It’s that time of the year again where gamers all around do their best to list their favorite games and I’m no exception. Continuing my annual tradition it’s time for the Mind’s Eye award show, granted we don’t have musical numbers or guest stars, but at least it can’t be worse than the VGAs. For those new to the awards, a panel made up of me, myself and I have put together a list of our favorite games this year. Ten games will be going home with an award: 6 bronze, 3 silver and one lucky game is going away with the gold. As always, the show is heavily rigged and only games that the awards committee has played will be eligible. If you would like to dispute this, please send a generous bribe along with the game of your choice and we’ll get to it sometime in the next hundred years.

The Bronze Winners are:

10. Payday: The Heist – It’s not often when a multiplayer can pull my friends and I away from our Left 4 Dead fix, but Payday managed to do it. While the game does lack quantity, it makes up for it with frantic action and some interesting levels.

9. Bulletstorm – Of the arcade-like shooters that came out this year, Bulletstorm is my favorite. The skillshot system along with the unique weapon design won me over and I admit that I also laughed a few times from the writing.

8. Tactics Ogre: Let us Cling Together– This is how you do a remake right: keep the best elements but update it to bring it up to modern standards. Tactics Ogre also gets the nod for being the only game I really played on my PsP this year.

7. Bastion– Bastion joins this list along with other freshmen attempts from new studios. The twist on storytelling, art design and music does a lot to elevate Bastion over the crowd.

6. Deus Ex: Human Revolution– The challenge of giving the player multiple choices with character growth while keeping the game accessible has been a problem for designers and Deus Ex managed to achieve that balance. As a side note, Deus Ex is also one of the few games I’ve played where being stealthy didn’t feel like an afterthought. Eidos Montreal definitely deserves praise for not only delivering a great game, but reviving a brand.

With that said however, Deus Ex could have ranked higher on the list, if not for the boss fights which did a lot to drag the game down. Some people would probably be able to overlook that but I can’t. I blame it on my new found love of the cooking show Chopped. On the show the winner is judged based on all three courses they’ve made and the judges will not overlook one bad meal. Even though Deus Ex was a great game, I can’t just ignore the parts of the game that didn’t mesh will.

5. Dark Souls– Dark Souls had a lot riding on it, as a sequel to my second favorite game of 09 I was looking forward to it. While the first half of the game was enjoyable and the new open world system works, that can’t be said for the last quarter of the game where it becomes a frustrating poorly design grind.

To me, Dark Souls ends after beating Anor Londo as the remaining areas seem to suck the joy from playing the game. While the latest patch has helped elevate some of the overarching issues with the game, it couldn’t fix annoying design. With all that said though, Dark Souls on a bad day is still a great experience and you won’t find anything else like it this year. Like Deus Ex, Dark Souls was going to rank higher up on my list, but after thinking about it more when I can’t stand to play a quarter of your game, that’s not a good sign.

On to the Silver Winners:

4. Anno 2070: Great city builders are few and far between these days so it went without saying that I snatched up Anno 2070. While the game builds off of previous entries in the series, the new meta-game system does wonders for replay ability and is a mechanic that deserved to be in the genre for a long time.

3. Dungeons of Dredmor: Another surprisingly solid game from a first time studio. Dungeons of Dredmor is one of the more successful attempts at creating a hardcore challenging rogue-like that can still appeal to newcomers. The game’s writing is one of the funniest I’ve seen all year and acts as a one-two punch along with the skill system of pulling gamers in. Insanely priced at $5 at launch (and even cheaper with sales) gives an atomic bomb sized bang for your buck.

2. Batman: Arkham City– The #2 and #1 games were close this year. Arkham City was an amazing sequel to one of my favorite games of the last decade. Expanding upon the elements that worked and giving so much fan service to Batman fans. The combat and stealth sections are as entertaining as ever, with side quests that fit incredibly well into the game. Batman also takes the award for favorite boss fight this year, going to the stealth battle. In the end it came down to an amazing second game in a series vs. something that is brand new, and I had to go with the original title.

Before we get to the winner, it’s time for a brief intermission to announce some other awards.

The 11 Place award: Portal 2– Portal 2 was originally going to be on the top ten, but remembering that Tactics Ogre came out this year bumped it off.

