Earlier this week I began my count-down of the top 25 games of this console generation (including contemporaneous PC games) by revealing my list of games 25 through 11. Today I’m back to finish it off with my top 10. The descriptions here are a little bit lengthier, and these are all fantastic games that I can recommend pretty much universally. Let’s get to it.
10. The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead game wasn’t one I was looking forward to. I’d heard very little about it at the time of its release and, while I enjoyed Telltale’s comedic adventure games like Sam & Max I didn’t pay much attention to their licensed film and TV properties. But listening to the hosts on the Weekend Confirmed podcast made it sound like a game I might really enjoy. A tense, story-driven experience in which the primary method of interaction was making plot and character relevant decisions? Cool. It definitely lived up to that, but it was also much more; a game that drove a deep emotional engagement to its characters primarily through its excellent writing and voice acting. The characters were well-drawn and didn’t fit into established archetypes, while the relationship between Lee and Clementine was as emotionally affecting as any I’ve experienced in games or any other medium. There are places where The Walking Dead falls short, such as its lack of any real challenge; I thought a few puzzles (previously Telltale’s specialty) would have really helped. But on the whole it charts out a unique experience and executes on that vision with precision.
With the release of the Xbox One and the Playstation 4 this month the current era of consoles is beginning to come to a close. While there will still be games released for the current generation consoles (Xbox 360 and Playstation 3) for some time yet, the dawn of a new console era seems to be as good a time as any to reflect back on the current one. To that end I’ve decided to rank the games I most enjoyed playing on the current console generation as well as PC games released during the same period. After putting together an initial list I whittled down my options to 25 of the best games I’ve played over the past several years.
I’m going to divide this into two posts in order to make it more readable. The first post will contain the first 15 entries, numbers 11 through 25. I’ll keep my write-ups here a bit shorter. In the case of games that are part of franchises I’ve either entered the entire series as one selection if I thought they were all great or picked one of the titles in the series if I thought it stood head and shoulders above the other(s). The only exception to that rule is EA’s NHL series, which I’ve played dozens, maybe even hundreds of hours of, but which I didn’t think fit on this list. Without further ado, let’s jump in at #25. (OK, slight ado: I’m not including any games released in 2013 here because I haven’t had enough time to reflect on them.)
U.N. Women recently started an ad campaign using Google’s autocomplete feature to demonstrate the pervasiveness of sexism worldwide. The campaign was covered in AdWeek, which is where I think most people first heard about it. It is undoubtedly true that sexism is a powerful force in pretty much every country on Earth and I think it is a moral imperative that we try to overturn that state of affairs. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that this particular instance means what people are making it out to mean. I think there’s good reason to be skeptical of what this campaign alleges.
I finished Grand Theft Auto V the other night, and I think the best word to describe how I felt was underwhelmed. The heist missions, which involve choosing an attack plan, doing a number of set-up missions (to acquire the right equipment, for example), and then pulling off the heist (swapping between the three characters, all performing different roles) were a lot of fun, but they make up a small portion of the game; I’d guess maybe 20-25% of it. Some of the other missions are fun, particularly a couple of the FIB missions that resemble heists and have you swapping all three characters in interesting scenarios.
But an awful lot of the game just feels flat and empty. A big part of that is because the setting is just too big. “The game world is [X] times the size of some other game world!” has become a selling point for a lot of games over the past few years, but I think GTA V shows what happens when the world gets too big, which is that it’s impossible to learn where anything is or how to get to it. I could navigate Vice City or the original San Andreas by landmarks, rarely needing to look at the mini-map except to determine if I was going in the right general direction. I suspect if I turned on Vice City today I could still find most of the major locations on the map. But even after playing for ~30 hours in GTA V I don’t know where anything is or how to get to it without using the mini-map’s GPS.
