“Once the platform holder decided to commit it jumped in with both feet.”
Oh yes, it’s easy to write off MAG – especially now that it’s gone offline – but this shooter really needs one last hurrah before we send it into the dark. Sony was a little bit late getting on board the whole “online console network” thing and the PSN’s rocky beginnings did not help Zipper’s effort along, but once the platform holder decided to commit it jumped in with both feet. It built a “massive action game” at a time when we still weren’t entirely sure if this was the future of games or just an interesting footnote in history (spoilers: comment threads are filled with people still arguing that multiplayer isn’t important).
You can’t play MAG now, because it was multiplayer only, and nothing has come along to succeed it; no other console shooter is capable of supporting 256 players. It turns out we maybe don’t actually want 256 players concurrently as the resulting chaos isn’t delightful, but whatever; this needed to exist. Well done, Sony. Keep that tech in the bank; you’ll probably need it pretty soon.
A spin-off of the Drakengard series, Nier was one of the last games made by the much-mourned Cavia before it folded. Thank goodness the loving fans in Square Enix’s management deigned to resurrect the team for Drakengard 3. Much maligned at release, Nier is one of those games that rewards effort, giving back as much as you care to put in – not an appreciated approach in today’s world of instantaneous gratification, and especially not as what Nier gives out is mostly literary playfulness, an ironic exploitation of RPG tropes, and a whole lot of weirdness.
An action RPG with bullet hell sections, an emphasis on subtext and the written word, and a core party composed of a cynically designed “western appeal” gritty hero, a dead child and a takes-no-shit half demon intersex arse-kicker does not make for mainstream appeal. A much darker world and story than it initially suggests, Nier only gives up all its secrets after at least four play throughs, at which point it will erase your save file in one of the most unusual acts of video game self-awareness since the original Metal Gear Solid. A cult fandom continues to explore the further offerings of the Nier and Drakengard universe, translating interviews and art books – and for good reason.
Yakuza 3 and Yakuza 4
“Yakuza Studio has built hundreds of interactive stores offering food, real video games, romance opportunities and other amusements, apparently just because it can.”
Toshihiro Nagoshi took up the mantle of Japanese open-world games when Yu Suzuki and Shenmue bowed out. A fellow Sega production, the Yakuza series has always been released in limited numbers in the west, and with little marketing support from the publisher, so it’s really no surprise it went under the radar. It is, however, a great shame.
The Yakuza series combines an old-school beat-’em-up combat system with RPG quests, inventory management levelling – so far so whatever, right? – but sets all this action not in a high fantasy world but the streets of modern-day Japan. Telling what is no doubt supposed to be a gritty true-to-life story of the very real criminal organisations that haunt Japan, but instead tending heavily towards the J-drama end of the narrative scale, Yakuza offers an unrivalled opportunity to explore the neon playgrounds of Tokyo. Yakuza Studio has built hundreds of interactive stores offering food, real video games, romance opportunities and other amusements, apparently just because it can.
A much more traditional western-style game than Yakuza, Binary Domain still retains that trademark Nagoshi flair. It’s one of a number of one-off shooters produced by Japanese teams during the last generation as publishers struggled to straddle domestic and international markets, but it has several differentiating factors that make it well worth checking out even if you think you’ve seen all the world of headshots can offer.
The least of these innovations is a voice command system, which seemed novel at the time but quickly became de riguer thanks to Microsoft’s championship of Kinect, and works just about as well as you’d expect, unfortunately. More interestingly, the game’s cast is peppered with differing personality types and the player must weave a complex diplomatic dance to keep them all onboard, or risk having their orders – issued via voice or control pad – ignored. It’s not enough to get a walkthrough and choose all the “right” dialogue options; fluff one firefight too many and your party members will turn their back on you, uninspired by your leadership. This unique mechanic and a compelling sci-fi story make Binary Domain worth the trouble.
Age of Conan: Unchained
“Among MMO aficionados Age of Conan is praised for its deviations from the gameplay conventions of competing titles.”
If you were to judge solely by chatter you’d be excused for thinking Age of Conan: Unchained didn’t exist at all, but it is, in fact, a full scale triple-A MMO that remains one of Funcom’s most reliably profitable enterprises, especially since its free-to-play relaunch. Its unfortunately buggy launch has hung over it, but Age of Conan has moved far enough since those days that it has more than earned another chance at winning your heart.
Among MMO aficionados Age of Conan is praised for its deviations from the gameplay conventions of competing titles; the world of Hyboria may seem familiar at first, but that’s because the IP inspired much of the low fantasy that came after it. Funcom hasn’t settled on trotting out fantasy tropes, working conventions of the genre into the lore itself, and building a richly detailed and surprisingly dark game world. Like stablemate The Secret World, Age of Conan offers a high level of customisation – both of the vanity and gameplay variety – and distinguishes itself further with one of the best melee systems of any RPG, and genuinely tactical combat.
Okay friends, imagine this: From Software, the team behind Dark Souls, tackles the “stylish action” (Devil May Cry, Ninja Gaiden, Bayonetta) genre. Did you just make a mess in your panties? And yet Ninja Blade is relatively unknown, and certainly uncelebrated. Probably because it has the least interesting title of all time and released exclusively on the Xbox 360 at a time when games by Japanese developers got about as much love from Microsoft fans as a proctology visit.
As part of the then-burgeoning trend among Japanese devs to appeal to westerners, the game’s protagonist, Ken, was designed under the influence of Hollywood, and the action cinematic feel is obvious throughout. It didn’t help; the Otogi spiritual successor sunk without a trace despite receiving perfect and near-perfect review scores. We don’t deserve nice things.
Sometime in the middle of being a hardcore PC developer, churning out dozens of forgettable family friendly affairs, and then being a hardcore PC developer again with Elite: Dangerous, Frontier Developers managed to squeeze out LostWinds, a WiiWare launch title and exclusive that lingers on in the mind long after the adventures of Toku and Enril have come to an end. That this one hasn’t been brought to Wii U yet is one of the great tragedies of the industry.
LostWinds is an optionally two player affair in which players can control the wind. The platforming and puzzle solving that result from this gimmick are almost flawless, but it’s the unique, indescribable atmosphere that pervades the game, even more than the satisfying wind mechanic, that makes this one so memorable. This looks better than any early WiiWare title has a right to.