The “I wished that I had a chance to buy it before the end of the year” awards : Zelda Skyward Sword, Rayman Origins, Children of Eden, Shadows of the Damned and Mortal Kombat– Some games had to slip through the cracks and these games unfortunately did.

The ” Maybe if I spent time with the game it could have gotten an award” award : Total War: Shogun 2– Shogun 2 reminds me of Gratuitous Space Battles as a game that I thought I would love, but just could not muster the mental energy to sit down and spend all my time learning it.

The “Not a snowball’s chance in hell that it would get an award from me” award: Skyrim– I have a sordid history with Bethesda’s games: I was mildly into Morrowwind, hated Oblivion and I did not enjoy Fallout 3 and New Vegas, so the chance that I would actually pick up Skyrim at full price is 0%. I don’t care how much word of mouth praise I hear about it, I’ll wait for a gift or $5 sale.

Most disappointing game of the year award: The Witcher 2– I have played many games in my time and I can usually find something in a game that keeps me playing, even for a little while. However, it’s been a long time since a game has turned me off so strongly like The Witcher 2. As I thought about why the game did not pull me in, I realized that the answer was in my first published article.

In my article on skill abstraction I talked about games that had little abstraction and were focused on player skill (action games) and those focused on character’s skill (RPGs). From there, I went on about designers trying to appeal to both groups of gamers.

In that article I posed a simple question: Is the Witcher 2 an action game with RPG elements, or a RPG with action elements? Looking at the Witcher 2 from both genres, I can see where the failings for me were. As an action game, the Witcher 2’s combat is very clunky, especially when you put it side by side with other action games. Constantly having to stop and switch to the quick menu to select a bomb or sign breaks up the flow of combat. Multi-person combat is troublesome without adequate ways of defending or dealing with enemies.

If you look at Batman: Arkham City, there are multiple gadgets and special moves for the player to use, and they never have to stop combat to select them. The flow in Batman’s combat system is one of the high points, and where the Witcher 2 is lacking.

Now from the RPG side, there are problems. There aren’t any meaningful choices in the leveling system. You have three trees: sword, signs, and alchemy. The issue that I have is that no matter what choice you make you’re still going to use all three of those skills and not by choice. This makes the decision for the player to select a tree a false choice and makes Geralt seem like a broken character that the skill trees are suppose to fix, instead of supplementing a fully realized set of choices. I don’t like it when games have RPG leveling that effectively adds vital skills that should have been implemented from the start, such as Geralt’s counterattack ability.

By trying to create a game that is equal parts RPG and equal parts action, the designers have created a game that does not appeal to me at all. This is such a disappointment as I really wanted to like The Witcher 2.

With that rant out of my system, it’s time for my #1 game this year.

1. The Binding of Isaac– The Binding of Isaac may not be the deepest game, or the most expensive to come out. However, of all the games that came out this year, I spent the most time with it and Dungeons of Dredmor. Two $5 games hooked me more than all the big named games that came out this year, and that says something.

The reason Isaac edges out Dredmor is with the game design. Dredmor is a classic Rogue-like through and through, with a layer of accessibility. Isaac is an old school action game through a Rogue-like filter. The randomized item unlocks alter the player’s play-style and forces them to adapt to the changes. According to a blog post by designer Edmund Mcmillen before the game was released, he wasn’t sure on the inclusion of achievements. Yet, The Binding of Isaac turned out to be one of the best implementations of an achievement system I’ve seen in sometime. By rewarding the player with more items to possibly appear, it makes the game become deeper the more time you spent with it. As opposed to other rogue-likes, where each play-through is a closed off experience and nothing is gained in game.

And that’s 2011 in a nutshell for me. Barring any zombie attacks, alien invasions, asteroids or computer overlords, we should have another interesting year in the game industry.

Josh Bycer

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During this year’s Steam holiday sale, I decided to spend $5 and pick up Duke Nukem Forever. While I was playing it, several of my Steam friends sent me messages questioning my sanity which I promptly ignored. DNF isn’t the first bad game I’ve bought (on sale mind you,) and it won’t be the last, as it’s important as a designer to not just play the best games out there.