There’s plenty I could say about all sorts of aspects of the game, but instead I’m going to focus on one particular issue that really struck me. When Grand Theft Auto III came out it was a revelation. The idea of playing a game in a contiguous, consistent world that you could explore as you wanted to was truly impressive. The scale was remarkable. There was a sense of verisimilitude that few if any games had ever approached before. Vice City expanded on the ideas of GTA III to create a more cohesive, story-driven experience. San Andreas took those ideas to seemingly crazy lengths. And so, because these things about the games were so impressive, we forgave them for the fact that they often weren’t very good. “Oh yeah, the combat is awful” has always been a minor footnote in any review of the games, taking a back seat to the more technically impressive ambitions.
The problem for Grand Theft Auto now, and for me as a player of it, is that there are a lot of games now that do the things that made the Playstation 2 Grand Theft Autos so impressive, and many of those games also have excellent moment-to-moment gameplay. One of the biggest issues for me with GTA is that driving, which is still the activity that the player spends the most time doing, is not really very fun and has definitely become less so in more recent iterations. I used to be able to forgive the generally uninteresting driving because simply being able to travel anywhere I wanted in such a vast world was itself pretty exciting. But it’s not any more. Other open world games have made getting around a lot of fun, have even made them the centre of the experience. The parkour running in Assassin’s Creed, jumping from building to building is just way more fun than driving in GTA is. Flying around as Batman in the recent Arkham games is also a ton of fun. Riding a horse in Red Dead Redemption through a vast Wild West country side now feels exciting in a way that Grand Theft Auto used to. And even among open world driving games, I found the general handling of the cars in Sleeping Dogs to just be an awful lot more fun.
Beyond the locomotion there are other areas where open world games have simply passed GTA by. The combo based melee combat in the Batman games is a ton of fun, and Sleeping Dogs wisely aped it, mixing in more interactive enrivonments to create a better sense of place. And while the combat in the Assassin’s Creed games is still its weak point, it’s also an awful lot more fun than the combat in GTA is. And while I haven’t played the Saints Row games, I’ve heard that they’re now doing a better job of a lot of the things that GTA is known for too.
So what, at this point, is left to recommend Grand Theft Auto over a game like Assassin’s Creed or Batman? Well, the mission design at its best is still superior to just about any other open world game, as evidenced by the really fun heist missions. And the sheer scale of the thing, the insane budget that’s been dumped into it, the depth of detail in the world is second to none. But ultimately I think Grand Theft Auto has been surpassed by games that have learned its lessons and found ways to make the same kind of experience an awful lot more fun. A new Grand Theft Auto is still a major cultural event, but it’s no longer a major game.
I read this piece by Tom Chick about “that mission” in Grand Theft Auto V (SPOILER ALERT INSIDE THESE PARENTHESES: the mission where you, as Trevor, torture a man to get information about an assassination target out of him END SPOILERS) and it perplexed me. I think Chick is way over-reading the mission and is likely projecting his own views onto the game. My own opinion on that scene is that it doesn’t have anything to say and that’s made pretty clear by two facts:
1. The mission is supposed to be fun.
2. Trevor’s dialogue at the end of the scene once the federal agent leaves basically renders the entire thing logically and morally nonsensical.
This post isn’t about hockey statistics (which is likely how most of you reading this know about me) but I do think it’s relevant to that topic. I also think it’s relevant to reporting on statistics and academic work in general. As you probably know if you follow me on Twitter or read my posts at Pension Plan Puppets, I like data. I think its important to try to gain an understanding of the topics that we talk about that isn’t tainted by selective memory or other personal biases, and statistics can be a huge help in that regard. But in addition to being skeptical about our subjective memory, I also think it’s important to be skeptical of supposedly objective evidence like statistics. Data can be a useful tool in helping to understand our world, but it ought to always pass a simple test first, which is “Does the result make sense?” If the result doesn’t make sense, then we need to try to understand what’s going on beneath the numbers before we start discussing them as though they’re the truth.
A study on the prevalence of rape in some parts of Asia was published in one of the world’s most prestigious medical journals, The Lancet, this week. The study claims to show that 24% of men in the studies examined are rapists, a figure that climbs to a remarkable 59% in Papua New Guinea! This study has been widely reported in virtually all mainstream media outlets, such as The Washington Post, CBS, Bloomberg, the CBC, and Foreign Policy. No media outlet that I could find showed any skepticism about any of the things that I’m about to discuss.
