1) The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena
Escape from Butcher Bay, released exclusively on the original Xbox back in 2004 was one of those rarest of surprises. Tied to a movie franchise, not only did it not suck balls, it also happened to be one of the most polished, unique and enjoyable first person shooters of the generation. It looked fantastic, had great voice work and one of the most memorable locations ever committed to the genre. There were some rough edges though – none more so than the actual shooting. Played primarily from the shadows though, Butcher Bay made the most of its brilliant protagonist and its fantastic melee combat while keeping the rather shoddy shooting mechanics to a minimum. So, fast forward to 2009 and Assault on Dark Athena comes along with the promise of a full sequel, a visually upgraded Butcher Bay and full online options – so, one of the best games ever then? Well, no actually.
Despite improved visuals, even better melee combat and the finest weapon ever conceived in the brutally effective Ulaks, Starbreeze somehow contrived to create an experience that felt both old fashioned and vastly inferior to its now ageing predecessor. Sure, Butcher Bay held up well enough and the multiplayer options were ok(ish), but the real star of the show should have always been the Dark Athena campaign, but alas, the move to a sterile, largely unimaginative spaceship setting and the unforgiveable toning down of the brilliant stealth gameplay encouraged by the original combined to make Assault on Dark Athena a painfully boring follow up. It’s not a bad game by any stretch and the inclusion of an upgraded Butcher Bay certainly makes this package worth a look but given the potential borne of the original design, Assault on Dark Athena really should have been so much more. This is a game that inexplicably improves upon everything that was wrong with the original and then maddeningly removes nearly everything that was great about it. Bizarre!
2) Lord of the Rings: War in the North
I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a 7 out of 10 game so much in my life. Reviewing this a few months ago, I was amazed at how much I loved this game and by how little buzz there was surrounding its release. Snuck onto store shelves amidst little fanfare, this loot based hack ‘n’ slasher did not get the love it deserved. The loot system is hugely addictive, the visuals and audio are both top notch, the battle system is both effective and surprisingly brutal and the inclusion of online co-op for up to three players adds huge amounts of replayability to an already sizeable adventure. As brilliant as many of aspects of War in the North were though, there is a reason that this is a 7 out of 10 rather than a 9 out of 10.
While I certainly enjoyed my time battling orcs in the North, I could never quite get over the feeling fact that with a bit more spit and polish and a tad more flair, War in the North really could have been something very special indeed. Instead, with its host of minor but noticeable bugs, some poor design choices and a collection of enemies that do very little to differentiate themselves beyond basic visual variances, War in the North never quite becomes the game you’ll so want it to be. Good fun then, but ultimately forgettable.
3) Final Fantasy XIII
Love it or hate it, anyone with even a passing interest in JRPGs would have to admit that Square Enix got a lot of things right with Final Fantasy XIII; the amazing visuals, the interesting cast of characters and the truly ground breaking battle system all make FFXIII worth experiencing. That’s not to mention the obvious quality and imagination found amidst its incomparable art design and sweeping, often rousing score of course. Taken on its fundamental design, there is little doubting the quality of this Japanese gaming behemoth.
Problem is, despite all the individual pieces coming up decidedly win, the whole package is wrapped in the most linear Final Fantasy adventure ever created. Even myself, an admittedly huge fan of FFXIII have to admit that the lack of exploration inherent to well over 50% of the game did come as something of a bitter disappointment. With such a vast, beautifully created world on offer, it is borderline criminal that it could not be explored at one’s own pace. In fairness, things did open up a tad once you make it down to Gran Pulse, but even then, it’s certainly not exploration in the traditional JRPG sense of the word. Still, with Final Fantasy XIII-2 just around the corner, all the signs are pointing towards an experience that plays to FFXIII’s strengths while managing to iron out the flaws that kept it from achieving potential greatness.
4) Far Cry 2
Of all the games on the list, Far Cry 2 arguably came the closest to being something truly spectacular. Even now, well over three years after its release, Far Cry 2 can amaze on a visual level. Both from a technical and artistic standpoint, Far Cry 2 is something very special indeed. The core mechanics are rock solid and the emphasis on a more realistic take on the well worn fps genre makes it an immediately intriguing proposition. The characters, while universally rather mental, are rarely anything but interesting while the dark story that brilliantly incorporates your own case of Malaria into the larger picture African civil war and drug running is consistently more interesting than your average FPS fare. So, what’s the problem then? Why isn’t this as awesome as it sounds? Well, unlike many of the other games on the list in which an array of minor bugs or design choices combine to mar the experience, in the case of Far Cry 2, it is arguably the mere combination of one poor design choice and once technical issue that come together to derail this otherwise fantastic gaming experience.
The much maligned spawning checkpoints drag you kicking and screaming out of the otherwise realistic, hugely immersive setting while the eagled eyed militia and their pinpoint accuracy often remove the potential for surprise and thus robs the game of its potential for multiple approaches to battle. The fact that these two problems come across as very fixable issues make the disappointment of their inclusion infinitely harder to bare. Honestly, if these minor, but subsequently hugely affecting issues had been ironed out pre-release, I would argue the case for Far Cry 2 as one of the potentially greatest FPSs of the generation. As it stands though, Far Cry 2 is a hugely interesting, extremely polished but ultimately frustrating experience, the kind that will inevitably enrage just as much as it enamours.
5) Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I
Why the hell did they have to go and mess with the physics? Really Sega, you almost had it. You were basically there. Then, as always, you go and shoot yourself in the foot. Crazy. Sonic 4 was promoted as a return to Sonic’s hi-speed, 2D, 16 bit roots and, for the most part, that’s exactly what it is. It’s fast, it looks great and the level design throughout, despite some annoying difficulty spikes and a smidge of trial and error, is of a consistently high standard. At a glance, Sonic 4 is everything a fan of the famous blue hedgehog could have hoped for. Then you picked up the controller and pushed right. What’s with the strange inertia? What’s with the slow build up? Hold the phone – this isn’t the Sonic I remember…..fucking Sega!
The thing is, once you get past the bizarre and utterly pointless changes to the originals already pitch perfect physics, Sonic 4 is actually a huge amount of fun. Play it long enough and the weightier movement and more deliberate build up start to make sense. At that point, you can really start to enjoy the great level design and classic 2D gameplay. Problem is, most gamers either couldn’t, or simply refused to get over it. And, despite the fun I had with Sonic 4, I can totally see where they are coming from. Sega did all the hard work and then inexplicably attempted to sabotage the experience by throwing in yet another unwanted change to the core mechanics. Sure, it’s not as obvious a misstep as the inclusion of those terrible werehog stages in the otherwise very decent Sonic Unleashed, but for many, this minor change was just as damaging to the final product…..even more so for some.
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