One of the common attributes of excellent games is polish. This comes from an acute understanding of the genre and smoothing out any wrinkles in design, with phrases like “stream-lined” and “accessible” as common praises for great games. The problem when playing nothing but good games is that you can’t see the traps designers can fall into when designing a game.

From poor UIs, to technical issues and of course problems with the design itself, there is a lot to look for when playing a bad game. The feel of the mechanics is a huge deal, and is one of the defining aspects between good and bad game design. It’s easier to see the differences in feel between a good and a bad game vs. looking at two good games.

Last year I bought Dante’s Inferno knowing full well all the negative reviews for it. As someone who has played just about every major action title to be released on consoles, with my knowledge I was able to see the issues with control and design with the game and learned from the game and how it compared to titles like Bayonetta and Ninja Gaiden. With Duke Nukem, the feel of the weapons were off along with the controls when I put it side by side with games like Serious Sam 3 or Bullet Storm.

The other importance of playing bad games is that many bad or below average games have small areas of positive design. Whether that it is a fluke, or the designer’s original intentions you can see what they were striving for and the problems that got in the way. It’s a common occurrence that games that try to do something unique aren’t the most polish. As when you are going into uncharted territory, you don’t have a frame of reference. Games like Hinterland, Evil Genius among others were not highly reviewed due to issues with polish and design but did try to do something different. As a designer, you can learn from what they were trying to do and try to figure out ways to get around their issues.

Going back to Duke Nukem, I did like the concept of the Ego bar or regenerating shield, grow as Duke does manly things in the world. Was the mechanic fully fleshed out? Hell no, but it was a good idea that needed more nurturing.

One of the ways that I’ve developed my analytical skills is by playing a variety of games and looking at the mechanics and systems. If it’s a game that I’m not enjoying, I’ll usually play until I’ve see what the game has to offer and move on. I have even tried out games from genres that I’m not a fan of such as racing or sports games, just to see what they have to offer. Game design inspiration can come from any source and it’s important to not automatically discount a game’s usefulness due to negative reviews.

Josh Bycer

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The Saints Row series has had an interesting timeline, at first it was made to compete directly with GTA by delivering open world gameplay set in a satirical world. As Rockstar moved more towards a loose realism with greater storytelling, Saints Row went in the completely opposite direction. Now with the third game in the series, Saints Row The Third is more in line with Just Cause 2 and in one of the strangest complaints yet, for a game that goes off the deep end, it doesn’t go far enough.

The story definitely takes the cake as one of the most off the wall experiences this year. From leaping off of flying fortresses, a tron style cyber battle to insane stuff that you need to see for yourself. For those that felt that the GTA series have become too focused on plot, Saints Row will be a reprieve.

The actual gameplay hasn’t changed all that much from Saints Row 2; you have a city to explore and three rival gangs to take out mission by mission. Side missions and area takeovers litter the map and as you take over the city, you can now use your phone to transfer the money to your account. As you complete missions and go on shooting sprees, you’ll level up which will unlock possible upgrades from more health to even infinite ammo.

And that’s actually all there is to the game and where my problems are. While the missions are just insanely over the top the actual world is very bare bones and feels like a step back from Saints Row 2. In the last game, there were more side quests available with actual rewards for completing them such as upgrades to your character. With leveling up now the only way to upgrade your character, there are fewer reasons to complete the side quests.

As mentioned at the start, Saints Row The Third takes it’s over the top cues from Just Cause 2 and suffers with very little growth through the game. Very early in Saints, players will already be flying helicopters and using RPGs and not until the final few missions will you see any major upgrades. The best way to explain this issue is with someone eating nothing but cake, sure it’s sweet but you can’t just eat cake everyday and you’ll get tired of it.

Just Cause 2 suffers from this issue as well, but it does work a little better with the various ways of getting around and side quests. Ultimately, Saints Row The Third feels like eating at a buffet, there’s a lot of food, but it’s really just empty calories. The developers have already promised new mission DLC in the works and I hope that they can inject some much needed variety into the game.