Originally I figured that there wasn’t much of a point in writing about the potential for a military intervention in Syria because there were lots of other people covering the topic. Foreign Policy, for example, has done a very good job writing about Syria lately. But it strikes me that while there are lots of people discussing the possible outcomes of an intervention in Syria from a tactical standpoint, there isn’t much being done to tie it into broader historical themes. International relations history is what I got my masters degree in after all, so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that that’s the angle I want to attack this from.
A lot of reviews of Gone Home begin by saying that the reviewer can’t tell you anything about the game without risking spoiling it for you and you should just go play it without knowing much about it because it’s the bestest. Both of those things, as it happens, are untrue. I’ll save any super-spoilery bits for a clearly marked section at the end of this post, but there’s no reason not to tell you some of the basics up front.
In Gone Home you play as a 20 year old college student named Kaitlyn who had been gallivanting around Europe and has just come home on a break from school and travel. “Home” in this case is a bit misleading though, as her family has moved into a rather large new house while Kaitlyn was overseas. As a result the house is unfamiliar to her. Upon arriving well after 1 in the morning Kaitlyn finds a note from her sister Sam telling her that she’s gone and apparently her parents are nowhere to be found either. Thankfully Sam’s voice magically appears to narrate her own story to you in drips and drabs as you explore the mysteriously vacant dwelling! From that point on you wander around the house picking up and examining objects (mostly letters that members of your family have left very conveniently strewn about) to piece together the story. Oh, and there are doors that are locked for reasons that never really make any sense, so you have to track down keys for them.
I’ve got a lot of things that I want to say about the ongoing disclosures about mass surveillance by the NSA (among other organizations), but I have one quick thought that I want to throw out there. There is something strange that happens to people as soon as you use the word “terrorism”. Any time politicians or other prominent authority figures in government want to justify some kind of over-reaching action they can just say
“boogeyman” “terrorism” and immediately a startling percentage of the population becomes compliant. And I really, honestly don’t get it.
I don’t intend in any way to diminish very real acts of terror like the bombing at the Boston Marathon earlier this year or the attacks on the World Trade Center. But any honest assessment of risks in the average person’s life has to conclude that terrorism is a far smaller threat than all kinds of other things. And I don’t think people would be willing to accept things like mass surveillance or detaining people without due process in response to these other risks. Let’s look at one example. read more…
Nate Silver is in the news again, this time for his move to ESPN to start a new blog/site dedicated to statistical analysis of a broad range of subject matter (but largely sports, it would seem). This seems like as good an opportunity as any for me to write something I’ve been meaning to write for a while, which is why you can’t do what Nate Silver (and Sam Wang, etc.) does in the U.S. here in Canada. It’s one of the reasons pundits keep getting election forecasts so wrong and one reason why you should probably ignore Canada’s cheap Nate Silver rip-off, Three Hundred Eight (who, like the pollsters and pundits, has badly missed a number of recent election calls).
To explain this we need to look at what Silver and others like him do, which is basically to aggregate polls to increase the sample size of respondents. Averaging the poll results seems to create pretty good indications about who will win a given Senate seat or who will win a state in the electoral college (though as a number of people have noted, many states can be predicted using even simpler methodology like “who won this state last time”).
The problem is, there’s no way to do this in Canada. In the U.S. there are many polls to refer to at the state level, which is the relevant electoral level. But in Canada results in federal elections aren’t determined by who wins the popular vote in a given province, but rather at the local riding level. And there are few if any polls done at the riding level. This holds true for provincial elections as well. This is important because the popular vote across the country and the actual seat count never line up. The NDP have a vastly higher proportion of seats in Quebec than their popular vote share, and the same is true of the Conservatives in Saskatchewan (and so on). Because we don’t have polling data on the level that elections are decided at (the electoral district), you simply can’t do what Nate Silver does for Canadian elections. And unless someone is willing to spend an awful lot of money doing riding-by-riding polls, you’re never going to be able to.