  However, it made me wish for a documentary about the topic.

The Avengers -- Even more fun than I'd hoped.  Perfect escapist entertainment.  If you can accept that they have a flying aircraft carrier, you can accept a couple of minor plot issues.

Django Unchained -- A love letter to spaghetti westerns, set in the era of American slavery.  The first half is brilliant.  The second half isn't quite as strong, and plays as a long slow burn with a semi-satisfying conclusion.  However, I'll take a 'decent' Tarantino film over most directors' best works.

Flight -- The script is just so-so, and feels a little too 'movie of the week' in the final reel.  However, Denzel is brilliant, and the crash sequence is flawlessly edited.

The Grey -- Carnahan's best film by far.  Bleak and unforgiving.  Liam Neeson delivers the gravitas.

Looper -- Hollywood has done time travel to death, but this finds a way to bring something new to the genre.  It had me thinking quite a bit afterwards.  It's not as good as you've heard, but still better than most.

Prometheus -- I like when science fiction dares to ask questions, even when they don't make a serious effort to answer them.  Gorgeous visuals, but they come with a flawed script and one-dimensional characters.    Hopefully the impending sequel will improve upon it.

Robot & Frank -- What a great surprise this little film was!  It could've turned out a disaster, but Langella is perfectly understated, and you believe every moment he spends with the robot.  It's sweet without feeling like it's trying to be.

21 Jump Street -- I did NOT see this one coming, but I laughed more during this film than anything else I saw this year.  Raunchy but with a good heart underneath it all.  Hill and Tatum have great timing, and the script pokes lots of fun at the premise. We're in on the joke, and it's all the better for it.

What were your favorite films this past year?  Which ones did I miss?  Let me know how much of an idiot I am in the comments!

EDIT!  I've been reminded that The Raid: Redemption, while technically first released overseas in 2011, was released in the U.S. in 2012, and that puts it in this year.  It was one of the best 'pure' action films I've seen in a long time, with brilliant fight editing and choreography.  I've seen it three times already and could watch it again right now.  Definitely Top Ten material!