Josh Bycer

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In past blog entries, I’ve brought up the game Hinterland as one of my favorite games to play, but I don’t believe I ever sat down and actually wrote up an analysis of it. Hinterland was developed by Tilted Mill and was their second game I believe to be released. Like Children of the Nile before it, the game tried to do something different and while it succeeded in some areas, it also failed in others.

The plot is that you have been tasked by the king to take a land filled with all kinds of monsters and make it habitable, while keeping up with the demands of the king. Before you start playing, the map is randomly generated, but the player can determine how easy or hard it is (with a higher score bonus for harder maps.) Lastly, the player chooses their class from a variety of options, which affects starting equipment and some other factors.

Gameplay is split between basic city building and Diablo 1 style exploring. Every few minutes a group of immigrants will show up at your town hall looking to set up shop. Each person has a profession which determines what they’ll do in your town and a level which affects their stats in the field. Everyone in your town (excluding you,) requires food daily from farmers. When you go out to explore you can take up to 3 of your villagers out with you as your party, whomever you take will of course not be providing services back at your town.

While you are out adventuring, you’ll have to take care of your party. If someone takes enough damage, they’ll try to flee back to your town to recover, but if they get surrounded by monsters they could die. Once someone dies they are gone for good and they’ll house will become open to someone of the same profession. The reason you want to keep someone alive, is that having someone level up will provide greater stats compared to just getting someone of the same level to settle down.

As you explore the world you’ll find items that can boost the capabilities of professions back at your town and rare resources that can convince new professions to settle down. Each person in your town is taxable and is another source of income besides finding it off of monsters. Every few days the king will demand a tax and if you fail to provide the money, you’ll be evicted.

What I loved about Hinterland was that it used a dual progression model in which the player’s town affects their supplies and people available for questing. While questing provides the needed resources to expand and improve your town. Very few games go this route and the ones that get it right are considered some of the best  around, like Star Control 2 or X-Com UFO Defense. Unlike those previous games, Hinterland provided randomized resources with its map generation, while in X-Com you follow a general path each game, Hinterland allows the player to mix up what resources are available each game.

Even with how much I liked Hinterland, it doesn’t blind me from seeing the numerous problems with the game. The sad thing is that all the problems of the game stem from one simple fact: the game was designed for a budget release. It’s funny how much things have changed with the perception of budget games in such a short span of time. When Hinterland was released in 08, a budget game meant not spending a lot of time on the game and not delivering a lot of quality content. Contrast that today where we have amazing games like Dungeons of Dredmor, Space Pirates and Zombies and The Binding of Isaac, which were all priced very low but delivered with amazing content.

Looking back at Tilted Mill’s timeline, it’s pretty obvious why they choose a budget release. Children of the Nile which attempted to take the city builder genre in a different direction didn’t become a huge hit. With Hinterland, they didn’t want to risk spending a lot of time and money on an even more unique concept and have it fail on them.

The problems with Hinterland are across the board, starting with graphics. I’m not even going to sugar coat it, the graphics did not look good at all, and there was a very muddy look to everything with very little detail. At launch there were technical issues with the game crashing which I’m not even sure if they were all caught before Tilted Mill went under.

Gameplay is where the problems really hurt. The dual progression model while interesting, is very simple. City building amounts to just plopping down buildings in empty plots of land. Improving your city is very linear, as buildings take the same upgrade path every time with no differentiation between buildings of the same profession. The designers attempt to mix things up with the possibility of finding rare items while questing which unlock unique professions, but the problem is that by the time you find them you should already have a powerful enough questing party to finish the game.

Further adding gameplay problems are balance issues with the professions. Buildings that provide defenses from enemy assaults are not worth the time as you are given adequate time to get back to town and fight. While several professions can craft items, none of them will match the quality of equipment you find once you start clearing out higher level areas.

The truth of the matter is that Hinterland was an idea that should have been given the time and development of a fully priced PC game instead of cutting corners with a $20 launch. I’ve talked about my dream project before and essentially it is a fully realized version of Hinterland with depth to both combat and city building. Since Hinterland, very few games have gone the route of dual progression, with the last game that comes to mind being Little King Story on the Wii, while good, had the same problem of not going far enough with the systems.

Hinterland is sadly yet another example of a great concept that deserved more time in the oven, or a hindsight aided sequel to fix the issues.

Josh Bycer

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