On Gamer’s Paradise, or The End of Year AAA Titles!

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged about gaming, mostly because it’s been a while since I’ve played anything worth blogging about. Now, of course, we’re in the middle of a glut of gaming goodness. As the gamers out there know, the lead up to Christmas (and, in reality, the few months after) marks the Gaming Season. All the triple A titles (i.e. the ones with the biggest budgets) get launched. Cynics might say this is all a Christmas ploy to part gamers and their wallets, but the reality is the Gaming Season generally lasts from Sept/Oct through to Feb/March (just in time for what we might call the Announcement Season – that period where we’re all glued to our internets watching the streaming footage of upcoming releases from all the games shows – no? Just me?).

Over the coming two weeks we have at least three giant titles to look forward to; namely, Skyrim, Assassin’s Creed: Revelations (oh, AC:R, I think I’ll love you most of all), and Super Mario 3D Land (that non-remake 3DS title we’ve all been waiting for). Naturally, they’re all preordered, but before we get to those, I wanted to take a few paragraphs to talk about two brilliant games I’ve recently finished – Xenoblade Chronicles (Wii) and Batman: Arkham City (Xbox 360).

Xenoblade Chronicles is a Japanese RPG (Role Playing Game). When you start talking about differences between Japanese and Western RPGs, you get into murky territory, but it’s worth noting here a couple of the differences (you’ll see why). In short, JRPGs tend to focus more on story and character, and less on player customisation. Western RPGs tend to give players more choice in terms of side missions and character customisation, but this often means the main story and character development take a bit of a hit (as you keep wandering off course and the hero often has less clearly defined characteristics to give the player a greater sense that they are the hero). Of course, there are plenty of exceptions and variations, but that’s one way of looking at the differences between the two (I once wrote a chapter on how customisation affects a player’s experience in a collection called Final Fantasy and Philosophy if you want a clearer explanation here).

Although Xenoblade is a classic JRPG in the best sense (epic story, memorable characters, strategic battles, expansive game world), it also combines many Western RPG elements. Strangely, it manages to do so without watering down the JRPG elements. The story revolves around two giant titans – the Mechonis and the Bionis – who fought long ago and killed each other. Civilisations grew on the corpses of the giants, and they continued the war. When the Mechon from Mechonis invade the Bionis yet again, you take control of a group of heroes from Bionis and seek to end the war. You do this through wielding the Monado, the only weapon capable of harming the Mechon (it also grants an aura to your allies, so their weapons can as well). As with all great JRPGs, the story is epic, and I don’t want to give anything away. What I will say is that Xenoblade threw in a few twists and turns that managed to surprise an old hand like me while stile adhering to some classics tropes of the genre. JRPGs are what turned my love of video games into an obsession. The way they tell stories is unique and unforgettable. I won’t dwell on that here (it’s worthy of a blog post of its own).

Battles in Xenoblade are fought in real time using move cool-downs and auto-attacks (think WoW, for the uninitiated). They’re fast-paced and rely on well thought-out (beforehand) strategies. Unless you keep the single healer in the party for the whole game, you’re going to die a bit (unusual for JRPGs), but there’s no real consequences for this (you respawn close by as though the battle has taken place, so any loot and experience earned isn’t lost with defeat – and loot remains on the ground apparently forever, even if you leave the site), so you should’t get frustrated by it, and the game penalises you for keeping a stagnant party (your characters build relationships with each other the more you do with them together, based on which three are in your active party, so if you keep the same two – healer and hero, who you’ll need to actually damage most enemies – the relationships between other characters will suffer).

The side quest system is also very WRPG, but thankfully you don’t have to return to a quest giver to cash in on completion, and often individual NPCs will give you multiple quests, so there’s none of that useless running around looking for quest givers. You can even ignore most of them if you want (though they reward EXP and, more importantly, cash). Equipment is expensive, and you don’t earn cash from killing random foes. You can have light, medium, and heavy armour (another WRPG twist), and the characters are a blend of J- and WRPG (tanks, healers, magic assault, damage, etc.). You can equip gems ala-FFVII materia, but there is no in-battle item system (the lack of this removes a layer of strategy, but it speeds up the action). Enemies exist on-screen and can often be avoided if necessary (ala-FFXII). When you’re in a fight, things can go from brilliant to near-death in an instant, but you can also come back just as swiftly.

Xenoblade is HUGE. The environments are massive, with no loading time except between areas. This is by far the most attractive game on the Wii I’ve played. Though obviously not HD quality, I was reminded of the first time I played Red Dead Redemption. I just wanted to stop and look at that game. Here, you can stand on the knee of the Bionis and look around you, below you, and above you, and see other areas you’ll be travelling to later. I was awestruck by the immense scope. Who knew the Wii had that sort of power?

To give you an idea of just how big this game is, though, I’m currently at 60 hours gameplay. I’ve finished the main story, but I haven’t even dented the side quests. You receive affinity points for completing side quests in each friendly locale (of which there are, from memory, five). Earn enough, and your ranking with a particular town goes up to a maximum of 5 stars. You start with one star per friendly location. I have 2 stars for one location and one star for each of the others. After 60 hours. That’s how big Xenoblade is. I’ll probably never finish it, but I know there are plenty out there who will and have. If I didn’t have any other games to play this year, I might be tempted.

But there are other games, and one of them was Batman: Arkham City. I loved the first game, Arkham Asylum. It’s one of my all-time favourite games. It managed to capture everything I love about Batman and Metroid-style gameplay. It was near perfection. Arkham City is better. Just about everything about it is better. There are more characters, fewer useless boss fights, more areas to explore. It even looks better. If I had two qualms about it, it would be that it’s too short and the emphasis is more on fighting and less on stealth this time around, but only just. There’s a greater sense that you can approach each situation as you want to, which the first game attempted but this one perfects. There’s a much greater emphasis on the challenge maps this time around too (after beating 100% of the story mode in Asylum I was on about 80-83% total game completion, where here it was more like 70-72%). This is unfortunate, as the challenge maps are just individual set pieces for either big fights or a stealth mission. Okay to fool around with for a couple of minutes at a time, but I lack the diehard, beat-the-leaderboard attitude required to get full game completion. the irony is, if they’d scattered these challenge maps throughout the main game world, I probably would have finished them all. Setting them apart but linking them to overall completion stats is a bit of a pain, and it means the secondary character DLC (Tim Drake’s Robin and Nightwing) don’t get a chance to shine. These have new moves and gadgets, but you don’t get to explore them because they’re only accessible during the challenge maps. Still, this is one of the best games I’ve ever played. In fact, it plays a lot like Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, and that’s a good thing. A very good thing.

It’s also worth noting that the voice acting in both games is phenomenal. Batman‘s is pitch and performance perfect, with many familiar voices for fans of the cartoons / animated films. Xenoblade‘s is a little . . . weird, but 10 hours in and you’ll have fallen in love with the quirky British accents that sometimes completely fail to match the context of what’s going on but are still endearing.

So. There you have it. Two truly AAA titles, and more on the way. Between gaming, writing, and working, I don’t expect to see sunlight at all this Summer, except maybe on my way to work, but it’s shaping up to be one heck of a Gaming Season.

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